2023 Fall Color and Macro Tour Report

AuTrain Falls, (c) Josh Haas

My final tour of 2023 focused on fall color and macro opportunities in Michigan’s beautiful upper peninsula. Our small group of intrepid color chasers assembled and car-pooled North, enjoying the build-up of color as we approached the famed Mackinac Bridge; one of Michigan’s most iconic features. It was a mixed group of color chasers chasing stunning views and photographers chasing stunning images with the secondary goal of learning photographic techniques.

Our first color stop included the North Cut River Bridge along Hwy-2. This beautiful area features a valley with moving water below and beautiful foliage looking to the North. The cantilevered steel bridge itself is a wonder to experience with stairs and trails that offer access on, around and under the structure. After taking in the views from our first stop, we finished our drive and arrived to our house on Lake Powell, just south of Munising, MI. Evolving these tours to a single lodging environment allows the group to spend more time together. Everyone had their own private space but the living and dining area proved very beneficial.

Waking up refreshed, we enjoyed a homemade breakfast and made our way to our first waterfalls; Munising and Wagner Falls. These falls are among the easiest to access and most iconic in the area. Recent rains also provided greater water flow which made them especially photogenic. For our less photography-minded participants, I was even able to teach how to take their phone photography up a level. Either way, some in our group had previously viewed these falls but agreed they looked different. As with everything in nature, things change and evolve. 

North Cut River Bridge, (c) Josh Haas

Wagner Falls was especially different due to more fallen trees changing the flow of water and causing some distraction. This was a perfect example to show how thinking creatively about composition and isolating only certain areas of a scene can be a smart plan-b. Our plan-b ended up including some nice bits of color which was placed well compositionally alongside the waterfall.

Wagner Falls (isolated section), (c) Josh Haas

Our last area for the day included the AuTrain river which offered waterfalls and smaller opportunities before we made a stop along Michigan’s big sea, Gitche Gumee. High winds are not a photographer’s best friend for long exposure waterfall techniques, however high winds out of the North stirred Lake Superior to an oceanic scale.

AuTrain Lower Falls, (c) Josh Haas
Lake Superior Phone Capture, (c) Josh Haas

For our third day, we drove East; deeper into the Pictured Rocks lakeshore. The color was good but also somewhat spotty. My goal was to drive the entire length to the Grand Marais side and begin with the impressive Sable Falls. By driving through first, it gave us a chance to scout some of the better areas of color and then make stops as we traveled back to the West. Sable Falls was a mini-adventure in itself, given the 168 stairs down to the main viewing area. The sign reminded us it’s not just going down, we had the 168 stairs to come back up as well! I worked with participants on capturing the light, waterfall techniques as well as composition, especially noting the times when going vertical (portrait) should be considered. Photographer Liz Clark even captured a short video of this beautiful slice of nature. She loved the three-tiered flow of water flowing over the rocks. It was a great example of looking for art in nature.

Sable Falls Video, (c) Liz Clark

Sable Falls, (c) Josh Haas
Bald Eagle, (c) Josh Haas

We chose the Beaver Basin area for our color stop on the way back to Munising. This was a slight departure from the waterfalls we had been working so far. With an expansive vista view, the group loved seeing a vast blanket of color and even Lake Superior in the distance. We finished the afternoon enjoying some local coffee and ice cream before returning to home base. Some took advantage of some well-earned rest and a few of us sauntered off to a park nearby called the Robert McQuisten Recreation Area. The beautifully maintained boardwalks rewarded us with dandy views of two Bald Eagles as we traversed the forest and wetland.

Each area we visited on this tour provided ample time for viewing and photographing the main events but also proved great for exploring and finding as many other unique opportunities as possible. As we headed South we even made a side trip in the lower peninsula to the famed Dead Man’s Hill overlook, another vista view. The Grayling and Gaylord areas are often rich with color at the same time as the central upper peninsula.

This group did a wonderful job pushing themselves to learn, be active outdoors and move forward with a sense of adventure. Looking ahead to 2024, there will definitely be both birding adventures and photographic endeavors to come.

