The Best Michigan Birdwatching Locations
Michigan is home to five national parks, eight national wildlife refuges, and more than 3,000 miles of Great Lakes coastline. All of these factors combine to make excellent habitats for hundreds of different species of birds throughout the state. Popular times for birdwatching are during the spring and fall migrations, as birds use our state as a resting point on their way north or south. We’ve put together a list of some of the best Michigan birdwatching locations, based on our observations over many years of traveling. Before you head out to one of these locations, make sure to gear up with some binoculars, your camera, and resources like the U.S. Forest Service’s U.P. Bird Checklist or books like Birds of Michigan Field Guide (by Stan Tekiela), the American Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of Michigan (by Allen Chartier and Brian Small), or National Geographic Field Guide to Birds: Michigan (by Mel Baughman).
Peninsula Point (Hiawatha National Forest) – Peninsula Point is home to a historic lighthouse and is a well-documented site for an annual monarch butterfly migration. This 120-acre woodland is also an important stopping point for birds migrating along the northern shore of Lake Michigan; more than 200 species have been observed here. More info: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/hiawatha/recarea/?recid=13320
Sturgeon River Slough Wildlife Area (Chassell) – This managed waterfowl and wildlife area has a 1.75-mile nature trail and an observation tower overlooking a large marsh near the mouth of the Sturgeon River. A variety of birds have been identified here, including ducks, herons, geese, eagles and osprey.
Whitefish Point Bird Observatory (Paradise) – We’ve made many trips to Whitefish Point to see the lighthouse and visit the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, but this is also a migration hotspot for birdwatchers. The WPBO bands owls, keeps counts on hawks and other birds, and offers special events and tours throughout the year. “Home to numerous rare breeding birds, this Globally Important Bird Area has recorded over 340 bird species. ” Head over to https://wpbo.org/ for more information.
Tawas Point State Park (East Tawas) – Part of the Saginaw Bay Birding Trail, Tawas Point State Park is a birdwatcher’s paradise in the spring and fall. The point on Lake Huron acts as a shelter for migrating birds during bad weather, or as a resting area as they head north or south. Species identified here include nesting piping plovers, mergansers, gulls, swallows, herons, cedar waxwings, warblers, blackbirds, orioles, and more. You can check out our Photo Gallery post to see more of the park’s offerings, including a restored lighthouse that is open for tours.
Sault Ste. Marie – The St. Mary’s River isn’t just an important waterway for freighter traffic, it is also an important spot for migrating birds and local waterfowl. We’ve observed loons and ducks at Rotary Park, bald eagles and hawks near the St. Mary’s Hydroelectric Plant, ducks and other waterfowl near Brimley State Park to the west of town, and sandhill cranes in the large farm fields south of town.
Port Crescent State Park (Port Austin) – Another part of the Saginaw Bay Birding Trail, this state park has a dedicated boardwalk and observation deck for raptor viewing. “Its unique location at the tip of the Thumb means that good numbers of birds collect here in spring and fall. Such goodies as Snowy Egret, Prairie Warbler, Henslow’s Sparrow, and Red Crossbill have been detected. More regular species of interest include Forster’s Tern, Great Black-backed Gull (which may be seen year-round) and Glaucous Gulls (often lingering into late April and early May).”
Seney National Wildlife Refuge (Germfask) – Take a walk on one of the nature trails here, sit on the back deck observation area behind the ranger station, or take a drive on the Marshland Wildlife Drive (seven miles) when you visit Seney National Wildlife Refuge, and you’re all but guaranteed to see some amazing birds. Swans, bald eagles, osprey, sandhill cranes, ducks, American bittern, sparrows, harriers, hawks, wrens, rails, and blackbirds are just a few of the species that have been observed here. Check out our Photo Gallery Friday: Seney NWR for photos from our visits.
Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park (Western Upper Peninsula) – This well-preserved area has one of the area’s largest remaining old-growth forests, numerous lakes and rivers, Lake Superior shoreline, and a high elevation. These factors combine to make Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park an important birding area. Lake of the Clouds is one of our favorite spots to observe falcons, hawks, and eagles; the visitor center can provide a field guide to other species of birds that can be found in the park.
Alpena Wildlife Sanctuary – Island Park is located on the Thunder Bay River, inside a 500-acre protected area that is home to waterfowl like kingfisher, ducks, swans, geese, and more. On the trails, keep your eyes and ears open for American redstart, warblers, vireos, and more. Keep an eye on http://www.visitalpena.com/ for future events like their recent “Beginning Birdwatching on Duck/Island Park.”
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (Lake Michigan) – There are endless great places to view birds in this national lakeshore: herons, ducks, egrets, and more can be spotted on a journey down the Platte River; hawks and other raptors can be spotted from high points along the dunes and sandpipers and gulls are regular visitors to the lakeshore’s beaches. The Sleeping Bear Birding Trail follows this migratory flyway that runs almost parallel to M-22, offering several protected areas and sanctuaries as well as volunteer tracking efforts. Loons, eagles, ducks, herons, terns, and cedar waxwings are common, many come here searching for the rare and endangered piping plover.
