The Great Lake State is great indeed for birders, with more than 450 species recorded by the Michigan Bird Records Committee. While a number of those records are rare or only casual visitors, there are still many memorable birds to enjoy in Michigan in any season. With an expanding network of birding trails across the state, more than 100 state parks, five national parks, and over 3,200 miles of lake and island coastline, Michigan is home to many amazing birds, including these 30 best birds to watch for throughout the state’s pleasant peninsula.
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American Black Duck
The American black duck (Anas rubripes) is easy to confuse with the more common mallard, but noting the lighter mottled head contrasting with the darker body, as well as the purple speculum without any white borders, can help distinguish the species. They can hybridize with mallards, however, which may make identification more challenging. American black ducks are found year-round in southern Michigan and breed in the northern parts of the state, including the upper peninsula.
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The mute swan (Cygnus olor) is an Old World swan species, but has been introduced to the Great Lakes region and is a year-round resident along much of the Lake Michigan coast, the western side of the state, and through the Straits of Mackinac and eastern upper peninsula. Easily recognized by its white plumage, orange bill, and large basal knob, these swans can be quite aggressive, especially during the breeding season if they feel their nests or young are in danger.
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Generally breeding in the Arctic, the red-breasted merganser (Mergus serrator) does dip down to the upper peninsula of Michigan and the extreme northern peninsula during the breeding season, the southernmost point of its breeding range. In winter, these ducks may be seen throughout the rest of the state in areas where deeper lakes are not frozen over. Birders should look at the birds carefully, however, to not confuse them with the more widespread common merganser.
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The common loon (Gavia immer) is an iconic summer bird throughout Michigan’s upper peninsula, and is less commonly found in the northern parts of the lower peninsula as well, including on northern Lake Huron on the state’s eastern side. These elegant divers generally stay further out on broad, deep lakes, but their haunting calls carry across the water on summer nights and can often be heard from lakeside cabins and campsites.Continue to 5 of 30 below.
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Great Black-Backed Gull
A great sight indeed, the great black-backed gull (Larus marinus) is a very large, stocky gull seen year-round in southeastern Michigan. In winter, these birds are more widespread and may be spotted along any of the Great Lakes. These birds are more familiar along the northern Atlantic Coast, but Michigan is the westernmost extent of their northern range, making them a key gull species to see for western birders visiting the region.
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The very white, rare Iceland gull (Larus glaucoides) is an uncommon but regular visitor to southeastern Lake Huron during the winter months, and it may also be seen occasionally in the southern bend of Lake Michigan. The pale plumage, pink legs, and yellow bill of these birds makes them easy to identify, especially among flocks of medium-gray and darker gulls that are more typical of the Great Lakes region in every season.
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Not to be confused with a gull, you can see the the common tern (Sterna hirundo) throughout the summer in northern Michigan and the upper peninsula. It will soar, hover, and dive not only at lakes, but also in bays and deeper river mouths where fishing is popular. These birds are identifiable by their short legs, forked tail, black hood, and red bill. Summer breeding colonies can also be found on islands and beaches, but they are missing from southwestern Michigan.
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The Caspian tern (Sterna caspia) is a heavier, bulkier tern that might be confused for a gull, but their thick red bills can help make identification easier. These birds are summer breeders along Michigan’s east coast, including as far north as the Straits of Mackinac and the eastern upper peninsula. They are colonial birds, and may also be seen in mixed flocks with other terns and gulls, but their heavy bills and larger size stand out for identification.Continue to 9 of 30 below.
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The adorable piping plover (Charadrius melodus) is considered endangered in Michigan, though its status is considered near threatened in other areas of the country. These small, delicate plovers breed on isolated northern beaches around the Straits of Mackinac, and there are different conservation measures in place to protect their nesting sites. If disturbed, piping plovers will easily abandon their nests and chicks, causing even more population declines.
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Many different warblers can be seen in Michigan during the summer breeding season, but the mourning warbler (Oporornis philadelphia) is one of the most sought-after for birders because it generally breeds further north. Michigan’s upper peninsula and northern lower peninsula are the southernmost extent of this bird’s common breeding range, and it can be seen in dense thickets and forest edges, where it is a welcome migrant in late spring.
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The boldly marked golden-winged warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera) is a popular bird to see in Michigan’s upper peninsula and the northern half of the lower peninsula. These warblers are summer residents in the state, and are most commonly seen in second-growth forests that have been recently harvested for logging operations. They are also frequently seen in swampy areas, where their bright wing and crown patches stand out even in shaded habitats.
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The Kirtland’s warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii) is one of the most coveted birds to see in Michigan. This bird is considered near threatened (formerly endangered) and only breeds in isolated, young jack pine forests in central Michigan and a few areas of Wisconsin before spending winters in the Bahamas. The bold colorations and markings of this warbler are distinct, and birders can visit designated breeding sites on guided tours to add this gorgeous warbler to their life lists.Continue to 13 of 30 below.
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The elegant and distinct snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) will descend from its Arctic breeding range as far south as northern and central Michigan during the winter. These owls can be seen on open beaches or perched on roofs, poles, and similar structures, and are typically solitary. In terms of identification, males are almost pure white, while females are more heavily marked with black barring, but both genders have piercing yellow-gold eyes.
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The northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) is one of the most sought-after raptors for birders to see, and they're year-round residents of Michigan’s upper peninsula and the northern lower peninsula. In winter, these birds may spread to the southern part of the state as well, though they are rare to see. Watch for these powerful birds of prey near woodland edges in rural and agricultural areas where prey will be more abundant for their hunting needs.
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The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is widespread and abundant throughout Michigan’s lower peninsula, though it is missing from the more heavily populated southeastern corner of the state. These are popular game birds for hunting seasons, and large flocks may even be seen in suburban areas as well as small towns. Backyard birders might be able to attract wild turkeys, but should do so carefully because these large birds have hearty appetites and can be aggressive.
