The Great Lakes are excellent for birding anytime of year, but with fall migration underway now is the perfect time to hit the shores in search of birds. Two flyways, the Atlantic and Mississippi, cross over the Great Lakes with shorebirds, raptors, songbirds, gulls, and waterfowl all following these routes from as far north as the Arctic, all the way to the southern United States, Central and South America. Their shorelines act as natural highways for these birds, as they make their way south to their wintering grounds. Regardless of which Great Lake is nearest you, great birding opportunities await.
I recently had a chance to spend some time in Bayfield Ontario, located on the east shore of Lake Huron. The mixed habitat provided a nice variety of birds. Along the lake itself was a typical Great Lake shoreline, consisting of a sand beach with mixed rocks and wood. Adjacent to the beach was a beautiful dune covered in American Beach Grass, new growth Poplars, and White Pines. Behind the dune was a wooded area made up of cedars and a wide variety of deciduous trees.
North winds prevailed during my visit which helped push the migrating birds down the shoreline through the area. Bonaparte’s Gulls, Double-crested Cormorants, and a group of six Blue-winged Teal were observed only a few feet from the beach, flying past in a southerly direction. A lone Sanderling walked down the beach foraging in the sand and stones. Monarch Butterflies were also taking advantage of the north wind; I counted twenty three in just a short period of time which is by far the most I’ve seen in recent years. Birds of prey passed overhead, with counts of Turkey Vultures being highest. A Merlin landed briefly in the top of a dead cedar tree before carrying on. As the sun dropped low in the sky prior to setting, sixteen Common Nighthawks moved up and down the beach over the dunes feeding all the while.
The mixed forest was full of birds, both migrating and resident species. Listening to the various calls was quite enjoyable. Cedar Waxwings, with their high pitched whistling calls seemed to be the most prevalent, while Blue Jays did their best to drown them out. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds moved along the forest edge feeding on the native Jewel Weed. Swainson’s Thrushes could be seen gorging in the tree tops, both on berries and insects. These same mixed forests provided me with views of two new species for my life list, a Philadelphia Vireo, and a Northern Waterthrush. The Philadelphia Vireo was seen overhead moving from tree to tree, ingesting insects along the way. The yellow underparts clearly distinguished it from other vireos. The Northern Waterthrush provided the best view of all birds as this one was observed after striking a cottage window. Concerned for its well being, I didn’t even think to photograph it. I approached it slowly and quietly. Its wings were tucked in and it was sitting upright, although breathing heavily. Once it gathered itself, the bird took flight and headed back into the forest, appearing no worse for wear.
As September progresses along and we move into October, migration and birding will get even better. Peak numbers are typically observed mid September, but anytime you can get out is the best time to go. Research conservation areas, parks, and other public areas on the shores of the Great Lakes and find one close to you. Pack your binoculars, field guide, water and a snack and give birding in one these areas a try. Migration along the Great Lakes will not disappoint.