Bird's-eye View: Birding by Hot Air Balloon

  • Watching birds from a hot air balloon was on Dea Armstrong's bucket list. Photo: Dea Armstrong

July 2, 2015

Birders love to keep lists of the birds they see. And the really devoted birders will go to great lengths to see something new.

Like most of us, Dea Armstrong has only seen birds from the ground. Today, she’s going to fly with them.

Armstrong is Ann Arbor’s city ornithologist, and watching birds from a hot air balloon is on her bucket list. I got a chance to tag along to find out what we’d see from the air.

"I am so excited to see what it’ll be like to look from above and down. I'm pretty sure I’ll be able to recognize the birds of course but it’ll be so very different," she says. "They do get this vantage point from some of the hawk watching sites like Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, but for me it’s very unusual. I’m excited. Very excited."

Preparing for takeoff

Scott Lorenz is the president of Westwind Balloon Company and he’s our pilot.  He’s also an amateur bird watcher. He talks us through the process of getting the balloon ready for takeoff.

“Okay, so we’re putting the uprights on, that holds the burner up. Once we get that squared away, we’ll hook up the envelope to the basket, then we’ll cold air inflate the balloon," he says. "Then the fun starts.”

Dea Armstrong and other birders. Photo: Rebecca Williams

Dea Armstrong and other birders. Photo: Rebecca Williams

Today, we’re flying over Kensington Metropark in southeast Michigan.

We scramble into the little basket and lift off. We float up so gently we’re high above the trees before I know it.

“This is amazing. The view is so unbelievable and it’s not the least bit scary at all,” says Armstrong as she hangs over the edge of the basket, scanning the sky around us with her binoculars.

I’ve got a death grip on the uprights.

Identification by sight and sound

“Oh… a Great Blue Heron. Two of them!”

Armstrong explains her excitement.

“The challenge of identification from this perspective is so fun,” she says.

Lorenz joins in. "Now, what is this chirping we're hearing right now? That tweet-tweet-tweet?"

"Well, they all say tweet-tweet-tweet!” laughs Armstrong.

Lorenz says the Sandhill Cranes are his favorite, but he's also partial to swans.

“The swans, when they fly, are fantastic. Their wings make a sing-song, sing-song,” he says.

We fly a thousand feet high, the evening sun all shimmery on the lakes below us. We see a Cooper’s Hawk, some swans and an Osprey on its nest. Then, Armstrong gets a glimpse of a tiny little bird.

“That’s a Yellow Warbler!”

“How can you see a warbler from up here?” I ask.

“I have really good binoculars,” says Armstrong.

Watching for other wildlife

With the wind we have today, we’re only going about a half-mile an hour. Lorenz tells us that means we’ve got to find a good landing spot soon so we don’t end up in one of these lakes.

He says you never know exactly what kind of wildlife you’ll see from a balloon. He’s even had butterflies land on the edge of the basket at 500 feet up. He’s seen bucks fighting on the ground below.

“I flew over alligators in Florida, and it's like, 'God, don’t you fail me now, burner!'” he laughs.

Birder Dea Armstrong, back on the ground. Photo: Rebecca Williams

Birder Dea Armstrong, back on the ground. Photo: Rebecca Williams

At the end of the trip, Armstrong hops out of the basket and looks for birds in the marsh.

“You know how birders like to keep lists of things?" she says. "Now I have a balloon list... this is awesome, this is great!”

I was so busy holding on I didn’t notice half the things Armstrong did. When I read her bird list later, it turns out she saw or heard 20 different species from the air.

In case you're wondering, here's Dea Armstrong's bird list:

[Armstrong's Note: This was a hot air balloon trip. Distances and times are approximate and species marked with a G were heard or seen ONLY after we landed! In the air, I missed not being able to hear the passerines. The brighter color the bird the easier it was to see it from above.]

    Canada Goose
    Mute Swan
    Mallard
    Double-crested Cormorant
    Great Blue Heron
    Osprey—hard to tell just how many chicks. At least one adult and one chick.
    Cooper's Hawk
    Sandhill Crane
    Ring-billed Gull
    Mourning Dove
    Red-bellied Woodpecker  G
    Downy Woodpecker  G
    Hairy Woodpecker  G
    Eastern Wood-Pewee  G
    Eastern Kingbird
    Warbling Vireo  G
    Blue Jay
    American Crow
    Tree Swallow
    Barn Swallow
    Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  G
    American Robin
    Gray Catbird  G
    Common Yellowthroat  G
    Yellow Warbler
    Song Sparrow  G
    Red-winged Blackbird
    Baltimore Oriole—quite visible from above!
    American Goldfinch

Note: This story was originally published on August 22, 2014.