Beaver Basin Vista, (c) Josh Haas

Michigan Raptor Migration Teaching Network

Group Scanning the Skies

My wife Kara and I had a great day of birding recently; hawk-watching, chatting and enjoying lunch & cookies with a great group of educators!  We have officially kicked off the Michigan Raptor Migration Teaching Network (MRMTN) with an in-person field trip to the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch! We organized this trip as a pre-conference offering as part of the Michigan Alliance for Outdoor and Environmental Education’s annual conference. Eight educators from across the state gathered to experience hawk-watching for the first time.

Mother nature did not disappoint! Even with strong East winds, birds were attempting the 4 mile Straits crossing and giving us great close up views. Winds out of the north at a slightly subdued speed would have favored migration and potentially higher numbers but the stronger winds put smaller birds lower which captured the awe of onlookers.

We were able to watch a variety of raptors including Sharp-shinned Hawks, Broad-winged Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Turkey Vultures, Bald Eagles, an Osprey, a Cooper’s Hawk and a Merlin all moving South! At the end of our visit, we were even treated to large groups of Sandhill Cranes in migratory groups.

Jeff Dykehouse, MSRW

Our location is the fall count site of the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch (MSRW), which is a non-profit that conducts scientific research on migrating birds of prey in the Straits of Mackinac area of Michigan. We were fortunate to have Ed Pike, an ambassador of MSRW, provide an overview of the history and current research dedicated to protecting this important flyway. We also met with Jeff Dykehouse, a Monarch butterfly researcher who was catching and tagging Monarchs in migration.

Monarch Butterfly, (c) Josh Haas

In Fall, the views of the Straits from the hawkwatch are spectacular.  With warm temperatures, the bridge behind us and beautifully lit skies to the North, it made for a great day to be in Northern Michigan. One of our participants, Svetlana Iretskaya, was even taking photographs of the birds in flight and shared some of her great images with us!

Raptors over the Straits of Mackinac, (c) Svetlana Iretskaya

Thank you to those that joined us and made this experience so full! The conversations about raptor ID, the importance of hawk counting for conservation and the beauty of our surroundings were all soul filling. The simple lunch of Subway subs and fresh made cookies from The Wild Blueberry in St. Ignace tasted so good in the field (both of which offered us opportunities to infuse some resources into the local St. Ignace community). 

Group Photo

Thank you for joining us to kick off the Michigan Raptor Migration Teaching Network (MRMTN). MRMTN is a new program of Hawk Migration Association of North America which will support K-12 educators in experiencing and sharing the science of raptor migration with Michigan students.

Related presentations about MRMTN will be Friday, Sept. 29 during the MAEOE conference and on Thursday, Oct. 26 at the Kellogg Biological Station’s K-12 Partnership Fall Workshop.

Want to learn more about MRMTN? Please join the mailing list. We plan to send out newsletters and keep those interested in the know of what we’re doing.

Michigan Young Birder Meet-up, RAPTORS!

Young Birders Working on their Junior Guides

I’m stoked to be partnering with Michigan Audubon this year; leading four meet-ups with a focus on young birders. The goal is simple: Get young birders and their families outside together to see that other like-minded young friends are out there with similar interests. These meet-ups are a part of Michigan Audubon’s Young Birder Network. The Michigan Young Birders Network is a program of Michigan Audubon that aims to connect young birders, ages 13–18, offering a space for them to share their enthusiasm for the avian world.

Our recent September meet-up focused on raptor migration along the shores of Lake Erie. We focused our time at the Detroit River Hawkwatch, a popular migration site known for diversity and large numbers of Broad-winged Hawks in September. Anyone who knows how raptor migration works knows good flights are difficult to predict. Weather, winds and species timing make all the difference and when planning a meet-up months in advance, we can’t possibly know what will happen the day of. However, in mid-September, the likelihood of Broad-winged Hawk numbers is good so we targeted this species as the main draw to young birders and their families.

Detroit River Hawkwatch

Five young birders met on a beautiful mid-September day with warm temperatures on predicted Northeast winds for at least the first part of the day. Northeast winds are an excellent direction for the Detroit River Hawkwatch. While the watch site is at a single point of land, winds can push flights of birds North or South making the birds very distant to see. A North component to the overall wind is a great start for Fall migration. Adding some East in can put birds much closer to the watch site.

