My mind wanders a lot.
Sometimes it plods at a deliberate pace, pestering me about things I need to do. Other times, it skips merrily along over thrilling thoughts that make me daydream during meetings. Worst of all, it races at the most inopportune times, crowding out the thoughts it’s supposed to be thinking, like the time one Sunday at Mass when it suddenly stopped participating and started trying to figure out what week of Lent we were in based on what I had for lunch the past couple of Fridays.
I cut myself some slack because distraction happens to the best of us — even Monsignor Moloney, who confessed in this week’s bulletin to thinking about what he was going to fix for dinner as he recited an important prayer.
When my mind started flitting along during a recent piano recital, I was so glad that I thanked it for helping me remember something important. As I listened to Angelin Chang play “L’Alouette lulu” (“Woodlark”) from Catalogues d’oiseaux (Catalogue of Birds), by Olivier Messiaen, an ornithologist who was fascinated by birdsong, it whispered, “Shouldn’t it be about time for all those birds to be at Magee Marsh?” Why, yes, it was!
May at the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area on Lake Erie means some of the best birdwatching opportunities in North America. During spring migration, scads of songbirds stop at Magee Marsh to rest on their trip north. The early birds start arriving toward the end of April, the place is teeming with warblers by early May, and they keep coming until May 25th or so, depending on the weather. Dozens of thrushes, vireos, flycatchers and orioles are regular visitors during this time of year, but the warblers are the main attraction. Why is the marshland so appealing to our feathered friends? Birds are reluctant to cross Lake Erie during migration until they have a chance to rest and refuel for the next part of their journey. The forested ridge along the southern edge of Lake Erie is like a resort for more than 150 species of migrating songbirds, including all 37 species of eastern wood warblers.
I’ve been curious to see this phenomenon ever since reading Jim McCormac’s accounts of Magee Marsh’s famous boardwalk and hearing about the Biggest Week in American Birding, a 10-day festival hosted by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory at Magee Marsh. The event features workshops, guided birding activities, half-day birding bus tours, speakers, daily walks on the world-famous Magee Marsh boardwalk, birding by ear workshops, presentations on world birding, and bird identification classes. Last year alone, 77,000 birders from 47 states and 22 countries attended.
So when my mother suggested Magee Marsh as the destination for our Mother’s Day field trip, my mind darted back to what Fraser Heston, son of actor Charlton Heston, proclaimed while previewing the March 22 Charlton Heston Collection auction: “I pretty much won the parent lottery.”
Magee Marsh is a remnant of the Great Black Swamp, a nightmarish place about the size of Connecticut that once stretched from Sandusky to Fort Wayne. The uninhabitable swamp oozed mud, was covered with a dense forest and standing water, and was infested with mosquitoes that spread cholera, typhoid and malarial fevers. In the 1840s, farmers were determined to drain it and turn it into farmland. That historical event inspired Tracy Chevalier to write about it in her latest book, At the Edge of the Orchard.
By the end of the 19th century, Lake Erie’s marshes became known as some of the best waterfowl hunting areas in the United States. Some of the area was originally owned by John N. Magee of Elmore, Ohio, who intended to drain the marsh for farming, but was unsuccessful. He let the land revert back to natural marshland, and it became a private duck hunting club. In 1951, the Ohio Division of Wildlife purchased about 11,400 acres of coastal wetlands, including about 2,200 acres for the wildlife area and the protected marshes that surround it, and created the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area. It is said to attract over 150,000 visitors each year.
When we reached Oak Harbor, we knew we were in the right place when we saw dozens of vehicles entering and exiting Magee Marsh’s main entrance on State Route 2. First stop: The Black Swamp Bird Observatory, founded in 1992 to inspire people to appreciate, enjoy and conserve birds and their habitats. The place was jumping. People were buying field guides, picking up Biggest Week souvenirs, and browsing binoculars, spotting scopes and other birding gear in a series of tents known as Optics Alley. More people were standing at the Window on Wildlife, watching for orioles, grosbeaks, warblers and other songbirds visiting the feeders and water garden. Still more were in search of warblers on an easy walking trail that begins behind the building and meanders along the edge of woodland and meadows. We picked up our copy of Warblerstock, the visitors’ guide for this year’s Biggest Week in American Birding events, and continued to our next stop.
Even more people were congregating at the Sportsmen’s Migratory Bird Center, where Ohio Division of Wildlife biologists research wetland wildlife, including waterfowl, waterbirds and shorebirds, at the Crane Creek Wildlife Research Station. We parked in a lot filled with vehicles, many of which had bird-themed vanity license plates and bumper stickers.
Outside, a huge checklist was posted next to the front door, indicating what birds had been seen in five different areas of the marsh during the last week.
Inside, weary birders lounged on sofas, refueled on doughnuts and coffee, and took in bird-related educational displays. Complimentary copies of Birds of Magee Marsh: A Field Checklist and a fact sheet that provided a general listing of when bird species are present at Magee Marsh during spring migration were available for the taking.
When I saw a photo of birders on the boardwalk captioned “’Warbler Neck’ Explained” that was pinned to a bulletin board, my wandering mind concluded that a trip to Magee Marsh is not just about watching the birds. It’s also about watching the birdwatchers.
