The Biggest Week in American Birding 2017

Last year at the Biggest Week in American Birding in Northwest Ohio, I remember seeing warblers everywhere I looked from the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area boardwalk.  By the end of the festival, we had seen 31 species of warblers, including rarities such as Kirtland’s and Mourning Warblers.   Other migrants were also abundant: Whippoorwill, Black-billed Cuckoo, Curlew Sandpiper, Wilson’s Phalarope, and White-rumped Sandpiper to name a few.  Magee Marsh and other wildlife areas that line Lake Erie in that area serve as migrant traps, where many birds stop to rest and refuel before crossing the lake.  I was very excited to be going back.

As we drove to the festival, though, I started worrying.  Migration was late this year and we had to get back to Virginia to attend the Mount Rogers Naturalist Rally.  These plans meant that we couldn’t stay till the end of the week when the rarer warblers and flycatchers would be expected even under more typical migration timing.

Our first morning, we started early at Magee Marsh.  Unfortunately, compared to last year, the boardwalk was dead.  It seemed like there were more warblers back in Virginia.  We found 41 species of birds that morning and I was able to photograph this posing Black-throated Green Warbler.

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Black-throated Green Warbler

Feeling a little depressed at having birded the self proclaimed “Warbler Capital of the World” for an hour yet seeing only 6 warbler species, we headed to the nearby Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area.  As we pulled into the small, empty parking lot, we saw 4 Sandhill Cranes fly overhead, their strange rattling calls filling the sky.  We found a muddy trail on a narrow stretch of ground just barely elevated above the water on either side of it, leading off into the wide open marshlands.  As we walked onto this little dike, we heard several Sora.  We saw American Coots and Common Gallinules in the open sections of water.  Suddenly, something sprang into flight from some grass next to my brother’s feet.  As it flew, I registered the small size, little trailing feet, and tannish coloration of a Least Bittern.  It landed at the top of some marsh grass, and we had a few seconds to look at it before it slid down the stalk and disappeared.  This Least Bittern was only the third one I had ever seen.  Marsh Wrens sang along the trail, but sadly we were never able to see one.  Not bad marsh birding at all: Sora, Common Gallinule, Marsh Wren, Sandhill Cranes, and Least Bittern!

We returned to the car and checked the Biggest Week twitter feed.  Someone had reported two Upland Sandpipers, a lifer for me, at Grimm Prairie at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge.  When we got there, we saw a line of birders with scopes standing in the parking lot staring into the empty field.  The birds hadn’t been seen for awhile and were probably behind a clump of grass.  We got our scope and scanned the field, but the heat haze was so thick that we couldn’t see much in the distance.  Deciding that we would bird the rest of Ottawa and keep our eyes on twitter in case the birds were re-found, we packed up and left.

Hundreds of swallows of 5 different species surrounded us as we started down the foot trail around the impoundments at Ottawa.  I saw a Bank Swallow among the much more prevalent Tree, Northern Rough Winged, and Barn Swallows and Purple Martins, but my brother, who had never seen one, missed it.  I was therefore distracted the rest of the afternoon by the necessity of scanning every swallow that came by to try to find another Bank for him.   We didn’t see another one.  Nevertheless, I did enjoy seeing Black Tern, Least Flycatcher and a Black-crowned Night Heron there.

Back at Grimm Prairie, we saw the Upland Sandpipers (if you can call the horrible, distant, distorted scope views we had ‘seeing’) although certainly not as well as I would have liked through the heat haze.

The next morning, we started by stopping at the intersection of Angola and Raab Roads, which had a Curlew Sandpiper last year.  This year we had 5 swallow species including Bank and Cliff on the wire by the road.  My brother was very happy about finally finding a Bank.

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Bank Swallows by Theo Staengl

We spent the rest of the morning birding the metro parks of Toledo.  At Oak Openings Metropark, we got Lark Sparrow, Red-headed Woodpecker, Least Flycatcher and Nashville Warbler.  At Pearson Metropark we saw almost nothing.  Later in the afternoon, we headed back to Magee to see if anything new had shown up.  There was more Warbler activity, with Blackburnian Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Orange Crowned Warbler, and Cape May Warbler, but it still didn’t compare to last year.

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Blackburnian warbler

The next day (Wednesday), things were finally really starting to get better as far as migrant passerines were concerned.  We had 60 species of birds on the Magee Marsh boardwalk, with 19 species of warblers.  Prothonotary, Blue-winged and Hooded were some of the better ones we saw.

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Blue-headed Vireo

That afternoon, we went to Maumee Bay State Park, where birders had spotted a Clay-colored Sparrow.  As we waited for it to stick its head out of the grass, we watched Purple Martins gracefully wheeling overhead and landing on the artificial gourds that had been set out for them.  Just as we were getting ready to bird the Maumee boardwalk and come back for the Sparrow later, it flew out of the grass, circled its crowd of gathered admirers and landed in a leafless tree right in front of us.  It was the second time I have seen a Clay-colored Sparrow, but this time provided, by far, the better looks and photos.

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Clay-Colored Sparrow

We spent the  rest of the day slowly birding the Maumee boardwalk, enjoying the peaceful swamp forests.  Veerys seemed to hop on every other fallen log.  We  saw the well-known red morph Eastern Screech Owl that reliably roosts in a box next to the trail.  Ovenbirds, Nashville Warblers, and Yellow Warblers sang in the willows and cottonwoods.

