Pointe Mouillée or “Wet Point”

During autumn, the skies over Southeast Michigan are alive with tens of thousands of hawks, eagles, falcons, and other birds of prey as they migrate south. Southeastern Michigan is one of the biggest hawk migration corridors in the western hemisphere. One of the most popular birding areas in Michigan is at the mouth of the watershed at Point Mouillée State Game Area on the shores of Lake Erie. As early as 1749, the delta and wetlands at the mouth of the Huron and Detroit Rivers have been known as Pointe Mouillée, a French term meaning “wet point.”

American Kestrel Flying
American Kestrels (pictured), Osprey, Broad-winged Hawks, Bald Eagles, Sharp-shinned Hawks, and Swainson’s Hawks are early fall arrivals to Pointe Mouillée. credit: T. Stack

Why here?

Spanning hundreds of miles along the Canadian border, the Great Lakes represent a barrier for migrating hawks, most of which avoid traveling over open water when possible. Bottlenecks form where the raptors go around or between the lakes. One such point is in far southern Ontario, where raptors move along Lake Erie’s north shore heading west until they cross the border into Michigan and turn southward again. The Hawk Migration Association of North America has identified two premier Hawk Watch locations near the mouth of the Detroit River. A few miles apart on either side of the international border, they provide different lookouts for seeing the migrating raptors. One is the Holiday Beach Conservation Area, strategically located at the extreme southwestern tip of southern Ontario. The other is at the confluence of the Huron River, the Detroit River, and Lake Erie. Two sites here are used by the Detroit River Hawk Watch—the boat launch at Lake Erie Metropark and the observation tower at the headquarters of the Pointe Mouillée State Game Area.

More than hawks

Lesser Yellowlegs in shoreline habitat
Lesser Yellowlegs is a dainty and alert shorebird found in vegetated wetlands and flooded fields across North America during migration. It is smaller with a shorter, more needle-like bill than the Greater Yellowlegs and is on the Partners in Flight “Yellow Watch List” for species with declining populations. credit: V. Chen

Point Mouillée is also rich in year-round bird watching opportunities. Consisting of 4,040 acres, it is one of the largest freshwater marsh restoration projects in the world. A series of dikes and pumps manage water levels to recreate a version of what once was the coastal wetland of the Huron River delta. The delta had eroded and disappeared due to dam construction on the Huron River and high water in Lake Erie. In 1981, the US Army Corps of Engineers completed construction of a 700-acre crescent-shaped dike and five compartments for contaminated material dredged from the shipping channels of the Detroit and Rouge Rivers. A controversial project, the “Banana Dike” flanks the Lake Erie side of Pointe Mouillée and acts as a protective barrier to prevent erosion of the marsh. By 1984 the Corps of Engineers and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources began work to restore the Pointe Mouillée marsh.

Point Mouillée is open for birdwatching year-round. Public access is available at four parking lots and the State Game Area Headquarters. Head in on foot or bicycle to travel along the miles of gravel causeways that run atop the dikes. They separate fields from marshes and waterways and cars are not allowed. With two pullovers for boats at the North and Middle causeways, paddling is an option, although be forewarned of weather and changing water levels.

Public access to the Wildlife Refuge and designated State Game Area sections is restricted during the waterfowl hunting season running September 1 through December 15.

There are two bird-related fall events with opportunities for learning:

  • 27th Annual Hawkfest Weekend, September 16 and 17, 2023, Lake Erie Metropark. Held at the park’s Marshlands Museum and Nature Center, Hawkfest is a two-day celebration of the fall migration of the over 200,000 birds of prey—hawks, eagles, falcons, and vultures—that make their way over the Metropark.
  • 75th Annual Waterfowl Festival September 16 and 17, 2023, State Game Area Headquarters, Pointe Mouillée. The state game area is a big draw for waterfowl hunters. This event kicks off the waterfowl hunting season, which runs September 1 through December 15.

—Pam Labadie, Laura Rubin, and Paul Steen

Thank you Bill VanderMolen and Victor Chen, birding enthusiasts and friends of HRWC. This is a reprinted and expanded article from the Huron River Report, Fall 2016.

This blog post is also published in the Huron River Report, Fall 2023.