Spring Migration in the Great Lakes region is full of incredible bird watching opportunities! Migratory birds have descended upon the region as they head back to their breeding grounds after spending their winter along the Gulf Coast, or farther south in Central and South America. The Great Lakes lie at the intersection of two migratory flyways, or superhighways, which brings over 350 bird species through the Great Lakes region each spring!
One aspect of migration that might surprise you is how precisely timed migration is for certain species. Bird species in Central America don’t all take off at the same time. Instead, their departures are staggered based upon ancient patterns tied to food and habitat availability. For a species like the Tree Swallow, its unique ability to adjust its normal diet of insects to eat berries allows it to migrate northward earlier than all other swallow species, which all rely on a stricter insect-only diet, a food source only available in warmer weather.
Birds are easier to identify in the spring because many of them have swapped their drab fall and winter plumage for brighter and more decorative summer breeding plumage that may be easier to spot. Additionally, many birds are singing their unique songs at this time of year, allowing bird watchers to practice birding by ear.
As we enter April, migration in the Great Lakes will peak with the arrival of many sparrows, Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. American Woodcock breeding activity will also peak this month, making these birds easier to observe. The American Woodcock, also known as the timberdoodle, has a unique display that involves a dramatic “sky dance” in which they make a twittering sound with their wings, followed up by a distinct nasal “peent” call from the ground.
April is also a great time to get your hummingbird feeders out. Our only hummingbird species that regularly occurs in the Great Lakes, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, typically begins to arrive in mid-April to early May. By mid-April coastal wetlands along the Great Lakes will also be chock full of migrating waterfowl, Common Loons, and marsh bird species such as the Pied-billed Grebe. Spring raptor migration peaks around the end of the month and into May with species such as Broad-winged Hawks moving through the region by the tens of thousands!
May is perhaps the most exciting month in spring migration throughout the Great Lakes as small gem-like birds called warblers, medium-sized thrushes and orioles arrive in great numbers. These woodland and forest birds fill our morning air with song and can be found dripping off the vegetation at Great Lakes woodlands and even urban parks as they rest and refuel on their journey north.
If you’re new to bird watching or birding check out Audubon’s resource “How to Start Birding.”
Want to plan a spring birding trip but not sure where to start? Visit Cornell’s BirdCast for a bird migration forecast to help you plan your trip or head out to one of the following Great Lakes spring migration hotspots.
Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, Chicago, IL
Check out the Chicago Region birding trail guide.
- Tawas Point State Park, Iosco County, MI (home of the Tawas Point Birding Festival, cancelled in 2021)
- Whitefish Point, MI (home of the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory)
- Explore one of Michigan’s 103 Important Bird Areas
- Visit one of MIchigan's 12 Birding Trails
- Want to see an American Woodcock, Ruffed or Spruce Grouse in action? Visit a Grouse Enhanced Management Site (GEMS).
- Visit one of Michigan’s Seven Wetland Wonders! These State Wildlife and Game Areas double as Important Bird Areas and are critical resting and refueling areas for migratory waterfowl, water birds, marsh birds, shorebirds, and songbirds alike! Call the local Wetland Wonder DNR field office for tips on where to go.
Magee Marsh in Ohio (home of the Biggest Week in Birding Festival and the Black Swamp Bird Observatory)
Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge and State Wildlife Area in Horicon, Wisconsin (hosts an annual festival in May)
Wisconsin Point, Superior, WI