Mid-Summer Update Part 2: Things I Saw Recently

Having not gone anywhere or done anything as a family for four months, last weekend we took a socially-distanced and masked long weekend to South Haven, Michigan on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. We arrived at the beach early enough to avoid people, and we left before it got crowded. We did the same with the restaurants and took a few meals back to our AirBnB.

We spent the early part of each day at the beach, and I brought my camera in case cool birds showed up. They did.


Ring-billed Gull

The dominant Midwestern gull is the Ring-billed. With nice weather and photogenic surf, I practiced my bird portraits on these guys. Here is a snappy adult.


Herring Gull

The ratio of Herring-to-Ring-billed Gulls was approximately 1:200. The first morning there was only one other non-Ring-billed, and it was a young-ish HERG.


Caspian Tern

Caspian Terns were constantly flying around overhead. But only a couple of times did one actually land on the beach.


Bonaparte’s Gulls

At one point, a tight flock of tiny gulls swooped by and landed in the lake. Bonaparte’s Gulls! eBird didn’t like it. There were 13 in total in various stages of head molt.



They came in to shore, where a few other people took notice and pointed them out. I resisted the urge to go up and talk about the different kinds of seagulls.


Willet + BOGU

While I was watching, a Willet flew in and landed with the flock!



This Willet was somehow the first one ever recorded at the eBird hotspot. They aren’t super common on the Great Lakes, but they are numerous enough that it’s surprising nobody had previously recorded one from this relatively huge and easily accessible beach. This was my first Great Lakes Willet, and my first time seeing the “western” subspecies, with all of my previous sightings coming from Atlantic beaches. If (when?) they get split, this will be my lifer!


Marbled Godwit

I watched the Willet fly up and down the beach for a while, with it occasionally going out of sight and then coming back. After a while, I thought I saw it fly by again low over the shore, but realized it did not have the fancy underwing pattern of a Willet and looked very orange underneath. I took off with my camera to find that it was a Marbled Godwit! Lifer!


Marbled Godwit in the waves

I wasn’t quite sure how common these birds were at this location, so I re-activated my Facebook account because I felt the need to let people know about it. It set off a small flurry of activity on the Michigan Listers group, and within a couple of hours there were other people on the beach who were definitely birders. But by then the Godwit was gone and it appears I was the only one who saw it (I mean besides a bunch of oblivious beachgoers). According to eBird, this is either the 3rd or 4th county record. Cool!


Fly-by Willets

The next day, the bird activity was much lessened. But two fly-by Willets were a highlight. I ticked a bunch of other Michigan state birds over the weekend, too, like Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Baltimore Oriole, and other common things I had just never picked up in my intermittent travels there. The trip was great, and it marked my second consecutive Michigan beach trip resulting in a lifer (or possibly two if that Willet gets split).

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.


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.


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.


Indiana is taking a beating from the summer. We have had about a dozen 100+ degree days, and maybe four times that many 90+ with almost no rain on top of it all. This has resulted in burn bans, watering bans, and fireworks bans throughout the state. Grass is crispy and water levels are low. But this last part made Eagle Creek Reservoir a jackpot for shorebirds this past weekend, as receding water lines have exposed acres and acres of mudflats that offer a smorgasbord of arthropods and mollusks for them. Mmm.

I am sure that I observed more than two lifer varieties of sandpiper, but I was only able to positively identify two of them. I recently read a book that said there are three levels of birding proficiency: the first is when you can start to identify warblers, the second is when you can start to identify birds of prey, and the third is when you can start to identify sandpipers. This outing put me uncomfortably into Level-3 birding. There are approximately 72 million species of sandpiper, and they all look exactly alike.

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper

This Least Sandpiper was my first lifer of the day. I was able to positively identify it thanks to the convenient fact that sandpipers exist in three sizes: small, medium, and large. The Least is the only small sized sandpiper with yellow legs. Check. Also, the lady with the spotting scope observing it from ten yards away told me it was a Least Sandpiper.

Solitary Sandpiper

Solitary Sandpiper

This Solitary Sandpiper, lifer number two on the day, only slightly more difficult. Probably because I was looking across the water and taking pictures of everything that moved, 100% not sure of what they were. These are what birders call “LBJ’s,” short for Little Brown Jobs. When I got home, this Solitary was actually not too bad to ID though, because it is the only medium-sized sandpiper with a full white eye ring (click the picture to zoom and you can see it). Also, I looked on eBird to find that Solitaries had indeed been sighted at Eagle Creek that day.



Also present at the reservoir was this Killdeer, which is a plover and not a sandpiper, and one of approximately three trillion at Eagle Creek on Saturday. I have seen many, many Killdeer before, and although there are quite a few types of plovers out there, they are easy to identify because of their characteristic call, the double black ring around their neck, and the fact that they are likely the only plover you will ever see away from huge lakes or the ocean.

Ring-Billed Gull

Ring-Billed Gull

This flock of seagulls was not playing 80s new wave music, but they were easy to identify as Ring-Billed Gulls because they are gulls with rings around their bills.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

It was also a pretty decent day for passerine birds as well. This female Yellow Warbler was chowing down on a moth.

American Crow

American Crow

Likewise, this American Crow feasted on the remains of a catfish. Mmm.

I had 37 species on the day:
1.) White-Breasted Nuthatch (vocalization)
2.) American Robin
3.) Red-Eyed Vireo (vocalization)
4.) Tufted Titmouse (vocalization)
5.) Carolina Chickadee
6.) Eastern Wood Pewee (vocalization)
7.) Eastern Towhee (vocalization)
8.) Blue Jay
9.) Northern Cardinal
10.) Gray Catbird
11.) Canada Goose
12.) American Goldfinch
13.) Indigo Bunting (vocalization)
14.) American Crow
15.) Song Sparrow
16.) Double-Crested Cormorant
17.) Great Blue Heron
18.) Belted Kingfisher
19.) Mallard
20.) Barn Swallow
21.) Mourning Dove
22.) Northern Rough-Winged Swallow
23.) Willow Flycatcher (vocalization)
24.) Chimney Swift
25.) Eastern Kingbird
26.) Yellow Warbler
27.) Killdeer
28.) Cedar Waxwing
29.) American Coot
30.) Great Egret
31.) Least Sandpiper (lifer!)
32.) Red-Winged Blackbird
33.) Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher
34.) Downy Woodpecker
35.) Ring-Billed Gull
36.) Spotted Sandpiper
37.) Solitary Sandpiper (lifer!)