Michigan’s newest state park: a birder’s delight

This story first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of The Understory, Legacy’s newsletter, which you can download as a PDF.

By Gary Siegrist, Naturalist and volunteer with Legacy Land Protection and Stewardship committees

Redhead duck. Photo by Chuck Mekbel.

Birders throughout the region (including me) are excited that Watkins Lake is finally protected. The lake is the centerpiece of a new park managed by Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation. It was protected last summer after a decade of effort by Legacy and other partners.

Hooded merganser. Photo by Chuck Mekbel.

Watkins Lake is special to the birding community because it hosts an incredible variety of waterfowl species during migration season. The sheer number within each species is also impressive. In one-day counts, birders have tallied 2,146 ring-necked ducks; 1,538 mallards; 700 canvasback ducks; 316 ruddy ducks; 150 redheads; and 137 hooded mergansers—to name just a few species. Watkins Lake is also a tantalizing place to seek rare birds, including the great white-fronted goose, Ross’s goose, cackling goose, little gull, and little blue heron. Finish it off with fantastic viewing from Arnold Road and you have a world-class birding experience.

Henslow’s sparrow, a grassland bird that is endangered in Michigan. Photo by Chuck Mekbel.

The park is a mosaic of different habitats, including wetland, wet meadow, shrub marsh, grassland, and forested upland. This variety makes it one-stop shopping for almost any bird species you might hope to see in south-central Michigan. For instance, grassland birds already sighted at Watkins Lake include Henslow’s sparrow (endangered in MI), grasshopper sparrow and dickcissel (species of special concern, meaning they are rare or declining in number), bobolink, and northern mockingbird. Grasslands are no longer a common habitat type in our area and many birds depend on it, so it’s fortunate that this land is protected forever.


Grasshopper sparrow, a species of special concern due to its rarity. Photo by Chuck Mekbel.

If birds aren’t your cup of tea, how about mammals, reptiles, or insects? Survey work is just getting started and already we’ve learned that the property is home to the federally-endangered Indiana bat, and to the eastern massasauga rattlesnake, a species of special concern. I can just imagine the butterflies and moths that await us. So, grab your binoculars and a water bottle and head for Michigan’s newest state park. You won’t be disappointed!

Get directions to Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve.

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