Thursday, June 14, 2018

Ohio Birding Trip 2018

Spring is a thrilling time for birders: Every spring, millions of neotropical birds make their annual migration trips from their southern wintering grounds to their breeding grounds north and there is no better place to see those migrating birds than Magee Marsh Wildlife Area in Oak Harbor, Ohio. The area hosts a birding festival called 'The Biggest Week in American Birding' to coincide with birds' peak migration schedule. It is the biggest birding festival in North America and tens and thousands of birders flock to the area to enjoy the closeup views of migrating birds. We made our first trip to Magee in 2013 and were absolutely blown away by the volume and the diversity of birds seen there. Above all, what struck us most was how tame birds were in that small pocket of land in northern Ohio. Imagine being surrounded by hundreds of beautiful little song birds, many within arm's reach. This is our 5th time attending the festival but we were as excited as the fist time.

MAY 5, 2018

From Brooklyn to Maumee Bay State Park where we will be camping while in Ohio is about 570 miles. That certainly does not justify for air travel in my book (you already know my completely irrational fear of flying) but still is a lot of miles to cover in one day so we usually make a stop in Pennsylvania to stay overnight before getting to Ohio. However, we learned from the Biggest Week tweet that the last two days had been very birdy at Magee. So we decided this time to drive as far as we could without making any birding stops in Pennsylvania. Before we knew it, we were in Milan, Ohio, about an hour away from our final destination. We grabbed quick bites at Jim's Pizza Box in Milan and got to Maumee Bay State Park where we would be staying for the next 7 days before dark...

MAY 6, 2018

One of the many benefits of camping is that alarm clocks are optional. We were woken up by the sounds of birds at the crack of dawn! They were so loud that it would have been nearly impossible to sleep through even if we wanted to. Within 10 minutes, we were in the car driving to Magee.

It didn't take us long to realize that the first wave of migrants already had left the area as it was relatively quiet at Magee (well, it would still be a super birdy day in any other place though). As the day went on, more and more birds came out and our Magee experience was beginning to look more promising.

We stayed at Magee till about 3:30pm then decided to check out the sighting of a Whip-poor-will (that really is the actual name of the bird!) and a nesting Screech-owl pair at Maumee Bay State Park. The Park not only offers one of the best campgrounds but also is a well-known birding hot spot. As if that wasn't enough to win us over, it includes three tennis courts on its ground. Tennis and birding are two of our favorite activities so this state park was the closest thing to our ideal vacation spot. While walking on the boardwalk, other birders told us where to find the Whip-poor-will and there it was, sleeping conspicuously on a tree branch. While watching this amazing bird, we were eavesdropping on two volunteer birding guides debating whether it was an Eastern Whip-poor-will or a Common Nighthawk. The bird was quite a distance away so there was no way we could tell which bird it was but the guides seemed to have concluded that it was an Eastern Whip-poor-will. Satisfied with the sighting of our target bird, we proceeded to look for nesting screech owls further down the trail. We saw the owls two years ago when we visited the area and figured they would still be there. Guess what, we located the man-made nest box and peeked through its hole and there it was. Two large piercing eyes starting right back at us. Right about then, the sky suddenly darkened and we could hear the ominous rumbling noise so it was time to call it a day and head back to the car. We left the boardwalk and chose to walk on the paved road to save time. By then, heavy rain was pouring down on us and we still had good 7 minutes before we could get to our car. Frantically running, a van stopped besides us and the driver kindly offered us a ride. She told us that she worked at the park cleaning cabins and she could take us back to the parking lot. Oh what a life saver she was! Safely back in our car, we suddenly remembered how hungry we were so we headed to the city of Toledo about 30 minutes away to get Lebanese food. There is very large Lebanese population in Toledo and the city is known for good Lebanese food and we can certainly confirm that to be true.

