Birding by Car at Shiawassee NWR

We’d been meaning to visit Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge near Saginaw, Michigan, for quite some time. So when a fellow birder reported some great birds up there last week, we decided to check it out. It’s only 80 miles from home, so it’s an easy day trip. We got there at 10:00 am yesterday and the weather was absolutely fantastic: temperature ranging from 73 to 80F during the time we were there (10:00 – 2:30), sunny, and occasional light breezes. After living with temps in the upper 90s in recent weeks, this felt like heaven!

Wildflowers along the auto route

Like many of our national wildlife refuges, Shiawassee has an auto route so you can drive very slowly through wetland and meadow habitats to see the wildlife from your car. You’re asked not to leave your vehicle except at designated observation spots. Not only do they not want you to trample delicate vegetation, but you can often see more birds from inside a car because they don’t see the car as a threat — it functions like a photo blind (or hunting blind, for you hunters out there). The auto loop is 7.5 miles long and we expected to be through it in a couple of hours, based on our experience with the auto route at Ottawa NWR in northern Ohio. Wrong! There were so many great birds that we could have stayed six hours easily. As it turned out, we only spent four and a half hours there because we hadn’t brought along enough snacks and got hungry. We met another couple who had pulled their truck over and were having a picnic lunch along the marshes — great idea! (We also had a very fun conversation with them about birding spots for the hawk migration this fall…can’t wait for that!)

Sandhill Cranes (click to enlarge)

So, what did we see? I’m glad you asked! When I entered our birding report on eBird, I found that we’d listed 35 species. I know a more-experienced birder could have doubled that number, but there are still so many birds that we hear but can’t identify from their songs, so our numbers are always lower than the pros. Here’s a link to our full eBird list, but I’ll just talk about some of the highlights here.

We often see Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets in the parks near home, but today we saw SO many of these large birds that I almost lost interest in looking at them. Almost. But also in the large bird category, there were lots of Sandhill Cranes, gorgeous creatures that we don’t see often. We even saw some youngsters out on the marsh with their parents, and got to watch small groups of them flying overhead and trumpeting loudly (to listen to it here, scroll down under the identification tab). Whenever I see herons or cranes in flight I feel I’m living in prehistoric times watching pterodactyls. They’re just so beautiful and have those awesome wingspans…sigh.

Bald Eagle — first year or second year? (click to enlarge)

Bald Eagle – first year or second year?

We found a juvenile Bald Eagle on a far shore with his lunch. We watched him from maybe 125 yards away with our spotting scope, and then he took flight and I snapped a couple dozen photos as he flew away with part of his lunch dangling from his talons. I’m just learning to distinguish the age of a juvenile Bald Eagle from the progression of colors of the wings, so having lots of pics of the wings in the upward and downward positions really helps. I’m pretty sure this one was a first year bird, but possibly second year. (I’ve put a couple pics here for anyone who wants to do their own analysis and tell me if they agree.)

Ok, let’s talk about the smaller birdies now, shall we? Happily, we both saw our favorite birds: Cedar Waxwings for me and Belted Kingfisher for Eric. We got the waxwings just by coincidence after we had stopped to watch a big gathering of swallows swooping across the road in front of us.  I like to try to follow swallows in my binoculars or snap high-speed pics of them so I can identify the species later. They move so fast it’s difficult for me to tell some species apart. If I see iridescent blue, I know they’re Tree Swallows. Brown breasts and forked tail? That’s a Barn Swallow. But the Bank Swallows and Northern Rough-winged Swallows are harder to discern when they’re flying so fast. I confirmed Bank Swallows with my pics — I guess I should have suspected that when we saw holes in the banks of the river. Bank swallows nest in river banks…duh. But the coolest thing about this experience was that as I had stepped partly out of the car to shoot pictures, the cloud of swallows actually enveloped our car and some of them flew just a foot or two from my head! It was the most amazing experience to stand there in the middle of a feeding frenzy, just awed at how those birds snatch invisible-to-us insects in mid-flight. That goes down as a great birding memory!

Here are some of the birds we saw — forgive the fact that many of these had to be cropped from larger photos — lots of birds are tiny little dudes!

Common Yellowthroat (warbler) – hear his very distinctive call here.

Empidonax Flycatcher unidentified species – they’re hard to tell apart unless you can hear them sing. This guy was silent while we watched him foraging near the road.

Pied-billed Grebe with adorable babies (click to see cute details of their coloring)

Great Blue Heron coming in for a landing

Double-crested Cormorant – really cool birds!

Trumpeter Swan family

Finally, a few more general refuge scenery photos to enjoy. What a great place this is!

Wildflower meadow – Purple Prairie Clover

Chicory (I’m pretty sure that’s what it is, although it doesn’t have toothed petals…)

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2 Responses to Birding by Car at Shiawassee NWR

  1. It sounds like you had a successful day! Aren’t Sandhill Cranes awesome? I have seen them a couple of times at a bird refuge on the BC coast. I love your picture of the Trumpeter Swan family!

  2. drbobsbirds says:

    Excellent blog!!! You got down the idea of embedded links and you shot great pics! After I learned this drive was open after the concern about nesting Bald Eagles very close to the drive this year, I am motivated, but we have just been busy. Great day! Great blog! Thanks! And you shot the Eagle kids! – “Dr. Bob”

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