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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Spring Migration in the Midwest

Eastern Wood Warblers including Kirtland's

2019 Narrative

In Brief: Our Midwest trip this year encountered somewhat cooler and wetter weather than perhaps normal, although with changing weather patterns it is hard to keep track of what is normal these days. I felt the migration was a little slower than normal, although the variety (194 species) was good, except for flycatchers which seemed largely absent; probably most had yet to arrive. We saw every eastern wood-warbler (total of 36 species), except for Connecticut, a species that we encounter less than 20% of the time. Highlights included Swainson’s (in Kentucky), Golden-winged, Mourning, and multiple Kirtland’s. Other species noted included Northern Bobwhite and Ruffed Grouse, a roosting Eastern Whip-poor-will, Upland Sandpiper, Black-billed Cuckoo, Winter Wren, Evening Grosbeak and Blue Grosbeak. In Michigan a Franklin’s Gull and three Hudsonian Godwits were rare.

In Detail: Our tour began with a venture west into Indiana to Capability Farm south of Versailles in Ripley County. Purple Martins greeted us immediately as they flew around their nesting gourds. Species noted here and nearby included Black Vultures, a Broad-winged Hawk, Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers, a Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Towhees, Field Sparrows, Orchard and Baltimore Orioles, Eastern Meadowlarks, two Prairie Warblers, and Indigo Buntings. More notable were several singing Henslow’s Sparrows and several Northern Bobwhites, mostly heard, but one was flushed. We also ran across a Snapping Turtle.

The next morning, we drove south to near Lexington and then east to Red River Gorge on the Cumberland Plateau. We descended into the gorge and noted a variety of woodland species, notably Hooded, Yellow-throated, Pine, and Worm-eating Warblers. Our primary goal was Swainson’s Warbler, here at the northern end of their breeding range. Brainard had staked out a singing bird the previous day and we were able to locate it today and got excellent views. A Prothonotary Warbler was along the river. Later and further down the river, we noted Blue-winged, Cerulean and Kentucky warblers and Scarlet Tanagers, and a single Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Also a Black Rat Snake was encountered.  From here we drove northeast east to near the Ohio River and not far from Ashland. The grasslands at the industrial park had multiple Grasshopper Sparrows as well as a single Henslow’s Sparrow and a male Dickcissel, our only one of the trip. Two Blue Grosbeaks, two Yellow-breasted Chats, and a Blue-winged Warbler were present too as were a flock of 20 migratory Bobolinks, all females. After saying good-bye to Brainard and thanking him for his expert help, we headed north and crossed the Ohio River at Portsmouth, then entered Ohio. Ohio entered the Union in 1803, our 16th state, after Tennessee in 1795. Vermont, then Kentucky joined in 1792. We would spend the next five days in this beautiful state. We headed on to the lodge in Shawnee State Park where we would spend two nights.

We awoke the next morning to rain though after breakfast it began to diminish. We were joined in our birding by Jenny Richards, the interpretive range. Jenny leads school kids throughout the year, indeed thousands of school kids, but she saves a day for us every May. She is an expert naturalist and knows every niche of the state park. She showed us multiple species of lady slippers and many other flowers. She also led us to many birds.   

These included a Broad-winged Hawk, two Red-headed Woodpeckers, our only Acadian Flycatchers of the trip, an Eastern Phoebe nest with five young, a variety of warblers including Blue-winged, Cerulean, Yellow-throated, and Prairie, and two Louisiana Waterthrushes. Red-eyed Vireos were common (15); we saw only one other Red-eyed on the trip. A Five-lined Skink was also briefly seen. That evening most of us went west to Adams County where we heard a Chuck-will’s-widow at dusk.

The next morning after breakfast at the lodge we headed north for Magee Marsh on Lake Erie. We arrived in the late afternoon. It was in the low 50’s. We had a scattering of warblers, including Cape May (8), Tennessee (5), Magnolia and Black-throated Blue. Warbling Vireo, a breeder, was numerous. Other species of note included a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a Common Nighthawk and a Least Flycatcher. A gray morph Eastern Screech-Owl was roosting.

We spent the entire next day around Magee Marsh. We had a good scattering of warblers including a Blue-winged and three Bay-breasted. A Yellow-throated Vireo, three Scarlet Tanagers, and a Black-billed Cuckoo, a declining species and our only one of the trip, were noted. Another nice sighting was a roosting male Eastern Whip-poor-will, a migrant. Nearby at Howard Marsh, we had a variety of shorebirds, mostly Dunlins. Three Yellow-headed Blackbirds were present.

