A Brief History of Avian Studies at Whitefish Point

by John Baumgartner, Michigan Audubon Board Member

Long before anyone set foot on Whitefish Point, vast numbers of hawks, owls, shorebirds, waterfowl, and passerines flew over this spit of land on an ancient path of migration. But it was just 100 years ago that the first scientific investigation of this amazing phenomenon and the birds of the area began. Today, Whitefish Point Bird Observatory continues the work of those who over this period of time, gathered data, published articles and left notes on birds of the Point.

Dr. Norman Wood

Dr. Norman Wood

The studies began on July 6, 1912, when Norman Wood, accompanied by his wife and daughter, arrived to examine the bird life in the Whitefish Point area.  He had been sent by the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology as part of the Shiras expeditions.  Other biological and geological studies were being carried out in the Eastern Upper Peninsula at the same time through the assistance of the Honorable George Shiras III.

For the next six weeks, Wood collected and cataloged specimens and gathered data on the abundance and the variety of birds.  He did this by personal observation or through conversations with local residents.  With the help of these people, especially John Clarke, who had for thirty years studied the birds in the area, he was able to gather information on occurrences of birds.

In 1914 he returned in mid-May to supplement his 1912 work.  He remained until August 19th and was joined during the season by Frank Novy and Otto McCreary.  A total of 163 species was recorded over the two years of the study and the results were published in the sixteenth report of the Michigan Academy of Science. Norman Wood’s ornithological survey was the beginning of the scientific study of bird life at the Point.

The next known record of observations is from 1922 when M. J. Magee had a note published in Auk about the hawk migration and the slaughter of hawks at the Point.  A year later an article by J. S. Ligon on Evening Grosbeaks nesting at Whitefish Point appeared in the same journal. It was the first record of Evening Grosbeaks nesting in Michigan.

In the spring of 1930 W.B. Tyrrell came to the Point to observe the migration. He published a brief article that appeared in a 1934 issue of the Auk. Part of this article is included in a letter to Curren Hawkins, a local resident.  Tyrrell writes about going out to the tip of the Point.

“There as late as June 5, 1930, flocks of Sanderlings, Least Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones, Black-bellied Plovers, and Knots were seen as well as a few Spotted Sandpipers and many Killdeers.”

He returned to the Point a year later and in the same article in the Auk reported of a massive concentration of owls.

“More than 100 Snowy owls were reported seen in one day in the Spring of 1931 by Mr. Hawkins while visiting his traps.”

Several birders in the 1920s and 1930s visited the Point and provided information to Dr. Norman Wood that is included in his book, Birds of Michigan. William G. Fargo was at the Point from August 15 through September 10, 1925.  A.D. Tinker and R.E. Olsen were there from August 23 through August 28, 1931. Pierce Brodkorb was there from May 8 through May 23, 1936.

It is quite likely that Dr. Karl Christofferson of Blaney Park visited the Point at various times from the early 1920s through the 1940s. While no known records exist of work he did at Whitefish Point, because of his interest in the birds of the Eastern Upper Peninsula, it is improbable that he didn’t go there.

Dr. Lawrence H. Walkinshaw

Dr. Lawrence H. Walkinshaw

Dr. Lawrence Walkinshaw made many trips to the Point; the first was in late May of 1934 when the road was barely passable. After having to push his car part of the way to get there, he and his wife discovered there was no place to stay, so they had to go back to Newberry for the night. But while at the Point, he saw 250 Blue Jays and a Rough-legged Hawk with a clipped wing.

In 1937, Samuel Knox, a student at the University of Michigan, made a detailed report on the hawk flight. He submitted his observations to the National Association of Audubon Societies. It is interesting to note that Mr. Knox was allowed to stay in the Coast Guard Station at the Point from April 3rd to June 8th, while he conducted his survey. By means of the Coast Guard telephone, it was possible for him to keep in hourly communication with four Coast Guard Stations west of the Two Hearted River Station and Deer Park Station, presumably for information about raptor movements. He also contacted the Coast Guard Station at Wilmette, Old Chicago, Jackson Park, and South Chicago for information on the hawk migration along the west shore of Lake Michigan. That year the migration was less than usual because of the very cold spring. His records indicate that he observed 10 different species of raptors at the Point; of these, six, totaling 3,920 individuals, crossed to Canada.  A local resident told him, “Present-day hawk flights do not begin to compare in numbers or in species with flights of fifteen years past.” Also, someone from Deer Park Coast Guard Station reported to him: “Ten years ago it was common to see a two-acre field fairly well covered with dead hawks of several species and all sizes. Now there is a lesser flight and fewer birds are killed for sport.” (from Samuel D. Knox unpublished report to Richard H. Pough, July 22, 1937)

While ornithologists such as George Wallace and Nicholas Cuthbert had their observations published in the Jack Pine Warbler in the 1960s Irene Hutton, a local resident, kept a list of bird sightings from the late 1950s. Among her entries are sightings of Prairie Chickens, now expatriated from the entire State.

The forerunner of Whitefish Point Bird Observatory was a group including J.O.L. Roberts of the Ontario Bird Banding Association and Alice and Neil Kelley from Cranbrook Institute of Science. Knowing of the spring hawk migration, they established a banding project in 1966. The primary concern was to gather data on the eye color, molt and other characteristics of the Sharp-shinned Hawk to complement the study carried on at Point Pelee in autumn.  After 1966 the program was expanded to survey migrating owls. In addition, they gathered data about occurrences, behavior, and migration patterns of other birds. Each spring from 1966-1971, a variety of data on the bird life of Whitefish Point was collected. Several published articles resulted from their work.

At the conclusion of the program, several individuals continued banding at the Point.  These included: Art and Tom Carpenter, Bob Grefe, Bill Grigg, Tom Heatley, Al Knudsen, Warren Lamb, Bob Rogers, Al Valentine and several others.  While the focus of the banding was left to each individual, most of the banders concentrated on the migrating Sharp-shinned Hawks and owls.  Sight records of other birds were submitted to the compiler who kept records of Michigan birds. In 1976 the Michigan Audubon Society established a Whitefish Point Committee. Long-range plans were drawn up to continue research on bird migration and in 1979, Whitefish Point Bird Observatory came into existence.

Norman Wood would be surprised to see the scope of the research now carried on by the Observatory; the 163 species that he recorded have increased to over 340. Some of the common bird names he used are no longer in vogue and some of the population densities have diminished in these 100 years. Yet all of the 163 species he reported, except Least Bittern and Ruddy Duck, are seasonally observed at the Point.