My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Muskegon Wastewater treatment facility, drive-by birding

On Sunday, May 27th, I went to the Muskegon wastewater treatment facility for a day of birding. OK, so who goes to a wastewater treatment facility to do some birding? Apparently, quite a few people do, as the Muskegon County wastewater facility is well-known among birders as being a great spot to go. There are even several websites devoted to birding there. That’s where I went this past winter to get photos of the snowy owls that had come south out of Canada. You can see photos of the owl, and learn more about birding at the facility, including info on obtaining a pass by clicking this link to my previous post about the facility.

As so often happens, I went there to attempt to photograph a couple of specific species of birds, in this case eagles and kestrels, but came away with out photos of them, but of many other species instead. I saw both of the species I went there for, but never close enough to even attempt a photo. But, I do love it when I get back from one of these trips and have to do some bird identifications before I can post something here. And, I love it when I come back with a personal best photo of a subject!

Now then, as for why I included “drive-by birding” in the title of this post. For one thing, that seems to be the way that every one else goes about it there at the facility. I noticed that the first time I was there, except for with the snowy owl, every one drives very slowly along the roads in the facility, using binoculars and spotting scopes to view the birds. On my previous visit, I thought that it was because of the bone chilling wind, and at first during the trip yesterday, I thought that it was because of the heat. I don’t think the weather has anything to do with it, it is because of the birds and the lay out of the facility.

When I arrived there yesterday, I drove to the place where I wanted to start looking for birds, parked my vehicle, and began walking, despite the heat. That didn’t work very well at all. Except for the turkey vultures that came over to investigate me….

Turkey vulture in flight

…and this young red-breasted merganser that didn’t know any better…

Horned grebe

… the rest of the birds were long gone before I could get them within camera range, or I should say within range of a good photo.

A mixed flock of ducks

A mixed flock of ducks

I walked the entire half mile down one side of the man-made lake, and it was like the parting of the Red Sea as I went along. All the ducks in the previous two photos were on, or close to shore to begin with, but as I got closer, they headed out into the lake. Once I had passed them, they returned to shore.

OK, this isn’t working, there’s no place for me to hide, no cover at all on top of the berm that contains the lake, I’ll have to try something different, I thought to myself. So I walked back to my vehicle, chasing the ducks away from shore on my return trek, but with a difference. I caught this little fawn in all its cuteness on the other side of the berm.

Whitetail fawn

Whitetail fawn

Those are my best photos of a fawn, ever, so I was very happy about that!

I made it back to my vehicle, drove about half way down the end of the lake, and tried again, same result, the birds all swam or flew away before I could get good photos. But, I could see other vehicles parked on the road with ducks staying right on shore for the people in those vehicles.

I may be dense, but not so dense as to see that the birds are used to cars driving slowly along the road, but not used to people walking, so I did what every one else does, drove slowly along the road.

Male northern shoveler

Female northern shoveler

Male northern shoveler

Female northern shoveler

Male gadwall duck in flight

A pair of gadwall ducks

Spotted sandpiper

Spotted sandpiper

This seems to be working much better! What else can I photograph from my vehicle?

Spotted sandpiper in flight

Tree swallow

Horned grebe diving

Red-tailed hawk

Sure glad my vehicle has a sunroof to make some of these shots possible!


Since we’re on deer…

Whitetail deer

Whitetail deer

Whitetail deer fawn sleeping

Whitetail deer

It quite surprised me how many deer I was seeing out in the open during the middle of a very hot afternoon, the place is crawling with them!

Herring gulls by the thousands!

But even the number of deer paled in comparison to the number of gulls!

Herring gull in flight

Herring gull in flight

It isn’t just the waterfowl, wading birds, gulls, or deer that you’ll see if you visit the facility, there are far too many other species to list, or post photos of.

I saw, but didn’t get good photos of, meadowlark, both eastern and western, indigo buntings, eastern kingbirds by the hundreds, bluebirds, orioles, grosbeaks (both rose breasted and evening), and far too many others to even list. But that’s not all.

