Warbler Woodstock

Chestnut-sided Warbler, Dendroica pensylvanica

 

It was hot and humid.  There was a long line of creeping traffic entering a driveway which terminated in a dusty gravel parking lot by the lake.  There were several ripe porta-potties next to the woods, some with queues of anxious people waiting their turn. My fellow attendees were a strange-looking group decked out in multi-pocketed pants and vests and a peculiar collection of wide-brimmed hats.  Despite the heat, sweat, and crowd, everyone seemed happy, some coming from great distance to see the show and hear the music.  This was not 1969 in White Lake, New York, but rather 2017 in Magee Marsh, Ohio, and the performers were not Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix but rather the warbling songbirds, stopping here briefly on the long journey north.

Yellow Warbler, Dendroica petechia   (click on photo to zoom)

Every spring the neotropical songbirds cross the vast Gulf of Mexico and island hop the Caribbean in March, proceeding northward in waves depending on the prevailing winds and weather patterns.  The arrival of specific warbler species at Magee Marsh is amazingly reproducible year after year with the early arrival of Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers by late April, others coming in early May, with later May arrivals of species such as Blackburnian, Canada, and Wilson’s Warblers.  Yearly the peak times at the marsh are the 2nd and 3rd weeks of May and by the first of June the show is over.

Black-throated Blue Warbler, Dendroica caerulescens

Magee Marsh is located along the rural southern shore of Lake Erie, 16 miles west of Port Clinton.  It is birded primarily from a slightly less than one mile boardwalk which winds through a mixed habitat of low-level growth, taller trees, and wetlands. I have found the birding best in the western half of the walk and judging from crowd size others agree with this.  You’ll find a mixture of birding styles; there’s the classic binos-only approach versus the camera-only style.  There’s even some birders with neither–many of the warblers are easily visible by naked eye right along the rail.  My technique used both binos and camera, but has the distinct disadvantage of forcing that choice each time a new bird popped up.

Magnolia Warbler, Dendroica magnolia

Wilson’s Warbler, Wilsonia pusilla

The warblers were plentiful all four days of my recent visit.  If you want to see the more uncommon birds just look for the crowd, aim your binos the same direction of others, or just ask for guidance.  There’s no paucity of good advice and opinion on the boardwalk.  The two major crowd pleasers of my visit were the Mourning Warbler sleuthing low in the underbrush and the Golden-winged Warbler high in the canopy near the visitor’s center.  Unfortunately my photos of these are not great but do confirm the sightings for my personal records.

Blackpoll Warbler, Dendroica striata

Blackburnian Warbler, Dendroica fusca

Warbler photography along the boardwalk presents major challenges.  First there are the dense thickets.  You may see the bird quite clearly in the shrubs but your auto-focus locks on intervening twigs.  I sought out relatively clear breaks between shrubs and just waited for the birds to fly to me–they were that plentiful allowing this successful strategy.  Secondly the warblers are extremely fast and active, chasing the bugs, and almost teasing the stalking photographers.  When one finally poked into the clear the  staccato camera clicks reminded one of the paparazzi of Hollywood.  Then there’s the low light issues in the lower bushes, suddenly contrasting with the bright sunlight as they bird moved upward.  You’re constantly adjusting your ISO and exposure compensation settings.  Lastly, as May progresses the shrubs and trees are leafing out, further restricting observation and photography.

Prothonotary Warbler, Protonotaria citrea

I don’t believe this setting is ideal for a tripod or the larger 500mm+ lenses–the birds are too close and quick.  You’re much better off with a more versatile 100-400mm zoom or other such system.  One day was very windy–I mean hold on to your new $26 dollar Magee Marsh cap or lose it forever in the swamp, windy.  The motion of the branches and leaves in the upper canopy was so severe that my birding that day was restricted to the lower regions.

American Redstart (female), Setophaga ruticilla

Birding-by-ear was much in evidence and I heard numerous birders working to learn that technique on the boardwalk.  Amongst the many songs there were two dominant tunes one could not help but learn over the several days.  They were sung by the plentiful and gorgeous Yellow Warbler with its three introductory notes followed by the fast trill, and the beautiful ascending cascade of the Warbling Vireo, heard all along the trail.

American Redstart (male), Setophaga ruticilla

If photography’s your game you’ll be taking a lot of shots to get a few “keepers”, the ones that make the effort all worthwhile.  I took 3500 exposures over the 4 days.  You can imagine the long evenings of post-processing and deleting in the motel and airport.  For this post I chose to show the more atypical poses, rather than the standard lateral “bird-guide” view, to better illustrate the activity of the beautiful birds.

Black-throated Green Warbler, Dendroica virens

I saw 19 warbler species during the trip, (along with 48 additional resident and migrating non-warblers) and could not have been more pleased.  My conversations with the other birders also revealed their enjoyment of this Warbler Woodstock.  Although there were some young people present, it occurred to me that the vast majority of folks were baby boomer birders of my vintage.  Who knows, maybe some were even at Woodstock in 1969.  Its seems we have supplemented our appreciation of rock with warbling birdsong, and that’s fine with me.

 

Spring Migration II, Magee Marsh, Ohio

Magee Marsh

Magee Marsh

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.

Lake Erie shoreline at Magee Marsh

Lake Erie shoreline at Magee Marsh

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.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

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.

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

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.

Black-and-white Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler

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.

Prairie Warbler

Prairie Warbler

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.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Black-throated Blue Warbler

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.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

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.