Straits of Mackinac are a bird-of-prey superhighway

Apr 18, 2019

Over four million people crossed the Straits of Mackinac last year. But they are also one of the busiest migration spots for raptors, or birds of prey, in the United States.

A migration funnel

Raptors are a group of birds that include hawks, eagles and owls. Like many other birds, they have to migrate north and south with the seasons to find food and nesting locations.

But they are not fans of large bodies of water.

“They don't wanna fly over water they can't see the other side of,” says Richard Couse.

Couse is the executive director of the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch (MSRW) -- a nonprofit dedicated to counting the birds as they fly over.

“They're not like gulls,” he says. “They land in the water they're not gonna make it out. So they try to find the path of least resistance.”

If you’re a raptor that needs to cross the Great Lakes, the Straits of Mackinac are the path. Mackinaw City is like a raptor migration funnel.

The MSRW was formed in 2014 by a group of bird-lovers who thought the Straits weren’t getting the same scientific attention as other migration corridors in the U.S.

A red-tailed hawk soars over Mackinaw City during spring migration.
Credit Steve Baker

Last year, the Straits of Mackinac broke a world record for raptor migration. Five-thousand three-hundred and sixty red-tailed hawks flew over on a single day in spring.

Couse says the MSRW made that record possible.

“Birds have always been flying over,” he says. “Because they were able to finally raise some grant money to actually hire somebody to be out there every day counting hawks … There was somebody there to witness it.”

Counting

The official site for counting raptors is behind Mackinaw City Public Schools, right by some softball fields. Education is one of MSRW’s main goals, and they invite the public to come observe them any time during the spring count.

Kevin Georg has been a professional raptor counter for 39. Hired by the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch, he says Mackinaw City is one of the best spring hawk watches in the country.
Credit Kaye LaFond / Interlochen Public Radio

They also host a “Raptor Fest” every year, which draws serious raptor-watching enthusiasts from around the country, like Russ Edmonds from Hartford City, Indiana. He’s been to every Raptor Fest so far. Today, he looks to the sky at just the right moment.

"A red-tailed hawk just went by back there,” Edmonds says, pointing. “He's over the telephone pole there.”

He yells to Kevin Georg, an official counter hired by MSRW.

“Hey, Kevin, there's two behind you!" Edmonds says.

Georg leans out of his car door, binoculars in hand, partially protected from the bitterly cold winds. Then he records the two hawks on his data tablet.

A former ironworker from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Georg has been a full-time raptor counter for 39 years. He’s been all over the country, but he says the Straits are one of the best hawk watching spots.

"This is a seriously awesome migration corridor,” he says.

And it isn’t just hawks.

“This is one of the premium places in the United States to see golden eagles,” says Georg. “You can see up to like 300, and they're adult golden eagles coming through a lot of years."

He says it’s been kind of a slow day, but so far he has seen 12 turkey vultures, one sharp-shinned hawk, two red-shouldered hawks, eight red-tailed hawks, 50 sandhill cranes and one American Kestrel.

A hard journey

Rich Couse, the executive director of the MSRW, says even though the Straits are the best spot to cross, it’s still challenging for the birds.

A group of raptor enthusiasts look to the sky at MSRW's official raptor counting site, during this year's spring migration.
Credit Kaye LaFond / Interlochen Public Radio

“It’s 5 miles. So, you'll be watching and you'll see some of them actually turn around,” he says. “Like they get up the courage and are like ‘I'm gonna do this’ and then like, ‘oh wait a second, I'm not gonna do this today.’”

The birds need places in the Straits to feed and rest. So in addition to counting birds and educating the public, the MSRW is working to conserve local habitats.

This story appeared on Points NorthYou can find the full episode here.