BY MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Robert Parsons has traveled to Texas, Arizona, Florida and even Costa Rica to seek out unusual birds.
Now Parsons is adding Michigan to that list. The Washington, D.C., birder plans to wing it to Fountain Point Resort on Lake Leelanau next week for the third annual Leelanau Peninsula Birding Festival.
“There’s a rare bird in Michigan called the Kirtland’s Warbler,” said Parsons, who birded with his father as a teenager and rekindled that passion about eight years ago. “That’s why I’m coming. I’m hoping we’ll get a chance to see it.”
The festival, May 29-June 2, features birding programs and field trips with some of the area’s top birders, including Brian Allen of Manistee. Allen will lead a trip to Otter Creek in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, one of a dozen festival field trips to area woodlands, wetlands, uplands and grasslands known for their avian bounty.
“In my mind, he’s the best birder in Michigan,” said festival co-chairman Kay Charter, referring to Allen, a former member of the Michigan Bird Records Committee and an editor of the American Birding Association publication, “A Birder’s Guide to Michigan.”
“Last year he tagged 73 species at Otter Creek. I don’t think anyone’s going to top that.”
Other favorite festival field trips making a return this year are a schooner trip to Gull Island Preserve to see terns, gulls and other waterbirds; a pontoon excursion on Lake Leelanau and the Cedar River Preserve to look for loons, bald eagles and green herons; and taking a bus to Arcadia Prairie to seek the Grasshopper sparrow, Western meadowlark, Upland sandpiper and the Northern harrier.
Marlin Bussey will lead the pontoon trip, as well as a field trip to the Charter Sanctuary in Omena. The Northport native and longtime birder and conservationist believes the Leelanau Peninsula has the potential to become a major birding festival area, which in turn could lead to saving area birds and their habitat.
“Probably there is as big a variety of birds as you would have anywhere,” said Bussey, a founder of Omena-based Saving Birds Thru Habitat and director-at-large for Michigan United Conservation Clubs. “The peninsula attracts migrating birds because it’s a peninsula.”
Festival participants also will gather at Veronica Valley, Good Harbor Bay, Pyramid Point and Lighthouse West at Leelanau State Park to spot nesting species, such as the Black-billed cuckoo, Eastern Kingbird, Scarlet tanager, Indigo bunting and the Great-crested flycatcher.
And if they’re not sure which is which, they can learn and practice birding by ear at Teichner Preserve on Lime Lake.
New this year are a digiscope seminar led by Wayne Pope, adjunct professor of photography at Lansing Community College and a freelance outdoor writer and nature photographer; Beginning Birding at Suttons Bay Wetland with Charter (parents can drop off their kids at a Bird and Bug Safari that runs simultaneously) and a pricing structure that includes daily and three- and four-day registration.
But the highlight may be a new bus trip outside the area to look for the Kirtland’s warbler, one of the rarest of woodland warblers, with Kirtland’s specialist Jerry Weinrich. The bus also will make a stop at a former trout-rearing facility to look for the elusive Golden-winged warbler and the Northern and Louisiana water thrushes and, if time permits, at Hartwick Pines State Park to view Evening grosbeaks and Red-shouldered hawks.
“We wanted to expand the attraction of the festival,” said co-chairman David Barrons, adding that guided service to view Piping plover nesting sites at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a big draw at previous festivals, was unavailable this year because of federal sequestration budget cuts.
The grey and yellow Kirtland’s warbler, which makes its home in large plantations of young jack pine along the Au Sable River, has made a comeback, thanks to ongoing recovery efforts aimed at increasing the bird’s nesting habitat and removing parasitic cowbirds, which lay their eggs in warbler nests.
“It’s unique,” Weinrich said of the songbird that almost disappeared because of logging that allowed cowbirds to move in, and forest fire suppression, which kept cones from the jack pine from dropping their seeds in the heat and reforesting. “It’s a survivor. That little bird is a tough bird. It’s had to be, mostly because of what we did.”
He said this year’s Michigan count of 2,063 singing males is a record high — way up from a low of 167 in 1974 and 1987 — making it likely that birders on the trip will spot their target.
“There’s never a guarantee any time you’re looking for a wild animal,” said Weinrich, a retired DNR biologist who spent many of his 30 or so years in the department working with the recovery effort. “But if it’s not windy or real cold, there’s a real good chance of seeing them.”
Charter said the Leelanau Peninsula Birding Festival differs from many others in that it focuses on nesting rather migrating birds, which are more difficult to predict.
“You have to hold it when you have the possibility of seeing the most species,” she said. “If you do it at the end of May, after Memorial Day, they all will be nesting that weekend. For nesting birds, it is THE time of year.”
In each of its first two years, the festival attracted about 140 birders from Michigan and surrounding states, as well as a handful from places like Arkansas, Arizona and Ontario, she said. About a third are from outside the area, bringing an estimated $300 a day each in eco-tourism funds.
“People spend for lodging, they spend for gas, for food. Some will likely go to a winery and buy some wine,” she said. “And then there are those mixed marriages where one partner goes shopping and the other goes on the field trips.
“It’s a big circle and I think it’s going to grow with the new Sleeping Bear Birding Trail, which was just launched a few weeks ago. It’s a wonderful trail. Three hundred sixty-one species have been found on that trail. It’s going to bring a lot of people.”
To register or for more information about the festival, visit mibirdfest.com or call 271-3738.
For the Sleeping Bear Birding Trail website, which helps guide birders to 34 recommended birding sites along M-22, from Manistee around the Leelanau Peninsula to the intersection of M-22 and M-72 in Traverse City, visit sleepingbearbirdingtrail.org