East Tawas Birding Trip Report by aerin tedesco
Updated: Jun 4
When the COVID-19 situation hit, COS reluctantly had to cancel many of its upcoming field trips. Though we understood why we needed to put safety first, it was a very disappointing decision to have to make. With field trips cancelled, we thought, “What can we do to keep the birding community connected during this unprecedented situation?” We decided to try a “virtual field trip”.
One of the trips that was cancelled was our annual trip to “Sanctuary” in East Tawas, MI. It is the home of former Chicago birder Sam Burckhardt and his husband Richard Wilson. For the past few years, Sam has invited folks to stay at his home and lodge on his property for Memorial Day weekend and led them on guided bird trips there and in the surrounding area. Last year’s trip was an amazing success and all who attended had wonderful time birding and socializing in this idyllic natural wonderland.
I contacted Sam and asked him if it would be okay for me and my partner to come up and bird with him and document the trip. Since it was only a group of 3, (sometimes just two), he agreed it would be a great idea. Because Michigan still had a ban on groups of people gathering until May 28, we had to move the trip to the following weekend.
On Friday, May 29th, my partner Michelle and I set out from Chicago to East Tawas, “county birding” all along the way. We saw birds in 12 counties on the way there, and took a different route home to see birds in 10 more counties on the way back! It was a great way to stay engaged in birding and pass the time on the 6 and a half hour trip up to Iosco County.
We left around 7am Chicago time and arrived around 2pm Michigan time. As we pulled into the driveway and drove toward the house, we were greeted by a group of 5 male wild turkeys! They gobbled at us as we came nearer, and we knew this was a great bird omen for our weekend of birding!
Sam greeted us as we got out of the car, and Richard was feeding the turkeys and telling us all about how they come up to the house a few times a day.
We chatted a bit, then headed down the hill to the lodge where we’d be staying to get settled in.
The property is 175 acres and is surrounded by woods. The house was designed by Alden B. Dow, and is a 1962 Prairie style masterpiece, built right into the hill!
There is a marsh down below the house and Sam and Richard often have a scope fixed on a pair of Sandhill Cranes that have nested there, for the first time, last year. They successfully raised two colts to fledging.
Once we settled in, I was ready to walk the property and try for some of my target birds. The first was Red-breasted Nuthatch, which has been very scarce this year in the Chicago area and much of Illinois. I walked into the woods and immediately heard lots of birds singing. Hermit thrushes were making their lovely, glassy trills. A Scarlet Tanager was making his raspy chur.
Pine Warblers and Chipping Sparrows were also trilling away.
Last year Sam explained to us how to tell the difference between these two very similar songs. To my delight, I remembered his ID tricks, and could separate the sharp, staccato Chipper vocalizations from the more lazy, legato stylings of the Pines. I soon found a Pine Warbler and was able to photograph and get video of him singing his melancholy song. Then I heard a sharp, nasal song coming from the evergreens. I looked up and right above my head was my target RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH!
He was kind enough to hold still long enough for me to snap a couple of photos! A Red-shouldered Hawk also put on a display above the trees, soaring and banking in front of the clouds.
I got back to the house just in time, as the thunder clapped and the rain started coming down. I was thrilled to be able to sit on the sheltered porch and listen to it come down!
After a while the sun came out but the rain continued! I ventured out a bit, hoping to see a rainbow. The trees probably blocked me from seeing one, but I noticed a dragonfly by the pool deck. I thought it was a goner, but when I picked it up, I realized it was just cold and wet. I put it on the sheltered part of the deck. Sam identified it as a Common Baskettail. Earlier, before the rain, he found a Harlequin Darner, a very rare dragonfly for that part of the country!
It was soon time for dinner-- homemade pizza (Sam made the dough!) with crushed garlic, olives and Italian sausage! Not only are the birds there amazing, so is the food!
After dinner, Sam and I ventured out into the fog to try to find some night birds. The fog was amazing! Like something out of Tolkien. The hermit thrushes were still singing, creating a beautiful soundtrack for the nocturnal scene.
We hoped to see American Woodcocks displaying, but the rain and fog put a damper on that. We did see one Woodcock take off from the field over the trees.
After that, we turned in, as we had a big day of birding ahead of us in the morning.
We got up bright and early and had breakfast- oatmeal with raisins and bananas, with homemade yogurt and kefir. Then we set out to Tawas point. We started along the trail looking for songbirds and other migrants and breeding birds. There were literally HUNDREDS of Cedar Waxwings, flying about in flocks up to 40 birds and perching in trees, making their high-pitched wheezes.
We saw a Warbling Vireo crafting a nest, and a young male Orchard Oriole, which is yellow with a black bib under the chin. But this one was special because he was just starting to get some of the chestnut color in his feathers like an adult male.
