Friday, June 20, 2014

The Biggest Week in American Birding - Day 4 - May 12, 2014

     On our last full day in NW Ohio we didn't want to waste a single minute of daylight, so we were "awake" and packing our gear into the car at 5:30am. The sky was just beginning to lighten, and as usual, I had half my attention devoted to watching for birds that might be flying at this hour. This time I was rewarded with a fly-by Common Nighthawk!
     We headed straight for the Magee Marsh boardwalk with one thing on our minds; to see a Mourning Warbler. This bird is one of the "skulkers", and prefers to stay low to the ground and hidden. A few had been seen during the festival, but we hadn't had any luck with finding one. Arriving at around 6:30am, we were able to get a parking space at the west end of the Magee Marsh parking lot, which was very convenient. Rather than jumping on the boardwalk right away, we elected to check out some of the vegetation around the parking lot and at the beginning of the estuary trail. After a little while some of us began to lose focus - too little sleep and too much to look at will do that - but then we heard our one birding companion say, in a small voice... "ummmmm...what is that?" We wandered over and slowly but surely got our binoculars pointed at the bird she was trying to identify. BINGO!!!! Mourning Warbler! It was very difficult to get a descent photo of this bird due to the fact that it enjoys skulking around in the extreme shade of dense vegetation, and is quite shy. There was a lady nearby who had never seen one before, and a few other interested birders hanging around, so we shared our discovery with them before moving on. Everyone was very grateful that we had found and pointed out the bird to them and thanked us profusely.

Mourning Warbler

Mourning Warbler 

    Happy and re-energized from seeing our target bird, we finally made our way onto the boardwalk to join the hoards of birds and birders. As usual, we had a blast and saw many birds, but we quickly left the boardwalk when a possible Kirtland's Warbler was reported on twitter. This bird is the holy grail of warblers, the rarest of them all. The warbler was spotted at the beginning of the estuary trail, very close to where we had seen the Mourning Warbler earlier in the morning. The sighting was never confirmed, and although about 100 birders stared into the shrubs and trees in that spot for at least 30 minutes, everyone left disappointed.
     Since we hadn't walked the estuary trail yet, we took this opportunity to continue on and see what we could find. The trail had enough birds to keep us entertained, and I did manage to find a Black-billed Cuckoo that conveniently flew into the tree that I just happened to be scrutinizing. At this point we noticed that the sky was darkening, and the threat of getting drenched was imminent.  However, I had a strong feeling that we should go a few more yards down the trail before turning back. I am very glad I followed my instincts this time! Perched and napping on a bare horizontal branch, out in the open, was a Common Nighthawk! We took many photos of this bird, discussed it, and stared at it...but perhaps for too long.

Common Nighthawk 

Common Yellowthroat giving us some attitude. 

 What we should have done was take a few photos and head back to the car. When we finally did start heading back to the parking lot, the sky had darkened considerably, and we could see the downpour heading straight for us. Our binoculars were safe, because they were all waterproof, but between the four of us, we were carrying thousands of dollars of camera equipment. When the big drops began to fall we quickened our pace, but as the rain started coming down harder, we were forced to stop and protect our cameras and lenses with whatever we had. One camera and lens went into someone's backpack, and I ended up taking off my waterproof jacket and wrapping it around my camera and lens. We then made a run for it. It was at this moment that I realized just how heavy my camera and lens could feel. By the time we got to the cars, we were drenched, tired, and cramping, but the camera equipment was dry. Success! No birding trip is complete without a little adventure along the way.
     Thoroughly soaked, we were forced to return to the motel, change into some dry clothes and shoes, and grab some food. By the time all these tasks were completed, the rain had passed, and my friends need to get to a workshop they wanted to attended. I had them drop me off at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory so I could explore the "optics alley", check out the shop, and do some birding around the area. My discoveries during this hour of lone birding included a puddle full of bathing White-crowned Sparrows, a Wilson's Warbler, and very cooperative Yellow Warblers.

White-crowned Sparrows having a great time in a puddle

Yellow Warbler checking me out

Yellow Warbler - if you look very closely you can see that he is color-banded for a scientific study!

     When my friends were done with their workshop, they came to get me. We were milling around the parking lot with some other birders when we got a text saying that the Upland Sandpipers were being seen again. We make an instant decision to try for these birds one more time and bolt for the car. As we were jumping in the car, one of the birders we had met at the festival asked if he could join us, so we shoved our piles of stuff aside and made room for him in the backseat. We called him our orphan birder, and we ended up "adopting" him for a few hours. It took a little while to find the Upland Sandpipers, but with a little knowledge of what kind of habitat they prefer and some help from our orphan birder we finally located them. Such a strange bird, but so worth the search!
     Since we were already out and about, and had adrenaline pumping, we decided to also look for the Black-bellied Whistling Ducks that had been spotted earlier in the day about 15 minutes away. These ducks had appeared at another location along Lake Erie a few days before, but we didn't feel like driving an hour to see them. Luckily, they decided to fly to us instead!

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks

     We spent the next hour or so driving our orphan birder around and showing him quite a few "life birds", which made both him and us very happy. He is not from the United States, so he had not seen many birds that the rest of us take for granted. It would have been fantastic to continue showing him around, but the evening socials at this festival start pretty early, and we had signed up for a special event that evening. The festival was showing a special screening of "A Birder's Guide to Everything", complete with introduction by Kenn Kaufman himself! Kenn not only worked as a consultant for the movie, but he also made an appearance near the end of the film. The cost to see the movie was $10, which was no more than you would expect to spend at a movie theater these days, and 100% of the proceeds goes directly to bird habitat conservation. What a great way to relax after a long day of birding!

Next up...making the most of our last morning at The Biggest Week in American Birding.

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