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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Spring Migration in the Midwest

Eastern Wood Warblers including Kirtland's

2017 Narrative

In Brief: Our tour this year was memorable in that we recorded all 38 species of eastern warblers, including scarce species like Swainson’s, Golden-winged, Connecticut and Kirtland’s.  We recorded all of the eastern Neotropical migrants, except Gray-cheeked Thrush, although Alder Flycatcher was only heard.  There were many other highlights too. These included Northern Bobwhite, Black-billed Cuckoo, Henslow’s Sparrow, Sedge Wren, Clay-colored Sparrow, Willet, Eurasian Wigeon, and Evening Grosbeak.  Certainly the rarest species of the trip was a well-seen (and photographed) Fork-tailed Flycatcher at Tawas Point, only a second record from Michigan. An adult male Painted Bunting near there was also extremely unusual.

In Detail: Our tour began in the early afternoon with a trip to Capability Farms just south of Versailles, Indiana.  This private farm has been pretty turned over to the birds and animals, in fact it is managed nearly exclusively for this reason alone. Just after leaving our hotel two Common Nighthawks flew over the road and we noted both Black and Turkey Vultures and Broad-winged Hawk in route.  We were met at the entrance by several dozen Purple Martins which were nesting around the parking lot.  Two Northern Bobwhite scurried off and we later saw them at the feeder and heard nearly ten others singing.  Northern Bobwhite has been severely reduced in numbers and range through most of its U.S. range, especially in the Northeast and Midwest.  It was comforting to see a healthy population here.  It is a species we normally miss on this tour.  On the walk we noted Wild Turkey, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Prairie Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Field and Grasshopper Sparrows, Scarlet Tanager, and Indigo Bunting.  A female Wood Duck with accompanying ducklings was on one of the ponds.  A few migrants were present including Nashville Warbler, Lincoln’s Sparrow and our only Willow Flycatcher of the tour.  An American Toad and three Common Map Turtles were also noted. 

The next morning we went south towards Lexington, Kentucky and Spindletop Reservation Farms.  Here we watched a singing male Dickcissel and had several Bobolinks too, likely migrants, but they might nest here.  From here we continued east to the beautiful Red River Gorge in the heart of the Cumberland Plateau.  We took a circular trail and noted a number of species.  Our main goal was Swainson’s Warbler and we had excellent views of one bird and heard two others, one delivering a very unusual song.  Other breeding warblers seen included Worm-eating, Black-and-white, Hooded, Pine, and Louisiana Waterthrush.  Migrants included Bay-breasted, Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided, and Yellow-rumped (“Myrtle”).  After a picnic lunch in the woods we headed back to Winchester and then northeast to grasslands at an industrial park south of Greenup in northeast Kentucky.  Along the way we drove through a band of very heavy rain, but fortunately, it tracked east and south of our next birding destination.  Our main target was Henslow’s Sparrow and we eventually located a singing bird and had excellent views of it.  Grasshopper Sparrows and Dickcissels were present too along with Orchard Orioles, Bobolinks, and our only Blue Grosbeaks of the tour.  Along a wooded border we had superb views of a singing male Prairie Warbler and a Yellow-breasted Chat.  Our most unusual sighting was a pair of calling Common Ravens that flew over the area. The site is a short distance away from Ohio where the species was almost unknown for a century, and is just now slowly reoccupying parts of its former range.  From here we headed the hour northwest to Shawnee Lodge in the heart of Shawnee State Park. 

The next morning we had a brief pre-breakfast walk and had excellent views of an Olive-sided Flycatcher, a rare migrant in the East.  It was perched showing its bold white patches on the inner sides of the rump.  For our exploration in the Shawnee State Park and the adjacent Shawnee State Forest we were joined by Jenny Richards, a naturalist at Shawnee State Park and she leads and teaches thousands of school children the natural wonders of the Carolinian forest every year.  In addition to being an accomplished birder, Jenny is an expert botanist and she showed us a number of beautiful and rare flowers including two species of lady slippers.  Bird species of note included Pileated and Red-headed Woopeckers, Eastern Wood Pewee, Eastern Phoebe our only Acadian Flycatchers of the trip, Yellow-throated and Red-eyed (some 20) Vireo, and Wood Thrush.  Wood warblers included Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Blue-winged, Kentucky, Hooded, Yellow-throated, and three beautiful singing male Ceruleans.  We had good views of three White-breasted Nuthatches and listened carefully to their vocalizations, dramatically different from the two western groups of subspecies.

