Ohio & Michigan Birding Trip 5/19-23/13

All photos are Marshall Faintich

My highest priority birding objective was to photograph all 36 warbler species that are seen annually here in central Virginia. Since last September, the last of the 36 species for me to photograph, a Bay-breasted Warbler, has eluded my camera as well as my even seeing one. In addition, migrating warblers in their spring breeding plumage are in a hurry to get to their northern summer breeding grounds, and move through central Virginia very quickly, whereas in the autumn, when some of the species have lost their colorful breeding plumage, they move through the area on a more leisurely pace. I wanted to get photos, either for the first time or better photos, of five other warbler species in breeding plumage: Mourning, Connecticut, Magnolia, Blackpoll, and Blackburnian.

Walt Childs suggested several months ago that we travel to Magee Marsh, Ohio to perhaps see these warblers, and then make a side trip up to Grayling, Michigan to look for the rarest North American warbler, the Kirtland's Warbler that, with a couple of isolated exceptions, nests only in the lower Michigan peninsula and winters in the Bahamas. So we planned and executed a five day trip, leaving Nellysford, Virginia early on May 19 and returning late on May 23. In addition to these two locations, we stopped at two other Michigan sites, Tawas Point State Park and the Nayanquing Point Wildlife Management Area, and saw some birds along the way between these stops.

Ohio and Michigan Birding Sites

When we left Nellysford early on Sunday morning, there was light drizzle and heavy fog that persisted for about half of the 540 mile drive to Magee Marsh. I was a bit concerned because there was considerable rain forecasted for the entire week in Ohio and Michigan. The weather then cleared, but just as we left the highway on the last leg to Magee Marsh, it started to drizzle again. But the weather cleared, and we were able to bird at Magee Marsh for two to three hours. We spent the entire day on Monday from about 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Magee Marsh, and early Tuesday morning there, before leaving for Grayling. Along the way we stopped at the Nayanquing Point WMA. It rained in Grayling on Tuesday night, and we awoke on Wednesday to dark skies and light drizzle for our guided tour of the Kirtland's Warbler nesting area. There was light drizzle all that morning. When we got to Tawas Point SP around noon, the skies were only heavily overcast. We hiked a mile out to the end of the point, and just as we reached the end, heavy rain started, and we got drenched on our mile-long hike back to the car. On the way back to Magee Marsh, we encountered heavy storms and strong winds, but the skies were clear when we arrived at Magee Marsh for a couple of more hours of birding late that day and early Thursday morning before heading home. On the return trip, we drove through about six hours of heavy storms and lightning. Except for that mile-long drenching, it only rained when we were in transit, and not when we were birding, so we very lucky. In the end, we logged at least 114 avian species (all but one were seen; only one species was only heard), and I accomplished almost all of my objectives, adding 8 new life birds to my list.

Magee Marsh

Magee Marsh is a 2,202-acre site located at the south side of Lake Erie. Migrating birds stop here to "fuel up" before crossing the lake to their Canadian nesting grounds. A mile-long board walk, along with wooded and beach hiking trails, offer excellent viewing of a large number of avian species.

Walt and I saw at least 95 avian species there. I saw my primary target bird, the Bay-breasted Warbler, on the second day there. My first sighting was of a female Bay-breasted high up in a tree, and a short time later, I got some very good looks at a boldly plumaged male. We saw 24 warbler species there, including a Kirtland's that Walt and a few other birders saw there (I had to wait until going to Grayling). We saw some of these warbler species at other sites on the trip as well.

Yellow Warbler

Here's a list of the warbler species we saw:

Tennessee Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler
Palm Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler (new life bird)
Blackpoll Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Prothonotary Warbler
Kirtland's Warbler (new life bird)
Northern Waterthrush
Mourning Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson's Warbler
Canada Warbler

Click here twice to see warbler photos and then use your back button to return to this page.

There were lots of thrushes scurrying about in the dark underbrush. Some of them were clearly Swainson's, Gray-cheeked (new life bird), or Veery (new life bird), but in the poor lighting, a few of them were difficult to distinguish between being a Swainson's or a Gray-cheeked Thrush.

Click here twice to see thrush photos and then use your back button to return to this page.

We saw quite a few vireos at Magee Marsh, and a few at other trip locations. Most of them were Warbling Vireos, but we also saw Red-eyed and Blue-headed Vireos. There were some reports of Philadelphia Vireos at Magee Marsh, but I didn't see any that I could confirm as this species.

