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A Glorious Spring

The Biggest Week in American Birding

A glorious spring birding in the US

Text and photos by Dylan Vasapolli/Birding Ecotours

The spring months in the USA bring with them one of the greatest wonders of the avian, and indeed the natural, world – migration. Masses of birds, comprising many numbers of different species, travel vast distances from their non-breeding, wintering grounds in Central and even South America through to northern parts of the USA and Canada, where they spend the summer months breeding. Many years of research have gone into understanding this great phenomenon, and while we may understand largely how this happens, it still remains one of the greatest spectacles in the natural world and is an experience never to be forgotten.

April sees the onset of the spring migration, with the ‘early migrants’ beginning to move northwards through the USA, and by May migration is in full swing throughout the country, and the first of the migrants are already arriving at their breeding grounds. This continues through into June, when pretty much all of the migrants have arrived at their end point and are beginning to defend territories and breed. (You can see some of our tours to the USA over this period HERE

Right in the middle of all of this, what is rapidly becoming one of the largest (if not THE largest) birding event in the country begins – The Biggest Week in American Birding. Taking place in the first half of May, this event is strategically placed in north-western Ohio along the southern shores of Lake Erie, where this great lake forms a rather formidable barrier and sees a mass build-up of birds on the shoreline - essentially giving one the ultimate migration experience with birds quite literally ‘dripping from the trees’.

2017 was Birding Ecotours’ third year attending this event with owner Chris Lotz joined by leaders Andy Walker (from the UK) and Dylan Vasapolli (from South Africa). You can read about our 2016 trip HERE.

Over the length of the 10-day festival we lead a number of different field trips, including visits to East Harbour State Park, Pearson’s Metropark (a few trips), Peninsular Farms, and one of the famed Big Day trips. When not leading trips we spent as much time as possible birding other areas within north-west Ohio and included visits to Oak Openings Preserve Metropark, Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Maumee Bay State Park, Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area, Maumee State Forest, the famous Magee Marsh, and a few other more informal sites, covering this part of the state comprehensively.

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Birders enjoying a tree full of warblers at Magee Marsh

The birding this year was quite different from previous years, which was largely attributed to the somewhat abnormal weather patterns during the year (with a very mild winter and an extremely variable spring). Unfavourable winds didn’t help and kept the migrants generally thin on the ground (compared to what it should be in normal conditions).

The big drawcard in terms of migrants that pass through is the new world ‘wood warblers’. Unlike their old world ‘warbler’ cousins (which are generally drab mixes of browns, whites, and subtle yellow/greens – hardly captivating, sadly), these wood warblers are incredibly vividly colored and simply striking birds. Mixes of bright oranges through to jet blacks combine with smooth yellows, blues and grays to color the most visually appealing birds of the area. These wood warblers typically pass through in waves, with certain species moving through early (like Palm and Myrtle Warblers), followed by a middle wave of species (such as Magnolia and Chestnut-sided Warblers) and lastly by the later migrants (such as Mourning, Connecticut, and Canada Warblers). Following a few ‘quiet’ days with greatly reduced numbers, the migrant warblers started picking up and coming through in large numbers, and this fortunately carried on through to the end of the event. In total we managed 31 wood warbler species over the Biggest Week (with a few additional species seen after the event) and managed to get 29 species on the last day of the event.

Ovenbirds were particularly numerous this year, featuring almost daily, and one particular afternoon on the Maumee Bay Boardwalk we were practically swatting them away! Blue-winged Warbler is one of the ‘prized’ warblers and always a pleasure to see. This year, too, proved good, and quite a few individuals were seen on the Magee Marsh Boardwalk (scarce at this locality), along with a few sightings at their regular haunts where they breed, such as Oak Openings and Maumee State Forest. Its closely related cousin, Golden-winged Warbler, is also a highly-desired bird, often spoken of in hushed tones, and this year saw a few individuals being found. We only managed to see one of these individuals when we set off in the dying hours of the last day, following up on where one had been seen earlier in the afternoon. As soon as we began the trail we got onto a warbler moving rapidly through the shrubbery, and almost too easily, as it raised its head, it revealed itself as the target bird – a male Golden-winged Warbler. This species, sadly, isn’t doing very well, as much of its preferred habitat has been changed. We spent some time with the bird as it moved through the area, before eventually losing sight on it shortly before sunset. This was a species we had each only seen a handful of times before and was one we were very glad at catching up with! A species we certainly didn’t bank on during the Biggest Week was Kentucky Warbler, as this is a bit north of their regular range, and we got supremely lucky running into a lone bird. We headed out to an area none of us had been to before, the Maumee State Forest, following up on some gen we had on an easy Yellow-breasted Chat. We arrived on site, and, true to form, managed to get onto the chat pretty quickly and enjoyed some good, albeit, brief views, before some movement just below the chat drew our attention. The bird was moving quickly, and we had to follow it for a while before it eventually showed properly – hopping right out to the front of a large bush, revealing itself to be a stunning male Kentucky Warbler. It didn’t hang around for long, though, and we lost it soon after.

