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

Grand Haven, Michigan, urban birding

On Saturday March 30, with the promise of some beautiful weather, I made a trip to Grand Haven, Michigan to spend the day birding. Grand Haven is the largest of three municipalities on the banks of the Grand River where it eventually empties into Lake Michigan. The other two are Ferrysburg on the north bank, and Spring Lake to the east.

I didn’t carry my GPS unit with me, as I was in town 100% of the time, so I don’t have a map of my walking that day, but I did take a photo of a map that shows the majority of the ground that I covered.

Map of Grand Haven, Michigan

Map of Grand Haven, Michigan

You can click on the photo for a larger photo with more details. You can see an extensive system of walking/bicycle trails, many right along the Grand River or its offshoots.

It’s been years since I visited Grand Haven, it used to be a place that I went very often, as the Grand River bayous are well-known for good bass fishing. It also serves as a good port to access Lake Michigan for salmon and steelhead fishing on the big lake.

I began the day on Harbor Island, part of which is shown on the map above. I don’t know if it was a real island, or if it was turned into one by dredging a channel through a marshy area to create more mooring slips for pleasure boats. You’ll get a better idea as I post more photos of the area. Since this post is about birding in the Grand Haven area, most of the photos will be of birds, but I’ll throw in a few of the other things to see and do as well.

I had just parked and gotten out of my vehicle, and I could see a few waterfowl in the south channel that makes Harbor Island an island.

Bufflehead ducks

Bufflehead ducks

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Common Mergansers

I was standing on top of a railroad trestle for those, and the pilings from an earlier bridge caught my eye.

Bridge pilings

Bridge pilings

I walked most of the circumference of Harbor Island, it is a very marshy area, and I was hoping to catch a few early wading birds, but other than a few killdeer, none where to be found.

Killdeer

Killdeer

With the water level of Lake Michigan near an all time low, the ribs of an old boat that had been beached and left to rot have been exposed.

An old boat left to rot

An old boat left to rot

And since the next day was Easter, I thought this to be a fitting shot.

Cross and flag

Cross and flag

The flag and cross are atop a dune that rises above one of Grand Haven’s claim to fame, the world’s largest musical fountain. It’s quite impressive when they do their evening shows, but that’s all I have to say about it here.

I did spot a few more ducks as I walked the shoreline of Harbor Island.

Hooded Mergansers

Hooded Mergansers

Red head ducks

Red head ducks

There were other things to photograph as well, the tugs used to push barges of sand and gravel from a mining operation…

Tugboats moored together

Tugboats moored together

Tugboat

Tugboat

….another old boat left in the mud…

Old boat wreckage

Old boat wreckage

…and the old railroad swing bridge, which is still in operation.

Railroad swing bridge

Railroad swing bridge

Railroad swing bridge

Railroad swing bridge

It was a beautiful day, with birds singing everywhere…

Song sparrow living up to its name

Song sparrow living up to its name

Male northern cardinal in full song

Male northern cardinal in full song

…but I didn’t try very hard for better photos, I didn’t want to spook the birds and lose the music they were providing me. It’s been months since I’ve heard their songs, it was a day to enjoy them. Adding to the songbirds’ music was the warbling croaks of huge flocks of sandhill cranes headed north.

Sandhill cranes headed north

Sandhill cranes headed north

And the chattering of a pair of kingfishers who kindly made sure I got good photos of them by flying past me repeatedly.

Belted kingfisher in flight

Belted kingfisher in flight

Having made it all around Harbor Island, I drove to downtown Grand Haven to walk the breakwater there.

The south breakwater in Grand Haven

The south breakwater in Grand Haven

I began at the Coast Guard Station in town.

Coast Guard plaque

Coast Guard plaque

It was there that the red-throated loon made my day by flying past me for a great photo-op! I saw the loon, but it was really too far away for good photos. If as it knew my predicament, it launched itself into flight and flew past me at about the optimal height and distance for some very good photos, if I do say so myself. There was a couple standing near me, and after the loon had flown past, they asked if it had been a loon. My reply was yes, and it had made my day, for things were not going the best as far as getting good close-ups of birds. That didn’t change a lot, other than the loon.

