Belle Isle Park is an excellent alternative to world-famous Point Pelee and by far the best birding site within the city limits of Detroit. It’s also one of my favorite places in all of Michigan.
The island is well known among locals as a great place to see migrant and wintering waterfowl, but its best-kept secret may be the songbird migration in spring and fall, when the swamp woods on the eastern end can be filled with warblers, thrushes, and sparrows.
A number of times over the years I’ve recorded 20 species of warbler on a single May day, and in April 2005, a Worm-eating Warbler was found, bringing many birders to Belle Isle for the first time. As a result, Golden-winged, Hooded, and Prothonotary Warblers and other infrequently recorded species were also located. I have seen Kentucky and Connecticut Warblers and other rarities, and we recently found the first Pileated Woodpecker in Wayne County in more than 100 years.
One fall day in 2005 I experienced hundreds each of White-throated Sparrow, Yellow-rumped Warbler, both kinglets, and Hermit and Swainson’s Thrushes, many feeding on the abundant food crop in the swamp woods. Northern Saw-whet Owls also migrate through Belle Isle, and sometimes over-winter in the tangles in the woods. I observed up to three here last winter. — Allen Chartier
Allen Chartier is co-editor of A Birder’s Guide to Michigan (American Birding Association, 2004) and a contributing author to National Geographic’s Complete Birds of North America (2005). He was one of the content editors for National Geographic’s Handheld Birds (2006).
Largely old parkland. 200-acre old-growth swamp woodland contains rare Shumard oak and pumpkin ash. Inland lakes and lagoons.
Flat. Trails and roads lead around island perimeter and through woodlands.
Nearly 240 species recorded, including more than 70 breeding species. From October to March: Canvasback, Common Merganser, and other ducks and Herring, Ring-billed, Great Black-backed, and Bonaparte’s Gulls. Migration in spring (April-May) and fall (August-November) brings Northern Saw-whet Owl, plus vireos, kinglets, thrushes, warblers, and sparrows. Rarities: all three scoters and Long-tailed Duck and Lesser Black-backed, Glaucous, Iceland, and Thayer’s Gull.
When to go
Sparrows and kinglets peak in April, warblers and thrushes throughout May. September and October are best for autumn songbirds. Waterfowl migration is best from mid-October to late November.
Restrooms and natural history information in Belle Isle Nature Zoo
(open daily 10-4).
City park. Admission free.
Bring a spotting scope for waterfowl. Summer events may make birding difficult. Lock your car; do not leave valuables in plain sight.