May is for the birds

Birders at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area.

May is for the birds. Thousands of bird lovers young and old clearly would understand what I mean.

Birders live for spring migration. Birds large and small that headed south for warmer winter climes return north to their annual breeding grounds. May is the peak month for such movement.

Where the boardwalk begins.

Birders clamor for any and every chance to find rare birds or to compile as many species as they can see or hear in a day or week or month. There is no better place in North America to do that than a small state-managed wildlife area in northwest Ohio called Magee Marsh. Birds and birders both flock to the estuaries, marshlands, and small woodlots that abut Lake Erie’s southwestern shore.

Even if you don’t count yourself among the aviary flock, it’s worth a trip just for the experience. Cruise through the expansive parking lot, and you’ll find vehicles of all shapes and sizes with license plates from across the country and Canada. Human participants even fly in from foreign countries for the spectacular migratory happening.

Part of the draw is an organized and orchestrated event tabbed “The Biggest Week in American Birding,” sponsored by a little non-profit known as the Black Swamp Birding Observatory.

The “week” is actually multiple days in early May. This year it’s May 3-12. Many species of birds, especially warblers, use Magee Marsh and surrounding protected wetlands as rest stops before winging it over Lake Erie into Canada. The first landing spot for many is Point Pele near Leamington, Ontario, just across the lake.

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The colorful songbirds sometimes hang like Christmas tree ornaments from tree branches. Birders ogle from boardwalks that wind their way through the trees and along ponds and wetland habitats.

Workshops and lectures are also held to inform interested parties about the latest findings on bird populations, behaviors, and dwindling habitats. Guided field trips are also available. Of course, you can also buy birding supplies, books, and equipment.

But it’s the birds that matter. Youngsters and oldsters, groups and individuals ply their skills at searching for the latest arrived species. Word of a Canadian warbler, a secretive bird with a quiet call, spreads quickly among the birders. Just locate the crowd with spotting scopes and binoculars aimed in search of the prize.

If by chance a real rarity shows, like the endangered Kirtland’s warbler, the crowd suddenly shifts to add to their life list of seeing this worshiped species. Only a small number still summer in the jack pines of the Lower Michigan peninsula.

Yes, that is a Kirtland’s Warbler, and another one was spotted there yesterday, May 3, 2019.

Of course, northwest Ohio is not the only migration hotspot on the continent. Cape May, New Jersey, southern Arizona, the coastlines of Florida and California to name a few also host migrating birds and curious birders. Coastal regions and contiguous topography with natural waterways, ponds, and habitat provide flyways for the returning birds.

Sleepy.

Birds need cover, food, water, and safe spaces to rest and refuel to continue their journey and reach their destination. In the fall, they’ll repeat the process in reverse, only dressed in more camouflaged colors.

In many species, it’s the flashy colors that birders love to view, if only for a few precious seconds. Some of the species call northern Ohio home for the summer.

School groups, church groups, family groups, young birder groups, birding clubs, and just curious individuals celebrate these early spring days searching for any shorebirds, songbirds, waterfowl, and birds of prey that happen to be passing through.

It’s spring migration after all when May really is for the birds.

Kim Kaufman (right) and her dedicated staff make the Biggest Week in American Birding happen.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

May is for the birds

May flowers
May flowers.

By Bruce Stambaugh

May is for the birds. That’s good news for those of us who live in northern Ohio.

Year in and year out, May tends to be a very pleasant month here. The days grow longer and warmer.

Garden flowers splash welcomed colors against neatly trimmed, emerald lawns. Rainbows of wildflowers carpet forest floors, hiding the decaying leaf litter for six months. Mushrooms and May apples join them.

But what broadens the smiles in many folks from ages four to 94 are the returning birds. Not that people have been disappointed with the aviary species that frequented their backyard feeders in the dormant months.

The colorful songbirds, all decked out in their mating wardrobes, radiate new life into their human audiences. I’m certain the birds are unaware.

Gulping grape jelly.
Gulping grape jelly.
You don’t even have to be a serious birder to know that feeling. When the first Baltimore Oriole flashes its black and orange and whistles its distinctive call, it’s officially May.

Out come the store-bought and homemade feeders full of grape jelly. Stand back and let the gorging begin.

This year the birds seemed simply to fall out of the sky. Person after person reported the first of the year Baltimore Oriole, Orchard Oriole, and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

It’s amazing how those little hummers remember where the previous year’s feeders hung. If they beat you to the punch, they’re hovering outside your kitchen window waiting for lunch or supper, depending on when their flight landed in your yard.

This year I beat them to it. I had the feeder cleaned and filled with fresh sugar water long before April melded into May. But the birds got the last laugh. The first bird on the hummingbird feeder was a male Baltimore Oriole. Yes, they like a sweet sip now and then, too.

