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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Northwest Ohio: Spring Migration

2024 Narrative

In Brief

Spring migration in the US is a world-renowned phenomenon, and perhaps nowhere is  more synonymous with that phenomenon than Magee Marsh and its famous boardwalk. Warblers are the name of the game here, and few other sites can so reliably produce Magee’s combination of diversity, numbers, and confiding views. Magee Marsh benefits from a combination of Lake Erie giving migrants some hesitation, along with its woodlot’s isolation in a sea of marshlands and agricultural fields. Starting and ending in Metro Detroit, the rest of our trip was concentrated on a small section of Lake Erie’s shoreline in Ohio. We took advantage of good weather for migrants, and filled the slower gaps with some of the fantastic breeding birds at Ohio’s Oak Openings Metropark and a selection of protected area’s in Michigan’s Washtenaw County. Migrants made a good showing, with several classic days at the boardwalk with numerous close warblers and vireos. The breeding bird highlights included a cacophony of Cerulean Warblers in the canopy of a beautiful undisturbed deciduous forest, and a grassland filled with the sounds of Henslow’s and Clay-colored Sparrows. Overall, the tour was a great success!

In Detail

Day 1: After an introductory meeting at the airport hotel, we made our way to a nearby Italian restaurant before heading out for our first birding outing of the tour. A Yellow Rail that I had found earlier in the month had taken a liking to an extensive grassy marsh just Northwest of nearby Ann Arbor. This secretive, nocturnal rail of wet boreal meadows is among North America’s most enigmatic species.

As the rail was unlikely to start calling much before 10:30pm, we made a quick stop off at the hotel again to get some warmer clothing and to drop off those in the group who needed the extra sleep. From here, we made our way to a small roadside cattail marsh where we enjoyed the last of a beautiful sunset accompanied by the bizarre, liquid “ga-lunk” calls of an American Bittern. Several Sora’s and a Virginia Rail joined in the fun. We then arrived at Little Portage Lake for 10:15pm, ready to wait for our main target. After a nervous 5 minutes, we heard the first burst of the Yellow Rail’s unusual rhythmic clicking song, often compared to two stones being knocked together. Traffic noise made this first burst unsatisfying, but at 10:30pm the rail began in earnest and didn’t stop singing for the remainder of our stay. Among the US’s toughest breeding birds to catch up with, an incredible bird to begin the tour with and a lifer for all!

Day 2: Lake Erie Metropark was our first destination this morning. We began with a quick jaunt around the woodlot by the visitor’s center, which hosted a few migrants. The best of these was a vocal Mourning Warbler, though a showy Magnolia Warbler was nice too. We then made a loop of the wave pool area, where we enjoyed close views of Cliff Swallows on their nests, as well as gulls, terns and 3 American White Pelicans circling overhead. A Great Blue Heron provided added entertainment, spearing a large and brightly colored Pumpkinseed. Next, a quick stop at Pte. Mouillee’s Roberts Road did not produce the hoped for King Rails, likely due the hot, windy weather. Around the corner at the Antenna Farm we enjoyed close scope views of Bobolinks singing their otherworldly song, as well as several somewhat less cooperative Horned Larks. A Northern Mockingbird was a nice surprise too. While abundant in much of the country, this area is right on the edge of their range.

After lunch, we got settled into our hotel for the rest of the week before heading out again for some afternoon birding. Despite a steady wind, Howard Marsh Metropark proved a fruitful first stop of the afternoon. We collected a number of new shorebirds for the trip, best of all being a continuing pair of Wilson’s Phalarope. These diminutive and brightly patterned shorebirds proved tricky, darting around between reeds, but thankfully everyone managed a good view eventually. Black-necked Stilts showed well too, a rare breeder here in the Great Lakes. Lingering waterfowl were also on show, with plenty of American Wigeon and Gadwall accompanied by a handful of Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Blue-winged Teal, Redhead, and Ruddy Duck.

Having taken our fill of Howard Marsh, passerine migrants were next on the menu. We made a quick stop at the tiny woodlot at Metzger Marsh, which held another Magnolia Warbler, as well as Black-throated Green and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Next up it was time for our first visit to the famed Magee Marsh Boardwalk. Despite the Biggest Week in American Birding festival having finished the day prior, there were still plenty of people around. Thankfully though, it was not the busy chaos it can be during the peak, and there were plenty of birds to be found. Among the highlights were point-blank views of Prothonotary Warblers, as well as close Bay-breasted, Cape May, and Magnolia warblers. A Philadelphia Vireo put on a good show too, and we got looks at an Eastern Screech-Owl on its usual day roost.

Day 3: The next morning we began where we left off yesterday at the boardwalk. Lots had moved in overnight, and we were greeted by the sounds of neotropical migrants as we got out of the van. Close Blackpoll and Chestnut-sided Warblers kept us entertained to start with, before we followed some excitement in search of a reported Golden-winged Warbler. These declining birds are always tricky here, but unfortunately we only managed to hear this individual and its buzzy song. A female Black-throated Blue Warbler was new, as was a Palm Warbler skulking away but engaging in its characteristic tail flicking. A little further down the boardwalk, a stunning Canada Warbler gave several of us views, but then proceeded to disappear into dense vegetation. Wilson’s Warblers were also new, and we got good looks at plenty of Bay-breasted Warbler’s and Northern Parula’s. Another Philadelphia Vireo was nice too, and we got some satisfying scope views of a Red-headed Woodpecker in the parking lot on our way out. Before lunch, we made a quick stop at Pearson Metropark. Migrants were pretty quiet here, but we enjoyed some beautiful woodland and a confiding Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

Having been delayed by a series of flight-related mishaps, Matt was able to finally join us at lunch today. After a short rest back at the hotel, we geared up for another afternoon of birding. While the sun beat down, we had a look around Maumee Bay State Park. A locally rare Franklin’s Gull from previous days was nowhere to be found, but we enjoyed our best views yet of Bonaparte’s Gulls, as well as our first Ruby-throated Hummingbird and some more showy Red-headed Woodpeckers. Another quick stop at the Metzger Woodlot proved more exciting than yesterday, with a Black Tern floating around the adjacent marsh, as well as a good assortment of passerine migrants in the woods themselves. A Black-and-White Warbler was new, and we all finally got good looks at Blackburnian Warbler.

