Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Whitefish Point

 Once Lisa and I had recovered from our five mile hike from the Lower to the Upper Falls at Tahquamenon State Park, we decided to make the best of what looked like might be the only dry time left to us that weekend. We decided to drive up to Whitefish Point, a place that can be decidedly nasty when the weather takes a turn for the worse.

There are any number of reasons to visit the area. Number one for us of course is it's a great place to go birding. Michigan Audubon runs the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory there, where they do owl banding, among other things. There is also the Shipwreck Museum, gift shop, and several other buildings as well as, of course, the Whitefish Point Light Station. (Get more info about the place at

Lori and Lisa with Mr. Pickles at the Whitefish Point Light Station.

The geography of the place lends itself nicely to birdwatching--any bit of land sticking out into a big body of water is going to attract birds looking for rest and shelter. Whitefish Bay also attracts lots of boats and ships (I will not enter the debate about what's a boat and what's a ship), and happens to be the place where literally hundreds of them have met their demise. The bay offers shelter, but the point can also create confounding waves for captains to try to navigate. The most famous sinking here was on November 10, 1975, when the ore boat Edmund Fitzgerald sank only 15 miles or so from Whitefish Bay, taking with it a crew of 29. Storms in this part of the world can blow up quickly, and the huge expanse of Lake Superior can allow for waves over 25 feet.

Reference for those unfamiliar with Lake Superior.

We decided to forgo the museum in favor of the wildlife refuge adjacent to the observatory, which apparently is part of the Seney NWR unit. I guess the place was "officially" closed as we were there during the government shutdown, but there were no gates, and the two older fellas who were sitting watching the bird feeders made to attempt to stop us.

Sign at Whitefish Point

The habitat here is very brushy--high winds and brutal winters keep most vegetation low to the ground. It's very shrubby, which is great for birding--they can't escape to the tops of tall trees here!

Woods, Whitefish Point-style.

The woods were abuzz with birds, but we didn't have a lot of time to linger and identify. We did see Swainson's and Hermit thrushes, Ruby-crowned kinglets, Cedar waxwings and Yellow-rumped warblers in this part of the refuge.

Swainson's thrush--note the paler color and buffy markings on head.
The trail ultimately lead towards the beach. This area was populated by scrubby pines, probably all that could live in this sandy environment. The space between the woods and the dunes was scattered with palm-sized stones, which are found pretty much everywhere along the south and east shores of Lake Superior. My guess is this area used to be the shoreline, where stones get piled up by the waves, then it was cut off either by the dunes piling up or the lake level dropping--or both.

Dunes between woods and shoreline.

Down on the beach I spied bird prints in the sand, probably made by a crow.

The big lake was lively that evening, but not frighteningly so. The sun had come out and while the wind was pretty cold, the day was pleasant.

Lake Superior's famous rocky beaches.

At the bird observatory building we had seen a list of recently sighted species, which included two not normally seen in the area--a Parasitic jaeger and a petral (we couldn't remember which one). So of course we were certain that every bird flying by was one of these exotic creatures. It turns out that we didn't see either bird, though I did see my first adult Black tern (I am pretty sure I saw a juvenile in North Dakota).

Black tern fly by--NOT a petral!

I do not know my gulls and terns, and thought this one might be a jaeger, but it turned out to be an immature Herring gull. Poo.

Young Herring gull.

I did get to see one of my favorite birds, the Sanderling, working the beach over for supper. This one caught what looks to be some kind of shield bug.


 Just to the west of the light station are rows of what I can only imagine are breakwaters. No one in their right mind would have tried to build a pier or other structure here. I liked the color of the wood against the deep blue of the cold water. The land mass in the distance is Canada, on the Eastern shore of Lake Superior. To the left, around a bend, is Lake Superior Provincial Park.

Oh Canada!

 As the sun began to dip below the dunes we headed back to the parking lot. That's when I noticed, there on the beach within view of the light station, a memorial to the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald. And as we prepare for a late autumn storm here in the Great Lakes (winds gusts up to 50 mph!!) we will keep our fingers crossed that we don't see another tragedy like this in our lifetimes.

Here is a video with footage of the Edmund Fitzgerald set to Gordon Lightfoot's 1976 tribute to the sunken vessel (which, BTW, was the first single I ever bought. Come on--I was 10!).

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