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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Northwest Ohio: Spring Migration

2023 Narrative

When someone mentions spring migration in the U.S., Northwest Ohio, particularly around Magee Marsh, is often one of the most talked about destinations. Several migratory routes converge here, and the Lake Erie shoreline often creates a bird-blocking effect, grounding birds. By now they are nearing their northern breeding grounds and are in full song. With such a migration spectacle, we focus this tour in one area which prevents the need for long drives and constant hotel changes. We took advantage of excellent weather, delicious local lunch and dinner stops, and of course an excellent migration. Starting near Detroit, we visited Pte Mouilee where we had a nice selection of waterfowl and shorebirds before continuing into Ohio. Over the next several days we focused on birding all of the local hotspots including Magee Marsh, Ottawa NWR, Metzger Marsh, Howard Marsh, Pearson Metropark, and Oak Openings Metropark along with a few other hidden gems where we tallied an impressive list of warblers, thrushes, cuckoos, vireos, etc. One morning we headed east into an area of healthy deciduous forests where we picked up a few resident breeders including Cerulean and Yellow-throated Warblers. Overall, it was a very successful trip!

Day 1: The tour began near the Detroit Airport where we had our introductory meeting followed by an excellent Italian dinner.

Day 2: A short drive from our hotel was Pte Mouillee State Game Area on the western shores of Lake Erie. This expansive area consists of thousands of acres of bays, wetlands, and mudflats and with special access, we were able to drive in and cover a lot of area. The main focus here was waterfowl and shorebirds and neither disappointed. Ruddy Duck, Lesser Scaup, Gadwall, Blue-winged Teal and Wood Ducks were the most common with smaller numbers of Northern Shoveler, American Wigeon, Canvasback, Redhead, Bufflehead, and a couple Greater Scaups mixed in with the Lesser. On the shorebird front, we had nine species including over 800 Dunlin along with Ruddy Turnstone, Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, and Short-billed Dowitcher. Other highlights included four species of terns, most notably Black Tern, at least 60 American White Pelicans, a species that has rapidly increased in numbers in this region, Northern Harrier, and Black-crowned Night-Heron.

Before lunch we checked an area of farmland which hosts breeding Bobolinks and quickly had excellent views of this charismatic R2D2-sounding bird. There were few other birds around, but we did see our first Horned Lark and Savannah Sparrow.

After lunch, we continued south into Ohio and headed over to the famous Magee Marsh boardwalk to get our first taste of its spring migration phenomenon. As we were approaching Magee, we had a Common Loon fly over us along the causeway. We then spent a little over an hour birding a small section of the boardwalk where we managed to pick up a dozen species of warblers including Prothonotary, Cape May, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Magnolia, Bay-breasted, Yellow, Chestnut-sided, Black-throated Blue, Palm, Yellow-rumped and Black-throated Green. We also had plenty of Warbling Vireos, several White-throated Sparrows, Baltimore Orioles, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, as well as an American Woodcock sitting on a nest and an Eastern Screech-Owl perched out in the open. Departing Magee, we spotted a Snowy Egret along the causeway.

A Kirtland’s Warbler was reported from an area between Magee and Ottawa NWR, which turned out to be a false alarm, but we did stumble upon an excellent migrant flock with our first Tennessee, Blackburnian, and Wilson’s Warblers, Scarlet Tanager, Least Flycatcher, and Ruby-throated Hummingbird among others.

Our final stop of the day was at Howard Marsh as there were several active Black-necked Stilt nests, a rare breeder in the state. We tallied eight individual stilts as well as a few other new shorebirds including Solitary Sandpiper and Lesser Yellowlegs. Trumpeter Swan and Marsh Wren were new, and we also had a nice selection of swallows to pick through including Bank and Purple Martin.

Day 3: West of Toledo is the Oak Openings Metropark, the largest metropark in the region, consisting of over 5,000 bird-rich acres of habitat including its namesake oak savanna.  Upon arrival, we stopped on the edge of a grassland where we Grasshopper, Field, and Henslow’s Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark, Eastern Towhee, and Willow Flycatcher.

During a bathroom stop, we stumbled upon a couple cuckoos feeding on tent caterpillars right next to the parking area. Much to our surprise, there was a Yellow-billed and a Black-billed Cuckoo hanging out together offering an excellent comparison. Nearby we birded a trail that passes right through an area that was hit by a tornado a few years ago resulting in a stretch of productive scrubby habitat. Here we picked up Red-headed Woodpecker, a selection of warblers including Blue-winged and Pine, along with Yellow-throated Vireo, Swainson’s Thrush, Scarlet Tanager, and Veery.

