8th May. With a chaotic weekend behind me, the earliest of starts possible but an uneventful flight to Detroit, my father and I arrived in the USA, picked up our hire car and headed south and then east around the shores of Lake Erie to find our birding Mecca.
We arrived firstly at Ottawa NWR to find our bearings and also take the first photos of the trip of a Great Egret fishing on the first pool. This was soon followed by pictures of the exceptionally abundant Red-winged Blackbird with the males continually pestering the females for their affections. Even though it is so common the Red patternation on the lores is a great sight as the birds prepare to land and also as they sing. Tree Swallows and Purple Martins were common around the visitor centre and the size and bulk of the Purple Martins took me by surprise compared to those found back home. Tree Swallows gave exceptional views at their nestboxes and also perched on outer tree branches, again vastly different to our Swallows at home. We then decided to head in to the woods and headed for the closest ones i.e. the southern woods. The habitat there was fantastic with a wet woodland floor with the water a couple of inches deep. It was perfect for Thrushes although we didn't see any straight away we were soon on to our first Downy Woodpecker of the trip which showed very well. Walking further into the woods we were soon watching big numbers of Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds as they moved through the woods and my father had a brief glimpse of a Red-Headed Woodpecker as it flew off, unusual for Ottawa. I also managed to grab a quick shot of a White-breasted Nuthatch before it disappeared. We were both a bit tired so decided to head back to the visitor centre, hoping for a Magee Marsh taster before finding our hotel. We headed back via a grassy track where we managed to find our first warblers of the trip with a female American Redstart and a cracking male Yellow Warbler. After picking up a few more pictures of Great Egret and also Canada Goose on the way out we drove the short distance to Magee Marsh.
We parked up found our bearings and soon took our first steps on to the famous boardwalk. We'd walked no more than 50 yards when the first exceptional view occurred with a Veery showing well in the early evening light. The bird eventually came to within 25 feet clearly showing its pale breast markings, a stunning taste of what was to come. We carried on walking no more than 20 yards at a time before stopping to look at the next bird. First a Gray Catbird, singing no more than 12 feet away followed by a male Black-throated Green Warbler and the first pictures of one the huge numbers of Yellow-rumped Warblers present. It was evident that the Yellow-rumps or "Butterbutts" as many of the locals were calling them were the predominant warbler species and it was interesting to see the variations in their plumages with the birds showing a distinct difference in the amount of yellow on both the rump and head. I then enjoyed my first sighting of a Prothonatory Warbler, a stunning warm yellow in the evening light. Very vocal and aggressive towards others of the same species, its brightness was a real shock of colour in the wooded setting. With the light fading a little we decided on heading up the observation tower rather than heading deeper down the boardwalk and from here we managed to see our first Nashville Warblers. These had a distinct feeding pattern, checking out the cattails for small insects at the very edges of the trees. Being higher up on the tower allowed us great views of these small eye ringed warblers. Another warbler, this time a nice male Magnolia Warbler soon appeared and my head was beginning to spin with the numbers of birds, the riot of colour and also the jet lag fatigue but it was truly mesmerising. Numerous Tree Swallows were perched around us on the branches and I had my first glimpse of a Hummingbird as it sped hornet like overhead. We wandered a short way down the boardwalk spotting a hunting Green Heron before checking out the beach. This was no less productive as we picked up our first Killdeer of the trip along with Ring-billed Gull and Ruddy Duck on the lake and White-crowned Sparrow feeding amongst the sandy vegetation. The light was fading fast so we decided to head back but still managed to grab a quick shot of a Great Blue Heron from the causeway before heading back to find our accommodation in Port Clinton. Already a wonderful start to the trip and what an amazing area for birding!
9th May. A heavy night's sleep was greatly appreciated by both of us but we still woke up before a 6am alarm. After an average breakfast we were soon in the car heading west to Magee Marsh. Our first stop was just before the visitor centre as we caught sight of our first Chipping Sparrow perched in a pine tree. I got out and snapped away, not realising it was to be quite abundant later on! We managed to drive down the causeway without stopping other to avoid herds of Canada Geese and their goslings and soon found ourselves on the boardwalk ready for action. We firstly went up the tower again and after ogling the Tree Swallows soon had our first views of a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak. We got good views and I got some nice images although we both yearned for similar views of a male. A blast of colour was soon provided by a fairly distant male Scarlet Tanager. Absolutely stunning in the morning sunshine and amazing contrast with the green of the canopy and bright blue skies. We also got nice views of an Eastern Kingbird from the tower, a big flycatcher with a distinctive white edge to the tail and also one of my father's favourites. Nashville Warblers were feeding as the evening before along with Magnolia and Yellow-rumps and it was great fun if not hard work trying to keep up with all that was being seen around us.
Another weapon in our armoury was my mobile phone that was picking up the latest sightings being reported via Twitter. We soon got used to my text alert sound and one Tweet alerted us to an Eastern Screech-Owl seen at marker 12. Off we went and sure enough there it was, roosting two thirds the way up a dead tree, eyes partially open but its oversized ear tufts showing clearly. A great find by the birders and great to have the information so readily available. Also there were the guides from Tropical Birding who we got to know very well over the days we were there. They were brilliant at finding and sharing their sightings and any “What's that?” questions were immediately answered in a very friendly and professional manner. After watching the owl we carried on casually birding the boardwalk seeing another female Rose-breasted Grosbeak along with a fleeting glimpse of a male followed by Yellow, Prothonotary, Magnolia, Nashville Warblers and our first sightings of Chestnut-sided Warbler closely followed by my first photos of the ever tail pumping Palm Warbler. A House Wren was busy nest building and displaying near the little loop and we soon learned its song as sounding like a truncated Chaffinch. We headed back to the car to get some provisions but that didn't stop the birding. I grabbed shots of both male and female Brown-headed Cowbird and American Robin in the car park, followed by some nice shots of Chipping Sparrow and White-crowned Sparrow on the dunes adjacent to the lake shore. The Ruddy Ducks were in the same place with better light and I also added Herring Gull to Ring-billed Gull for the trip. A fly by from a Double-crested Cormorant was followed by the same from a Forster's Tern (which we identified later) with its long white edged tail feathers and bill colour. A real bonus happened whilst I was photographing Chipping Sparrows as I managed to locate our only Dark-eyed Junco of the trip feeding with the Sparrows. I'd seen pictures of one that had turned up in the U.K. so immediately knew what I was photographing.
Back to the boardwalk and we were still picking up new species left, right and centre. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet followed by one of the many ground feeding White-throated Sparrows followed although the Sparrow shots ironically didn't turn out as nicely as the one I'd managed to see in the U.K.! Then one of the birds I'd been looking forward to seeing in a male Black-throated Blue Warbler. Photographically this was a real challenge with a dark and light bird in strong light and shadow. I didn't have a flash which would have helped immeasurably but even so managed a few decent ones, certainly better than none at all! Soon it was time to follow a Tweet but even en route we managed to pick up another new species with a Northern Waterthrush showing pretty well just before the big loop.
With a few pictures in the camera of our second thrush species we moved on to the far end of the loop and were soon looking point blank at an American Woodcock. If we'd have stooped down to boardwalk level the bird would have been no more than 4 feet from our noses but even so 10 feet from this beautifully marked bird was something else. It was motionless but still looking at the assembled dozen or so birders with its huge dark eyes. A small jetty allowed us to also view the bird from behind from where you could clearly see the Woodcocks 360° vision with its eyes visible from all angles. We watched it watching us for 5 minutes or so before ambling back to the car and heading off to the nearby Sportmen's Migratory Bird centre.
My father checked out the centre whilst I set about photographing the Barn Swallows which are notably different from the European ones with much more colouration on the chest. Trust these American Swallows to be brighter and more showy than ours! I also watched the Purple Martins flying over the lake and thought against trying flight shots with the high glary sun just giving potential for silhouette photographs! Our first Song Sparrow of the trip soon started singing adjacent to the Purple Martin box and I managed a few reasonable shots in the glary light. We then set off in search of lunch and after a few miles heading East found Wild Wings which served us very well over the days to come, especially with its free Wi-Fi allowing us to Skype home. There were also a few birding opportunities near the car with it being so close to the marina. A Great Blue Heron was nice and close along with several Herring Gulls sitting on posts and the ever present Killdeer feeding in and around the car park.
Lunch over it was back to the action and as we approached the turn off for Magee Marsh I spotted a few Turkey Vultures perched on a tin roofed shack. I managed to jump out and grab a few hazy shots due to the heat-haze but certainly better than my previous silhouetted flight shot attempts. Even though it was a gloriously sunny day it was actually difficult light to use and this was to further test my skills when we found the feeders behind the BSBO building. It was dripping with birds with many American Goldfinch, White-crowned Sparrows, Common Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds and also several Baltimore Orioles. We then headed the short way down the road to the Sportsmen`s Migratory Bird Center where after a brief flyaway view of Snowy Egret en route, we walked one of the trails looking hopefully for our own mega discovery. It wasn't to be but we did have good views of Turkey Vultures and a Bald Eagle as they flew past. We also had a nice but distant view of a Bald Eagle on its nest at the end of the trail. More point blank views of Ruby-crowned Kinglet followed and a fleeting glimpse of a Chickadee, and the ever present Yellow Warblers although despite their abundance, they always managed to be either high into the sun or have a certain amount of vegetation in the way! We also saw a pair of Northern Cardinals going about their business and it was great to be able to put bird to song, Northern Cardinal being one of the North American bird songs I know from watching the US Masters each year! Back at the Center another female Rose-breasted Grosbeak was on one of the bird tables there and showed very well indeed along with good numbers of White-crowned Sparrows.
Back to Magee Marsh for the final few hours and of course it was very good indeed. Again Baltimore Orioles feeding on oranges in the car park preceded my first vireo photographs with a Warbling Vireo showing nicely from the tower. We stayed for a while on the tower and managed to get some good shots of Magnolia Warbler, Nashville Warbler (really close = 8 feet close!) and Palm Warbler. Another distant Scarlet Tanager was seen, still a stunning colour against the blue skies before we managed to pick up our only Swamp Sparrow of the trip that was dozing on a branch an inch from the water. It was difficult to get a clear line of sight to the bird but I still managed to grab a few reasonable shots allowing us to see the distinctive red top to the head when it awoke from its slumbers. The sun was starting to drop but we still had the pleasure of another new bird with an Eastern Phoebe hawking for insects around the tower pool. At one stage it was virtually underneath the tower and allowed us wonderful views, even through the never ending supply of tangled vegetation. With the decreasing light we decided to stay on the tower until we left and thus managed to get a few shots of a male Bay-breasted Warbler that was feeding fairly close by. It was interesting to see the different behaviours of the warblers, with the Bay-breasted often feeding from the trunks of big trees, whilst Nashvilles seemed to like the very edges of the cattails, and the majority of the others such as Magnolia, Yellow, Palm, Chestnut-sided and the Black-throated pair mostly feeding in the leafy branches, picking in and around the leaves and twigs for insects. Another nearby Prothonatory Warbler sighting livened up the colour stakes and finally for the boardwalk served up the other Nuthatch when a Red-breasted Nuthatch made a brief appearance. It was very quick and high up but I still managed to pick up a few decent shots as the light faded. We got back in the car and joined the procession along the causeway but stopped briefly to photograph an American Coot just in case we didn't see any others (The lack of ducks and rails had really surprised me). Almost at the end of the causeway we stopped again as we located a pair of Eastern Kingbirds seemingly roosting very close to the road. They were in a thick bush and the light had more or less gone so it was tricky to get a shot but still lovely to see such a bird close up.
