The Birders of Whitefish Point
Mar 4, 2008 Lynda Twardowski
Outside the windows of the Paradise Methodist United Church, the wind slaps through town, spitting an icy mist in its wake, which, even in the northeasterly reaches of the Upper Peninsula, feels a little insulting this late in April. Nevertheless, the crowd of birdwatchers gathered for dinner around the long folding tables in the church basement remain cheerful.
Over the rising steam of hot pasties, they share stories of far harsher weather, recalling bleak days that broke, and bleak days that stayed bleak but still rewarded their tenacity. Down the line they pass foam cups of coffee, paper plates that sag under thick wedges of yellow cake, and ever more dismal weather forecasts. But all the while they smile. They're optimists, these folks. They have to be. They're birders — people who wait. And then wait some more, all to see a bird sometimes so small or stealthy that its sighting might last no more than a split-second. This, they call success.
And so here, an hour before dusk, while the wind rattles the naked branches outside like hollow bones, the birders in the warm church basement spring up from their chairs, tug on their parkas and mittens and, with one last bracing slurp of hot coffee, head out to Whitefish Point Bird Observatory.
A 44-acre spot of scrub forest and sand just north of the town of Paradise, Whitefish Point Bird Observatory sits at the tip of a 5-mile-long finger of land that juts northeast into Lake Superior toward the Canada shore, visible across the open water. Some folks are familiar with the point because it stands sentinel at the mouth of Whitefish Bay, safe waters that the Edmund Fitzgerald struggled to reach before sinking in 1975. Birders know the point for another reason. It's a bird-migration mecca of the Midwest. About 25,000 raptors a year pass by here, and more than a third of North America's roughly 800 bird species have been sighted.
The bird draw? Geography. As birds migrate north, they eventually meet the daunting expanse of Lake Superior — cold, windy and no visible land, even from a bird's-eye view. To reach their Canadian breeding grounds, the birds have no choice but to head west or east, moving through the forests that trace the shore, eating and apparently looking for land across the water. When the east-going birds reach the tip of Whitefish Point, they spot land and prepare to cross. "If they're a songbird, they rest for a couple of days and eat some berries to gain strength," says Mark Snyder, president of Whitefish Point Bird Observatory. "If they're a hawk, they rest for a couple of days and eat a few blue jays."
Songbirds make the flight in typical fashion — just winging it over the water. Raptors power their travel in a dramatic display, circling higher and higher on columns of warm air rising from Whitefish Point. Sometimes dozens of hawks spiral above the point at once, forming what birders call a kettle. Meanwhile, waterfowl gather in flocks on the shore, fishing and resting up for their time on the wing.
Such bird escapades happen most reliably in late April. That's usually when the weather warms, and waves of birds that have been flapping north for weeks finally reach this weather-beaten outpost. And that's the ideal time for Whitefish Point Bird Observatory's annual bird-watching extravaganza, the Spring Fling. Birdwatcher hopes soared during the week leading up to the 2005 event. "The skies were blue, the weather was warm, there were no bugs, and there were birds, lots of birds," says Snyder.
But by Friday evening, on the first day of the event, Snyder's description sounds like fantasy. True, there are still no bugs, but there is also no blue sky, no sun, no warmth and no birds.
Out on the point's hawk watch platform, a small deck perched on a dune that rises above the treetops, the wind from Superior whips and rages, drowning out the sounds of feet stomping, zippers pulled higher, hoods yanked tighter. As the sun sinks, the crowd of 40 or so people who have gathered here to catch a glimpse of an owl in flight — owls prefer to migrate at night — bunch up in ever-tightening circles of three and four. They stand shoulder to shoulder, backs hunched, heads down, to withstand the wind. Every few seconds, a hooded head pops up to scan the darkening sky.
Once, somebody yells, "Is that …?" and immediately the small clusters disband, individuals charging to the railings. A great gray? A boreal? A saw whet? No. A false alarm.
The birders' hopes cannot override a natural fact: Owls prefer calm, clear nights. An hour later, the last diehards concede defeat. As they shuffle down the steps to the parking lot in the dark, a thin older man throws his arm around his wife. "Oh well, it'll be better tomorrow," he tells her.
It isn't. The next morning, gales slam Whitefish Point. The 6 a.m. Owls Up Close presentation is canceled; the night bird-banders caught no owls. But the 7 a.m. morning bird walk is a go. Outside the observatory's gift shop, 30 minutes before the walk begins, the birders are already amassed, peering through binoculars at feeders swinging 15 feet away. A few chickadees flit into view. A woman pulls down her scarf and whispers, "I just love them! They'll weather anything!"
