Monday, May 18, 2009

Warblers Up Close

Monday, May 18, 2009
Bay-breasted warbler, probably an old female, at Magee Marsh.

Having lived in Ohio for most of my birding life as a grown-up (relatively speaking), you'd think that catching the phenomenal warbler and songbird migration at Magee Marsh along Lake Erie's southern shore would be something I'd experienced annually. Most avid bird watchers in Ohio (and in the surrounding states for that matter) get to Magee at some point during the height of spring migration—between mid-April and mid-May.

To a migrant songbird in spring, Magee Marsh is the perfect rest stop before flying over Lake Erie and into Canada. When the wind is blowing from north to south (a headwind for migrants) the birds drop into the trees at Magee to rest, forage, and wait for more favorable traveling weather.

I'd been to the famous Magee boardwalk in spring, but always a bit too early or too late to catch many migrants. And I was there once with a team of birders trying to break Ohio's Big Day record. We timed things perfectly for everywhere in the state, except Magee, which was practically birdless on that May morning. Perfect weather—clear skies and a south to north wind—encourages the northbound birds to keep on moving across Lake Erie. And we chose for our Big Day attempt, a perfect weather day for the birds to keep on flying north. We ended that day deep in the wilds of southern Ohio, with 186 species (well short of the record) and with a bunch of unchecked boxes among the warblers on our checklist.

Last weekend the Ohio Ornithological Society held its annual meeting not too far from Magee Marsh. As a board member of this fine organization, I was required to be at the meeting, with the happy knowledge that it would REQUIRE me to spend two mornings watching birds at one of North America's most famous warbler hotspots.

The first day, Saturday, was overcast but warm at the start. By the time we left Magee around 11:45 AM to head to some other local birding sites, it was getting cooler and starting to rain. Still, we saw 20 warbler species, three vireo species, three thrush species, and so on. It was my best day ever at Magee. My fellow bird watchers chuckled at my enthusiasm.

Then came Sunday. Sunny and cold at daybreak, it did not really warm up until well into the afternoon. Bird watchers along the boardwalk gathered in crowds within the scattered pools of sunlight. If I'd thought Saturday was good, Sunday was amazing. Thousands of newly arrived birds moved through the trees, brush, and undergrowth. Everywhere you looked there was movement and song. People called out warbler names to no one in particular, with a mixture of joy and wonder in their voices. I thought to myself: This must be what heaven is like for birders. Except heaven would have a few more Porto potties and beautiful angels would be plying us all with warm doughnuts and hot coffee. But this was pretty close!
The boardwalk at Magee is crowded with bird watchers from late April through mid-May.

There were more female warblers present on Sunday, and more young, first-spring males, giving us a chance to note the subtle differences in plumage. However the most incredible thing about Sunday's bird action was the behavior of many of the migrants. Whether it was hunger, the cold temperatures, or just the rush of the migratory imperative, many of the warblers were low in the vegetation, foraging and singing actively, seeming to be oblivious to the humans a few feet or even mere inches away! And it's not like we were all being quiet and respectful. Cameras clicked, beeped, whirred, and flashed. Birders shouted to one another and narrated the birds' every moves:

"OH MY! LOOK at this bird! COOL! He just caught a bug! Now he's flitting over here! He's attacking that other bird. Oh, he's gonna poop! WOW! What a great LOOK! I can't BELIEVE THIS!" and so on.

But that was not all.

I heard at least three throaty cries of ecstasy—the kind of sounds that are usually accompanied by bad dialogue, cheesy jazz, and a rating beyond the reach of NC-17.

Like I said, the birding was good.

To illustrate one of my own close encounters of the warbler kind, here is a short video (rated G) that I shot with my point-and-shoot camera.

You can hear some birders talking in the background, including Jon Dunn, author of several key field guides, including the National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America. This male black-throated blue warbler was less than two feet from me, on the trunk of the tree, completely unperturbed by all the chattering humans draped in expensive optics.

I already know where I want to be when the birds come back next May.


On May 18, 2009 at 6:42 PM Weedpicker Cheryl said...

Hey Bill-
Glad we were able to show you a great time at Magee.

Thanks for shady fun, of the Coffee House variety, on Friday night. You really rocked 'em!


On May 18, 2009 at 7:13 PM Mary said...

Well look at that little warbler go, "Look at me!". Those are the moments we wish for...

On May 18, 2009 at 8:00 PM KatDoc said...

Who did you have to give the dollar to for that Black-throated Blue, Mr. Vice-president?

Aww, Bill, you shoulda been there this afternoon. I only have one word for you - KIRTLAND'S, baby!

Check out the photo on my blog.

And, thanks for the Philly Vireo,

On May 18, 2009 at 8:14 PM denapple said...

Wow, so warblers really do have colors after all! I wasn't sure after New River. Great movie. Here's to next year at Magee for me too...

On May 18, 2009 at 9:23 PM littleorangeguy said...

The magic of warblers was clear to me this morning when I saw three in my backyard in an hour. Not bad for the middle of a big city. My neck still hurts.

On May 19, 2009 at 6:38 AM Dave Lewis said...

I'm happy that you got to see a real live Black-throated Blue!
We're lucky to be able to visit a place like Magee.

Crazy Man

On May 19, 2009 at 6:54 AM Erik said...

A friend and I thought about getting a van to park by the end of the boardwalk where we could make fresh donuts and coffee for birders at Magee. Then we reminded ourselves about all the birds we'd miss while making coffee and donuts. The dream died and along with the chance to become a millionaire.

On May 19, 2009 at 9:04 AM NCmountainwoman said...

Just curious. You mention the first bird is probably an "old female" Bay-breasted Warbler. What defines "old" in the warbler world and how did you determine she is probably old?

On May 19, 2009 at 9:33 AM Bill of the Birds said...

NCMtn: I'm guessing she's an old female since the bird clearly is not in full adult male breeding plumage. Older females (say above 2 years old) of many songbirds are more colorful than younger females—some older female orioles even start looking like males.
But I suppose it could also be a young male, though this is not widely known in bay-breasted warblers, as it is in, say, American redstarts.

On May 19, 2009 at 10:59 AM Steve Moore said...

Loved the video Bill and the BTB is just one of my all time faves. Love the understated, yet rich color combination...and at eye level no less. Sweet.