Birding In The National Parks: Rare Bird Shows Up At Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

This dead Great Shearwater was found in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, where it possibly was blown to by Hurricane Issac. Screenshot from Caleb Putnam's video on the discovery.

So, you’re a birder looking to add a nifty pelagic species like the Great Shearwater to your list. Where do you go? Most of us would head to the Atlantic coast, charter a boat, and float around a few miles offshore.

I can’t think of anyone who would go to Lake Michigan and stand on the beaches of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore expecting to see shearwaters. It’s a bird of the open ocean that plunge-dives for squid. There aren’t any squid in Lake Michigan.

Michigan birder Alice VanZoeren knew all of that and wasn’t expecting to see a Great Shearwater from near the mouth of the Platte River in Sleeping Bear Dunes, but that’s exactly what she saw and photographed on September 8th from that precise spot.

Why was there a shearwater on Lake Michigan?

The simple, and most likely answer, is that Hurricane Issac deposited the bird there. Hurricanes are known to bring a lot of pelagic and other out-of-place birds to inland locations. This is a phenomenon usually observed near the shore immediately following a storm, but sometimes a lucky birder like Ms. VanZoeren will find a seabird in the middle of the continent.

While a sighting of a rarity like this is truly exciting, the sad ending to this tale is that the bird perished. Birders from all over Michigan descended on the area and the bird was found dead on the beach (in remarkably good condition) the following morning. It is likely it was starving and near death when first spotted, tossed about by a storm and then deprived of the squid and small fish it needs for sustenance.

Caleb Putnam, a renowned birder in Michigan, spotted the dead bird and made the following video to document its presence. You can read about his search, and see more photos, at his blog, Avian Tendencies.

Since a bird has to be seen unrestrained and alive to be considered “listable,” Alice VanZoeren is now the only person to ever see a Great Shearwater in Michigan. The deceased bird was found by renowned Michigan birder Caleb Putnam and given over to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.

The birders chasing the shearwater were obviously disappointed to miss the bird and saddened by its demise, but Mr. Putnam added in his report upon finding the dead bird that “it was more than a little consolation that the specimen will be preserved in a museum collection in near perfect condition as a research skin.”