Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve

September 27, 2023

A few weeks ago, my husband and I made our first trip to the Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve in Arcadia, Michigan. What a wonderful place to walk and see a wide variety of birds, plants, and butterflies at relatively close range! Over 250 species of birds have been identified at the marsh (17 of which are considered endangered or threatened) and at least 200 different species of plants have been recorded. Best of all, there is a wide, well-maintained ¾ mile boardwalk through the middle of the preserve that makes it easily accessible for everyone.

Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve Boardwalk

Arcadia Preserve is one of only a few remaining coastal marshes along Lake Michigan’s Lower Peninsula shoreline. Sadly, most of all the original Great Lakes marshes have been destroyed, making restored marshes like this one extremely important ecologically. Thanks to the extensive restoration efforts by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy (GTRLC), countless volunteers and dedicated partners, this beautiful nature preserve is healthier than it has been in decades. As a result, Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve has become known as one of the best birding locations in the entire state of Michigan!

Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve Boardwalk

In my short, two-hour visit on September 15th, I was able to photograph eleven different birds, two of which I rarely ever see, one of which I have never seen in Michigan, one I’ve never seen anywhere, and one that’s usually so elusive that I rarely get to photograph it at all!

Rusty Blackbird

Up until about two years ago, I’d never even heard of a Rusty Blackbird and had no idea what they looked like.  A fellow-birder/photographer had seen a few of them at one of our local birding spots, the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery. Not long afterwards, I went searching for them. When I happened upon a small group of birds I’d never seen before, I thought, this must be my mystery bird! It was the last time I’d see a Rusty Blackbird– until this visit to Arcadia Marsh.

Female Rusty Blackbird

According to the Cornell Lab’s website, All About Birds, “The Rusty Blackbird has undergone one of the sharpest and most mystifying recent declines of any North American songbird.”  Some researches speculate that the severe hunting of beavers across hundreds of years has contributed to the reduction of suitable habitats for Rusty Blackbirds. Fewer beaver ponds mean fewer Rusty Blackbirds. Some attribute their decline to the loss of habitat caused by human ignorance or indifference. Others report that Rusty Blackbirds, particularly from the northeastern areas of North America, have been found with unusually high levels of mercury contamination; a contributing factor in all likelihood.

Savannah Sparrow

Not far from where the Rusty Blackbirds were perched, I watched a much smaller bird dart back and forth across my field of vision. It looked like a fairly nondescript bird from where I was standing on the boardwalk, but when I zoomed in, I could see a tiny bit of yellow above its eye. That got my attention! But it wasn’t until I returned home that I was able identify it as a Savannah Sparrow, a bird I’d never seen before!

Savannah Sparrow

Surprisingly, Savannah Sparrows are one of the most numerous songbirds in North America! They don’t visit backyard feeders, but they may come to your yard if you have open fields nearby. Or, if you keep a brush pile on your property, you might be lucky enough to see a small flock of them swoop down and take cover in the pile during migration or over the winter depending on where you live.

Cedar Waxwing

Also flitting about in the same trees as the Rusty Blackbirds and the Savannah Sparrows, were the Cedar Waxwings. These are such beautiful birds! Cornell Lab’s website All About Birds came up with one of the best descriptions I’ve found so far, “…the Cedar Waxwing is a silky, shiny collection of brown, gray, and lemon-yellow, accented with a subdued crest, rakish black mask, and brilliant-red wax droplets on the wing feathers.”

Cedar Waxwing

The one I found at the marsh was doing what waxwings do best, catching dragonflies out of the air and bringing them back to a nearby tree to eat.

Cedar Waxwing with a tasty dragonfly

Northern Harrier

Not far beyond the trees where I had been enjoying the Rusty Blackbirds, the Savannah Sparrows and the Cedar Waxwings, there was a large bird of prey flying low over the marsh, periodically diving into the vegetation and then reappearing. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it looked a lot like a Northern Harrier I had once seen in Florida a few years ago. I had never seen one in Michigan, but the Northern Harrier is a distinctive looking bird even from far away. It’s a slim, long-tailed hawk that likes to glide low over marshes and grasslands, holding its wings in a wide V-shape. Northern Harriers are mostly looking for small mammals and small birds, but they can also capture larger prey like rabbits and ducks!

Northern Harrier cruising low over the marsh

Great Egret and Great Blue Heron

Wading through the shallow marsh waters on the opposite side of the boardwalk as the Northern Harrier, I could see a Great Egret and a Great Blue Heron in search of their next meal. I have way too many pictures of Great Blue Herons, but very few of the Great Egret, especially here in Michigan. The Great Blue Herons can be found all over Michigan throughout the year, but the Great Egrets only pass through during migration.

