A biting cold wind enveloped the 18 birders huddled in the corner of the parking lot at Magee Marsh as we gathered for Kevin Karlson’s Field Workshop, ‘So You Think You Know Your Warblers.’ It was clear that my wind/rain jacket and floppy sun hat were not warm enough. I needed my down jacket, gloves and a wool hat!
“I always do this workshop on the parking lot side of the marsh,” Kevin told us. “There’s no room on the boardwalk for this type of a group, and there are usually lots of warblers. Unfortunately,” he continued, “the wind is blowing off the lake which drove the warblers into the interior. We’ll do the best we can.”
At the end of the parking lot we headed out along the Wildlife Beach Trail. Kevin pointed to a stand of trees and asked how many people had seen the Kirtland’s Warbler that had remained stationed there the day before. Of course, I didn’t arrive until the previous evening. It must have left during the night.
“Warbling Vireos are early arrivals and are starting the nesting process,” Kevin told us. “Look at their foraging behavior. They twist to seek insects on the undersides of leaves.”
Bonnie and I broke away from the group and headed back and onto the boardwalk where it was more protected.
At noon we drove back to Port Clinton to eat lunch and warm up. When we returned to the boardwalk in the afternoon, I was snug with my knit gloves and down jacket under my wind jacket and the boardwalk was not as crowded.
We ran into friends from New Mexico on the boardwalk. Glenda was on the Biggest Week’s Twitter feed and told us the locations of both an Eastern Screech-Owl and the American Woodcock.
It was a productive afternoon, giving us excellent views of the male Screech-Owl perched in the fork of a tree – life bird #1 for the trip.
The nest hole must have been nearby. At another location where a crowd had gathered,
someone pointed out another Screech-Owl just barely visible in a rotting tree.
An Ovenbird explored a muddy area of the marsh and nearby we noticed a photographer practically laying on the boardwalk trying to focus his long lens on a Sedge Wren walking next to the platform.
At another location we got a stunning view of a Sora walking in the shallow water of the marsh. My usual view of them are usually partially obscured, so it was nice to see one close by and in full view.
While they are difficult to see – especially when the crowds are dense, there are numbers etched at various locations on the top of the railing. At #14, we were able to get an excellent view of a wide-eyed American Woodcock lurking in the leaf-litter. Its long straight bill practically blended in with the rotting leaves. It was only visible because of its rusty breast. We had signed up for one of the evening Woodcock walks, but would probably only hear its peent call. I was thrilled with a great daylight view of life bird #2 for the trip.
At another location, I was able to get fairly good looks at two Cape May Warblers flitting high in a tree – life bird #3. When we stopped at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory Visitor Center, I not only bought a wool cap, but celebrated with Cape May Warbler earrings.
That evening we attended the premiere of “Flight Path: The World of Migratory Birds”, produced by the PBS station located in nearby Toledo. The documentary portrayed the connections between the Central American wintering grounds of migratory birds that stopover in NE Ohio on their way to the boreal forest in Canada. The segment on bird banding at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory featured former Albuquerque wildlife biologist and friend Ashli Gorbet.
The next morning Bonnie and I gathered at the Trautman Nature Center at Maumee Bay State Park before heading out on a guided walk on the boardwalk in the nearby marsh. We enjoyed watching a number of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks taking advantage of the feeder as the group convened.
“There is a red morph Eastern Screech-Owl that nests in a box along the boardwalk,” Bonnie told me.
The first two nest boxes we encountered were occupied by raccoons.
“Last time I was here,” Bonnie stated, “the bottom of the marsh was mud.” Due to all the rain, the water was almost up to the bottom of the boardwalk.
By time the group inched its way to the opposite side near the cabins, the guided walk was getting tedious, and Bonnie and I decided to explore on our own. We were thrilled to see both a Red-bellied Woodpecker, the only one on the trip, and a Red-headed Woodpecker. We took the long way back towards the Visitor Center in hopes of finding the red morph Screech-Owl. We walked right by the male sleeping in a tangle of branches. When we were about three-quarters of the way back, we encountered some other birders who had left the guided walk. They told us exactly where to find the ow,l and we back-tracked to see it.
