Flint, MI — When it comes to bird watching, there’s one key skill to being a pro: listening.

At least that’s what Genesee Audubon Society President Richard Naber says. And he should know, he’s been bird watching for more than 30 years.

The best way to start bird watching, or “birding,” as Naber calls it, is to listen to the different, distinct sounds in an area. Then, once you’re focused on one particular sound, just follow it.

“Cardinals are always low to the ground, they like to be in bushes,” Naber explained. “Robins are the same way, they feed on the ground.”

He said there are some birds who like to be in mid-level trees and others that like to hang out a bit higher.

Baltimore Orioles like to be at the top of the tree and that’s a bird that you can definitely see along the river,” he said, noting that the bright orange-bellied birds just migrated from the Amazon a few weeks ago.

Though he named just a few, Naber said there are about 20 species of birds that watchers can see on any given day in Genesee County, like the Robin, the Blue Jay, Cardinals, the House Finch, the House Sparrow or the American Goldfinch.

Tom Baumgart starts down a trail for birdwatching at For-Mar Nature Preserve in Burton, Mich. on Friday, May 19, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

However, it comes down to where people go to look for birds.

He said if you’re going to a pond or a body of water, some of the best birds to look out for are geese or ducks.

In the county’s wooded areas, bird watchers may encounter Cardinals, the Tufted Titmouse, or Chickadees, he said, adding that all three birds are usually visible year-round.

In prairie areas, Naber said it’s good to look out for the American Goldfinch, the Song Sparrow or the Red Winged Blackbird, but these birds tend not to be around prairie areas in the winter.

When it comes to the Flint River, though, Naber said there’s a mix of potential birds people could expect to see this time of year.

He explained that the river produces a lot of bugs, which is attractive to birds that are migrating through the area or who are hatching their young near water sources.

Right now, he said the biggest movement of birds in the Flint and Genesee County area is Warblers, specifically the Kirtland’s Warbler.

These birds are unique to Michigan, Naber noted, because while they go to the Bahamas in the winter, in the summer they reside near Grayling, Mich., a city about 140 miles north of Flint.

Naber said Kirtland’s Warblers are being watched very closely in the scientific and birding communities because they are close to extinction. He added that there’s even a movement right now to name them the state bird instead of the Robin.

Tom Baumgart shows an app called eBird that helps him track the species he’s seen at For-Mar Nature Preserve in Burton, Mich. on Friday, May 19, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)
Tom Baumgart points in the direction of a bird call a bird at For-Mar Nature Preserve in Burton, Mich. on Friday, May 19, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

As for the best times to bird watch, Naber also said May is a great month, as mating season means more birds are out and easier to spot.

“They’re trying to find their mates so they’re making a lot of noise,” he said. “Then once they find their mates, it’ll go quiet.”

He said typically from June to August many of the birds in Michigan tend to be less visible as they protect their newborns in their nests.

But regardless of when someone plans to get into bird watching, Naber offered one piece of year-round advice.

“You as the individual decide what defines you as a bird watcher,” he said. “If you want to sit in your La-Z-Boy in your living room and watch birds eat at your bird feeder, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you want to go to the local park and walk the trails and see the birds, there’s nothing wrong with that. You decide what and how much you really want to do and how you enjoy it.”

Where to bird watch

The first time Naber went birdwatching was at the For-Mar Nature Preserve and Arboretum in Flushing, he recalled.

It was the early 90s and he had just joined the Genesee Audubon Society.

Since the nature preserve trip was his first time birding, he said it was helpful having people there who could point out the birds and identify them, and he still remembers seeing a Lincoln Sparrow, a rare bird that goes unnoticed usually during migration.

“I didn’t realize that when someone points out a bird, how important or how often you might see that bird,” Naber said. “And you’re not guaranteed to see the bird every year, you know, [or] every week, because they’re migrating through, and that was the case with that bird.”

Naber said there are a lot of good spots in Genesee County to go bird watching, but here are a few of the spots he usually goes:

However, he also said that people don’t even have to leave their homes to admire feathered friends, estimating that he goes through about 100 pounds of birdseed per month for his bird feeders at home.

And as for buying birdseed, he said there’s no expert secret there, just ask a store attendant to help you figure out the best option.

“If the person tells them where they live and whatever they can help plan,” he said.

Sophia is Flint Beat's City Hall reporter. She joins the team after previously reporting for the Livingston Daily and the Lansing State Journal, along with some freelance work with The New York Times....