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South American bird makes an unexpected appearance in Michigan

Jason Shaw
The southern lapwing stands at the Oscoda-Wurtsmith Airport. According to local birders, the bird typically starts its morning at the airport before flying to Cedar Lake or the Au Sable River. The bird returns to the airport at night.

Michigan sees a lot of visitors during the summer vacation season, but one in Iosco County is getting a lot of attention.

The southern lapwing is a typically found in South America. But one bird has made its way to Northern Michigan and set up base - appropriately enough - at an airport.

Jason Shaw is a birder and photographer in Oscoda, who has been following the lapwing. He said people have flocked from all over to catch a glimpse of the rare bird since it was first discovered in late May.

“To the average person, they might say, ‘oh that’s pretty cool.’" Shaw said. "But to the bird community, they’ll say, ‘oh my gosh, it’s something that’s way out of range!’ And North Michigan will probably never see it again."

The lapwing's appearance has been a source of discussion on the "Michigan Birding" channel on the Discord app. Shaw said the birding community believes the visitor is a natural vagrant, meaning it's outside of its usual range without any human intervention.

The most popular ideas for how the bird wound up in Michigan are that it was carried by an air current or ushered north after grouping up with some migratory sandpipers.

Nate Swick is with the American Birding Association. He said he personally believes the lapwing could have made the journey on its own.

“We’re always so open to these amazing experiences these birds go through,” Swick said. It’s extraordinary that a southern lapwing would end up in Michigan of all places.”

Like most vagrants, Swick said the bird’s journey will likely be a “one-way” trip. It’s not prepared for a Michigan winter - unless it decides to return south.

Regardless of its fate, Swick said the bird is now part of something bigger and will live on in other ways.

“We love being able to see these birds in a place that’s familiar to us,” Swick said. “A sense of community and awe also goes along with these things. It brings a lot of people to birding.”

Sam Burckhardt is a member with the Au Sable Valley Audubon Society, the local birding chapter. He said there are different subspecies of the southern lapwing, which may traverse further north.

“We’re seeing a northward expansion of this species,” Burckhardt said. “The thinking behind why they’re expanding their range is because of deforestation, and there are now more open spaces in Central America.”

The southern lapwing is known to inhabit golf courses, parks - and of course, airports.

“There are certain things we can deduce from this story,” he said. “It should inspire us with awe, just the mere fact that the bird most likely came up here on its own. That is an amazing feat.”

The southern lapwing has been spotted in Florida and Maryland before, but local records committees had not officially confirmed them.

The Michigan Bird Records Committee still needs to review this case. If the committee rules the bird is a natural vagrant, past sightings across the country may be re-evaluated.

For now, the bird is still hanging around Oscoda. According to local birders, the lapwing starts it day off by the Wurtsmith Air Museum from 5:30-9:30 a.m. It spends the day at Cedar Lake or on the Au Sable River before returning to the airfield at night.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corp Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She is covering rural environmental issues, public health and Michigan commerce. Homsi has a bachelor’s from Central Michigan University in environmental studies, journalism and anthropology. During her undergraduate, she was a beat reporter for CMU’s student newspaper Central Michigan Life and interned for the Huron Daily Tribune. She has also interned for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy in the superfund section. *Report for America is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms, more info at