Located in northwestern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, this region features many species found in eastern North America, but surprises often turn up for those who get out in the field. Nearby locations like Whitefish Point and Leelanau County may account for more rarities, but the Grand Traverse area affords excellent birding nonetheless.
Click for a guide to Traverse City birding sites by Kirk Waterstripe (pdf in new window)
Since the area is more heavily populated than counties to the east or west, natural habitats are often separated and may hold concentrations of birds. The Boardman River Valley is one example of a sizable habitat corridor. Grand Traverse Bay, a 30-mile extension of Lake Michigan, attracts a number of waterfowl and gull species. The forests are mainly mixtures of maple and beech, or oak and pine. Lowlands contain cedar forests, alders, cattail marshes, and a few bogs. Numerous lakes dot the region. In the fairly urban area around Traverse City, birders can expect the usual urban and suburban species, but more natural habitats penetrate to the center of town, so Rock Pigeons live quite close to Merlins and Barred Owls.
The typical annual cycle begins with resident passerines (chickadees, titmice and finches) and woodpeckers in winter, with occasional irruptions of Bohemian Waxwings and winter finches. A few Snowy Owls often show up in late December or January and remain for the winter. Spring waterfowl migration starts in early to mid-April, as the ice melts of the inland lakes. The passerine migration begins building in early April when blackbirds, Tree Swallows and Eastern Bluebirds arrive, and reaches a peak in mid-May with the arrival of thrushes, flycatchers, and 15 to 20 species of warblers. In June and July, birds are busy with breeding activities.
Southbound shorebirds can be found regularly beginning in late July through August, mostly along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Larger inland ponds attract a few also. In September and October, birders will be challenged by “confusing fall warblers”, and sparrows, immature and adult. The last three months of the year hold the promise of sea ducks on Lake Michigan, and occasional uncommon gulls on Grand Traverse Bay.
Water levels on the Great Lakes have been known to fluctuate several feet over multi-year cycles. As of 2017, Lake Michigan is at levels near the record high seen in 1986. Shallow water habitats for shorebirds are almost nonexistent. Vegetation that grew on exposed areas during the most recent low-water years is now flooded. Given the current levels, expect to find shorebirds on inland ponds, wet meadows, or not at all. Recently exposed areas along the Boardman River may attract some shorebirds in the next few years, but these areas are small, and will be revegetated. Sleeping Bear Point remains a good spot for shorebirds (see Sleeping Bear Birding Trail), but get out there early, before the beach-walkers.
photo: Boardman River by Gabe Popa