10th May. A greyer start than the previous day but we were still determined to continue our love affair with Magee Marsh. It was a slightly tempestuous start personally as I tried desperately to get a free line of sight to our first Wilson's Warbler of the trip. A smart little warbler which was feeding busily and barely staying still. When trying to photograph a small energetic bird through tangled vegetation in low light it's very frustrating! Still I managed one passable shot (at least you could see what it was!) and after another dingy shot of a Lincoln's Sparrow we had sight of another bird I'd really wanted to see. Again, it was behaving like the Wilson's and also keeping distant but there was no mistaking the necklaced appearance of a smart Canada Warbler. We based ourselves around the tower again for the first part of the morning and we were soon on to our first of four Vireos for the day with a very smart Blue-headed Vireo making an appearance. This was followed seconds later by a Yellow-throated Vireo and five minutes later a Least Flycatcher was spotted along with an Eastern Phoebe. My lifers didn't stop there as a Northern Parula fed above our heads showing very nicely feeding alongside a Nashville Warbler. All the while Tree Swallows were a constant presence and asking to be photographed as usual. Soon I saw another wished for bird with a Black-and-white Warbler feeding low down on branches close to the water. It fed exactly like a Nuthatch often posing upside down but with the volume of vegetation to shoot through I only managed a few reasonable shots. It was again frustrating much like the cracking Black-throated Blue Warbler which never quite played ball!
We moved on from the tower and along the boardwalk having another pop at a Canada Warbler and catching up with another Black-and-white Warbler. Ground birds were difficult to photograph with the increasing height of the vegetation and increasing cover from the canopy making clear bright shots a premium. A White-throated Sparrow allowed just a single shot before diving behind the ever present greenery! I managed to pick up a picture of a Great Crested Flycatcher a bird I'd seen the day before but not been able to get the camera on. I also picked up a fluky flight shot but when your finger is wedged on the shutter you occasionally get lucky! It was brightening now but after a Twitter tip off we moved into a darker area of the boardwalk where a Swainson's Thrush had been seen. Again another small American thrush but smart and quite distinctive from the Veery we'd already seen. In the same area there were plenty of Palm Warblers again more than willing to have the photos taken but we were soon on Vireo number 3 with a Philadelphia Vireo showing well. There was quite a bit of diversity in the plumages of the birds we saw but the yellow colouration of the throat and eye stripe were always consistent. Much more colourful than the greyer Warbling Vireo which we saw shortly afterwards but a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak in between the Vireos was a hugely appreciated sighting by both of us. A big lump of a bird with a huge thick bill, the red on the black and white male was great to see and also very interesting to see the white underwing flash as the bird flew. Another Blue-headed Vireo showed shortly afterwards while I was trying to coax a Northern Waterthrush into a position to be photographed. Whilst it wasn't playing fair, I quickly picked up a few more shots of Palm Warbler and Lincoln's Sparrow before we moved on to the start of the big loop. There was a small group of people and they were watching (or waiting for) two Ovenbirds to appear. They did show but quite distantly which was shame as it's a great little bird, amazingly enough a warbler as it had a much more thrush like appearance and behaviour. Ultimately the best shots I got of one of them was shot underneath an arch in a tree stump! One of the Ovenbirds flew across the boardwalk and to the base of a fallen tree stump which I staked out waiting for it to appear. Of course it didn't but I did pick up point blank shots of Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Chestnut-sided Warbler. We headed towards the eastern edge of the boardwalk picking up good but glary views of Song Sparrow and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.
Once we'd escaped the clutches of the boardwalk we headed back to the car and stopped off at the BSBO registration centre which turned out to be very productive. Behind the building was a whole set of feeders which was crawling with birds. It allowed me my first crack at a Ruby-throated Hummingbird which was attracted to the feeders and I was fortunate enough to catch one with its iridescent “ruby throat” showing nicely. Also present were a few Blue Jay which previously we'd only seen as constant fly overs, sometimes in very impressive numbers. Red-winged Blackbirds, Gray Catbirds and Common Grackles were present in good numbers along with American Goldfinches, the yellow males being very conspicuous with a very different quality to its yellow from the “warbler” yellow on show earlier. Also present was a slightly sickly looking Pine Siskin and also my first photo of a Black-capped Chickadee for the trip.
After tearing ourselves away we had another Wild Wings lunch and then it was back to the action at Magee Marsh where after an un-obliging Common Yellowthroat made life difficult for me. It was Twitter to the forefront again with the discovery of a “roosting Whip-poor-will at marker 4”. It was so difficult to pick out with its near perfect camouflage but with the help of the Tropical Bird guides and their green laser markers everyone who looked for it was looking at the dozing Eastern Whip-poor-will. The photos actually came out pretty well seeing as the bird was inanimate all the time people were watching it, even with ground feeding birds passing it by no more than a few inches away! After enjoying our latest new species and chatting with the Tropical Birds guides again, we carried on along the boardwalk never getting very far each time but stopping at the little loop for a while for another point blank encounter with a Chestnut-sided Warbler and also the busy House Wren which at times was almost under our toes. I took quite a few shots of it as it searched for food and it was only when processing the photographs back in the U.K. noted that in one of the images it had caught a very well camouflaged spider (but not well enough for the poor spider!). We then bumped into another Swainson's Thrush and had much better views this time as it perched on a log nearby. More Vireo action followed with another Philadelphia Vireo followed soon after by an injection of colour, although not a riot this time, with a female Scarlet Tanager. We continued to watch around the little loop getting more shots of Chestnut-sided Warbler and Philadelphia Vireo before heading back to see a second Eastern Whip-poor-will that had been discovered only 10 yards from the first one! It seemed neither bird had flinched all day even with the ground feeders proximity. One of the birds that was close to the second slumbering Whip-poor-will was a Veery and after seeing the Swainson's Thrushes earlier it was easy to see the difference with the Veery having much fewer markings on both its flanks and breast. More silly close up views of Palm Warbler followed along with Warbling Vireo and Philadelphia Vireo followed by a nice close up view of a female Magnolia Warbler. After a few days of acclimatisation I felt just about ready to start getting used to the more difficult task of female warbler identification and a female Magnolia was a nice gentle introduction! I didn't begin to contemplate how tricky the task would be in the fall migration!!
Another warbler species was becoming a bit of concern, and I finally managed to get a shot of one, although admittedly not brilliant, when a male Blackpoll Warbler finally showed itself not right into the sun or behind dozens of branches at the top of a tree! Better was to come for this species but observing the bird allowed me to learn the high pitched song which it was singing fairly consistently. I always try and pick up songs or calls of a new species as it allows you to bird using two senses consecutively, possibly picking up good views of a bird you're not watching. With the Blackpoll warbler moving to a higher and more distant location as usual I soon found another Lincoln's Sparrow foraging on the ground. I was hoping to see a good number of sparrows during our trip and we already had 6 with a trip to Oak Openings planned to hopefully get a few more. With 6 now seen I had high hopes to get 10 for the trip; time would tell! More great views of Nashville Warbler followed by another silly view of Chestnut-sided Warbler which seemed as interested in us as we were in it! We then got some nice views of both male and female Common Yellowthroat, the male showing very well close in although it was difficult to photograph with tangles between me and the bird. A really cracking little bird and great to get some reasonable pictures of both sexes! As the light started to dip, we again headed up to the tower and picked up a few more shots of Warbling Vireo and Nashville Warbler before we called it a day at Magee Marsh around 6ish. We stopped twice on the way back though, a quick trip photo tick with a lousy shot of a Mallard in difficult light followed by our only photo opportunity of American Kestrel with a very smart but jumpy bird perched on a wire as we headed east on Route 2. Two quick U turns later I had my record shot (which required quite a bit of Photoshop tweaking!) but the bird soon flew off even with me shooting from the car. We drove down a few of the side roads looking for some agricultural birds but other than a few unidentified sparrows singing and Great Egret and Great Blue Heron on a gloomy pool, we came up empty handed.
11th May. Another May day in Northwestern Ohio so why not pay a visit to Magee Marsh! We headed straight to the reserve parked up and I ran through the trees to the beach to quickly photograph an immature Bald Eagle that was flying east along the shoreline. Still waiting for that nice view of an adult bird! Back to the boardwalk and a slightly more showy Wilson's Warbler was the first warbler of the day although light and vegetation were still against me to get that really nice shot. Still the Bay-breasted Warbler that followed was rather smart and a significantly bigger bird than the petite Wilson's. Another showy female American Redstart posed nicely very close in raising personal concerns that I was still to get a nice shot of a male. The Eastern Screech-Owl was again showing well but at its other roosting tree so we popped over to see it. It was a bit more alert than when we'd seen it over the past few days and we could see more of its eyes, hence not having such a dozy expression! A quick brown flash was soon identified as our only Brown Creeper sighting of the trip. I managed to get a quick shot of it and also got a few other birders on to it before it disappeared high up in the tall trees. Another tick though it would have been nice to observe the bird more to compare to our Treecreeper. Whilst searching for the Creeper, yet another Chestnut-sided Warbler gave dazzling views and also a Black-throated Blue Warbler showed pretty well.
We were at the start of the big loop and noticed a small group of birders checking out a hunting Green Heron. It was fishing successfully on a small wooded pool and giving great views, it eventually moved further into cover but being able to watch it hunt and strike for several fish for 10 minutes was superb. Yet another Ruby-crowned Kinglet seemed to want to jump on the end of my lens and as such I picked up some nice close ups of this tiny bird. We walked down towards the south side of the boardwalk and got a quick glimpse of another Red-breasted Nuthatch before ogling over a beautiful Tree Swallow basking from a branch in the morning sun. Our attention was grabbed by a black, white and red flash flying back to where we'd been watching the Green Heron. We managed to catch up with a great male Rose-breasted Grosbeak which was showing very well. I snapped away getting some nice shots even if it was a challenge to get a clear shot and also not blow the exposures. Black headed birds with a dark eye always pose a challenge and in bright dappled light it often comes down to luck in order to get the “little sparkle” in the eye. Anyway despite the photographic challenges we were both exceedingly happy with the views as the bird fed sometimes no more than 35 feet away. We got chatting to one of the Tropical Bird guides and my attention was only challenged when I noticed a Wilson's Warbler foraging its way through the trees. As I followed it I noticed movement on the pools edge below and was soon watching a lovely Northern Waterthrush busily feeding and also belting out its song. It then proceeded to give the growing group of birders alongside me a wonderful show as it gave some great views, stopping every minute or so to throw its head back and give us all a burst of song. Eventually the bird moved away and with that species happily “done” we moved back west along the boardwalk.
