Guest post by Brian Allen
Birding has its seasons. Most birders are active in spring,, dusting off the binoculars, cameras and scopes and heading out to the marshes when the Red-winged Blackbirds return and are singing along with the returning flocks of ducks, swans and Sandhill Cranes. The season peaks in mid May with the colorful flocks of warblers, tanagers and orioles moving through the budding trees and flowering shrubs. Many birders by the end of May have big lists of species they have checked off and as the temperatures rise, the bugs appear and the beaches warm up the birding activity tapers off. It picks up a bit again in late August when the news of a rare shorebird hits and we all get reaquainted with the peep sandpipers, yellowlegs, and plovers. Fall is a challenging time initially with cryptic and confusing fall warblers and quiet thrushes skulking through the forests. Often by November most birders have hung up the binoculars for the year until the Christmas Bird Counts but many of the more experienced and hardcore birders are excited for what I call “rarity week” in the first week of November (watch for a post next year) and for the rest of the late fall for the birding at the breakwalls and piers of Lake Michigan.
During the months of November and December rare birds such as Western Grebes, Red-throated Loons, Purple Sandpipers, and Harlequin Ducks though not annual are often found somewhere along the lake. The Purple Sandpiper is most common in the North East Atlantic on rocky jetties on the ocean shore. Here they are scarce but almost found every year along the shore of Lake Michigan. Most sightings have been at the very rocky and excellent habitat of the Muskegon pier but there are many records from the Frankfort pier, Arcadia breakwalls, and the Manistee First Street Pier along the Sleeping Bear Birding Trail. The new rocky breakwall at Portage Point in Onekama should also be productive. Remember these birds are rare and it can take many trips to the piers before you find one. If you are fortunate someone may find them for you and post it on one of the birding social media pages like Michigan Listers, Birding Michigan, Michigan Birding Buddies on Facebook, or on eBird.
Uncommon diving sea ducks like Black and Surf Scoters are sometimes found in with the more common White-winged Scoter and Long-tailed Ducks in this late fall period. It’s possible to see the Purple Sandpipers in the rocks easily with binoculars but for the Scoters, loons, and grebes it’s best to bring along a good spotting scope. Before you head out, dress with more warm clothes than you would expect as the wind off Lake Michigan is always colder. Also it is very important to wear ice cleats. The piers can ice over this time of year and the footing is dangerous! Use caution as there are not as many people out and about and a fall into the icy waters of Lake Michigan could bring an early end to your life listing!
Again it is rare to see a unusual bird but there are always rewards for a trip to the breakwalls and piers. It might be a flock of Snow Buntings feeding in the dune grass, a Snowy Owl perched on the lighthouse, a close view of the exquisite plumage of a Long-tailed Duck or just the sound of the waves breaking on the shore. It’s all there to be discovered and enjoyed!