Red-throated Loon in flight

Red-throated Loon in flight

Some people would say that it was much more likely that the loon took flight because the Coast Guard boat pulling out of its slip disturbed the loon…

Coast Guard boat

Coast Guard boat

…but I’d like to think that the loon was being nice, since it was the reason I went to Grand Haven in the first place. 😉

I walked all the way to the end of the breakwater.

Grand Haven lighthouse

Grand Haven lighthouse

On my way, a small raptor flew past me at speed, landing in a tree on the other side of the channel. I’m not 100% positive, and my photo isn’t very good, but I think that it was a peregrine falcon, which make their home in Grand Haven.

Peregrine falcon?

Peregrine falcon?

I wasn’t quick enough to catch it in flight, and that shot is cropped severely to show the bird. I should have brought my binoculars, but they were sitting in my Subaru, a great place for them while trying to ID birds.

After walking the breakwater, I headed over to the Pere Marquette Railroad display.

Pere Marquette Railroad museum

Pere Marquette Railroad museum

Pere Marquette Railroad museum

Pere Marquette Railroad museum

Pere Marquette Railroad museum

Pere Marquette Railroad museum

Pere Marquette Railroad museum

Pere Marquette Railroad museum

Pere Marquette Railroad museum

Pere Marquette Railroad museum

Pere Marquette Railroad museum

Pere Marquette Railroad museum

Pere Marquette Railroad museum

Pere Marquette Railroad museum

As always, there were plenty of gulls around who were willing to pose.

Ring billed gull

Ring billed gull

Ring billed gull

Ring billed gull

If you notice, the bottom of that last photo is darker than it should be, I think that my Nikon is dying.  About halfway through the day, the shutter began making odd sounds when I was shooting, by the end of the day the camera was giving me error messages that I really didn’t want to see.

The turkey vultures must have sensed the imminent death of my Nikon, for a few of them began circling ominously close.

Turkey vulture in flight

Turkey vulture in flight

Thinking that I should give the camera a rest, and escape the vultures, I headed up to Mona Lake, and Lake Harbor Park to shoot a few photos of red breasted mergansers in flight.

Red breasted mergansers in flight

Red breasted mergansers in flight

Male red breasted merganser in flight

Male red breasted merganser in flight

Female red breasted merganser taking off

Female red breasted merganser taking off

Other than the mergansers and a sky full of gulls, there wasn’t a lot to see there, so I went on to the Muskegon Channel to see what I could find. Nothing really special at first.

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Long-tailed duck

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White winged scoters in flight

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Greater scaup

I kind of like the effect of my shutter going bad made to this photo of some ducks too far away to ID.

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Distant ducks on ice

I sat on a bench to take a break and soak up some very rare sunshine when a male mute swan decided to declare war on younger male who was some distance away, and minding his own business. The older male came at the younger one like a freight train!

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Swan wars

The older swan had a head of steam behind it, I got the feeling that all the younger one wanted to do was to escape and be left alone, but that didn’t happen. It wasn’t much of a war, the older one was beating and biting the younger one, who was doing all it could to get away.

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Swan wars

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Swan wars

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Swan wars

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Swan wars

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Swan wars

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Swan wars

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Swan wars

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Swan wars

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Swan wars

Swan wars, the victor swims off

Swan wars, the victor swims off as the loser sulks

That’s all the photos for this one, but I do have a few more words to add about Grand Haven. It is a very popular summer destination for thousands of people, from both Michigan and surrounding states all week long, but especially on weekends. There will be a steady stream of boats going up and down the channel, and people will be shoulder to shoulder on the breakwater in town. It is not a place will you will find peace and quiet if that’s what you’re seeking, nor many waterfowl during the summer. That’s not a knock, but I think that you should know that it is a typical beach town, sleepy in the winter with many businesses closed, and a bustling city in the summer. You can see yacht from all around the world moored at the many marinas along the Grand River during the summer months.

