Rare bird sighting in Saline brings bird-watchers together from across Michigan

Kyle Davidson
Detroit Free Press

Bird-watchers near and far are flocking to Saline, hoping to catch a glimpse of a rare visitor.

Last Friday, a roseate spoonbill was spotted in the Koch Warner Drain across the street from the Department of Natural Resources' Saline Fisheries Research Station.

This is the first record of a roseate spoonbill in Michigan, said Molly Keenan, communications and marketing coordinator at Michigan Audubon in an email to the Free Press.

Michigan DNR biologists believe the bird either escaped from a local zoo or is very confused, according to a Facebook post from Saline police

A roseate spoonbill rests on a sandbar in a marshy area of Wilderness Park off Saline-Milan Road in Saline, Michigan, on July 20, 2021. The spoonbill, very rare to see in Michigan, has brought out many birders the past few days to photograph and talk about it.

Roseate spoonbills are typically found on the Gulf Coast, in the Caribbean and in Central and South America, but they have been spotted in neighboring states, said Benjamin Winger, curator of birds at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology and an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

"It was really only a matter of time before one was documented in Michigan," he said.

In the late summer, it's normal for young water birds such as spoonbills, herons and storks to wander, Winger said. 

"Sometimes, they wander a bit too far," Winger said.

People line the roadway along the Koch Warner Drain on Saline-Milan Road in Saline on July 19, 2021, with their cameras and binoculars while trying to get a look at a roseate spoonbill that has been hanging out in the waterway.

"It's tough to be a young bird. Not only do you have to survive, but you have to find a place to breed where you're not going to get bullied by your siblings, or even your parents because there's competition for nest sites. Young birds tend to wander a lot and look for that first nest site," he said.

Beth Box, a dispatcher at the Saline Police Department, said there is still a steady stream of people coming to see the bird. While the initial stream of visitors generated some concern from motorists, there have been fewer problems with recent visitors. The department has also set up cones for the drivers and bird-watchers, Box said

Visitors continued to gather Tuesday in hopes of catching a glimpse of the wayward bird.

On Monday, Katherine Hull, 36, made the trip from Grass Lake after her son, Joseph, asked to go see the spoonbill for his 12th birthday. Hull said bird-watching is a family hobby that started with her and her grandfather. 

Joseph Hull, center, of Grass Lake stands with his mother, Katherine Hull, and sister Mia Hull while talking to others about their experience walking through the thick tree line filled with mosquitos as they went to get a closer look at a resting roseate spoonbill near the Koch Warner Drain along Saline-Milan Road in Saline on July 19, 2021, as a way to celebrate Joseph's 12th birthday.

When they arrived, Hull and her children were told they'd need to venture off the road to see the bird.

"My son said, 'let's go, Mom, it's my birthday,' " Hull said.

Armed with binoculars, Hull and her two children braved a hilly, overgrown pathway into the woods, battling mosquitoes and tripping hazards in search of the spoonbill. 

"We get back there and you could see the herons, and you could see every bird but that one. So you're standing there. We can't stand here in the mosquitoes, and my son was like, 'There it is!' It came from around the corner and just kind of joined everybody," she said.

"You had so many people excited about something like that, and how neat to experience that with your kids," Hull said.

Some bird-watchers journeyed from out of state to see the spoonbill. Sally Most, 67, of Fairmount, Indiana, said she and her husband have been bird-watching for about 10 years. After hearing about the bird on Facebook, the retired couple hit the road.

Mark Most, right, of Fairmont, Indiana, watches as his wife, Sally Most, stands behind them along with others hoping to see and photograph a roseate spoonbill along the Koch Warner Drain on Saline-Milan road in Saline on July 19, 2021, after driving three hours to see the bird.

"We had seen some in Florida before, but this is a rarity for Michigan," Most said. "We like to look for the rarer birds. After a time, you see a lot of the same birds, and then you see something unusual. Here is something unusual."

The couple finally caught sight of the bird Monday night, after a group of bird-watchers received permission to observe the bird from a nearby property. After staying the night in Ann Arbor, the couple saw the spoonbill again early Tuesday morning.

"I took over 300 pictures of it last night," Most said. "We're going home happy campers," she said.

A roseate spoonbill rests on a sandbar in a marshy area of Wilderness Park off Saline-Milan Road in Saline, Michigan, on July 20, 2021. The spoonbill, very rare to see in Michigan, has brought out many birders the past few days to photograph and talk about it.

"It's pretty rare and it's exciting," Winger said. "It's a spectacular bird. Really different than anything we get to see here in Michigan, so it's really fun that a lot of people got to see it."

Contact breaking news intern Kyle Davidson: kdavidson@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @jrndavidson.