We ended up back in amongst the higher density of birders where the warblers were more consistent. A Nashville Warbler followed by a Blackburnian Warbler showed pretty well although I still wanted a better Blackburnian shot if possible. The ground still had a fairly liberal amount of sparrows with a Lincoln's Sparrow and a White-throated Sparrows giving decent views. Yet more Ruby-crowned Kinglet shots preceded a gratuitous view of a Black-throated Green Warbler. When you get views as close as the ones we got, it's hard to concentrate on what you're doing as the event is so overwhelming! Seeing one of these special little birds as it is mid-way through its huge migration at “arm's length” (seriously – some of these sightings are as close as 2 feet!!!) is something we will both remember forever. I remember, whilst having several of these experiences, noticing myself standing there watching a warbler at 3 feet with my mouth wide open in amazement!
We birded our way back to the car park with another Bay-breasted Warbler stopping us for a while and also enjoyed a Gray Catbird feeding on one of the Orioles oranges in the car park. We drove back up to the BSBO centre where I headed straight for the feeders. This time a few Pine Siskins were taking advantage of the free lunch as was a stunning male Baltimore Oriole as it gorged itself on an orange. We walked the short trail behind the centre only seeing a few Yellow Warblers, although my father thought he glimpsed a Brown Thrasher. It was getting pretty hot now, so my father made his way back to the car while I carried on doing the whole loop. He didn't see anything on his return journey but I was rewarded with a nice view of a Lincoln's Sparrow, crest raised showing the red and grey off nicely.
We then drove the short distance to Ottawa NWR and were soon enjoying great views of a Killdeer sat and then feeding on the lawns. A Golden and Blue winged Warbler had been seen just a short while earlier so we set off in search, stopping to admire the male Northern Cardinal by the pools. General consensus was the both the warblers had moved on but we still did well picking up new trip species. After peeking through some foliage gaps to get a few more Great Crested Flycatcher shots, we picked up our first Hairy Woodpecker sighting. Definitely different from the Downy's we'd seen before, with a bigger bill and bigger jizz to the bird it didn't hang around for us but we soon had another new woodpecker as a Red-bellied Woodpecker showed at roughly the same range. Good things come in threes, and we soon had a Tufted Titmouse showing pretty well above our heads, feeding using its feet to hold its food.
We searched up and down the canal path for an hour looking for new warblers but eventually succumbed to hunger and decided to head back. A stunning Tree Swallow halted our progress back at the centre as it sat atop its nestbox in the bright hot sun and also a singing Song Sparrow teased me as it refused to give “that” perfect pose. We were just about to head to the car when I spotted a red Oriole atop a tree. It turned out to be our first Orchard Oriole although my record shot was really poor (fortunately I was to strike lucky with one later). The Oriole flew off quickly and we tried to leave again but this time my father spotted the arrival of a few Bobolinks. This was a bird I'd wanted to see and even though one bird showed pretty well, photography was exceptionally difficult. There was a big heat haze and the bird was singing from a line of trees off the paths. I managed to get a little closer but the glary light meant it was virtually impossible to get good shots of a bird which would be tricky to photograph in good light! Even so, we both enjoyed our Bobolink encounter, a bird which really does look back to front with the black front and a patchwork patterned back. The birds flew off and we made it to the car, only to be distracted by a Snowy Egret flying past which I managed to grab a few flight shots of.
We stopped for a very ordinary lunch and as we got out of the car I spotted a small flock of Chimney Swifts flying past and grabbed a really ropey silhouetted flight shot. Dark birds, bright sky, sound familiar?!! After eating we had a quick unsuccessful look for a Mockingbird and headed on to Metzeger Marsh. After the Swift sighting I'd set the cameras exposure setting up, hoping for another few birds to come past, but then forgot to reset it (Duh!) so once we found the Tricolored Heron and I had a few reasonable sightings of it, the photos came out badly with lots of noise from the dark exposure. A real shame as the birding was pretty good until I realised my error. We had a few views of the Tricolored Heron and several good views of Great Blue Heron, along with American Coot, Common Moorhen and Pied-billed Grebe (shots of which were all too noisy to use) as was a distant record shot of our first Spotted Sandpiper of the trip which still allowed us to see its spotted belly and distinctive posture. A good sighting of a Muskrat followed a distant adult Bald Eagle using a Muskrat mound to devour a recently caught fish. A Song Sparrow was a nice distraction as we continued up the road towards the lake where we encountered a good number of Herring and Ring-billed Gulls that were roosting on the jetty. The Ring-billed Gulls were mostly juvenile birds of varying ages which allowed, even with the incorrect camera setting, to get some decent pictures of different aged birds showing the differing plumages. A few Ruddy Ducks were on the lake bobbing with the swell which gave the lake the appearance of an ocean rather than an inland water body. We also had a quick look around the small copse by the lakeside but other than a single Common Yellowthroat keeping down to the bottom of the huge phragmites stems, there was little else other than the ubiquitous Red-Winged Blackbirds present.
We then ambled back down the causeway stopping off at each of the pull-ins hoping to catch up with something. There were plenty of Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets along the channel although the hoped for Spotted Sandpiper had moved on. Back at the first pull-in we found a pair of Mallards so I was obliged to take some pictures of one of the few duck species still in the area. I did find the shot of both the male and female feeding with just their “back ends” showing quite amusing. With nothing else of interest to keep us there we started to leave stopping to grab a quick shot of a Great Blue Heron close by and then physically stopped by something crossing the road. The something was a Wild Turkey that had been in the Metzeger Marsh area for a while and was seemingly unperturbed by the presence of cars and birders heading up and down the causeway. This was great for us as it allowed us to get good views of it, even if the light was very glary. It was never going to win a prize for bird of the trip but it was great to hook up with one at such close range.
With our fill of Turkey, we headed back to the East though only a short way as we checked out the fields along the Ottawa-Lucas county road. We'd seen a few cars and people with scopes at the end of the road so hit the brakes and turned off Route 2. Half way down I noticed a few small birds in the fields and we soon identified them as American Pipits. They kept a reasonable distance but eventually one of the birds came closer thanks to using the car as a hide and even despite my camera settings still resulting in darkened shots, good old fashioned post processing gave me a decent end result with better than expected shots of what can potentially be difficult birds to get close to. We drove down to the end of the road but other than several parties of Canada Geese and a few very distant Dunlin and there were none of the waders we'd hoped to find.
Back on Route 2, my father drove us the short distance back to the BSBO center while I realised and corrected the error with the camera settings. Determined to make up for my stupidity, I checked out the feeders there and was soon getting some great views of the massed numbers of birds there. Many American Goldfinches were feeding on the seeds including some very smart males which were quite a challenge to expose correctly in the bright sun. Yet more very crisp looking White-crowned Sparrows were feeding on the ground and it was difficult to take bad shots of them! I moved from looking round the corner of the feeders into the optics part of the center where a window looked out almost point blank over a few of the feeders. Being so close I removed the converter and was sometimes still too close to the birds especially with larger species such as Blue Jay and my first shots of Mourning Dove filling the frame at minimum zoom. Despite shooting through slightly darkened glass the shots came out pretty well and I soon added to them with shots of Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay and Pine Siskin. Being able to watch so many birds at such a close distance was superb, the novelty of such good views still showing absolutely no signs of wearing off!
With my earlier error partly forgiven we headed north along the causeway for our final fix of the day at Magee Marsh. As was becoming habit, we headed to the western end and had a look around the tower first and were soon watching a nice Nashville Warbler although with the lowering sun getting good lighting on the birds was always a challenge. A nearby birder called Bay-breasted Warbler and we were soon enjoying good views of it, alternating between it and a White-throated Sparrow feeding underneath it on the ground. We moved further into the wood and after 10 minutes or so we found a Swainson's Thrush which gave us some nice views.
We carried on looking for more thrushes and also chatting to the Tropical Birding guides but whilst I was looking at the wet woodland floor I was easily distracted by the flash of yellow that could only be a Prothonatory Warbler. Four days earlier I would have been floored by one of these but now they were part of the scenery. That really doesn't do them any justice as it such a wonderful bird but we'd become a little blasé about the resident breeders in our quest to find more migrants. Still when I look back on our visit now it's one of the trips many standout species with its soft appearance belying its sometimes aggressive nature towards other birds. A species that was frustrating me was Wilson's Warbler and another individual put in a typically elusive appearance in the foliage above our heads. Oh, for a clear shot! The light was fading now so we headed back to the tower and eventually we found a rather splendid male Black-throated Blue Warbler which posed just long enough for me to pick up some nice shots. A Magnolia Warbler joined the photo party looking resplendent in the warm evening sun. Final photo bird of the day turned out to be an Eastern Phoebe which had decided on feeding over the pool from various perches near to the tower, much to our appreciation!
12th May. Our fifth day stateside started just as the others before it with the first point of call being Magee Marsh although we had more specific plans to try and pick up distinct species throughout the day. We thought it would be the best plan to check out the volume and diversity of birds at Magee and then make a call as to where to go next. We drove down the causeway and stopped near the end to watch a Bald Eagle repeatedly swooping down over the marsh and eventually coming up with a good sized fish. The light was terrible but it was another good view of this spectacular bird. Entering the woods it was soon evident that the big fall hadn't materialised although the birds that were there were of course of a good quality. First up at the tower was a Cape May Warbler which we'd seen a few previously but with difficult light resulting in only record shots. A few individuals fed busily amongst the leaves along with several Northern Parulas and Magnolia Warblers. It was noticeable that there were very few Yellow-rumped Warblers now, very different from when we'd first arrived and that the dominant warbler was now becoming the Maggy. We moved through the woods more briskly than usual with no huge density of birds to slow us down but stopped to try and see a pair of Wood Ducks that landed right near the top of one of the huge mature trees. Seeing them was difficult enough so only a record shot resulted, such a shame for such a smart species. We carried on walking down the boardwalk hoping for something new to turn up but weren't disappointed to watch a Least Flycatcher for a few minutes. We headed over to the Eastern Screech-Owl roosting spot and were delighted to find that it had moved from its high roost to its other favoured tree from where we could see the whole of the bird. It cut a great profile with its thumping great feet and oversized ear tufts clearly showing. It gives such a startled expression with the ear tufts although its half opened eyes gave it some air of tranquillity. We were both enjoying the owl and chatting away but were eventually interrupted by a Tweet of a potentially new warbler species at marker 4.
