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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Spring Migration in the Midwest

Eastern Wood Warblers including Kirtland's

2018 Narrative

In Brief: This year’s Spring Migration in the Midwest Tour encountered the usual variety of weather from quite warm and muggy to quite cool.  We encountered periods of rain, including thundershowers, but for the most part, we weren’t overly encumbered with weather difficulties. Our emphasis was on seeing eastern wood warblers and we encountered nearly all of the eastern species, missing only Connecticut.  All were seen very well, and many were seen in the dozens, including surprisingly Cape May, and, most were in full song. Highlights included Swainson’s, Golden-winged (two), Mourning (several), and a close singing male Kirtland’s. A female Black-throated Gray Warbler was an unexpected surprise.  In terms of the rest of the wide variety of eastern Neotropical land bird migrants, we saw nearly all, missing only Black-billed Cuckoo and Alder Flycatcher.  Other highlights included superb views of Henslow’s Sparrow and a Neotropic Cormorant. 

In Detail: Our tour began with a drive west to Versailles in southern Indiana and a visit to CApability Farms. Highlights here included two Northern Bobwhite (heard only), a Black Vulture, a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Carolina Chickadees and White-breasted Nuthatches (eastern subspecies, likely a future split), Purple Martins, and a migrant Swainson’s Thrush.

The following morning we left early for Winchester, Kentucky.  We drove east to Red River Gorge and Natural Bridge on the Cumberland Plateau and hiked down the beautiful Rock Bridge Trail.  It is one of the most beautiful locations I’ve ever been to in the East.  We found a variety of breeding wood warblers here including Worm-eating, Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-and-white, Hooded, Northern Parula, Black-throated Green and Pine.  Our chief target of the morning was Swainson’s, here at the northern end of their breeding range.  We eventually got excellent views of a singing (and calling) bird.  Pileated Woodpeckers were often calling and were seen too and Eastern Phoebes were under the Rock Bridge.  Blue-headed Vireos (Appalachian subspecies, alticola) and Scarlet Tanagers were present too and a singing Acadian Flycatcher was glimpsed.  Migrants included a few Yellow-rumped (“Myrtle”) Warblers and a single (and unusual away from the Great Lakes or higher Appalachians) female Black-throated Blue Warbler. While looking for the Louisiana Waterthrushes a Northern Water Snake swam by. 

After lunch there, we reluctantly departed and headed northeast.  A few hours later we visited the grasslands around an industrial park near Greenup, Kentucky.  Here we found a variety of interesting species including Yellow-breasted Chat, Prairie Warbler, Blue Grosbeak (adult male), Field Sparrows, Orchard Oriole and our only Dickcissels (singing males) of the trip.  Grasshopper Sparrows were conspicuous and eventually we found several Henslow’s Sparrows and obtained outstanding views of one.  Late in the day we arrived at Shawnee Lodge and Conference Center west of Portsmouth in Ohio where we noted Chimney Swifts flying over the lodge and after dinner heard an Eastern Whip-poor-will.

The following morning we joined Jenny Richards for a very enjoyable day of birding the state park.  We added a few breeding warblers to the list including Ovenbird, Blue-winged, Yellow-throated, American Redstart, Kentucky and Cerulean, the latter involved two singing males which came down from treetop level to provide superb views. We got additional and better views of Louisiana Waterthrush and listened to Yellow-breasted Chats sing in a forest cut. Migrants include male Blackpoll and Cape May Warblers. Other species of note included Ruby-throated Hummingbird (many), Red-headed and Red-bellied Woodpecker, Eastern Wood Pewee, Tufted Titmouse (at least a half dozen).  Vireos were numerous and included a dozen or more Red-eyed along with White-eyed and Yellow-throated.  A number of Scarlet and one unusual (immature male) Summer Tanager were noted. Jenny is an outstanding naturalist and each year shows the natural wonders of Shawnee to thousands of school kids. She showed us beautiful wildflowers including lady slippers (two species).  Butterflies were about including Spicebush Swallowtails and Juvenal’s Duskywing. One of my highlights of the trip was the Harvester.  According to Brock and Kaufman’s Butterflies of North America, this generally scarce eastern species is North America’s only carnivorous butterfly. They don’t feed on food plants, rather the larvae feed on woolly aphids, especially those living on alders.  Later that afternoon we headed west into Adams County to Eulett Nature Center in the Appalachians Nature Preserve.  Black Vultures greeted our arrival.   After dark nearby we listened to two Chuck-will’s Widows singing in the distance. 