So, out went the oriole feeder. I hardly had stepped away when a male Baltimore Oriole swooped in for his feast. A male Orchard Oriole, a bird that I had never seen feed at the grape jelly station before, soon followed.

Friends near and far reported orioles galore. Their joy mimicked that of the infectious calls of the birds themselves.

male rose-breasted grosbeak
Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
Then came another wave of exuberance. Folks from all around called, emailed, and showed me photos of a bird they had seldom had at their feeders before. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks held their own fallout party. Some people reported eight or 10 at a time feeding. Not only are these handsome birds fun to watch, but their song also matches their beauty.

Of course, a few rare birds pass through on their way further north for the summer. American White Pelicans and stately Black-necked Stilts made appearances to the area.

But this time of year, it’s the colorful warblers that serious birders covet. Scores of birders from around the world converge on the Lake Erie shoreline to watch and listen for this annual splendor. They are seldom disappointed.

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The Biggest Week in American Birding is held annually from early to mid-May in northwest Ohio’s Magee Marsh Wildlife Area. Scores of migrating birds, warblers, shorebirds, and birds of prey among them, rest and forage in the adjoining marshes, wetlands, and woodlots before heading over the lake.

Even if you can’t make it there, the birds may still come to you. The key is to be on the watch.

You never know what bright and cheery surprise may come your way in May. But look quick, because just like May, some of them might be gone in a vivid flash.

trumpeter swans
Lift off.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

Camouflaged

Camouflaged. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
Camouflaged. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015.

I recently went in search of migrating warblers and other bird species at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area near Oak Harbor, OH. It was the peak of the Biggest Week in American Birding, sponsored by the Black Swamp Birding Observatory. Thousands of folks from around the world came to the annual event.

Magee Marsh has a well-maintained boardwalk for birders to observe up close the many beautiful birds that flit around. The boardwalk meanders through the various favorable habitats, woods, marsh, water. At times, the walkway is packed. People clump up to get a view of a showy or rare species, with birders helping birders to find the bird. That’s just how birders are. Well, most of them at least.

When I came upon this photographer aiming his huge camera at something, I had to take his photo. He was the only person I saw all day that totally blocked the boardwalk. This individual wore all the right clothes and used the best photography equipment.

He clearly only had one thing in mind, and courtesy wasn’t one of them. His camouflage outfit and camera said it all. He was there to shoot photos of birds. He seemed totally oblivious to the fact that thousands of others wanted to do the same and were unable to pass the way he was set up. Also, the boardwalk rules, both written and understood, clearly state, “No tripods.”

I’m glad this photographer was the exception, not the rule at Magee Marsh. “Camouflaged” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

For birders, migration is like Christmas in springtime

Bay-breasted Warbler, migratiing birds, locating birds
Migrating warblers, like this Bay-breasted Warbler, are often easy to hear but hard to locate since they usually stay high in trees and are constantly on the move feeding. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

By Bruce Stambaugh

Like children dreaming of Old St. Nick on Christmas Eve, this is the time of year birders have yearned for, longed for, relished.

For hardcore birders, spring migration is a Christmas morning that spans several weeks from mid-March to mid-May. Avid birders are especially on the alert now to find the many species they seek, and some they couldn’t even imagine.

Rock Wren, rare birds, spring migration
Rock Wren. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
When a rarity shows up like the Rock Wren did last spring, it’s a birding bonanza. The Rock Wren became a rock star. For several days, the bird from America’s southwest was a magnet, attracting folks from far and wide to Holmes County.

Such birds are the exception. The spring migratory norm is to view birds that either return here to nest or to catch a glimpse of those that are just passing through. Depending on the weather, the transients might stay a day or two, or just make a short pit stop to rest and refuel.

The challenge is to be at the right place at the right time to see and hear the birds.

For me, I’m just as happy to note the return of my backyard birds. The Chimney Swifts rattled the fireplace doors as they swooped into our chimney the evening of April 18, the same date as last year.

How do I know? Like most birders, I keep a list of when I see a species for the first time each year. In the birding world, that’s known as the FOY, first of year. For instance, the Red-headed Woodpecker was a day later than last year, arriving April 21.

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Today’s birders use social networking sources to track the movement and appearance of the various species. That gives the flocks of birders a heads up on finding and photographing particular birds.

We are fortunate in Ohio to have one of the best locations in the country to observe and hear a wide variety of transitory and returning birds, especially warblers. This time of year both birds and birders pack Magee Marsh Wildlife Area.

A conservation group, the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, located at the entrance to Magee Marsh in northwest Ohio, sponsors “America’s Biggest Week in Birding.” In fact, it’s going on right now.

These folks welcome thousands of birders, amateur to professional, in hosting this attractive annual festival. Magee Marsh, a state park, is billed as “the warbler capital of the world.” Having been there on many occasions, I can attest to that.

Birders from around the world converge on Magee Marsh just to watch the warblers and shorebirds come and go. It’s not unusual to observe 20 or more kinds of warblers in just a few hours. Magee Marsh and the surrounding acreage are protected habitat that ensures safe harbor for migrating and nesting birds of all sizes, colors and species.

My first visit to Magee Marsh years ago was indeed like Christmas. A few steps onto the wooden boardwalk and I spotted a variety of colorful warblers decked out in their impressive breeding plumage. The brightly colored little birds looked like Christmas tree ornaments perched on low-hanging tree branches.

Where I live here in Ohio’s Amish country, we don’t necessarily have to drive that far to enjoy the migrating birds. The Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area, the Holmes County Trail, The Wilderness Center, and the many ponds and lakes in our area provide excellent habitat for a variety of birds.

Or you can just step outside and watch and listen. You just might think it’s Christmas in springtime.

overlapping birds in spring migration
Winter and summer residents, like this White-crowned Sparrow, and male Rose-breasted Grosbeack, oftern overlap during spring migration. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

Birds and birders: Two of a kind

boardwalkentrancebybrucestambaugh
The west entrance to the Magee Marsh boardwalk is a great place to begin the birding.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Birds and birders have a lot in common. This thought struck me on my latest trip to northwest Ohio’s birding mecca, Magee Marsh Wildlife Area.

Billed as the Greatest Week in American Birding, the event coincided with the peak of the spring warbler migration. Warblers, and other migrating birds, use Ohio’s airspace as their launching pad to their northern breeding grounds.

Before the birds cross Lake Erie, they tend to rest along its shores. There they replenish their strength by devouring insects that flit around the budding and blooming deciduous trees, shrubs and wildflowers. Shorebirds scour the marshes and shores for their nourishment.

woodcockbybrucestambaugh
This American Woodcock chose the median of the parking lot to make her nest.

As an amateur birder, I enjoy watching backyard birds and observing passers through with equal zeal. But if I want to see a multitude of colorful migrating birds packed into one location, Magee Marsh is the place to go.

The marsh and its 2,200 surrounding acres serve as a sprawling wildlife sanctuary with varied habitat types, including estuaries, marshes, scrub lands, woodlots, rocky areas, beaches and of course the lake itself. The area also provides sportsmen with seasonal controlled hunting and fishing.

birdhabitatsbybrucestambaugh
Magee Marsh has many habitats that attract several species of migrating birds.

During bird migration season, the only shooting of birds permitted is with cameras. Believe me, plenty of shots are fired in search of the perfect picture of the incredible songbirds, shorebirds, and birds of prey.

In my meandering around the boardwalk, trails and beach, I discovered something that should have been obvious. Birders have a lot in common with the birds they watch.

boardwalkbirdersbybrucestambaugh
Birders checked out warbler on the boardwalk at Magee Marsh

Like their feathered friends, birders come in all shapes, sizes and ages. Just like the birds, birders sport different hues and clothe themselves in a variety of colors, including camouflage, worn more to soothe the birds than hide from predators.

There are other comparisons, too. Some birders maneuver and forage in solitude for their targets. Others travel in organized groups. Most birders are quiet, but some let loose with an effusive chatter when a flashy warbler or rare bird is spotted.

When a shorebird captures a fish, it often finds itself quickly surrounded by others hoping to also steal a bite. When a birder discovers a coveted find, others gather around hoping to capture the image through their spotting scopes, binoculars, or cameras. Those without scopes are graciously invited to better view the often-concealed bird. Birders are genuinely kind people.

youngbirdersbybrucestambaugh
A young family took a break from their birding at Magee.
When a bird is located along the boardwalk at Magee, birders bob and weave, stretch and stoop to get just the right viewing angle. Birds do the same in search of food or checking out habitat. Most birders go in search of birds, like the many warblers that flit from limb to limb decreasing the insect population. Others sit and wait for the birds to come to them, like a Great Blue Heron patiently waiting for a fish to spear.

Camaraderie and sharing are normal in the sport of birding. Staunch birders make life lists, month lists, day lists, yard lists,

capemaywarblerbybrucestambaugh
This Cape May Warbler dined on insects before heading across the lake.
state lists, annual lists, and just about any other kind of list you might imagine. That’s how serious they take this popular sport.

If someone finds a bird they can’t identify, a more expert birder gladly assists in teaching how to properly confirm just what species it is. Teaching and learning are just as important as appreciating the birds and their habitats.

Perhaps that is why birding is one of the most popular sports in the world. During the Biggest Week in American Birding, global citizens flock to northwest Ohio in hopes of seeing a special species.

To hear the various lyrical birdsongs and behold the flashy mating plumages first hand is truly a treat. To see the smiles and satisfaction on the faces of the elated birders is equally rewarding.

happybirdersbybrucestambaugh
Birders tend to be pleasant, engaging people.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013