There are plots planted with lupines and other flowers for the endangered Karner blue butterflies, so there are the flowers to photograph as well.

Wild lupine

Yellow wildflower


I didn’t catch any of the karner blues, by then it was late afternoon/early evening, and I didn’t have any eagle pictures yet. There is a trail (road) that runs around the northern border of the wastewater facility, in a more wooded area as opposed to the southern part which is the man-made lakes and open farmed fields that I spent some time both driving and walking, I need to go back and walk most or all of it. There’s cover there for me to do my birding in my usual way. 😉

But, since I didn’t have any eagle photos, and I know that I’ll be back there again, I’ll try for the karner blues another time. Instead, I headed a few short miles west to Muskegon State Park, one of my favorite places close to home., and one of the best places to get eagle photos in lower Michigan.

I went to the eagle nest that I know about, and staked it out for a good hour or more, but never saw either of the parents return to the nest. I did manage a few no so good photos of the young ones though.

Eaglets in their nest

Eaglet in its nest

Eaglet in its nest

In a way, I’m jealous of those people who are able to photograph eagles that build their nests on platforms out in the open where the photographers can get spectacular shot of the eagles. On the other hand, it’s nice to see native eagles nesting in real trees again! Even if the nests are messy things in bad locations for photographers like me.

One other thing to note here, I found a fern flower!

Fern flower

Yes, I know, true ferns don’t produce flowers, they reproduce by spores. What I don’t know is if this was part of a real fern that produces the spores, or if this was a fern look a like that was flowering. I did try to look it up, but didn’t find the answer, besides, finding a fern flower is supposed to bring the person finding it luck, and I need all the luck I can get.

If you hadn’t noticed, I had to use the flash to get that photo, as it was getting dark by that time. I spent the entire day there in the Muskegon area, the lion’s share at the wastewater treatment facility, and yet, I feel as if I have just scratched the surface. I can’t say that I am a huge fan of birding while driving, but you have to do what you have to do to get the photos. I will be going back, there’s still too many birds left there for me to photograph for me not to go back.

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!


29 responses

  1. Well, Jerry, it seems like you are learning what a lot of us already know. First, water treatment pond are always great places to bird. I seek them out down here.
    Second, the automobile is one of the best blinds that you can use. Down here I do 90% of my birding and photography from my car.
    Great shots, by the way. When, or if, I make it back to Muskegon, I will definitely find my way to those ponds.
    Thanks for a great post. 🙂

    May 28, 2012 at 7:24 pm

    • Thanks Bob! I will say the the water treatment ponds are a new one on me, but the ones in Muskegon are completely different than the ones in Grand Rapids, which I wouldn’t go near because of the smell.

      On cars as a blind, I guess it works, it did for me there in Muskegon. But in northern Michigan, there are so many “road hunters” that the sound of a car sends the wildlife into a panic. I wasn’t used to throwing my vehicle around trying to get it in a position where I had a shot of what ever I saw to photograph, but I did start to get the hang of it after a while. Besides, I need all the exercise I can get. 🙂

      May 28, 2012 at 7:33 pm

  2. Anonymous

    Very cool! Great shots from the car, the fawn is adorable, those shovelers are different looking, the eagles. Wow!
    Might the fern be a Cinnamon fern?
    Nice day, you are lucky.

    May 28, 2012 at 7:39 pm

    • Thank you!

      May 28, 2012 at 11:06 pm

  3. plantsamazeme

    Very cool! Great shots from the car, the fawn is adorable, those shovelers are different looking, the eagles. Wow!
    Might the fern be a Cinnamon fern?
    Nice day, you are lucky.

    May 28, 2012 at 7:44 pm

    • Thank you! That’s two votes for Cinnamon fern, both by people who know far more about such things than I do.

      May 28, 2012 at 11:08 pm

  4. LindaSCgal

    Great pictures!! Loved the Juvenile red-breasted merganser and the killdeer. What an awesome variety you have found. 🙂

    May 28, 2012 at 8:30 pm

    • Thank you very much, that’s Michigan for you, always a variety of subjects to photograph.

