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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Spring Migration in the Midwest

Eastern Wood Warblers including Kirtland's

2022 Narrative

In Brief: Our Midwest tour this year tallied 192 species, including 36 species of wood warblers, missing only Connecticut. We had excellent views of all species including Swainson’s at the northern edge of their breeding range in Kentucky, as well at multiple Kirtland’s, Mourning and Golden-wings. Other highlights included Northern Bobwhite, Black-billed Cuckoo, Sedge Wren, and Henslow’s Sparrow. Shorebird habitat was very limited this year and we found relatively few. We encountered a fine migration in Kentucky and southern Ohio, but the migration was initially very slow in northern Ohio along the shore of Lake Erie but picked up a bit towards the end of our stay and was excellent and sustained our entire time at Tawas Point on Lake Huron in Michigan. The weather was varied as usual in spring, but we managed to miss most of the rain and there was no sustained cold weather.

In Detail: Our tour began with an early afternoon meeting and a departure for Indiana. Here at Versailles, we met Gary Stegner and headed to Capability Farm where we met our hosts, Bob and Ellen Mulford. Bob and Gary led us on a tour of the farm. We were greeted by the Purple Martins nesting in gourds in the driveway. On our walk we encountered six species of woodpeckers, including Pileated, Red-headed, and Red-bellied. Other species of note included territorial Field Sparrows, Eastern Towhee, Orchard Oriole, and an immature male Summer Tanager (uncommon). A few migrants were in evidence, notably Yellow-rumped (“Myrtle”), and “Western” Palm Warblers, Northern Waterthrush, and a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Both Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers were at the small pond. Along the way we heard calling Northern Bobwhites. Finally, we flushed one and got views of it in flight. This species is declining throughout its range in the U.S., but particularly along the northern edge of its range. On the way back we had a delicious dinner at Whisky’s Restaurant, one of our best meals of the trip.

The next morning, we met Brainard Palmer Ball, Jr. author of the Kentucky breeding bird atlas and the Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Kentucky. He’s one of the finest birders I’ve ever been with and is an all-around superb naturalist. He led us for the day, first at the beautiful Red River Gorge on the Cumberland Plateau and later at a few spots in northeast Kentucky near the Ohio River. We had good weather and a wide variety of species. At Red River Gorge, we found a number of breeding warblers. These included Blue-winged, Worm-eating, Louisiana Waterthrush, Kentucky, Hooded, Northern Parula, Yellow-throated, Prairie, Pine and Cerulean. We also had good views of a Swainson’s Warbler, here at the northern end of its range. Migrant warblers included Tennessee, Blackburnian, Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, Bay-breasted and Blackpoll. For the day we tallied 26 species of warblers. Brainard also noted a scarce Philadelphia Vireo. At one point we had an adult Broad-winged and an adult Red-shouldered Hawk circling overhead. Other species of note included nesting Eastern Phoebes and two Yellow-throated Vireos. Later after lunch we headed northeast to Minor Clark Fish Hatchery and Cave Run Reservoir where we found a Prothonotary Warbler and surprisingly our only seen Eastern Wood Pewee of the trip. At the industrial park grasslands near Greenup, Kentucky, not far from the Ohio River, we had excellent views of both Grasshopper Sparrows and an adult male Blue Grosbeak. We also heard singing Henslow’s Sparrows and eventually were able to get decent views of one visible bird. This highly sought-after eastern species is generally scarce and highly local throughout its limited eastern range. A female Wild Turkey was also noted. That evening after dinner we settled into our lodging at Shawnee State Park in the middle of Shawnee State Forest.

The next day we had about a half day of birding before the heavy rains arrived. Warbler species noted included Tennessee (migrants), Cerulean, Blue-winged, Prairie, and Louisiana Waterthush, territorial Red-eyed Vireos were numerous and Yellow-throated Vireo was seen too. Brown Thrasher and Yellow-breasted Chat were seen well, and the beautiful songs of Wood Thrushes were frequently heard. A single migrant Gray-cheeked Thrush, our only one of the tour, was seen well alongside the edge of the road near the lodge. Later in the day Aaron Rank joined us and showed us various flowers until the rains arrived in force. That evening Jon joined Aaron, a committed herpetologist, for a search for salamanders and frogs after the flooding rains had stopped. A singing Eastern Whip-poor-will started off as darkness descended. Aaron located a few Pickerel Frogs and both Northern Dusky and Spotted Salamanders in the darkness.

It was still raining the next morning. We chose to drive north and took breakfast at Bob Evans south of Columbus. It was mainly a driving day, but we arrived at the Magee Boardwalk later in the afternoon. I was startled by the amount of fallen trees, entirely changing the landscape there. This was form by a severe storm microburst in a storm the previous summer. The boardwalk was also damaged and remained unrepaired, impeding the foot traffic. For the past five days the migration had been very slow along the lake, the migrants being still down in southern Ohio and Kentucky. For instance, only single Magnolia Warbler was noted. A Swamp Sparrow and two Black-capped Chickadees were seen well. Nearby three rare (for Ohio) Glossy Ibis were noted.

