Michigan Rara Avis

MI Grayling State Forest Kirtlands_8872acsHow far would you travel to see a rare bird?

I flew 800 miles and then drove 150 more to see this one: a Kirtland’s Warbler (Life Bird #188).

Okay, full disclosure; I was going to Michigan anyway. I did plan my trip for late June and then drive across the state for a glimpse of this bird, though. I didn’t fool around trying to find this rare, flitty little warbler by myself, either. I took a tour sponsored by Michigan Audubon and led by a very knowledgeable young woman.

What’s so special about this bird that people travel hundreds of miles and take tours to see it?

MI Grayling State Forest Kirtlands_8914aKirtland’s Warbler is a Federal Endangered Species, and it nests only in young jack pine forests in Michigan and Wisconsin. It was listed as an Endangered Species in 1967. In 1973 the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Team was created, with representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Michigan Audubon and other organizations. The following year 167 singing male warblers were recorded, a record low number.

Conservation measures enacted by the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Team are working. In 2011, 1,828 singing males were recorded, well beyond the plan goal of 1,000. In fact, the number of warblers has exceeded the recovery goal for over a decade.

MI Grayling State Forest Jack Pine_8868aTwo-track road through a jack pine plantation in Grayling State Forest, an area actively managed for Kirtland’s Warbler.

MI Grayling State Forest Jack Pine_9039acsPine cone of a jack pine tree. See how it’s closed up, with its seeds still inside? This is a serotinous cone. It only opens and drops its seeds under the high temperatures of a wildfire. Jack pines have adapted to take advantage of frequent fires.

MI Grayling State Forest Kirtlands_8892acsKirtland’s Warblers have adapted to take advantage of jack pines. Young pines, that is. They nest on the ground under cover of the drooping lower branches. One pair needs at least 8 acres, and maybe as much as 30, of small pines. Once those trees reach twenty feet, the birds no longer nest there. Historically, frequent wildfires maintained this young jack pine habitat. Since this is the only tree the warblers nest in, they are dependent not only on jack pines, but frequent fire.

Except that fire is a tricky thing to manage. In 1980 a controlled burn got out of control and led to a wildfire that burned 25,000 acres and killed a USFS biologist. So now the Recovery Team relies on that nemesis of many environmentalists, clear-cutting. Areas of about 4,000 acres each year are logged and replanted with jack pine seedlings on a rotating basis, ensuring that there is always suitable habitat for the Kirtland’s Warbler.

Also, Brown-headed Cowbirds frequently lay their eggs in Kirtland’s Warbler nests, leading the warblers to raise cowbirds rather than their own young. So cowbird control is a critical part of the plan.

MI Grayling State Forest Kirtlands_8901acsEven though the Kirtland’s Warbler has exceeded its recovery goal, the need to suppress natural wildfires to protect life and property means that continued management with human intervention will be needed. But it’s not just this little half-ounce warbler that benefits. Young jack pine habitat is beneficial for wild turkeys, badgers, white-tailed deer, snowshoe hares, numerous birds and at least two threatened plant species.

MI Grayling State Forest Kirtlands_9054aOh, it figures. My closest and sharpest photo of a Kirtland’s, and what do I get? A bird butt! Turn around, please…


MI Grayling State Forest Kirtlands_9055aThat’s better, but now there’s a stick in the way. Move a little to the left, please?

These fashion models, they’re just so flighty.

MI 2 Buttersville South Breakwater_9960acsHere’s a bird I did not plan for. This is a Piping Plover (Life Bird #189). I found him in Buttersville Park, just south of the Ludington South Breakwater.

On the Atlantic Coast Piping Plovers have Threatened status, but in the Great Lakes region they are officially Endangered. These little guys like to nest right on the beach and dunes, in cobblestones or sparse vegetation. Humans and pets using the beach disturb the birds, sometimes leading to nest abandonment. In addition, people and vehicles may accidentally crush eggs or tiny young chicks. Add in predation by wild animals and habitat loss due to beach development and it’s no wonder this tiny bird is in trouble.

People are helping the Piping Plover, though. Nesting habitat is identified and monitored, with human access restricted where necessary. Active nests are fenced to keep people and predators out.