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Black-throated Green Warbler

Some of the more common but exceptionally spectacular species showed well during the Biggest Week and always attracted a bit of attention – these being Cape May, Magnolia, Prothonotary, Bay-breasted, Blackburnian, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, and Chestnut-sided Warblers, along with American Redstart and Northern Parula. The later migrants left it to the ‘last hour’ before showing, with Blackpoll, Canada, Wilson’s, and Mourning Warblers all only (finally) turning up on the last two days of the event. These are all rather exciting species, always causing some adrenaline rush while trying to get onto the bird. The later migrants, however, are perhaps best known by Connecticut Warbler. This bird is one of the most difficult of the warblers to not only find but to see as well (once you’ve found it). This is due to its incredibly skulking nature and the fact that it is largely terrestrial. A long-time wanted bird for Chris (as well as Andy and me), we had made it our ‘mission’ to get it this trip. We had to wait until the last day of the event, though, before we had our chance. While leading a trip to Pearson’s Metropark Andy and Chris struck gold and found a calling Connecticut Warbler. It took quite a bit of time, but eventually they were able to get views of this skulking species. On the other hand, I was leading a Big Day trip and was on the other side of the city. When the news broke and continued to come through on a regular basis over the morning, we simply had to make a turn at Pearson’s Metropark to try. Sadly, being on a Big Day trip meant that we didn’t have lots of time just to see this one bird – dropping our chances quite a bit. As it would go, we spent quite a bit of time just waiting for it to call, and once it did, we simply had to move on. After the trip ended we came back ourselves for a shot at it. But the area was rather quiet, and after some time searching the area without luck we decided to head off and try to find another one… Next year for me, I’m sure.

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Blackburnian Warbler

Keeping with the migrant theme, a number of other species from all sorts of different families move through the area as well, including various tyrant flycatcher, vireos, thrushes, orioles, sparrows, tanagers, and more. The tyrant flycatchers are typically later migrants, and, as with the late warblers, only really began arriving right at the end of the event. Great Crested and Least Flycatchers dominate the numbers, together with Eastern Wood Pewee and Eastern Phoebe, which usually arrive slightly earlier, while smaller numbers of Acadian, Yellow-bellied, Willow, Alder, and Olive-sided Flycatchers move through as well. Yellow-bellied Flycatcher was a hole Chris and I were glad to plug, striking it lucky at Oak Openings one morning, while we only picked up a single Olive-sided Flycatcher on the last day. Willow and Alder didn’t even show up during the actual event and only began moving through once the Biggest Week had ended. Vireos were well represented, and we were treated to multiple Blue-headed, Yellow-throated and Red-eyed Vireos daily, with only the occasional Philadelphia and a single White-eyed being found. Thrushes, too, took a while to show, but the last few days of the Biggest Week saw them arrive en-masse, and on a few separate occasions at both Pearson’s Metropark and Maumee Bay, respectively, we were almost trying to avoid standing on them; they were so plentiful. Swainson’s Thrush was the most numerous, followed closely by Veery. Hermit, Wood, and Grey-cheeked Thrushes were much more thinly distributed and always attracted some attention when found. A pleasant surprise was a number of Rusty Blackbirds showing in some marshy woodlots at Ottawa. Baltimore Orioles always added a bright splash of color to the trees, while Orchard Orioles remained thin on the ground.

Coming from South Africa, I often take sparrows for granted, and it’s always very refreshing seeing not only a wide diversity of sparrows but also in all manners of different habitats. White-throated, White-crowned, and Lincoln’s Sparrows all lurk in the darker thickets, while open patches on the edges of the thickets host Song and Chipping Sparrows. As their names suggest, Swamp Sparrows stick to marshy wetlands and are far-easier heard than seen, while the open, grassy areas support Field and Savannah Sparrows along with the sought-after Henslow’s, Grasshopper, and Lark Sparrows. The latter three showed particularly well at Oak Openings daily, never being difficult to see, and were a hit throughout the Biggest Week. Some rather fortunate additions this year included a lingering American Tree Sparrow at Magee Marsh early on and a Clay-colored Sparrow that spent most of a day around Maumee Bay. Both Summer and Scarlet Tanagers move through in numbers, and we enjoyed them on a fairly regular basis – albeit, with the resident Summer Tanagers at Oak Openings proving much easier to actually see. A surprise Bobolink in Pearson’s Metropark drew quite a bit of attention during the rather short period it stuck around, and the last day saw us (yet again) running into our first identifiable cuckoo – a Black-billed Cuckoo – also at Pearson’s.

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Lincolns Sparrow

Due to high water levels this year ducks and shorebirds were generally difficult to come by; however, the rapid draining of the many inundated corn fields in the area (due to the heavy rains right at the start of the Biggest Week) saw vast tracts of good shorebird/wader habitat starting to appear. A number of eyes out in the area ensured that a good number of shorebirds/waders were seen, the highlights being Marbled Godwit, Wilson’s Phalarope, and White-rumped and Pectoral Sandpipers along with both Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitchers. With the good rains we were hoping that there would be a slight influx of some of the trickier species, such as Sedge Wren and King Rail. We were correct on the King Rail, and, although we didn’t get to actually see any individuals, we found a number of different birds in various places, although they frustratingly always remained well hidden in the vegetation. Sedge Wren, it seemed, remained scarce, and only after following up reports of an individual and after much searching were we able to find one – much to Chris’ delight (another one of his long-time desired species).

2018 – We are looking forward to attending The Biggest Week in American Birding and being a part of this great spectacle once more!

14th June 2017