For birders, May is Christmastime in Michigan
The return of Michigan’s migratory birds from their southern wintering grounds is cause for celebration, and in May, many celebrate by heading to the fields, forests and wetlands to view these colorful harbingers of spring.
“I love birding in May,” said Andrew Simon, a Macomb County resident and avid birder. “It’s the peak of migration and marks the return of my favorite birds – shorebirds and warblers.
“Warblers are so bright and colorful and always moving, so watching them is always fun and exciting.”
Michigan is located largely within the Mississippi Flyway, but is on the western edge of the Atlantic Flyway. Flyways are north-south routes regularly used by large numbers of migrating birds.
The juxtaposition of the two flyways, paired with our Great Lakes habitat, makes Michigan an outstanding place to observe a variety of migratory birds, from waterfowl to hawks to shorebirds to neo-tropical migrants.
When southerly winds blow in the springtime, you can expect to see waves of migrants coming north on the winds. Watching the weather reports can be an effective method to tell whether your next morning of birding will be a productive one.
“There’s a great website that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology maintains called BirdCast,” said Michigan bird conservation coordinator Caleb Putnam. “The site gives you real-time information about the bird migration that’s occurring in your backyard. It’s a great tool for planning your birding trips.”
Using the U.S. NEXRAD weather surveillance radar network, BirdCast can detect large concentrations of migrating birds by sensing the water in the birds’ bodies. Because many birds migrate at night, checking the radar at night is a good time to see if birds are headed your way.
“Large circles of blue forming just after sunset are an indication that the radar is picking up biological targets like migrating birds, rather than rain, snow or other precipitation,” said Putnam.
If the bird forecast is promising and you’re looking for a place to find birds in Michigan, there are some great public lands for you to check out. Michigan’s state parks, along with state game and wildlife areas are a great place to start. There are also several birding trails throughout the state, each with incredible places to stop and take a look around.
You also might consider heading to one of Michigan’s Wetland Wonders.
If you are a beginning birdwatcher, getting out on a birding field trip held by an Audubon group or other club is a sure way to quickly develop your identification skills, with knowledgeable trip leaders able to identify bird songs and calls.
Beyond state public land sites for locating migrating spring birds, there are funnel points where birds congregate in migration, like Whitefish Point in Chippewa County, Peninsula Point in Delta County or Brockway Mountain in Keweenaw County.
“These places can provide a stunning morning of birdwatching during spring migration,” said John Pepin, DNR deputy public information officer. “Males are decked out in their vibrant bright spring colors and are singing as they set up nesting territories and try to attract mates.”
Brockway Mountain, near Copper Harbor, is a fantastic place to see hawk migration.
Another great location to find migrating birds is in your own backyard. Some of the colorful favorites, like indigo buntings and rose-breasted grosbeaks, are attracted to sunflower-seed feeders.
Baltimore orioles, and some other species, are attracted to oranges. Cut an orange in half and secure it to a tree or post, with a perch nearby. Keep an eye or an ear to the backyard.
Migrating birds are also attracted to bird baths.
Sharply marked beautiful spring warblers can pass through an area in flocks containing several species.
A good tip for trying to get a good look at warblers is to locate movement in the tree branches and look there with your binoculars. Often, the bird will pop into view from behind leaves or branches.
“Male warblers can be identified by their facial patterns,” Pepin said. “If you focus on the faces of the males, it will make identifying species easier.”
He said another good tip is to use range maps in a bird field guide to study which warblers are likely to be found in your area before you go out to look for them.
The Cornell Laboratory of Birds “All About Birds” website is a great source for bird identification tips and song samples.
“Looking up each of these species in a field guide, studying their field marks and reading about these birds beforehand definitely helps folks identify birds more easily in the field,” Pepin said. “The same can be said for listening to their songs.”