We then noticed some birders focused on something in a nearby tree. One of them looked at us and said, “CERULEAN WARBLER”! We got closer and sure enough, there he was, flitting about and singing his buzzy, ascending song! Warblers had been scarce so far on this trip, so seeing a Cerulean was a real treat!
And if this rarity wasn’t enough, shortly after we saw a NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD! This bird rarely ventures this far north so it was a great find and an excellent county and state bird for me!
There were also some great amphibians around. A cute little American Toad and the most amazing LEOPARD FROGS! They were everywhere and not really as shy as most frogs seem to be so I got great looks and photos!
We continued on toward the point proper, and saw a small raptor swoop in. At first I thought Cooper’s Hawk because of the striped tail. But when I got it in my bins, i noticed the tail was very short and squared. SHARP-SHINNED HAWK! Sam also saw a Merlin right after it but I missed it.
My main targets at the point were shorebirds. As the Chicago lakefront has been closed, it has been frustrating to find shorebirds that prefer the actual lake shore to the fluddles I’d been combing for the past month in central Illinois. Last year we saw plenty, but the rising levels of the Great Lakes made shorebird habitat scarce at the point. We did see a Dunlin and a couple Semipalmated Sandpipers fly in at the point. And as we walked back along the shoreline, we spotted a WHIMBREL! It stayed for a while and gave great looks and photo ops.
Another crazy thing we encountered were the GNATS! They were everywhere! Great bird food but kind of intense for humans!
Despite the lack of warblers, we had over 60 species at Tawas Point. We were ready for lunch and then on to our next stop-- the Kirtland’s Warbler Restoration Project!
On our way, we stopped on Old State Road for some nice looks at Clay-colored Sparrows. These birds breed there and were singing their characteristic buzzy song.
The Kirtland’s Warbler Restoration Project was the highlight of the trip last year. And this year’s trip did not disappoint! Sam was concerned the birds wouldn’t be singing this late in the day. But we heard a few singing birds as soon as we started down the road through the jack pine habitat.
We walked down to the “sweet spot” and had at least three birds singing in close proximity. One was curious enough to make his way to the edge. He was absolutely gorgeous! A first year male with streaks so fine he appeared spotted. He posed for photos and even some great video of him singing his three-part song. Kirtland’s is the THIRTY-EIGHTH warbler species I have seen this year, which ties last year’s record! What a thrill for this rare species to be the one to tie it up!
On our way back to the house, we went through the southern part of the Kirtland’s habitat land, hearing and seeing some Vesper Sparrow and a nice Black-throated Green Warbler. We also spied an American Kestrel and some Bobolinks an Galion Road to round out an amazing day of birding.
We had some time before dinner, so we headed into the woods on the Sanctuary property. My targets were Purple Finch, (another bird that has been very scarce this year in Illinois) and Ruffed Grouse. We did a big loop through the forest, hearing more Pine Warblers, Hermit Thrushes and some Common Ravens soaring overhead, making their hilarious croaks.
But then I heard something that was definitely finchy! As we drew closer, there they were- two female PURPLE FINCHES! We didn’t see a male around so we are assuming there was at least one singing female! Very cool way to get this target year bird! So we heading down the path to the Ruffed Grouse spot. Sam hears them all the time there and thinks there is a log where they do their characteristic wing beats, making a low, barely audible rumble. You almost don’t hear it, rather FEEL it in your chest or, if you’re me, in the back of my skull! Sure enough, when we stopped and listened to a nearby Black-throated Green Warbler sing, we heard the grouse rumble, too! Excited for these great finds, we headed back to the house. On our way, Michelle spotted a 3-foot long snake in the grass! When we showed Sam, he told us it was an EASTERN HOGNOSE SNAKE! I was thrilled to add this to my non-bird life list!
But the day wasn’t over! After a glorious dinner of HOMEMADE pasta AND bolognese sauce, we headed to Tuttle Marsh to try for some night birds. Our first stop yielded an American Woodcock displaying. I love listening to their comical “peent” noises, followed by a frenzy of wingbeats as they rise up, and twitter and twist as they come back down to the ground.
My targets were American Bittern and Eastern Screech-owl. We whiffed on the AMBI, but the Screech-owls were in full voice. We could hear a few of them deep in the woods, and with a little coaxing, they came a bit closer. Eastern Screech-owl is the seventh owl species I’ve encountered this year, so I was thrilled to round off my list that night. We also heard singing Whip-poor-wills and Barred Owls. And a Great Horned Owl was perched on a dead tree stump in the marsh, making a glorious silhouette in the darkening sky! What a superb night at Tuttle Marsh!
Our plan for the morning was to bird Tuttle Marsh to try again for American Bittern and Least Bittern for Sam. On the way we stopped at May Road to try for Grasshopper Sparrow. None were singing, but we heard Savannah Sparrow and some more Bobolinks, including a perched female.