Off we moved and soon joined the growing crowd of birders hoping for a glimpse of a bright coloured ground feeding warbler. Eventually there were some restrained but excited “Aaahs and Ooohs” as the Mourning Warbler briefly revealed itself. This was the definition of a difficult photograph to obtain. No room for a tripod, bird constantly moving through thick ground cover and with no direct sunlight to help I knew I was up against it and was going to need plenty of luck. With some patience but plenty of frustration I managed to get enough Mourning Warbler like pixels stored on the card although just watching the birds behaviour was fascinating as it fed much more like a Sparrow than a warbler with it mostly walking on the woodland floor. Normally small birds tend to hop or flit but this was definitely walking although it did occasionally hop vertically to presumably get a morsel from a leaf above it. On the brief occasions we were treated to a clearer view the bird itself was a real treat with a bright yellow belly contrasting with the kaleidoscope of colours on the back and chest, the dark throat and upper belly being very distinctive. I waited and watched for well over half an hour hoping for better views but the bird couldn't be re-found even though it was so bright. It was probably still there but due to its behaviour it was very difficult to pick up. Eventually I tore myself away to photograph a Black-and-white Warbler followed eventually by more nice views of Cape May Warbler back at the tower. Also a hit and hope effort turned out better than expected as I snapped at a Ruby-throated Hummingbird which was hovering as it fed from the flowering trees. The camera managed to almost stop the wing movement although it took a shutter speed of 1/2000 of a second! We decieded to head off to try and pick up a few target species but not before I'd had another go at the sparrows near the beach. A Tree Swallow briefly distracted me before I located the small flock of sparrows which was mostly made up of Chipping Sparrows with a few White-crowned in amongst them. I focused on the Chippers and eventually got nice and close with some great results.
Happy with the pictures we moved off and stopped in at the Sportsmen`s Migratory Bird Center where I wanted to have another go at the Purple Martins there. After photographing a family of Canada Geese on the entrance lake, with Mum and Dad front and back, I headed over to the Purple Martin house while my father checked out the center. I took off the converter and eventually got some decent shots although with the bright light they were always going to take some post processing. I was fortunate to pick up a descending Great Blue Heron early and got the camera on it, and without the converter, remembered how good and fast the 200-400 is without it! You can't have everything in photography! I neglected to take any shots of the Barn Swallows there (something I regret now) but do have fond memories of Martins & Swallows swooping overhead.
It was getting near to lunch time but we first had to check out probably the best location I've ever been given for a birding site. “Head down Route 2 and just before the bridge over the creek is Porky's Pizza Trof. They nest under the bridge there.” These instructions duly followed we pulled into the dusty car park and within 10 seconds we were watching a few dozen Cliff Swallows! The previous nights' thunderstorms had resulted in a couple of muddy puddles in the car park and it was around those that the Cliff Swallows were landing, stocking up with mouthfuls of mud and then heading off to the bridge to attend to their nests. This combined with being able to watch from the car was perfect for us as we got magnificent views of them as they went about their business. They were fairly social in that there was never a single bird at the puddle, often ten or more present and all the while they were alighted, they engaged in an almost constant wing flickering, rarely folding their wings, instead leaving them half open and twitching as if they were nervous about being on the ground. From a photographic viewpoint they were surprisingly difficult to photograph as they were in strong sunlight on a light sandy gravel car park but with heavy contrasts in their plumage. It was difficult to expose the white head patch correctly whilst also waiting for the near overhead sun to provide a glint in the eye. Still, they were a delight to observe and we happily spent half an hour there. There was one brief interruption as a Red-tailed Hawk flew overhead which resulted in me jumping out of the car to grab a few shots (fortunately the Swallows weren't present at that time!)
Once we'd had another shot at the Cliff Swallows we headed off for another Wild Wings lunch and then drove back down to Ottawa where we decided to try our look with the North Woods which we'd not looked at. We set off from the visitor center but went via the South Woods first which turned out to be a very good call! Once we got into the woods we were stopped by birds. Firstly a Downy Woodpecker showed very well which required a number of photos and then my father picked up a Wood Thrush foraging amongst the leaf litter just where the boardwalk entered the woods. Now this was a great bird, with the rufous head showing very well in the dappled light. It was certainly the most striking brown thrush of the four we'd seen to date being much more streaky than any of the others and also possessing a much richer colour. We were also tantalised by a few very brief snippets of song although nothing full blown. The bird fed for most of the time we watched it, ducking in and out of cover allowing me to get a really good selection of poses. I was briefly distracted by a Veery which also gave a nice pose but soon both thrushes moved more a distance away so we moved towards the much larger North Woods.
As we set off I grabbed shots of a nice Yellow Warbler and also a Lincoln's Sparrow and also managed to get a few shots of a Sharp-shinned Hawk as it passed overhead. We weren't sure of the id until we checked later as it was silhouetted quite strongly. As the environment opened up so the birds changed and as we walked alongside one of the large lakes we were into Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons and also an Eastern Kingbird which showed nicely. We walked about half a mile and then turned off the road into the woods again. Immediately the birding changed as we entered the silent woods and we soon had another Red-bellied Woodpecker, distant again but we were soon treated to our fifth Vireo of the trip with a Red-eyed Vireo feeding half way up one of the huge trees. I was willing it to come closer but it wasn't to be. I still managed a few reasonable shots although the end results were no way as good as those obtained in Magee Marsh. We continued through the woods not seeing a huge amount as the canopy was so high and woodland so big that birds present would have plenty of places to be to avoid being seen by us from the path. A Blue Jay near the woodland exit gave us a few nice poses, showing the tail barring well but before long we found ourselves back outside the woodland in the afternoon sun with my father having a quick sit down on a well-positioned bench while I fruitlessly chased Yellow Warblers.
We decided to head the long way back, walking alongside the lake and hoping to catch up with some waterfowl. This proved to be a good decision as we soon spotted a Trumpeter Swan sitting on its nest. The nest was huge probably standing three feet out of the water and obviously the swan itself wasn't exactly small! There was a distinct rufous marking to the neck and the black above the bill was clearly seen. We also noticed its mate roosting nearby, surprisingly well hidden amongst light vegetation. The ever present Red-winged Blackbirds were here in abundance and I grabbed a quick shot of a female perched atop some nearby vegetation. We'd walked a few hundred yards before we were stopped again this time by a very obliging Eastern Kingbird. Over the next few minutes it gave us some mind blowing views as we checked each other out. It watched us while we watched it and it even allowed me to change position to get better light on it. At our closest we were no more than 20 feet away from this quality bird, a real treat and it allowed me to get some great pictures.
Further up I noticed a Woodpecker distantly perched in a tree, I fired off a record shot as it flew and then managed to pick it up as it flew over the lake. It was a real hazy ropey record shot but it showed off the yellow shafts of the Northern Flicker very well. We were doing well for new trip species with the Flicker adding another one and after finally getting some cracking views and good photographs of a Yellow Warbler we picked up our 100th photo species of the trip with a Mute Swan! For us Brits not the most exotic of species with which to hit the landmark but they all count! We'd reached the furthest point of the walk and headed back in search of the visitor center. We managed to pick up a flying Red-tailed Hawk early and I kept the camera on it as it flew over us getting another selection of average flight shots (all in need of some processing to bring the levels back). At a car park a female House Sparrow was perched atop a sign so that brought up 101 and after walking back along the channel skirting the South Woods we met up with a couple from Maryland we'd bumped into most days at Magee Marsh. We were chatting away when another birder nearby found a stunning male Orchard Oriole. It was well hidden and I needed to stand in exactly the right spot but I eventually got one single good shot of the bird (along with a few mediocre others) which turned out to be a real bonus. Beautifully coloured and in my opinion a much smarter bird than the Baltimore Orioles we'd seen regularly. It soon moved off over the channel not to be seen again but after such a good glimpse we were all pleased with what we'd seen.
A quick raptor blast brought a Turkey Vulture drifting over promptly followed by a Red-tailed Hawk fairly low over the trees. We found ourselves back at the Wood Thrush spot and this time we enjoyed at least two birds, with one singing for us. The Veery was also there as was the Downy Woodpecker from earlier but the real star was the Wood Thrush which showed very well for us. We informed several other birders about them and they were very happy to enjoy them. Time was marching on and we'd also had a Tweet that we want to check out so we headed back to the visitor center and luck was with us again as we managed to pick up a House Finch on one of the feeders there. I quickly managed to get a few pictures before an oblivious birder innocently managed to flush the bird. Still I'd managed to see and get a decent shot of another species so we jumped in the car to try and get yet another.
We drove the short distance down route 2 to Metzeger Marsh and soon saw a small group of birders with scopes. We parked up and managed to pick up what they were looking at. I grabbed a quick look through one of the scopes and was looking at a Yellow-headed Blackbird. We decided to be a bit cheeky as the bird was quite distant so got back in the car and drove slowly up to near where it was feeding. I poked the camera out the window and grabbed a few shots which were never going to be perfect due to the heat haze but were a damn sight better than would have been achievable from the original location. A few minutes later some more birders cottoned on to our idea but the last arrival decided to walk beyond our car and up to the fence which eventually spooked the bird away. It only flew a relatively short distance away but it was much further from a vantage point than it had been previously so we decided to call it as a hit and run and headed back to the county road where we'd seen a few cars parked a few minutes earlier.
After the previous nights' heavy rain, the fields were much wetter which had resulted in the bottom end being partially flooded. We didn't immediately make it as far as the temporary pool as there were a few American Pipits in the area and a few of them were very close to the road. Using the car again, we pulled almost alongside and obtained crippling views of one American Pipit as it fed probably no further than 20 feet away at times. Over the next few minutes I proceeded to erase the camera setting errors of the previous day with some great images of one of the birds I'd underexposed. All the while my father was urging us to move down the road a little (which we did as the Pipit did) to see the waders there. It was one in particular as a single Solitary Sandpiper was elegantly picking its way along the pool. Very reminiscent of our Green Sandpiper with its elegant demeanour we could make out the barring on the tail as it gracefully went about its feeding. It was never close and quickly moved away but it was a real treat to see. A small flock of Dunlin was on the south side of the road but didn't show very well and a Lincoln's Sparrow kept up the passerine interest as it came down to feed on the side of the pool.
It was approaching 7pm so we decided to head back although I stopped to add a very quick shot of a male House Sparrow at the end of the county road before heading back onto Route 2. We stopped off briefly again at Porky's where I tried to get a few flight shots of the Cliff Swallows. Limited success in the fading light but the muddy puddles we'd been watching the birds so well at earlier had completely dried out. Another stroke of luck! Back towards Port Clinton and I spotted our only Hooded Merganser of the trip as we crossed a bridge doing 65 (no photo!) and I then got a few grainy shots of a European Starling in the car park of our hotel before finally giving the camera a rest.
13th May. Friday had been the big hope for the second wave of warbler migration. Both Kenn Kaufman and the Tropical birding guides had said that it looked promising weatherwise for a good fall of birds so we were more excited than usual turning up at Magee Marsh. It was grey, humid and with a light drizzle so light was going to be difficult but we were soon aware of a different makeup of birds present. One of the first birds we saw was a smart male Canada Warbler although it kept its distance and only poor record shots resulted. The same was to be said of our second Mourning Warbler which showed slightly worse than the first one we'd seen but with little light to speak of, photographs were virtually impossible. Among the warblers at the western end we found an obliging Wilson's Warbler, seemingly not up to its normal frantic speed this early in the morning. That was a welcome surprise as it was beginning to become a problem species with only distant shots to that point.