Kirtland’s Warbler Tours (Grayling, Oscoda) – The Michigan Audubon leads guided tours through the habitat of the Kirtland’s Warbler, one of Michigan’s most sought-after birds. A Michigan historical marker tells us that the warbler “faced extinction due to the loss of habitat and the invasion of parasitic brown-headed cowbirds, which lay eggs in warbler nests and whose young survive at the expense of warbler nestlings. The warbler was placed on the federal endangered species list in 1967 and the state endangered species list in 1976. Guided by research to mimic natural fire processes, government agencies and private conservationists began harvesting older jack pine stands and replanting the trees to restore the warblers’ habitat. In addition, cowbird populations were controlled. From an all-time modern low of 167 nesting pairs in 1974 and 1987, the summer population of the warbler rebounded to more than 1,700 pairs in 2007.” Tours depart from Hartwick Pines State Park and Oscoda (led by the AuSable Valley Audubon).
Hartwick Pines State Park (Grayling) – A 10,000-acre paradise that has the state’s largest tract of virgin white pine, Hartwick Pines State Park also has hardwood forests of beech, maple, and oak, with lowland habitat of spruce and tamarack. With more than seven miles of hiking trails there are great spots for birders and photographers to search for warblers, grosbeaks, woodpeckers, goldfinches, and more. Be sure to stop by the visitor center to check out the large observation window and a whiteboard that follows recent sightings.
Point Mouillee State Game Area (Monroe County) – This area provides important habitat for birds migrating across Lake Erie. You’ll be sure to spot waterfowl like ducks, heron, egrets, gulls, and more. Sightings of migrating American pelican shave been reported here as well. A Waterfowl Festival takes place here every September, featuring a goose calling contest, decoy building contest, arts & crafts show, and more.
Warren Dunes State Park (Bridgman) – This park supports a population of the endangered prairie warbler, and is also home to turkeys, hawks, vireos, woodpeckers, gulls, and more. Check out our Photo Gallery Friday: Warren Dunes State Park for a look at how easy it is to hike the trails here.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (Lake Superior; Munising to Grand Marais) – We’ve been fortuntate to see bald eagles and their nests from the water on Pictured Rocks Boat Cruises and Glass Bottom Shipwreck Tours, and to see peregrine falcons along the rocky cliffs while paddling on a Pictured Rocks Kayak Tour. In addition to these birds of prey that thrive on the rocky shoreline, this national lakeshore is home to many owls, warblers, merlins, harriers, hawks, cranes, turkeys, osprey, grouse, woodcock, and more. Keep your eyes and ears open while hiking the more than 60 miles of trails that run through Pictured Rocks, as many of these birds will be heard before they are seen. More info: https://www.nps.gov/piro/learn/nature/birds.htm.
— USFWS History (@USFWSHistory) October 21, 2016
Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge (Saginaw) – Visitors here can marvel at the number of birds they see on the Wildlife Drive (auto tour) or while hiking the refuge trails (Woodland Trail 4.5 miles; Ferguson Bayou Trail 4.5 miles). The most abundant waterfowl are Canada goose, mallard, green-winged teal, and ring-necked duck. “Emergent marsh provides important stopover habitat for large flocks of shorebirds, including dunlin, least sandpiper, and lesser yellowlegs. Other noteworthy denizens include pied-billed grebe, least bittern, black tern, marsh wren, Blanding’s turtle, and eastern fox snake.” Eagles are common here as well, and this is one of very few spots in Michigan where the prothonotary warbler nests. Find out more at https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Shiawassee/.
Belle Isle State Park (Detroit) – the crown jewel for birdwatching in the Detroit area, Belle Isle State Park is located on a 982-acre island in the Detroit River. The best time for birdwatching here is early in the day, and the best spots are those that venture away from the island’s “main” roads. Species observed here include many kinds of warblers, thrush, owls, killdeer, heron, bluebirds, blackbirds, cardinals, woodpeckers, and more. Check out our Belle Isle Photo Gallery to see more of what this state park has to offer.
Nayanquing Point State Wildlife Area (Pinconning) – Our recent trip to the Saginaw Bay area found us stopping at this popular birdwatching spot, and we were impressed with the number of different species we could observe from the observation tower. “Home to one of the oldest and largest colonies of Yellow-headed Blackbirds in the state. In the spring and fall, Nayanquing is home to huge numbers of migrating waterfowl and smaller numbers of gulls and shorebirds. Such finds as Trumpeter Swan (banded bird from Minnesota population), Greater White-fronted Goose, Cinnamon Teal, Arctic Tern, Little, Franklin’s, Laughing, and Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Long-tailed Jaeger have been noted in recent years. Many waterfowl are seen in the summer months as this area also hosts a wide variety of nesting ducks. Species such as Green-winged Teal, American Black Duck, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, American Wigeon, and Redhead are noted here in small numbers each summer. Some of the more interesting residents include Pied-billed Grebe, Black-crowned Night-Heron, American and Least Bitterns, Common Moorhen, Ring-necked Pheasant, Black and Forster’s Terns, Marsh and Sedge Wrens, and Willow Flycatcher.” Find out more and get directions at http://www.saginawbaybirding.org/nayanquing.html.