Great Egret

The Great Egrets and the Great Blue Herons are both impressive looking birds, but the Egret is slightly smaller and more graceful looking. These two herons hunt by standing motionless or by wading ever so slowly through shallow water to capture a fish using a deadly jab with their large bills.

Great Blue Heron

Great Egrets were hunted nearly to extinction for their feathers in the late nineteenth century, sparking some of the first laws to protect birds. The National Audubon Society, one of the oldest environmental organizations in North America, uses the Great Egret as its logo.

Green Heron

Just below the boardwalk where I was standing, there was a beautiful, little Green Heron who was also waiting patiently, like his much bigger cousins, to catch a quick lunch. All three of these birds are masters in the art of patience. They can stand motionless seemingly forever waiting to stab or grab an unsuspecting fish, frog or tadpole with their dagger-like bills.

Green Heron

Most interesting is the fact that the Green Heron is one of the world’s few tool-using bird species! It often creates fishing lures with things like bread crusts, insects, or feathers, dropping them on the surface of the water hoping something tasty will take the bait!

Belted Kingfisher

Most of the time, this is the bird that’s hardest for me to ‘capture.’ It is very skittish, and I swear it knows that I’m on my way to take its picture long before I even leave the house!  At the Arcadia Marsh, though, the Belted Kingfishers seemed oblivious to humans. I’m guessing these kingfishers are acclimated to all the foot traffic on the boardwalk and have learned to just ignore the movement. As a result, I was able to take a dozen or more pictures before this particular bird decided she wanted to go elsewhere to fish.

Female Belted Kingfisher

Belted kingfishers are one of the few bird species where the female is more colorful than the male, sporting a chestnut or rust-colored band across her chest. Males are all blue-gray and white. In the pictures below, the kingfisher on the left is female and the one on the right is male.

Red-winged Blackbirds

Red-winged blackbirds are one of the most abundant birds across North America. Wherever there’s standing water and vegetation, you’ll most likely see or hear a Red-winged Blackbird! In late February or early March, it’s the familiar sound of the returning Red-winged Blackbirds that warms my heart and foreshadows Spring’s impending arrival.

Female Red-winged Blackbird
Male Red-winged Blackbird

Song Sparrow

The Song Sparrow is a relatively plain looking, little bird that can be easily overlooked and underappreciated, but every time I see one belting out a song from the top of a tree or a nearby bush, I can’t help but call them endearing. Song Sparrows seem so earnest in their attempts to sing a beautiful song, that they can make any ordinary day feel happier!

Song Sparrow belting out a song!

Black-capped Chickadee

Last, but certainly not least, is the affable little chickadee. I never grow tired of trying to capture them. They are almost universally considered “cute” thanks to their oversized heads, tiny bodies, and insatiable curiosity about everything– including humans. Black-capped Chickadees are one of the easiest birds to attract to your feeders and one of the first birds to come to your outstretched hand for seeds.

Black-capped Chickadee
Feeding a Black-capped Chickadee by hand (taken at a different preserve)

Even if you’re not a birder or a photographer, the Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve is worth putting on your bucket list if you just want a nice place to enjoy a little slice of nature with an easily accessible trail.  Before your visit, check out this website for directions, rules, maps, and more detailed information:

Just Enough

May 21, 2020

We have been sheltering in place for over two months now and our lives have fallen into a new rhythm, a new pattern, a new kind of un-hurriedness.

Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-rumped Warbler

Even though the restrictions in our state are loosening and many businesses are gradually opening up (within certain guidelines and directives), Mel and I will be following our own guidelines for the foreseeable future. We won’t really feel safe until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19, which isn’t expected, at the earliest, until January 2021.  In the meantime, we are wearing our masks in public, avoiding the grocery store as much as possible, and giving each other pandemic haircuts!!

Palm Warbler
American Goldfinch

That said, we do make a point of getting out for a walk every day, and I make a point of getting out for a Picture Walk nearly as often. In an effort to avoid running into other people, however, many of my picture walks have become ‘picture visits’. A picture visit involves little or no walking and a fair amount of sitting. One of my easiest ‘picture visits’ involves walking out our back door to the deck and taking pictures of the neighborhood birds perched on the branches in the nearby trees.

A sweet young deer in our nearby woods
Barn Swallow
Tree Swallow

Another kind of ‘picture visit’ involves walking 50 yards or so down to the edge of the creek with my lawn chair and camera to sit for awhile and watch Mother Nature’s live TV show with cameo appearances by Great Blue Herons, White Egrets, Mr. and Mrs. Wood Duck,  a Canada Goose family, Mr. and Mrs. Mallard, a muskrat, a woodchuck, and a bird I’d never seen before, the Northern Water Thrush!