Down the road we walked a short loop in mature deciduous forest where we had a Kentucky Warbler, a local rarity this far north in the state. Knowing its behavior was key. When it was silent, it was actively feeding at ground level out of view. When singing, it would sit motionless higher up in the tree deceiving birders who assume they are always a ground-level species. With a little bit of searching, we were able to obtain excellent views of this striking species. Nearby, a Hooded Warbler was calling, adding to our growing list of warblers, along with a Pileated Woodpecker.

Our final stop in the metropark was the namesake area of open oak savanna where some of the only Lark Sparrows breed in the state. They were conveniently located where they typically are actively singing and flying around. Further down the road we picked up two other targets in the park, a Blue Grosbeak and Yellow-breasted Chat.

After a delicious lunch at an obscure coffee shop in Toledo, we hopped around Pearson Metropark, and Howard Marsh picking up Nashville Warbler, Hooded Merganser, a flyover White-rumped Sandpiper, and a lingering Horned Grebe in stunning breeding plumage. After dinner we did some dusk birding near Maumee Bay where we had Common Nighthawk, American Woodcock, Eastern Screech-Owl, and Great Horned Owl.

Lastly, today was the best non-birding of the trip as well with Snapping, Eastern Painted, and the endangered Blanding’s Turtles all recorded along with Northern Water, Common Garter, and Black Rat Snakes.

Day 4: The winds overnight looked promising for some changeover in migrants, so we headed back to the Magee Marsh boardwalk to spend much of the day leisurely birding it thoroughly. Warblers stole the show, and we tallied 21 species including our first Northern Waterthrush and Blackpoll Warblers. A Prothonotary Warbler put on quite the show, oblivious to our presence while it hopped along the boardwalk just feet away. Other additions included three Brown Thrashers hanging out on the beach, a flock of Cedar Waxwings, a singing Wood Thrush, and a Least Bittern calling from within a thick stand of reeds. We worked our way back towards our accommodation making a few stops along the way soaking in countless migrants. A field that had been hosting a small number of American Pipits only yielded a Horned Lark, proving that the pipits likely had moved on with the productive winds.

Day 5: The winds overnight shifted and were quite unfavorable for any new migrants to move in, so we opted to head east towards Cleveland to target a few resident breeders. We spent the morning birding Vermilion River Reservation which consists of primary deciduous forests with a sycamore lined Vermilion River passing right through. Our main targets here were Cerulean and Yellow-throated Warbler; both species are quite rare as passage migrants in the Magee region. It didn’t take long before we heard both of these gorgeous warblers and we eventually tracked down the songsters, obtaining excellent views. Several Acadian Flycatchers were also new for the trip giving their “pizza!” song.

Working our way back west, we stopped at Pipe Creek Wildlife Area, which has been very productive this spring. A long-staying vagrant Purple Gallinule was one of our targets and we quickly found it as it walked on lily pads while feeding out in the open. We also had Black-crowned Night-Herons, a selection of warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, and others.

In the afternoon we returned to the Magee Marsh boardwalk where we enjoyed more of what makes the region famous. There, we picked up Canada Warbler, revisited the breeding American Woodcock, spied on the Eastern Screech-Owl, and also had one of the highlights of the entire tour – a whole family of Virginia Rails! Right off the edge of the boardwalk we watched two adults and at least seven fledgling Virginia Rails foraging together oblivious to the human presence. The little black fluffballs were adorable to say the least!

After dinner some opted to try for a resident Barn Owl, which sadly did not exit its barn, but we did manage to listen to two American Bitterns calling in the marsh giving their bizarre liquid calls.

Day 6: By now, we’ve had a very successful trip with very few outstanding species, so we headed back to the Magee Marsh boardwalk one last time to soak in migration before slowly working our way back towards Detroit. The boardwalk didn’t disappoint with nearly twenty species of warblers including a gorgeous Canada Warbler and our first and only White-crowned Sparrow. A real surprise was spotting an American Beaver in one of the channels along the boardwalk, where Common Muscrats are far more common. As if that wasn’t enough, we found several young Red Fox huddled together in the parking lot.

After lunch we birded the Woodlawn Cemetery in Toledo, which can often host a good number of migrants. It was fairly slow during our visit, but we did manage to pick up our final regularly occurring swallow of Ohio, a Northern Rough-winged. Our final stop of the tour was Wildwood Reserve Metropark, one of the many great metroparks in Toledo, where we had a leisurely stroll obtaining more views of the colorful migrants everyone was here to see.

Day 7: Flights home.

Ethan Kister, May 2023

Created: 10 September 2023