Baker Sandhill Crane Sanctuary (Bellevue) – In addition to a large population of sandhill cranes, the Bernard W. Baker Sanctuary in Calhoun County is also an observation spot for eagles, swans, harriers, and migrating waterfowl. Two hiking trails provide access and chances to get out the binoculars or the zoom lens. Each fall the sanctuary hosts Cranefest, when thousands of sandhills descend on the area. Find out more about this and other state sanctuaries at https://www.michiganaudubon.org/our-conservation-impact/bird-sanctuaries/.
Bay City State Recreation Area – This 2,800-acre park has 1,000 feet on sandy beach and a walking path that loops around a wetland. More than 230 species have been observed here, including herons, egrets, kingfisher, terns, sandpipers, warblers, and more. The best time to visit here is during migratory season, and the visitor center here can provide more information about the best spots for viewing.
Arcadia Marsh Preserve (Manistee County) – “The Arcadia Marsh hosts over 150 species of birds including 17 State Endangered, Threatened, or Species of Special Concern, making it a fantastic site for birding. In both spring and fall, this 155 acre area harbors many migrating waterfowl, shorebirds, cranes and many other birds. Arcadia has had its share of rarities to catch any birder’s attention including Bewick’s Wren, Black-billed Magpie, Purple Gallinule, Eider sp., Nelson’s Sparrow, and southern overshooting migrants rare this far north such as White-eyed Vireo, and Kentucky Warbler. In low water years the marsh is great for shorebirds and in high water years it’s one of the easiest places in the state for American and Least Bittern.” This is part of the Sleeping Bear Birding Trail and one of the best-preserved examples of a Great Lakes coastal marsh. Find out more at http://sleepingbearbirdingtrail.org/birding-sites/arcadia-marsh-preserve.
Negwegon State Park (Alpena County/Alcona County) – For those looking to enjoy Lake Huron while not battling crowds, Negwegon State Park south of Alpena is worth the somewhat rough drive to get to it. This undeveloped 3,700-acre park is home to a variety of species, and is a great spring and fall site for birdwatching. “Starting at the parking lot, a one-hour hike to South Point through mature deciduous woods will bring you to an excellent birding site for the spring and fall passerine and waterbird migration. Nearing the point, one can hear the gulls nesting on Bird Island calling. Red-shouldered Hawks and Merlin nest within the park.”
Mackinac Island – While we were recently biking around Mackinac Island, we discovered several great places for birdwatching. Gulls, ducks, geese, mergansers, and more can be seen in the waters of Lake Huron, while spots like the Croghan Water marsh, Wawashkamo Golf Course, and Lake Shore Nature Trail are great for viewing as well. Species here includeHorned Grebe, Tundra Swan, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Black-billed Cuckoo, Whip-poor-will, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Purple Martin, Eastern Bluebird, Bohemian Waxwing, Magnolia Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Northern Oriole, and Purple Finch. The best chances of seeing birds comes away from downtown and away from heavy tourist activity, so consider exploring the hardwood forests in the middle of the island. You can find a checklist of birds at www.mackinacparks.com.
Isle Royale National Park (reached by ferry from Copper Harbor, Houghton, or Grand Portage, MN) – One of the nation’s least visited national parks is also one of its most beautiful, and the lack of heavy tourist traffic ensures that wildlife are abundant and fairly easy to observe. Types of birds spotted here include sandhill crane, loon, sandpiper, kingfisher, warbler, cormorant, merganser, kestrel, merlin, hawk, woodpecker and more.
Brockway Mountain/Copper Harbor – This amazing overlook above Copper harbor at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula is also a great birdwatching spot. “There are a two sanctuaries along the drive; Klipfel Memorial Trail (MNA), located just east of the top and the Oren Krumm Trail (MI Audubon) near the bottom of drive on the west end. They are hilly but not too difficult and offer great views and birding. The best hawk watching, at the peak, does not require much walking at all. Brockway sits along the Central Migration Flyway aka “Hawk Highway” and displays a spectacular spring migration. 17 North American raptors have been observed here. Common Raven can be quite entertaining as they “play” and soar like kites along the cliffs. Find a good vantage point, set up a chair and enjoy the show.” Find out more at http://www.copperharborbirding.org/ or https://www.keweenaw.info/attractions/keweenaw-birding/.