Birds of the Seasons by Raburn Howland

What I have tried to do is give the reader a sense of what they might see and sometimes hear if they spend much time outside along or near the Huron River from Hamburg to Dexter. I have tried to include the most common and interesting species one is likely to encounter throughout the region and during the course of a full year. I am sure that anyone reading it will have their own additions to make because, while I cover many different birds and waterfowl, the coverage is by no means exhaustive.

RayburnRay Howland

Common species that one is likely to encounter any time of the year are Mallards, American Crows, Northern Cardinals, House Sparrows, a variety of wood peckers, Gold Finches and House Finches.  Away from the lakes and rivers one might be fortunate and spot a flock of Wild Turkeys along the local roads and in the open fields adjacent to Stinchfield Woods along Dexter-Pinckney Road.

The reality is that there is a remarkable number of birds and waterfowl in our area almost any time of the year along the Huron River and its environs. Even in the dead of winter, when most of it is completely frozen there are many species toughing it out in our typical Michigan winter weather. Even then, in any areas of open water one is likely to find Canada Geese, both the giant variety as well as some of the smaller migrants that winter locally, and Mallards.

In recent years we have been treated to several families of Trumpeter Swans that have stopped on the lakes during their migration and stayed for the winter. They can be distinguished from the Mute Swans by their erect posture and black bills.

Year Round Birds

During the dead of winter, the last week of December, January and part of February when the waters of the Huron and the lakes are almost completely covered with ice, there is not much to see unless one has a bird feeder. Everything is gone pretty much except the winter residents and a few hardy migrants like the Dark-Eyed Juncos in their formal attire of charcoal grey and white waistcoat. They join the Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, House and Gold Finches, the Downey and Red Belly Woodpeckers, an occasional Yellow Shafted Flicker, and numerous Blue Jays and Mourning Doves. There are often large flocks of Starlings and usually large flocks of House Sparrows. My favorite is the White Breasted Nuthatch, which goes down the tree upside down, with its guttural call making it seem much bigger than it actually is.

Swans start the competition for nesting sites as well and it can get noisy and nasty as the males battle each other for the prime real estate.

Overhead I look for the returning Turkey Vultures and Sand Hill Cranes. The Turkey Vultures are often called buzzards by the locals and are sometimes mistaken for Bald Eagles given their size and dark color. However, they soar very differently from either the eagles or cranes and are much more numerous. When they are flying, Turkey Vultures are truly beautiful to watch as they soar effortlessly, even in the strongest winds. However, up close they are probably the ugliest kid on the block. Periodically we will have flocks of as many as 50 riding the thermals around Portage Lake.

The Sand Hill cranes, on the other hand, look almost prehistoric. They are very tall, up to five feet. They are usually light grey or brown with long trailing legs and a croaking call that can be heard for a long way. They head for the small ponds and lakes to find suitable nesting sites.

As the ice disappears in March and April, the migration season really gets rolling around the lake. Large flocks of ducks are working their way north to the Boreal Forest area of northern Michigan and southern Canada as far north as the edge of the Artic where they nest. By the middle of April I have often seen as many as 15 different varieties on the lake at one time. In addition to the Mallards that nest in the area, there are also the beautiful Wood Ducks that can often be seen sitting in the trees along the Huron and around the lakes. Some of the more abundant migrants are the diving ducks; the Buffleheads, Golden Eyes, Grebes, and several kinds of mergansers. We have all three varieties of mergansers: the Common with its bright green head and large white body, the Red-breasted that is delicately colored and the Hooded with its distinctive white hood. In addition there are Canvasbacks, Redheads, Bluebills (Greater and Lesser Scaups), both Blue Wing and Green Wing Teal, Widgeons, Coots, and others. The parade goes on for several months and changes daily.

One of the later migrants is the Common Loon. We often have one or two that stop over for a few days in May. They are a large distinctly marked bird that can swim great distances under water making them hard to track. For me their haunting call is without equal.

As all this is happening on the water, the song bird migration is in full swing as well. In addition to the sixteen or so varieties of warblers that are on the move, the Baltimore and Orchard Orioles and Indigo Buntings are arriving as are the many different flycatchers. The most spectacular of the warblers around the water is usually the Yellow Warbler. It can be seen anywhere along the river and the many little tributaries. Song and Chipping sparrows can be seen rummaging around on the ground in the gardens along with the brightly colored Brown Thrashers and the Fox Sparrows doing their characteristic hopping as they search the foliage for bugs and grubs. They are often joined by the Gray Catbirds that have a call that can easily be mistaken for that of a cat.

The two best places in our area to really enjoy the colorful spectacle of the warbler arrivals are Hudson Mills Metro Park and Stinchfield Woods. Both these areas are located right along the Huron and are easily accessible. Hudson Mills has many easily walked nature trails and is known as one of the best local “warbler traps”. Stinchfield Woods is a forested area with well- marked trails and many hills. It also has a resident population of voracious Deer Flies. In mid-summer for many years it has been the site of a wonderful breeding bird survey conducted by Professor Karen Markey, of the University of Michigan, one of the best birding experts around.

I also look forward to the arrival of the several varieties of swallows that begin to show up as soon as the water warms up enough to start producing insects. The Tree Swallows, in their beautiful iridescent plumage, are soon joined by the Purple Martins, Northern Rough Legs, and Barn Swallows. I find the ballet they perform as they skim across the water and through the yards snatching bugs out of the air and off the surface of the water quite mesmerizing.

