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