BEAVER ISLAND — Spring is the perfect time for a birding festival.
Just ask Pam Grassmick, founder of the Warblers on the Water event taking place May 24-26 — Memorial Day weekend — on Beaver Island.
But Grassmick, who is also the project manager of the Beaver Island Birding Trail, will tell you that summer, fall and winter are also good times to observe the endothermic vertebrates classified as Aves.
Grassmick has always liked birds.
"I like seeing birds in their natural habitat," she said. "There's just something that's exciting, yet relaxing at the same time. It grounds you ... it grounds you to the natural resources."
In its sixth year, the festival takes advantage of the spring migration, as Beaver Island is a critical stopover for migratory birds heading north to breed, though many stay to nest.
Those who come to the festival don't need to bring their cars, Grassmick said, and there are plenty of hotels, motels and restaurants on the island.
This year birders can take a boat trip over to the nearby uninhabited High Island where they might get a glimpse of the piping plovers that nest in the pebbly beaches there. The bird is endangered in the Great Lakes region and there are only two or three pairs on the island.
The festival is not just about warblers, as there are nearly 150 different species on the island's spring birding checklist.
"Everything just comes together in this perfect setting," said Grassmick, who spent three days last week watching long-tailed ducks nest along the shores of the island.
For those in the know, there is a distinction between bird watching and birding: bird watching is looking at birds, while birding is looking for them.
Estimates have put the number of birders in America — including those armchair watchers — in the millions, with a survey done in 2011 by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service showing that birders spend about $41 billion per year on what is called avitourism.
Festivals abound — others in northern Lower Michigan include the Tawas Point Birding Festival, May 16-18 in Tawas City, and the April Mackinaw Raptor Fest in Mackinaw City — as do birding magazines, birding clubs, birding tours and birding trails. Michigan has a network of eight birding trails that started with the Sleeping Bear Birding Trail in 2013.
Brian Allen, an optometrist from Manistee, has traveled around the country and visited other nations to add birds to his life list.
Allen has been crazy for birds since he was in about the fifth grade and got a BB gun for Christmas. He wanted to shoot something so he started looking at birds, which he had never really noticed before.
He shot one and killed it.
"I saw the blood coming out of its beak instead of a song," said Allen, who soon decided he wanted to help birds instead of hurt them.
But it was the 1970s, he was a teenager and birding was definitely not cool. He had to do it undercover, he said.
"But I got caught up in it," Allen said. "It was like the wonders of the universe were opening up to me."
The love of birding starts with something like a spark, he said.
"All of a sudden you want to see more of them and keep track of them and see what comes into the feeders," Allen said.
Then you buy a pair of binoculars and you're a goner.
It's addictive, but rewarding, he said. He once flew to Big Bend National Park in Texas with some birding buddies and got up at 5 a.m. to scrabble up Mt. Emory to see a bird that only lives there.
It was worth it to be able to add it to his list, he said.
But while birding may be more popular, bird populations have been on a long slide, said Kay Charter, executive director of Saving Birds Thru Habitat in Omena. She has been on a 27-year-long effort to educate people on the need to conserve land for birds to save them from further decline.
This fall she'll take that effort to Washington, D.C., where she has been invited to lobby on behalf of her work. She'll meet with senators from across the country to talk about what kind of things they can do to encourage bird populations.
"It's just a big honor for our little organization to be invited to the capital to talk about bird conservation," she said.
Charter had an epiphany in 1992 after watching a pair of winter wrens call their nestlings out from their nest under a brush pile, knowing the songbirds were losing their habitat due to humans.
She convinced her husband to sell their Northport bed-and-breakfast and purchase the 44 acres that would become the Charter Sanctuary, where hundreds of bird species have nested or stopped to fill up during their migration to points north or south, depending on the season.
The sanctuary is protected under an easement with the Leelanau Conservancy.
Saving Birds, the educational arm of the sanctuary, was founded in 2001.
One-third of North American bird species are at risk of extinction, Charter said.
"We need to do something about that," she said. "They're not endangered, but their populations are on such a downward trend that we're going to lose them if we don't act."
Whether avid or casual, bird watchers have four birding trails to choose from in the northern Michigan area. Maps and information can be found at www.michiganaudubon.org.
n The Sleeping Bear Birding Trail follows the Lake Michigan coastline along 123 miles of M-22, with much of it located within the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The trail starts at the Lake Bluff Bird Sanctuary in Manistee, north through Leelanau County and back down to where the highway ends in Traverse City. The trail includes 35 miles of beaches where the endangered piping plover nests.
n The Sunset Coast Birding Trail is located in Antrim, Charlevoix and Emmet counties, which have several protected areas and habitats that attract a wide variety of birds. The trail features about 60 birding sites.
n The Beaver Island Birding Trail encompasses several of the island's diverse habitats located in state and township lands and four preserves along more than 100 miles of roads. The trail has 35 birding sites.
n The AuSable Birding Trail in Crawford and Roscommon counties includes woods and wetlands and the protected nesting area of the Kirtland's Warbler. The trail has 22 birding 'hotspots.' Kirtland Warbler tours starting at Hartwick Pines State Park will be held daily from May 27 to June 30.