There have been some long breaks between energetic spurts, but I have been birding now for almost 50 years. The Mountains and Canyons of Southeast Arizona and the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. Islands off of Maine and South Florida. All over California and of course all over my home state of Washington. Some remote Alaska and Nome. Off the North Carolina Coast and in the Mountains of Colorado and New Mexico. I have birded in a lot of places and have been to many of birding’s iconic hotspots. But I had never been to Magee Marsh. It was a must do during my Eastern Birding Marathon. I had a lot of other states to visit and I needed to try to catch at least part of the migration in each, so making it to the Biggest Week festival at Magee was not doable. Getting there the next week was and it worked perfectly.
I broke up the long drive from West Virginia to Magee with a night of sleep in Somerset, PA. It was odd to be there as that was on the route our family had taken on all of our “vacations” when I was a kid. Vacations were unexciting visits to my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins – all of whom lived in and around Pittsburgh. It was a drive of 4+ hours from our home in Maryland just out of Washington, D.C. My memories were not good. I was tempted to revisit some of those spots on this trip – see how they looked now, but I opted for more time birding. Maybe another time…well, probably not. Magee Marsh beckoned.
It and other nearby spots on Lake Erie in Ohio were famous as migrant traps where rather than crossing the large lake, passerines would often stop for a rest and refueling on their long journeys to breeding grounds in the north. And especially if the winds from the north making their journey even harder, there might be a “fallout” where thousands of birds could almost literally fall from the sky, exhausted by their battles and rather than flitter endlessly at the tops of the trees, they might just sit in open view maybe even on the ground – easy to see and especially appealing to me – easy to photograph. Fallouts at Magee were legendary. It was what every birder hoped for.
I had seen fallouts before. One on High Island when I was just beginning birding in the 1970’s and another at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas about that same time. Hundreds of birds were at eye level – warblers, vireos, orioles and more. Exciting…even exhilarating. There had been a mini-fallout at South Padre Island in South Texas on our VENT Trip last year and it was quite a spectacle. I was hoping for even more at Magee. Furthermore, Cindy Bailey was flying out to join me for one day at Magee. She’s is just beginning as a birder and those colorful warblers up close and personal could be a great way to encourage her interest. Fingers were crossed.
Even though my planned 50 species day was not until May 16, I got there early enough on the 15th to check it out and to plan my approach for the following day. I had noted 14 species as I had driven in Ohio on my way to Port Clinton where I would be staying that night. I found another dozen as I drove from Port Clinton towards Magee. I stopped first at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory Center and picked up another few species. I was feeling pretty certain that I would have 50 species easily that day – taking the pressure off for the following one.
The main attraction at Magee is the Boardwalk, extending about 1.2 miles through the marsh with a mix of trees that are magnets for the migrating hordes. During the Biggest week in America Birding Festival, it is visited by throngs of birders – projected to be 90,000 during that week. It is packed shoulder to shoulder and is hard to move along, but the atmosphere is electric with everyone sharing observations and helping others find their birds. There were hundreds of birders there when I arrived. I could not imagine what it was like the previous week. The birds were there, too, not in great numbers, at least by Magee standards, and definitely not exhausted and down low to see, but with the team effort of all and the cooperation of so many excellent birders, all I had to do was look for a crowd with cameras and binoculars pointed up, approach, and ask “what do you have”? Later I would catch on, find some birds on my own and reciprocate, but at the start this was a great way to go and quickly led to great birds – more than a dozen warbler species, vireos, flycatchers, and more. Some were playing hide and seek. Others like this Magnolia Warbler were more cooperative.
I did not expect any new ABA Life birds on my visit but I had hopes for some new ABA Life photos. In fact I expected an easy one would be of an American Woodcock. In each of the past many years, one had been staked out in the open – even in the parking area. No go this year – no Woodcocks. But fairly early in the day, when I asked one group what they were looking at, the answer got my adrenaline up immediately. They had a Blackburnian Warbler – not just a gorgeous bird but one I had seen only twice – forty years ago and and had never photographed. It, too, played peekaboo but did provide some photo opportunities.
Blackburnian Warbler – ABA Life Photo #699
This was ABA Life Photo #699 and was probably the warbler I most wanted to see and photograph. Not long after that I saw a familiar face. I had met Laura Keene at a wild goose chase – literally. She had come to the Finley NWR in Oregon looking for the Tundra Bean Goose that had been reported there. I had missed it on an earlier chase but arriving much earlier this time, I was the first on the scene and found it in a large flock of Canada, Cackling and White Fronted Geese. Laura was traveling with Bert Filemyr and Casey Weissburg. The target had flown off just before they arrived disappointing Casey and Bert who came to the platform where I was stationed. But Laura had gone to the other end of the marsh and had relocated it. She texted Bert and Casey and they joined her and got their goose. I joined them later and met Laura that way.
