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The Great Spring Fallout - when the birds come to Tawas Point

Tom Lounsbury

Wed, 31 May 2017 10:51:30 EDT

 


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               The Great Spring Fallout - when the birds come to Tawas Point
                                          By Tom Lounsbury

Bird watching is a passionate outdoor pastime for a whole lot of folks, but I never truly had a full grasp of this until I attended the recent annual Tawas Point Birding Festival, held in East Tawas (www.tawasbay.com ). I’ve been an avid bird watcher for quite awhile now, but it is a pastime which occurs generally while I’m doing other outdoor pursuits and I encounter various birds and I strive to identify them by both sight and the sound of their unique songs. It is clearly a continual learning experience I much enjoy.
However I’ve never actually set out to participate in what is known as “birding”. Folks who do this are often referred to as being “birders” because they are intentionally seeking out and identifying (and often photographing) various and unique bird species. I’ve recently discovered that this can be a very challenging pastime which can become a bit addictive, so to speak.
What makes East Tawas unique for avid birders is the geographic feature known as Tawas Point, which juts out easterly into Lake Huron and curves around to the south to help form Tawas Bay. Michigan happens to be located smack dab in the middle between the Mississippi Flyway and the Atlantic Flyway, and migrating songbirds tend to follow Michigan’s lengthy shoreline each spring, with some often unusual species appearing that have been blown off course by high winds (which there has been plenty of this spring).
Tawas Point throws northerly bound, spring migrating songbirds a literal “right hook”, as they follow the shoreline and find themselves suddenly heading south again. This is when the birds which are tired and hungry drop in large flocks to rest, refuel (feed) and regroup, often for several days. When this happens, it is known as the “Fallout” of birds, and it is a common, annual occurrence in this area that has become world renown as a birding paradise (birders from other states and countries converge on this area annually to witness the Fallout). The most massive bird migrations occur in the spring with over 350 species migrating to North America from the tropics. I must admit that I hadn’t seen so many colorful birds since I was in the Panama Jungle, and no doubt some of the birds I saw there would eventually end up in Michigan when their hormones let them know it was time to head north to reproduce.
Typically, the Fallout occurs in mid-May, give or take, a day or two and the Tawas Point Birding Festival is timed to hopefully coincide with the birds’ arrival. This year the festival took place May 18 - 20, and my wife Ginny and I would be joined by fellow outdoor writer Ryan Walker of Cass City and his wife Becky, for a new adventure in serious bird watching during this timeframe. As it turns out the Fallout was in full progress while we were there, and we fit right in walking around and wearing binoculars, which are a very essential tool for this pastime (along with a bird identification book).
To start, we all checked in at the East Tawas Junction Bed and Breakfast Inn (www.east-tawas.com , email: info@east-tawas.com or call 989-362-8006) which is owned and operated by Leigh Mott, a very kind and gracious lady we had all met earlier during the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association Winter Rendezvous which was held in East Tawas last February, and we had vowed that when we returned, we would stay at Leigh’s Inn. I have a soft spot for Bed and Breakfast places as it is, as they offer a very warm and homey atmosphere. Leigh Mott was once a professional in interior design and even studied in Italy, and this is readily apparent in the amazing and unique décor of her inn. My favorite place was her spacious and airy parlor (with a view of Tawas Bay out the window) which includes a library of books, many written by famous authors who have stayed at the East Tawas Junction Bed and Breakfast Inn (some notables are my favorite mystery writer, Steve Hamilton, as well as the authors of my favorite bird book, Donald and Lillian Stokes). Needless to say, it was easy to see why these folks came here to stay. The breakfasts by the way, were spectacular (picture waffles with homemade rhubarb/strawberry sauce and yes folks, I had seconds).
Our first stop of the day was at the Tawas Bay Beach Resort which featured special booths, information and presentations. I met Arlene Westhoven of the Michigan Loon Preservation Association (Michiganloons.org) and learned a whole bunch about loons. The Common Loon is a threatened species in Michigan, with fewer than 500 breeding pairs, and a pair only hatches two eggs a year. Michigan has 28 inland lakes named “Loon Lake”, but only 4 actually still have loons today. It has been discovered that half the loon fatalities in our state can be attributed to lead poisoning due to fishing tackle entailing lead sinkers. The loons require pebbles to help in digesting food, and if lead is ingested, it takes only a week to kill the loon. The clear message here is to use sinkers that are not made of lead (I picked up a bag of limestone sinkers to give a try for fishing). Folks who volunteer to assist in keeping track of loons are known as “Loon Rangers”.