The next morning we lingered briefly around Shawnee Lodge where we noted a Broad-winged Hawk and one of North America’s most spectacular butterflies, a Zebra Swallowtail.  Then we headed north towards Magee Marsh and Lake Erie.  For much of the day we traveled.  It was in the low 80’s in the morning when we left, but in the low 50’s when we arrived at Magee Marsh and rain arrived by the early evening.  Still, we had a few very enjoyable hours of birding at Magee.  Migrants, especially warblers, were numerous and in addition to the many nesting Yellow Warblers, we noted Blue-winged (single male), Chestnut-sided, Blckpoll, Magnolia, Bay-breasted, Blackburnian, Black-throated Blue (at least ten), Black-throated Green (at least 15), Black-and-white, and at least twenty Cape Mays.  A territorial beautiful adult male Prothonotary Warbler with an orange head was seen well.  Other species noted included nesting Bald Eagles, a Sora, Warbling and Philadelphia Vireos, Veery, Gray-cheeked and Swainson’s Thrushes, Lincoln’s and White-throated Sparrows, and a single American Woodcock on the ground close-by.

The next morning we started at Metzger Marsh where an adult Neotropic Cormorant had been re-located the day before.  This species has only been recorded a handful of times in Ohio, all of them recent.  We re-found it and had some distant scope views as it sat with several Double-crested on driftwood for comparison.  A nearby male Northern Bobwhite along the road, was likely a locally stocked individual, at least that was the opinion of expert Ohio birders who were in the area. We experienced light rain during the morning after booming thunderstorms had come through at 0510.  Our birding was mainly on the Magee Marsh Bird Trail, but we also checked other woodlands at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge and took their auto tour.  The latter provided a variety of water birds, including Redhead, Horned Grebe (unusual this late in the spring), Hooded Merganser, Snowy Egret, Sandhill Crane (a pair), Black, Caspian, Forster’s and Common Terns, and some ten Common Gallinules, I believe the most I’ve ever seen in the Midwest at one location. An adult male Yellow-headed Blackbird (rare in Ohio) was also noted at great distance. The boardwalk was productive with many warblers including Northern Waterthrush, Canada (a cooperative adult male), Nashville (eight), Orange-crowned (three, a very uncommon species in Ohio; these are of the northern subspecies, celata, the one occurring in eastern North America), Chestnut-sided (twenty-five), Palm (six of the expected western subspecies), Blackpoll (six), and Black-throated Green (forty!).  Sparrows included White-throated, White-crowned and Swamp.  Seven Eastern Painted Turtles were well seen.  Probably the highlight of the day was a male Golden-winged Warbler seen well late in the afternoon in the woods behind the Ottawa NWR Visitor’s Center. 

We spent much of the following day on the Magee Bird Trail at Ottawa NWR, doing our best to avoid the thunderstorms of the morning.  Migrant warblers were still abundant. We again noted twenty Cape Mays.  This often uncommon eastern species has obviously had a population increase, likely a result of recent spruce budworm outbreaks in the boreal forest. Today we connected with the second year female (hatched last year) Black-throated Gray Warbler.  This western species has been recorded about ten previous times in Ohio, mostly in the late fall and/or winter. It was our rarest bird of the trip.  Also notable was the very cooperative Sedge Wren, a migrant out of typical habitat, and only the second one that our friend Rob Harlan had seen on the Bird Trail.  Rob has birded here for nearly a half century. Two Mourning Warblers and a scarce migrant (in the East) Olive-sided Flycatcher were seen along with a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.  Nearby at Dersch Road a flooded field had two female American Golden-Plovers and one Black-bellied.  There had been hundreds of American Golden-Plovers the previous week, but nearly all had passed north.  Two Solitary Sandpipers and a pair of Wilson’s Phalaropes were also noted.  Late that day we listened to an American Bittern calling away at Mallard Marsh next to Maumee Bay State Park. Also during the day two Common Garter Snakes were seen.

Today was mainly a driving day but we checked the Magee Marsh Bird Trail one final morning, or at least part of it.  We also looked at Pearson Metropark in Oregon, for a Connecticut Warbler that was heard singing the day before but we did not find it.  On the way to Magee Marsh, we noted a Northern Mockingbird on the east side of Oregon, a scarce species in northern Ohio.  At Magee we noted the roosting Eastern Screech-Owl and also saw the widely admired roosting Common Nighthawk, a male.  The Olive-sided Flycatcher was still present and we also had our only Yellow-bellied Flycatcher of the trip.  Wood warblers included twenty-five American Redstarts, thirty Magnolias, eight Blackpolls, and another male Mourning.  Well over a hundred Blue Jays, a diurnal migrant, were noted migrating over.  Not to be forgotten we got excellent views of the striking and threatened Blanding’s Turtle with several Eastern Painted Turtles.  The drive to Tawas City was long, with little birding, but we did see a group of Wild Turkeys in the woods north of Au Gres. 

