Kirtland’s Warbler is just one, if a special one, of the 38 possible warbler species Photo: Jon Dunn
There may be no better place to witness the spring passage of songbirds than the Midwest. The three main eastern migration routes converge here and since the birds are nearing their breeding grounds the males are usually in full and vigorous song. With impressive, often spectacular numbers and diversity of migrants on the best days, the Midwest is certainly comparable to any other migration region in North America. Our tour takes in two prime locations for spring migrants, Crane Creek (Ohio) and Tawas Point (Michigan), and we also spend two days in the Carolinian forests and grasslands of eastern Kentucky and southern Ohio, where we expect to find most of the southern breeding species. Between these sites we should see nearly all of the eastern Neotropical landbird migrants, likely including as many as 35 species of warblers—and there is a decent chance of seeing all 38 species.
We’ll conclude the trip with a visit to the Kirtland’s Warbler breeding grounds in northern Michigan.
Day 1: The trip begins at 4:00 pm at our motel in Florence, Kentucky near Cincinnati, Ohio. Fernald Reserve, an area grasslands and ponds, is nearby and we have our best chance of seeing Dickcissel here near the eastern end of their regular breeding range. Other species we might see include Grasshopper Sparrow, Blue Grosbeak and Orchard Oriole. Night in Florence, Kentucky.
Days 2: We’ll depart early for the Red River Gorge east of Lexington, Kentucky in Daniel Boone National Forest, a breathtakingly beautiful place with its limestone and sandstone rock formations, some of which cross the Red River – all in a heavily forested environment. Along the way we’ll drive through Kentucky’s “Blue Grass” and the fabled horse farms. Red River Gorge holds a few pairs of Swainson’s Warblers, here at the northern edge of their range, as well as many of the more southern warblers such as Blue-winged, Yellow-throated, Pine, Worm-eating, and Hooded and Louisiana Waterthrush. There is always the remote chance of seeing Ruffed Grouse. The forest is noted, too, for its variety of butterflies, notable among them the striking Zebra Swallowtail, which should be numerous. Heading north in the afternoon we’ll stop at an industrial park in reclaimed strip mine in Greenup County, Kentucky, not far from Portsmouth where Henslow’s Sparrow breeds along with species such as Prairie Warbler and Yellow-breasted Chat. We’ll be accompanied today by Brainard Palmer-Ball, Jr., one of the best birders in the East and the author of Kentucky’s breeding bird atlas and the state’s recent annotated lists. Night at Shawnee State Forest lodge.
Day 3: We’ll spend much of the day in the beautiful and extensive Shawnee Forest close to Portsmouth, where nearly all of the southern Carolinian specialties are found in good numbers - Cerulean and Kentucky Warblers are almost common here – and we’ll probably find any we missed yesterday.
If we haven’t connected with Henslow’s Sparrow, we may try checking the fields in Adams County again on our second morning, or we may end up there late in the day in an early evening attempt for Chuck-will’s-widow, here at the northern end of its breeding range. Night at Shawnee State Forest lodge.
Day 4: We’ll depart for Ohio and Crane Creek on Lake Erie, and should arrive in time for some late afternoon birding at this premier location. Along the way, we may stop near Scioto Trail State Forest whose forested ridges can be full of migrants. Night in Oregon.
The tour was spectacular. Many wonderful birds in their beautiful spring colors; just glowing! Loved Kentucky and was pleased to get good looks at the more southern warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and superb looks at Henslow’s Sparrows. Ohio lived up to its reputation with close looks at migrating warblers and American Woodcock. We lucked into some fun rarities as well. Jon’s numerous expert birding friends provided lots of good birds, including a private home feeder bonanza. Michigan’s Tawas Point State Park is a gem of a birding spot and I understand now why Jon says it is his favorite spring migration birding spot in the USA. The Kirtland’s Warblers gave us glorious close views. All in all the trip was top notch. Jon lives up to his stellar reputation and keeps teaching us along the way. Thanks and keep up the excellent tours.
Grace Oliver 2014
Days 5-6: Crane Creek and the Magee Marsh Boardwalk are Ohio’s best migration spots. The spectacle is similar to the one at Pelee, but here the concentrations of migrants don’t seem to be as weather-dependent, and even on slower days there are plenty of birds. The narrow strip of woods along the lake is more open than at Pelee, and migrants are delightfully visible. Here we can usually count on finding more secretive species such as Mourning Warbler, we typically encounter an American Woodcock or two sauntering and bobbing through the wet leaf litter.
Adjacent Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge has a variety of waterbirds, including shorebirds if water levels are appropriate, and the adjoining woods attract migrants. If we tire of migrants, the woodlands around Toledo have a number of breeding birds, including Acadian, Alder, and Willow Flycatchers and Blue-winged and Pine Warblers; and nearby Oak Openings has breeding Lark Sparrows, their only regular location in the eastern Midwest. Red-headed Woodpecker breeds here too and this might be our only encounter with this striking and declining species. Nights in Oregon.
Day 7: After a final morning of birding at Crane Creek, we’ll drive north to Tawas City, Michigan. Night in Tawas City.
Days 8-9: One of Michigan’s best migration spots, Tawas Point has harbored an astonishing variety of rarities. The narrow peninsula is lightly covered with tree clumps and bushes that can be full of migrants given the right winds, and since vegetation is so low, the birds are often more visible. A long sandy spit usually hosts a variety of shorebirds, sometimes including Piping Plover, which has nested here in recent years.
One of the real pleasures of Tawas Point is the absence of crowds of birders which can at times overwhelm the boardwalk at Magee Marsh, and even if there are few migrants, the Tawas area is rewarding. Nearby marshes support American and possibly Least Bitterns, and Virginia Rail, and in one case even Yellow-headed Blackbird. Abandoned fields host Clay-colored Sparrows alongside many Bobolinks. We’ll also likely make a stop at Rifle River State Recreation Area. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers breed here, as do warblers including Golden-winged, Mourning, and Canada. Even Kirtland’s Warbler has nested here in recent years in a young jack pine stand within 30 minutes of our motel! Night in Tawas City.
Day 10: After a final day of birding around Tawas Point, we’ll drive north to Mio stopping along the beautiful Au Sable River where we might see breeding Winter Wrens and Purple Finches. Just north of Mio are many Amish farms, where Upland Sandpipers and other grassland species breed. Weather permitting, we’ll look for American Woodcock and Whip-poor-will this evening. Night in Mio.
Day 11: We’ll spend the morning searching for the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler. Almost the entire known population of the species (recently about 5,000 birds) breeds in the Michigan counties around Mio and Grayling, and with the help of a U.S. Forest Service guide, we’re likely to find one or more of these special warblers. Other species in the area include Hermit Thrush, Vesper Sparrow, and Eastern Towhee. We should add that in recent years we’ve encountered a few (seven actually) migrant Kirtland’s Warblers at either Crane Creek or Tawas Point. If we’ve already had superb views, we might head west to Grayling and Hartwick Pines State Park, a never logged forest. Here Evening Grosbeaks are somewhat regular at the visitor center’s feeders and Blue-headed Vireos and Winter Wrens can often be found. Night in Romulus, near Detroit.
Day 12: The tour concludes this morning in Romulus.
Updated: 21 July 2016
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