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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Spring Migration in the Midwest

Eastern Wood Warblers

2023 Narrative

In Summary

This year’s tour experienced cooler than average temperatures and by Midwest standards, it was a somewhat lackluster spring migration, particularly with flycatchers and thrushes where numbers were greatly reduced and were likely still south of the Ohio River. Still, overall we had some 196 species and most importantly, all 37 species of eastern Wood Warblers, including Golden-winged, Mourning, Swainson’s Kirtland’s and most difficult of all, a Connecticut. Good views were obtained of Henslow’s and Grasshopper Sparrow. An adult Purple Gallinule on Lake Erie, Ohio, was perhaps the most unusual sighting but also memorable were the pair of adult Mississippi Kites at Shawnee State Park.

In Detail

Our tour started with a drive to Capability Farm near Versailles, Indiana where we saw our first eastern species like Tufted Titmouse and the eastern subspecies of White-breasted Nuthatch. We were greeted by the nesting Purple Martins and our hosts, Robert and Ellen Mulford provided us a wonderful afternoon tour, complete with refreshments.  Perhaps our best sighting was a male Northern Bobwhite in flight a declining species in the East, particularly north of the Ohio River. Other species noted included Green Heron, Belted Kingfisher, Eastern Kingbird, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Bluebird (nesting), Field Sparrow, Eastern Towhee and fine views of a Henslow’s Sparrow. Around a small pond were three species of Tringa sandpipers, Solitary, Lesser Yellowlegs and our only Greater Yellowlegs of the tour. We had an excellent dinner back in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

We left early the next morning after breakfast and headed south towards Lexington and then east towards the Cumberland Plateau and Red River Gorge. We stopped first to meet up with Brainard Palmer-Ball, Jr., author of the Kentucky Breeding Atlas and most other significant publications on Kentucky birds over the last few decades. We viewed Pilot Knob from the highway where Daniel Boone is said to have first viewed the Bluegrass to the west in 1769. Red River Gorge is a beautiful forested area that is teeming with species typical of the Carolinian forest. We found a number of eastern warblers including Ovenbird, Worm-eating, Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-and-white, Hooded, Cerulean, Northern Parula, Bay-breasted (a migrant), Blackburnian, Pine, Yellow-throated, Black-throated Green, and most importantly Swainson’s, here at the northern end of their breeding range. Red-eyed Vireos were numerous and two Broad-winged Hawks were seen along with an Eastern Phoebe and Acadian Flycatcher. Later to the northeast and near the Ohio River we birded some grasslands at an industrial park and found Prairie Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Eastern Meadowlark and Blue Grosbeak. Both Grasshopper and Henslow’s Sparrows were also seen. Later after dinner in Portsmouth some of us tried for Eastern Whip-poor-will. We heard several and saw one.


The next morning we birded all day at Shawnee State Park where we joined by the excellent park naturalist, Jenny Richards. Jenny takes some five thousand students a year around the park every year. The governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine came to visit and Jenny led him several of the trails. He wrote her a hand-written note of thanks and returned for another visit later in the year. We tallied five Cerulean Warblers and several Hooded Warblers during the day and added Blue-winged and Kentucky. A female Black-throated Blue is a scarce migrant south of the Great Lakes. We saw our first Scarlet Tanagers and Carolina Chickadees and added two migrant Veeries. We heard several singing Wood Thrushes, but visuals eluded us on the tour. Pileated Woodpecker, Broad-winged Hawk, Eastern Wood Pewee and Acadian Flycatcher were also noted and Red-eyed Vireos were numerous and vigorously singing. We saw only a few for the remainder of the tour. Those breeders were still to the south. Certainly the highlight of the morning was a pair of adult Mississippi Kites that we saw copulate in a tree above the campground. It is the first time we’ve had this species on the tour. Over the last few decades they have been gradually spreading north its eastern breeding range. Late in the day we drove west to Jenny’s house where her husband, Scott, cooked up a wonderful dinner. We had plans to try for Chuck-will’s-widow, but it started to rain.

The next morning we departed in the rain for dryer and colder conditions up on Lake Erie. We arrived in the afternoon at the Magee boardwalk and found a scattering of migrant warblers including American Redstart, Magnolia, Blackpoll, Bay-breasted, Cape May, Chestnut-sided, Black-throated Blue, Palm (“Western” subspecies), Wilson’s and a single male Canada. Yellow Warblers were common and we found a nest and several Prothonotary Warblers were on territory. An American Woodcock was on a nest right next to the boardwalk. Other species of note included Virginia Rail, Snowy Egret, Bald Eagles, including a nest, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and White-throated Sparrow.

