Thursday, September 15, 2011

Weekend Outlook, Sept. 15-18

Thursday, September 15: It looks like we’ve gotten very lucky with the weather for the Midwest Birding Symposium (MBS). For the next four days there is very little chance of rain, and a big arrival of migrants has just moved in with the north winds, so there should be a lot of birds to watch under pleasant conditions between now and Monday.

We had strong winds out of the south through much of Tuesday, but winds shifted around toward the north that night, and in the time since, many warblers and other migrants have moved into the area. I made a quick check of Meadowbrook Marsh on Wednesday afternoon, and found several small groups of migrants moving along the woodland edge. This site, and all the other MBS birding sites, should offer fine birding from now through Sunday. Reports from this morning indicate that warblers are numerous at the Magee Marsh boardwalk right now. I expect a fair amount of turnover for the next couple of days, and then Saturday night the winds will shift more toward east and southeast, so whatever is around on Saturday will probably stay through Sunday also.

For people who are driving in to Lakeside for the MBS, and coming from the east or west, here are a couple of spots to consider that are NOT official MBS birding sites. They might be worth hitting on the way to or from Lakeside. From east to west, they are:

1. Sheldon Marsh. This state natural area east of Sandusky is often a very good warbler trap in fall. During the first Lakeside MBS in 1997, I led field trips there, and it turned out to be an excellent spot for talking about warbler ID because we were getting good looks at so many. It’s not one of the official sites this time, but if you want to stop there on your own, Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) has a birding map for the area.

2. Resthaven Wildlife Area. This site south of Sandusky Bay has a mix of ponds and woods, and it often holds a lot of songbird migrants in spring and fall. Mark Shieldcastle, BSBO’s Research Director, suggested that the winds of the last couple of days were likely to make this a very productive spot right now. A map and some information can be found at this link.

3. Metzger Marsh. Another area administered by Ohio’s Division of Wildlife, this site lies just west of Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. BSBO has a birding map of the area, available through the website. Many waterbirds are often visible along the causeway on the drive in. At the end of the road, the small woodlot often has concentrations of songbird migrants. The beach and the concrete fishing pier may have interesting gulls, terns, or shorebirds if there aren’t too many people around.

4. Maumee Bay State Park. Farther west on the way to Toledo, this park on the Lake Erie shoreline is reached by following Curtice Road 2.5 miles north from State Route 2 (and it’s well marked by road signs). Once inside the park, follow the signs for the beach. At the end of the road there is both a Lake Erie beach and an inland beach, and either or both may have many gulls and terns and a scattering of odd shorebirds. This is one of the more consistent sites in n.w. Ohio for Red Knot, and other species seen there recently include Baird’s Sandpiper and Buff-breasted Sandpiper. Maumee Bay also has a fine wooded areas for songbird migrants; follow the signs for the Nature Center to get to one good spot. Brian Zwiebel reports that the park had excellent numbers and variety of warblers this morning, including Hooded Warbler, rare here in fall. 

5. Finally, farther afield in southeast Michigan, the Detroit River Hawk Watch is the best area nearby to witness the fall migration of birds of prey. On days with northwest winds, hundreds or even thousands of hawks may be seen passing overhead at Lake Erie Metropark and other nearby sites. For more information, go to their website. From Lakeside this would be at least a two-hour drive, so if you go during the Symposium you should plan to miss the rest of the day’s activities. But you could stop there on the way to or from Lakeside if your travels take you in that general direction. At this point, it looks like today, tomorrow, and Saturday should all have decent potential for hawk flights, while Sunday’s southeast winds probably won’t make for good hawk viewing there. But if the weather prediction for Sunday changes, keep this in mind.

And if you'd like to see a long list of other birding sites in northwestern and north-central Ohio, go to the BSBO birding pages and scroll way down the page that is at this link.

Meanwhile, back at the sites closer to Lakeside – the birding should be great for the next four days! We’ll hope to see many of you out in the field, or at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory / Kaufman Field Guides booth at the vendor hall.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ottawa NWR auto tour: update

Tuesday, September 13: This morning I had a chance to cover the auto tour route at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge with the Manager, Jason Lewis, and several members of his staff. As many birders are aware, the auto tour will be open for three days this weekend – Friday September 16 through Sunday September 18, from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. In addition to his other areas of expertise, Jason Lewis is a keen birder, and he decided to have the three-day auto tour as a special concession to the Midwest Birding Symposium happening this weekend.

