A Bird’s Eye View: Birding Through the Seasons in Saugatuck/Douglas
Winter, spring, summer, and fall, the Saugatuck/Douglas area is a fantastic place for birding in any season. The Great Lakes region sits at the nexus of two migratory superhighways—the Mississippi and the Atlantic—bringing over 350 bird species to southwest Michigan yearly. From dunes and wetlands to city parks and more, there are also plenty of beautiful spots for birding in the Saugatuck/Douglas area. So as you plan your next bird-centric getaway, check out the following seasonal birding tips to enhance your experience.
West Michigan is a hotspot for birding in the spring, with countless birds returning north from their southern wintering grounds. If you are itching to get outside and hunt for a few of these feathered sentinels of spring, here’s a rundown of the top three to look for—and where you can find them.
Search for these black beauties—touched with a vivid streak of red and yellow at the top of their wings— in thawing wetland areas, including cattail marshes and roadside drainage ditches.
Where to Watch: As you hike through Saugatuck Dunes State Park, look for Red-Wing Blackbirds in the low-lying marsh areas. You might also see a Bald Eagle or a Double-crested Cormorant as you get closer to the water.
If you’re looking for these elegant wetland birds, keep your eyes open as you pass by agricultural fields, marshy areas, and damp meadows. This time of year, as Sandhill Cranes head back from tropical getaways in Mexico and Cuba, you can often hear their distinctive call as they fly overhead.
Where to Watch: Search the shoreline of Wades Bayou, where you can pack a picnic and hunt for Sandhill Cranes, Red-Breasted Mergansers, and more.
May is the prime arrival time for various vivid woodland and forest birds, including warblers, medium-sized thrushes, and orioles. Listen to their songs in the woods or as you stroll through urban parks in the Saugatuck/Douglas area.
Where to Watch: You don’t have to go far to find songbirds in the area. Scan the trees as you stroll through Wicks Park or Coghlin Park in downtown Saugatuck, and you’re sure to spot Northern Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees, and American Robins.
Summer is the time in Saugatuck/Douglas when a young bird’s fancy turns to love and, more specifically, reproduction. Understanding where birds spend their time breeding, nesting, and raising their babies will help you find the best spots for viewing. Interested in a bit of summer birding education? Sign up for a class at Saugatuck’s Ox-Bow school with Dr. Dianne Jedlicka, where you’ll have the opportunity to observe and research local species in the nearby forests, meadows, dunes, and lakeshore areas.
Birding by Ear
Early summer is the time for birds to build and defend their nests. They look for perches high in the trees where they can keep watch and sing loudly to warn off predators. Early risers will be rewarded as temps rise because birds tend to be less active and vocal in the heat of the day.
Where to Watch: If you are up for an early hike, check out Mt. Baldhead. As you climb the 300 steps to the top of the dune, you might see—and hear—Tufted Titmouses and Scarlet Tanagers, along with hawks, vultures, and other raptors.
Following Early Migrators
For shorebirds like sandpipers and plovers who nest in the far north, late summer is the time when they start heading south. They’ll often stop to look for food in West Michigan, where you can find them in shallow, muddy marshes, wet fields, and even wastewater treatment facilities.
Where to Watch: At Schultz Park, a 20-acre nature preserve along the Kalamazoo River in Douglas, you can spot over 15 different kinds of plovers and sandpipers.
On the Trail of Herons
Great Blue Herons build nests in groupings called rookeries, which you can see high in trees near or in the water. To get a closer view, hop into your canoe or kayak and explore the waters of your nearest marsh.
Where to Watch: You can find Great Blue Herons at the Saugatuck Natural Harbor Area—173 acres of dunes and wetlands. Keep an eye out for Gadwalls, Horned Larks, and Black-capped Chickadees, too.
While the best time of year for birding in West Michigan is the spring, fall belongs to Southeast Michigan. You can still enjoy birding in the Saugatuck/Douglas area as you glimpse flocks heading south for the winter. You might even see birds you might not usually see in the area, including arctic shorebirds, boreal finches, and certain types of kinglets and warblers. For your fall excursions, bring your binoculars and enjoy the challenge of spotting birds among the dense fall foliage.
Winter can also be a magical time for birdwatchers, especially if you are interested in waterfowl. Hundreds of thousands of ducks flock to the Great Lakes region each year, looking for open water.
Where to Watch: Various duck species have been spotted near the shoreline at West Side County Park in Fennville. Have your binoculars handy and watch for Great Scaups, Surf Scoters, and Common Goldeneyes.
A Few Tips on Tech
As you prepare for your next birding excursion, be sure to check out the Audobon Society’s website, which offers many great resources. Additionally, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has several educational tools, including the Merlin app for identifying birdsong, the BirdCast website for tracking migration patterns, and eBird, a comprehensive birding website to help you find and track more birds and share your sighting.
Check out this article for a comprehensive list of Saugatuck/Douglas springtime birding hotspots.