Tag Archives: Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy

The Sleeping Bear Birding Trail: An Online Resource for Birders


A group of birders in the coastal grasslands.

A group of birders in the coastal grasslands.


Guest blogger Dave Barrons explains how the new trail from Traverse City to Manistee makes it easier to find the area’s best birding sites.


Let’s start with this interesting set of facts: Michigan is home to the seventh most sought-after bird in the continental U.S. –  the Kirtland’s Warbler – and is ranked seventh in the total number of reported birders.  On the other hand,  when it comes to the number of out-of-state birders our state attracts, we’re  fourth from the bottom: 46th out of all 50 states. It doesn’t make sense.

IndigoBunting2So last year a small committee of Northwest Michigan birders launched the Sleeping Bear Birding Trail, the first in Michigan. A birding trail is a travel route: a route that connects recommended, high quality birding locations where walking trails already await avid birders, year round.   Ours follows highway M-22: 123 miles of scenic roadway along the Lake Michigan shoreline from Traverse City to Manistee County.

At its northern end, M-22 wraps both sides of the Leelanau Peninsula, running along the open waters of Lake Michigan and West Grand Traverse Bay, ending  at the intersection of M-22 and M-72. Just north of that intersection, near Carter Road is Fulton Park, one of the trail’s least know sites, but one that offers fine birding possibilities very close to downtown Traverse City.  The park’s single trail passes over secluded, open water in the middle of the property, connects with the paved Leelanau Trail (providing easy bicycle access from town) then swings back around through hardwood wetland to the parking lot.

Along its middle stretch, M-22 runs through the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Green HeronLakeshore, whose famed beaches include the home of the Piping Plover, one of Michigan’s most endangered birds.  To the south are the prime birding locations of Benzie and Manistee counties, including the splendid Arcadia Marsh and Grasslands, a 300 acre prairie-grass complex that’s home to more than 20 ground nesting species, including Bobolinks. Both the marsh and grasslands are managed by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, one of the Trail’s major partners.

At the southern end of the Trail, on the north side of the city of Manistee, is Lake Bluff Sanctuary, a Michigan Audubon property. Michigan Audubon is also a major partner in the Trail initiative. Lake Bluff Sanctuary is open to the public and offers upland habitat trails for birding and exquisite picnic grounds on the high bluff above Lake Michigan, as well as a bed and breakfast lodging.

GrosbeakThe Trail website, www.sleepingbearbirdingtrail.org, is the most important tool for birders wishing to get out to any of the recommended Trail locations. A customized BirdTrax widget is located right on the home page for a quick look at all recent sightings along the trail.  Click on the Bird Search tab at the top of the home page to find complete descriptions of the 321 species of birds seen along the trail; click on the Birding Sites tab to find descriptions of each of the recommended birding locations.  Under that same tab you’ll find a map and site descriptions for the Benzie Bonus loop: an additional 13 birding locations located on a separate route leading into eastern Benzie County and back to M-22.  Additional Bonus Loops are under development, to be launched soon.

For serious field birders who wish to keep a list of all the sightings along M-22, a paper checklist covering 321 species is available at the Trail Headquarters office in Glen Arbor, at Lake Bluff Sanctuary in Manistee, and at the Traverse City Visitors Center.

Dave photo-1Best known to Traverse City residents as chief meteorologist for TV 9&10 News, a position he held for 19 years, Dave Barrons grew up in Midland and moved to northern Michigan in 1982. He holds degrees from Miami University of Ohio, Purdue and the University of North Carolina, and is one of the developers of the Sleeping Bear Birding Trail.

Hiking at The Timbers Recreation Area, 250 Acres of Awesome!

Autumn splendor on Fern Lake at The Timbers Recreation Area.

Autumn splendor on Fern Lake at The Timbers Recreation Area.


Well, it’s certainly been a dramatic autumn in Traverse City this year. The trees have been late coming into their fall color, and the weather has been full of sturm und drang – one minute there’s rain, hail, sleet and snow in abundance and the next minute it’s dazzling sunshine — great masses of clouds chasing across the sky and fat beams of light stabbing down across the landscape.

