The sun is setting on a winter afternoon in West Michigan and I know the approaching evening and dropping temperatures will come quickly. As I pass over a boardwalk through wetlands of cattails and brushwood, I almost don’t see a heavily bundled individual approaching from the opposite direction. I spot binoculars around his neck.
“Anything good to see?” he asks.
For a moment I’m surprised how quickly he has surmised I’m a fellow bird enthusiast but then realize the camera and telephoto lens strapped to my side is a dead giveaway.
I then tell him about my venture to a wooded area where my attention was diverted by one of the most distinctive of bird songs.
The man interrupts, “A Carolina Wren. Where is it? I’ve heard there’s been one around.”
I give him directions, we exchange further salutations and then part ways.
I am finishing a visit to Huff Park, an urban recreation area located smack in the middle of the northeast quadrant of Grand Rapids – Michigan’s second largest city. It’s hard to believe this 30-acre patch, surrounded by middle-class starter homes, is the 6th most popular birding hotspot in Kent County.
Over the past several weeks, I have come to realize the interaction described above is not unusual for visitors to Huff Park. Indeed, the park’s appeal as a mecca for birds seems rivaled only by its appeal for attracting bird lovers. The prevailing sense of comradery among visitors is real. Residents of the surrounding neighborhood are proud to share their park with you.
It turns out the story of Huff Park is one of community involvement. Little is known about the park’s origins other than a stomping grounds for softball leagues in the past. There have, however, been improvements and renovations over the decades. In the early 1990’s, a trust fund grant helped with irrigation, parking and fencing. Later, it was a group of community volunteers that spearheaded the construction of a 3,000 foot boardwalk through the unused wetlands area.
Recently, when deterioration made boardwalk access hazardous, another grant earmarked funds for its replacement. The work was completed in the summer of 2018 and included higher elevations for the boardwalk along with an observation platform especially for bird watching.
Since its renewal, the park’s popularity seems to have found a resurgence, especially among the local birding community. I was told to visit Huff Park by a fellow wildlife photographer during a conversation about birding hotspots in Michigan.
On my first visit to the park, I actually drove past it. It’s quite inconspicuous, especially if visiting the north entrance. A small sign is the only clue to a modest parking lot that resembles more of a maintenance entrance.
A trail entrance, practically covered by a tall growth of brush, was almost as hidden. However, I was soon surrounded by beach/maple towers as the boardwalk greeted me below. The trees changed to smaller brushwood patches as my entry was announced by the clamor of Black-capped Chickadees.
The brushwood quickly became sporadic and I found myself standing in an open field of cattails; tall and seemingly trimmed to perfection. This is the wetland of Huff Park; its hidden jewel of nature and wildlife.
I have since visited the park a handful of times. This particular winter evening, before meeting my fellow bird enthusiast, starts humbly enough. I enter and follow the boardwalk. As it winds about the cattails, I catch a glimpse of the observation platform. It’s impressive in scale, amply built with plenty of room for groups.
I decide to leave the observation platform for later and continue around the perimeter toward the woods. Passing over a footbridge, I look down to see a bubbling stream under crystal-clear ice, the bubbles changing like globules of a lava lamp.
As I begin to leave the brush and enter the wooded area, the trees become tall leafless spires pointing upward. Closer observation reveals many have been chipped out with cavity holes. A clear sign of Pileated Woodpeckers. I scan the tree tops and listen carefully for their tapping, typically longer in frequency and lower in timbre. Nothing at this time.
Continuing, I emerge near the southeast corner of the park. The stream greets me again and the trees have given way to smaller riverside growth. However, my attention is diverted by constant chirping and the fluttering of wings. I quickly find myself in the middle of a Disneyesque like experience. Eastern Bluebirds, at least several dozen, hop from branch to branch around me. They don’t seem to mind my presence and are more interested in plucking berries from the surrounding bushes.
I return through the woods, hoping to find enough time to visit the observation platform before the afternoon sun begins to set. Crossing again over the bubbling stream, it is here where I hear the distinct song of a Carolina Wren, energetic and shaped with trills, slightly repetitive and nuanced with perceived larger intervals between its tones. It’s also loud. I remain still, scanning the brush for any sign of movement. If I’m patient, just maybe I’ll have an instant to raise my camera, snap off an image or two. It sings again. I look through the lens in the direction of the song, focus on a small puff of cinnamon and press the shutter.
Fast forwarding to the end of the brief conversation with my fellow bird enthusiast, I’m about to exit the boardwalk and make my way down a tree tunneled path to the parking lot.
I hear the tapping of a woodpecker in the distance. But this time, the tone is louder, deeper and slower in rhythm. I scan the horizon. The sun is beginning to transition to its cooler pre-evening shine. I should go home, but I hear the tapping again. As it echoes from across the boardwalk, down the trail that runs the perimeter of the park and through the leafless forest near the edge of the ice-covered creek, I’m compelled to return.