Usually about this time of the spring our resident Spotted Sandpiper arrives and starts patrolling the dock looking for insects. The Spotted is easy to identify given its propensity to bob along wagging its tail. It has to contend with the aggressive House Sparrows who are also feeding on the dock. They both are scattered when the Great Blue Heron arrives or the Ring-billed Gulls congregate with their raucous screams proclaiming the dock as their private turf. 

Spring Rolls Into Summer

As spring rolls into summer and the trees get all their leaves, identifying birds becomes more of a challenge especially if one has any hearing loss in the high ranges. However, there is one bird that is easily seen and identified, the Cedar Waxwing, aka the “masked bandit”. It is beautifully marked with a yellow strips in its tail and a black mask. If one is fortunate enough to have Service Berry trees or berry bushes or some other fruit bearing plant, the Cedar Waxwing flocks will usually find them. They are a gregarious bunch and will battle the Robins for the berries until the trees are stripped clean of fruit. Occasionally, they are joined by Yellow Warblers and Common Yellow Throats.

As the weather warms up and summer is finally in full bloom, the birds are everywhere. The yards and waters are full of groups of baby birds, most of whom are trailing their parents and hassling them for more food. The Starlings and Grackles are marching through the yard eating bugs early in the morning along with the sparrows, Robins and numerous swallows.

Summer is a great time to take a leisurely cruise up or down the Huron to see all the birds along the shore of the river. One is likely to see Great Blue herons stalking prey along the edges of the water or sitting up in trees squawking at boaters that interrupt their hunting. With some luck one might also catch a glimpse of the Little Green Heron patiently siting on a log waiting for an unsuspecting small fish or frog to make a mistake and become a meal. One of the more spectacular birds one could also see along the river is the Pileated Wood pecker with its magnificent red crest. It is the largest of the local woodpeckers. I am still awed by its size when I see one flash across the river in front of me.

Back on the lakes, another ritual is taking place, the process of learning to fly. The young geese, ducks and swans are at various stages of learning the fine art of taking off and landing on the water. Even though they all eventually master the skill, watching their trials and tribulations provides a lot of humorous incidents as the young ones flap furiously across the water to get airborne. Once in the air, they then have to get back down again. For a while, at least, most of the landings resemble controlled crashes until they have had enough practice to get the hang of it. 

Fall Migration

All this practicing is in preparation for the beginning of the fall migration that actually begins in August and early September. The Ruby-Throated Humming birds, one of the early departing species, are fattening up on nectar from the feeders and flowers before they leave for Florida and South America. Various warblers and other song birds also start disappearing as September wears on so that by the end of the month most of them are gone.

September marks the beginning of my favorite fall migration season. Beginning in early September through the end of the year is migration period for the raptors (hawks, eagles, and vultures to most people) to begin flowing through the autumn sky. Unlike most of the smaller birds that move mostly at night, the raptors usually only move during the day. They have an aversion to flying over open water and they are amazingly efficient in their ability to efficiently use warm air thermals, only available during daylight hours, to get lift and conserve energy when they fly.

Later on the water, ducks, geese and even gulls begin to congregate the lakes. By December, when the ice has started to form on the lakes and rivers, the ducks and swans are gathering in flocks that can number in the hundreds. The Canada Geese will sometimes number in the thousands! The sounds emanating from those already on the water and other descending flocks can rival a schoolyard full of boisterous grade school kids at recess. Mixed in with these groups are families of Trumpeter Swans, a few of which will spend the winter on the lake as long as there is any open water. Even the Mute Swans don’t usually mess with them because they are the biggest birds in the mix.

If one is really lucky, as I have been on several occasions, they will be able to witness the arrival of large flocks of Tundra Swans. There is no mistaking them because, unlike their relatives the Mute Swans, they are always calling out to each other when they are in flight. There are few more breath taking experiences that I can think of than to be outside on a cold November night with a full moon and to first hear, and then see large flocks of Tundra Swans passing overhead or coming in to land on the lake.

This is also the time of the year when the Bald Eagles start patrolling the lakes in earnest looking for their favorite food, American Coots that become much easier to catch in the ever smaller pools of open water. The eagles also feed on dead swans, usually Mutes that are trapped in the ice with the arrival the first really severe cold nights.

Winter Once Again

With the closing in of the lakes, another seasonal cycle comes to a close and it is time to make sure the bird feeders are well stocked to provide nourishment for the migrating Juncos that will spend the winter here as well as our locals that provide company until the spring migration begins the cycle again.

There are several locations near the Portage Base Lakes area that are worth mentioning if one gets really interested in birds. One of the best known is the Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor. It is on the river and free. It is well worth the trip during the spring migration. Another place that is close and well worth the visit is the Audubon Haehnele Wildlife Refuge that is west of Chelsea. In November of each year, thousands of Sand Hill Cranes gather there before they begin their trip south. In the late afternoon they fly in from the surrounding farm fields to spend the night in the safety of the refuge. Finally, I would strongly suggest a day trip to The Hawk Fest at Lake Erie Metro Park in Brownstown south of Detroit. It usually takes place the second or third weekend of September which often coincides with the peak of the Broadwing Hawk migration. It is not uncommon to see thousands of hawks in the sky at one time, a truly spectacular sight!

Using a Smart Phone

If one wants to learn more about what birds are in the region, I would suggest going to the Cornell University, Laboratory of Ornithology Ebird website. There one can find out about almost anything to do with birds. The nice thing about site is that with a smart phone you can get information about anywhere you are and what has been seen recently in that location.