Our final stop of the day was again Magee, with the boardwalk active again. A Blue-headed Vireo was new and gave close views, while a pair of Scarlet Tanagers gave us our best views of that species so far. Prothonotary’s were out again in force, singing at arm’s reach and several times almost hitting us as they made their way along the boardwalk. A striking male Magnolia Warbler treated us to a delightful show, feeding on insects in the open besides the boardwalk railing. Given the excellent migrant activities, we were slightly delayed to our dinner stop, but it was well worth it.

Day 4: Today, with the winds now coming from the North, we focused mostly on breeding birds. Our main morning site was the extensive Oak Opening’s Metropark in Toledo. First up was a woodland trail where a local rarity, Kentucky Warbler, had been holding territory. After a short walk we could already hear the rich, repetitive phrases of the Kentucky. It wasn’t long before Margaret spotted it, singing away from his perch on a dead branch right overhead. We were all able to get great views of this otherwise skulky stunner before turning our attention to the more common, but equally lovely Hooded Warbler. A Blue-winged Warbler was also new for the trip and was then followed by a real highlight for all of us. We had heard a Pileated Woodpecker, but now it alighted in front of us, before arriving at its nest. We were all thrilled with unobstructed views as it fed several chicks, all just starting to show their own fuzzy red crests.

Having seen all of our woodland targets for the site, we then made a quick stop to follow up on a tip about a singing Connecticut Warbler. Sadly, the Connecticut was nowhere to be found, but we still managed scope views of Grasshopper Sparrow before moving on in search of our next targets. Around the corner in a more open section of the Metropark, we now set up in wait for two locally rare breeding birds, Lark Sparrow and Blue Grosbeak. The Lark Sparrows gave themselves up fairly quickly, but never really sat still. The same could not be said for the Blue Grosbeak, which appeared in front of us and sat long enough for everyone to take their fill.

With a fantastic morning of breeding birds under our belt, we spent the afternoon around the now-familiar Lake Erie migrant sites. Another Black Tern flew past the Metzger Woodlot, and Magee was again full of migrants. Nashville Warbler and Lincoln Sparrow were new, and a Common Nighthawk on its day roost proved a good study.

Day 5: Breeding birds were our targets again this morning. After an early start, we made our way North to Michigan’s Sharonville State Game Area. The grasslands here are in great condition, and the birds did not disappoint. Excellent numbers of Henslow’s Sparrows were singing in the morning sunshine, and it wasn’t long before we got close views of one on a fence. These sparrows have a subtle beauty and are among the most range-restricted species on this tour. Further into the grassland, as a few shrubs begin to poke up, Clay-colored Sparrows were also putting on a show. Their incessant buzzy song surrounded us, and we repeatedly got great views in the morning sunshine. Eastern Meadowlark was also new, as was a calling Ring-necked Pheasant.

Heading North into the extensive deciduous woodlands of Waterloo and Pinckney Recreation areas, we made our next stop along Embury Road. This site has long been a stronghold for Cerulean Warblers, and it wasn’t long before we had about 8-10 singing in the canopy above us. Despite the impressive numbers, we had to work for our views, though we all eventually saw some of these beautiful and declining warblers. Other highlights included excellent views of Acadian Flycatcher and Yellow-throated Vireo.

Before heading into Ann Arbor for lunch, we made a stop at a University of Michigan property which holds extensive old growth pine forests. This habitat is uncommon so far South in Michigan and gave us the opportunity to see some otherwise tricky breeding species. Red-breasted Nuthatches, Pine Warblers, and a Brown Creeper were all seen well, and we heard a distant Barred Owl. Our lunch stop at Ann Arbor’s Zingerman’s Deli proved popular and was followed by scope views of downtown Ann Arbor’s breeding Peregrine Falcons. It was fun sharing these special birds with several non-birder passersby, and one of the fluffy chicks poking its head out of the nest was a great sight too. The afternoon was a little quiet, with migrants scarce in the hot weather. Sedge Wrens on territory were new, as was a Swamp Sparrow.

Day 6: Today was our final full day. Before leaving, we squeezed in one last loop of Magee. This proved eventful, with good numbers of all the expected migrants as well as a vocal Connecticut Warbler we found on the way out. Unfortunately, the Connecticut proved elusive and remained heard-only, but we enjoyed its explosive song nonetheless.

Having packed up again ready to head to the airport hotel, we made another stop at Roberts Road, where we finally heard King Rail. The rest of the day we collected a few easier birds we were still missing, finally getting good looks at birds like Wood Thrush and Veery. A day-flying Common Nighthawk against a backdrop of thunderstorms rounded out our daylight birding, but there was more to come. After dinner, we headed out one last time. Severe thunderstorms gave us some pause, but fortunately stayed to our North and allowed us to follow the sounds of displaying American Woodcock. After a short walk, we found one of these bizarre and iconic shorebirds sitting in the middle of the path. A great bird to close out the trip!

Day 7: Flights home this morning.

-        Ben Lucking, 2024

Created: 07 June 2024