Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch reports record year in 2015
Tens of thousands of eagles, hawks and vultures recorded in Straits region, attracting
observers from around state, U.S.
MACKINAW CITY – The Straits of Mackinac region at the top of Michigan’s Lower
Peninsula has been garnering national attention for the vast numbers of raptors
gathering here during their annual migration cycles, including the most golden eagles
counted anywhere east of the Mississippi and the highest number of red-tailed hawks
tallied in the United States.
“In the last year, both the research work on migrating birds and the public outreach
more than doubled, thanks to a longer observation period enabled by generous
contributors and volunteers,” said Ed Pike, Chair of the Mackinaw Straits Raptor Watch
group (MSRW) that formed in 2014 to monitor birds of prey passing here in migration
and educate people about them.
Pike noted the following highlights from this year’s counts that set records and drew
national attention to the quality of the birding experience in the Straits of Mackinac:
Spring Hawk Count
From March 8 through June 6, 2015, the contracted counter Kevin Georg posted 613
hours of observation in Mackinaw City and tallied 50,399 raptors migrating across the
Straits. Of special interest were the 374 golden eagles, the highest number recorded
east of the Mississippi, and the 9,334 red-tailed hawks, the highest number of any spring
count in the country. There were over 700 recorded guest visits. For comparison, the
2014 numbers were 481 hours to record 43,191 raptors, including 164 golden eagles
and 9,702 red-tailed hawks with 352 guests visits.
Spring Owl Survey
From March 18 through May 2, contracted biologists conducted MSRW’s first spring
mist netting and banding at Cheboygan State Park near Cheboygan. They set nets on 40
nights, totaling 281 hours of research time. They captured, processed, and released 132
northern saw-whet owls, four barred owls, and four long-eared owls. Eleven of the sawwhets
were already banded by other scientists at Whitefish Point near Paradise and
Point LaBarbe near St. Ignace (both Michigan), New Hampshire, Ontario, and Indiana.
Such re-traps yield information about owl distribution, migration, and life span.
Fall Owl Survey
From Sept. 20 through Nov. 10, the contracted biologist Selena Creed conducted mist
netting and banding at Pte. LaBarbe near St. Ignace. She set the nets on 45 nights and
checked them during 455 hours. She captured 250 northern saw-whet owls, one barred
owl, and three long-eared owls, nearly double the number of birds in the spring survey.
For comparison, in 2014, 285 survey hours yielded 233 northern saw-whet owls and
four barred owls.
“It is normal to capture more owls in the fall because they just hatched this summer.
Most of these first-year birds will not survive their first winter,” Pike explained. Fifteen
of the 2015 saw-whets were foreign re-traps and two were banded here last fall. The
foreign re-traps were banded at Whitefish Point Bird Observatory, Michigan, several
sites in Wisconsin, and in Indiana. Two of the saw-whets banded this fall were retrapped
a few weeks later in southern Michigan and Ohio.
Fall Waterbird Survey
From Aug. 15 through Nov. 10, four trained volunteers recorded the waterbirds and
other migrants seen moving through the Straits of Mackinac. Observations were made
from McGulpin Point near Mackinaw City on 63 days, at least three hours each day
starting at sunrise. The goal was to provide baseline data on these fall migrants. High
numbers of common loons were sighted, amid 36 total species of birds.
Waterfowl seen were Canada goose; mute swan; wood duck; gadwall; American black
duck; mallard; teal (which species impossible to tell); redhead; greater scaup; surf
scoter, white-winged, and black scoters; long-tailed duck; bufflehead; common
goldeneye; hooded, common, and red-breasted mergansers, common and red-throated
loons; horned and red-necked grebes; and double-crested cormorant. Raptors observed
were turkey vulture; bald and golden eagles; American kestrel; merlin; sharp-shinned
and broad-winged hawks; and northern harrier. Other birds of interest were jaeger
(which species impossible to tell); great egret; Bonaparte’s gull; common crow; and
“This supports and substantiates the selection by National Audubon of the Straits of
Mackinac as an Important Bird Area,” Pike said.
Kathy Bricker, Secretary of MSRW, felt that while the number of birds is impressive, it
does not convey the sense of wonder and beauty of being outside. A visit to the
website, www.MackinacRaptorWatch.org, and the group’s Facebook page reveals the
impact these experiences had on visitors: “From a tree limb in a nearby field, a redtailed
hawk takes flight. It soars, circling higher and higher above the field, using the
updrafts created by the warming air. It climbs to staggering heights until lost against the
clouds. More and more hawks, eagles, and vultures soon join in the aerial waltz that
began in times long forgotten. A common loon cuts through the sky taking a direct
route across the lakes. Undaunted by the water, it needs not climb to dizzying heights
before crossing the five-mile wide strait.
“A boisterous trumpeting precedes fifty sandhill cranes flying in formation, making their
own way to the land beyond. Meanwhile, the number of raptors in the air reaches
numbers almost uncountable. When they finally reach the crest of the updraft, one by
one they peel away from the dance, gliding into the distance in hopes of reaching land
on the other side without having to flap their wings and use precious energy. Taking
their place lower down come other birds from farther south, in the constant soar and
glide procession of the annual spring migration north.”
Bricker explained that the total number of recorded guest visits to the hawk and owl
research was 987, more than double the 352 of 2014.
Because of the burgeoning interest in birding activities in the Straits region, MSRW will
hold its first birding festival in 2016. The Mackinaw Raptor Fest is scheduled for April 1-2
in the Mackinaw City- Petoskey area. Complete details will be available in late January at
www.MackinacRaptorWatch.org. Generous core funding for the festival has been
received from the Petoskey-Harbor Springs Area Community Foundation and the
Petoskey Area Visitors Bureau.
In addition to the new festival, MSRW will produce new rack cards to inform the public.
Regular media releases, radio interviews, field trips, social media, word-of-mouth,
poster displays at Michigan and Ohio birding/nature festivals, and in-person
presentations reached thousands of people in 2015 and will expand even more next
year to inform the public about the migration spectacle.
Pike concludes: “Our research and outreach efforts rely on the generosity of private
individuals interested in nature. We thank all of them, along with the Bay Harbor
Foundation, MPS Foundation, Straits Area Audubon Society, Audubon Society of
Kalamazoo, Copper Country Audubon, Thunder Bay Audubon Society, Genesee
Audubon Club, and Au Sable Valley Audubon Society. We especially appreciate the
friendly spirit of the Mackinaw City community during the spring hawk watch.”
For more information, visit www.mackinacraptorwatch.org or contact Ed Pike at 231-