The following day was a driving day as we headed to northwest Ohio and Lake Erie, but we made a final stop in the Carolinian forest at Scioto Trails State Park.  We added no new species, but did have fine views of one of the most beautiful eastern butterflies, the Zebra Swallowtail.  Arriving rather late in the afternoon at Crane Creek and the Magee Marsh Bird Trail, we were relieved that the crushing crowds present earlier in the day had moved on.  On the way in we noted a Snowy Egret, a scarce species in the Midwest.  There weren’t many migrants on the bird trail, but we did note a Blue-headed Vireo and two Veeries.  A male Prothonotary Warbler on breeding territory offered us good views.  A Sandhill Crane called just off the trail.  Probably the most interesting sighting was two roosting female Eastern Whip-poor-wills.  The species is an uncommon migrant here.

We would spend parts of the next three days here at Magee and nearby and tallied some 29 species of warblers including the most colorful ones like Blackburnian, Bay-breasted, Blackpoll (recorded only one, a male, on the tour), Chestnut-sided and Cape May and scarcer species like Orange-crowned and Hooded.  We compared the songs of eastern pusilla Wilson’s Warbler (several singing birds seen) to the two western subspecies. Highlights included a singing male Golden-winged Warbler at the entrance to Crane Creek and a male Mourning Warbler on our last day.  Four (some singing) Philadelphia Vireos on one day was notable, Other sightings of note included one or more Olive-sided Flycatchers, a third cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull, a few late Red-breasted Nuthatches and a roosting gray morph Eastern Screech-Owl.  Nearby in Oregon at Pearson Metropark one morning we listened to a Connecticut Warbler sing and eventually most of us got to see this male walking on the ground.  This is easily the hardest eastern warbler to get on the trip.  It is scarce and is usually skulking and it is only the third year (in 14) we have recorded it.  It is one of the few warblers that actually walks rather than hops.  It breeds in a narrow latitudinal boreal belt from northeast British Columbia to central Quebec and most are believed to winter in eastern Bolivia in South America.  At Magee we also managed to see both Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cuckoos and on our final morning just before leaving we had excellent views of a foraging American Woodcock and a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.  Two Alder Flycatchers were heard singing, but we could not see them.  And how can one forget the sight of some 2000 Blue Jays migrating overhead?! Other non-bird highlights during our time at Magee included both Eastern Painted and Blanding’s Turtles and a beautiful Fox Snake.

We did bird other locations in the Toledo area in addition to Magee Marsh.  As noted at Pearson Metropark we found a Connecticut Warbler, and at a small pond near Bono, there were a variety of shorebirds including three White-rumped Sandpipers.  To the west of Toledo lies beautiful Oak Openings Metropark.  Here we noted Red-headed Woodpecker, Black-capped Chickadee, Yellow-breasted Chat, Summer Tanager (northernmost nesting area), and Lark Sparrow (easternmost regular nesting area).

After that final and very productive morning at Magee Marsh and a picnic lunch at Pearson Metropark, we headed north to Tawas City on Lake Huron in northern Michigan, arriving late in the day.  We anxiously looked forward to the arrival of the southwestern winds the next day which usually produces the best conditions for migrants.  Our main birding location was Tawas Point State Park, which is my favorite birding location in North America.  It is a beautiful location with Lake Huron on one side to the east and Tawas Bay to the west and under the right conditions can be covered with migrants.  We were not disappointed.

