Counting birds: North American birds and birders in flux – Traverse City Record Eagle

Cloudy skies. A few flurries or snow showers possible. Low 31F. Winds NNW at 10 to 15 mph..
Cloudy skies. A few flurries or snow showers possible. Low 31F. Winds NNW at 10 to 15 mph.
Updated: April 18, 2022 @ 11:16 pm
Several irruptive species, which only occasionally winter in northern Michigan, were spotted, including the snowy owl.
Lucy Voss
Larry DuBey watches for birds alongside South Intermediate Lake Road during a past Christmas Bird Count.

Several irruptive species, which only occasionally winter in northern Michigan, were spotted, including the snowy owl.
Lucy Voss
Larry DuBey watches for birds alongside South Intermediate Lake Road during a past Christmas Bird Count.
TRAVERSE CITY — For birders, the annual Christmas Bird Count is among the most important days of the year.
In the year 1900, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History initiated the event as an alternative to a Christmas hunt. That first count, birders in 25 locations around North America saw 90 species.
More than 100 years later, the National Audubon Society continues to administer this community science project, which now includes thousands of locations as far west as Guam and as far south as Brazil.
Five of the annual counts are located near the shore of Lake Michigan between Beulah and Petoskey.
Kirk Waterstripe, laboratory manager at Northwestern Michigan College, loves the Christmas count because “there is always a surprise.” Waterstripe participated in three local counts this December.
“The Christmas counts were pretty incredible this year … on the Leelanau count 50 redpoles flew into a tree more or less right in front of me. And then while I was watching them, I started hearing waxwing calls, so I turned around, and there were 75 cedar waxwings in another tree. On the Antrim Count … I did a little pishing to get some golden-crowned kinglets out of the bush … and nine popped out!”
This year, counters like Waterstripe spotted a number of irruptive species, which only occasionally winter in northern Michigan. These included snowy owl, common redpole, evening grosbeak, pine grosbeak, pine siskin, and white-winged crossbill.
The Antrim-Old Mission count reported new record tallies for seven species, including bald eagle, red-breasted nuthatch, and American tree sparrow. The Lake Leelanau count included an unusual species sighting of a gray catbird. And the Beulah count in Benzie County found birders Nate Crane and Alison Vilag paddling 10 miles of the Betsie River as the duo contributed four types of sparrow, winter wren, and Carolina wren.
Crane, who co-owns Rare Bird Brewpub and Jacob’s Farm, began bird watching in his Traverse City backyard at the age of 6, before joining his first local Christmas count at the age of 10.
In 2022, he will assume the leadership role for the Traverse City Christmas Bird Count. He said he hopes to continue the legacy of people who mentored him, including his grandfather, great-great-grandfather, Waterstripe, and local “birding legend” Leonard Graf.
“It definitely wasn’t one thing that got me into birds — it’s been all these people. It was a community that helped me. … I’m excited … to get the next generation excited.”
With the timespan of its records, the annual Christmas Bird Count helps tell a multi-generational story of northern Michigan birds.
Doug Cook, President of the Benzie Audubon Club, said he has observed changes in the 46 years of data from the Beulah Christmas count.
“With climate change, certain species of birds tend to hang around more now than in the past. At the same time, birds that we used to expect to see are no longer here on a Christmas count … but the numbers of species are about the same.”
Cook said he no longer expects to see northern bobwhite quail or pheasant, for a variety of reasons. House finches are another species in decline. But for certain other birds, he said, the trend is positive.
“We used to never see eagles [on the count] — eagles were very difficult to see. But as the eagles have come back since the early to mid-90s, we now get them every year.”
Indeed, the Beulah count noted 25 bald eagles this year.
The increase Cook has observed reflects a national trend. According to US Fish and Wildlife, in 1963, there were only 417 known nesting pairs of bald eagles in the United States.
By 2009, this number was approximately 30,000. In a March 2021 report, the federal agency increased that estimate to more than 70,000 nesting pairs.
Locally, the Christmas bird count is not the only data source that shows this increase.
Doug Craven, Director of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians Natural Resource Department, said that LTBB began occupancy monitoring flights of eagle nests in 2004. Since that time, they have observed an increase from 12 active nests on or near LTBB reservation land to more than 30 active nests currently.
