Did you know the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is one of the best spots for birdwatching in Wisconsin? Located on the southern shore of Lake Superior, the area is home to a variety of bird species that rely on the rural habitat for breeding and migration. The archipelago has so many diverse terrains and ecosystems, such as mudflats, wetlands, swamps, varied forests, and open fields, that an incredible assortment of flying creatures can be spotted.
Sandhill cranes in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. PC: National Park Service
More than 300 bird species have been observed at least once in the Chequamegon Bay area since 1972. The list applies to Ashland, Bayfield, and Iron counties.
The Chequamegon Bay Bird Checklist
Dating back to the 1950s, the Apostle Islands were identified as a prevalent migratory route throughout the Great Lakes region, shortening the distance that birds must fly across open water when enroute to regions north of Lake Superior.
In the spring, migratory birds such as passerines, hawks, falcons, waterfowl, and shorebirds find refuge on Outer and Long Island. Most other islands in the park also offer suitable habitats for birds. However, the number of migratory birds can vary significantly from year to year, particularly on Outer Island, which may be attributed to unpredictable weather patterns.
Gull and Eagle islands
While Gull Island is the site of annual breeding bird surveys for herring gulls and cormorants, Eagle Island is the sole residence of a gray heron colony in the park.
Gulls on Gull Island. PC: National Park Service
Gull Island and Eagle Island boast a whopping 88 percent of the lakeshore breeding herring gull population. Since 1990, Great Lakes Inventory and Monitoring Network has conducted annual bird breeding surveys across these islands.
Typically the size of robins, piping plovers adult birds display buff-colored backs and pale underbellies, with defined dark bands across their foreheads and necks and have short bills.
Long Island piping lovers. PC: National Park Service
Piping plovers belong to the endangered species list due and their Latin name, Charadrius melodus, is aptly derived from the melody of their distinct “peep-lo” chirping sound.
Stockton Island signage regarding the piping plover nesting area. PC: National Park Service
While there have been sporadic sightings of nests on Outer, Stockton, and Michigan islands, the Outer Islands saw successful nesting in 2019 and 2020, and Julian Bay in Stockton Island saw successful nesting in 2019. 2020 marked the first successful nesting on Michigan Island.
During the 1970s, bald eagles were close to extinction across the United States and were nowhere to be found on the Apostle Islands. Yet, thanks to legal safeguards, the population of bald eagles began to slowly rise.
Since 1980, Eagles slowly began returning to the Apostle Islands with the first successful fledged young recorded in 1983. The nesting rate augmented gradually until 2009 when in then increased exponentially. In present day, 46 thriving eagle nests are spread across 21 islands, with the sole exception of the three-acre Gull Island.
Birdwatching – Apostle Islands Cruises
As an authorized concessioner for the national lakeshore, Apostle Islands Cruises offers narrated boat tours of the gorgeous archipelago. The company, which operates out of Bayfield, also provides shuttles to the islands for day hiking or camping.
The most popular is the Grand Tour, where passengers embark on a mesmerizing 55-mile scenic cruise that offers a detailed narration of the journey. Feast your eyes on the stunning natural scenery, mesmerizing sea caves, standing rocks, and wildlife while passing by the historic Raspberry and Devils Island lighthouses. Immerse yourself in the rich history of human interaction with Wisconsin’s “Crown Jewels” as you explore the majestic Lake Superior.