MI 2 Buttersville South Breakwater_9976aWait! Don’t fly away mad!

MI 4 SLBE Port Oneida Grouse_0916aAnother completely unexpected bird, this Ruffed Grouse (Life Bird #190) is anything but rare. In fact, they are widespread all across the U.S. They are really elusive and hard to see, though – in some areas.

My friend Don, convinced he’ll never see a Ruffed Grouse, has made it his life’s goal to hear one drumming in its spring courtship ritual.

Imagine his surprise when I e-mailed this photo taken at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

MI 4 SLBE Port Oneida Grouse_0892acsFor that matter, imagine my surprise when I turned down a dirt road and came upon this bird strutting around. It paraded slowly down the road for quite some time while I took photos right from the front seat of my car. It didn’t seem at all concerned by my presence. It appears that, unlike shy Eastern grouse, Midwestern birds are much bolder.

MI 4 SLBE Port Oneida Grouse_0890acs

I’m ready for my close-up now.

Small Town Americana

MI Parade 2_1154acsNothing says the Fourth of July more than a small town parade. And nobody does it better than the small Western Michigan town of Ludington. Everybody turns out to celebrate the country’s birthday. One parade participant estimated the crowd at 30,000, quite a feat for a town of 8,000.

People start lining up chairs at dawn. When the show gets under way at 2 in the afternoon, spectators are packed three and four deep on the sidewalks for the entire one mile route.

MI Parade 1 Audience_1714aMax’s owners cheerfully waved me to an adjacent open spot on the curb when they saw my camera. Front row seat! Everybody’s genuinely friendly in Michigan.

MI Parade 2_1186aThe parade started with a bang, courtesy of the Civil War re-enactors and their cannon.

Youngsters  know to be prepared for the concussion when the cannon goes BOOM!

MI Parade 2_1260aAlso making noise was the Ludington High School Band.

MI Parade 2_1526acs copyThe Harvest Festival Queen, from neighboring Scottville, waves to the crowd.












MI Parade 1 Audience_1575acs4

Not every beauty was participating in the parade. A few were watching it, and hoping for candy.

MI Parade 1 Audience_1630a

Future Miss Ludington.

MI Parade 2_1542acsThere are certain requirements for any parade. Like floats…

MI Parade 2_1214aThe local contingent of fire engines…

MI Parade 2_1664aMI Parade 2_1633acsA long line of classic cars…

MI Parade 2_1703aAnd in farm country, tractors.

MI Parade 2_1712aAlso marching in the parade were gymnastics and dance groups, the Rotary Club’s Briefcase Brigade, Smokey Bear, a young fife and drum unit, and a string band that had me wondering at first how the Mummers got here from Philadelphia.

The 4-H Club and Mason County Sherriff’s Office each brought their equestrian units, with the obligatory clean-up crews, who got big cheers from the crowd.

This entire 2-hour spectacle was just the warm-up act for the main attraction…

MI Parade 9 Scottville Clown Band_1744acsThe World Famous Scottville Clown Band!

MI Parade 9 Scottville Clown Band_1757acsEveryone in Michigan knows the Scottville Clown Band. They’ve been around since 1903, after all.

For those who aren’t familiar with them, I have no idea how to describe them and do them justice.

Philadelphians might look at it this way: Take a really good brass band, throw them in a vat with the wenches and clowns of a Mummers Comic Club, stir it up, and what you’ve got is the Scottville Clown Band.

MI Parade 9 Scottville Clown Band_1755aRowdy, bawdy, and hilarious, these guys are also very talented musicians. They come from all over to perform many times over the course of a year. They also sponsor music and performing arts scholarships and fund a band shell in Scottville.

MI Parade 9 Scottville Clown Band_1816acsMostly they just make people happy.

MI Parade 9 Scottville Clown Band_1784aLike drum lines everywhere, Scottville’s drummers are mild-mannered and well-disciplined.

MI Parade 9 Scottville Clown Band_1813acs Oval 3Of course there has to be a tuba-player in a tutu.

MI Parade 2_1601acsTime to wave good-bye to this year’s Fourth of July parade.

Stroll down to the beach, maybe enjoy an adult beverage or two, and rest up. The party continues with fireworks tonight!MI Parade 2_1317a