Erie Marsh Preserve in Michigan is a migratory hotspot.
A group of birds fly low along Lake Huron in Michigan as the sun sets.
Migration Michigan is home to two migratory flyways. © Fauna Creative

Stories in Michigan

A Tale of Two Flyways

Every year migrating birds road trip across Michigan, but climate and biodiversity threats could make pit stops harder. Associate Director Patrick Doran shares three species and refuges to know.

Headshot of Patrick Doran.
Patrick Doran Associate State Director, Michigan

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Imagine that you’ve been driving for hours and are in desperate need of a break: your eyelids are heavy, your legs are stiff and your kids are begging for a bathroom break. But what do you do if there’s just nowhere to stop? As migrating birds travel across our state from thousands of miles away, they are looking for just that—a place to rest and refuel.

Home to two migratory flyways, the Mississippi and the Atlantic, Michigan has no shortage of air traffic. Whether I’m at my daughter’s soccer game or my neighborhood park, there’s always something looking for a place to land. As a lifelong birder, here are a few migratory travelers who stick out to me as unique.

An Impressive Pair of Loons

In Seney National Wildlife Refuge in the Upper Peninsula, a breeding pair of common loons known as “Fe” and “ABJ” have been together since 1997. While loons do not usually mate for life, the pair is both the oldest documented in the world and one of the most productive. For 25-plus years, they have avoided many perils, from avian botulism to lead and mercury in the lakes, yet they continue to thrive.

Loons migrating to Michigan tend to find their ideal habitat in the thick forests of the northern Lower Peninsula and Upper Peninsula where quiet waters provide them with the resources they need. In 2017, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) protected a swath of land just like this in the Upper Peninsula. The diverse habitat of Wilderness Lakes Reserve provides a home for rare and threatened animal species like the loon.

A common loon springs out of the water with wings open.
Common Loon Look for the common loon in forested areas and large ponds. While many select the Great Lakes as their destination, they can also be found in Greenland and Iceland © Scott Suriano/TNC Photo Contest 2019
Tall, green trees grow along the edge of a calm lake at Wilderness Lakes Reserve. The sky is bright blue and full of wispy, white clouds.
Wilderness Lakes Reserve Wilderness Lakes Reserve, located in Michigan’s Baraga County, provides habitat for a wide range of species of migratory birds. © Dietrich Ludwig

Keweenaw Peninsula

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The Owls of Whitefish Point

Michigan’s Whitefish Point, extending out into the harsh waters of Lake Superior, is a globally significant migratory route for numerous species. During both the spring and fall migrations, thousands of birds travel through this natural corridor to take advantage of the ample access to both land and water. Naturally, the area is considered one of the best places for birdwatching during the migratory seasons.

Among the birds found crossing through the corridor are an impressive variety of owls. Researchers have spotted northern saw-whet, boreal, great horned, great gray, barred snowy, northern hawk, long-eared and short-eared owls.

Flying across the vast waters of the Great Lakes can be perilous. Places like the Keweenaw Peninsula and Whitefish Point provide migrating birds with a place to rest and refuel before traveling onward. In the Two-Hearted River Forest Reserve in the Upper Peninsula, we’re working to restore the forest so that it can provide another resting place for migrating birds and other species of wildlife.

The large, yellow eyes of a northern saw-whet owl peer through the branches of a tree.
Northern Saw-whet Owl Not all northern saw-whet owls migrate. Many can be found in one place throughout the year. © Scott Suriano/TNC Photo Contest 2019
A snowy owl extends its wing as it preens on top of rocks.
Snowy Owl Like the northern saw-whet owl, not all snowy owls migrate in the winter. Those that do migrate must make an exhausting journey from the north. © Taylor Barlow/TNC Photo Contest 2021

White Pelicans at Erie Marsh

TNC’s Erie Marsh Preserve is a wonderland for birders. Thousands of migrating birds use this preserve as a nesting and stopover spot. Located in the Atlantic migratory flyway, Erie Marsh Preserve is a critical priority for coastal wetland restoration. The preserve contains 11% of the wetlands left in southeast Michigan and in 2011 TNC implemented a multi-year restoration project at Erie Marsh.

With its location along the shore of Lake Erie, the preserve is the perfect resting place for white pelicans. Since the 1970s, these massive birds have been increasing their numbers from tens of thousands to more than 100,000. With the population doubling or more in size, the species is expanding its migratory range to find more suitable habitats.

With the population doubling or more in size, the species is expanding its migratory range to find more suitable habitats.

One year, I spotted more than 60 white pelicans soaring around Erie Marsh in groups; it was incredible to see! Without the protection of high-quality wetlands like Erie Marsh, that wouldn’t be possible.

Three white pelicans rest on a piece of concrete in a body of water. One pelican raises its wings in the air as water spaces around it.
White Pelicans White Pelicans are known for their appearance. Their long beaks, black wingtips and massive size makes them easy to identify in the sky. © Ann Villanueva/TNC Photo Contest 2019
American lotus flowers rest in a calm body of water at Erie Marsh Preserve in Michigan.
Erie Marsh Preserve Erie Marsh Preserve is a popular hotspot for Michigan birders. Along with white pelicans, keep an eye out for great egret, great blue heron or black-crowned night heron. © Jason Whalen

Addressing Climate Change and Biodiversity Loss

As climate change continues to disrupt ecosystems, it’s more important than ever that we work to protect the most climate-resilient places. As demonstrated by the white pelicans in Michigan, human development and habitat loss can lead to a species' decline. But the rebound of the pelican population at Erie Marsh also teaches us a hopeful lesson: when we restore suitable breeding and foraging areas, we can still give nature a chance. 

 

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Headshot of Patrick Doran.

Patrick Doran is the Associate State Director of The Nature Conservancy's Michigan Chapter.