“It really shows how well those eagles have recovered in that time frame … To us, it appears that legacy contaminants have really worked their way out of the system, and is really attributed to the Clean Water Act of 1972.”
Nest occupancy monitoring is part of the research contributions of the LTBB toward restoring migizi (bald eagle) populations.
The research has led to several breakthroughs, including proving that there are not distinct populations between eagles residing on islands in Great Lakes and those living inland, and also debunking an assumption that eaglets remain close to home after leaving the nest. Craven said LTBB has tracked young male eagles traveling as far north as Hudson Bay in Canada and as far south as Alabama.
In 2022, upon completion of fundraising, LTBB will break ground on the new Migizi Aviary. The aviary will treat eagles injured by vehicles and power lines, as well as eagles experiencing lead poisoning after consuming gut piles left by deer harvesters. Craven said that, in a scientific first, the aviary will remotely monitor rehabilitated eagles to determine their long-term outcome upon returning to the wild.
The work is a continuation of the long-standing relationship between Anishinaabek and Migizi.
“It has a high reverence for us within tribal communities,” Craven said. “It’s often viewed as a messenger from Anishinaabe, from us tribal people, up to the Creator. So with that, there’s a responsibility that tribal members and Little Traverse Bay Bands feel towards those eagles.”
While the recent trajectory of bald eagles is positive, the longer-term story of North American birds is uncertain.
In a 2019 study published in the journal Science, researchers used national radar as well as data like the Christmas Bird Count, to determine the magnitude of loss among North American avian populations since 1970.
The study found a net decline of three billion birds — a loss of nearly 30 percent of the bird population in just 50 years.
Tom Prestby, Conservation Manager at Audubon Great Lakes, called the study’s findings “drastic.”
“When you talk to bird watchers who have been around for decades,” he said, “… you always hear the hearsay of ‘oh yeah, there used to be so many more birds’ … then this study came out and put numbers to it, and it was like, oh my god. This is not just hearsay. This is exactly what all these people who have been around for decades are talking about, documented, right here.”
Prestby said regional habitat restoration is critical to stabilizing the decline.
“The really important thing about the Great Lakes is we live not only in an area with a lot of diverse breeding habitat … but also, all of the freshwater coastline is extremely important for a lot of water bird species, many of which are already listed as endangered.”
Even with good regional stewardship, more change is imminent. Birds are already shifting their ranges in response to the warming climate.
Prestby said certain species are newly visible at northern Michigan backyard feeders.
“The red-bellied woodpecker has always been a pretty common bird in the southern half [of the state]… they’re starting to be seen more and more in the Upper Peninsula. … Another one is the tufted titmouse … [which] we have definitely noticed is slowly but steadily marching north.”
Prestby also highlighted the Carolina wren as a bird which ornithologists watch closely, as it tends to stay at the edge of expanding habitat. In Michigan, the bird used to live only downstate.
All three birds — the red-bellied woodpecker, tufted titmouse, and Carolina wren — were spotted in this year’s local Christmas bird counts.
One of the most devastating climate change predictions concerns a Michigander favorite.
Many local residents recall the first time they saw fuzzy baby birds nestled on the backs of their loon parents, along for a summertime ride across a northern Michigan lake.
Young people who witness loon babies for the first time this summer, may not be able to share a similar moment with children of their own.
“The common loon is an extremely iconic bird,” Prestby said, “… and even though we haven’t seen any population changes yet, there’s some pretty alarming models that in the next couple decades, as water temperatures in the lakes that they live in increase, they could be a bird that only migrates through here, and only nests in Canada in the future. It’s possible that we could lose them as a breeding bird in the Great Lakes region.”
These predictive models are available to view in the field guide section of
Tracking this generational shift takes a bevy of monitors. By logging their day-to-day sightings, northern Michiganders can contribute to community science while beginning a birding journey of their own.
Cook said winter is a great season to start.
“The number of species to see [in winter] is so much smaller … it gives people the opportunity to study those birds who are here year round so they can learn those. … At the same time, the winter is the only time you might get a chance to see some of these winter finches or snowy owls.”
Crane also mentioned the local snowy owls.
“We’re very fortunate. Traverse City in particular — with the exception of the Rudyard area south of Sault Ste. Marie — we have the most reliable snowy owl locations in the state. Chum’s Corners area … I know there’s four snowy owls out there right now.”