Jason and his staff also have been working to have some areas of prime shorebird habitat close to the auto tour route. These efforts suffered a setback last Thursday night, when an exceptionally heavy rain dumped three to five inches on this area. In addition to flooding my basement, this flooded the impoundment known as MS 5, which had had more than a dozen shorebird species immediately before that. With the abruptly higher water level, most of those birds dispersed. The Refuge staff have been pumping water out of MS 5 and the level is coming down again. We saw a fair number of birds there today, and Jason was optimistic that water levels would be much better for shorebirds again by this weekend.

Here are some notes on the auto tour route. For reference to the sites mentioned, see our map at
The account below will be a lot easier to follow if you look at the map.

1. General: Before or after driving the auto tour, you may want to walk the trails through the woods behind the Visitors’ Center or the woodlot near the start of the auto tour, looking for migrant songbirds. However, you also may see such migrants anywhere on the refuge, so don’t just focus on the water birds. This morning, for example, we saw Tennessee Warbler and other species in trees along the road, and many swallows over the impoundments. Also, watch for Bald Eagles everywhere over the refuge, and keep an eye out for the Peregrine Falcon that has been hunting the area.

2. First part of tour route (see map): runs straight west for two miles past areas called MS 8b, North Woods, Butternut, and MS 7. We didn’t spend much time here today. But toward the west end of this, where you have Stange Prairie on the left and MS 7 on the right, this area can be good for migrant sparrows, especially just a little later in the fall. Might be worth stopping to scan for birds in the roadside brush.

3. At the southwest end of MS 7, the road turns right and runs north for almost a mile, crossing Crane Creek. Don’t stop on the bridge itself, but if you can find a spot to pull off before or after the bridge, the area just north of the bridge on the east side can be good for shorebirds and others. Today it had Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and Snowy Egret, among other birds.

4. A little past the bridge over Crane Creek, the road runs into a T-intersection and the auto tour route turns to the right (east). The area just southwest of this corner, MS 6, holds some good mudflats, and has had good numbers of shorebirds in recent days, although not much was there today. If you look straight ahead (north) at the T-intersection you’re looking at MS 3, a good place to see Common Gallinules (Common Moorhen) and various ducks.

5. Continuing east on the auto tour, in a little over half a mile the main gravel causeway turns north (left) between MS 4 and MS 5. However, as of today Jason Lewis and his staff were discussing having the auto tour loop east all the way around MS 5. That will require a little more maintenance work on the road (they already have graders out working on other parts of the road in preparation for MBS), but it would open up more birding possibilities: MS 5 holds a LOT of birds, and it will have more if they can get the water level drawn back down. Highlights today included Long-billed Dowitchers, Solitary, Pectoral, and Least sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers, Lesser Yellowlegs, and Common, Forster’s, and Caspian terns. This impoundment also held a fair diversity of ducks, including Northern Pintail, Blue-winged and Green-winged teal, and Northern Shoveler.

6. Whether the auto tour goes all the way east, north, and then west around MS 5, or simply goes north between MS 4 and MS 5, from that point it will go west for a mile and a half to the exit onto Veler Road and back to State Route 2. From there you can turn right to make a quick check of Metzger Marsh (see map here) if you have time, or turn left to loop back toward the refuge Visitors’ Center. If you do the latter, it’s worthwhile to detour down Krause and Stange roads (see map) and watch for birds of open fields. Sandhill Cranes have been seen here several times recently.

If you go to the refuge this weekend, please take a moment to thank someone there for the extra work they have put in for birders.  The entire staff has gotten involved in one way or another, and so have many volunteers who work through the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Association (ONWRA), the independent "friends' group" for the refuge.  All of the National Wildlife Refuges are incredibly valuable for bird conservation, whether or not they cater to birders specifically.  But when a refuge's manager, staff, and volunteers make an extra effort for birders, we should let them know that it's appreciated. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

East Harbor State Park hotspots and migrants, Sept. 10

Although this photo was taken in spring, the male Black-throated Blue Warbler looks pretty much the same at all seasons, an encouraging point for birders who are apprehensive about "confusing fall warblers." On September 10 I saw at least ten Black-throated Blues at East Harbor. photo by Kenn Kaufman.
Saturday September 10: This afternoon I made a brief check of East Harbor State Park, another of the field trip sites for the Midwest Birding Symposium (MBS), and found very good numbers and variety of migrants. East Harbor SP is on the edge of Lake Erie in Ottawa County, east of Port Clinton and west of Lakeside.

