On April 22 2023, while eating dinner with friends at the Seabrook Island Club where we talked about our great trip to Panama, the question was asked, “What’s next?” Eileen popped up with conviction, “Magee Marsh in Ohio.” Magee Marsh hosted the annual Greatest Week of Birding festival from May 5 to May 14, 2023. In my job, where the busiest time of the year was the month of May, we were unable to even think about enjoying this experience despite the many accolades.
Knowing that next year we will be taking a spring trip to Texas. I replied, “It will have to be this year.”
We talked with some friends back in PA and NJ and the die was set. Since I had an obligation on May 13 and our friends were to spend Mother’s Day with their mother, we opted to leave on May 15 and return May 23. We set off on the eight-hour drive to a house we rented in Oak Harbor, OH with high expectations as Birdcast predicted heavy migration.
Magee Marsh is famous as a warbler magnet; a place warblers settle down to power up before making the trip across Lake Erie. Prior to leaving, I checked ebird to see what birds people saw between May 1 and May 13. Because of the festival and the many tour groups visiting, eBird had almost 4,000 lists submitted for that one location in just 2 weeks. When we arrived at Magee Marsh at 6:40 AM, seeing a boardwalk full of people, everyone looking for birds did not surprise us.
Birds from first morning
Besides being a migrant stop, the wonder of Magee Marsh is how the birds are close and low, great for photography. Someone would spot a bird and everyone nearby, friends and total strangers, would shuffle over trying to get a sighting. The birds came, some skulking in the bushes and others putting on a show. Many singing their distinctive songs alerting the savvy birder to look for that species. We spent 4.75 hours traversing the 1.18 miles. It was that awesome. That first morning we found 71 species of birds including 19 species of warblers. In addition to the warblers, some highlights included: a Virginia Rail about 15 feet away feeding leisurely, an extremely well camouflaged American Woodcock unmoving in the marsh, an Eastern Screech Owl tucked up in a branch, a Philadelphia Vireo (a bird rarely seen in Philadelphia), and a beautiful Scarlet Tanager.
Birds from first afternoon
From the boardwalk, we went up to their Migratory Bird Center and took a short (.65 mile) walk clocking 34 species and 10 species of warbler (nothing new).
That afternoon, we returned to Magee Marsh’s boardwalk. We soon realized we were seeing or hearing similar birds in places seen or heard earlier, and that the light was much better for photography. In 2.5 hours and 1.28 miles, we recorded 54 species. We found 15 species of warblers and I got good pictures of 8 species of warbler. We ended the day with 82 species with 22 of them warblers, including Prothonotary Warbler, Canada Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Palm Warbler, and American Redstart. They say 33 species of warblers are possible, so we did really well that first day.
During dinner at a restaurant along the shoreline of Lake Erie, a northeaster came screaming in with a vengeance changing the placid waters to an ocean in a storm. This did not bode well for the next day.
Birds of Second Day
With temperatures in the low 40’s and winds in the high teens, we opted to explore some nearby areas: Howard Marsh, Metzger Marsh, and Ottawa NWR. At the refuge, we looked forward to exploring their wildlife driving tour from the warmth of the car. To our disappointment, the drive is only open on weekends. These stops provided opportunities to find water and shorebirds and we found 72 species of birds. Including Trumpeter Swans, a species the local refuges were there to protect. That afternoon, we could not resist returning to the Magee Marsh boardwalk. Many of the same birds were hanging around waiting for better weather. This time, instead of seeing a single Virginia Rail a few feet from the boardwalk, she was accompanied by 8 recently hatched babies—aww. The Screech Owl had moved up one branch, the American Woodcock was still in the exact same place, but she (assumption) had turned around. We speculate she sat on a nest. An unexpected treat was a Common Nighthawk perched on a branch high up in a tree.
Once again, the light was great, and I got a few great photographs, including a close up of a Northern Parula and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.
Third Day Birds
The next morning, the winds were still from the east and migration the night before light. So, we traveled to Pipe Creek Wildlife Management area in hopes of adding a few more species. Shortly after arriving, we watched in amazement as a Great Blue Heron swallowed an immense fish. Here we were able to find the reported Purple Gallinule, the first one ever seen in the area, and a Wilson’s Snipe.
We could not resist another visit to Magee Marsh for more birds and more stunning photos now that we had an idea of which birds would be found at various stops. We ended this day with 79 species of birds. Our total for the trip so far 121 species.
Friday, May 19, 2023, or last day in Ohio demanded one more stop at the Magee Marsh Boardwalk. The night before brought in southwest winds which should bring in more birds. Our 3.75 hours netted us 74 species. Interestingly, most of the regulars were still sitting near their “regular” spot. We were able to find some new arrivals like flocks of Blue Jays, an Alder and an Olive-sided Flycatcher. We left Ohio with 127 species, 33 of which I was able to photograph including a stunning Bay-breasted Warbler.
Our new destination was Mio, MI, 4.5 hours away and the epicenter of the Kirtland’s Warbler habitat.
Despite the threat of rain, we joined a guided Kirtland’s Warbler tour offered by the US Forest Service. The tour started with a 45-minute movie detailing the challenges faced by Kirtland’s Warblers, a species recently removed from the endangered species list. Then we studied a map of the area to understand the Forest Service’s work. Our guide also pinpointed a few places where we might locate some of the more challenging birds to find. Our first stop on the tour produced three Kirtland’s Warblers, though all were in bad light and at a distance. The second stop was much better! We got excellent views of both a male and a female and we added number 23 warbler species to our trip. That afternoon, a trip through Amish Country netted some field species like Eastern Meadowlark and Bobolink.
A side trip took us to a location where we might find a Golden-winged Warbler. One was heard at a distance, but we never saw it, but since I count heard birds that became warbler number 24.
The next morning, on our last day of birding, a quick stop produced warbler species number 25 when a Pine Warbler belted out its song, plus a surprise for us Barred Owl singing in the distance. Our destination was a place where our forest service guide said we should stop and listen for Ruff Grouse. The spot did not disappoint! The grouse would drum about every 10 minutes. Another recommended stop at the Luzerne Boardwalk proved beautiful and birdy with 32 species including a few very vocal Winter Wrens. What a big song from a small bird.
We revisited the Kirtland’s Warbler location hoping for better light for pictures. It was worth it!
The final afternoon included a self-guided tour provided by the US Forest Service. One stop produced a strange bird song. I was certain it was a Golden-winged Warbler, but the song seemed different than any I had ever heard. We used the app Merlin to check it out. Merlin agreed, but it also flagged a Blue-winged Warbler, which would be relatively rare in the area. We never saw the bird and since the sonogram on our recording closely matched one of the sonograms found in the field guide, we recorded it as a Golden-winged Warbler. Since we never got a good visual on the bird, we will never know, but we can speculate that maybe we had either a Brewster’s or Lawrence’s Warbler (hybrids between Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warblers).
Being our last evening, our travel companion Rick went outside of the cabin we rented to listen for Common Nighthawks. Shortly later, he came in and said, “I heard something weird. It sounded like a pump.” That got me out of the chair and out feeding the mosquitoes to confirm he was listening to an American Bittern, a great last bird for the trip!
Our final total: 152 species within 28 checklists and a total of 35 species photographed. What a trip!
Submitted and photography by Bob Mercer