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Having your best summer birding is all about understanding the reproductive behavior of birds. Most of our birds spend the summer breeding, nesting and raising the next generation. Knowing who's doing what and when will help you plan for great viewing.
Male, and sometimes female, birds that defend a territory around their nest from competing birds will often sing loudly and look for a high perch to keep watch from. As the days get warmer, less singing will be going on, and it'll be happening earlier in the day when it's cooler. Set your alarm early one day to listen to the dawn chorus just before daybreak or visit your local park to do some birding by ear. If you don't know many bird songs yet, download the Merlin app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology; it can help identify birds by both sight and sound.
Birds tend to be less showy once they've built a nest and start laying eggs. The last thing they want to do is advertise their nest to predators. If you look carefully, you may find one though. Barn swallows will build small mud nests under decks and eaves, robins will weave nests out of grass in bushy shrubs, and mallards will tuck eggs on the ground under blooming wildflowers and ground cover. If you find a nest, be sure to watch from a distance so you don't scare away the parents.
Once their eggs have hatched, most parents' time is occupied with finding and bringing back food for their chicks. If you've got birdfeeders, this is a good time to make sure you've got high energy foods out - you may even want to try putting out some mealworms. If you spot an adult bird carrying food, watch it carefully; you may be able to see where its nest is. As chicks get older, watch for them to beg food from their parents either in the nest or as they start to follow them around. Some birds, like ducks, geese, and cranes, have chicks that are ready to follow their parents almost immediately after they hatch. Keep an eye on areas with a mix of marshy spots and grassy patches to see these families out and about together.
Leaving the nest
Chicks are the same size as their parents when they're old enough to fly which can lead to some confusing sights as young birds start to learn how to live on their own. These birds haven't yet gotten the hang of being adults and will often behave like confused teenagers. Watch for young songbirds to follow their parents begging for food and young hawks sitting in their nest screaming for food or sitting on your backyard fence staring wistfully at your birdfeeder.
For some birds that nest far to the north, late summer marks the start of migration to wintering grounds in Central and South America. Keep an eye out for shorebirds like sandpipers and plovers as they move through Michigan on their way south. They'll stop to feed and refuel for their journey. Prime places to check for shorebirds are shallow, muddy marshes, sod farms, wet fields, wastewater treatment facilities, and other areas with short vegetation or no vegetation that are damp or only have a couple of inches of water on them.
Look for these Michigan summer birds
Great blue heron
One bird with nests that are easy to watch is the great blue heron. These birds nest in groups called rookeries, and they build their bulky nests high in trees that are near or in the water. Be careful not to get too close, though. Young herons will be pooping off the edge of their nest until they're able to fly, and one of the species' defense tactics when it feels threatened is to vomit, so surprises from above are a possibility!
The Cooper's hawk is one of Michigan's most common urban and suburban hawks. Cooper's hawks will often chase the birds that make up a large part of their diet. These chases can be exciting to watch, but often end quickly with either the hawk catching a meal or its target managing to get away. It's not unusual to see them hanging out near birdfeeders hoping that their next meal will stop by.
Summer is a great time to visit downtown Detroit, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing, Ann Arbor and a number of other Michigan cities to see the fastest animal on Earth, the peregrine falcon. Peregrines had disappeared from Michigan due to environmental contaminants but were successfully brought back in the 1980s. While they can be found nesting on remote cliffs in the U.P. now, the easiest viewing opportunities are in our largest cities as they hunt our urban rivers.
You may never see a hummingbird nest - it's a remarkably sturdy construction about the size of a shot glass - but you'll likely hear them vigorously defending their territory or see a male courting a mate. A good way to both help you see hummingbirds and to help them get the fuel they need is to hang up a hummingbird feeder. The nectar they count on is easy and inexpensive to make at home following these instructions from the National Audubon Society.