Spring migration is underway, and one of the important places for songbirds in the region is the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula. It offers migrating birds an undisturbed habitat in which to rest and feed on a long flight north to their nesting grounds.
A Quick Stopover
The little finger of land sticking into Lake Michigan is a jumping off point. Dozens of species of songbirds use it on their last push north from wintering grounds in Central and South America.
"If it's good weather, it doesn't really matter to them when they're migrating," says Kay Charter, founder of Saving Birds Thru Habitat.
"If it's inclement weather they'll hold up to cross the Lake. Many of them are going to the U.P., and many more to the boreal forests of Canada. And they need this place to forage."
A Migratory Paradise
Charter organized a hike of the area led by national birding expert Greg Butcher, who directs bird conservation for the National Audubon Society. He's traveled to most states, and on several continents, looking at and studying birds. And he says not many places can compare with what's here.
"This is a Paradise," he says. "There aren't many places like Leelanau County where all that natural habitat has been left so close to the Lake."
What's critical, Butcher says, is that native vegetation is right along the water's edge. He says many of the tiny songbirds migrate at night. When morning comes, some find themselves over Lake Michigan so then they make a beeline for the nearest coast.
"And if the nearest coast is filled with houses and cities, they're not going to have anything to protect themselves or to feed on," he says.
Part of it this area is state park. There's also a wedge of private land protected under a conservation easement, and the Leelanau Conservancy has forty-some acres. And it includes a pretty nice mix of habitat. It ranges from dense wet areas with cedar and hemlock to mature hardwoods. And there are shrubby open areas plus a stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline.
Talking Back To The Birds
The group of hikers is able to identify more than four dozen species in the course of a couple of hours. That's not always easy with a canopy of leaves in the forest.
Experts like Greg Butcher identify birds by their songs first. Then they hone in on a location and try to spot them through binoculars. Butcher uses a technique called "pishing." Just as you might expect from the sound of the technique, Butcher makes a "pish, pish" sound to try to flush a nearby bird into the open to get a look at it.
Fewer Birds Elsewhere
Linda Kellerher, of Northport, says she enjoys observing birds and the beauty of nature wherever she goes. She met her husband at an Audubon event 30-some years ago. But in recent years, when she travels outside of Leelanau, she's noticed some changes that are a little disturbing.
"I think we see a lot fewer birds, it's kinda scary," she says. "We see far fewer warblers coming through.
"We were at one of the birding hot spots at Point Pelee in Ontario and we would see dozens of scarlet tanagers. It's one of my favorite birds, jet black wings on a brilliant red bird. And I haven't seen one in several years now."
These days it's pretty common for birders to say they see fewer of this or that species. But it's difficult to prove, especially with songbirds. That's because they're harder to see and identify than waterfowl, or shorebirds. Greg Butcher with National Audubon says there is a documented trend of decline in several species, those are the birds of open grasslands, including the meadowlark, bobwhite quail and loggerhead shrike. He says those have declined in the range of 60 to 70 percent. It's consistent over the last 40 years, so it's not a natural cycle.
Butcher says it's primarily due to changes in the way we use the land.
"What we used to have...people would crop less intensively," he says. "They would have smaller fields and more variety. They would have a lot more grass and do a lot more haying and grazing than they do now.
"It turns out that sort of mixed agriculture was really good for birds. But if you've got a square mile of cornfield there's no bird habitat in that at all."
Bird enthusiasts continue to document the species they're finding at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula. Someday it may qualify as an officially designated "important bird area" by the National Audubon Society. But those who visit it today don't need convincing of its value.
This weekend is the first Traverse City Festival of Birds. It features birding hikes; a workshop on planting native shrubs, grasses and trees; a tour of a bird sanctuary. There also will be musical performances at City Opera House, including this group Breathe Owl Breathe.
For more details see the Opera House web site.