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Birding in the National Parks: Counting Warblers At Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

In the summer you need to go to north (though not necessarily to Canada) to see a Canada warbler. Photo by Kirby Adams

July can be a “down” time for birders across much of the country. May brings songbird migration with its colorful barrage of feathered travelers in full breeding plumage en route to the nesting grounds. Once that spectacle wraps up in early June, it’s like it was a couple weeks after Christmas when you were a kid. The novelty of the new toys had worn off and you were going to have to wait a whole year for Santa to come again. Replace “Santa” with “black-throated blue warbler” and you know how a birder feels.

Shady understory is home to the black-throated blue warbler. Kirby Adams photo.

But all is not lost in the sweltering depths of summer. Those same birds that passed through in May can still be found if you increase one of two things: your altitude or your latitude. The altitude is easy if you’re one of the tens of millions who live within a day’s drive of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

For those of us in the Great Lakes area, it can be simpler to jump in the car and point it north for a few hours. The Great Smokies boast 22 nesting species of warblers, but here in Michigan we have Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which won the title in a nail-biter with 23. (Technically, Pictured Rocks tied with Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, but that story is for another day.)

The mention of Pictured Rocks conjures up views of grand sandstone cliffs above frigid deep blue waters. It may even bring to mind the latest Kid Rock video, which despite being filmed at Pictured Rocks inexplicably fails to show any warblers or woodpeckers. 

The birder will head to the woods of the interior of the lakeshore at dawn and leave the cruise of the cliffs (or the guitar strummin’ on the beach) for the afternoon. My favorite spot in the park is the easily accessible Miners Castle/Miners Falls area. The parking lot at the Miners Falls trailhead offers spectacular summer morning birding. Yes, I said you’re going to a picturesque national lakeshore to stand in a parking lot at sunrise.

The Bay-breasted warbler is a denizen of northern spruce forests, though here enjoys a different perch. Sue Wolfe photo.

The trick here is that the Miners Falls area is a rich mixed forest of conifers and northern hardwoods. In summer, the dense foliage can make spotting birds a frustrating challenge. The parking area at the end of a short dirt road provides an irregular opening in the canopy that will be swarming with birds.

On a recent trip here, I stepped out of the car and spotted five different woodpecker species (of the eight that are native to the northern Great Lakes) in five minutes. Red-eyed vireos (Vireo olivaceous) provide a constant serenade except for a few breaks when ravens (Corvus corax) perch nearby. Cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedorum) are abundant anywhere some berries or seeds can be found, which draws them to these clearings.

Walking the trail through the woods to Miners Falls (a spectacular waterfall in a deep gorge that should not be missed!) requires the birder to sharpen her ears since the eyes are of little use among all the foliage.

The haunting flute-like song of the hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) is the highlight of this walk, although the winter wren (Troglodytes hiemalis) is worth a good listen as well. The winter wren’s song is among the most ambitious in the forests of North America.  An unknown source once described this song as “a barrel of music tumbling down the mountainside with notes bursting out with each bump.” It often lasts seven or eight seconds with over 100 separate notes.

The author and his wife enjoy the scenery of miners falls while hunting warblers and thrushes. Sue Wolfe photo.

Sadly, catching sight of this wren is a rare treat.  A tiny, shy, inconspicuous brown bird, they seem to believe it’s better to be heard than seen.

And then there’s the warblers! Open your field guide and see which warblers have a summer range that includes Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. You should find 23 of them, and you’ll find every one of those at Pictured Rocks. Many of these birds are found in few other spots in the United States in summer, other than perhaps northern Maine, which might be a national park someday.

American redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla) are the least shy of any warbler and if a birder stands still enough they may perch on his camera bag. The Nashville (Vermivora ruficapilla) and black-throated green (Dendroica virens) warblers are common residents that are among the easiest to spot.

For a greater challenge, you may want to search for the Cape May (Dendroica tigrina) and bay-breasted (Dendroica castanea) warblers. These birds will require some exploration of more remote areas of the park where poorly drained low areas are dominated by stands of black spruce and white spruce. Cape May and bay-breasted warblers are specialist feeders on spruce budworm, a typical pest of northern spruce trees.

The warblers can each eat hundreds of budworms per day, providing a natural control of the affliction for the trees as well as a rich food source for the young birds being raised there.

Head north to the shores of Lake Superior when the long July days get a little too hot for you. Pick any trail at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and you’ll likely be rewarded with a rich list of birds sighted and songs heard. 

Just remember to start early – even in the North Woods the heat of midday drives many birds into hiding. And don’t forget a hearty lunch at the Dogpatch Restaurant in Munising between the morning birding and the afternoon cruise or kayaking along the cliffs.

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