A few Tweets came through that East Beach was the place to be with a Yellow-throated Warbler having been seen along with several Tennessee Warblers. We quickly walked over there via the beach where I quickly grabbed a few flight shots of a silhouetted Double-crested Cormorant and a Tern which turned out to be a Common Tern after we identified it later! In the trees beyond the North beach there was certainly plenty of activity with lots of Warblers present. Canada, Black-throated Blue, Yellow, Black-throated Green, Magnolia were all seen as we made our way to the East Beach. Once on there a few other early morning birders were looking but hadn't seen the Yellow-throated Warbler so we set off to hopefully find it. Again it was different vegetation with numerous small trees alongside the beach which itself had many shrubs no more than 6 feet tall. Great habitat and there was quite a variety of species present.
We found a camera shy female Bay-breasted Warbler in amongst the shrubs but as we split up to maximise our chances of finding things, I sort of lucked out as I had a glimpse of a Mourning Warbler close in on the ground. Before I could raise the camera it had shuffled off under a bush and despite an intensive search couldn't re-find it. Whilst searching for the Mourning Warbler, I caught sight of a brilliantly coloured male Northern Cardinal and grabbed a few shots through the now drizzly skies. Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-rumped and others all popped in brief appearances but there was to be no sign of the Yellow-throated or Tennessee warblers. A Killdeer landed close by and I picked up a few more shots of this attractive wader, one shot showing the rufous rump nicely. We searched the beach for 40 minutes or so but even though there were quite a few birds around, the views were often fleeting and distant so eventually we called it, helped in part by receiving another Tweet of another potential new species.
The Tweets were coming in thick and fast with the new arrivals and one I really hoped to see had been spotted so we walked to the eastern edge of the parking lot to try and find the Blue-winged Warbler. There was a sizable group of birders there but all looking in different directions so after a few minutes we noticed a small flock of birds nearby which we went to investigate and they turned out to be Cedar Waxwings. I eventually managed to get myself a good view of one bird which didn't have the backdrop of the bright white sky. I was really pleased to get good views of them, especially as we'd only seen a very distant one on the first full day. I was distracted from the Waxwings by a small bird which turned out to be a tantalising glimpse of an Indigo Bunting. The record shots were poor and mostly obscured by vegetation but fortunately I was to pick up photos on a later day.
Another Tweet came through so off we walked the short distance to the boardwalk as fortunately this time we were at the eastern edge and it was only another short walk down to marker 30 to find not one but two Common Nighthawks roosting in the same dead tree. Whereas the Whip-poor-wills seen previously were ground roosting, these two were thirty feet up out in the open. With the grey skies as a backdrop, exposure was difficult but it was great to observe another Nightjar species as we did. They seemed oblivious to all the birders and optics being pointed at them and after getting our fill of views and photos yet another tweet moved us deeper down the boardwalk. En route we saw a Green Heron across the channel and picked up a few shots of the bird half way up a medium sized tree.
We carried on and soon found ourselves back towards the start of the big loop where we caught up with a Gray-cheeked Thrush which eventually showed really well. This was a star performer and the first one that had been reported for Magee for the Biggest Week so naturally drew a good sized crowd. With the bird showing well but in a dingy wooded setting, it was like a paparazzi shoot with dozens of flashguns going off. Me without one was relying on handheld (assisted by the boardwalk railings) but I still managed a good selection of shots and poses as the bird fed at the base of one of the enormous trees. Once we'd had our fill of the thrush, and it did put on a very good performance we made our way towards the eastern end, stopping briefly for a Blackpoll Warbler and out into the parking lot where we had another look through the smaller trees to check out any stray warblers.
At one such tree a birder was waiting around saying he'd just been watching a Blue-Winged Warbler. This was one bird I really wanted to see and after five minutes or so a little yellow streak flew out of the tree to a distant tree from where I eventually managed to get a record shot of the stunning male Blue-winged Warbler. Unfortunately it was to be our only clear sighting as it soon dived back in cover and as hard as we searched there were no better views than fleeting glimpses of various parts of it through the thick vegetation. Eventually I realised I was fighting a losing battle with it and so moved on back down the beach as my father had been feeling the cold a little and gone back to the car for a coffee. It was a bit miserable weather-wise and as I started towards the beach I saw a Veery looking for cover whilst a Yellow Warbler did its usual escapology trick once I lifted the camera.
The lake was calm despite the drizzle but the light was a very flat grey, not too bad for photographing a Ring-billed Gull feeding on one of the scores of dead fish on the beach while the small Ruddy Duck group were still dozing off shore. I checked on my father who was happy in the warm car and walked the hundred yards to the far western end of the car park where another photographer was watching for warblers from under his waterproof setup. He pointed out a larger bird to me which happened to be a Black-billed Cuckoo which eventually showed very well, clumsily walking through the branches of a young tree and occasionally giving some great views – certainly much more obliging than any Cuckoo I'd seen before.
All the while I watched the Cuckoo there was warbler activity all around me. It was diverse too with probably ten species seen in a few minutes. A Black-throated Blue Warbler was a pleasure as always while a Blackburnian Warbler gave a real splash of colour. A quick appearance from a Bay-breasted Warbler was interrupted by a quick Wilson's Warbler appearance and then followed by Canada Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler and Warbling Vireo all of which managed to jump in front of the lens. Black-throated Green, Palm, Yellow and Black-and-white Warblers all managed to stay obscured but to be in such an environment with such diversity and proximity was fabulous. My father had joined me again and he also lapped up the experience although we were eventually moved on by Twitter news that moved us to marker 4.
Another Eastern Whip-poor-will sighting and also a Mourning Warbler both of which we managed to see despite their skills at keeping camouflaged. An Ovenbird whizzed through the undergrowth whilst we watched for the Mourning Warbler but also a potential new species was in our midst. Also in our midst was our first boardwalk jamboree with well over 100 birders crammed along the timbers, all hoping for a view of another ground favouring warbler. Eventually a murmur went up and then some excited muffled shouts as everyone managed to get on the male Connecticut Warbler than skulked through the undergrowth. Despite the crowds it was a magical moment with genuine excitement being voiced by the massed ranks of birders – it was an expression of simultaneous birding passion, relief, joy as dozens of birders ticked off a lifer / year bird / first of year or just joined in with the emotion of the bird finally showing itself. Now I'd seen it the next challenge was to get a photo and that wasn't easy. It was definitely a ground feeder and even more so than the Mourning Warbler before it, it was a walker! Despite its colouration it was difficult to pick out amongst the woodland floor and the fact that it deliberately and slowly walked everywhere made it even harder to pick up. I did manage to get a few efforts but nothing exceptional but to see this bird with its distinctive huge eye-ring was a real treat.
All the while that we were looking for the Connecticut Warbler, the Ovenbird was doing its best to distract me and I managed a few shots of it in the slowly improving light. Eventually we moved on, finding a female Blackburnian Warbler which showed very well for us as the sun came out. A few more crippling views of Black-throated Green Warbler and Chestnut-sided Warbler followed as well as a distant female Canada Warbler before we headed back to the car. Next birding stop was at Ottawa where the weather was now very humid but sunny. We had heard that a Worm-eating Warbler had been seen in the woods so headed off to investigate bumping into a few fellow Brit birders en route. We had a good look around for the Worm-eater but came up empty handed other than good views of a House Wren which showed nicely for us as it sang on a nearby log. We emerged warbler-less from the woods into the heat of the mid-afternoon sun where my father soon picked up another new species for the trip.
A Brown Thrasher was on a path heading into a copse from the car park and after some gentle manoeuvring I soon had a great selection of images of it, showing that fierce eye. My manoeuvring did make my heart race a bit as I almost trod on a black snake but once my pulse rate had dropped I considered it worth it in the end! With that bit of good fortune in my pocket it was soon dented slightly as in front of my nose a male Mourning Warbler appeared briefly and then dived into cover close by. I looked for 10 minutes trying to re-find it with no joy whatsoever and as a male Common Yellowthroat also did the same thing I was thinking my luck for the day had ended.
Of course it wasn't as I found a stunning male Scarlet Tanager nearby and managed to get some good shots of it, although the sun was so bright it was difficult to expose such a ridiculously coloured creature! It was getting a bit unpleasant now with the humidity so we decided to head back to the visitor centre to grab a drink but a point blank view of a Least Flycatcher stopped me briefly although I wished I'd stayed a little longer to get some better shots.
Once back and suitably reinvigorated we headed over to Metzeger Marsh to see if anything was around. No sign of the Yellow-headed Blackbird today but stopping on the causeway a few times gave us our first Common Moorhen of the trip and a few more views of American Coot. We carried on further down the causeway but soon hit the brakes as a Pied-billed Grebe surfaced nearby. Positioning the car on the verge I managed to get some great views of it as it fed close in, getting quality views of the black and white bill before it moved further out. Another one ticked and even if we missed out on Spotted Sandpiper it had still been worth the visit.
With little else of note at Metzeger we headed back to finish off at Magee Marsh starting at the Eastern end for a change. This allowed us to check out the Common Nighthawks in a different light, even if they were still snoozing! As ever the warblers didn't disappoint and we enjoyed good views of Canada Warbler whilst a Prothonatory Warbler also put in a good performance. The hotspot seemed to be away from the wind with the boardwalk away from the channel (forming the side of the big loop) being very productive. Good views of Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart (still females being the only photo friendly ones!), Gray Catbird, Magnolia Warbler and Wilson's Warbler were all enjoyed. A Song Sparrow fed down by the waters edge, very close by but with very low light by this time. Final few for the day were yet another Veery and an American Redstart hopping on the handrail of the boardwalk.
14th May. Unfortunately for the organisers, the weather for the Saturday of the “Biggest Weekend” of the Biggest Week in American Birding didn't look promising but we decided to give it a quick go at Magee Marsh just to check for any significant fall of migrants. It was grey, damp, windy and a little chilly first thing and even a Herring Gull on the lakeside didn't look too impressed with the conditions. Moving into the woods and checking out the boardwalk, it became evident that there were fewer birds than the day before and even the variety seemed down so after taking a single usable photo of a Prothonatory Warbler we decided to change scene and head west.
We got in the car around 8:45 and headed back up the causeway passing car after car after car full of birders heading towards Magee Marsh. We thought we'd made the right decision and as we headed further west along the 105, we came to a halt after noticing a Red-tailed Hawk perched on top of a telegraph post. One driver change and with me in the back seat we did a quick U-turn and just as we pulled up near the post, the bird flew but somehow I managed to get some flight shots of it as it took flight with the resultant images showing the red tail off nicely. We carried on west into darkening skies with my father spotting an early Dickcissel at the roadside (our only one of the trip) but as we approached Toledo the heavens darkened and really opened up with torrential rain and really unpleasant driving conditions on the Interstate. The rain was a concern but as we exited at the airport turn off and headed into Oak Openings the rain eased and the resulting warm, humid but dry conditions were very fortunate indeed.