Since a dramatic season requires a dramatic setting, I found one in a place I’ve never explored before: the proposed “Timbers Recreation Area” on North Long Lake Road, just 10 minutes west of town. It’s a 250 acre preserve, complete with trails, historic buildings and 9,000 feet of waterfront on three lakes, and it’s open to the public.

That is, it’s open to the public now. But for years it was in private hands – first as the backwoods retreat of meat magnate J. Ogden Armour and his family, and later as a Girl Scout camp that ran from the 1960s until 2009. Now it’s in a sort of limbo while the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy raises the $700,000 it needs to qualify for a $2.5 million state grant from the state. When the Conservancy reaches its goal, the property will be turned over to Long Lake Township – but that has to happen before next June, so they’ve decided to let folks come in to see what their contributions would be used for.

Long Lake Township has always been one of Traverse City’s loveliest neighbors. A century ago, this is where local residents built their own summer homes to escape the noise, grime and odors of town. (Contrary to the nostalgic popular legend, Traverse City is a much cleaner, prettier and healthier place now than it was in the “good old days” when the city waterfront was a grimy industrial harbor.) To this day, the township has done a great job of creating and maintaining a wide variety of parks and natural areas.

To get to The Timbers, you drive out on North Long Lake Road, just past the Long Lake Elementary School and tiny Coffield Lake, where you’ll find a gravel road that heads south through the forest. A few hundred yards along this road, there’s a well-constructed fieldstone entryway – one of several examples of masonry scattered around the woods like so many ruins of an ancient civilization.

From the old Armour estate: gates in the forest for roads that no longer exist.

From the old Armour estate: gates in the forest for roads that no longer exist.

They’re remnants of the estate that the Armours built here during the 1920s, which eventually included a main lodge, dormitory, cottages, two barns, an ice house, boathouse, and numerous outbuildings as well as 68 acres of landscaped gardens, pathways and farmlands. Some of that architectural and horticultural history has been lost – I did see the half-submerged boathouse while hiking around Fern Lake – but some of the buildings (including the lodge, which is now a private home) survived when the estate was broken up and sold off after 1945.

The Girl Scouts got the largest chunk of it, of course, and they left their own reminders — a few modest administrative and common buildings, as well as dozens of wooden platforms scattered through the forests that once supported big canvas tents. But the really impressive thing about The Timbers is how much land is just there. Almost  2,000 feet of frontage on Long Lake, an entire 20-acre lake (Fern Lake) inside its boundaries with 4,500 feet of shoreline, and 2,400 feet of shore on yet another, Page Lake. There are two-tracks and trails winding their way through woods, meadows and fields.

A quiet trail along the Long Lake shore.

A quiet trail along the Long Lake shore.

Naturally, I had to get out and explore the whole thing. And it took a long while, starting with the paths that generations of Girl Scouts must have used during their daily trips to the waterfront, the mess hall, the nursing office and their various campsites… and moving out under a canopy of golden maples and beeches… through dark, ferny hemlock woods, uplands filled with burgundy-colored blackberry bushes, and fields of waist-high grasses. The forest was filled with birds.

The barn at the entrance to The Timbers.

The barn at the entrance to The Timbers.

Back at the entrance, there’s a barn and silo of handsome glazed brick where former campers and staff had just finished a sale of furnishings and gear to raise money for the proposed Recreation Area. They had a good time, I was told — but there’s a lot of fundraising left to be done.

When it all finally comes together – and I’m sure it will — The Timbers Recreation Area will provide both residents and visitors with a wonderful place to enjoy the Long Lake waterfront in a natural setting by hiking, fishing, wildlife viewing and snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. And the coolest part of it all is that it’s so close to town.

If you want to learn more about The Timbers (Who knows? You might even want to send them a contribution.) you can contact the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy at  (231)922-1245 or email matt@gtrlc.org.

Cooler Weather: A Return to Spring (and Wildflowers!)

A Carpet of Trilliums, Superstars of an Up North Spring
A Carpet of Trilliums, Superstars of an Up North Spring


Come on. You knew it couldn’t last.

Several weeks of astoundingly warm temperatures had some Traverse City folks dreaming of an early summer, while local fruit growers (who’ve seen this sort of thing before) worried that all the heat would simple make their orchards and vineyards more vulnerable to the inevitable return of cold weather.

