Migratory Birds Brightly colored migratory birds in trees. ©: Fauna
A songbird with an open mouth, singing.
Resting and Refueling Millions of migratory birds feed and find rest throughout the Great Lakes during migration. © Matt Williams

Stories in the Great Lakes

Great Lakes Great Birds

Millions of migratory birds are using Nature Conservancy sites to rest and refuel as they cross Great Lakes states toward summer breeding grounds.

TNC staffperson Matt Williams lying on ground and focusing his camera on flower.
Matt Williams Director of conservation programs for TNC's Indiana Chapter © Matt Williams

Matt Williams puts down his binoculars and listens intently. He just heard what he thought was the call of the elusive golden-winged warbler. The call comes again—a buzzy, two-parted song. First a long note on a high pitch followed by four shorter, lower notes.

Matt has been hiking the Cowles Bog Trail in the Indiana Dunes National Park, hoping to see (and hear) as many bird species as possible. With its varying habitats and miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, this area is a hotspot for migrant birds.  

After another call or two, the beautiful warbler comes into view. Williams swaps his binoculars for his camera and takes aim. He hopes his pictures match the magnificence of the bird.

Matt is The Nature Conservancy’s director of conservation programs for Indiana and an avid birder. He is the author of the photographic book, “Endangered and Disappearing Birds of the Midwest."


Birdwatchers spend an estimated $41 billion a year on binoculars, cameras, travel and other hobby-related expenses.

Birdwatching is Big Business

Matt is not alone in his quest to observe birds. Far from it. If you took all the attendance from every NFL game and added the total attendance from every NBA game in 2022, that total still wouldn’t match the number of birdwatchers in the United States. (Attendance is 40.4 million, and birders number 45 million!)

Each year, more than 45 million Americans take part in birdwatching, spending approximately $41 billion on related trips and equipment, and this contributes significantly to local communities.

For example, the Biggest Week in American Birding, the annual one-week birding festival in northwest Ohio, draws upwards of 90,000 people. The Nature Conservancy is part of many great birding events in the Midwest every year.

Great Lakes Migratory Birds

The below are just a sampling of the many varied migratory birds that annually use the Great Lakes migratory pathway.

An open-mouthed brown bird with brown spots on its white chest .
A black and red bird sits among branches.
A brown speckled bird with a long down-turned beak walks among a field.
A small flock of brown birds with v-shaped wings flys low over the surf.
A yellow bird with black and white coloring sits among branches.
A blue and white striped bird inspects a bud on a branch.
A buff-brown bird with yellow and black breast stands in grass.
A white owl with wings extended soars low over a snowy field.
10 large white and black cranes flow low over a brown agriculture field.
A white bird with striking red head peeks from behind a tree.

The Nature Conservancy is for the Birds

But birds are so much more than just checkmarks on a birder’s life list. They provide benefits to all of us. They not only pollinate many species of plants and flowers, but they keep insect populations in check. Birds have been estimated to consume 98% of certain insect pests, including codling moths, which are a major agricultural pest.

Across all Great Lakes states and beyond, TNC has been protecting and improving bird habitats for decades. Take a minute to check out some of the amazing places where we work on the interactive map. Unite with The Nature Conservancy for the birds!

