The North Coast

Two weeks ago we vacationed in Manistee, Michigan, located at approximately the base of the pinky fingernail of the mitten and right on the shore.

Manistee Lighthouse

Manistee is one of many small beach towns on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. But it is a little less tourist-gentrified (a little cheaper) and a lot further north (colder) than most of them. That made it an ideal place for us to spend the week, where all we needed was the beach and a couple restaurants.

Angry Waters

The peak tourist season is early August to probably Labor Day, when the water has had a chance to warm up a bit. For us in late June, it was still closer to spring than the height of summer, and the first day we were there the water showed it. Our Airbnb was about a mile from one of the two public beaches, and the surf was rocking like the ocean, with sand churning up to the point where the water was brown and you couldn’t see your skin just below the surface.

Common Grackle

Activity on the beach was obviously limited in these conditions, so I contented myself with the good light and common animals.

Eastern Gray Squirrel – Black Color Variant

Common Grackles abounded, and the local population of similarly black Eastern Gray Squirrels paid no attention to us.

Lake Bluff Bird Sanctuary

The next morning was sunny but the temperature was only in the 50s. So we went to the Lake Bluff Bird Sanctuary operated by Michigan Audubon about two miles north of the city.

Scarlet Tanager

I enjoyed racking up a list of about 20 species while we hiked, including what eBird tells me is somehow only the second June county record of Northern Parula. Jaime and I observed this Scarlet Tanager preening while the kids pretended to be explorers bushwhacking through the (for them) head-high grass. Thankfully, I was the only one who ended up with a tick.

Giant Sequoia, aka California Redwood

The bird sanctuary also doubles as an arboretum and hosts some impressively large specimens of cottonwood, gingko, and a few Giant Sequoias. This one is the Michigan state champion at 95 feet, and it was transported from California in a coffee can as a seedling to this site in 1949.

What a difference a day makes

We returned to the beach later that afternoon to warmer air and MUCH calmer water. The difference from the previous day was remarkable, with the water almost glasslike and nearly indiscernible from the sky at the horizon.

Midwest Water

Without the boiling surf, the clearness of the water became staggeringly apparent. As someone used to murky Midwestern rivers and lakes, it was shocking actually. And it was also completely free of debris to resemble something more suited to the Gulf of Mexico than the Rust Belt Great Lakes.

Gull Tracks

There was almost nobody else on the beach, which was amazing. And once you got used to the brisk water, swimming was not too bad either.

Ring-billed Gull

My favorite 80s new wave band

As the day warmed up even more and the beach became more active, I began to lose focus on the birds and instead made sand castles that the kids repeatedly wanted to build and destroy.

Piping Plover!

That’s why I was shocked to see that some movement to our left just a few yards down the beach was a Piping Plover! There was nothing there when we arrived in the morning, so this one must have flown in unnoticed by me. Lifer! I was very much hoping to see one of these birds on my trip, but had gotten a little discouraged because the pair that had nested in Manistee for the last several years did not do so in 2019, and there had been no eBird reports of any birds at all since May.

(L) Orange Flag, Light Green, Silver, (R) Silver, Yellow

I watched the plover for a few minutes before some people walked by and flushed it, when it flew away to the north and disappeared. With only 200 or so individuals in the entire Great Lakes population, pretty much all of these birds are protected, monitored, and banded at birth. Thankfully my photos showed all of the bands, and I submitted the sighting to the Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Effort, who gave me a biography.

This particular bird is a female that hatched in 2009 at Sleeping Bear Dunes, about 30 miles to the north of Manistee and the stronghold for the species on Lake Michigan. She mated for the first time in 2010 on the lake’s North Manitou Island, which is part of Sleeping Bear. In subsequent years she did nest at Manistee, but in 2019 she decided to nest elsewhere in the city of Ludington, just to the south. She lost her mate during incubation and her nest failed as a result. Since then, she has been seen in various places in the area but has not paired up again because this year there are many more females than males in the area. Godspeed, little plover.

Ludington

Later in the week we also made it to Ludington, most recent nesting place of our plover. It is a slightly larger, slightly more redeveloped town with quite a bit to do (including Jaime’s and my favorite beer of the trip: Ludington Bay Brewery Tangelo).

American Mink

While walking on the park by the city marina, we came across a close-range American Mink hanging out underneath of a group of fisherman. Smart guy. Besides the rocks there was no cover of any kind, so seeing this dude here was a bit surprising.

Yard Deer

Later that night (while playing some Wingspan), we noticed a White-tailed Deer strolling down the sidewalk. The next night it was in our front yard.

Baby Deer

The next morning we found two baby deer in the back yard. No wonder mom was hanging around.

Bar Lake

On one of the last days of the trip, I went to Bar Lake just north of the city to try for some reported Black Terns. The angle of the public access point made seeing anything impossible without a kayak, but the scenery was pretty just after sunrise.

Ribbon Clouds

So we went to the beach again, where the scenery was still in full force with these outstanding clouds.

Fog

Apparently, the wispy ribbons of cloud meant hella fog was about to roll in. No problem. You can build sandcastles pretty well even in zero visibility.

Herring Gull

When the fog lifted it revealed some new gulls on the beach in the form of a small group of Herring Gulls mixed in with all the Ring-billeds. With my tern miss it was nice to add one last trip bird.

Farewell Dunes

Manistee was great, both for vacationing and for birding. There is plenty to do that we didn’t get to on either front, including a great little art deco theater in its downtown, kayaking everywhere, and Sleeping Bear Dunes, all things I would go again for to get the chance to experience. Bird-wise, you can never see too many plovers, and if I go again I will seek out plover chicks! The aforementioned Black Terns are also a possibility, as are Ruffed Grouse, and Kirtland’s Warblers are only two hours away. All in all this was a fantastic trip on all fronts and I would recommend a vacation here to anyone, birder or not.

