The loons are back in the harbor at Old Mission!

The loons are back in the harbor at Old Mission!

Every year we Up-Northers wait for that One Day: the day when we know spring has finally and irrevocably arrived, when we can finally open the windows and let the warm, moist air of April flow through the house with its scents of moist earth and new growth.

It arrived on Saturday, thank God, and it came with a torrent of birdsong. Honestly, it was as though every songbird in the state decided to spend some time at Old Mission Harbor this weekend. Warblers and jays, robin and sparrows, flickers and cardinals. We even saw a pair of bluebirds splashing in the birdbath -- a first for us!

Bud the eagle soars over the harbor again...

Bud the eagle soars over the harbor again...

I'm not really a birder in the formal sense. But I see a lot of them. Birders, I mean. Each year, hundreds of them migrate to the dunelands of Northwestern Michigan with their binoculars and notebooks to enjoy this region’s birding opportunities.

Many come for the annual spring migration, between mid-April and the middle of May, when a diverse population of migratory birds congregate on the triangular Leelanau Peninsula west of Traverse City. Others wait until the end of May for nesting season – and for the annual Leelanau Peninsula Birding Festival, a three-day cornucopia of field trips, talks and socializing designed with birders in mind.

Now they’ll also have a new Internet tool to help them find prime birding sites: the Sleeping Bear Birding Trail, a web-based “road map” to over 120 miles of shoreline. The trail includes almost 40 birding sites within a short distance of state highway M-22 from the Traverse City limits to Manistee.

A piping plover at Sleeping Bear Dunes

A piping plover at Sleeping Bear Dunes

The Trail is anchored by the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which has over 71,000 acres of public land and 35 miles of beaches, including vital habitat for the Piping Plover, an endangered shorebird that needs vast stretches of undisturbed beach. It also encompasses the homes of the Wings of Wonder raptor rehabilitation center and Saving Birds Through Habitat, a non-profit organization devoted to the protection and restoration of critical bird habitat.

Electronic birding trails have been launched successfully in Texas, Montana and Alabama’s Gulf Coast. Birding Festival organizer Dave Barrons, one of the minds behind the new trail, says the Sleeping Bear area’s distinct seasons, diverse topography, extensive shoreline and large number of natural areas with public access make it a naturalist’s paradise.

“This is not just a single trail where you get out and hike around looking for birds,” he says. “It’s a travel route, a way of connecting a number of birding sites in a way that allows you to include them in your itinerary.”

Birders checking out the plovers at Sleeping Bear

Birders checking out the plovers at Sleeping Bear

One key feature of the 123-mile trail is what Barrons and fellow birder Mick Seymour call “citizen science.” Over time, individual birders who use the website will report their sightings and observations into a large electronic database that can be used by researchers.

"We now have the ability to meticulously record what we see and hear,” says Seymour. “Birders all over the world are recording where, when, and how many and this data is enormously valuable to the science and understanding of species distribution and abundance.”

Barrons says the Birding Trail will be up and running by April 1 – well in advance of the Leelanau Peninsula Birding Festival, which is scheduled  May 29 to June 2.

The 2013 festival will include several new features – including an excursion to the nesting grounds of the rare Kirtland's warbler, a songbird that lives only in the dense foliage of young jackpine trees. Nine other field trips include visits to the beach habitat of the piping plover and a popular  “Birding By Tall Ship” voyage on the schooner Inland Seas.

The Birding Festival  will operate out of Fountain Point, a classic “Up North” resort near the village of Lake Leelanau, where participants will gather each evening after their excursions to listen to presentations and talks from birding leaders.

The keynote speaker for this year’s festival is Brian Allen, one of one of Michigan’s best-known birders, who spent most of 2012 working on a Michigan “Big Year” – a competition to identify as many bird species as possible in a single year. His talk will explore the ways in which life can get in the way of such an effort, how many species he ended up with, and about the importance of conservation to the future of birding.

Birding is now the country’s number-one outdoor activity. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that there are currently 51.3 million birders, and 16 million Americans say they look for birds when they travel. Several Traverse City area resorts and lodges list nearby birding areas in their promotional literature, and a few even arrange guided outings on request.