Even on this early spring day, there were enough fishing boats going in and out of the channel to keep the waterfowl population at bay. If you’re thinking of birding in the summer, there are probably better places to go, but over the winter months, with the migratory waterfowl using the open water of the river as a rest stop, it can be a very good place to go.

One last thing, for most of the day I was wishing I had brought my kayak to get around rather than walking. I probably should have, it would have been a great day for it, although I’m sure that the water was still mighty cold! I’m thinking of going back there at least once during the early spring so that I can get back into the bayous of the Grand River. I picked up the crossbars that fit my Subaru when I had it in for its service, so I’m all set for kayaking this summer!

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

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11 responses

  1. A great set of photographs.

    March 31, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    • Thanks Tom. I threw in the train photos just for you. 😉

      March 31, 2013 at 6:24 pm

  2. Now that was a great day trip! Birds, scenery, history- you can’t beat that. I too like going to places in the off-season, I find that crowds are best experienced in small doses. Loved the swan wars!

    March 31, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    • Thanks, the crowds almost kept me away, even the spring crowds, but I’m glad that I went. I’m not sure that the young swan felt as you do. 😉

      March 31, 2013 at 6:26 pm

  3. I’m always amazed by all of the parks and nature preserves you Michiganers have. You must have elected nature lovers, or something.
    Is the low water level in the lake normal? Here, many large ponds and lakes are drawn down in the fall to make room for spring snow melt, but I wouldn’t think they could do that on such a big lake.
    The shots of the birds are great as usual and it was especiallynice to see the trains and old ship skeletons. I like the shot of the gull with dark bottom on the photo-it has a softened appearance.
    When i saw “urban birding” in your title I thought you were going to tell us you joined a group of birders. That would have been interesting reading!

    March 31, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    • Thanks Allen! Just when I get fed up with life and think about moving to another part of the country, it hits me just how lucky I am to live in Michigan. I have a post started on another subject, but began adding some facts and information about the state, I’m going to have to rework that draft to explain more about this great state where I live.

      The Great Lakes are sort of tied together through rivers and there is some control over water level, but not a lot. In the 1980’s, the lakes were at record highs, and the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the Saint Clair river for reasons only they know. The levels of Lakes Huron and Michigan, which are directly tied to each other, have been falling ever since that dredging. We’ve had a drought for a few years, making things worse. There’s an internationally treaty covering the water levels, Canada is beginning to raise a stink about it.

      My bird posts are going to slow down here very soon, then I hope to get back to doing more posts like this one, but with more attention to the other great things there are here.

      I am thinking of joining a group of birders, the Muskegon County Nature Club. They hold monthly meetings and field trips. I have met a few of the members while on my trips, they seem like a great group of people. But if my Nikon is really dying, and I’m afraid it is, then I’ll have to buy a new camera and lens, and hold off from joining that group.

      March 31, 2013 at 6:47 pm

  4. I have nothing more to add except that this was wonderful story of a beautiful day. Okay, I guess I’ll add more – I hate crowds also and I’m falling in love with your Michigan. I wish we could there one day. Thanks for sharing this!

    April 3, 2013 at 9:54 am

    • Thanks, but I doubt if you would find Michigan as nice during our long, cloudy winters, when you can go for two weeks without ever seeing any sunshine. That’s the downside of an otherwise beautiful area.

      April 3, 2013 at 11:31 am

      • 🙂

        April 3, 2013 at 12:45 pm

  5. This is a post just for me ! Birds and trains, what a fabulous combination. Looks like you had a fantastic day when exploring. What’s this about the lake being so low? Doesn’t sound good.

    April 3, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    • Thank you. The Great Lakes go up and down in cycles, we’re at a low point right now, made worse by dredging done by the Army Corp of Engineers. It will go back up again.

      April 3, 2013 at 10:46 pm