Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Copper Country Birds II: To Copper Harbor and Back

My parents at Bete Grise Nature Preserve

For part two of my Copper Country Birding Adventure, I will detail our excursions to Keweenaw County, not too far from my parents' home in Calumet. My impression of Houghton County is: rugged, scrubby, historic (the bones of abandoned buildings from the mining era appear to be everywhere), working class, birdy but not especially scenic. On the other hand, my impressions of Keweenaw County are: natural, scenic, blue and watery, touristy, a hiker's paradise.

These impressions aren't necessarily accurate. There are plenty of tourist attractions and hiking trails in Houghton County, and certainly a lot of historical mining sites in Keweenaw. I would not want to discourage birders, or anyone else, from visiting either. Regardless, these are the images that come to mind when I think of the two counties.

As I love the drive to Copper Harbor and back, that was my most often requested excursion, and this post includes details from four separate trips.

Bete Grise and Bete Grise Nature Preserve

My first request was to venture to Bete Grise, where the Nature Conservancy purchased some of the coastline as a nature preserve, and further down the coastline to the public beach, where other birders had recently spotted some interesting species such as black-bellied plover and loggerhead shrike.

I should mention at the outset that, in the nature of a true nemesis bird, the loggerhead shrike did not make and appearance. It seems I can only find shrikes by accident, not when I'm looking for one. Oh, well. That's better than not seeing shrikes at all.

On our first visit to Bete Grise, the morning was still quite chilly when we arrived. Warblers were singing all around us, and we got good looks at northern parula, yellow-rumped, Magnolia, and Canada warblers, the latter a life bird for my parents. It was probably one of the easiest times I've had finding warblers. All we had to do was walk around the parking areas and along the side of the road. I was especially pleased to see a merlin, as they are not that common in Illinois. And that early on a weekday morning, before the tourist season really takes off, we had the place to ourselves.

Of course, there is always the one that got away. While Sunwiggy and I were looking for warblers in the trees around the parking area at the Nature Preserve, my dad slipped off in chase of an unusual bird. He came back and flipped through the field guide, stating that he thought it might have been a northern mockingbird. He has seen gray jays and shrikes in the past, and was certain it wasn't one of those.

My dad enjoys birding, but he's not the obsessive type that I am. He doesn't keep lists or chase birds. In fact, he's adamant that he is a bird-watcher, and not a birder. This might actually be a tribute to his relative sanity, and I personally applaud any interest in birds, from the acquaintance who describes a goldfinch and asks if I know what it might be, to the kind of obsessive sort described in books like The Big Year. It's all good. I just mention his level of birding enthusiasm so as not to create a rumor of a mockingbird sighting on the Keweenaw, although it's possible. My dad has turned out to be right in the past. (I'm thinking in particular of an episode involving a black-billed cuckoo.)

Mockingbird or not, he'd certainly piqued my interest, and we wandered the preserve for another fifteen minutes or so in the hopes of re-locating his mystery bird. Alas, it had disappeared forever into the trees. Although the mystery remains unsolved, this sort of thing is part of what makes birding so enjoyable for me.

coastal marshland at Bete Grise

I wish I could go back and spend a whole day just exploring this area. I've been doing more reading about it since then, and it turns out that it is the most important coastal marsh habitat remaining in the region. So much of the area is being developed for expensive lakefront cabins and vacation homes, and it's really amazing that the preserve was spared the same fate.

Copper Harbor

There's something about Copper Harbor. It's a small town, often filled with tourists in the summertime and snow-mobilers in the winter, and it's no mystery why it's so popular. It's one of the prettiest spots I have been to, with a campground and historic site (Fort Wilkins Historic State Park), and lots and lots of coastline and blue water. And more to the point, it's incredibly birdy, with several trails and birding hotspots to explore.

We walked along the waterfront, finding lots of common mergansers in the harbor, and saw alder flycatchers, ruby-throated hummingbirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks, red-eyed vireos, yellow warblers, American redstarts, Nashville warblers and others in the shrubs and willows along the roads in town. Once again, it made for an easy pace and yet a satisfying number of species. This was also the only place I found loons on my trip (and what's a northern birding excursion without loons?), one seen in the harbor itself and one on the lake by Fort Wilkins.

common loon

The best selection of birds was in the area known as "Clyde's Pond," an area with a large field and pond and shrubby habitat. The more open area provided redstarts, Wilson's warbler, Tennessee warbler, indigo bunting, chestnut-sided warbler, eastern bluebird and flyover sandhill cranes, while the biking trails behind provided a good walk (the "Stairway to Heaven" is a rather steep trail going up into the woods) and some new species: Blackburnian and black-throated green warblers. The Blackburnian was a special treat, as I had never heard one singing before, and they are just such beautiful birds.

