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I Was Told This Was Not a Beach Vacation

7/3/2020 - 7/6/2020


So, there I was, laying on the sand-and-pebble beach of Lake Michigan. The sun was shining on the horizon, and the waves were gently lapping at the shore. We had arrived early to beat the holiday crowds. I brought my camera and was casually eyeing some pictures of this cute little thing wandering down the shore. But, let's back up a couple days. I am getting ahead or myself.


For various reasons that did not pan out, I was supposed to be in Michigan on the 6th for an appointment. I had not seen Kirtland's Warbler since I was a teenager, and I thought that this would be a good opportunity to see one again. I made arrangements to stay in Grayling over the weekend and then to head to Port Huron for the appointment on Monday. When the appointment cancelled, I figured we might as well go to Grayling anyway.


Grayling, Michigain - home to the breeding grounds of the Kirtland's Warbler and not much else. If you are going for the luxurious accommodations, wonderful food options, or even the scenery, this is not the place for you. If you want to see the recently de-listed Kirtland's Warbler, Grayling is your place. You need young Jack Pine. The birds nest in Jack Pine that is young enough that the lower branches still touch the ground. For their part, the Huron National Forest is doing a good job of providing this type of habitat. There are 4 or 5 good patches of forest around Grayling. I visited these several mornings and even a couple evenings. I heard a lot of birds in some areas. Seeing one is another matter. In all, I saw somewhere around 6 birds during my time there. I heard way more.

The pines here are filled with nesting birds. There were many Brown Thrashers and Nashville Warblers hopping about. None were very cooperative. There were also many bugs. While it was not black fly season, there was no shortage of bugs. Surprisingly, there were very few cowbirds. I know about the efforts to control the population up there, but I was surprised at how effective it has been.


Just up the road a little ways is the Hartwick Pines State Park. Here, you can find Evening Grosbeak and Purple Finch visiting the feeders, year round. While there is a small viewing platform, the feeders are a little far for getting decent pictures - for me at least. But, there was plenty of exciting things around. The treetops were filled with the calls of various warblers and vireos. Blackburnian, Black-throated Green, and Black-throated Blue Warblers were commonly heard; along with Ovenbird. Red-eyed and Blue-headed Vireos featured heavily, too. American Robin was everywhere. Rounding a bend, I heard the familiar jumble of a Winter Wren. The highlight, though, was a pair of nesting Yellow-bellied Sapsucker not far from the edge of the trail.

We enjoyed a couple hikes here and some time hanging out in the hammock. Most of the recreation in the area seems to hinge around boats (kayak or canoe) or running ATVs of some sort through the forests. So, we did not have large numbers of people at the park. Maybe Covid is keeping people out? Regardless, it was nice to have somewhere to go nearby.


Which brings us back to the beach.... Sleeping Bear Dunes is relatively close to Grayling. I mean, we already drove 5.5 hours north. Another couple hours is not that far. We left while it was still dark and arrived at the dunes shortly after sunrise. It was a long and tiring haul up the deep-sand trail at Bear Point. Piping Plover nest here, and I was spending my morning staking out spots on the beach and waiting for the birds to wander towards me while feeding along the shoreline. I was surprised at the number of individuals we saw. By recollection, there were about 10 adults and slightly fewer young. The word is that a number of nests were wiped out by a storm earlier this year. Sad news, but I was happy to see that the young that fledged looked healthy.

The only other shorebirds that morning were a lone Willet, in wonderful breeding plumage, and a Spotted Sandpiper. I was pretty excited that I had got in front of the Spotted Sandpiper and positioned myself for some shots without disturbing it. I was even more excited that it was walking towards me while feeding. Just as it was getting into a really nice range, it suddenly stopped, grew alert, and then flew off. It was then that I noticed the sneezing fit happening just behind me. It appears that she is allergic to beach vacations - even if she said this did not count as one.

We stopped for some breakfast at a nearby picnic location before heading out for some light hiking. While there, I noticed an individual head over to a weedy area to take pictures of something. I did not think much of it at the time. A little while later, a pair of Sandhill Crane and a colt wandered out into the open. I managed to get a few pics as they moved across the grass and towards a large marsh across the road. The colt totally looks like a giant drumstick on legs.

While at the dunes, we could not help but notice the beautiful wildflowers growing along the trail. Very different looking and totally captivating to us. I wish I was better at capturing them. We were so surprised by them, and I was anxious to learn more about them. I probably should not have been shocked, but I was. They are an introduced species from Europe. Bladder Campion. It turns out that people eat them; just like the Japanese Beetle (another introduced species) on this one....


Our second best day in Grayling was the day we took a canoe trip on the Au Sable river. It is a very popular activity there; so, you need to get there when the outfitter opens. We saw huge crowds there in the middle of the day. We were the first to arrive on the day after the holiday. That probably helped. We pretty much had the river to ourselves for most of the trip. I left my camera behind, but I dream of the shots I could have gotten (probably missed) if I had it. We had a Common Merganser family swim right by; complete with a baby on her back. There were also lots of Wood Duck families hanging out on various logs and swimming in the river. All in all, it was a very peaceful and enjoyable time with no one around and just the sights and sounds of the river.


The next morning saw one more pass through the Jack Pines but no more photos. We pushed on south and was home in plenty of time to unpack and relax the rest of the evening before returning to work the next day. Hopefully, I do not wait so long to return again.


Thanks for reading,

Mike




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