Explore TNC Preserves to See Migratory Birds

Each year, hundreds of thousands of snow geese stop at Emiquon on their way to breeding grounds further north in the Arctic tundra.
The loggerhead shrike, a black-masked, small gray bird, is known for using barbed wire, thorns, and other objects to impale its prey.
Nachusa Grasslands
Watch for the bright blue flash of the Indigo bunting, a neotropical migrant, as it forages for seeds and bugs among Nachusa's prairie grasses and oak savannas.
Kankakee Sands
A mecca for many birders, Kankakee Sands is home to some of the fastest declining bird species in North America as well as threatened or endangered bird species to Indiana.
Bluestem Prairie
The opportunity to see migratory birds, and other native fauna and flora also makes a trip to Bluestem Prairie worthwhile.
Upper Manitou Forest
This preserve includes one of the best remaining examples of the "North Shore" in the Great Lakes, according to ecologists.
El Dorado Beach Preserve
The rocky shoreline at El Dorado Beach Preserve provides a unique rest and refuel opportunity for migrating shorebirds.
Chaumont Barrens
Chaumont Barrens is one of the last and finest examples of alvar grasslands in the world. It’s also a great place to watch an array of colorful migrating songbirds.
Thousand Acre Swamp
Thousand Acre Swamp is not only one of the area’s largest wetlands, it’s one of the best places near the City of Rochester to see a variety of woodland and wetland birds.
Erie Marsh Preserve
Recognized by eBird as one of the top 10 hotspots in Michigan, birders have spotted at least 255 species at our Erie Marsh Preserve.
Zetterberg Preserve at Point Betsie
Watch your step in early summer as piping plovers may nest on the sandy shoreline of our Zetterberg Preserve at Point Betsie.
John Arthur Woollam Preserve
One of the most ecologicaly diverse protected places in the Great Lakes basin is here at this northern Lake Huron shoreline preserve.
Morgan Swamp Preserve
The wetlands at Morgan Swamp are the backdrop for many of the 100 bird species that have been documented here including green-winged teal, America wigeon and winter wren.
Great Egret Marsh Preserve
The natural productivity of the preserve's coastal marshes make it a haven for the millions of birds that feed and rest in the region each year during spring and fall migrations.
Kitty Todd Preserve
Kitty Todd is home to roughly 140 native bird species, including migratory birds like the Swainson's thrush, ruby-crowned kinglet, yellow-bellied sapsucker and Tennessee warbler.
Woodbourne Forest Preserve
Recognized as one of Pennsylvania's 100 best birding locations by the PA State Game Commission, this preserve serves as a hotspot for more than 180 species of birds.
Thomas Darling Preserve at Two-Mile Run
This preserve includes boreal wetlands surrounded by a forest of northern hardwoods. Birds that can be found here include the Canada warbler, scarlet tanager, and dark-eyed junco.
Baxter's Hollow Preserve in the Baraboo Hills
More than 40 species of birds breed here, making the Hollow one of the most important nesting areas for forest-dwelling birds in southern Wisconsin.
Mink River Estuary on the Door Peninsula
More than 200 species may pass through the area annually including magnolia and other warblers, black-crowned night herons and common loons.
Spring Green Preserve
Spring Green is home to meadowlarks, bobolinks, dickcissels and other grassland birds whose populations are declining due to habitat loss on their breeding and wintering grounds.
Minsi Lake Corridor
The dense woodlands of this corridor shade the water areduce evaporation. They also provide ideal habitat for forest interior-breeding birds such as the Scarlet tanager.
Landscape view of a large planted wetland.
Sandhill Crane Wetlands
Opened in spring 2022, Sandhill Crane Wetlands provides critical stopover habitat for migratory waterfowl.
A large grey bird holds a fish in its beak.
Douglas Woods
Douglas Woods' forests, wetlands and ponds are home to a variety of hawks, pheasants and a nesting colony of great blue herons.
A sunset over a large body of water.
Mary Macdonald Preserve at Horseshoe Harbor
The Mary Macdonald Preserve at Horseshoe Harbor in the Keweenaw Peninsula provides a vital resting place for migratory species looking to cross Lake Superior.
A blue stream runs through a green wetland flanked by trees.
Lulu Lake
Freshwater lake and river system with surrounding oak savanna/grassland/forest system. Osprey nest often has mating pair and chicks and purple martin homes along the lakeshore.
Colorful wildflowers on a grassy hill.
Barneveld Prairie
Remnant tallgrass prairie and savanna system with excellent grassland bird watching: upland sandpiper, bobolinks, etc.

TNC Preserves with Migratory BIrd Viewing TNC protects habitat that is crucial for migratory birds throughout the Great Lakes region. Click on a green marker to learn more about the preserve.