By Christine Williamson

The seventh annual Chicago Ornithological Society trip to the East Tawas area of lower peninsula of northern Michigan was a resounding success with a collective 147 species seen by 15 participants and their intrepid guide, Sam Burckhardt.

The late May trip to Iosco County was timed to capture the peak of breeding season, with a focus on the federally endangered Kirtland’s Warbler.

Kirtland’s Warblers only nest in the scrubby habitat left after a fire within a Jack Pine forest. Local and federal wildlife authorities have successfully replicated the warbler’s preferred habitat which now is filled with breeding Kirtland’s Warbler pairs. Our group saw and heard 12 singing males at close range within the designated Kirtland’s Warbler management area.

One of the 12 male endangered Kirtland's Warblers seen in their protected habitat in Iosco County, Mich. Photo credit: Sam Burckhardt

One of the 12 male endangered Kirtland's Warblers seen in their protected habitat in Iosco County, Mich.
Photo credit: Sam Burckhardt

The birding route Sam planned took the group to dense forests, lakeside beaches, vast inland marshes and scrubby roadside areas where the early-morning bird chorus was truly amazing.

In terms of family groups, the COS team racked up the following numbers of mostly of breeding species: shorebirds, 8; terns, 4; cranes, herons, egrets and bitterns, 5; woodpeckers and their cousins, 6; waterfowl including ducks, swans, grebes, cormorants, loons, 10; swallows, 4 ; flycatchers, 8; wrens, 3; vireos, 5; warblers, 22; and sparrows, 9.

Upland Sandpiper, up close and personal, at Wurtsmith Air Force Base near Tawas, Mich. Photo credit: Sam Burckhardt

Upland Sandpiper, up close and personal, at Wurtsmith Air Force Base near Tawas, Mich.
Photo credit: Sam Burckhardt

Other amazing sightings included Common Nighthawks flying during the day when skies were cloudy and also resting on branches; Turkeys feeding in roadside fields; Upland Sandpipers settling into grassland habitat at a decommissioned Air Force base; a mated pair of American Bitterns soaring together over Tuttle Marsh Wildlife Area in a twilight territorial display; and American Woodcocks displaying over a meadow after dark at The Sanctuary Sam and Richard Wilson call home.

Speaking of territorial displays, Tuttle Marsh was the chosen nesting spot by a pair of Osprey as well as a pair of Bald Eagles. Each family occupied their own nesting platform/tree, but a marsh as vast as the Tuttle wildlife area apparently wasn’t big enough for the male Osprey. He mounted a concerted, prolonged attack on one of the eagles as it flew over the marsh to its nest. The aerial acrobatics were astonishing, especially the way the eagle could flip over onto its back in the air in an instant to aim its talons at the Osprey.

Be sure to check out Dion Carmona’s amazing photo capturing this breathtaking moment!

Osprey vs. Bald Eagle aerial territory skirmish over Tuttle Marsh Wildlife Area in Iosco County, Mich. Photo credit: Dion Carmona

Osprey vs. Bald Eagle aerial territory skirmish over Tuttle Marsh Wildlife Area in Iosco County, Mich.
Photo credit: Dion Carmona

Heard – and felt in the center of one’s chest – but not seen was a Ruffed Grouse drumming on a resonant hollow log in a woodland so dense, the group couldn’t discern the bird for the trees. Eastern Whip-poor-wills also were heard but not seen after dark.

Whimbrels and Ruddy Turnstones on a sandbar bar off Tawas Point State Park Photo credit: Sam Burckhardt

Whimbrels and Ruddy Turnstones on a sandbar bar off Tawas Point State Park
Photo credit: Sam Burckhardt

For the first time since Sam and Richard purchased The Sanctuary, a pair of Sandhill Cranes nested on an island in the small pond on the property and successfully hatched two chicks, known as colts. Everyone on the trip instantly fell in love with the chestnut-colored fluff balls and checked on their progress through a scope whenever we returned to our base.

In addition to amazing birding, the group stayed in Sam and Richard’s gorgeous house and newly remodeled guest lodge. The food, the drinks, the companionship and the birds made the trip the most fun a birder could have.

The good news is that Sam and Richard now are offering accommodations in the lodge for visitors who want to bird the area, visit craft breweries and great restaurants, find great fudge and enjoy the uncrowded sandy beaches along Lake Huron.

For more information about staying at The Sanctuary, go to www.sanctuarybirding.com.