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The tall sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) is a stately, elegant bird that migrates through Michigan every spring and fall, and some birds stay to breed throughout the state. While their breeding sites are uncommon, sandhill crane nests might be spotted in marshy areas or wetlands. While on migration, larger flocks are more likely to be seen foraging in agricultural fields. In flight, the distinctive calls of these birds signal that migration is well underway.Continue to 17 of 30 below.
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The pudgy and secretive American woodcock (Scolopax minor) breeds throughout the Midwest, and Michigan is in the heart of its breeding range. These shy birds prefer dense marshes and damp fields, and birders can be on the lookout for their relatively flamboyant courtship dance during spring and early summer. At that time, males may become slightly easier to see as they strut about trying to impress females, giving birders more viewing opportunities.
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Unlike many other shorebirds, the upland sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda) isn’t found at the shore, but instead prefers grassy plains and more open habitats. These birds breed throughout Michigan but are more common in the western half of the lower peninsula. They will often perch on good vantage points such as fence posts or boulders as they survey the surrounding area, and their long legs, long necks, and round heads are all good identification features.
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A summer bird throughout Michigan, the bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) prefers damp, grassy meadows, pastures, and fields where both seeds and insects are abundant. Males are distinctive with their black bodies, yellow napes, and white patch on the wings, but females are much more camouflaged and might be confused with red-winged blackbirds, which also breed in Michigan. Fall males will also resemble females and might be harder to identify.
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Much more common in western states, the yellow-headed blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus) does breed in central Michigan, the easternmost extent of its summer range. Easily recognized by its bold markings and bright yellow head, these blackbirds are seen in reedy marshes and have a very raspy, squeaky voice like a rusty screen door. They may mix in flocks with other blackbirds but their colorful, bright yellow plumage still stands out for easy identification.Continue to 21 of 30 below.
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A common but secretive bird, the black-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus) breeds throughout all of Michigan, favoring dense, leafy deciduous forests. While these birds can be difficult to see, they will often sing at night and their hollow-sounding voices can be quite distinctive, letting birders know black-billed cuckoos are in the area. Birding by ear can help birders locate this elusive species, and once it is seen, its dark bill and long, plain tail make it easy to identify.
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Another bird that prefers leafy, wooded habitats, the veery (Catharus fuscescens) is a shy thrush that stays in thicket-like areas. The warm, red-brown tones of its plumage, along with its buffy eye ring and blurry spotted breast, help distinguish it from other brown thrushes, such as the hermit thrush and wood thrush. Veeries are found throughout Michigan during the breeding season, but are less common in the southern half of the state.
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A winter visitor to all of Michigan, the northern shrike (Lanius excubitor) is a bold bird with gray upperparts, black wings, a narrow black mask, and a scaled appearance on the breast. These birds prefer the edges of spruce forests but are also often seen in farmland, meadows, and other fields as they hunt large insects, mice, and even small birds. Juvenile birds may have a brownish tinge to their plumage during their first winter.
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A colorful winter guest, the evening grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus) is actually found year-round in Michigan’s upper peninsula and the northern part of the lower peninsula, but extends its winter range to cover the entire state. These nomadic birds wander unpredictably as they follow winter food sources, and their large flocks can be noisy and boisterous. They eat seeds, buds, and berries, and may visit yards and feeders where these foods are available.Continue to 25 of 30 below.
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A familiar resident of northern woods and mountain regions, the gray jay (Perisoreus canadensis) is found year-round in Michigan’s upper peninsula. These bold and curious birds easily visit campsites and picnic areas, often stealing food or scraps. Adults are easily recognized by their white foreheads and gray bodies, while juvenile birds are gray all over with a more prominent pale gape at the base of the bill. They often stay in small family groups year-round.
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Another northern species, the boreal chickadee (Poecile hudsonica) is less common than the more widespread black-capped chickadee, but these small birds are year-round residents of the upper peninsula of Michigan. They are found in dense spruce forests, and are easily identified by their dusty appearance, lack of strong wing markings, and brown head. Backyard birders in the upper peninsula can often attract these chickadees with seed, nut, and suet feeders.
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The Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) is an unexpected bird to see so far from the Carolinas, but these feisty, warm-colored wrens are year-round residents in southern Michigan. This marks the northernmost extent of their typical range, and they are less common than other wrens in Michigan, including the house, winter, marsh, and sedge wrens. Carolina wrens are easy to attract, however, and can become bold and popular backyard visitors.
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Easy to identify with its colorful plumage, thick wing bars, and spectacle markings, the blue-headed vireo (Vireo solitarius) breeds in northern Michigan and throughout the upper peninsula. These birds prefer mixed forests that include both deciduous as well as evergreen trees, and they will forage actively at different levels as they seek out insects. These birds were formerly considered the same species as the Cassins and plumbeous vireos, which are found much further west and not seen in Michigan.Continue to 29 of 30 below.
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While the more common and familiar Baltimore oriole is widespread throughout Michigan in the summer, birders will want to focus on finding the more elusive orchard oriole (Icterus spurius). This darker orange oriole is a less common summer breeder in the southern half of the state, and is easily recognized by its darker, burnt-looking plumage. These birds can be found not only in orchards, but in open woodlands and even suburban areas.
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No visit to Michigan would be complete without seeing the American robin (Turdus migratorius), which was designated the official state bird in 1931. While robins migrate out of the upper peninsula and northern Michigan, particularly during hard winters, these birds typically stay year-round in the southern half of the state, and are a welcome site as they forage for worms, insects, and berries. They will also visit feeders for shredded suet, fruit, and mealworms.