Well, the chilly mornings have returned. Instead of temps in the 80s, we’re looking at the 30s and 40s. No more sunbathing weather for a while. On the other hand, this is more like a normal late-March week – except that the grass is much greener than usual, the daffodils are out, and the sun is shining brightly. As the TV announcers used to say, “We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.”

Which, of course, means that we’ll have a little more time to devote to the cooler and gentler aspects of spring – like, say, mushrooms and wildflowers! Every spring, the forested hills around Grand Traverse Bay begin to fill up with crowds of eager, determined hunters. But none of them have guns.

Most, armed with mesh bags and long sticks, are searching for morel mushrooms – the culinary Holy Grail of the northern woodlands, which attracts literally thousands of gourmands to this area each April and May. But for others, the quest is more aesthetic: they’re on the lookout for “spring ephemerals” – shy plants that grow, bloom and disappear for a few brief weeks between the end of winter and the start of summer.

The Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy is one of several Traverse City environmental groups that hold annual “wildflower walks” to popularize these short-lived jewels of the spring woodlands. In fact, a growing number of parks and nature preserves are incorporating such walks into their programming in response to an increase in requests from spring visitors.

Some spring flowers don’t seem so shy – like the huge white blossoms of the large-flowered trillium, the signature wildflower of our northern woodlands. Trilliums (so called because each plant bears only three leaves and a single three-petaled flower) can be an impressive sight when they carpet the spring forest. Their sheer numbers can sometimes conceal smaller, more delicate neighbors like the trailing arbutus, bloodroot and starflower.

Other spring ephemerals are hard to hide, even among the showy trilliums. Blue hepaticas and violets, red columbines, yellow trout lilies and bellworts, purple gaywings, delicate pink spring beauties are easily recognized by their bright colors. (And in the case of the latter, by their sweet scent, which fills the woods on warm spring days.)

Even some of the smaller white flowers can make an impression by the sheer whimsicality of their shape. Dutchman’s Breeches, for instance, really do look like nothing so much as pairs of upside-down puffy white bloomers.

And there’s no hiding the superstars of the spring forest. Northern Michigan’s native orchids — the pink, yellow and showy lady’s slippers — are rare standouts in any setting and easily draw attention to themselves.

Tiny Treasures: Spring Beauties and Dutchman's Breeches
Tiny Treasures: Spring Beauties and Dutchman’s Breeches

May and June are the best months for viewing spring ephemerals in the forests around Traverse City, but I’m guessing you’ll be able to see some of the early ones already – I was already finding hepatica in bloom out by Old Mission Point this weekend. Usually, upland woodlands break into bloom first because they’re farther from the cooling influence of the cold Lake Michigan waters, while coastal forests can still be in flower for a week or two later. Here are several prime spots for spring wildlflower viewing:

Grand Traverse Natural Education Reserve. Located just outside the city on the banks of the Boardman River, this preserve encompasses several miles of mixed forest, wetlands and meadows and is particularly rich in plant, animal and bird specials. The Boardman River Nature Center conducts regular spring wildflower walks and publishes a self-guiding brochure for those who would rather explore on their own. For information, call 231-941-0960 or on line at http://natureiscalling.org/boardman-nature-center/

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This 71,000-acre national park includes 35 miles of Lake Michigan coastline and a wide variety of plant and animal habitats. The hardwood forests near the dunes are particularly rich in spring flower displays, and the park conducts spring “ranger walks” to them. For information call (231) 326-5134 or on line at www.nps.gov/slbe/

Grass River Natural Area. Just minutes from the bustling Shanty Creek Resort, this 1,143-acre preserve features several different forest ecosystems and includes a well-developed network of trails, boardwalks and observation platforms where visitors can observe rare orchids and other wetland species without getting their feet wet. For information about guided walks, call 231-533-8314 or on line at www.grassriver.org

Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy. This five-county volunteer organization supervises a network of 28 nature preserves, and conducts guided walks, hikes and other expeditions throughout the year – including several spring wildflower walks. For information, call 231-929-7911 or on line at www.gtrlc.org