Tweets were coming through constantly from Magee Marsh but nothing had us doubting our decision to head to Oak Openings with all the species being ones we'd already seen well. As we found our way into the park I spotted a raptor sitting on top of a nest box in the woods. We pulled to the side and we could see another Red-tailed Hawk eating a kill (possibly a Cuckoo of sorts). I rattled off some shots which turned out ok despite the low forest light. We moved on and after chatting to one of the park rangers we soon found our first new bird of the day. A Field Sparrow was singing from a tree a small distance away from the road and with some difficulty I managed to get a few images of it although better was to come for this species. We walked down one of the cycle paths where we'd been told there was a Blue-winged Warbler singing. I soon managed to pick up the bee-buzz song and then located it right at the very top of a huge dead tree. The resulting record shots were distant specks but I was interrupted from my Blue-wing quest by my father calling for me to come over urgently to where he was.
One quick scramble later and I was watching two Eastern Towhees as they fed along a vegetated sandy bank. I willed them into a clear view and eventually got a decent shot although the best views we had were backlit with bright grey skies. Photoshop to the rescue and we had another nice species in the bag. My father was commenting on how he much preferred the “old” name of Rufous-sided Towhee and I must say I agree, especially when watching the distinctively marked bird with its rufous sides! Well our day was going well and the only bad thing was the mosquitoes that had taken a liking to a tasty Welsh import. With the oppressive humidity and lugging around a great big camera, the mossies were managing to bite me through my long sleeved T-shirt, that even after we'd both sprayed ourselves with insect repellent. Still, it was worth it as after our Towhee encounter, we got back in the car and went looking for Sparrows.
A few Chipping Sparrows perched on a wire fence nearby but after the great encounters we'd had on the beach at Magee Marsh they would never improve on the images I obtained. We'd learned that Lark Sparrows could be seen from the roadside on Girdham Road and after driving down into the park for no more than a minute or two we saw some sparrows bathing in a puddle at the roadside. A few smaller Sparrows were Chippers but two bigger birds turned out to be Lark Sparrows! Gently coasting up in the car we managed to get some great views of the soggy sparrows and I fired off a load of pictures as one in particular bathed nearby. They flew to the other side of the road where we then followed and I carried on photographing them as they preened and fed. Great views of a bird which, from what we understood can be difficult to catch up with in this part of Ohio.
The ranger passed us in his pickup and that moved the Lark Sparrows on away from the roadside so we also moved further down the road but only a few hundred yards. We didn't stop for any particular reason other than the habitat looked promising. It was! On one side of the road we had our first Eastern Bluebird, a brilliantly coloured male sitting prominently on a branch, scanning for its next snack whilst on the other side of the road we had our first but very distant view of a Red-headed Woodpecker with its bright white flashes contrasting nicely with the dark tree trunks. The woodpecker was too distant to see well but we made a note of where it was for later and concentrated on the Bluebird. It was faithful to one area so watching it was easy even if the light was a glary grey. Still, what a splash of colour to brighten the day and one species to look forward to seeing again on a nice sunny day.
Another quick glimpse of a Lark Sparrow followed as we watched the Bluebird though we eventually moved on, casually driving slowly along with the windows open looking for signs of movement. We had a map of the park and had heard that the Red-headed Woodpeckers can sometimes be seen from the visitor centre so we headed there. Once at the centre my father immediately cottoned on to the call of an American Crow and after walking around the centre we finally had our picture of what was only the third one we'd seen all trip! Staggering when you compare the corvid action to the UK.
We stuck our heads into the visitor centre which was typically high class with a great viewing room over a feeding area where I got some White-breasted Nuthatch shots. We both wanted to catch up with the Woodpecker again so we followed the trail through some dense silent pine forest with only the occasional Chickadee call to break the tranquillity until we found ourselves on the far side of the area we'd observed earlier. A thermaling Red-tailed Hawk was identified although with the almost white skies it was difficult to photograph. We then had a flash of white and we were on to our second Red-headed Woodpecker. Still distant but I followed a path to where I'd seen it land. Easily distracted as usual I found another Eastern Bluebird and managed to get a little closer to get a few more images. As I followed the Bluebird I caught sight of another Red-headed Woodpecker and was torn between the two eventually following the Woodpecker in order to get some pictures and even though it was a challenge photographically I got some great views of one bird (of at least two) as it fed high up in a nearby tree. Eventually the bird moved on and we began to head back towards the centre.
Halfway back my father picked up a familiar song and we soon watching the singing Field Sparrow, even though it was high up above us we could make out the pink bill clearly. We ended up returned via a different route firstly coming down a road from where we were halted by a flash of dark blue. What then transpired was a fantastic experience as a brilliant male Indigo Bunting flew across the road several times singing as it went. Colourwise this was a trip highlight for me with a fantastic deep iridescent blue being seen on the back in flight. Even though it was drizzling at this point and the forest didn't let much light down to where we were standing I still managed to pick up a few reasonable pictures but the memories of the colour shouldn't fade too quickly!
We then cut through the woods noting some lovely Dogwoods and a Fox Squirrel as we passed before eventually finding the visitor centre again. We were more or less back at the centre and I wanted to see what was the on other side of the lake, specifically as I'd seen another two American Crows fly into what looked like a small field through the woodland. My father found a convenient bench and I crossed over the bridge, fruitlessly looking for any ducks on the water. On the other side I made my way to the field where the two crows immediately took flight and flew off into the distance. Heading slowly back, I caught sight of some movement ahead of me and raised the camera. It was a finch of sorts and only after some reviewing later on did we identify it as a female Indigo Bunting. Without the distinctive colour of the male we tried to make it into a Purple Finch but after consulting the field guides we were convinced of its Indigo Bunting lineage! Still, great to have pictures of both male and female birds to compare.
Back over the bridge I quickly took a few shots of a very cute Canada Goose family before we headed inside the visitor centre. Even with the slightly darkened glass, the views to the feeders were superb with point blank views of birds and mammals using the feeders. First up was a Red-bellied Woodpecker with views trumping anything we'd seen before of this species. Another great view was of Mourning Dove with two birds ground feeding no more than 12 feet away. Needless to say the teleconverter was off for all these shots with the larger birds almost filling the frame at minimum zoom. Downy Woodpeckers were in and out of the feeding area constantly and a male Northern Cardinal added its riot of colour with its arrival. As with the Nuthatches it was feeding busily and allowing me to get shots as and when I liked. Two Blue Jays dropped in showing us those wonderful stripy blue feathers again. A Tufted Titmouse also came and joined in, sitting atop a feeder almost too close to photograph! The next visitor wasn't feathered but enjoyed just as much as a Chipmunk whizzed in and out of view, eventually sitting in clear view munching some food looking just like Jonny Wilkinson preparing to kick at goal!!! Final photograph for the visitor centre was of a male American Goldfinch that came to drink at the small pool. Top quality viewing from a high class facility!
It was getting late and we hadn't eaten so we headed off to find some although we did stop off before leaving Oak Openings to grab a few quick views of Field Sparrow and also an elusive thrush which turned out to be a Veery. I fancied another quick bash at the Blue-wing spot but ended up empty handed, consoling myself with a nice view of a perched Ruby-throated Hummingbird. We got to the main road and headed East, unfortunately not finding any eateries nearby and driving quite a few miles before finding a Wendy's. Eating and Skyping under the same roof we then got back in the car heading back East as time was moving on and our plans were made up for us as they skies became leaden and eventually started to open up again.
We decided to try our luck at open farmland birds and took the back roads, scouring any stubble fields for birds. We'd done many slow miles of searching, disrupting one families basketball game in the middle of the road, before my father caught sight of a small bird in amongst some corn stubble. With my colour blindness I found it really hard to pick out but eventually I got sight of the Horned Lark and picked up a few ropey record shots. It didn't show terribly well but we could just make out its distinctive horned feathers before it walked away deeper into the field. With no chance of it coming closer we carried on heading east just as the rain set up permanently.
It was pretty grim with a few claps of thunder here and there and virtually birdless as we carried on looking. Other than a single Chipping Sparrow on a wire the only other birds we saw were two Rock Dove on top of a typical American barn. These were the first we'd seen since Detroit Airport so I jumped out of the car in the pouring rain, with thunder clap accompaniments to get possibly the worst pictures of the trip in order to notch up another species! Either this was dedication to the cause or some British eccentricity but at least looking at the terrible pictures I can still see the funny side! We eventually found ourselves back on Route 2 and drove straight past the very wet entrance to Magee Marsh and straight back to Port Clinton for an early evening for once. Such a shame for the Biggest Week that the weather hadn't cooperated but even so we'd had a successful day out West.
15th May. If we thought the weather on the Saturday was bad, we'd underestimated it today! Taking time over our average breakfast we watched both the Weather Channel and out of the window at the rain lashing down outside. It was promised to ease off later in the day but it wasn't going to be great with a strong wind forecast to last throughout the day. When we eventually got ourselves outside it was noticeably cooler than we'd experienced so it was a day to keep out of the elements.
Fortunately with it being the Sunday of the Biggest Week meant that the auto-route tour was open at Ottawa so it was there that we headed. Cars were still streaming down the road towards Magee Marsh but with Tweets announcing the Tropical Birding guys car park list now stood at four species, we had no inclination to join them! It was pretty ugly at Ottawa with rain hitting the side of the car rather than coming down on it so we could only really bird from the leeward side! As we drove down to the start of the auto tour route we saw two Trumpeter Swans on the main pool which gave better views than we'd seen previously. In fact it turned out to be a Trumpeter Swan morning, partly as they were big enough to see through the gloom but also as they seemed unaffected by the weather and showed surprisingly well. Another pair were seen out in the reserve after we'd seen a few Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons trying to fish in the rain.
As we got to the furthest part of the tour the worlds wettest Killdeer appeared in front of us and carried on looking for food despite the conditions. We carried on to the latter part of the tour spotting a Bald Eagle perched in a tree looking majestic yet bedraggled if such a thing is accomplishable! We completed the auto tour route in slightly improving weather, the rain had slowed to drizzle although the wind was still strong and chilly. Birding from the car was still the way to go so we headed over to Metzeger Marsh from where we had a reasonable view of a Pied-billed Grebe from the first causeway pull-in. We noticed a small flock of Hirundines battling the breeze and one of the birds looked different. It was our only Bank Swallow of the trip which we only identified after zooming in to my ropey record shot. The rain started up again so it was back in to the car to check out the lake. We got there after seeing nothing else of note to be greeted by waves crashing against the breakwater that wouldn't be out of place on an ocean. The car park was half flooded and needless to say there were no birds on the breakwater itself. The trees in the small woodland were swaying violently so we headed back down the causeway stopping quickly to photograph a Double-crested Cormorant fishing close in the canal and then parked up at a small coppice where another birder was poking a lens out from his car.
There were several warblers in the trees and fairly obliging too with good views of Palm Warbler, a nice male Blackpoll Warbler, another elusive Common Yellowthroat and also a Tennessee Warbler which finally got in front of the camera. There were probably close on double figure species present with Lincoln's Sparrow, Philadelphia and Warbling Vireo joining in with the warblers although with the wind sweeping through and low light levels it was always going to be difficult to get photographs. It was raining on and off and the wind went through you if you remained in it for long so we decided for an early lunch.
