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Straits of Mackinac are a bird of prey superhighway

A man leans out of a car door and lifts his binoculars to the sky.
Kaye LaFond
Michigan Radio
Kevin Georg, a professional raptor counter, lifts his binoculars to the sky in Mackinac City during this year's spring raptor migration.

More than four million people crossed the Straits of Mackinac last year. But they are also one of the busiest migration spots for raptors, or birds of prey, in the United States.

A migration funnel

Raptors are a group of birds that include hawks, eagles and owls. Like many other birds, they have to migrate north and south with the seasons to find food and nesting locations.

But they are not fans of large bodies of water.

“They don't want to fly over water they can't see the other side of,” says Richard Couse.

Couse is the executive director of the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch (MSRW). It's a nonprofit dedicated to counting the birds as they fly over.

“They're not like gulls,” he says. “They land in the water, they're not going to make it out. So they try to find the path of least resistance.”

If you’re a raptor that needs to cross the Great Lakes, the Straits of Mackinac are the path. Mackinaw City is like a raptor migration funnel.

The MSRW was formed in 2014 by a group of bird lovers who thought the Straits weren’t getting the same scientific attention as other migration corridors in the U.S.

A bird of prey with a russet-colored tail is viewed from below, against the backdrop of a blue sky.
Credit Steve Baker
A red-tailed hawk soars over Mackinaw City during spring migration.

Last year, the Straits of Mackinac broke a world record for raptor migration. Five-thousand three-hundred and sixty red-tailed hawks flew over on a single day in spring.

Couse says the MSRW made that record possible.

“Birds have always been flying over,” he says. “Because they were able to finally raise some grant money to actually hire somebody to be out there every day counting hawks… there was somebody there to witness it.”


The official site for counting raptors is behind Mackinaw City Public Schools, right by some softball fields. Education is one of MSRW’s main goals, and they invite the public to come observe them any time during the spring count.

A man leaning out a car door holds binoculars.
Credit Kaye LaFond / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Kevin Georg has been a professional raptor counter for 39 years. Hired by the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch, he says Mackinaw City is one of the best spring hawk watching spots in the country.

They also host a “Raptor Fest” every year, which draws serious raptor-watching enthusiasts from around the country, like Russ Edmonds from Hartford City, Indiana. He’s been to every Raptor Fest so far. Today, he looks to the sky at just the right moment.

"A red-tailed hawk just went by back there,” Edmonds says, pointing. “He's over by the telephone pole there.”

He yells to Kevin Georg, an official counter hired by MSRW.

“Hey, Kevin, there's two behind you!" Edmonds says.

Georg leans out of his car door, binoculars in hand, partially protected from the bitterly cold winds. Then he records the two hawks on his data tablet.

A former ironworker from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Georg has been a full-time raptor counter for 39 years. He’s been all over the country, but he says the Straits are one of the best hawk watching spots.

"This is a seriously awesome migration corridor,” he says.

And it isn’t just hawks.

“This is one of the premium places in the United States to see golden eagles,” says Georg. “You can see up to like 300, and they're adult golden eagles coming through a lot of years."

He says it’s been kind of a slow day, but so far he has seen 12 turkey vultures, one sharp-shinned hawk, two red-shouldered hawks, eight red-tailed hawks, 50 sandhill cranes and one American Kestrel.

A hard journey

Rich Couse, the executive director of the MSRW, says even though the Straits are the best spot to cross, it’s still challenging for the birds.

A group of people stand near a softball field, all looking to the sky with binoculars.
Credit Kaye LaFond / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A group of raptor enthusiasts look to the sky at MSRW's official raptor counting site, during this year's spring migration.

“It’s five miles. So, you'll be watching and you'll see some of them actually turn around,” he says. “Like they get up the courage and are like ‘I'm going to do this’ and then like, ‘oh wait a second, I'm not going to do this today.’”

The birds need places in the Straits to feed and rest. So in addition to counting birds and educating the public, the MSRW is working to conserve local habitats.

This story also appeared on Interlochen Public Radio's show Points NorthYou can find the full episode here.

Kaye is an alumnus of Michigan Tech's environmental engineering program. She got her start making maps for the Traverse City-Based water news organization Circle of Blue, and, since then, she's been pretty devoted to science communication and data visualization.
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