At 7 a.m. the group trudges through the woods toward the beach. The stunted tamaracks and scrub along the path convulse under the strain of the wind, which shrieks louder as the group nears the beach. And yet, the birders remain thrilled.
Sally Stebbins, a perky former librarian is one of the Gore-Tex-encased folks marching. A lifelong birder who has sought birds all over the world, Sally says that every year on her birthday she wakes up at 4 a.m., carries a sleeping bag and notebook to her yard and waits in the dark in a lawn chair for dawn to record the first bird that sings, and every one thereafter. She's wired her house for birds, hooking up tiny microphones outside the windows to capture tweets and chirps and transmit them to speakers inside the house. Is she obsessed? "I prefer the word passionate," she says.
As the group emerges onto the beach, a plywood shack the size of a two-man ice shanty comes into view. It's tethered to stakes driven deep into the sand. This is the waterbird watch station, where volunteers sit during migration to count loons, long-tailed ducks, mergansers and dozens of other waterfowl species that fly by. Several birders are already here. They stand next to the shelter of the creaking station, heads jutted forward, eyes trained on the water, high-powered spotting scopes at the ready. A flock of gulls stands in the shallows near the shore.
The official counter steps out of the station. Wind catches the flimsy door, whipping it against the station wall with a crack. No one flinches. He shouts above the wind, "That's a glaucus gull there!" The group jockeys for a better view, hustling to adjust spotting scopes and unpack telephoto cameras.
Somebody squeals, "I see it!"
But which is the glaucus?
A man stabs the stem of his spotting scope into the sand. "Try this," he yells, directing the lens to a gull standing in the center of the flock. The bird is slightly larger than the rest, with a red spot on its bill and light brown flecking on its breast. "That's a glaucus," he shouts, triumphant. Later, Michael Bishop, who sits on the observatory's research board, explains that seeing a glaucus officially constitutes an "uncommon sighting," but not a "rare sighting."
That night, after scouting the woods, the water, the hawk watch platform, and outlying marshes, about 150 people cram into the Paradise Community Center's auditorium for the Spring Fling banquet dinner. The uncommon glaucus sighting is a hot topic of conversation. So too is the great gray owl reportedly spotted in a tree outside the point's entrance. And a spruce grouse seen running alongside the road.
Jim, from Toledo, says he spied a male sandhill crane at Vermillion Point, just west of Whitefish Bay. He says it was trying to impress a band of females with a mating dance. Someone asks him what that looked like. "Like your typical guy on a Saturday night," he says. George, a birder from Marquette, saw more than 50 different birds his first two days here — before the weather turned. His life list runs to 235. But by next morning, the final day of Spring Fling, hopes for expanding anybody's bird list drops even further: snow is falling in Paradise, and the birds are hunkered down.
Spring Fling is Whitefish Point Bird Observatory's highest profile happening, but it is not the observatory's most important happening. "Research is the reason the observatory even exists," Bishop says. Each spring and fall, the observatory hires trained bird counters to man its observation huts and count hawks, owls, waterbirds and songbirds, meticulously entering the information into a set of databases. Key information is also shared with the United States Biological Survey, which manages all bird banding done on the continent. Whitefish Point's waterbird database is its oldest, reaching back to 1979, when the organization began. Others are not quite a decade old.
The research at Whitefish Point does not lead to the kind of headliner findings that appear in magazines like Nature. This research is considered baseline, the steady accretion of bird fact that researchers can rely on when they want to study trends in bird population. But that's precisely what's needed for shaping wildlife policy. When ornithologists first suspected that loons were in decline, some of Whitefish Point's data was used to bolster the argument for habitat preservation. Likewise for the northern goshawk. With growing pressure on bird habitat, especially wetland habitat, Whitefish Point's data will become more valuable with each year.
The problem with such baseline data is that not only is it somewhat mundane, it's also expensive. The organization has to pay several people for weeks' worth of work trapping birds and recording data. It's a testament to the organization's 750 members that they foot most of the bill and do the paperwork to hustle up the grant money, like the dollars from Michigan's loon license plate that are set to run out this year.
October arrives at Whitefish Point, and by now, the birds are heading back south. Most songbirds have already passed, but the owl migration still goes strong, which explains why owl banders Wendy King and Keith Bagnall are set up in a small room behind the observatory's gift shop. It's 11 p.m. on a Thursday night. The room is spare with plywood walls and floor. A fly swatter hangs on the wall, two walking sticks sit in the corner, empty cans of various sizes line a workbench. Wendy and Keith will slide the cans over captured owls to band them. The dark, enclosed space calms the owls, because it emulates the tree cavities they roost in.
