Newsroom Midwest Region

Celebrating the future and appreciating the past

Michigan migratory bird hotspot turns 65

October 16, 2018

Blue-winged teal on a wetland. Photo by Jim Hudgins/USFWS.
Blue-winged teal on a wetland. Photo by Jim Hudgins/USFWS.

We at the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service are celebrating Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, which was established 65 years ago this week. This refuge has a wide range of habitats, from bottomland forests of maple, oak and hickory to grasslands filled with prairie flowers and butterflies. Take a moment to learn about this peaceful refuge and plan a trip to experience it first-hand.

This 10,000 acre refuge was established in 1953 to protect a diverse collection of habitats near Saginaw, Michigan and the wildlife that call it home. For decades, refuge staff have been working to conserve and manage this compilation of floodplain forest, marshes and rivers within the agricultural and urban landscape. The refuge sits near the geographical center of the Saginaw River watershed which is Michigan’s largest watershed. In addition to providing wildlife habitat, Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge helps lessen the chance of flooding in surrounding communities, filters the water and and provides 1.4 million people who live nearby a great place to explore and recreate.

Emergent marsh, which is characterized by open water and cattails, is one of the most important habitats at the refuge, because it provides just the right amount of food and shelter for migrating waterfowl looking for a place to rest and refuel. You’ll see lots of Canada geese, mallards, green-winged teals and American wigeons when you visit during spring or fall migration. These wetlands also provide important stopover habitat for large flocks of shorebirds, including dunlin, spotted sandpiper and lesser yellowlegs. Other noteworthy denizens include pied-billed grebe, great egret, black tern, marsh wren, Blanding’s turtles and eastern fox snake. The refuge is also home to all sorts of amphibians like blue-spotted salamanders, wood frogs, and gray treefrogs that use the small, ephemeral pools to breed.

The most widespread habitat at the refuge is forested wetland. These areas provide important habitat for a wide diversity of wildlife like barred owls, eastern wood-pewees, American redstarts and scarlet tanagers. The forested wetlands along Ferguson Bayou Trail are occupied by nesting prothonotary warblers, which is a signature species for the refuge and is one of very few places statewide where they nest.

Shiawassee contains remnants of the Lakeplain prairie, a globally imperiled ecosystem. You’ll also see lots of butterflies like monarchs, hackberry emperors, American snouts and northern pearly eyes. Historically, 158,000 acres of this prairie existed in Michigan in the early 1800s. Currently, only 0.6 percent remains.

You can enjoy many of these habitats by foot, boat, bike or car, all at your own pace and experience level. Open June through September, the refuge offers a six and a half-mile, self-guided auto route that meanders past forests, grasslands, marshes, open water pools and the Shiawassee River. Along the way you’ll find observation platforms and parking areas that give you great chances to see waterfowl, shorebirds, eagles and all kinds of other wildlife.

Hiking and biking are big at Shiawassee! The Woodland Trail on the north side of the refuge offers hikers, mountain bikers and cross-country skiers almost five miles of primitive trails that wind through bottomland hardwood forest and take you past historic landmarks left from the coal mining industry of the early 1900s. Ferguson Bayou Trail on the south side of the refuge also offers almost five miles of trails. Hikers, skiers and more casual cyclists enjoy the graveled roads along the tops of the refuge dikes and see views of sloughs, forests, wetlands and pools. Along the way you’ll have access to two observation blinds, so you can take a closer look at waterfowl, deer and other wildlife.

Like many national wildlife refuges, Shiawassee was established as a hunting refuge and has offered white-tailed deer and goose hunts since its establishment. As of this year, the refuge will also be offering seasonal hunts for migratory birds, as well as upland and small game like turkey, ring-necked pheasant and squirrels. Shiawassee also offers great walleye fishing, as well as bluegill, yellow perch, smallmouth bass, black bullhead, channel catfish, freshwater drum and white sucker. Fishing is allowed by boat from navigable waterways within the refuge and along the bank at the Cass River boat launch. You can also hike in and fish along the banks of the Tittabawassee River at Green Point Environmental Learning Center.

Thanks for taking some time to learn more about this amazing gem in the heart of Michigan’s Saginaw River watershed.

Learn more about Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge and plan your visit today!

Historic photo by USFWS.

Celebrating the Future and Appreciating the Past

This series of articles is inspired by the long history of land managers and biologists who protect, restore and conserve our National Wildlife Refuge System lands. As our midwest refuges reach milestone anniversaries, we will highlight what makes them special. Look for historic photos, lesser known biological and geological tidbits and reflections from the people who know them best - refuge field staff.

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