Monday, June 2, 2014

The Biggest Week in American Birding - Day 2 - May 10, 2014

     On the morning of our first full day in Ohio we were eager to get out on the boardwalk at Magee Marsh and see some birds! I managed to get dropped off at Magee around 7am (my two friends decided to eat breakfast first), and was immediately distracted by the din of birdsong all around me. I begin to walk around the edges of the parking lot and was absolutely floored by the abundance of Warbling Vireos! Usually I am lucky to see and/or hear one or two in a single place, but here there were 6 or 7 in one tree! As I wandered my way around the parking lot, only stopping to chit-chat with other birders or to check my phone for text updates on rarities, I was adding many species to my morning's list in quick succession.

Magnolia Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Northern Parula

Cape May Warbler

Palm Warbler

     I finally made my way to the west end of the lot, where a large section of the parking area was roped off due to a nesting Bald Eagle in one of the tall trees. The eagle was sitting in the nest watching people watch birds, and was probably one of the most photographed Bald Eagle nests in the country that week.

Bald Eagle on nest at Magee Marsh

There was also another roped off area on the edge of the parking lot where an American Woodcock had decided to make a nest and was being very patient with the hundreds of eyes and cameras being pointed at her all week.
     As I reached the west entrance of the famed boardwalk, I received news that my friends were done with breakfast and ready to join me, so I stalled there until they arrived. While waiting, I was able to add a few more warbler species to my list since they were showing off right in front of my face. I was also able to finally track down a birder whom I have know about for 4 years, but never met in person! Does that make this birder a "lifer" person?
     I initially was dreading "the boardwalk" because I had seen photos of hundreds of people crammed on it, and I have had bad experiences with many people trying to see one bird. This is why I was pleasantly surprised that 99.5% of the people I encountered on the boardwalk were polite, courteous, and followed the guidelines that the festival had published regarding behavior on the boardwalk. Of course, there was the occasional person with a tripod who insisted on walking through the crowds without bothering to close the legs, and a few issues with gigantic strollers taking up a lot of space, but overall I was able to enjoy myself. I think one of things that helped the crowding situation was that there were plenty of birds to go around! No matter where you looked, there were warblers gleaning insects off the trees and shrubs, or seemingly posing for the firing line of cameras. The only time things got jam packed was when highly sought-after species were spotted such as Golden-winged Warblers or the Henslow's Sparrow that showed up way out of its normal habitat.

This is what happens when a Golden-winged Warbler is spotted on the Magee Marsh boardwalk
(photo courtesy of T. Justesen)

     It isn't just the birds that are fantastic here, the other wildlife is abundant as well! We spotted a few amphibians along the trail, a fox squirrel hanging over the boardwalk, and two male snakes trying to mate with a single female right out in the open.

Snakes mating at Magee Marsh

The wading birds certainly weren't having any trouble fishing, and gave their audience quite the show when they caught a meal that was seemingly too large to swallow, but down the hatch it went anyway. By the time we had reached the opposite end of the boardwalk we had seen more birds then we ever thought possible in one place, with the highlight being my first ever Prothonotary Warblers!!!! In fact, at one point we were having such a great time (i.e. laughing so hard we were crying) that one of the festival participants told us jokingly that if we didn't stop having so much fun he "would have to get the Warbler police".

Prothonotary Warbler

     It was now lunchtime so we left Magee Marsh in search of some food. We quickly realized that due to the lack of eating establishments in the area, finding a restaurant for lunch would take up too much valuable birding time, so we settled for the food trucks that were set up specifically for the festival week at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. The food there turned out to be relatively inexpensive and of decent quality. With our now quieted bellies, we decided to drive around the Ottawa NWR Auto Tour and pick up a few more species for the trip list. The tour turned out to be quite productive with some highlights being Trumpeter Swan, Eared Grebe, and about 300 Dunlin mixed in with other shorebirds.

Lesser Yellowlegs in Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge

American Goldfinch in Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge

     For a few days before reaching the festival we had seen multiple reports on Twitter that there was a flock of American Golden-Plovers in a field near a bait shop called "The Happy Hooker", and this day was no exception. After finishing the auto tour, we decided to go track down these plovers, and arrived at the bait shop around 5pm. The heat shimmer over the surrounding fields was terrible, and trying to look through it for medium-sized shorebirds was nauseating. No luck. However, we had seen some suspicious "lumps" on the far side of one of the fields. As we left the bait shop, and started down the road to the next destination, we re-spotted the "lumps" and decided to check them out, so we pulled down the driveway of an industrial company (which was closed since it was Saturday). Bingo! The American Golden-Plovers had been found! All 52 of them! Other birders passing by had seen us standing there trying to digiscope the birds, and soon we had a crowd gathering. Once everyone had seen the birds through our scope, we got out of there and headed off to attend the festival's evening social.

American Golden-Plovers

     By the time we arrived at the social there was very little to no food left, so after chit chatting with some folks for a bit, we were more than ready to find some dinner. With few restaurant options in the area, we decided to be a little adventurous and try one of the restaurants that was recommended by our strongly opinionated hotel clerk (see previous post for more about her). It was a little tricky to find the place since we ended up driving there in a line of severe thunderstorms that were rolling through the area, but it was well worth the effort. The restaurant is called The Oregon Inn, and is one of the advertised supporters of the Biggest Week. The prices were reasonable, and the amount of food that was served was more than adequate. I had eaten very little all day, so I went for the small portion of their slow-cooked prime rib entree which cost around $13. Apparently their concept of "small" means that it only covers 1/2 of the plate rather than the whole plate. This steak was not only HUGE, but it was perfectly cooked and seasoned, and came with a choice of garnishes, one of which being my favorite- horseradish.
      When we paid our bills I made sure to slip one of the Biggest Week in American Birding calling cards in with my signed credit card slip. These cards are provided by the festival so that participants can leave them at any establishment where they spend money. This lets the local businesses know that birders DO have an impact on the economy, and hopefully gets them on-board with conservation efforts. Less birds means less birders, which means less tourism and less income for surrounding businesses.

Coming up! Our 2nd full day at The Biggest Week in American Birding!

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