In the afternoon we explored the Howard Marsh Metropark and the Ottawa NWR Wildlife Drive where we admired a pair of Trumpeter Swans whose heads were rusty covered from probing in the mud.
Later in the afternoon we spent about 45 minutes on a section of the Magee Marsh boardwalk where I was thrilled to spot a Veery walking along a log – life bird #4.
The wind had increased and someone on the boardwalk read a Twitter message reporting that the boardwalk we had explored in the morning was now under water!
As we drove back to Port Clinton, the highway was covered with water in several locations.
Since Lake Erie is not as deep as the other Great Lakes, strong north winds forces lake water onto the nearby farm lands and roads.
“The American Woodcocks will not be peenting tonight,” Bonnie commented on the drive back. “They will be hunkered down in this wind.” I was glad I had seen one the previous day. We decided to stay off the roads that evening.
The wind shifted in the night and by morning the lake was calm, enabling us to travel to Pt. Pelee.
On Friday we attended two workshops as well as exploring Metzger Marsh and returning to Howard Marsh where shorebirds had arrived during the night. After dinner at the Maumee Bay Lodge, we returned once more to Howard Marsh. The evening was calm
and we were able to get out and walk one of the trails, where we watched a recently-arrived Yellow-headed Blackbird pop up and down in the reeds.
A Tree Swallow was resting on the railing of the trail’s bridge.
We hoped the saying “red at night is a sailor’s delight” would be a good omen for our last morning.
After packing our suitcases and saying our farewells to Bonnie’s nephew and his wife who had been our gracious hosts, we arrived at Magee Marsh at 9 am with three hours before we had to head towards the Detroit Metro Airport. The sun was shining, there was no wind and it was International Migratory Bird Day.
Since it was a Saturday, local residents began arriving, and the crowds were dense on the boardwalk.
However, it didn’t deter us from a great morning of birding.
We parked in the overflow parking area and took time to watch an adult Bald Eagle fly into its nest,
before heading to the boardwalk.
“What are you seeing?” I asked a small crowd near the entrance to the boardwalk.
“Black-billed Cuckoo,” they said and pointed to the nearby bushes. I was able to see the black bill before it flew off – life bird #7 (#5 and #6 were at Pt. Pelee) Fortunately, I was able to spot it, or another one, further along the boardwalk and get a good photo.
Many of the warblers must have arrived early that morning since they were not fazed by the crowds
and moved more slowly than normal, giving us the opportunity to see all of the field marks clearly. Normally warblers move too fast for my camera to capture. I was lucky to get close-up views and a decent photo of a Cape May Warbler,
“Not only are they hungry,” Bonnie commented pointing, “but some seem to be announcing their arrival and availability to mate – like that Northern Parula.”
A Palm Warbler gave us good looks.
Scarlet Tanagers had arrived, and I was able to fulfill my goal of photographing a striking male.
Since there were many families visiting with their children, our attention was drawn to other wildlife, e.g. a Black Water Snake on a tree below the railing of the boardwalk
that I would have missed had not a group of children been gazing at it.
All too soon, it was time to leave. I had procrastinated attending The Biggest Week in American Birding for many years, having seen pictures of the crowds on the boardwalk. I’m glad I finally took the plunge, and attended as the festival celebrated its 10th anniversary. Even on my last morning, it was not all wall-to-wall people – only at locations where warblers were foraging close to the boardwalk. A cluster of people were a clue that there was something interesting to see and people were helpful in sharing information. There was a spirit of camaraderie that extended from children to folks much older than me – some in wheelchairs.
It was thrilling to be ‘on the ground’ to witness the wonder of spring migration along the Lake Erie shoreline as a flood of neotropical migrants arrive to breed, as well as to rest before crossing the lake and funneling north into Canada and, for some, on into the Arctic.