By Ranger Steve Mueller
Important Bird Areas are surveyed and designated specifically for their importance for bird species survival. Birders visit some of these areas regularly to see many of the 233 bird species that breed in Michigan, and the areas are inventoried to identify habitats essential for bird preservation. About 115 species that do not breed in Michigan use the areas during spring and fall migration or as winter residence.
As winter was drawing to close, a couple friends and I visited the Muskegon River Channel outlet into Lake Michigan. About 85 percent of Lake Michigan was ice covered in early March, forcing waterfowl to limited open water. Winter a year ago was tough and our visit was both enjoyable and sad. We saw many ducks that normally stay away from shore, in close view. Ice cover forced large numbers into small areas, where many starved, before ice breakup provided additional feeding areas.
Early March this year was more joyous. Infrequently seen birds were active and we did not see floating corpses of starved birds among them. Many birds were likely hungry and possibly experiencing malnutrition but ice breakup hopefully arrived in time for them to replenish reserves for migration. Lakes Erie, Huron, and Superior still had nearly complete ice cover and were still closed to feeding. Lakes Ontario and Lake Michigan opened in early March.
We observed a Common Eider in the Muskegon river channel. It might be the only eider I see this year. Most eiders winter along ocean coasts but some winter in the Great Lakes before returning to breed in the arctic. The eider seems oblivious to us. Shelled mussels at the bottom of rivers and open water drive feeding behavior. The bird does not comprehend how our presence is important for improving or eliminating survival of their food survival. Many people do not understand how environmental stewardship behavior determines long-term survival for us, eiders and other species.
Many organizations work to maintain healthy habitats essential for people and other species. Michigan and National Audubon Society support inventory of critical habitats of importance for bird breeding, migration, and winter residence survival. Local Audubon chapters provide bird watching field trips, programs, and members preserve bird nature niches. Google Michigan Audubon to find local chapters for monthly programs and field trips. Spring migration has begun. Take the family outside to enjoy wondrous-feathered visitors passing northward on stops in important bird areas to refuel.
Species of excitement in the Muskegon River Channel were Black Scoters, White-winged Scoters, and Long-tailed Ducks. Other ducks rounded out our visit. We observed head banging behavior of male Common Goldeneyes. Males throw their heads on their back and bring them forward to impress the ladies somewhat like head-banging antics of some music groups and dancers. Field guides help identify these dark headed ducks with a white check patch. The females have reddish-feathered head beauty.
We found Tundra Swans in a nearby area. Horned Larks were performing breeding displays in open fields and where females will be incubating eggs. I have found lark nests in March, when snow is still on the ground. Hopefully larks will fledge young before farmers till fields.
We found Glaucous Gulls and Common Redpoles. Meteorologists predicted we are free from extreme cold until November. Lengthening days, ice breakup, and warmer air signals birds to migrate north to important bird habitats for this year’s breeding. Critically “Important Bird Areas” have been identified for bird biodiversity preservation in local and distant areas. Many areas will not be visited by people but birds produced in them will visit human population centers. If preserved in abundance, birds will provide opportunities for millions of people that support preservation to see them and for duck hunters that spend millions to preserve habitats to have sustainable fare on the winter dinner table. Preservation of Important Bird Area habitats will sustain our natural heritage for the present and future.
Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at firstname.lastname@example.org Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433 or call 616-696-1753.