Tiny saw whets are placed in root beer cans — Canadian-sized 10 ouncers. Boreal owls fit nicely in Pringles chip cans. Barred owls require two 1-pound coffee cans duct taped together. Great horned owls and great grays take three duct-taped cans. "There is no can for golden eagles," Keith says. "You just have to bear hug them."
He perches on a stool, his feet propped on a metal trashcan, surfing bird Web sites to find out about a great gray rumored to have been spotted on M-23. Wendy curls up in a lawn chair. It is cold in here.
Because owls use the stars to navigate, Keith and Wendy's workday begins around 8 p.m. and goes until 6 a.m. — no doubt the reason for the shed's sole luxury item, a small, shiny espresso machine, which Wendy totes in a box to and from their temporary digs in Paradise every night. The two make their living on research dollars, itinerant birders who will move on to the next banding project when the owls stop coming.
Every 45 minutes, the pair walks a sandy 1"2-mile trail through the woods, inspecting 15 nets along the way. The nets, each 8 to 10 feet high and about 25 feet wide, stretch between the trees, hopefully invisible to the owls passing through. Keith and Wendy walk 6 to 7 miles every night.
In between, they read, surf the Internet, talk to the round-the-clock birders who knock on their door, play glow Frisbee, Scrabble and Boggle. "But ideally," Wendy says, "we're banding owls."
Unfortunately, tonight may not be ideal. It's after midnight, and they've come up empty on two net walks. The moon is shining brightly. Perhaps the owls see the net, or perhaps predators see the owls.
Wendy and Keith make the rounds again. And again. And again. But nothing appears in the nets. Around 3:30 a.m., Keith decides to switch the tape of owl calls. He thinks it sounds weird, like a sickly owl. He leaves, and Wendy heads on to inspect the remaining nets. And there, tangled in the moonlight, is a saw whet, trapped on his way back from Canada's boreal forests.
Wendy slips her hand around the owl, working quietly and gently to unravel it from the net. It clicks its beak in defiance, but otherwise doesn't resist. When the saw whet is finally free, she slides it into a bag to calm it, then heads back to the shed.
Once inside, Wendy pulls the owl out of the bag and, holding its ankles in one hand, pets its head with the other. Immediately, its eyes close, blissful, almost cartoonlike. She slides a root beer can over its head and, in a choreographed drill, Wendy and Keith measure its ankles, its talons, its weight — a dainty 89.7 grams (3.2 ounces) — the width of its beak, the length of its wings. They remove the can, look the owl over. When they turn its body, the head pivots, eyes fixed on Wendy. Occasionally, it clicks a warning.
This saw whet's missing some tail feathers — it has only 8 of 12. With a pencil, Keith lifts the owl's facial disk — an arrangement of feathers that funnels sound to the ear. It reveals a cavernous, featherless space responsible for an owl's exceptional hearing.
The pair determines this owl a female, at least three years old. Wendy presses her ear against the owl's soft back, listening to her heart — a rapid tap.
When Keith and Wendy finish, they step outside. Wendy hooks the owl on her finger and waits. The owl sits, unsure for a minute, then flies off soundlessly into the night.
If You Go
Whitefish Point Bird Observatory's annual Spring Fling happens April 28-30 this year, but the bird-watching bonanza of spring migration lasts much longer — generally March through June. August though November is a great time to see impressive numbers of fall migrants, although birds are spotted year round at Whitefish Point. 906-492-3596 or wpbo.org
Plenty of lodging exists in Paradise, just south of Whitefish Point.
Budget-savvy birders will appreciate the clean and comfy Paradise Inn along M-123. Rates start at $75. 906-492-3940.
Looking for an on-site lookout post? You'll love the Whitefish Point Light Station, where you can overnight in one of five rooms inside the restored 1923 Coast Guard Lifeboat Station. Rates are $150 per night (April 1 thru November 31) and $125 per night (December 1 thru March 31). Bonus: Your purchase grants you admission to the nearby Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum and a 10 percent discount in the Shipwreck Coast Museum Store. 888-492-3747 for information; shipwreckmuseum.com
Lynda Twardowski is travel editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine
firstname.lastname@example.orgNote: This article was first published in April 2006 and was updated for the web February 2008.