Once again, I could have spent twice the time here and still barely touched on all the places I'd like to see. A week is just not long enough!

Brockway Mountain

In the birding community, Brockway Mountain is probably best known for hawk-watching. We were too late for the hawk migration, although there were still plenty of broad-winged and red-tailed hawks in the area. Still, one of the short nature trails on the mountain was one of the more interesting walks of my trip.

Much of the habitat in Keweenaw County can be characterized as cedar or conifer swamps, a very different ecosystem from my beloved prairies and oak savannas of Illinois, but very interesting. As you might expect of a habitat described as a "swamp," a lot of these trails were kind of murky and buggy.

Contributing to the mysterious "vibe" of the area was the usnea hanging from the trees. Usnea is a lichen, used in herbal medicine as a cough medicine, antibiotic, and for immune system support. Northern parula use it to build their nests, and not surprisingly, there are a lot of parula in the woods here.


Other warblers that enjoy these dense woods include black-throated green and black-throated blue. I'd especially been hoping to see a black-throated blue, as they visit Illinois only as uncommon migrants on their way to and from their breeding grounds, and I was not disappointed. Getting a photo was another story, however. Dark and murky habitats make getting good pictures a bit of a challenge.

black-throated blue warbler

This is one place where the birder's adage, "The magic is over by eight o'clock" is appropriate. Personally, I would extend the "magic time" to nine or, on colder mornings, even ten; but after that, the birds stop moving around and become almost impossible to see. The foliage is dense, the canopy high. Once they stopped feeding around mid-morning, I could hear them singing all around me, but rarely got a glimpse. How I wish I were an early morning person!

Black Creek Nature Sanctuary

I took one day of my trip just to hike the trails at Black Creek Nature Sanctuary with my dad. This was actually my favorite walk, not necessarily for the birds that I saw (although there were some good ones) as for the variety of habitat and interesting scenery.

Two creeks intersect the sanctuary, and trail also takes you past some of the Lake Superior shoreline. Swainson's thrush and ovenbirds were very common here, and I also got good looks at blue-headed vireo, magnolia and black-throated green warblers, and red-breasted nuthatches. The flyer provided by the trail head shows a photo of a spruce grouse, but I was not so foolish as to get my hopes up for one of those. Sometimes other people see spruce grouse in the Upper Peninsula. But I have come to accept that it is not to be. (Luckily I saw one in Minnesota last winter, or I'd be getting downright crabby.)

The far end of the trail also has a large expanse of stamp sand, coarse "sand" created by the copper mining process, when the rocks were crushed in order to extract the ore. The left-over sand creates an interesting, if not very welcoming, landscape. Little seems to be able to grow where the stamp sand was deposited, and it can contain traces of heavy metals such as arsenic, which can pollute streams and rivers. But that is all a topic for another day. In any case, the stamp sands don't seem to have spoiled the sanctuary.


Birdiness factor: Very good, but this is one place where getting out early definitely makes a difference. At this time of year, breeding warblers and other songbirds seem to be the main attraction.

Best birds of trip: the black-throated blue warbler seen on Brockway Mountain; the blue-headed vireo and ovenbirds at Black Creek Nature Sanctuary; the common loons at Copper Harbor; the Blackburnian warbler behind Clyde's field; and a total surprise, a wild turkey a saw running across someone's lawn while driving through the small town of Gay.

If you want to bird here: I feel like I've just skated the surface of places to bird in Keweenaw County, and I certainly wasn't disappointed in any of the spots we visited. If time is limited to just a couple of days, at this time of year I would recommend doing some shorter woodsy trails in the morning, when the birds are still active (there are two short trails on Brockway Mountain and the Hunter's Point trail at Copper Harbor, as good places to start), and then check out the birds in Copper Harbor and along the water. If a longer hike is what you're in the mood for, the Black Creek Nature Sanctuary trail is awesome, with some great birds, but probably won't provide the maximum variety of species for the time spent there.

On my next trip (the great thing about having family here is I know there will be a "next trip"), I plan to explore more of the trails and sites owned by the North Woods Conservancy. They seem to be doing a lot of good work to preserve areas for conservation and public enjoyment, and I would like to support them in the future.

Have you been birding in Keweenaw County? Where would you recommend?

1 comment:

  1. I am especially cherishing the memories of seeing my first-ever Canada warbler, and seeing again the beautiful black-throated blue warbler and the Blackburnian warbler. Thanks for the link to the North Woods Conservancy! I have informed your dad that we're going to check them out, and visit some of their sanctuaries. Next time you visit, I'll have some new places to show you! MOM