I reclined on the less-than-comfortable scree and gazed across Lake Michigan to the hazy outline of the Upper Peninsula. I plunged my trembling hand elbow-deep into the bag at my side, sufficiently calorie-deprived that the dry raisin bran tasted delicious. I have the chronic problem of skimping on food when I hike. My only fuel for the day of hiking had been a stale bagel generously upholstered with peanut butter.
I turned my attention to the DeLorme atlas sprawled across my lap, searching for birding sites in the three-hour swathe of Michigan that separated me from the Fall Out Boy concert to which I had spontaneously purchased tickets.
Like a hummingbird attracted to red, my eye fell upon a cluster of rectangular ponds outside Houghton Lake—sewage ponds! Birders are fascinated with sewage ponds—a strange but entirely understandable fixation, since such facilities attract birds the way coffee shops attract hipsters.
Yes, they were sewage ponds, and only a couple miles off the highway. The next afternoon, I turned down the dirt road that ran north of the ponds. Pulled off, scrambled out, and squirmed atop my car. The gleaming ponds teamed with birds—the only problem being they were too distant to identify. Oh, sure, I could pick out a few Lesser Yellowlegs stalking the grassy edges, but the half-mile handicapped my ability to see, let alone identify, most of the birds that were surely present…
Why not go to the office and ask to go in? I thought. The worst they can say is no. I squinted again at the blots oscillating in the heat waves. Then I slid from the roof, collapsed my tripod, and drove toward the office.
Doubt arrived with its corresponding fear. I pictured burly, tattooed men in overalls hooting at my request to go birding in the ponds. Nevertheless, I pulled up and entered the nondescript office.
I was greeted not by a burly man but a smiling young receptionist. “Is there any chance I could, uh, go birding around the ponds?” I asked, lifting my binoculars with my question.
My request did not catch her off guard. “Of course!” she answered. “You can drive around the ponds, as long as you stay on the roads.”
I battled a strong desire to fly over her desk and shower her feet with kisses. Instead, I mumbled, “Sweet, thanks.” When she handed me the waiver, I spotted a tattoo on her wrist. But, it looked innocuous, and she was neither burly nor wearing overalls. I signed my name and marched out of the office to drive around the ponds. Ducks and Ring-billed Gulls fled the dikes ahead of my car.
I have lived in the north woods all summer, a beautiful area but tragically free of shorebirds. I hungrily scanned the dikes and pond margins for their furtive brown forms. I enjoyed modest success: a brace of Pectoral Sandpipers, a smattering of Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, many clamoring Lesser Yellowlegs, and stripy snipes hiding in the grass.
It was the ducks that stole the show. I don’t think of late August as prime duck season, but I found fourteen species of waterfowl. Teal, shoveler, pintail, wigeon, scaup, Redhead—they were all present, unassuming and overlookable in their tattered eclipse plumage.
I departed happy, eager to visit more sewage lagoons. Until then, I will sit beneath the relatively unpolluted northern stars listening to loons and migrating warblers while dreaming of crisp juvenile Baird’s Sandpipers.