Broad-winged Hawk, (c) Josh Haas
Sharp-shinned Hawk, (c) Josh Haas
American Kestrel, (c) Josh Haas
Broad-winged Hawks, (c) Josh Haas

As luck would have it, the 1030-1130 hour brought over 10,000 Broad-winged Hawks directly in-front, overhead and behind the site, providing spectacular views for our entire group. In addition, Sharp-shinned Hawks were on the move and we even tallied a handful of American Kestrels, which was particularly exciting for one of our young birders.

In addition to stellar hawk-watching, we gave the birders a new Junior Hawkwatcher Guide we recently updated with the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA). The young birders loved the raptor migration-related activities and seeing them diligently working through the guide was especially gratifying. For more information on HMANA’s junior hawkwatcher program and to get a FREE Junior Hawkwatcher Guide, click HERE.

All in all, it was another successful meet-up. Our last and final meet-up for this year will be November 4th at the Muskegon Wastewater property where we’ll experience large rafts of Ducks and a good possibility for migrant Golden Eagles. We would love to have your family join us for this meet-up.  Please contact Lindsay Cain at Michigan Audubon for more information. These meet-ups are welcome to all and an informal way of birding and enjoying time with like-minded friends. A young birder aged 13-18 is required in your party.

Inspiring Hawkwatchers and a Raptor ID Overview

I was asked to provide a Raptor ID program recently for the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch as part of their “Raptors Revealed” virtual speaker series.  Rather than providing the same ‘ol ID program, I added much more to the introduction inspiring birders as to why we love experiencing raptor migration but also why it’s vital to be deliberate in sharing this pastime with others, especially those younger than us.  I really enjoyed this program and hope you will too!

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Experiencing Migration East of Toledo

After missing Spring migration in 2020 due to the pandemic, we vowed to do everything we can to not let that happen again. Enter a travel trailer. We are now traveling in our own little bubble following the birds. This has proven great as we’ve experienced raptor migration at the Whitefish Pt. Bird Observatory as well as passerine migration East of Toledo. We’re comfortable, socially distanced and experiencing quality time in nature.


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2020 Fall Sandhill Crane Count

Every Fall I look forward to joining my friends at Michigan Audubon to tally the number of Sandhill Cranes coming into roost at the Kiwanis and Baker Sanctuary properties.  However, this year would be different due to the pandemic.  As luck would have it, the count site has ample space to social distance so three of us settled in and prepared for a gorgeous evening of Fall birding as the sun was setting upon a mostly clear sky.

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Virtual Bird Walk

The 2020 pandemic has us all craving engagement and part of what has been lost is birding in groups; learning from each other and experiencing migration.  In the Spring, we featured many virtual bird walks streaming LIVE through the camera lens for all to see.  We tried hard to include the personal side of bird walks with tips on ID, life history for the birds we saw and stories from Josh on experiences he has had over the years.

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Spring Has Sprung in the Midwest

Harbingers of spring for us Michiganders include the return of a few key bird species.  In Southwest Michigan birds like Turkey Vultures, Song Sparrows and American Robins are the ones that get our blood pumping for the return of warmth and longer days.  As things progress a bit further we await the first Eastern Phoebe or get ready for the big numbers of ducks and raptors to come in on their way North.

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Let Us Help You Sight In Your Binoculars!

If you have ever struggled with seeing a clear picture through your binoculars or the picture has always been fuzzy, there is a chance your optics aren’t dialed in specifically to your unique eyes.  Many binoculars offer manual adjustment to one of the individual optics because most people’s left and right eyes aren’t matched.  Often times, people are unaware of this and think it’s them when many times there is a fix for the problem.

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2020 Spring Migration is On!

The temperatures in Southwest Michigan are still on the chilly side but birds, especially Raptors are on the move North.  Many Golden Eagles have been sighted moving through Michigan and many other species are on the move as well.  Along with Goldens, it’s not too hard to see small kettles of buteos like Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks.  Before we know it, massive groups of Broad-winged Hawks will be in our area as temperatures begin to rise and the days lengthen.  Get outside and look up!

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