Shiawassee, Refuge for migrating waterfowl

Shiawassee is a National Wildlife Refuge in east-central Michigan, south of Saginaw. It’s only a few hours drive from our home yet until last month we had not been there, hadn’t even read about it. I noticed the name while looking at a map when we were planning a trip to Michigan. Subsequently I read about it.

The information I got about Shiawassee included a bird list and the bird list included mallard, black duck, northern shoveler, American wigeon, blue- and green-winged teal, ring-necked duck, scaup, ruddy duck, redhead and canvasback, hooded, common and red-breasted mergansers and more. Canada, greater white-fronted, snow, Ross’s and cackling goose, muts, tundra and trumpeter swan were on the list.

The ducks and geese would have been enough to make us want to see Shiawassee. But, of course, there are other birds, too, bald eagle, eight species of hawk, five herons and three egrets, white pelican, 29 species of shorebird, several gulls and terns. With waterfowl enough to ‘cover the ponds,” to “fill the air” when they flew, plus all those other birds we made Shiawassee a “must see” for our trip to Michigan.

The refuge is in a low, level area, an area of wetlands and forest when settlers first came to Michigan. People still speak of the area as the flats. The forests were cut, the wetlands drained, and the flats became a place of cultivated fields and scattered woodlots. The refuge is not an oasis, a place where shallow lakes have been reestablished, where fields are flooded in fall to create feeding areas for ducks and geese.

The peak of fall waterfowl migration at Shiawassee is October, the month we were going to visit. We went anticipating seeing those thousands of ducks and geese plus swans, eagles, herons, and egrets. We might even see some of the smaller birds on the refuge bird list. There are 15 species of sparrow and 32 of warblers. Mid-October would be late for them but a few might still be at Shiawassee. There would certainly be other little birds, woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, both white-breasted and red-breasted, and kinglets.

Shiawassee is not particularly visitor friendly. There’s a visitor center and the person who greeted me there was friendly. There is no auto tour road. There is no road of any kind that gives a view of the lakes. Access to the lakes and waterfowl feeding area requires walking, a hike of four miles round trip. Further, when we were there, the man I talked to in the visitor center told me the ducks and geese were late this year, that instead of thousands of ducks and geese on the lakes, if I walked all the way to the lakes, I’d only see hundreds. I should see some flying, maybe I’d see some feeding in the fields I’d walk past.

I didn’t walk all the way to the lakes. Nor did I see any ducks, not flying, not in any of the fields. The only birds I saw at Shiawassee were crows, red-winged blackbirds and a few little brown jobs that flittered out then back into thick grass. I didn’t see any of them well enough to identify them.

Shiawassee was disappointing. But we’re not discouraged. We’ll go again, maybe this month. Maybe next time we’ll see ducks covering the lakes, filling the air.

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