Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Biggest Week in American Birding - Day 1 - May 9, 2014

     Since I currently have a job that does not allow for much paid time off, I have had to limit myself to 2 weeks of vacation a year. Being a birder, I try to schedule two 1 week vacations each year that coincide with spring and fall migration. This spring my two birder friends and I decided to attend The Biggest Week in American Birding festival which is located on the shores of Lake Erie between Port Clinton and Toledo, OH. This event is hosted by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory and runs for 10 days each May during peak warbler migration. I have heard a lot about this place, but really had no idea how magical the experience would be.
     The area is nicknamed "The Warbler Capital of the World", and for very good reason! When songbirds are migrating, large bodies of water give them pause, and they need to have a place to land in order to refuel and rest before attempting the long flight across the water. The shores of Lake Erie is one place where songbirds choose to rest before crossing the water on their journey to summer breeding grounds. This leads to a large concentration of songbirds in the marshes and woods that border the lake. Typically, birders see warblers very far up in tall trees and are happy with brief glimpses of the birds as they flit around in the treetops. However, at places like the world famous Magee Marsh boardwalk, which is the focal point of the festival, the birds are busy refueling, and could care less that hundreds of eyes are watching them. Even on a "slow" day the birds just drip from the trees and shrubs at eye-level like ornaments on a Christmas tree and photographers often find that their 500mm lenses are useless because the birds are so close!
     Rather than going to the Biggest Week for the whole ten days, I decided to only attend for 4 days because I also wanted to head down to Florida to visit a friend for the second part of the week (more on that later). Although there is no need to actually register for the festival if you just want to walk around and bird on your own, I highly recommend spending the $35 for general registration. Registering not only supports the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, but it also gives you many benefits such as a bag of goodies, access to the birding marketplaces, some guided walks, and evening socials. The festival also offers many workshops, field trips, presentations, and other special events for an additional cost. However, registering early is a must because sometimes these "extras" sell out the day that registration opens! 
     When we first got to the festival headquarters it was slightly past the time when they close the registration table every night, but a very nice lady kept it open just a little longer so we could grab our registration packets. I had also signed up with Twitter in order to receive updates via text on my phone of bird sightings. Shortly after we had gotten our registration all settled, I received a text about 3 White-faced Ibis at Metzger Marsh, so we headed out that way in an attempt to find these birds. We had no luck with the Ibis, but we did see a Sora that was wandering around just down the bank from us, out in the open! I have never seen a Sora so out in the open before, so that was a great start to our Biggest Week experience!

Sora in the fading light.

     When we were planning this trip and choosing our lodging, there was an obvious lack of hotels close to the birding hotspots. But this is a good thing because it means that there are more places for birding uninterrupted by urban development. By the time we decided to look for lodging our only options were to stay in Port Clinton which was a 30min drive from Magee Marsh, or near Toledo which was even further. We did look into staying at the Maumee Bay Lodge and Conference Center which is where the headquarters of the festival are located, but the only rooms left were a bit pricey. A friend of mine who had attended the festival the year before suggested that we look into a small lodge that was about 10 minutes from Magee Marsh. This lodge is frequented by fishermen, and the few reviews we could find on it were mixed, but there wasn't much of a choice, so we made the reservation. 
     Upon arrival we noticed that much of the wood facade was rotting away, and hadn't it been for the solid concrete construction the whole thing probably would have fallen down years ago. The lobby was difficult to find since it was in the rear of the lodge, and there was a very "spunky" elderly lady working the counter. As we were checking in, the lady was kind enough to give us an additional discount on the rooms since we were birders. It was at this time that we noticed a sign hanging on the wall behind the check-in desk. This was a sign that I will probably never see in my life ever again, and set the tone for our stay at this fishing lodge. 

The sign behind the check-in desk

     I then noticed that there was a bird feeder sitting on the counter, but rather than being filled with bird seed, it contained M&Ms and had a sign saying "People Feeder". I immediately exclaimed "Awwww that's so cute!", to which the lady replied "NO IT'S NOT". This was our first clue that this elderly lady was quite the character! 
     As we were wrapping up the check-in procedures, my friend asked the lady what the hours were for the restaurant that was somewhat loosely attached to the lodge. Her response came as a shock to both of us..."DON'T KNOW, DON'T CARE!!!" I recovered from the initial shock quicker than my friend, whose jaw had dropped to the floor, and immediately asked the lady what she suggested. Her tone made an instantaneous 180 degree turn as she whipped out a map and sweetly told us all about the area dining options and how to get to each place. She even drew stoplights on the map to make sure we had the correct intersections.When my friend jokingly asked her to color the stoplights in with red, green, and yellow markers, she produced from behind the counter what looked like the handle from an old plunger and threatened him with a beating if he kept it up (she wasn't being serious though). Still laughing, we exited the lodge's lobby and jumped in the car to drive around to where our rooms were supposed to be. 
     At first I couldn't locate my room, but finally realized that it was the only door without a number on it. Great start. My initial assessment of the room was that it was relatively clean, and functional enough for the few hours a night that would be spent there. There were no bugs, but the stale, unpleasant smell in the room was what I would expect from a fisherman's lodge. There was a refrigerator and microwave in the room which was very useful, but there was no way to adjust the temperature on the refrigerator which ended up creating slushies out of all my drinks. The TV worked, and basic channels came through just fine, although I ended up wrapping the remote in a towel in order to use it because it felt sticky and greasy like it hadn't been cleaned in a very long time. However, turning off the TV did not mean it would stay off because it liked to turn back on when I would walk past it. A little creepy, but I was too tired to care. 
     The shower was one of the worst things about this room. When I first turned it on, I was hit with the smell of dead fish. I thought "Oh no! I got the tub that had fish in it!". But no, this was was the water coming out of the spigot that smelled like it was pumped directly in from Lake Erie. I needed a shower though, so I tried not to breath or think about this smelly water running all over me, and stepped into the tub. It was then that I thanked my lucky stars that I am "height challenged". If I were much taller I would have had to shower either scrunched down, or with my neck cricked due to the excessively low dropped ceiling in this bathroom. Once out of the shower I went to take a seat on the closed lid of the toilet in order to dry off. This was a mistake. As soon as I put any weight on the lid of the toilet, it completely inverted itself as if it were made of plastic meant for soda bottles. 
     Falling asleep proved difficult as it usually does in a new place, and I ended up leaving the TV on all night at a low volume to drown out all the strange noises coming from the neighboring rooms. If we go again we will definitely be booking Maumee Bay Lodge very early in the year to secure an affordable, but higher quality room that hopefully has water with no extra "scents". Although, I will miss our spunky old lady :-)

Stay tuned for more on our Biggest Week experience!

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