A presentation entailing live birds we really enjoyed was “Wings of Wonder” (wingsofwonder.org or call 231-326-4663). Rebecca Lessard who manages a non-profit raptor rehabilitation and education sanctuary in northern Michigan did a fantastic job of explaining raptors and their role in nature. The live raptors she held individually on her (gloved) hand had been injured in the wild and rehabilitated, but due to permanent physical damage, were unable to return to the wild.
They were all beautiful, but the most beautiful to my eye, believe it or not, was the turkey vulture. A real close up view put the turkey vulture in an entirely different light, at least in my eyes and they are actually quite clean. They are also one of the few bird species which have an acute sense of smell and they rarely if ever kill their own food, because their feet/talons are not as strong as the other raptors. As a defense mechanism, turkey vultures can accurately spit out a very nasty smelling and acidic (it can actually burn skin) fluid at predators such as coyotes, that will never forget the experience. I never knew that before and if I ever encounter a vulture on the ground for whatever reason, I’ll keep my distance.
Then we were off to the Tawas Point State Park for some serious bird watching with a check list in hand featuring 230 bird species. Our starting place was near the historic lighthouse, and down hiking trails which lead around to the very tip of the “point”. There were a whole lot of folks enjoying this setting and if you had a question about a certain bird, someone close by usually had an answer. For a fact, I saw a whole bunch of songbird species I had never seen before. I had mentioned to Ryan Walker that I have only seen a half dozen male scarlet tanagers in my life (in the Thumb) and he pointed to a tree which was holding six of the colorful birds. There were also the summer and western tanagers, yellow warblers, orioles, king birds and multiple colorful birds I’m still trying to look up in the book.
A real trophy for birders when sighted is the painted bunting, of which the male is brightly rainbow colored and they are usually found only in southern states along the Atlantic Coast, but do visit Tawas Point on occasion. However we didn’t see any painted buntings, but we did observe a pair of loons diving for their dinner in a small, sheltered cove and was a rather peaceful setting.
Also in evidence were the amazing optics being used by birders who are quite serious about their pastime. I saw a multitude of cameras featuring a large and long telephoto lens (I saw some camera/lens combinations which probably cost more than my Jeep). I do know for a fact, photographing songbirds is extremely challenging because they are always animated and flitting around. I’ve discovered photographing wily whitetail deer is far easier than trying to focus in on a songbird. It is almost as if the birds can instinctively sense your attention being placed upon them, and since most are prey animals and usually suspicious about any undue attention, they can be very uncooperative subjects (hence using a telephoto lens is a very effective technique).
Everyone present had or was sharing binoculars, because bird watching without binoculars is very similar to trying to climb a ladder without rungs. The hike down the trail almost had a surreal nature to it due to the countless and very colorful songbirds flitting around and at times even resting in branches overhead or the in bushes off to the side, or hopping around on the ground. Our being able to experience the “Fallout” of migrating birds on Tawas Point certainly worked for us!
This was the 12th Annual Tawas Point Birding Festival, and it is clearly a popular Michigan outdoor event. There is no doubt it is clearly going to be an annual event for us as well.





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Becky and Ryan Walker of Cass City bird watching at Tawas Point during the
annual spring "Fallout".








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Rebecca Lessard of "Wings of Wonder" displaying a live turkey vulture,
which are actually very beautiful birds.








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Bird watching is not complete without a good bird book like this one by
Donald and Lillian Stokes. That is a Painted Bunting on the cover.








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Sheen Watkins of Birmingham takes photographing birds during the Fallout
at Tawas Point seriously. She is using a Nikon 500 D camera with a 500 mm
lens and a 1.4 teleconverter.

 

 

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