An unusual blue-headed Mallard (they usually have green heads) in the creek behind our house

Most of my picture walks lately have been close to home, where I just walk out the door and wander through the nearby woods, or, if I wander a little further, to the college campus next door where there are numerous ponds and plenty of open spaces to attract both large and small birds. Some of my best surprises have included a Spotted Sandpiper, a Solitary Sandpiper, a Yellow Warbler and, my favorite, the Green Heron.

Green Heron
Mute Swan

Every picture walk or ‘picture visit’ is a discovery of one sort or another—sometimes it’s a new bird, sometimes it’s a new behavior, and sometimes it’s just enough to be outside and rediscover what a privilege it is, especially during this pandemic, to be in good health and to have the time to enjoy so many of nature’s wonders.

A Blanding’s turtle making life a little easier for his fellow turtle!

Bundle Up!

January 19, 2020

I’m sitting here in front of a warm fire looking out at the falling snow and the hungry birds flying into our feeders for a bite to eat, and trying to decide how many layers I would have to wear to stay warm on a picture walk today. It’s been snowing (or sleeting) on and off for the past two days and my weather app says the wind chill is below zero. I ultimately decided that the number of layers I would have to wear would probably exceed the number of steps I could take trying to walk– kind of like Ralphie in the movie A Christmas Story.

While contemplating the saneness of leaving my warm fire and my comfortable chair to go for a picture walk, I decided to sort through the pictures I’ve already taken in the last three weeks and then re-evaluate!

I’ll start with New Year’s Eve. The weather was relatively mild then and I was surprised to find so many robins out and about looking for something good to eat. I didn’t expect to even see robins because I had grown up believing that they left for the winter and returned in the spring; that they were, in fact, the ‘harbingers of spring’.

What I found out, though, was that most of our robins just stay put; that we don’t often see them in winter because they spend more time roosting in trees and less time rooting around in our yards. The robins I saw were doing both– roosting in the trees and rooting around on the ground. They had found berries up high and grubs down below.

It seemed like spring when I saw the robins out and about,
but it was still the middle of winter!

The berries that had attracted so many robins had also attracted Cedar Waxwings and Starlings. Interestingly enough, both Robins and Cedar Waxwings have been known to become intoxicated from eating too much fruit that has already become fermented!

This Cedar Waxwing looked a bit ‘tipsy’ as he grabbed for something good to eat!

A few days later, I decided to take advantage of an unusually sunny morning and headed over to the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery to catch what I could of the ‘golden hour’. It was a good thing I did because, for the next several days, the weather was gloomy, gray and wet.

Belted Kingfisher– a particularly hard bird to catch!
Trumpeter Swan flying over the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery

After enduring several days of dismal weather, I was eager to get out and take pictures again– but it was still raining! I couldn’t take pictures in the rain (my camera would suffer), so I settled for a ‘picture stand’ instead of a ‘picture walk’ by positioning myself under our second story deck and shooting the birds that were perched in the nearby trees.

For the next few days after that, the weather was fairly cooperative and I managed to visit several familiar places plus one new one, the Paw Paw Prairie Fen. My biggest surprise was finding a Great White Egret fishing in a pond near the fen! I rarely see them in the summer, let alone the middle of winter. I also found a Great Blue Heron, but he decided to fly away before I could get a close-up!

On my visit to the Kellogg Bird sanctuary, I was saddened to learn that two of the birds I loved to photograph had died the previous year– a beautiful Mandarin Duck and a rare Red-breasted Goose. Both birds were one-of-a-kind at the sanctuary, so it was particularly sad to lose them.

A lovely American Goldfinch at the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary

Once a month, I like to stop in at the Kensington Metropark Nature Center on my way across the state to babysit my grandson. The birds at Kensington are abundant and fearless. They eagerly anticipate all the visitors who come by and ply them with birdseed. If you stand still and hold out a handful of seeds or peanuts, the birds will land on your hand within a matter of seconds– chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, downies, and sometimes, even the bigger birds will land– like the red-bellied woodpeckers. It’s always delightful!

Red-bellied Woodpecker enjoying my stash of seeds at Kensington Nature Center
Bluejay scooping up the last peanut

In the time it’s taken to write this blog, the temperature outside has gone up one whole degree— time to bundle up and see what’s waiting for me out there!

Here’s what I found…

White-throated Sparrow

So, bundle up and get yourself outdoors!