7 Best Stops for Birdwatchers Along Michigan’s Sunrise Coast

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Michigan’s Sunrise Coast begins in Mackinaw City at the southern end of the Strait of Mackinac, where the Mackinac Bridge connects Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas. It continues 200 miles along the Lake Huron coast following US 23 to Standish. However, the Sunrise Coast Birding Trail only covers about 143 miles and stops at the Au Sable River in Oscoda, where the Saginaw Birding Trail picks up and continues to Port Austin.

From Raptor Watch Spring in the Strait of Mackinac to Shoreline Park at the mouth of the Au Sable River, where you can see endangered Great Lakes Piping Plovers along the northern shores of Lake Huron, the Raptor Watch Trail birds presents hundreds of species.

With nearly 30 official stops on the Sunrise Coast Birding Trail and about half a dozen additional sites in Iosco County that may not have official signage, I found more sighting sites to birds along Michigan’s Sunrise Coast than I can mention.

Here are some of my favorites that feature a variety of birds. I list them in order from north to south.

Strait of Mackinac (Photo credit: Amy Piper)

1. Strait of Mackinac Raptor Monitoring, Mackinaw City

Twice a year, conservationists count and monitor migrating birds of prey in the Strait of Mackinac. In the spring, large concentrations of raptors sit at the end of the mitten, waiting for the right conditions to cross the strait on their journey north. In the fall, to a lesser extent, Lakes Huron and Michigan guide birds that fly south for the winter over the same region.

Depending on weather conditions, the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch spring counts run from March 5 to June 5. Counts take place at one of two sites about a mile apart in Mackinaw City. Wind speed, direction and cloud cover all affect the bird’s migration and which location is best to count at any given time. In autumn, they count from August 20 to November 10.

While conservationists report data on eagles, owls, kites, hawks and falcons, this is the best spring site in North America for red-tailed hawks.

Driving west on Central Avenue, look to the left for the Raptor Watch signs. Red-tailed hawk numbers peak during the first week of April, while large-winged hawk numbers are highest in late April. As a result, you will most likely see golden eagles throughout April. In some years you will even see Swainson’s hawks and black vultures.

To fully enjoy the birds, wear warm, windproof clothing. It is usually windy and 20 to 30 degrees cooler in the strait. So put on some sunscreen and bring a lawn chair – full size binoculars in 7, 8 or 10 powers and a 20x plus spotting scope.

Pro Tip: Birdwatching takes patience, and if you’re here for the long haul, you’ll need food. One of my favorite year-round restaurants in Mackinaw City is Audie’s, where everything is homemade. Think homemade pie! Need I say more?

If you decide to go birding in Mackinaw City, check out this article on How to Spend a Long Weekend in Mackinaw City, Michigan.

Welcome sign for Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park
ehrlif / Shutterstock.com

2. Mill Creek Historic Discovery Park, Mackinaw City

Mill Creek Historic Discovery Park, located 3 miles south of Mackinaw City, is the perfect place for birdwatchers who want to include the whole family on their outing. The site, located in a 625-acre northern hardwood forest, was integral to Michigan’s lumber industry during the 18and century. Today, a replica of a steam sawmill is part of the experience. Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park is one of Michigan’s iconic state parks and combines nature, history and adventure.

My family started at the visitor center, where bird feeders attract pileated woodpeckers, white-throated sparrows, rose-breasted cardinals and red-breasted nuthatches. We enjoyed the close up view of the birds and the visitor center provided our family history buffs with a 15 minute film, The Power of Water: The Mill Creek Story.

As the 50-foot-tall observation tower took us to a spot high in the treetops, where we could spot Baltimore orioles, black warblers, and scarlet tanagers, we also had stunning views of the bridge. Mackinac. The tower is also a great place to view other birds that love this part of the forest, such as red-winged hawks, bald eagles and goshawks. During the spring migration, you may even spot a golden eagle.

Take the challenge of the climbing wall, where you can see nests in the cavities like the Pileated Woodpecker and the Saw-whet Owl in the holes in the wall. Birdsong marks your climbing milestones as you ascend the five-story wall. You’ll find so much to do here with nature trails, ziplines and hands-on activities – allow at least half a day for your visit.

Pro Tip: Mackinaw City is the best place to eat when visiting the park. If you want to try one of Michigan’s signature dishes, pastie, Hunt’s Mackinaw Pastie and Cookie Company is open year-round.

Kirtland's warbler perched on a tree branch
Kirtland’s Warbler (Photo credit: Michigan DNR)

3. Rockport State Recreation Area and Besser Nature Area

With over 4,200 acres to explore, Rockport State Recreation Area and Besser Nature Area feature a variety of bird habitats. The woods and lowlands of the region are nesting habitats for hermit and wood thrushes, winter wrens and several types of warblers. Also, as the site includes the shoreline of Lake Huron, we saw many migrating waterfowl.