The next day we birded Maumee Bay State Park. The woodland nature trail had a few migrants, the most notable was a drab second-year female Pine Warbler. However, a roosting red morph Eastern Screech-Owl was stunning. Stopping at Howard Marsh we had good views of a male Black-necked Stilt, a rarity in Ohio. Two Redheads and a few Lesser and Greater Scaups were present. At Magee Marsh, there were a variety of migrants were present. These included a Veery, and a male Wilson’s Warbler and our only Canada Warbler of the trip. That evening at Maumee we listened to an Eastern Whip-poor-will singing and watched and listened to a displaying American Woodcock.

The next morning, we returned one more time to Magee Marsh. Migrants were more plentiful. Blue-headed Vireo, Purple Finch (two, both adult males), Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush, Cape May (12), Bay-breasted (5), Blackpoll (male), and Lincoln’s Sparrow were all noted.  A red morph Summer Tanager was unusual for this far north. Two Eastern Painted Turtles were sunning themselves. From here it was a long drive to Tawas City. We stopped for some roadside Wild Turkeys while traveling north in Michigan.

Departing early the next morning after breakfast we headed to Tawas Bay State Park, my favorite place to bird on the planet. Surrounded by water on three sides, the point area itself offers excellent birding and under the right conditions can be covered with migrants. It is also stunningly beautiful with its landmark lighthouse. Migrant land birds were numerous and included a variety of warblers: Northern Waterthrush (6), Nashville (25), Cape May (12), Blackpoll (2, male and female), Black-throated Blue (5) and single Wilson’s and Orange-crowned. Certainly, the highlight of the day was a male Golden-winged Warbler that was well seen. Blue Jays were constantly overhead in flocks. We conservatively estimated 150. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were passing overhead too, some flying off the tip of the point. Other species noted included Black Tern (4), Great Crested Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Veery (3), Purple Finch, Clay-colored Sparrow (2) and ten Bobolinks (some of the males were singing). A White-rumped Sandpiper near the tip was well studied. Offshore we counted some thirty Long-tailed Ducks. A well seen Cedar Waxwing was surprisingly our first of the trip. Also noted was a North American Porcupine.

The following day we visited a young jack pine plantation northwest of town. Our goal was seeing Kirtland’s Warbler. We heard them and some were briefly seen. We did see Eastern Towhees and Vesper Sparrows. At nearby Tuttle Marsh we had excellent views of both Sora and Virginia Rail and two Wilson’s Snipes. Other birds noted included a pair of Northern Harriers, and a surprising immature Northern Goshawk, our first one ever on this Midwest tour in some 40 years of tours. A few do breed in this part of Michigan, but they are seldom seen. Over at the state park, we searched for migrants noted an Orange-crowned, a Bay-breasted, and seven Cape Mays. An Eastern Wood-Pewee was also noted, the only one we saw on the trip. Two Horned Grebes were seen on the Bay and Common Loons were also noted.

We spent a final morning the next day at Tawas Point. We finally saw the Kentucky Warbler which had been present at the tip, but it was elusive. Kentucky is rare in Michigan, particularly from this far north. Single Pine and Wilson’s warblers were also present, and a Whimbrel was sitting on the spit. At the north end of the state park we found a small collection of Catharus thrushes, mostly Swainson’s, but also a Veery, and a single Gray-cheeked, our only one of the trip. It was my first one for Michigan. A single Red-eyed Vireo was our first one in days. Eventually leaving the park we headed northwest and tried again for Kirtland’s Warbler, seeing several well. Nearby we also had a Ruffed Grouse in the road. We continued on north for the Au Sable River and our friends Wayne and Toni Shawl. Their feeders had lots of birds, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Purple Finches, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches. A Pileated Woodpecker and a pair of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were present too. Later we headed west for Mio, stopping on the way at a forest cut where several Brewer’s Blackbirds were present. In the Amish farm country north of town, we located a single Upland Sandpiper and had excellent views of it.

On our final day, we took the Kirtland’s Warbler tour. We saw two in the light rain. From here we headed west to Hartwick Pines State Park, a preserve where their huge white pines were preserved. Most of the rest in Michigan and these northern states had been cut down late in the 19th century. At the visitor center Evening Grosbeaks were coming to the feeders and we saw several. This is the best spot to see this declining species in the Upper Midwest that I know of. Within the state park, at a forested bog, we managed to see a territorial Winter Wren. Leaving the Grayling area we headed back south, then east towards Au Gres. We stopped along a wooded ditch at Big Creek Wildlife Area where we had found territorial Mourning Warblers in previous years. It was our last shot for this species, and we were rewarded with stunning views of a male. Our last stop was Nyanquing Wildlife Area, a well-known spot for Michigan birders to see marsh birds, waterfowl, and migrant shorebirds. Here we saw Black-crowned Night-Heron, Marsh Wren, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and a flock of Short-billed Dowitchers. More notable were three rare Hudsonian Godwits, a Franklin’s Gull (rare in spring), and a male Least Bittern. From here it was a long drive back to the Detroit area. We had a final group dinner at the Merriam Street Grill.

Created: 31 March 2020