Our first morning at Tawas Point State Park was calm and it was in the low 60’s.  Migrants were fairly numerous and included scarcer species like Golden-winged (a female), a Mourning (male), a Blue-winged, two Orange-crowned, and a continuing male Prothonotary, the latter species an overshoot. Scarlet Tanagers were very cooperative, perched just a few feet away at times, and we encountered our first Great Crested Flycatcher.  Ten Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were counted. Some eight Orchard Orioles was our largest total of the trip.  The species here is at the northern edge of their breeding range.  Some eighty Baltimore Orioles were tallied, many of them migrants flying off the point.  Fifteen or so Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were noted, again most flying south off the point.  A Merlin patrolled back and forth along the point.  Four Sanderlings were noted on a sandy island south of the point.  Later, on the way to look for Kirtland’s Warbler in a young jack pine forest we had excellent studies of a male Bobolink. South of Tawas City we found a pair of territorial Clay-colored Sparrows and at Tuttle Marsh had excellent views of Virginia Rail and Swamp Sparrow, and heard an American Bittern.

We chose to visit the emerging jack pine forest plantation northwest of Tawas City the next morning and were rewarded with superb and close views of a singing male Kirtland’s Warbler.  We heard others in the area.  Here we also saw a Red-headed Woodpecker and an Eastern Towhee.  Wood warblers at Tawas Point State Park included twenty-five American Redstarts and four Palm Warblers.  Three Philadelphia Vireos was our largest daily count of the trip.  Also noted was a single American Pipit and an odd and late Lapland Longspur (female) in the parking lot that was well-photographed.  Later that afternoon we drove north towards the Au Sable River, west of Oscoda, to visit some friends.  The feeders at their house were full of birds and here we studied numerous Purple Finches (eastern purpureus subspecies), Pine Siskins and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.  Both Hairy Woodpeckers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers visited the feeders along with a Red-breasted Nuthatch.  A Pileated Woodpecker was around the yard as well. 

The next morning we again visited Tawas Bay State Park, enjoying decent numbers of migrant warblers, including a female Orange-crowned.  Three Clay-colored Sparrows were noted and a fly-over immature Rough-legged Hawk was a real surprise given the late date. The Merlin continued. We were unsuccessful in finding a late Snowy Owl at an old airbase west of Oscoda, but did note an adult male Northern Harrier there.  After lunch we headed west to Hartwick Pines State Park north of Grayling.  This is a remnant stand of enormous White Pines that somehow were spared the axe nearly a century and a half ago.  At the visitor’s center’s feeders some half dozen Evening Grosbeaks made frequent visits.  This is one of the best spots in the Midwest to see this species, an overall declining species, especially eastern populations.  We listened to their hoarse calls, much harsher than western groups.  Like Red Crossbills, Evening Grosbeaks are probably comprised of multiple cryptic species.  At a nearby small lake we searched unsuccessfully for Winter Wren but did have fine views of a singing White-throated Sparrow, here near the southern end of their breeding range.  We also did not find Upland Sandpipers in the Amish farm country north of Mio, but a territorial Merlin was calling across the road from the Au Sable Inn where we stayed.  This species is expanding their breeding range south.   

Rain arrived early the next day and after hearing the Kirtland’s Warbler program at the forest service’s visitor center and checking the weather radar (rain coming up from the south), we elected to skip the expected rainy field trip and head south.  We stopped for an early lunch/brunch at a delicious restaurant in Standish (Wheeler’s Restaurant) and had probably our best meal of the trip (all home cooking!).  By the time we finished the rain had pushed north.  We drove a bit farther south to Nyanquing Wildlife Area, and here at a flooded field we studied numerous migratory shorebirds.  These included Black-bellied Plover (100), Whimbrel (30), Ruddy Turnstone (7), Semipalmated Sandpiper (40), Short-billed Dowitcher (15, all hendersoni, except one individual of the more easterly subspecies, griseus), and a male Wilson’s Phalarope.  Also a single White-rumped Sandpiper was well-studied, and we noted the extended wings giving it a horizontal body profile along with extensive ventral streaking.  It was the only one we encountered on the trip.  Other species noted included four Black-crowned Night-Herons, fourteen Sandhill Cranes, three singing male Yellow-headed Blackbirds, two territorial and singing Willow Flycatchers, a Black Tern, and an American Black Duck.  After leaving Nyanquing W.A. we headed south for Romulus where after a final dinner at Merrimann’s Grill the trip concluded. 

I want to thank all for coming and making it a memorable trip.  In all we tallied thirty-seven species of eastern wood warblers, missing only Connecticut, the hardest of the wood warblers to find on this tour.  But, the Black-throated Gray, a western species, was our first on this tour.  So, thirty-seven is the normal maximum number one could normally get on any eastern tour.  Keep in mind that Yellow-breasted Chat is no longer considered a wood warbler, and is placed in its own monotypic family.  In terms of the rest of the eastern Neotropical migrant land birds, we missed only Black-billed Cuckoo (we tried, especially on the Magee Marsh Bird Trail) and Alder Flycatcher (we were a little early).  For the overwhelming majority of these species, we saw most very well. The Neotropic Cormorant was a surprise, but they have been spreading north throughout their range in North America. 

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