The entrance to East Harbor is on the east side of State Route 269, about a mile north of State Route 163. After entering the park, in a couple of hundred yards, the first left turn will take you to the parking area for the Lockwood picnic shelter. I have always had good luck with migrants in this general area – either in the thickets to the east of the pond and Frisbee-golf course (east of the parking lot), in the woods at the beginning of the Meadow Trail (just west of the parking lot), or in the woods around and to the south of the picnic shelter. This evening the latter area held a concentration of at least 70 small birds. Chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches were the nucleus of the flock, but the majority of the birds (more than 50) were migrants. American Redstart and Magnolia Warbler were the most numerous, and the flock also contained multiples of Cape May, Bay-breasted, Blackpoll, Black-throated Blue, Black-and-white, and other warblers, plus at least three Philadelphia Vireos and several Warbling and Red-eyed vireos. This flock was moving fast and doubling back through the area, and with the heavy overcast of it was a challenge to keep up with the birds and see them well.
(NOTE: According to current plans, the parking lot for Lockwood picnic shelter is one of the spots where the guides will meet participants on Friday and Saturday mornings, Sept. 16 and 17, during the MBS.)

(Incidentally, it was in this area – first part of the southern end of the Meadow Trail – where the Kirtland’s Warbler was found during the Midwest Birding Symposium two years ago. I don’t expect lightning to strike twice here, but I did make a pass through and look at the spot for tradition’s sake.)

To reach the other area where I’ve consistently had good luck with migrants, go in the park entrance and follow the signs straight ahead for the Beach, about a mile to the east. It’s not much of a beach at the moment, but if you turn right and go to the south end of the parking lot, you’ll come to a nice paved path that leads south into the woods paralleling the edge of the lake. The woods here often have flocks of warblers, as they did this afternoon, with multiples of Blackburnian, Wilson’s, Bay-breasted, Blackpoll, and others. Heavily fruiting dogwoods along the path also produced Gray-cheeked and Swainson’s thrushes, several Warbling and Red-eyed vireos, and at least one Philadelphia Vireo. Yellow-bellied and Least flycatchers were in this area also. NOTE: According to current plans, this is the other spot where guides will meet participants on Friday and Saturday mornings, Sept. 16 and 17, during the MBS.

Finally, if you turn left instead of right when you reach the beach and go to the northernmost parking lot, you reach the best vantage point in the park for terns and gulls. A series of four rocky “islands” offshore offer resting spots for birds when people scare them off the beach. Today this area had about 380 Common Terns, 16 Forster’s Terns, 5 Caspian Terns, 82 Bonaparte’s Gulls, 30 Herring Gulls, and 85 Ring-billed Gulls. No unusual species were with them today, but in other years I’ve seen Lesser Black-backed Gull here in September.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Magee Marsh area migrants Sept. 8

Thursday, September 8: The fall warbler migration is in full swing now, shorebird migration is still going strong, flycatchers and vireos are migrating through, and thrushes are starting to show up in good numbers. It’s a great time of year to be birding in northwest Ohio.

The boardwalk at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area is not as fabulous in fall as it is in spring, but it still can be very good. Today I made a brief visit at midday to see what I could find in the space of an hour, and I came up with 12 warbler species, plus Least and Yellow-bellied flycatchers, Swainson’s Thrush, Red-eyed, Warbling, and Philadelphia vireos, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. The warblers included multiples of Bay-breasted, Blackpoll, and Tennessee (allowing good practice on these classic “confusing fall warblers”) as well as numbers of American Redstarts and Magnolia and Black-throated Green warblers, plus Nashville, Chestnut-sided, Cape May, Black-and-white, Canada, and Northern Parula. Again, this was just in the space of an hour, and there were undoubtedly other species present. I talked to Ken Grahl, who birds the boardwalk regularly, and he mentioned having seen at least 18 warbler species in the last few days.

As is typical of this time of year, the warblers were strongly concentrated in a few scattered flocks. During today’s hour near the west end of the boardwalk, I ran into only three flocks, and there were essentially no warblers at all in between these flocks. At one point, Ken Grahl and I spent more than ten minutes carefully looking and listening along 50 yards of the boardwalk without finding a single bird, and then we ran into another cluster that included at least a dozen warblers of five species. This pattern of occurrence suggests this strategy: keep moving until you catch some hint of a flock, and then stop and stay with the flock until you’ve seen everything in it.