We had to leave for Virginia by 10am Thursday morning, so we didn’t have much time to bird.  We decided to bird Magee Marsh for the whole time in hopes that migration would have picked up.  It was the best day so far, and at times it was almost as good as it had been last year.  One of the best things about Magee Marsh, second to the bird themselves, is that you can see warblers only feet from you at the edge of the boardwalk.  And even when they are not posing perfectly, they are never very high in the canopy like they are back home.  The birds’ proximity and diversity make this an exceptionally good location for warbler photography.  Here are some favorite photos that I took that last morning in Ohio:

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Chestnut-sided Warbler

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Nashville Warbler

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Nashville Warbler

We also got great looks at Bay-breasted Warbler that day, and so many other warblers.  By the end of the trip, our trip list was 130 species, and we had seen 22 species of warblers.  Not as good as last year, but we had a lot of fun, and saw plenty of birds.

Two Orioles and Two Owls

When I heard there was a Black Backed Oriole in Pennsylvania, I hoped we could make the trip since it would be such a great chance to see this rare species.   It’s a non-migratory species endemic to Mexico, so what was it doing in PA?   We went to the Black Backed Oriole, nicknamed “BB,” stakeout first, in hopes of getting our main target out of the way so we could relax and enjoy the rest of our trip. When we got to the right neighborhood, we saw two birders with a scope standing on the sidewalk looking across the street at a feeder. They hadn’t seen the bird yet so we stood with them and waited. After about twenty minutes “BB” came to the feeder briefly and sat in a cedar tree, where the dense evergreen branches mostly blocked it from view.

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We wanted better photos so we stayed, hoping that it would come to the feeder again. The owner of the house, Tom, came out to chat with us. He was the perfect example of what I wish all property owners near a rare bird would be like. He enjoyed all the attention and was interested in birds and birders.  He’s even made a face book page about “BB!”   He seemed to think of his role as the birder watcher. He told us to sign into the little booklet that he had because he was sending it to someone in Australia who was doing a study about the economic impact of birding.   Apparently people from thirty states, some Canadian provinces, and a couple of European countries have come to see this bird! Imagine how that might help a region’s economy! This is especially ironic because “BB” is probably not really an ABA countable, wild vagrant from Mexico, but rather an escaped cage bird.   So basically, someone could just let a super rarity out of a cage and many birders will come to see it and spend money on hotels, meals, etc.  Sadly, “BB” did not come back to the feeder for another hour, so we moved on, thinking that we would try to get better pictures in the morning before we left.

Our next stop was a nearby park with a Great Horned Owl nest that one of the birders visiting “BB” had told us about.  We found the large bird easily, sleeping inside a hole near the parking lot.

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Photo credit: Theo Staengl

We finished the day at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, which has been getting some good birds lately, like Eurasian Widgeon and Golden Eagle. The highlight for us, though, was the large number (over 1000) of Tundra Swans on the lake.  I hope everyone has the chance to experience huge flocks of any water bird making noise. Thousands of Sandhill Cranes, thousands of Snow Geese, or thousands of wintering swans make a truly gorgeous noise.  The Tundra Swans filled the space around us as they flew overhead and landed on the lake, constantly calling long, rattling, trumpeting noises that blended together to create one musical chorus.  To see or hear birds, or most wildlife, really, in such abundance is always special.

As dusk fell, a lone short-eared owl put on a show for us hunting over the fields in the waning light.

The next morning, it was snowing heavily and much colder. Our first target was a Bullock’s Oriole, a western species rarely seen east of the Mississippi.  We sat in our car and waited as we watched the Flickers and Juncos, among other birds, coming to the feeders.   Soon, the Bullock’s landed on the suet feeder.  It was an immature male, shining brightly against the dreary wet snow, with a bright yellow breast and black throat spot and eye line.

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Photo credit: Theo Staengl

Next we went back to Middle Creek WMA. This time, in addition to the large numbers of Tundra Swans, Black Ducks, Shovelers, and Canada Geese, there were also 12 Common Mergansers and thousands of Snow Geese on the main lake. The driving snow made it very difficult to scan the large body of water for more waterfowl, so we decided to drive around a little wildlife loop in hopes that the storm would stop. We quickly found three American Tree Sparrows in a flock of sparrows foraging on the roadside (the only not snow covered ground).  Even though Tree Sparrows are fairly common in Pennsylvania, we were excited to see them, as we rarely see them in Virginia.

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Other notable sightings on the wildlife loop were Killdeer, Wilson’s Snipe and Horned Larks. As the storm blew out, we drove back to the trail to the lake. The Tree Sparrows still foraged in the bushes by the road. A mixed flock descended out of the trees, both Carolina and Black-capped Chickadees calling and flying around everywhere. We flushed a small flock of Rusty Blackbirds, a year bird for me! At the lake, we saw some Green Winged Teal and three Ruddy Ducks.  Huge flocks of snow geese flew overhead, with both blue and white morph birds. My brother spotted a Palm Warbler hopping around in the snow. This crazy bird should have been in the deep south now, so this was quite a surprise! Palm Warblers have such a distinctive habit of pumping their tail up and down constantly that it is used as a field mark.

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When I totaled up my Pennsylvania life list I found it had 96 species. I do not know about you, but I really hate seeing numbers that are so close to a good solid 100 but not quite! Overall, we had an amazing trip and I am very glad to be back home now.