      May 28, 2012 at 11:07 pm

  5. I second the vote on the cinnamon fern, and yes – those are the fertile fronds. The green leafy ones don’t make spores, but leave that task to the cinnamon-colored ones in the center of the fern.

    May 28, 2012 at 9:24 pm

    • Thank you for the comment and the ID! I didn’t have a lot of time to check it out, it was getting dark, and I was getting the blood sucked out of me faster than my body could replace it.

      May 28, 2012 at 11:10 pm

  6. I’d say cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) as well. I just saw one myself a couple of days ago but got lousy shots of it. I think it’s amazing that you could get close enough to a fawn to get those pictures. What a great place and great post! Looks like it was a worthwhile trip.

    May 29, 2012 at 6:05 am

    • Thank you! That must be a cinnamon fern since every one agrees that it is. If you want to see and get close to fawns, spend time in the grassy areas along water. That’s where the best food for fawns is, and it’s usually close to thick cover for them to hide in when required. I usually see a couple of fawns every year while kayaking.

      May 29, 2012 at 1:54 pm

      • I’ll remember that. I’d love to see one.

        May 29, 2012 at 3:01 pm

  7. Northern Narratives

    Looks like you found a lot of interesting stuff. I really like the fern 🙂

    May 29, 2012 at 2:53 pm

  8. Kim

    This is my first visit to your blog, and I really enjoyed this post. The tip about staying in the car when watching waterfowl will come in handy for me. I’m making a note about this place so I can bird there next time I’m up near Muskegon. Thanks!

    May 29, 2012 at 7:18 pm

    • Thank you, you’ll really like birding there.

      May 30, 2012 at 3:00 am

  9. Wow, you really do see a lot of different birds at that facility! You got some great shots like the turkey vulture in flight and the sandpiper standing on one leg. Like your segue from kildeer to deer :)! And the eaglets silhouette looks pretty cool–it’s difficult shooting up like that. The cinnamon fern . . . you can frame that pic!

    May 30, 2012 at 6:42 am

    • Thank you! The photos I posted were just a small sampling of the variety of birds that I saw there, there are far too many species there for one post. The fern photo is surprising, I took that mostly as a way to remind myself to look-up what it was, and it turned out to be one of my best pictures so far this year.

      May 30, 2012 at 10:12 am

  10. What a fine excursion! You’ve gotten closer photos of Eagles than I have!

    May 31, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    • Thank you! I am often the height of a tree away from eagles, I see them perched in trees above rivers while I am kayaking.

      June 2, 2012 at 1:35 am

  11. Great photos! I’m not as good with waterfowl as I am with birds of prey yet, but could you help me as to how you distinguished the juvenile merganser from a grebe?

    June 1, 2012 at 2:31 am

    • Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. As far as the merganser, they are becoming quite common around here, I see them often while kayaking. The only Grebe that I know of that lives in this area is the pie-billed grebe, and the bird in the photo is definitely not one of those.

      June 1, 2012 at 3:20 am

      • Yup. I follow you. Process of elimination works as an identifying tool. I was thinking grebe with that head, and that red eye, but a horned grebe has that, whereas a pie-billed doesn’t. Thanks for the learning experience!

        June 1, 2012 at 3:26 am

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  13. Some random guy

    Nice blog, but your juvie RB Merganser is a Horned Grebe.

    June 7, 2012 at 11:21 am

    • Thank you! I triple checked and you are correct, it was a horned grebe. I had never seen one before, and according to the All About Birds website, they don’t nest here, so I assumed that they were mergansers, which are quite common here.

      June 8, 2012 at 10:18 am

  14. Great day of birding, Jerry! You did great from the car!! 🙂 You are right, some places, photographing from the car is perfect where birds are more use to a car than a human walking around. (At times I’ve went to get out of the car and they take immediately flight. But from the car, they could really care less and give great photo ops!) But there are times, the car is a definite threat when not seen too often and you cannot catch a break on a photo op. Great post, loved your variety!

    June 9, 2012 at 7:06 am

    • Thank you Donna. I guess we have to adapt to the way the birds behave.

      June 10, 2012 at 6:16 pm

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