One Wild Wings burger later and having contacted home we headed in the direction of Magee Marsh where Tweets were starting to filter in now the TB guys had got out of their vehicles! Route 2 was usually lined with Great Egrets and Herons but a smaller Egret immediately caught my attention. I managed to safely slow the car down and organise the now familiar U-turn and driver change manoeuvre. We waited for a gap in the traffic which gave us just less than one minute to photograph the roadside Cattle Egret which was huddled up against the elements. A great view and some good photos resulted, even if we had to boot it to speed away from an approaching big rig!!!
Feeling very pleased at picking up a bonus species we headed down to Magee Marsh to see what was in store and once there to the sparsely populated car park headed on to the boardwalk from the East side to the Southern side of the wood where most of the Tweets were coming from. We moved on to the boardwalk and once we'd walked down deeper into the woods and away from the lake, the wind dropped and the numbers of birds increased from virtually none to very healthy numbers. What was even better for the hardy birders present was due to the conditions, the birds were feeding down very low, many at eye level or lower which resulted in superb views of species often seen only distantly from below. With the low light levels, photographing active passerines handheld without a flash was always going to involve quite a high percentage of throwaways but even so I was very happy with what I was being served bird-wise.
First up was one of many Philadelphia Vireos which was feeding low down beside the canal. A bright Yellow Warbler followed and realising the proximity of the birds I whipped off the converter and started shooting with a maximum of 400mm to play with but with some extra light for the lens. This reminded me again how good the 200-400 is on its own and soon I was enjoying the challenge of getting good shots of fast moving birds. After a Great Egret sitting elegantly beside the canal I photographed American Redstart followed by a brief Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Another brief Tennessee Warbler in difficult light followed but great close views of Black-and-white Warbler along with Chestnut-sided Warbler required me to zoom out in order to frame the bird!
We had another chat with the Tropical Birding guides sheltering a little from the chill and whilst doing so I had a decent view of a Great Crested Flycatcher. After a little respite it was back out to the big loop again to what was being labelled warbler alley with at least a dozen species being seen within a thirty yard stretch. A female Black-throated Blue Warbler was a nice start with the small patch of blue on the wing along with the white wing flash being visible. Another point blank Chestnut-sided Warbler along with a Magnolia Warbler showed very nicely but we were soon interrupted by a Tweet sourced from just 100 yards away.
We walked up to the canal and found Sam Woods who had found a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher which showed fantastically well albeit in low light. We watched the bird for 10 minutes as it worked its way along the trees at the waters' edge sometimes viewing the bird from 15 feet! After taking plenty of shots we headed back down to warbler alley but got on to another new Flycatcher, this time an Eastern Wood-Pewee which showed fairly well, certainly allowing us to see its long drooped-wing appearance. Another Magnolia Warbler forced minimum zoom as did a Canada Warbler that was so close at times I couldn't focus down on to it – very impressive as the 200-400 with no converter can focus to 6 feet!!!!
Seriously this was one of the stand out moments of the trip with a bird that I'd fretted about seeing well was virtually on the end of my nose. If I had wanted to I could have extended my arm and gone to touch it being so close. The bird was seemingly oblivious of all birders gushing over it and also the barrage of shutter clicks it was causing. Over the next 20 minutes it only moved within 30 feet or so but fed or preened most of the time to the delight of everyone that saw it. It was difficult to tear myself away from the Canada Warbler but a few other species came into view such as Black-and-white Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler and finally a decent view (if only average photo) of Tennessee Warbler.
It turned 5pm and it was getting colder now so my father headed back to the car and I gave myself until 6 to enjoy the birding bonanza. I duly did with more great views of American Redstart, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler and to finish point blank views of a Warbling Vireo virtually under my nose as I walked back to the car. The last few hours had been some of the best birding of the trip we'd had to date with crippling views of these fantastic birds. I'd certainly improved my pictures of quite a few species and picked up another new species. Good old Magee Marsh!
16th May. Monday dawned very similar to the previous day with cold grey wet skies blowing through on brisk winds. We popped in to Magee Marsh first thing but it was quickly evident that nothing new had arrived so we engaged plan B which was to head slightly further west and have a look at some different habitat. We headed to Maumee Bay State Park which had a boardwalk through woodland as well as a plenty of open parkland and even a golf course. First birds of note were a pair of Wood Duck which were relatively close to the road but as soon as soon as we edged the car to a standstill they took flight and flew strongly off. There were several nest boxes around and we scanned each one hopefully but with no further sign of any residents.
We took one of the side roads and drove slowly along looking for any sign of bird life. Not too far down the road we saw a ground feeding Northern Flicker but again it took flight as we approached – at least they were present and hopefully would show later. The usual Robins and Grackles were present but it wasn't until we reached the end of this particular road that we hit some real luck. A turning area surrounded by mid-size trees presented a wind break and in this area around 10 Northern Rough-winged Swallow were attempting to catch their first meals of the day.
With cold drizzle and the wind to contend with, flying insects were at a premium so many of the birds were perched but restless. We stayed in the car and pulled alongside an area where they were alighting and even with such close views, the resulting pictures were incredibly grainy with slow shutter speeds from the lack of light. Even so we really got lucky by finding them and this ten minute show was to be our only sighting of our trip. In this sheltered area a few other birds were present with a few Yellow Warblers, Common Yellowthroat and American Robins.
We moved on from the glade and carried on birding by car in the wet. Next stop was a male Indigo Bunting which fed fairly close to the road – cracking colour! We checked out the visitor centre which was closed but a hardy Baltimore Oriole was using the adjacent feeders. With the rain still falling we decided to check out the boardwalk a little later so it was back in the car to explore the rest of the park. We waved binoculars and cameras at the entrance to the camping area and drove in to see if there was anything worth checking out. We eventually found a bedraggled group of Purple Martins that were sat on the tarmac waiting for the weather to improve. Again using the car as cover we were able to drive right up to them and took pictures of both adult and juvenile birds looking thoroughly miserable!
We carried on “cruising” and found a few more Indigo Buntings to photograph, all males, and also we finally managed to stalk a Northern Flicker to produce a more acceptable image than the quick flight shot from a few days before. As expected, it was fairly quiet bird-wise so we focused on the common things and I took another few shots of American Robin and also Red-winged Blackbird, trying to get a decent shot of the cracking red epaulets of the latter. A flyover pair of Trumpeter Swan in the gloom actually came out better than expected after a bit of post processing but as the rain finally stopped it was time to stretch the legs and we headed to the boardwalk.
It was cold and it was still damp in the air so it wasn't the most pleasurable of walks but we made the most of it, photographing a Downy Woodpecker perched on reed stems and then hunting for other birds to observe. We marvelled at the quality of the boardwalk which was in superb condition for the entire duration of the walk. A Common Yellowthroat eluded the camera (as usual) but a small group of White-tailed Deer were much more cooperative. As usually happens, when we got to the furthest point from the car, the rain decided to start again so it was with some gusto that we followed the trail into a wet woodland which offered a little cover. After playing peek-a-boo with a Fox squirrel in an owl nest box we noticed that the woodland floor was alive with thrushes, mostly Veery, with several of them actually sheltering beneath the boardwalk. It was too dark to photograph but it was nice to enjoy the relative abundance of birds.
As we neared the visitor centre we came back to the small boardwalk loop and picked up a few more birds, most noticeably a nice Eastern Wood-Pewee which was trying hard to fly-catch for some brunch. We needed to warm up so it was back in the car for some more 4-wheeled birding. We headed back East and popped in at Metzeger Marsh where it was virtually deserted. One good spot was a small bird on the car park near where we'd seen the Yellow-headed Blackbird. We stopped the car and raised our optics to discover a Horned Lark searching for food. It was dashing from spot to spot and never made it really close but the resulting photographs were a vast improvement on the single shot I'd obtained beforehand.
We checked out the bushes again where we'd found a few windblown warblers before and found a few more with only a Nashville Warbler providing any camera exercise. A Lincoln's Sparrow and a Common Yellowthroat kept far enough away from providing clear views. The causeway was windswept and virtually birdless so we moved on, hoping to find something good. This time we found good birding when we dropped off Route 2 and drove down the county road. Two birders were at the end of the road and when we arrived it was clear to see why they were there.
The first birds we got onto were a flock of 100+ Dunlin although they were distant but better was to come with the arrival of some small waders one of which turned out to be a Semipalmated Sandpiper. It was in amongst a few Least Sandpipers and also several Dunlin which never really worked their way close on the flooded field corner but at least we could see them and also a Spotted Sandpiper worked its way towards us eventually giving some good views. The only downside was the grey conditions as the birds themselves were behaving very well. Eventually the Dunlin came a little closer and I obtained some reasonable shots although nothing like as nice as my UK pics – the upside was that most of them were in their summer plumage with nice black bellies. Another car pulled down to where we were and the occupants inside decided to get out and have a look around. Needless to say the birds soon put a distance between themselves and the road so we decided to grab some lunch and try again later.
We zoomed off and grabbed yet another Wild Wings lunch but not before finally pairing up the Wild Wings blue dumpsters and their famed occupants. As we arrived I noticed a Heron sat on top of the rubbish skip and sure enough there was a Black-crowned Night-Heron in full view. A quick reposition of the car later we were enjoying great views of it as it picked out whatever delightful morsels it fancied for its lunch. It flew away after a few minutes so we headed inside for lunch and ordered. I could see the skip from the table and after a few minutes the Black-crowned Night-Heron returned so I nipped out again, parked up near the dumpster and got some crippling shots including head shots showing the incredibly coloured red eye. After a few minutes I'd taken enough “good ones” and also a point blank Herring Gull shot so returned for my lunch!
After Skyping home and paying up we headed back west and dropped in to the BSBO visitor centre where I wanted to confirm the wader id from earlier. I asked at the kiosk and they weren't sure but knew someone who would know out the back. Out steps Kenn Kaufman who had a look at the picture and he confirmed it as a Semipalmated Sandpiper – I guess he should know!!! After a brief chat I thanked him and headed back out to the car where we quickly dropped in to Ottawa NWR where the only visible bird was a very close Great Blue Heron. Superb views of it including a head on view of the bird as it fished, allowing us to see the way both its beady eyes look forward for hunting.
Ottawa was quiet so we headed straight back to the Ottawa-Lucas Road to see if there were any more waders for us. This time we had it to ourselves and luckily the birds were closer than before. We had to wait a short while but after 15 or 20 minutes we were enjoying absolutely crippling views of Least Sandpiper with a handful of birds no more than 25 feet from the car at some stages. There were also two Semipalmated Sandpipers present but they kept more distant but even with the low light we were able to distinguish them quite easily after some practice. Eventually they moved away and after some waiting there were no new arrivals other than birders and their cars so we decided to head back to Magee Marsh for one final fling.