The next day was cool with highs in the 60’s and migrants were few. Highlights mainly included water birds including a brood of Hooded Mergansers, the female with very young ducklings. We counted 80 Trumpeter Swans, a result of the introduction here a few decades ago. White Pelicans were present in small numbers, their presence reflecting a great increase in numbers in the Midwest. An Osprey was on a nest and we noted six Sandhill Cranes. We saw two American Coots (our only ones of the tour) along with five Common Gallinules. On the auto tour at Ottawa we managed to locate two Marsh Wrens of the eastern group of subspecies. Their songs strongly differ from the western group and those who know them best believe they are separate species. Shorebirds included good comparisons of Semipalmated and Least and many Dunlins of the eastern subspecies, hudsonia. Five Black-necked Stilts, including one on a nest, reflected the steady movement of this species north. Several decades ago the species wasn’t even of annual occurrence in Ohio. Another highlight was an excellent comparison of a single Forster’s with many Common Terns. On the boardwalk we had nice studies of a Red-headed Woodpecker. Finally, we had good views of a striking Blanding’s Turtle with its thick head and bright yellow throat. It is a threatened species.

Cool conditions resulted in relatively few migrants the next day. We decided to head east to Pipe Creek Wildlife Area to search for a Purple Gallinule which had been present for several weeks. Eventually, we found this colorful individual. While casual, a few stray north into the Midwest, seemingly every spring. Other species noted there included a single American Black Duck, Northern Harrier, Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe and a territorial Swamp Sparrow. A spring migrant immature Broad-winged Hawk flew over. Some five Solitary Sandpipers and a handful of Black-bellied Plovers were present too. Later to the west of Toledo we easily found Lark Sparrow, here at the eastern outpost of their breeding range. Yellow-throated Vireo and Red-headed Woodpeckers were present too.

Conditions had improved (=warmer) by the next morning and we found more migrants. Most numerous were Northern Parulas (15) and American Redstarts (10). We noted an Eastern Wood Pewee and a Northern Waterthrush along with a few Swainson’s Thrushes and our first Nashville Warblers. The highlights of the day were an elusive male Mourning Warbler and our only Philadelphia Vireo. After lunch we drove north to Tawas City up on Lake Huron in Michigan, our home for the next several days.

A cold front had gone through so it was very chilly (high 30’s) at dawn and migrants at Tawas Point State Park were few. Three breeding plumaged Common Loons were present and Baltimore Orioles and Blue Jays were numerous. We saw our first Bonaparte’s Gulls. A Merlin and a Lincoln’s Sparrow were present too. Later in the day we drove north to Oscoda where a Piping Plover was present on a nest on the beach.

The next morning was warmer and calmer. We started up in the jack pine area northwest of town and easily located several Kirtland’s Warblers. Vesper Sparrows were also seen here. We then continued on to Tuttle Marsh where we had excellent of a singing male Golden-winged Warbler. While watching it we heard a drumming Ruffed Grouse. Nearby we had good views of several Bobolinks and two Wild Turkeys were noted. Later at Tawas Point we saw more migrants including Least Flycatcher, Blue-winged, Tennessee (5) and Blackpoll Warblers, two American Pipits and a single Clay-colored Sparrow. Waterfowl included good comparisons of Common and Red-breasted Mergansers. There was a flock of Short-billed Dowitchers present, mostly the expected hendersoni subspecies, but at least one individual showing characters of the eastern griseus subspecies with a white belly and darker upperparts. We also noted a Ruddy Turnstone.

Our highlight at Tawas Point the next morning was a White-rumped Sandpiper which remained long enough for most to see. An astonishing count of 92 Sanderlings was tallied. A Canada Warbler was also present. We then headed west to Rifle River State Recreation Area in Ogemaw County. We found migrant warblers here (including Cape May and Blackburnian) along with a territorial singing Pine, a male Golden-winged and best of all a territorial male Mourning Warbler. A rare migrant Olive-sided Flycatcher was also present.

The next morning was quite productive at the point with many migrants. Indigo Buntings were fairly numerous. We were soon alerted that a Connecticut Warbler was present in the cover at the tip. We headed right there and as we approached we could hear it singing. Over the next few hours we attempted to get good views. It would sing for periods then rise up to the top of the vegetation to be seen, then fly off and go quiet then start the process over. Some of the group saw it well, some only briefly. We certainly learned its distinctive song. It was a life bird for many of the many Michigan birders present. It is a species we have seen on only about 20% of our Midwest tours. A Blue-headed Vireo, Hermit Thrush and our only Orange-crowned Warbler (northern subspecies celata, the only one in the East) were also noted here. The Connecticut and Orange-crowned were our 36th and 37th species of wood warbler for the trip, our maximum. Remember that Yellow-breasted Chat is now in its own monotypic family. From here we headed south stopping at Nicol Arboretum at Ann Arbor where we searched for another Connecticut Warbler had been reported. No sign of that species but we added a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. We then headed for our hotel for a final group dinner.

Jonathan Dunn, 2023

Updated: January 2024