Saginaw Basin Land Conservancy planning birding trail along bay
ARENAC COUNTY — Eco-tourism could be getting a greater share of the local spotlight with plants to highlight the Saginaw Bay’s avian wildlife with a 142-mile birding trail.
The Saginaw Basin Land Conservancy has received approximately $6,000 in grant money to create signs and other materials for the trail, which would run from Port Huron to Tawas along M-13, M-25, and US-23, according to Zachary Branigan, executive director for the SBLC.
Branigan spoke at Green Hills Golf Course June 20 about it, saying that while the roads approach a number of nature preserves and parks where a vast number of bird species can be seen, the idea of making it an official trail is a recent one from Michigan Audubon’s Jonathon Lutz.
“He came to us with it and said ‘Hey, isn’t this a cool thing?’” Branigan said. “Trevor Edmonds, who works with me, said ‘We both love birds and we get paid for this, so let’s make this happen. It sounds like a great idea.’”
“Saginaw Bay contains the largest contiguous freshwater coastal wetland system in the United States,” he added. “Obviously, it’s super incredible for migratory birds, nesting birds, and all sorts of critters, so it’s a natural resource we have that other areas don’t have.”
The signs will identify a specific area as being a birdwatching hotspot, sporting QR codes that smartphone users can scan to get specific information online about what lives there and when. Branigan said saginawbaybirding.org is an invaluable resource that he would like to utilize with the codes.
The proposed plan says the signs would be installed along the roadways and in the highlighted areas over the summer.
The grant money will also go toward the project to help print a Saginaw Bay Field Guide, which Branigan said would take the form of a fold-out map which shows birding trail locations and species. The guide is planned to be ready by September. An additional $4,000 in donated equipment and materials is also being used.
The SBLC has also been granted a long-term lease for the Euclid Linear Park in Bay City, which Branigan hopes to get cleaned up and turned into a hub for the trail in August. He proposed that it would have an informational booth and physical map of the whole trail.
Branigan said they are looking at having roughly 32 trail sites along the coast by the end of 2014, including seven nature preserves the group controls. Several of those are located in Arenac County: the Saganing Nature Preserve, the Au Gres Delta Nature Preserve, Wah Sash Kah Moqua Nature Preserve and the Standish Nature Preserve. Nayanquing Point and Pinconning City Park in northern Bay County were also highlighted as good birding locations.
The rest of the sites looked at are publicly owned lands, like state parks. Later on, Branigan said they would look at adding privately owned sites, where owners are proponents of the trail and would like to open up their property for tourists. Branigan used the Green Hills Golf Course as an example, as its owner lets people come onto the course to see the eagles that nest there, and said they would be interested in getting other people or organizations involved.
Lutz pointed out that in Michigan there are 2.3 million birdwatchers, and that according to a study by the Outdoor Foundation, it is the fourth most popular outdoor activity among people ages 6 to 24.
“We put lot of energy into the Tawas Birding Festival, but they are geared toward the average-age user group: older people, retired people, and baby boomers,” Lutz said. “We really haven’t done enough in that outreach effort to the youth category.”
With those numbers, he said the economic impact of birders can be big, if understated. Lutz said birdwatchers as a group tend to be “passive” and do not highlight their hobby a great deal, so while people may come to the area, eat in local restaurants, and sleep in local inns and hotels, they still tend to be overlooked.
Local birder Glenn Peterson of Bay City, who attended the meeting, pointed out that the bay is very close to the only place the Kirtland’s warbler makes its nest.
“Anyone who makes a list will come here for the warbler, but they may not know where else to go, so you could highlight that,” he said. “They’re coming from all over the country to see the Kirtland’s.”
Lutz suggested that while the Saginaw Bay is a major attraction for birders, areas such as the Shiawassee National Park, and Midland and Ogemaw counties have their own bird populations that may be worth highlighting in some way with the trail as well.
Vanguard Optics also donated $4,000 worth of spotting scopes and binoculars to the SBLC to use for tours and visitors, Branigan said.
This story was updated June 26 at 4:12 p.m. to reflect some clarifications on grant money and the number of sites.