The weather still wasn't great but at least it was now dry if still windy so it was obvious where any birds would be. We headed to warbler alley and sure enough the handful of birders that had stuck it out were enjoying great views of the hardy migrants as they fed low down in the trees. It wasn't quite as cold as it had been the previous day so that made it easier to enjoy the spectacle that is watching neo-tropical warblers at arm's length!!! We were both determined to get our final fix of Magee Marsh and as such it was an excellent send off.
Cape May Warblers were seemingly more abundant and one male gave us lovely views, finally a nice clear view on our final warbler session! With the cool conditions Bay-breasted Warblers were very showy at lower levels and they provided some superb views over the couple of hours we were there. They were often found in ones or twos often as pairs, seemingly feeding together. Often they appeared on the trunks of trees, but distinctly different with their feeding patterns to Black-and-White Warblers.
A flame throated Blackburnian Warbler put in a quick appearance, always a welcome sight with its dazzling flash of colour. A Yellow Warbler joined the show but not wanting to be outdone by all the colourful visitors, a House Wren emerged from the undergrowth to sing in front of the assembled birders and paparazzi. Further Cape May Warbler and Bay-breasted Warblers performed well and they were soon joined by a Northern Parula that gave some good views as it hunted for insects. A brief warbler respite came in the form of a quick view of a Red-breasted Nuthatch that kept distant but was a welcome change from the White-breasted Nuthatches that we'd seen well before.
Checking alongside the canal for any new arrivals resulted in a lovely view of a hunting Green Heron that was showing marvellously. It was feeding amongst the shallows that were covered in pond weed but the resulting views and shots were very pleasing indeed. The warblers were also present along the canal part of the boardwalk with great views of Magnolia Warbler and Chestnut-sided Warbler, of which one of the latter decided to perch on the boardwalk itself. Also present was a Black-and-white Warbler which also decided to use the handrail as a perch before looking in more conventional places for food.
Time for yet another memorable moment as a pair of Bay-breasted Warblers fed on the ground at the base of a tree right next to the boardwalk. I dropped to my knees and proceeded to watch them at a range of less than 3 feet, far too close to use the camera, but just revelled in the sheer amazement of seeing such beautiful birds at such close range. They were totally unflustered by my presence and both my father and I enjoyed their display for a good few minutes before they eventually moved on.
We moved back to warbler alley and were finally rewarded with a decent view of a Tennessee Warbler that eventually gave a clear view. I had been concerned about them as I knew I'd not got a decent picture to date and at the last minute I'd finally picked one up. The light was fading fast and as 6pm came and went unfortunately it was time for us to say our goodbyes to Magee Marsh and the spectacle it had provided over the past 9 days. Even as we headed back up the boardwalk towards the car for the final time, treats were in store with point blank views of Black-and-white Warbler, Yellow Warbler and the final photographs came in the form of an almost touchable Warbling Vireo. Pure quality from a location that can't be recommended highly enough. If you enjoy birding and want to see spectacular birds well, don't delay – plan your visit to Magee Marsh for the Biggest Week in American Birding!
17th May. Our final morning again dawned grey, cool and windy so we knew we wouldn't miss out too much by not visiting Magee Marsh. We packed up the car, checked out after yet another average breakfast and pointed the car west. Our flight out of Detroit didn't leave until late evening so we had most of the day to do some birding so driving the hour or so to Oak Openings seemed like a good plan. We were on 136 species photographed for the trip and I was very keen to try and get 140 if at all possible. I'd learned that there were a few sparrow species that we'd missed at Oak Openings so on arrival it was to open land near the airport that we headed first.
It was still grey and damp when we arrived and on getting out of the car and surveying the scene we couldn't see or hear anything out of the ordinary. We gave it 10 minutes before driving off slowly on roads we'd not driven down before but even they turned up a blank other than a brief sighting of American Crow. We headed to the visitor centre where I chatted with one of the staff there about species and potential locations. We learned that Pileated Woodpecker could be seen in the area so we set off with hopes high of seeing one of these big black woodpeckers.
We walked a different trail to the one we'd walked before and soon found ourselves at a pool up from the centre. There was a pair of Wood Duck which quickly swam out of sight but a woodpecker that landed on a fallen log in the pond turned out to be a Hairy Woodpecker. With the forest cover and low light it was always going to be a photo lottery but even at 1/25th of a second I managed one acceptable hand held shot that proved it to be a Hairy rather than Downy. I eventually managed to find a line of sight where I could get a photo of the Wood Ducks and even though they were wary and on a gloomy pool it was still an improvement, especially as I finally had a male in the viewfinder.
Other than the birds mentioned at the pool we heard or saw precious little else, so we decided to change scene and try for some new species. We got in the car again and drove towards where we'd been tipped off for Sparrows. En route we found a Field Sparrow which was singing away close to the road. After some nifty car manoeuvres we were close to the bird which was still singing at seemingly inquisitive to the Chevy that had turned up on his patch. We were then treated to some excellent views which allowed us to see all the distinguishing features very well including the pink bill. Another one ticked for good pictures!
We then moved back towards the airport but this time when we scanned we heard bird songs and calls. My father immediately recognised one as the song of an Eastern Meadowlark and eventually we saw the bird a few hundred yards away. It then took flight and flew towards the airfield so we repositioned ourselves and parked up again. This time I got out of the car and immediately saw a Savannah Sparrow perched on a thistle stem. One of our targets was there in front of us but as quickly as I'd seen it, so it vanished but not to be too disheartened as I soon laid eyes on the Eastern Meadowlark which was intent on marking its territory with song from both ground perches and song flights. This allowed me to approach to within a reasonable range from where I obtained some decent images of this thumping great Lark.
The bill is massive and the yellow and black colouration gives the bird a real impact, especially in flight with the white outer tail feathers prominent. We observed the bird as it flew to several different locations but all within a few hundred yards of the car, one of which was the perimeter fence of the airport and thankfully while I was watching it, no security guards appeared to ask their questions! Once the bird had flown back to the quieter side of the road away from the airport and traffic my ears picked out a new sound, this time it was a noise I'd swotted up on and sure enough it was the faint sound of a Sparrow singing. Even though the song was faint it was clear that it was a Grasshopper Sparrowand as I moved closer I eventually caught sight of it and could make out its distinctive shape with an almost squashed look to its head. It was flighty and soon moved on as I approached.
I then realised that there were several birds nearby and all were wary so I edged closer as quietly as I could to get a few shots. They were never going to be ground breaking but I was pleased to have caught up with them and in the process I also encountered more Savannah Sparrows which were more forthcoming. I picked up a few better efforts than my first of this smart species which bumped our American Sparrow total up to 10 for the trip. With this flurry of new species that meant we were now up to 139 and wondered if we could make our revised target. As I looked for more Sparrows the weather finally caught up with us and a fine drizzle started so with few birds to be seen I headed back to the car where some more birders had joined my father.
We chatted and they mentioned that they had a Blue-winged Warbler less than a quarter of a mile away. Oooo! This was one I wanted to see well so we followed their directions and within a minute I'd located the Beee-Buzz song. It was singing from the middle of a clump of trees and wasn't coming out so I decided to get in amongst the vegetation and try and find it. Ten minutes passed with finally one quick distant glimpse of this yellow stunner as it then flew back across the road where we'd parked. Of course, I followed and after a few minutes I'd relocated it as it sang and fed but this time in more open vegetation. I had a chance and positioned myself carefully in a good spot. My plan worked as the Blue-winged Warbler worked its way a little closer and even with low shutter speeds I managed one shot that I was pleased with that shows it in all its glory.
It was drizzling more steadily now and my father had sensibly remained in the car but when I emerged from the trees and walked towards the car, he knew from my body language that I'd got the pictures I wanted! The funny thing was I was trying to hide my obvious delight and having finally seen one of my target birds well!!! We decided to bird from the car for a bit and after driving down Girdham Road again and seeing one distant Lark Sparrow we were rewarded with a fairly close view of a Red-headed Woodpecker. The light was very contrasty and even post processing couldn't get the levels spot on but it was still a treat to see one as well as we did. We found an Eastern Bluebird at the end of Girdham Road which just stayed that little bit too far away but again always enjoyable to see the splash of colour it brings.
Other than a Veery that favoured a thickly vegetated tree, that was to be our lot for Oak Openings and as we were about to leave the park area we got held up behind a garbage truck. This turned out to be great as my father caught sight of our second Northern Mockingbird in a local property's garden. This turned out to be a blessing and a curse. A blessing as this was species number 140 but I'd cursed myself by knocking the VR setting off on the lens and as I took what I thought would be decent shots, despite the poor light, in fact they were turning out to be wobbly blurry efforts and of the fifty or so I took, only a single picture turned out to be barely usable! It was only after I'd got back in the car, with the garbage truck having flushed all the birds in the garden that I realised my mistake.
We drove north and stopped in at Irwin Prairie NR which I'd learned can hold Sedge Wrens. We parked up and walked yet another immaculate boardwalk over the grassy boggy land. Other than flushing a Broad-winged Hawk before I knew it was there (which then moved quickly out of view – that would have been 141!) it was comparatively birdless. Certainly no new wrens other than one House Wren and the only usable photo turned out to be of a partially obscured Song Sparrow which had made a huge woodpile its home. A solitary Ovenbird in deep cover at the far end of the boardwalk and a flyover Turkey Vulture proved unsuccessful photo opportunities and after a quiet but pleasant enough walk we found our way back to the car.
Our final scheduled stop was to be the nearby Secor Metropark. This was just intended to be a look-see place and as we drove in, it was turning out to be just that with a pleasant wooded landscape interspersed with parkland holding the usual common birds. We drove slowly through stopping occasionally for a quick walk around but finding nothing exceptional decided to check out the visitor centre. Of course this was state of the art with the building springing into life as we walked in, automatic everything including lights and AC which astounded me when compared to the UK's average facilities.
We learned that there was a nature photography centre there and we made our way in to a room with tinted glass overlooking a good selection of feeders. Perfect! We spend the best part of an hour enjoying the show which included Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Common Grackles, Mourning Doves, Brown-headed Cowbird, Tufted Titmouse and good views of both male and female House Finch earning their place on the memory card. There were also Chipmunk and Fox Squirrels present and other species of birds besides which included Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, American Goldfinch and House Sparrows.
It was now 4:30pm and time to head off into Michigan but one final treat was in store as just before we picked up the road North to Detroit, we saw a few Turkey Vultures on the ground. I hit the brakes and pulled up nearby and picked up some good shots of these scavengers before a big rig passed us and caused the birds to take flight.
The road north was fast but barren birdwise and as we hit the outskirts of Detroit, the heavens well and truly opened up and carried on pouring until we broke through the clouds on our flight home. I slept most of the flight back, exhausted but exhilarated after a utterly fantastic trip which has whetted the appetite for the American avifauna. I'll be back to America birding again as soon as I can, maybe even to North-western Ohio but the 10 days my father and I spent sharing and enjoying the Biggest Week in American Birding 2011 will live with us for ever and I hope these words will encourage others to join future years events as you won't be disappointed!