Jaunts: Wing your way to Whitefish Point

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When it comes to a shoreline that lures, it’s hard to find one with more to offer than the pretty five-mile spit of forest edged by sand that juts into a dramatic section of Lake Superior. Its name, Whitefish Point, recalls the tragedy of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the ship aiming for this shore before it sunk. There’s a ceremony each November in honor of the lost mariners. 

There’s drama in spring, too, in the wild winds and dramatic waves behind the still-operational lighthouse. But April visitors more often come with an eye to the sky than the depths of the sea. The point draws far more birds than humans this time of year — with as many as 25,000 hawks alone soaring overhead during spring migration. Owls are common visitors, too, and what’s arguably the state’s most memorable wildlife interaction opportunity takes place in the nondescript back room of a tiny birding gift shop at the point. There, biologists band owls as part of a national research effort to track trends. Visitors are invited to watch as researchers take the birds’ vitals. Sometimes, they even get the chance to cradle a tiny saw-whet owl or rare boreal owl and send it off to flight.

Catch the bird bash

The Whitefish Point Bird Observatory’s Spring Fling offers sightings that are pretty well guaranteed — if only because those who guide various outings can act as extra eyes and ears. On hikes and in formal lectures, learn the difference between a red-tailed hawk and golden eagle, how to identify songbirds by ear and what’s happening with owl populations nationwide. Even expert birding skills are challenged along this scenic coastline, a resting point after the big lake crossing for some 330 different species.

A stay with a past 

The remodeled Whitefish Point Light Station — along the Lake Superior shoreline and a close walk to owl banding and hawk overlooks — boasts five guest rooms and a shared kitchen and cozy gathering space inside the circa-1923 Coast Guard Lifeboat Station. Guests can browse old photo albums from sea rescues past and borrow Great Lakes-themed DVDs. But be careful not to watch one about haunted lighthouses before falling asleep. Tales of unusual happenings in the crew station abound, perhaps due to its location amid the buildings of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. More than 100 ships, including the fabled Fitzgerald, rest on the lake bottom just offshore, and many related artifacts are preserved in the light station and museum complex.

Field trip to the falls 

Guided hikes and other programs are held regularly at nearby Tahquamenon Falls, some by bird observatory staff, others by park rangers. Or just wander. Bald eagles are known to congregate in search of fish among the rapids at the base of the root beer-colored falls, particularly in early mornings. Field trips highlight the forest perches of owls, nuthatches, goshawks, pileated woodpeckers and more. For a warmup, head to the park’s on-site Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub for lumberjack lager, falls tannin or porcupine pale ale served up with wild rice or beer cheese soup.

Register for Spring Fling or get more information about birding at the point at wpbo.org. Find Tahquamenon Falls State Park 14 miles south of the point, (906) 492-3415. 

Kim Schneider

The author, Kim Schneider, was named Mark Twain Travel Writer of the Year by the Midwest Travel Writers Association. A University of Michigan graduate, she writes from a home base in Traverse City.