The migration on Lake Erie the next day was still very slow. But we encountered several notable species. These included Virginia Rail, Sandhill Crane (7), American White Pelican (2), American Bittern, Snowy Egret, Eastern Screech-Owl (perched during the day), Sharp-shinned Hawk (perched), and Yellow-headed Blackbird (2). We spent some time watching nesting Green Herons on the boardwalk. I heard a display call that I had never heard, a loud scowling note. We later heard this call again north at Tawas Point. Also notable was the threatened Blanding’s Turtle on the path, this one having a leech on the back of its head. In the afternoon we went to birding areas west of Toledo, notably Irwin Prairie where a pair of scarce Sedge Wrens were present and then to Oak Openings where we located a territorial Lark Sparrow, here near the eastern end of their breeding range. That evening at dusk we watched a displaying American Woodcock in flight display at Maumee State Park.

The following day the migration was improved. The small woodlot at Metzger Marsh had a nice selection of warblers including a briefly seen male Golden-winged Warbler. During the day we saw multiples of Black-throated Blue, Blackburnian, Blackpoll, and Black-throated Green. A single male Hooded and a Blue-winged Warbler were more unusual. A single Least Flycatcher was noted. Our numbers of flycatchers, particularly of Empidonax was astoundingly low during our trip. The most obvious migrants this day were Blue Jays and we conservatively estimated some 1500 flying over! That evening a few of us returned to Maumee Bay State Park where we got to see an American Woodcock calling from the ground in a flashlight.

On our final morning at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge and the woodlot at Metzger Marsh, we could tell the migration had up-ticked considerably. New birds included Black-billed Cuckoo, Blue-headed and Philadelphia Vireos, and Mourning (male), Cape May, Canada, and Wilson’s Warblers. It was our only Canada Warbler of the tour. After lunch in Oregon, we headed north to Tawas City, Michigan.

The next morning, we went to Tawas Point where the migration was excellent. We tallied 20 species of warbles including a rare (for so far north) male Cerulean and a female Golden-winged. Nashvilles (some 50) were the most numerous species. Five Cape May Warblers were also noted. A dull immature female Pine Warbler was an interesting bird to study. Some 50 Cedar Waxwings and ten Scarlet Tanagers were counted. A Merlin was patrolling the point. Waterfowl were offshore, notably both Common and Red-breasted Mergansers and Bufflehead. Also in the tees was a North American Porcupine. Later in the afternoon we headed out to an emerging plantation of Jack Pines where we had our first encounter with Kirtland’s Warblers. A territorial Vesper Sparrow was also well seen.

The next day we visited the Kirtland’s Warbler area first and obtained excellent views of singing males. Returning to Tawas Point the migration was still excellent. New species included Clay-colored and Lincoln’s Sparrow and an Alder Flycatcher. Other notable specie included a seemingly lost Pileated Woodpecker, five Red-headed Woodpeckers, four Bobolinks, a male Blue-winged Warbler, and a female Golden-winged Warbler. Our count of Nashvilles was even higher, a conservative estimate of 70. They were seemingly everywhere. Three Sharp-shinned Hawks passed overhead. We searched through the 160 Bonaparte’s Gulls for two Little Gulls that had been noted by others earlier in the day, but they had departed by the time we searched for them. In the trees behind our hotel, we found our first Orange-crowned Warbler (northern subspecies celata) and a Wilson’s with other warblers. That evening after a delicious dinner at Northwoods Steakhouse we went out near dusk to Tuttle Marsh Wildlife Area. Here we had an adult male Northern Harrier and heard two American Bitterns giving their distinctive calls. We heard a few Eastern Whip-poor-wills too, but later and to the south we had excellent views of at least two around us around a small clearing in the woods.   

The migration on our final day at Tawas was again excellent with 20 species of warblers tallied including two male Mourning, a female Golden-winged, three Orange-crowned, and ten each of Bay-breasted and Blackburnian. Other species included a Black-billed Cuckoo, Peregrine Falcon, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (female), Philadelphia Vireo, Purple Finch (singing immature male), Bobolink (four) and some fifteen Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. We conservatively estimated fifteen Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, most right around us at the tip of the point. We later continued to Mio where we looked for Upland Sandpiper for a bit. We ran into a big day team of Amish birders on bicycles, and they gave us hints on where to look for the next morning.

On our last morning we searched for Upland Sandpiper eventually spotted a distant displaying and calling bird high overhead. Later we drove to Hartwick Pines north of Grayling where we did not see Evening Grosbeak at their feeders at the nature center. Later at Nayanqung State Wildlife Area we noted two Black-crowned Night-Herons and a male Yellow-headed Blackbird on territory. From here we drove back to the Detroit area where we obtained a take-out dinner at a Middle Eastern restaurant. We dined in the breakfast room of the Holiday Inn Express.

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