At the other end of May Road in the wooded area, we found a singing Mourning Warbler and lots of Ovenbirds. At Davison and Swan Creek Road we heard a singing Veery and another couple Ruffed Grouse rumbling. So we moved on to Tuttle Marsh.
There were usually Blue-winged Warblers around but we didn’t see or hear any. We did finally hear a Golden-winged Warbler sing. Some Black-capped Chickadees were gathering nest materials,
and Alder Flycatchers were singing everywhere. As we walked up to the marsh, we heard a squeak toy sound: BLACK TERNS! We counted about 20 of them and a Common Tern was mixed in, too.
Pied-billed grebes are also vocalizing in this video
Sam scoped the marsh and spotted a River Otter! I was so excited to see this awesome aquatic mammal! But none of my digiscope photos came out. I did spot a Blanding’s Turtle which was also a treat.
A Common Loon floated lazily around and an Osprey and Bald Eagle soared overhead.
Duck species were Wood Duck, Mallard, Ring-necked Duck, Green-winged Teal, one Bufflehead and an American Wigeon. This surprisingly was only the second wigeon I've seen all year so I was happy to finally get a good look at one.
We also spotted a pale, young Broad-winged Hawk in the sky. A pair of Trumpeter Swans had six adorable cygnets!
We had all the swallows except Cliff-- Northern Rough-winged, Bank, Barn, Tree and Purple Martin all swooped and dove over the marsh. Another birder who was with us made my day when he pointed and said, “There’s an AMERICAN BITTERN flying over the marsh!” Sure enough, I saw it flapping by, legs trailing behind.
We ended up seeing three that morning, one very close but too quick for a good photo. We were trying to locate a Yellow-billed Cuckoo we had heard when we heard a faint barking sound. A LEAST BITTERN was calling! Further on down the way, we heard one lone Willow Flycatcher singing long with all the Alders. We had 69 species at Tuttle Marsh!
Michelle joined us later and we headed back to the Kirtland’s habitat so she could see one. Not as many birds were singing and you cannot use playback in there, so she didn’t get a look. But just hearing them all around her made her happy to count this life bird! We also stumbled upon a Vesper Sparrow nest on the ground with four eggs!
We also saw 3 Red-headed Woodpeckers and an American Kestrel perched on a snag. Lots of Nashville Warblers were singing and we found one lone Palm Warbler wagging its tail. We also found a most beautiful flower, aptly called Bird’s Foot Violet, growing right there in the habitat. So we considered it a pretty successful trip.
Jack Pine is the preferred nesting habitat for Kirtland's Warbler
We still had some time before dinner, so we headed to Wurtsmith Airforce base to try for Upland Sandpiper and Grasshopper Sparrow. Sadly, they had just mowed the area where the Uplands like to be, so no birds were present. We were, however, surprised by a pair of Brewer’s Blackbirds right out in the open and close. And a Merlin perched on the fence nearby.
We found one singing Grasshopper Sparrow who perched for us, but too far for me to get a very good photo.
We had dinner at a restaurant that was actually allowing in-house dining, and I got to have my favorite-- Lake Perch! We then headed to Oscoda Beach for one last shot at some shorebirds. My heart almost stopped when I saw a shorebird in the distance that might have been a Piping Plover! But when we got the scope on it, it was a Semipalmated Sandpiper. A Semipalmated Plover was with it. We did, however, get one remarkable bird-- a single Cliff Swallow. Which meant that in addition to our species at Tuttle Marsh, we had a SWALLOW SLAM! All 6 species in one day! On our way out, we couldn’t believe our ears-- a LEAST BITTERN was calling in the marsh! I started recording it and Sam crouched down to try to see it. And he actually DID! I couldn’t find it in the thick marsh grass, but it was a great and unexpected find there!
By then it was almost 9pm so we headed home.
We decided to try for one last bird in the morning. Sam knew of a spot where we might be able to find Spruce Grouse! I was excited because this would be a life bird for both me and Michelle!
Alas, after looking for almost 3 hours, we didn’t find any. But the trip wasn’t a total disappointment. While combing the trees for grouse, Michelle spotted a PORCUPINE! This was the best look I’d ever gotten and only the second I’d ever seen!
We also got a great, close look at another Eastern Hognose Snake winding its way across the road. It even flared its head, looking like a mini cobra!
It was nearly noon and Michelle and I had a long trip back home ahead of us. So we said our goodbyes to Sam and many, many thanks for his amazing hospitality and most excellent bird guide skills! We couldn’t have asked for a more extraordinary birding adventure! I got 6 of my 8 targets, and great looks and listens at birds I don’t see very often. Can’t wait to do it again next year as an official COS field trip!