The southwest winds arrived on schedule and Tawas Point was clearly very birdy with migrants.  Tennessee Warblers were singing from many of tree clumps and flocks of Cedar Waxwings were about.  Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Scarlet Tanager, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak were common with double digit counts of each. Red-headed and Red-bellied Woodpeckers were flying down the point and returning. Several Great Crested Flycatchers provided excellent views as did several Bobolinks. Eastern Kingbird with an estimated count of 75 was seemingly the most obvious species about. Soon into the morning chaos ensued for all of the birders present when a Fork-tailed Flycatcher was reported, in fact two were reported, although eventually a consensus was reached that just one bird was present. Over the next two hours we chased here and there after it.  We eventually located it as it launched itself high in the air at the tip of the point and headed back north.  Eventually it settled into a jack pine clump and was seen by several hundred birders.  It remained here for the rest of the day and for a 2nd day as well.  This species is casual to North America, although it is seen annually somewhere in N.A., mostly in the Northeast.  This was Michigan’s 2nd record and was a new North American bird for all of the participants. It was an immature with a short tail.  One water bird of note at Tawas Point was a single basic plumaged Red Knot.  Two (or three) overshoot Summer Tanagers caused much excitement amongst the Michigan birders.  One bird was an immature male, the other a red morph female.

One morning we learned from our friend and famous photographer Roger Ericksson that an adult male Painted Bunting was present at the home of Jane and Patrick’s (Pat) Ruster.  Pat, a non-birder unlike Jane, had found and identified it correctly that morning. Jane welcomed all of the birders and after a short wait it came to the feeder from its woodpile where it hid when not at the feeder.  This is the first time we have recorded this species in nearly 40 years of tours to the Midwest.  Later we ate lunch at their Bob’s Big Boy Restaurant in East Tawas.  They have covered the walls of the restaurant with bird photos, most taken by Michigan photographers. 

Of course the area offers excellent birding away from Tawas Point.  At Tuttle Marsh we had nesting Osprey and had superb views of Black Tern, Sora and Virginia Rail.  Some 30 minutes away are emerging jack pine plantations where we located a couple of singing male Kirtland’s Warblers along with a pair of Vesper Sparrows, a declining species in the East.  Just to the south of Tawas City we located a pair of territorial Clay-colored Sparrows and farther south and west near Au Gres we found a variety of species including Sedge Wren and Swamp Sparrow at a marsh, and Cerulean Warbler in nearby mature woods (at the northern end of their nesting range).  We also heard an American Bittern booming in the marsh. At Nyanquing Wildlife Area a number of unusual shorebirds had been seen while we were at Tawas Point. These included both Hudsonian and Marbled Godwits. We checked it on our way to Mio. Sadly, because of a marauding Peregrine Falcon, the godwits had flown north, but a Willet (rare), Short-billed Dowitcher, and two White-rumped Sandpipers were seen as was a rare immature male Eurasian Wigeon.  Those too were driven off by the Peregrine in the end. 

After our last day at Tawas Point and Nyanquing W.A. we headed north to Mio where we unsuccessfully searched for Upland Sandpiper in the Amish fields to the north of town. 

On our final morning we were taken east of Mio where we had fine views of several Kirtland’s Warblers and also saw a Hermit Thrush.  We then headed to Hartwick Pines State Park where we had excellent views of several Evening Grosbeaks at the feeders at the visitor’s center.  This is a declining species over much of their range. Nearby at Wright Lake we had excellent views of a singing Winter Wren.  Just to the west of Grayling we searched again unsuccessfully for Upland Sandpiper but we did see a pair of Brewer’s Blackbird, a very scarce nesting species in northern Michigan and near the eastern end of its nesting range. 

From here we headed south to the Detroit area where we enjoyed a final group dinner at Leonardo’s in Romulus. 

In total we recorded all 38 species of eastern wood warblers, a feat we have only accomplished on two previous occasions.  Connecticut is the hardest, and I regret that not all saw our one bird. At least all heard the male singing from its thicket.  From now on, only 37 wood warblers will be possible as the Yellow-breasted Chat at long last is being placed in its own family, Yellow-breasted Chats. 

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