Laura and Bert had both been helpful in helping me find birders in other states that I could join on my 50/50/50 birding ventures and it was great to visit with her. Laura is an incredible birder. She has recently moved from Ohio to the San Antonio area in Texas. She knows Magee well. She also knows everywhere else well as she did a fantastic Big Year in 2016 ending with an incredible 763 species (a more incredible 815 if you include Hawaii). More importantly she is known as a great friend to many birders, a wonderful resource in a wonderful community. She hardly knows me, but I have found that same warm friendly spirit in all of my intersections. [The next day I saw Laura again and she introduced me to Chris Hitt, another legendary birder who was the first to do a Big Year with 700 species in just the “lower 48” – meaning the ABA area less Canada and Alaska – an extraordinary accomplishment. Chris, too, was wonderful and allowed me to tag along, sharing stories and helping me with many observations.]
Laura Keene (with other 2016 Big Year Birders Christian Hagenlocher and John Weigel
Chris Hitt at Magee Marsh Appropriately
So Magee is obviously an important stop for many top notch birders and they come back year after year, but it is also a magnet for birders of all levels from all over the U.S. and the world. Many were dressed in one of the standard birding “uniforms” with floppy hats, cargo pants and vests sporting patches or pins from birding hotspots that they had visited. Still mostly a “white” crowd, but there were some birders of colors other than white and I heard many languages spoken. A group of birders I had not seen before but for which Magee is famous is a large number of Amish birders – hard to miss with their unique attire. I am told they are among the best birders there are and take this very seriously. It was pleasing to see many families engaged in this activity together.
It was not a particularly birdy day and the birds were not always easy to see, but it was hard not to get a lot of birds with so many friendly and sharing eyes watching. My species count got to over 60 and I decided to head off to another nearby hotspot, the Howard Marsh Metropark. As I was pulling out of the parking area, I saw a big cluster of birders obviously looking at something – but on the ground. Was this an American Woodcock after all? From the car I asked what they had. They had a Connecticut Warbler. This is one of the most sought after birds that breeds in the ABA area. It is a skulker, not all that common, a late migrant and almost impossible to photograph as it is usually buried in heavy undergrowth.
I parked the car – actually double parked the car – jumped out with camera in hand found an open spot among the 30 plus birders that were lined up trying for a look. The bird gods were smiling on me as the Connecticut Warbler came briefly into the open immediately in front of me. I rattled off photo after photo following it as it moved in and out of the light and the brush. Some turned out pretty darn well and I had my milestone ABA Photo #700 and what a super bird to have that honor.
Connecticut Warbler – ABA Life Photo #700
Later many more birders would get word that a Connecticut Warbler had been seen and they would gather hoping for a look. At one point, there were more than 100 birders at the spot. Some found it and some did not and I expect some claimed to have but…well, let’s not go there.
At Howard Marsh I added another 12 species for the day including several ducks and shorebirds. I had not planned for this to be my 50 species day, but there I was with 80 species for the day including two new photos, reaching the 700 level which was important to me. I had intersected with Laura Keene and had great interactions with dozens of other birders. This was exactly what my 50/50/50 quest was supposed to be – great fun, people, places and birds – expanding my horizons and adding to my life. And if having one of the species seen and photographed be a Blackburnian Warbler was special, then having another be a Connecticut Warbler was even beyond that – ultra special. Fallout or not – it was a great day. And the next day would be another one.
There had been little worry about finding 50 species in a day at this incredibly bird rich area, but it was still good to have the pressure off with the success of the previous day. I certainly did not expect that anything could top adding the two Life Photos and reaching 700 and the Connecticut Warbler really was that incredible – unlikely to be topped. My warbler life list for the State of Washington is only 21, including 7 that have been seen very rarely in the state. Magee is most famous for its warblers with 40 species having been seen there. So far in 2019, 38 warbler species had been seen. On my first day I had only 16 warbler species although I had missed some seen by others. Maybe this day would add to the list.
When I got to the Marsh there were fewer birders than there had been the previous day, but it was early. There also seemed to be fewer birds. A storm that had been predicted for the night before, a critical element determining the birds present, had not materialized, and the sense was that many birds had departed at night. It started as a slow go. I saw Laura Keene again and it was this morning that she introduced me to Chris Hitt. Another highlight was meeting Shep Thorp on the Boardwalk. He and several Tacoma area birders had been in the area for several days. They had a good fallout the day before I arrived and also had good but somewhat slow birding at Point Pelee – another migrant trap – but in Ontario, Canada. Shep had grown up birding in the east and had been to Magee often. He is also an excellent birder. He had some terrific videos from both places. So even if the birds were not cooperating, it was a great day for people.
