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 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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.”
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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: