Spring migration reminds me of a passage near the beginning of Melville’s Moby Dick when Ishmael senses the periodic urge to go to sea. He knows it’s time when he finds himself “involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet”… and requiring “a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off.” Migrating birds and birders feel a similar deep-seated urge each spring, one, to leave the wintering home and migrate to fertile breeding grounds, and the other, to leave the warm, comfortable fireside and head outside to observe the action and spring awakening.
Something came over me in my birding life about 10 years ago, not suddenly like a lightning strike or a eureka moment like the one that caused Archimedes to run naked from the bathtub into the street proclaiming his theory of buoyancy, but still quite rapid and profound. In short order I went from a casual, non-possessed birder to one where I cannot drive and walk anywhere without looking up, checking the power lines, or listening for the next bird. I have a hard time not buying the latest bird book or subscribing to the newest bird magazine, not to mention acquiring more camera paraphernalia. I’m not sure what caused this “affliction” and I understand from others that there is no cure. One symptom is the urge to travel to birding hot-spots during spring migration, such as the Magee Marsh on the southern shore of Lake Eire.
Magee Marsh is a rural flatland part of Ohio about halfway between Toledo and Sandusky. I hope the locals forgive me when I say there isn’t much going on there, but the migrating warblers and songbirds just love it. Apparently these neotropical birds heading for the forests of southern Canada are about running on empty when they come to the massive waters of Lake Eire. Lucky for us many cry uncle and take a few days of R&R in the sheltered treelined shore and marsh before proceeding northward. Others with more stamina push on over the lake and make it to Point Pelee on the Ontario shore, another birding hot-spot.
Bird migration is one of the wonders of the natural world, not well understood in ancient times. Aristotle thought that the summertime redstart became the winter robin, and the warbler morphed to a black-cap. Thanks to radar, GPS, banding, and tedious observation, the amazing scope and distances of migration have more recently come to light. The wood warblers do much of their traveling at night. This gives them cooler temperatures, more humidity to lessen dehydration, less wind, freedom from predator hawks, and the potential of celestial navigation. Some hardcore birders spend the dark May nights, lying on their backs, listening to the waves of chirping songbirds streaming north, identifying the mingled songs of flight. I’m not there yet.
My first and only visit to Magee Marsh was several Mays ago, one week after the popular yearly birding festival, and therefore after the crowds had thinned somewhat. Although you can bird in surrounding areas, the best location is clearly the less than one-mile-long boardwalk paralleling the shore through the wooded wetlands. I don’t believe I’ve ever been at a site where the warblers were so abundant and close. Leave your 500mm+ lenses and tripods home–you need the mobility of lighter gear to catch these elusive gems as they dive in and out of cover. You soon learn that the warblers each have their own feeding pattern. The Black-and-whites and Palms hug the trunks and large limbs, the Yellow-rumped and Chestnut-sided like the lower to mid-level branches, and the Cerulean and Cape May favor the canopy.
I found the other birders along the boardwalk courteous and helpful, more than willing to help make a difficult ID. If you look for flocks of birders bunching up on the trail you’ll usually be treated to a good bird. Thats the way I saw the camouflaged American Woodcock on the ground and Common Nighthawk sleeping along a high branch. It also led me to a Yellow Warbler on a nest. She obviously had abandoned any thought of crossing the lake and had just set up housekeeping right there.
Warbler identification is one of the most difficult challenges for a rising birder. There are 56 species found in the United States and Canada. The bright spring plumage helps somewhat but they vary per season, sex, and age. Their songs are often beautiful but confusing, and they just plain don’t hold still long enough to let you carefully note their field marks and fire off a shot. I’m frequently at a loss whether to reach for the camera or binoculars. Alas, we now have the warbler magnum opus; The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, published in 2013. This exhaustive guide to these birds amazes me every time I pick it up. In addition to the standard field marks it has sections on contrast & color, shape-size-behavior (the gist of the bird), the face, the body, and the undertail. Where else can you go to see 56 undertails or faces all lined up on one page. This book is too heavy and large to carry in the field but works well as a home reference, especially on the winter nights when we long for next spring’s migration to begin.
As excited as we are with the warblers arriving each May, all decked out in their finest attire, we know it will not last. Come autumn they’ll depart with less fanfare, the hard work of reproduction done. Even their drabber fall plumage will reflect our melancholic awareness of a season slipping by and the approach of another winter. Magee Marsh gave me three delightful days of birding several years ago–one never forgets their first siting of the Blackburnian warbler in his breeding best. I hope to go back soon.