To start our sightings, we considered taking a walking trail behind the center that traverses a swampy woodland and around small ponds, even offering views of a nesting bald eagle.
Not much action there, though, so we decided to move on to the observation tower that provides views over the marsh.
We climbed to the top of the tower and saw groups of birders huddled around, occasionally using a spotter as they searched for bald eagles, peregrine falcons, osprey and hawks. No one said a word.
We continued one mile north across the marsh on the Magee Causeway. Birdwatchers were camped out along the road and in the marsh itself, on the lookout for swans, geese, ducks, herons, egrets, rails, marsh wrens and swamp sparrows.
We got our fix of the sound of lapping waves along the beach on the north edge of the marsh, along the Wildlife Beach Trail.
It’s said that the best birding is on the north edge of the woods. Some birders were camped out here, patiently peering into their scopes for a sighting of something big.
And then we reached what we had come to see: the famous boardwalk that meanders through seven acres of woodland on the beach ridge between Lake Erie and the marshes. It provides fantastic, eye-level views of dozens of species of warblers. This was going to be big.
Our first clue we were where we needed to be was the halved oranges hanging from the trees, just as I had read there would be. Insects are harder to find in spring, so orioles look for ripe fruit like oranges for sustenance. Caring birdwatchers cut the fruit in half to help the birds peck at the juice and pulp. If you’d like to make an orange feeder for your backyard, click here for instructions.
We took the east entrance to the boardwalk. The air was filled with musical sounds similar to the melodies of Franz Liszt’s Saint Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds and Ottorino Respighi’s The Birds.
Right away, we spotted a flock of birdwatchers, all intently focused on the trees.
We are bird brains where bird species are concerned, so we watched and listened carefully to these die-hard birders to figure out what was transfixing them, quite.
The most common breeding warbler at Magee Marsh is the Yellow Warbler, who calls “Sweet-Sweet-I’m-So-Sweet!” Sure enough, there was one. It was duly marked on my field checklist.Dick Berry, reporter for WTOL-TV in Toledo, and his cameraman strode by, talking intently about the angle they were going to take for their story. Click here to watch the video of what they turned in.Next came one Black-throated Green Warbler. Then, a robin’s nest. Six red-winged blackbirds. Best of all, a flock of birds swirling around on a birder’s nifty pair of leggings.
Many were all a-twitter over seeing a Scarlet Tanager on the boardwalk that day, sharing photos and exclaiming over their good fortune.
I exclaimed over my good fortune when I made the best spot of all: Kenn Kaufman, the legendary birder and author whom we met during a Biggest Week in American Birding-related exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art two years ago (click here to read about that). He’s the one looking through binoculars in this photo.
Kenn and his wife, Kimberly, are co-authors of a new book titled The Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of the Midwest. Click here to listen to them talk about the book on the April 13, 2016 edition of WOSU’s All Sides with Ann Fisher.
Kenn works hard to make a trip to Magee Marsh a memorable experience for all. He keeps a blog on which he makes predictions on what birds will be arriving at Magee Marsh, and when. This past Monday, he reported that more than 20 species of warblers were resting at Magee the day we were there, including some Cape May, Bay-breasted, Tennessee, Black-throated Green, and Blackburnian warblers. As of this writing, Kenn forecasted that current weather patterns point to tomorrow, Thursday, May 12, as the day for the biggest arrival of migrants this week; he thinks that they should remain through at least this coming Friday and Saturday.
He’s also eager to share his knowledge with others. While he was talking to us, Kenn alerted us to the call of a Sandhill Crane before he returned to festival headquarters at nearby Maumee Bay Lodge and Conference Center. We followed his lead.
In the lobby, we found the Birder’s Marketplace, a haven for bird- and nature-related items, from handicrafts and artwork to birding gear and information about international birding tours. Bird Watcher’s Digest had free back issues of the magazine for the taking. Besides offering a 20 percent discount on all of the books it had for sale, including field guides and Julie Zickefoose favorites, Houghton Mifflin had some stellar promotional materials, from bookmarks and trading cards touting the Kaufmans’ new book to five different fabulous temporary tattoos featuring bird illustrations from the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America. I’m saving mine for just the right occasions.
Other Biggest Week of American Birding events take place throughout the area. For example, Keep Looking: Fred Tomaselli’s Birds, an exhibition that continues at the Toledo Museum of Art through August 7, provides a selection of field guide works by Tomaselli, an artist and birder. Gallery talks, a poetry reading, a book signing, a bicycle ride, listening parties, family craft activities and screenings of The Blue Bird, a 1918 silent film, and the 1996 film, Fly Away Home, are planned.
International Migratory Bird Day is being celebrated at Magee Marsh this Saturday, May 14. The Biggest Week in American Birding continues through Sunday, May 15, but birding at Magee Marsh is memorable any time of year. During the summer, herons, egrets, ducks and Canada geese can be spotted in the marsh and along the waterways. Several varieties of migrating songbirds return during fall migration. Flocks of migrating tundra swans arrive in late March and remain until the end of April. Controlled waterfowl hunting and the trapping of muskrats and other furry animals continue at the marsh today.
Magee Marsh is located 17 miles west of Port Clinton on State Route 2, and 10 miles north of Oak Harbor on State Route 19. The boardwalk is open daily from dawn to dusk. There is no entry fee.