Located on the north side of the Rockport State Recreation Area, you can access the Besser Natural Area from Grand Lake Road. The pines here are a nesting area for American redstarts and pine warblers. Although the Besser Nature Area is not open in the winter, the one-mile hiking loop takes you through various woodland habitats from spring through fall.

Pro Tip: Up North 23 Restaurant and Lounge, located on the shore of Lake Huron, is the perfect place to take in stunning views while enjoying a meal on the patio. The chef sources ingredients from local farmers, including the components for the famous homemade barbecue fries. Since the owners of the restaurant are potato farmers, the fries couldn’t be much fresher.

Pied-billed Grebe in Alpena, Michigan
Pied-billed Grebe (Focused Adventures / Shutterstock.com)

4. Alpena Wildlife Sanctuary, Alpena

Located at the northern end of Alpena, Alpena Wildlife Sanctuary is a 500-acre wildlife sanctuary that includes a birding site. The marsh area and the lazy Thunder Bay River provide nesting habitats for marsh birds, including the least bittern.

What I like the most about this region is the variety of ways to observe the birds. The 17-acre island park features several nature trails and wooden viewing platforms in various environments. You will see woods, dunes, meadows and swampy areas. During the summer months we go kayaking for closer birding.

Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, located adjacent to northwest Lake Huron, is one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the Great Lakes. They named this area “Shipwreck Alley” because the fog and other unpredictable weather conditions associated with the rocky shoreline claimed the lives of approximately 200 ships in the Thunder Bay area. Free entry.

Pro Tip: All that hiking and kayaking will make you hungry, so try Red Brick Tap and Barrel, where they offer everything from salmon tacos to veggie gyros and wagyu beef burgers. Specialty cocktails and an impressive whiskey collection complete the menu.

Sturgeon Point Lighthouse in Michigan
I saw / Shuttertock.com

5. Sturgeon Point Lighthouse State Recreation Area, Harrisville

Located 8 km north of Harrisville, Sturgeon Point Lighthouse State Recreation Area is a 60-acre state park. I always get excited when I see a bald eagle, and here we often soar above the lighthouse.

A variety of species migrate through the area and use the 1.5 mile shoal that juts out into Lake Huron as a gathering point. As a result, you’ll see nesting species including yellow warblers, red-eyed vireos, redstarts, and the popular northern cardinals. Lake Huron offers the perfect habitat for these birds, from lake grasses in wetlands to mature forests and dunes.

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Quarters is now a maritime museum open from Memorial Day to mid-September. Admission to the museum is free.

Pro Tip: After birding, stop by Alcona Brew Haus for a burger and a beer. If you prefer a Michigan classic, try their walleye dinner.

Canada goose with baby goose
Photo credit: Amy Piper

Located about 5 miles west of Oscoda, Foote Site Park & ​​Foote Tailwater Site is a waterfowl paradise. I particularly appreciate the trumpeter swans that nest offshore. You might even surprise a mom taking the babies out for a swimming lesson.

If you are adventurous, you can go boating or kayaking on the Au Sable to get a closer look at the birds that inhabit the water. You will see geese, a variety of ducks, Caspian terns, belted kingfishers, blue herons and loons.

Near the picnic area you hear the red-headed woodpeckers. Around the Foote Tailwater site, you may see bald eagles, a crow or red-headed vultures.

Pro Tip: Tait’s Bill of Fare is a fine dining experience in a relaxed atmosphere. Check their daily specials on their Facebook page.

Editor’s Note: Because Foote Site Park and Foote Tailwater Site are not Google Map locations, they are marked with their GPS coordinates (44.4317, -83.45138) on the map above.

Tawas Point Lighthouse in East Tawas, Michigan
Tawas Point Lighthouse (Photo credit: Amy Piper)

7. Tawas Point State Park, East Tawas

Although Tawas Point State Park is on Michigan’s Sunrise Coast, it is technically on the Saginaw Bay Birdwatching Trail. I mention this because during peak migrations, Tawas Point is world famous for its large numbers of migrating warblers. You will also see raptors and shorebirds at Tawas Point. May is prime time on this site.

You can also find more birding sites through eBird. The Explore Hotspots feature will show you great places in Michigan – the orange to red colored pins with the highest number of species seen there.

Pro Tip: Mangos Mexican Cuisine and Tequila Bar offer traditional Mexican cuisine accompanied by excellent margaritas. Serve fajitas with your favorite flavor of frozen margarita.

If you want to explore more of Michigan’s east coast, check out these articles:

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