These migrant flocks often associate with certain resident species. One of today's flocks was associated with Black-capped Chickadees and a White-breasted Nuthatch; another was associated with a couple of Downy Woodpeckers.  So watching and listening for these birds can help you to locate the warblers.

While you’re watching for warblers, keep an eye out for dogwoods as well. The Rough-leaved Dogwoods in the Magee area are recognizable now by their clusters of small white fruits, and these fruits are very attractive to vireos and thrushes. It’s often possible to get excellent close looks at Red-eyed, Warbling, or Philadelphia vireos by watching at heavily laden dogwoods.

It’s important to pay attention to wind direction. Most of these small migrants will gravitate to the sheltered side of the woods, out of the wind, where small insects are easier to find. Today, for example, the wind was from the east, and birds were concentrated at the sheltered west end of the boardwalk. For another example: A couple of days ago, on Tuesday the 6th, the wind was strongly out of the north; on that day, relatively few migrants were in the woods near the beach. However, on that day Mark Shieldcastle and Ken Keffer banded eight species of warblers at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory headquarters. On that same day, John Sawvel reported that quite a few warblers and other migrants came to the water feature outside BSBO’s “window on wildlife.” BSBO is a mile south of the lake and more sheltered from north winds, so the greater concentration of migrants there was about as expected.

One final tip for birding the Magee Marsh boardwalk: after windy, rainy days, there are a lot of fallen wet leaves on the boardwalk, and they can be extremely slippery, so tread with care!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Tips for Finding Fall Warblers

This female Blackburnian Warbler was photographed in spring, but some fall females are very similar. Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, Ohio. Photo by Kenn Kaufman.

Northwestern Ohio is famous as “The Warbler Capital of the World” in spring, when warblers and other migratory songbirds are heavily concentrated in the woodlots along Lake Erie. During the fall, migrants are not so concentrated. They tend to be quieter in fall than in spring, and the denser foliage of this season adds to the challenge of finding them. But a determined birder can still find plenty of warblers in September, and their fall plumages often have a special, subtle beauty. Here are some things to keep in mind while seeking them.

Find the Flocks: During the fall, even more than during spring, migrant warblers tend to be concentrated in flocks. The flocks may be only loosely organized, and they may contain only a few individuals, but they are out there and worth finding.

In between flocks, you may not find any birds at all, and the woods may seem way too quiet. Barry McEwen and I birded a section of Sidecut Metropark this morning (Friday Sept. 2), and at one point we went almost 15 minutes without seeing a single bird – but then we found a flock that included Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, Bay-breasted, and other warblers, as well as Warbling Vireos and other birds. Later, after another quiet stretch, we found a concentration that included Wilson’s, Tennessee, and Magnolia warblers, plus American Redstarts and others. This is typical of what we expect in fall, and it suggests two strategic approaches:

1. Don’t give up too quickly. If you’re seeing no birds at all, move along and look and listen for a flock. These flocks can be inconspicuous, so you need to watch for movement and listen for chip notes. Warblers often associate with chickadee flocks, so if you hear chickadees, track them down and look for warblers with them. In areas where chickadees are scarce (like some woods on the immediate shoreline of Lake Erie), the warblers may hang around with flocks that have Downy Woodpeckers as their core species.

2. When you do find a flock, stick with it as long as possible, or until you’re sure you’ve seen all the birds involved, because it may be a while before you find anything else!

Look high and low. Literally. We may think of warblers as treetop birds, but especially in fall, some will be foraging close to the ground. Weedy edges of woodlots may be very good for some species. Dense stands of goldenrod or wingstem (which are blooming now) may hold species like Tennessee Warbler or Wilson’s Warbler. And some warblers, such as Ovenbird, Connecticut Warbler, and the two waterthrushes, do most of their foraging on the ground.

Start early. No, not necessarily early in the day, but early in the fall season. This year, according to Mark and Julie Shieldcastle, the BSBO main research station had already banded 20 species of warblers by the end of August. Early to mid-September is the peak season for diversity of warblers. If you wait until fall colors paint the trees, most of the warblers will have gone south.

Of course, different species have somewhat different timing. Yellow Warbler and Golden-winged Warbler tend to be very early fall migrants, becoming hard to find by the middle of September. Yellow-rumped Warbler and the scarcer Orange-crowned Warbler are late migrants, seldom seen until the latter half of September. So to see the full range of fall warblers, it helps to go out repeatedly from late August to early October.

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