The text chain read as follows:
Me: I win!
Dad: What now?
Me: First robin! Down on the driveway. About five actually.
Dad: I don’t believe you.
Vickie: No, you didn’t win. I saw one yesterday.
Me: Seriously? Well, you didn’t say anything, so I still win.
Dad: You’re both full of it! I’d [unprintable] better see [unprintable] pictures!
Once again, my dad had lost the friendly bet he, my wife, and myself have on who can see the first returning robin each spring. Vickie does, in fact, usually win. Dad tried to claim victory one year — the earliest victory to date — when he called her up to tell her about the robin he was staring at. It almost worked — until Vickie remembered he was in Georgia at the time.
Birding is a tremendous industry, on the order of tens of billions of dollars in expenditures and revenue. People crisscross the country checking boxes on their life lists, haunt chatrooms and discussion groups for various sightings of rare birds like bits of treasure, and flood places such as Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula during the mass migrations of waterfowl and raptors or shorebirds and songbirds for a once-in-a-year — perhaps once-in-a-lifetime — shot at seeing a specific bird.
For me, growing up, the songbird visitors to the backyard feeders stuffed with sunflower seeds were sparks off a piece of flint that, though I didn’t know it at the time, nurtured a curiosity in wildlife. The chickadees, goldfinches, juncos flitted regularly; lo and behold when a downy or hairy woodpecker appeared on the suet; and nothing topped the prize of a friendly hummingbird hovering nearby as if demanding we freshen up the homemade sugar-water nectar.
Moving to wildlife-rich northern Michigan from the edge of Saginaw while a teenager flamed that spark into bird books and life lists and drives to find migrating hawks and owls and warblers (tricky little devils to identify; since they occupy a different niche and use the higher parts of trees, you need a good angle to view the upper reaches so the birds aren’t backlit). This passion eventually led to two degrees in wildlife sciences and a career in outdoor writing and editing. I think I even beaned my son while pitching to him during an American Legion coach-pitch game at the Civic Center when a merlin — a small falcon — started its ear-splitting call. It wasn’t because it startled me; I was trying to find it.
Our location in northern Michigan — and where I went to college at Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie — offers an incredible migratory corridor for all sorts of birds. It’s impossible to name them all, but check out the Grand Traverse Audubon Club’s website (grandtraverseaudubon.org) where you can see current listings, viewing tips, maps, and all sorts of other goodies about our area’s avian visitors.
The trails in the Whaleback Natural Area and Peterson Park, both in Leelanau County, provide excellent opportunities to spot migrating birds, resting after crossing the lake from the U.P. Additionally, rivers and accompanying trail systems are prime spots because of the insect activity. Fly fishing or canoeing on the Boardman and Manistee rivers beneath cedar waxwings dogfighting with little insects and some of the same mayflies I hope the trout are looking for, too, is certainly entertaining.
Developing the enthusiasm and the skills for identifying backyard birds naturally evolves into a keen interest in our area’s upland game birds and waterfowl, populations that have some of the most rewarding opportunities for observations simply because you rarely find them at domestic feeders.
Two big occurrences in nature will bring out the birds — the migrations, and the breeding season. Spring migrations of diving ducks stack up in Grand Traverse Bay where rafts of redheads and scaup (both lesser and greater) stretch across the water like oil slicks. And when they move in town to the Boardman River near the 8th Street bridge, it’s a spectacle seeing that many ducks in one place and that close, especially with so many decked out in the nuptial plumage.
Although the birds’ plumages shine during the breeding and courtship seasons, we might not see many songbirds perform their actual displays (most often we only hear their songs). But with the game birds – ruffed grouse, woodcock, turkey, sharp-tailed grouse in the UP, and several species of ducks – we might be fortunate enough to watch. Be it the ruffed grouse’s drumming, the head-bobbing of goldeneyes, the turkey’s impressive strutting, the sharptail’s ridiculous dance maneuvers, or the woodcock’s twilight peents and warbling skydance, the game birds have some of the most extraordinary breeding displays.
During the hunting season, we spend more time watching nongame birds than actual shooting of game. Thinking of where they came from, my brother Chris and I always shiver a bit when the migrating flock of snow buntings skim across the water and our decoys in mid-November. But developing a knack for bird identification heightens those moments when a unique duck is over the decoys. Could it be a long-tailed duck? Perhaps a white-winged scoter has been blown off course? Maybe it’s an uncommon wigeon or even rarer pintail in these parts. Often, these birds won’t come anywhere near the decoys, but becoming a student of identification lets you perform some “long-distance hunting” by properly identifying birds.
While fishing, bird watching opportunities abound. That’s a loon calling over there in the lake. A trio of wood ducks just zipped by and cupped into a cove. That bald eagle soaring overhead is looking for lunch. A pileated woodpecker just buzzed us in its flap-and-glide like a prehistoric pterodactyl across the lake. The kingfisher perched on the branch of a dead tree along the shore is searching for small bluegill the same as us. Finding enjoyment in all these and more takes your mind off the fact that the fish aren’t biting.
Sportsmen across the country bemoan a lack of youth involvement in hunter numbers, but I wonder if part of that is because the day’s success is measured only by if the game shows up — and if not, we “should’ve stayed in bed.” But while hunting and fishing, pointing out to kids the abundant wildlife, making a game of identifying the birds, watching how they are foraging or calling, or counting the newly hatched young you might come across helps show that the world is so much more than our little place we’re occupying at the moment.
There is perhaps nothing that enhances the hunting and fishing experience more than what you do during all those other times you aren’t pulling the trigger or setting the hook. To be a complete sportsman, developing a love and knowledge of everything else around you and becoming a wildlife observer makes the outing about the entire experience, and not simply that fraction of a second there’s action. In truth, to soak up the most out of the outdoor experience, it must be about more than the trigger pull or hook set.