The Biggest Weekend 2014

For the last three years, Matt and I have spent three days at a festival in northwest Ohio called The Biggest Week in American Birding. In early May, the bird migration from south to north reaches its peak and, for ten days, the festival celebrates this migration. The stars of the show are the 37 species of Wood Warblers it is possible to see on any given day.

Wood Warblers are an active and colorful class of birds that migrate from Central and South America to as far north as the Boreal Forests in Northern Canada to breed. These brave birds weigh just a few ounces and travel mainly at night in order to escape predatory birds. During the day, they fuel up on insects in large wooded areas. I assume at some point they rest, but I’ve never seen one sit still long enough to approach anything close to sleep.

On day one of our Big Weekend, we stopped at the Sheldon Marsh Nature Preserve. Situated between Sandusky and Huron, this park is a well-kept secret and contains a treasure trove of wildlife. (Actually, Northwest Ohio boasts several beautifully maintained marshes and forests on the banks of Lake Erie. It’s an ideal area for the birds to hang out and refuel before crossing the lake into Canada.) For introverts like us, it’s a relaxing way to see a large number of birds without enduring crowds of people. Within three hours, we counted 47 species of birds including a Brown Thrasher that followed us along a trail. We also saw deer, mink and some really pushy squirrels that were convinced we were there to feed them.

squirrel

“You come into my house and you bring me nothing to eat? I will mess you up!” 

On day two, we went to the highlight of the festival, the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area. This marsh seems to contain the highest concentration of Wood Warblers in the area. There is a convenient boardwalk that winds for just under a mile through the marsh and on a good day, the trees surrounding it are dripping with birds. We usually hope for cooler, overcast weather that drives the insects, and the birds that eat them, lower in the trees.

This Yellow Warbler was within reaching distance, although grabbing birds out of the trees is highly discouraged. This little bird has a distinctive song that sounds like it’s saying “Sweet, sweet, sweet. I’m so sweet.”

Yellow Warbler at Magee Marsh

“I’m sweet and I know it.” 

Along with a high concentration of birds there is a high concentration of helpful people who love birds and who love to share their knowledge. People call out the species they see and are adept at describing the exact branch the bird is on. “See that group of three skinny trees? The Black-Throated Blue Warbler is in the middle tree, 3/4 of the way up at 3 o’clock.” Even if you’ve never birded, you can walk along the boardwalk and see a magnificent variety of colorful birds. Our first year, Matt and I used one tiny pair of binoculars that we passed back and forth and we still managed to see 23 different wood warblers in one day. We were so impressed by the sense of community we felt on the boardwalk that we were hooked and we’ve been going back ever since.

One word of caution, be careful where you walk. There are people with large camera lenses that look like they cost about as much as a small car. I’m not much into photographing the birds. First, I don’t have the funds to buy the type of lenses I would need to get in close. Second, I really just like looking at them and don’t want to fuss with camera settings. This is the first year I took my camera and I could only get shots of birds that decided to come in close, like this handsome Grey Cat Bird that was displaying close by.

Cat Bird at Magee Marsh

“Hey, baby. How you doin’?”

There are places at Magee Marsh to get away from the crowds and relax. There is a large beach and these women found a nice log to rest on and take in the beauty of Lake Erie.

Amish relaxing at Magee Marsh

On day three, we focused on shorebirds and visited the Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area and the Ottawa Wildlife Refuge. The highlight of day three was the White Faced Ibis found at Metzger Marsh. This is a relatively rare bird in our area and we were thankful that other birders allowed us to look through their spotting scope to seem them. 

A more common but always stunning bird is the Great Egret and they were out in droves.

Great Egret at Magee Marsh

 The always elegant Great Egret. 

Over three days, we counted 95 species of birds and added nine birds to our life list, bringing the total number of species we’ve seen so far to 212. I can’t help but think we could have hit a 100 birds or more had I not lost my iPhone in the middle of day two. The stressful hour it took to find it threw us off our game and we just couldn’t get back into the groove after that. But that’s a story for another day.

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