Maybe anywhere else, this would have been an excellent day birding. At Magee, it felt disappointing, yet I had 20 species I had not had the previous day including 6 new warblers. Black Billed Cuckoos also made an appearance as new arrivals. If I had not gotten a photo of one earlier in Philadelphia that would have been a super find. Not as super but still a welcomed bird.
Black Billed Cuckoo
Another highlight was seeing an Eastern Screech Owl on a roost somewhat in the open. Owls are always special and this was only the second Eastern Screech Owl I had photographed. Thanks to Chris Hitt for showing me.
Eastern Screech Owl
When I was planning this visit, I had hoped to meet up with Danno Gesualdo. I had met Dan on a pelagic trip out of Westport in my home state of Washington and then birded with him again on an awesome pelagic trip out of San Diego – just two of his many stops in an incredible Big Year done entirely in the Lower 48 and entirely without any plane travel. He had visited all 48 states, seen 704 species, spent 208 days away from home and had driven more than 140,000 miles. Let me repeat that – 140,000 miles!!! Even simple math says that at an average speed of 60 mph, that translates to more than 2300 hours in the car – just under 100 full days – with NO sleep. Call it what you will – impressive, dedicated, insane, extraordinary – it is awesome and inspiring!!
It was hard to coordinate with him because he was buried in some family matters and in trying to finish a book about his incredible journey. He self published “Highways to Flyways: A Wheels on the Ground Year of Birding” using Blurb! in time to have it available at the Biggest Week in Birding Festival. I would have ordered it online but it would not have arrived before I left on my own adventure. Fortunately they still had some at the Black Swamp Visitor Center. I finally connected with Danno just before getting to Magee and arranged to meet him on the 16th – with the original thought being it would be great to have some birding with him as part of my 50 species day. We did meet in the morning and he wrote a nice note autographing my copy.
We were able to spend some time together and it became immediately apparent how he was able to do his Big Year – he is an awesome birder – great eyes, ears and instincts. On one trail we ran into David and Tammy McQuade. I had first met them on a great pelagic trip with Brian Patteson our of Cape Hatteras last year and then our paths crossed again on the same pelagic trip with Danno out of San Diego. They are doing a Lower 48 Big Year (again) this year and had just come to Magee after being on a repositioning cruise from L.A. To Vancouver B.C. [As of May 29, they lead the pack in that pursuit with an jaw-dropping 623 species!]. They had seen the Connecticut Warbler earlier and were about to head off to another birding spot before tending to the business of business instead of the business of birding. I have followed their travels on Facebook – especially enjoying Tammy’s great photos (with much lens and quality envy). I hope to bird again with Danno and with the McQuades some time. Great birders and great folks – adding so much to the experience.
David and Tammy McQuade (Dressed to Bird!!)
I moved on to the Ottawa NWR Visitor Center and Boardwalk where I added another half dozen species for the day and the trip. I had again seen 80 species in a day. Had the previous day not been so good – especially with the two new ABA photos – I would definitely have used this day as the 50 species day because of the personal connections with Laura, Chris, Shep, Danno, Dave and Tammy. Since it is my adventure and I get to make the rules, I am going to include both of these days…so there.
Some other photos:
Bay Breasted warbler
Chestnut Sided Warbler
Yellow Warbler on its Nest
There might have been more species seen but I had an important meeting ahead and I had to leave early. Cindy was flying in to Detroit. Even though she had a million things to do and would soon be leaving on her own two week trip to Portugal, she wanted to share in my experience and was intrigued by stories of Magee Marsh and Kirtland’s Warblers. She is a really good sport and I was looking forward to another introduction for her into birding – one that I thought she would enjoy. A short vacation to Niagara Falls after the birding didn’t hurt her enthusiasm. We would spend the night in Oregon, Ohio – a weird name for a Northwesterner visiting the area – and then hit Magee Marsh early and later make the long drive to Tawas, Michigan for the Tawas Point Birding Festival and a trip to Kirtland’s country.
Magee remained slow and the Warblers remained high up in the trees. Not the enticing great looks I had hoped for and sort of promised. But the spectacle was great as Cindy saw hundreds of birders sharing in my passion. She was able to see some great birds and even found some on her own. She, too, found the Amish birders quite interesting – not an everyday sight elsewhere. And the weather cooperated and somehow she functioned well despite little sleep and a three hour time difference. I think her favorite bird was probably the Magnolia Warbler she found with the Scarlet Tanager being a close second. Or maybe it was the Yellow Warbler. Good choices all.
Cindy’s Magnolia Warbler
So that’s the story on Magee and my 50/50/50 adventure successfully completed – twice – in Ohio. Not the incredible birding it might have been, but damn good and lots of fun. 113 species seen. 2 Life Photos. Old friends seen again. And a girlfriend that hadn’t given up on me or birding – yet. Here is my favorite picture from the trip because Cindy chose it for her Facebook Photo without even telling me. I guess it went okay!!
And it got better as we moved on to Michigan and later to Niagara Falls.