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What I did on my spring vacation

After the most insane several weeks of work in my life, I took off a couple of days and pointed my car eastward. My destination: the swamps of Lake Erie in northwest Ohio. My goal: warblers! I camped out at Maumee Bay State Park in Oregon, Ohio to check out the famed bird mecca of Magee Marsh, the proclaimed “warbler capital of the world.” Perhaps you have heard of it.

Magee Marsh

Magee Marsh

I went a week early, because even though peak migration is still a ways off, there was no way I could put up with all of those khaki vests and bucket hats. By all accounts, though, even the weeks leading up to the Biggest Week have plenty of migrant action. And the whole place is set up like some kind of birding amusement park. Just look at it. I was pumped. On to the warblers!

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

First to be spotted was the always abundant yet cheerful Yellow Warbler. Good start!

Next up was… nothing.

Angry Sea

Angry Sea

The day I arrived, a freakishly cold storm blew in off the lake, driving north to south. This stopped everyone in their tracks as they flew northward. This has apparently been the story all spring, and everyone I talked to apologized to me profusely at what was thought to be one of the worst years for late migration that anyone could remember. I saw one warbler species during my entire trip.

Rusty Blackbird

Rusty Blackbird

If not for the tiny flock of Rusty Blackbirds (life bird!), Magee Marsh would have been a total bust. I had a backup plan, though.

Metzger Marsh

Metzger Marsh

The other ‘M’ marsh next door to Magee is Metzger. While not a magnet for passerines, some great shorebirds had been hanging out there, so with the wind still ripping from the north off of the lake, I headed there.

American Avocets

American Avocets

Other than the dozens of egrets that I saw as I drove up, the very first thing I saw was a gigantic flock of shorebirds working the mud: American Avocets (life bird)! They had just appeared that morning, so word had not gotten out yet, and it was a great surprise. This photo shows only about half of the flock; different peoples’ counts ranged from between 99 to 117 birds, which is pretty much unheard of in the Midwest.

Class Photo

Class Photo

It was tough to look away from the avocets, but there was a mind-blowing array of wetland birds to comprehend. I felt like I was in Florida or something. The photo above includes Caspian and Common Terns plus Bonaparte’s Gulls; all birds I have only seen in small numbers previously.

White-Faced Ibis

White-Faced Ibis

Probably the biggest draw for most people at Metzger were the reported White-Faced Ibis. I was having poor luck trying to locate the birds across the expanse of wetlands, until a lady flushed them from probably 10 yards away. They were feeding next to the road behind some tall grass, and nobody saw them until they flew straight up, circled once, and then disappeared from view. Not the best look at another life bird, but I will take it. This happened probably no more than 15 minutes after I arrived, so I would definitely not have seen them had I gotten there any later.

Trumpeter Swans

Trumpeter Swans

Some of the less jittery birds included these two Trumpeter Swans (life bird!) who cared not that I was standing mere feet away, taking as many photos as I could get.

Headless Swans

Headless Swans

If you are wondering about the brown stains on the swans’ heads, this photo should answer your question.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

This Savannah Sparrow was uncommonly cooperative, and one of the last birds I saw before heading back to Maumee Bay.

Common Grackle

Common Grackle

The camp mascot should have been Common Grackle, which numbered in the hundreds at the park. I took the time to photograph this guy as I ate lunch.

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow

Swallows were also very much on the menu, and in many varieties. These Tree Swallows seemed to be staking out a nest site.

Purple Martin

Purple Martin

Meanwhile, this Purple Martin pondered what it means to be truly free, and if his wings are merely metaphors for life.

White-Tailed Deer

White-Tailed Deer

Maumee Bay had a pretty nice boardwalk, but it was mostly quiet when I was there, so I resorted to taking pictures of deer.

Eastern Screech-Owl

Eastern Screech-Owl

But on the way out, this Eastern Screech-Owl was mean-muggin’ me from a nest box. Lifer! Along with the Great-Horned Owl on nest that I saw at Metzger, this bird meant that I saw more species of owl than I did warbler in the Warbler Capital of the World. Weird.

Solitary Sandpiper

Solitary Sandpiper

Before my trip was over with, I did head back to Metzger to see if anything else new flew in. The birds remained mostly unchanged, but I did get some close-up views of shorebirds in good lighting, like this Solitary Sandpiper.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

And this Lesser Yellowlegs.

Solitary Yellowlegs

Solitary Yellowlegs

And this Solitary Yellowlegs.

Dunlin

Dunlin

Most things there were Dunlin, which were looking very dapper in their alternate plumage.

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover

When a Peregrine Falcon blew by, the Dunlin scattered, but in their wake remained a lone Semipalmated Plover with serious chutzpah. Further out was an American Golden-Plover (lifer!) who did not afford a photo opportunity.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

Last, but certainly not least were waterfowl. Teals and Gadwall and others abounded, like these Northern Shovelers.

Canada Geeselets

Canada Geeselets

And of course these Canada Geese. I don’t care what you say, baby geese are cute. To keep my birder street cred, I will tell you this is a photo of Branta canadensis actively using its R-selected reproduction strategy.

Mine was a great trip. I ended up with 64 species accounted for, with 6 of them new to my life list. I hope to go back some time and give Magee Marsh another shot, but at least now I know that northwest Ohio isn’t all warblers.