Every person interviewed for this piece recommended the website eBird — and associated mobile app — as the best way for a new birder to learn local hotspots. Prestby specifically recommended eBird, which is managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in the context of community science.
“eBird is extremely important … a lot of researchers are starting to use eBird data in these publications and studies where they’re tracking things like climate change and habitat loss.”
Prestby also recommended MI Birds, a team effort between Michigan DNR and Audubon Great Lakes, which posts regular birding updates and leads events around the state.
Where northern Michigan bird populations go from here is uncertain.
But the next generation of birders will be here to tell the story.
Lucy Voss, a psychology major at Kalamazoo College, became a part of Traverse City’s birding community during the start of the pandemic.
“We were just kind of stuck … there was a lot of human pain we were seeing on TV. … It felt powerful to be able to be connected to something that wasn’t anthropological … I felt like I had a connection with the birds that wasn’t a connection with humans during that time.”
Eventually, after learning the names of other local birders through their postings on eBird, Lucy reached out on social media to what she called “the big names,” who invited her to join them on birding excursions.
“Once you have a shared interest, it’s kind of like, ‘oh my gosh, there’s an Iceland Gull on the lake, come right now.’ You just keep in touch about different birds, and then you become friends, or mentors. As a young person — not that many birders are as young as I am — I feel like they’ve taken me under their wing.”
Like Crane, Voss has more than one cross-generational connection in her birding origin story. She shares her new love of birding with her father.
Hans Voss, executive director of Groundwork, said he now carries his binoculars everywhere he goes.
“I’ve noticed birds throughout my life, but it wasn’t until Lucy came home from college, and we really started to think about learning about birds — their behavior, the different species, the joy of birding — that I opened up to the next phase of bird craziness that’s taken over my life.”
Voss shared what this has meant to him.
“The whole experience of learning together is quite a joy for us. Lucy is 22 — a smart young woman — and our relationship as father and daughter changes as we both mature. And to have at this moment in our life a chance to share something together and learn together … is kind of a once in a lifetime experience.”
Voss also told the story of his “spark bird,” an expression which he defined as, “the first birding experience that kind of blows your mind and tunes you into birding as something you’re going to be passionate about.”
“We were out on the Boardman River, south of South Airport Road, that beautiful trail along the river. It was a bright, blue sky day, and we saw a yellow warbler just sitting on the top of the tree, right before the leaves came out in May … And he was singing along, and it — it was moving. It was like something shifted. It finally all settled that there’s a lot more to birding than just counting birds you see. That there’s a connection to nature that can shift your perspective on the world.”
Lucy, laughing, said she remembers that moment too.
“I remember seeing the vibrance of the bird — and seeing the vibrance of my father. They matched each other.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated 2/27/22 to correct the acronym for Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians.
See and hear for yourself this winter
Snowy owls:
Multiple birders recommended Chum’s Corner, along Commerce Drive. Scan the ground as well as rooflines.
Note: Owls should be viewed responsibly to ensure they get their daytime rest. Project SNOWstorm recommends the following:
• Do not approach the owl
• Stay in or behind your car, at a distance of at least 75 yards
• Leave if the owl seems stressed or there are too many other people gathered
Ducks and other water birds:
Multiple birders recommended Medalie Park/Logan’s Landing, when the water is open.
Doug Cook also recommended the channel between Betsie Bay and Betsie Lake.
Bald eagles:
Doug Craven recommended looking up along any open water, including bays of Lake Michigan or streams feeding into smaller lakes.
Hans and Lucy Voss recommended looking for movement along fields. They frequent the fields near Meijer in Williamsburg.
Irruptive finches and other songbirds:
Kirk Waterstripe said to look near fruiting trees and shrubs, especially crabapple, wild grape, Michigan holly, and cranberry viburnum.
Songbirds also frequent bird feeders. Nate Crane recommended the Traverse City location of Wild Birds Unlimited as a resource for backyard bird watchers.
For more local birding hotspots, visit or read Waterstripe’s excellent “Birder’s Guide to the Traverse City Area,” available at
TRAVERSE CITY — Ah, the humble sucker: panned as a “rough fish” by some, cooked and eaten with gusto by others, and studied by others still.
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