Fantastic! Outstanding! Remarkable! These and quite a few more similar adjectives have been used by countless birders to characterize Magee Marsh, one of the absolute best places in the country to enjoy spring songbird migration and the primary, but not sole destination, of Alula’s most recent extended trip to the lakeshore of Lake Erie in northwestern Ohio. We totaled 109 species. (Please see accompanying list prepared by Eileen.)
As the Alula group walked along the elevated wooden boardwalk bisecting the wooded swamp it soon became clear that the accolades heaped upon Magee Marsh are accurate, living up to all the hype as the “Warbler Capital of the World”. There was the constant motion of songbirds, mostly warblers wherever and whenever we looked. An American Redstart here, a probing golden-colored Prothonotary and a Black-throated Blue Warbler there, followed by a Northern Parula, a foraging Cape May, a flitting Blackburnian, and on and on. We tallied 24 species of warblers during the three visits we made; surprisingly we missed at least half a dozen species we expected to see but did not, such as Blue-winged and Hooded Warbler. (All the more reason to return next year.)
Most notable was the fact that the warblers didn’t give us the human health affliction typically suffered when looking at them – warbler neck! Instead, we enjoyed close-up gorgeous looks at warblers foraging low, mostly in the understory or lower parts of the canopy. On a few occasions birds were so close to the boardwalk that it would have been possible to touch them. It isn’t clear why they behaved like this; perhaps the need to forage to secure enough food to power their flight across Lake Erie took precedent over their normal fear of people.
That Magee Marsh (and surrounding areas such as the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge) can be so productive for viewing migrating birds rests on three reasons – its location along the shore of Lake Erie (an inhospitable obstacle to the birds continued northerly migration resulting in them making a stop at Magee in an effort to gain enough fuel through prolonged and active feeding), its position in the middle of the country through which so many songbirds migrate, and the island of high quality foraging habitat the area provides surrounded by a “sea” of unsuitable farmland. All three of these reasons work in unison to concentrate and funnel songbirds at Magee and surrounding preserves and refuges and the first reason, I think, explains why so many warblers were feeding lower and much closer than they normally do. We are the beneficiaries of this unique geography!
Several birds stood out to me during our time along the boardwalk. The Mourning Warbler is one of the more sought after songbirds here – right behind the federally endangered Kirtland’s Warbler and the much more common but elusive Connecticut Warbler. We were not disappointed when word quickly spread that a Mourning Warbler was being seen as it foraged in typical fashion, low in the wet forest, near the west gate of the boardwalk. I was able to watch the bird forage amidst brush piles and stumps for several minutes before disappearing from view. Later on in the day further east on the boardwalk we saw a totally unexpected avian treat, one that a local checklist described as a “very rare, irregular visitor” – a Henslow’s Sparrow. A sparrow that nests in fields and grasslands, the Henslow’s has a unique greenish, olive coloration on the sides of its head and the dubious distinction of having one of the poorest songs of any North American songbird – a weak “tsilick, tsilick”, which it emits from its perch atop a tuft of grass. It was surprising to see a bird that nests in open grasslands feeding among the emerging rootstocks of cinnamon fern in the deep shadows of a swamp. I also was able to see my favorite bird, the Common Nighthawk, as it sat on a narrow red maple branch, occasionally being tossed about by the strong breeze. How the nighthawk, known to have weak feet for grasping, kept its balance is unclear.
Other highlights from Magee Marsh included close-up views of nesting Bald Eagles, two VERY close-up views of American Woodcocks incubating eggs (remarkable how well camouflaged the adult birds are); we were no more than four feet behind one yellow caution tape to prevent people from disturbing the birds and each of the three times we visited the bird we had initial trouble locating her. We also paid a visit to the Black Swamp Bird Observatory where we made a $100 contribution to assist them in continuing their highly valuable bird research and conservation efforts.
Magee Marsh wasn’t the only place we explored. We also visited other well-known birding spots including Metzger Marsh, Maumee Bay State Park (with its own elevated wooden boardwalk), Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Little Portage River State Wildlife Management Area, and Oak Openings Metropark southwest of Toledo. While a much smaller version than Magee Marsh and several miles to its west, Metzger Marsh proved productive as the birds here too fed actively against the edge of the lakeshore trying to adequately refuel for the flight across the lake.
Ottawa NWR, immediately to the west of Magee Marsh and encompassing about 6,700 acres, contains numerous wetland environments easily accessed by dike roads that run along the perimeter of the numerous open water and wetland impoundments. Here we had views of a breeding plumage Eared Grebe, as well as Pied-billed Grebes, Trumpeter Swans, one of which trumpeted repeatedly, a Common Moorhen (once known as the Common Gallinule), several American Coot, Ruddy Ducks, a pair of Sandhill Cranes, many more mature and immature Bald Eagles, several Marsh Wrens, and twice heard but did not see a Sora, a type of rail that utilizes wetland habitats such as those found at Ottawa. We also had a view of another roosting Common Nighthawk. Along the North and South Woods trails we saw Purple Martins and Swainson’s Thrush.
Oak Openings Preserve, the largest of the parks run by Lucas County, southwest of Toledo, is very different from the other places we birded. It was the driest by far, having sand dunes that are a remnant of a glacial beach ridge. This open landscape with scattered oak forests provides habitat to a variety of birds. During our half-day visit we saw Lark Sparrows (said to constitute the easternmost breeding population of this species in the country), Indigo Buntings, Eastern Towhee, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Eastern Meadowlark, Field and Chipping Sparrows, Scarlet Tanagers, and numerous Baltimore Orioles. We did miss out on two sought-after species: Red-headed Woodpeckers (which are common here) and Summer Tanagers. Blue Lupine, a beautiful member of the pea family (also found in the Long Island Pine Barrens) was just coming into full bloom along the sandy dune ridge.
By any measure the trip in search of Spring Migration was a resounding success and Alula Birding & Natural History Tours will be sure to offer this trip in the coming years!!!!! I felt blessed to have experienced these places.