Birdathon 2024 Highlights!

Another year, another SW Michigan Team Birdathon, and another great and very full day of birding!


Thanks to your support, we raised $2770 towards trail improvements at Wolf Tree Nature Trails!

Thank you!

SWMLC's 2023 Birdathon Team, the Land Larks: Dave Brown, Mitch Lettow, Ashley Cole-Wick, and Kaleigh Winkler

SWMLC’s 2024 Birdathon Team, the Land Larks: Kaleigh Winkler, Ashley Cole-Wick, Mitch Lettow, and Dave Brown

Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy’s (SWMLC) team, the Land Larks, counted 113 species,  just under last year’s total! Thanks to your support, this resulted in an extra $2770 raised on top of an existing $5,000 for a total of $12,770 towards improving public (and birder) access at Wolf Tree Nature Trails! Birding is a great way to connect with the biodiversity of SWMLC’s public preserves – so thank you for supporting better access to nature for people in southwest Michigan! Later this summer we will  work with a professional trail designer to fix some eroded sections of the trail system at Wolf Tree. Stay tuned and please visit any time!


Fish crow
“I just get a kick out of its silly call!”


Grand Mere, South Entrance
“Awesome backdune forest just rolls and gives you great views of birds without craning your neck!”


“Watching baby wood ducks (safely) falling from the sky!”


Tony’s Chocoloney Dark Milk Chocolate Pretzal Toffee Bar
(quote unavailable due to chewing!)

Our day started early in the SWMLC minivan that was packed with gear: caffeine, snacks, sandwiches, rubber boots, binoculars, a spotting scope, and four excited birders! We plotted our course through Berrien County, using the invaluable eBird (an app and website where birders post their sightings) for cues.  First, we drove by some birdy spots in rich farmland where waterbirds and owls had been seen, hoping our first bird would be rare and exciting . . . and it was our old friend the American robin! But our SECOND bird was uncommon, despite its name: a common nighthawk! These cool morning hours were enjoyable, slowly rolling through the countryside with windows down, listening for the clear dawn songs of birds without traffic noise. Cruising down the road, we realized we were hearing an other-worldly twinkling sound: dozens of horned larks. Their songs chimed across the crisp morning air, peppered with clear squeaky notes.

Cruising slowly down the road in the wee hours, the team heard an other-worldly twinkling sound: dozens of horned larks.

Throughout the long day, the Land Larks updated their stats with Instagram and Facebook stories that Kaleigh created on the fly! This is Post #1.

We moved faster as the sun rose because the day was predicted to get hot, and birds get quiet and hard to see and hear when it’s hot. We scooted to our favorite spot (though we are biased), SWMLC’s Kesling Nature Preserve, located in the rich floodplain forests along the Galien River. Even the roadside was thick with bird activity, including local celebrities like Louisiana waterthrush, northern parula, and yellow-throated and cerulean warblers – along with year-round locals like barred owl, red-headed woodpecker, and belted kingfisher. We stayed for half an hour and picked up 27 species – almost a bird a minute!

SWMLC's Kesling Nature Preserve, located in the floodplain forest along the Galien River, was rich with bird activity.

We upheld the birders’ tradition of going to weird places by eyeballing the landfill and wastewater treatment ponds on our way to Warren Dunes. Most people go to the beach but “Floral Lane” is a rich experience for nature lovers. A combination of shrubby marsh, lowland woods, backdune forest, and open sand dunes right along the Lake Michigan flyway means it can be crawling with birds. True to its reputation, we piled birds onto our list including scarlet tanager, green heron, and white-eyed vireo. We hiked up the dunes in our rubber boots (a unique and challenging experience) and were rewarded with an earshot of the rare prairie warbler. We drove away with a total of 77 species!

Prairie Warbler (Setophaga discolor). Photo by Patrick Randall.

Prairie Warbler (Setophaga discolor)
Photo by Patrick Randall, Flickr

We were at the New Troy Cemetery when Kaleigh witnessed something that’s rarely seen. What she thought were messy squirrels in the treetops turned out to be little bundles of birdy fluff, falling from an impressive height, only to bounce off the springy forest floor and quickly bumble away. Baby wood ducks were jumping from the hollow tree where they were hatched to follow mama duck beckoning them to the water!

As we hit our mid-day lull we headed to the beach, where the best bird habitat is also the best human habitat! The lake was a popular people-place on such a nice day and most of the birds had moved on, but we did catch a few waterbirds and sandpipers to “shore up” our list, including the incredibly cute least sandpiper, so tiny that it could stand in your palm! We slowly scoured the shoreline, picking up species along the way. Chasing a reporting of a rare worm-eating warbler (it was a bust), we took a lovely hike through rolling backdunes at Grand Mere State Park. Standing at a high point, we were able to rest our sore necks (strained from looking up) by looking level into the top of a 60-foot oak, which happened to have a great assortment of vireos, warblers, and flycatchers!

We rounded out the day with a couple of spots that are well known for hard-to-find birds: marsh wren at Lincoln Township Park, grasshopper sparrow and bank swallow at the airport, and prothonotary warbler at Sarett Nature Center’s Brown Sanctuary. While resting on Sarett’s boardwalk, we looked up and couldn’t believe our eyes; 30 or 40 of those uncommon common nighthawks swirling hundreds of feet in the air, probably wolfing down insects! The normally scarce birds were here en masse . . . it was incredible!

We ended the day chumming with fellow birders and chowing down on tacos, graciously provided by Sarett Nature Center. It’s always amazing to compare notes with other birders, hear about their day’s highlights, and maybe steal a few tips for next year’s Birdathon. The groups saw 181 species all together, resulting in $15,000 raised for conservation!

A huge thank you to all who pledged or donated for supporting SWMLC, conservation, and enabling our birding habit!

Story by Mitch Lettow   |   Photos, social media posts, and video by Kaleigh Winkler