Click here twice to see vireo photos and then use your back button to return to this page.

It seemed like there was a flycatcher that we could see or hear almost everywhere we were at Magee Marsh. Eastern Phoebes and Eastern Wood-Pewees were more often heard than seen. We saw at least three different Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, a few Great Crested Flycatchers, several Eastern Kingbirds, and a couple of Least Flycatchers. Three of the flycatchers - Alder, Willow, and Acadian - are almost identical in appearance, and are best differentiated by their songs. All three were reported and heard by many of the birders at Magee Marsh, but I didn't hear any of them while seeing or photographing them. However, I think that I saw both Willow and Acadian, but didn't want to make the call on an Alder without confirmation, as this last species would have been a new life bird for me.

Click here twice to see flycatcher photos and then use your back button to return to this page.

Grayling and the Kirtland's Warbler

The Kirtland's Warbler nests in jack pine trees that are between 10 and 20 feet tall. This habitat is the result of forest fires and re-growth of the pine trees. Forest fire supression in the 20th century meant a severe loss of habitat, and in the early 1970s, only about 400 birds of this species remained. In addition, Cowbirds were removing Kirtland's Warbler eggs from their nests and replacing them with their own eggs, furthering the rapid decline of the warblers. However, research on the decline and near extinction, prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with local birding groups, to work with the local timber industry to maintain 30,000 acres of potential Kirtland's habitat on a 50-year cycle, and along with an active Cowbird capture program, the number of this species has rebounded to about 1,500 birds.

We were met at our hotel by a government staffer who led us and a few other birders to one of the nesting sites. There was on and off drizzle, and we weren't sure if we were going to see a Kirtland's. Some of the group saw one at a great distance through their spotting scopes. I couldn't see it, so I walked ahead on the trail about 100 yards or so, when I heard a Kirtland's Warbler singing about 20 feet from the trail. After a few minutes it flew to the other side of the trail about 30 feet away from me.

Click here twice to see more Kirtland's Warbler photos

and then use your back button to return to this page.

Kirtland's Warbler

[Update: One of the "mystery" birds that I photographed at Tawas Point State Park in Michigan has been identified as a female Kirtland's Warbler. See the link to other birds at the end of this blog.]

Nayanquing Point WMA

Walt had been to the Nayanquing Point WMA on a previous trip, and felt confident that I could get another new life bird there - a Yellow-headed Blackbird. We added eight new birds there to our trip list, including three new life birds for me!

Yellow-headed Blackbird (new life bird)
Marsh Wren (new life bird)
Sedge Wren (new life bird)
Swamp Sparrow
American Bittern
Least Bittern
Brown Thrasher
Belted Kingfisher

The Yellow-headed Blackbirds were far away in the middle of the marsh, and I did my best to get some photos. Then, almost out of nowhere, one of them flew up right in front of me and over my head, but I wasn't able to get a photo of it.

We met a local birder there who told us where to look for the Least Bittern and the Sedge Wren. The Least Bittern would have been a new life bird for me, but we only heard it calling back when I played a recording of its song. It was too deep in the marsh for us to see it. My personal requirements for a new life bird is to see it, and better yet, to photograph it. So the Least Bittern will have to wait to be on my life list.

When we went to the Sedge Wren location, I heard it singing, and when I played a recording of its song, it returned the song, and jumped up quickly to see who was there. I got a quick look at it, but no photo.

Click here twice to see some of the Nayanquing Point WMA birds, and then use your back button to return to this page.

Other birds

As I wrote above, we saw at least 95 avian species at Magee Marsh. Other highlights include a pair of Eastern Screech Owls perched in adjacent trees, one Black-billed Cuckoo, and three Yellow-billed Cuckoos. We saw lots of warblers at Tawas Point, and they are included in the warbler list and photos above. The following is a list of avian species we saw on this trip that have not already been mentioned, and the list is followed by a link to some of the many photos I took of these remaining species.

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Little Blue Heron
Trumpeter Swan
Mute Swan
Turkey Vulture
Cooper's Hawk
Broad-winged Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
Spotted Sandpiper
Ruddy Turnstone
American Woodcock
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Common Tern
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Black-billed Cuckoo
Eastern Screech-Owl
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Carolina Wren
House Wren
Winter Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Scarlet Tanager
Purple Martin
Chipping Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Click here twice to see some of the other birds, and then use your back button to return to this page.

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