Birding Michigan, Part 2: Shiawassee NWR


On the bank of the Shiawassee River, in central Michigan, Shiawassee NWR was touted as “a critical migration stopover site for waterfowl.” We were there on the last day of August, just over a year ago. With habitats ranging from marshes to forests to prairie, and a long list of bird species, some of which I’ve rarely (if ever) seen, I was hoping to see more than just waterfowl.

We decided to start with the wildlife drive. Afterward, Pete could relax with a book while I hiked one of the nature trails. Unfortunately, the weather had turned dreary again, with gray skies and a prediction for rain. The dark day made photography difficult, stealing colors and turning most birds into silhouettes.ShiawasseeNWR-MI_LAH_4382

There were plenty of birds, they were just hard to see. American Goldfinches dominated, feasting on the roadside wildflowers that had gone to seed. The bright colors on a group of Wood Ducks made me smile, as did the row of Ringed-billed Gulls on a telephone pole crossbar. A Great Egret reigned from atop an old post, Great Blue Herons stalked the wetlands, and a lone Caspian Tern swooped and dove over the water. Several Sandhill Cranes slowly flapped southward, joined by dozens of Canada Geese.


I was totally surprised by two species I did not expect to see. The first was a Golden Eagle. The official refuge checklist designates them as rare in winter and spring, and not present at all in summer or fall—and we were there on August 31. Due to the bad lighting, my photo isn’t exactly prize-worthy, but it’s good enough to clearly ID the bird. Just look at that beak!


Black Vulture_ShiawasseeNWR-MI_LAH_4730The second bird was a Black Vulture. They aren’t on the checklist at all, yet they’re hard to mistake—what other big black has a gray head? Again, the photo here is heavily cropped, and so is a bit pixel-y, but you can clearly see the what it is.

We finished the car route, and I headed out through the forest, hoping I could finish before the rain started. No such luck. Yet, the trees closed in overhead, providing some shelter, and I wasn’t getting too wet. As I went along, I realized that the raised trail was surrounded by swampy wetlands. We don’t have forested marshes in Colorado, and I found the place both fascinating and beautiful.

ShiawasseeNWR-MI_LAH_4522There were few birds about. Maybe they had hunkered down with a cup of tea and a good book, while the silly birder was out dodging raindrops. I did notice a number of Song Sparrows—it was perfect habitat for them. Then there was another sparrow—likely a juvenile. I find ID-ing most sparrows to be difficult at best, and trying to name a young, wet bird in an unfamiliar part of the country was more than my match. Anyone recognize this bird? Song Sparrow again?

As the rain intensified, I quickened my steps while still taking the occasional photo. I didn’t see any cardinals, but I did spot a Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis.

ShiawasseeNWR-MI_LAH_4318fAfter several miles, the trail ended in an open, grassy area. I texted Pete, who soon arrived with the car, offering shelter and a bag lunch he’d picked up in town. I sure appreciate his logistical support!

Even though the weather didn’t cooperate, I’d recommend birding Shiawassee. Living in the west, I was glad to spot a number of primarily eastern species—Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Kingbird, and Eastern Bluebird, for example.

ShiawasseeNWR-MI_LAH_4661fThen there was the mottled Indigo Bunting, molting into its first adult plumage—not very photogenic, but the first I’d seen in a decade.

If I saw this many species on a rainy day in late summer, imagine what you could find during spring migration!

Photos, from top: Wildlife drive (2), Caspian Tern, American Goldfinch, Ringed-billed Gulls, Golden Eagle, Black Vulture, trail through forested marsh, Song Sparrow, mystery sparrow #1 (3), Double-crested Cormorant, Cardinal Flower, Common Yellowthroat, mystery sparrow #2 , Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Kingbird, Indigo Bunting.

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