Plan to Witness Michigan’s Autumn Migrations

Fall migration is one of nature’s magnificent gifts to Michiganders. From monarch butterflies to songbirds and raptors, the virtually inexplicable drive these creatures have to fly hundreds or thousands of miles each spring and autumn adds excitement and mystery to the Great Lakes state. Michigan’s peninsulas in the Great Lakes cause migratory creatures to travel along the coasts and find short distances to cross the lakes as they fly north or south. These places are some of the best to view many of the awe-inspiring, concentrated migrations.

The Journey North site at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is an excellent source of information about the travels of many migratory species, with maps showing past progress to help with planning. Below is more detail on some of the most exciting migratory species and where to view them in Michigan. 

Monarch butterflies: August - September

Monarch butterflies are amazing creatures that in late summer and fall fly as far as 2,500 miles to their winter habitat in Mexico. In the Upper Peninsula, the migrating insects gather at Peninsula Point at the tip of Stonington Peninsula beginning in early August and continuing into September as they prepare to cross Green Bay to the Door Peninsula. A long-running volunteer Monarch Research Project has helped to document the monarch migration.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds August - October

Michigan’s tiniest birds make a mind-boggling journey as far as southern Mexico, following the food sources they depend on. As daylight begins to shorten the birds prepare to leave Michigan as early as August and going as late as October, the birds consume a much larger amount of food to store up the energy to make the trip. Hummingbirds take advantage of flowers for nectar through the summer, but providing feeders to help them is a great way to both enjoy the amazing birds and help them on their journey. It is suggested to leave up feeders for two weeks after the last birds are seen to ensure any stragglers have food. 

Raptors, waterbirds and more: August - November

Whitefish Point juts into Lake Superior in the eastern Upper Peninsula creating a migration corridor used by tens of thousands of birds from more than 340 bird species traveling between Ontario and Michigan. Many raptors like eagles and hawks, waterbirds like common loons and gulls, and songbirds will travel through this area in fall. The Whitefish Point Bird Observatory is run by the Michigan Audubon Society and conducts annual counts of the different bird numbers and species to provide information on the populations. WPBO website provides information about what kinds of birds visitors may see while visiting the site. 

The Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch monitors raptors and waterbirds crossing the waterway between the Upper and lower Peninsula. Raptors are best seen from August 20 to November 10 with guidance on the best time of day broken out by month. Suggestions for watching waterbirds is also provided on the site. Detailed information from bird counts in past years is included on the site, giving a jaw dropping sense of the spectacle to be had at the right moments during migration. 

Sandhill cranes: October - November

Seeing gatherings of Sandhill Cranes as they prepare for their journey south is one of nature’s most amazing spectacles. Watching thousands of the gangly, five-foot tall birds that look like pterodactyls and fill the air with prehistoric sounding calls is an incomparable experience. The cranes gather in a few Michigan locations during October and November as they prepare to migrate, in particular the Michigan Audubon Society’s Phyllis Haehnle Sanctuary in Jackson County and the Bernard W. Baker Sanctuary in Calhoun County. 

Check with local nature centers and state and federal natural resource managers for additional information about migratory species nearby.