6 Great Lakes birds to look out for as the fall flyways fill up


Technically, summer is still in full swing, but the seasons are already changing for some of our feathered friends.

Fall migration has begun for some Great Lakes bird species, marking the start of the annual spectacle as millions of waterfowl, waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds and raptors leave their grounds summer nesting sites and fly south to warmer climates for the winter.

More than 380 species of birds pass through Michigan each year during fall migration, a multi-month phenomenon that begins around mid-July and August. The Great Lakes region sits at the intersection of the Mississippi and Atlantic “flyways” – common flyways followed by dozens of birds – putting local birdwatchers in an ideal position to see fresh species as they pass through the area.

Some of the earliest migrating birds are shorebirds, which means you’ll likely spot them along coastal mudflats, wetlands, beaches, ponds and flooded fields. Set off with your binoculars and seek out the following birds to bid them a sweet farewell on their travels (for more details and resources, visit Audubon Great Lakes):

Great Lakes Piping Plover. Photo by Traverse City Tourism, courtesy of Audubon Great Lakes

Great Lakes Piping Plover: This sweet little shorebird is federally endangered, which makes sightings all the more special. If you happen to see one, be sure to give it plenty of space (i.e., don’t get too close for a photo) and consider report your sighting to the Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Efforta multi-agency network working to help numbers of this species rebound.

semipalmated plover

A semipalmated plover. Photo by Kimberly Caruso, courtesy of Audubon Great Lakes

Semipalmated Plovers: Sometimes confused with the beloved and endangered Great Lakes Piping Plover, these little shorebirds have a cheerful whistle and are often found foraging with other shorebird species during migration autumnal. Look for the singular dark band just below their neck, as well as their distinctive habit of running and stopping when foraging.

spotted sandpiper

A Spotted Sandpiper. Photo by Charles McRae, courtesy of Audubon Great Lakes

Spotted sandpipers: These pretty shorebirds are often found singly or in pairs along the edges of lakes, rivers and streams (not necessarily stretches of beach, as their name suggests). Since these sandpipers shed some of their spots after the breeding season, look for the way they constantly bob their tails up and down while walking.

Tree Swallows

Tree Swallow. Photo by Kameko Walker, courtesy Audubon Great Lakes

Tree Swallows: These acrobatic birds are common and strikingly beautiful, with shimmering blue backs against pure white breasts. They are often found in the air near or along freshwater lakes and rivers, they can be easily identified by their shrill calls, as well as their distinctive coloring.

little knight

Little Knight. Photo by Christian Tompkins, courtesy Audubon Great Lakes

Little Knight: A small shorebird with, yes, easily spotted yellow legs, usually seen crossing shallow wetlands and flooded fields. Much like Greater Yellowlegs shorebird, but shorter, with more needle-like beak.

Learn more about gl.audubon.org and MI birds.


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