Keys to Viewing Michigan’s Autumn Wildlife

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| 4 min | by Doug Marrin |

It’s autumn, a great time for viewing our woodland friends. Wildlife is on the move getting ready for (that season that shall not be spoken aloud which follows fall). The leaves are turning and falling off the trees making wildlife viewing that much more exhilarating and easy.

Besides the backyard birds and squirrels patiently waiting for the winter feeder to be filled, western Washtenaw has many other opportunities to see wildlife in action. Spotting animals not usually seen, without the help of a screen, can be fun for the entire family. Here are a few places I’ve enjoyed with my grandkids. Maybe you’ll like them too.

Hudson Mills Metropark

It’s as easy as going and sitting on a bench or walking the path. Deer are commonly spotted as are geese and turkeys. When walking the path, keep your eyes up in the trees for a chance at spotting a pileated woodpecker, easily recognizable and somewhat uncommon to this area. Sit on a bench along the Huron River and see what river life might present. Bald eagles like to patrol the river for trout. On Bloodroot Island (between the two foot bridges) evidence of beavers is apparent along the southern bank. One visitor has recently reported a beaver sighting to the park. Maybe you’ll get lucky.

Howell Nature Center

This isn’t exactly seeing animals in their natural habitat, but you get to see some pretty cool wildlife. It is grandson approved for future visits. The nature center has a ton of fun activities and information. When it comes to animals, you’ll get to see more than 70 mammals like a bobcat, coyote, deer, and more. Birds include a bald eagle up close and other raptors. Just try and not go a little weak in the knees when a bald eagle looks you over. The nature center has rescued more than four thousand wild animals so far this year.

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill cranes can be seen spring through fall in the area. But throughout autumn, the cranes up north migrate farther south for the winter with many flocks taking a layover in Michigan’s lower counties. Washtenaw and Jackson counties seem to be a favorite for the prehistoric-looking bird which stands 5 feet tall with a 6-foot wingspan. The big birds and their distinct Jurassic-park raptor-like chortle are ubiquitous throughout western Washtenaw found in fields, yards, wetlands, and even schoolyards.

Whooping Crane

Along with the sandhill crane, the whooping crane is one of only two crane species found in North America. Through unregulated hunting, the whooping crane was pushed to the point of extinction to just 23 birds in 1941. While still classified as endangered, the total number of cranes today now exceeds 800 birds. If you are driving down Dexter-Chelsea Road this fall, keep your eye out for a flock of sandhill cranes on the north side of the road a few hundred yards west of the railroad tracks. For at least the past two years, a whooping crane, easily visible by its white color, has been tagging along with the sandhills. The flock hangs out for a week or two before moving on. If you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse, you’ve seen something rare indeed.

Trinkle Marsh at Easton Farm Preserve

Whether it’s a gaggle of geese, a raft of ducks, or a construction of cranes that you might be looking for, there’s a good chance you’ll find it at Trinkle Marsh Preserve. The wetland is a popular stop for many migrating birds. Two observation decks enhance wildlife watching. An identification chart on one of the decks helps even more. Over 130 kinds of birds have been recording visiting the preserve. So if you visit, prepare yourself for a merle of blackbirds, or if you are really, really, really lucky, a parliament of owls.

Elk

Brace yourself for your first elk sighting. Males run around 6-feet high at the head with the antlers adding another four feet or more. Males top the scales around 700 pounds. For those of us accustomed to whitetail deer, 5 feet at the head, and 150 pounds, the difference can be as startling as it is stirring. Fall is THE time to spot elk, but you have to travel a bit. The MDNR reports that “Michigan’s wild elk herd is flourishing,” with over 1,000 elk living in the Pigeon River Country State Forest near Gaylord. As the breeding season approaches, elk are more active and can be seen in forest openings, the males bugling for female attention and trying to establish dominance over rivals. There are 13 elk view areas through the Pigeon providing optimal opportunities to watch the herd.

Moose

Nothing can really prepare you for your first moose sighting. Males stand over 7 feet high with antlers adding a couple more feet in height. At 1,500 pounds, their weight is twice that of an elk, ten times that of a whitetail. To spot a Michigan moose in the wild, you’ll have to travel to the U.P. The MDNR reports that the majority of moose live near Van Riper State Park. Another group lives in the area around Tahquamenon Falls and the Seney National Wildlife Refuge. These parks have moose-viewing guides to help you locate the best times and places for spotting a moose. If you want to trip over moose, Michigan’s Isle Royale has 2,060 according to the MDNR’s 2019 census. This is six times the number of moose across the entire Upper Peninsula.

Black Bears

The MDNR estimates Michigan’s black bear population to be somewhere between 15,000-19,000 bears. Ninety percent of these are in the U.P. with the remaining 10% scattered mainly across the northern Lower Peninsula with a few sightings further downstate. Black bears are shy, elusive animals and usually flee when encountering the smell, sound, or sight of a human. Short of slathering yourself with berries and honey, chances are slim you’ll encounter a bear. You may have to settle for spotting their tracks, which can sometimes look a lot like barefoot human tracks, with claw marks.

Cougars

The MDNR reports 6 confirmed cougar sightings in Michigan so far in 2020, all in the U.P. Should you be up there walking around, you’ll never find one of the big cats. They’ll find you.

Wolves

If it’s a wolf encounter you’re hoping for, Isle Royale once again is the place to go. Fourteen wolves now live on the island (which is closed until spring). The pack can be heard yipping at night, tracks can be spotted in the soft mud, and it is not uncommon to see a wolf prowling the shore or even sniffing around camp at night. The MDNR reports about 700 gray wolves living in the U.P. The population has stabilized at a healthy level and continues to grow.

Wildlife watching of creatures both great and small can serve us some much-needed therapeutic relief, especially in this stressful year. It can be a reminder that in a world of uncertainty, comfort might sometimes be found in those things that remain unaffected and unchanged.

All photos: Unsplash.com

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