MAY 7, 2018

As usual, sounds of birds woke us up nice and early. Ready and eager to bird, first thing we did was to check twitter for bird activity in the area. We then learned that the Eastern Whip-poor-will we saw yesterday was later officially confirmed to be a Common Nighthawk. As you can see, some birds are extremely difficult to identify so much so that experienced birders like those volunteer guides can get it wrong. After skimming through twitter, we picked our old and reliable Magee to start our fabulous birding day. Every day, bird activity seemed to pick up little by little. Today certainly was a day of Bay-breasted Warblers: I don't remember a day I saw these many of them in one day! For the first time in Ohio, we had our birding acquaintances from New York City visiting Magee at the same time and we were expecting/hoping to bump into them at some point. After all, Magee really is a fairly small area with one boardwalk. Just as expected, we saw Jenn and Paul on the boardwalk and spent the day birding Magee with them. Like us, Jenn and Paul are both tennis players turned birders and having their company certainly made birding at Magee even more enjoyable.

On a side note, 'The Biggest Week in American Birding' festival is quite a big deal in this part of Ohio community. So it was no surprise to see local media outlets covering the event. We happened to be birding next to a young boy who was featured in a local newspaper, Toledo Blade. Check out the article. Do you see anyone familiar in the cover photo?

It was almost late afternoon and the bird activity seemed to have slowed down a little bit at Magee so we decided to check out Toledo's brand new metropark, Howard Marsh, where sightings of a hundred or so American Golden Plovers were reported. Little did we know, the park was massive (over 1,000 acres) and we had no idea where to find the plovers. All shorebirds were quite a distant away and we realize that it would be impossible to see them without a scope anyways (we only use binoculars to bird). We did see a couple of Horned Larks and Killdeers but that was that. It was almost 6 o'clock and we were beyond starving so we head straight to our favorite local restaurant, Oregon Inn. My favorite is their huge seafood salad. With full stomach, we fell asleep before 9pm while listening to American Woodcock's 'peent' (sounds Woodcocks make during their amazing courtship display)....

MAY 8, 2018

We got to Magee before 7:30am but the boardwalk was fairly quiet so we decided to take a quick walk on the Estuary Trail alongside Lake Erie. The trail was quiet but we met a birder who told us that he saw Bobolinks at Howard Marsh and their exact location within the gigantic park. So we planned on giving the park another try later today.

After the quick stroll on the trail, the Magee boardwalk was starting to come alive with birds. Each day, not only the volume of birds increased but also the tameness of them as well. We thoroughly enjoyed watching them and listening to their beautiful songs.

Unfortunately, the famous "Magee traffic" was building up so we decided to check out The Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. There we saw a pair of beautiful Horned Grebes in breeding plumage as well as other familiar waders.

We still had some time left so, as planned earlier, we decided to give another shot at Howard Marsh to look for Bobolinks and American Golden Plovers. First, we tried the location for Bobolinks but no luck. Then we saw a bunch of birders with scopes on some sort of observation platform so we joined them. They were all looking at American Golden Plovers at least 100 yards away. Birders' etiquette dictates that ones with a scope must let others without a scope use their equipment to view the bird. Through a scope, we saw beautiful plovers in breeding plumage. I have to admit that there is something less satisfying seeing a bird through a scope as opposed to seeing it through binoculars. Feeling a little unsatisfied, we drove out of the park and right about then, saw a dozen or so American Plovers foraging in the area right by the driveway. Mission accomplished!

It was almost dinner time. We were in a mood for Mexican so decided to try this dive-ish local restaurant, Estella's Mexican Restaurant. I have to say $2 Margarita tasted particularly sweet after the great birding day.

MAY 9, 2018

Who would have thought that our most exciting Ohio birding moment would come from a metropark in Toledo instead of Magee. We had been hearing about the Red Crossbill sightings at Oak Opening Metropark Lodge in Toledo for a few days. At first, it was just hard to believe that Red Crossbills were in Toledo as their breeding range is usually further up north. We had a glimpse of this hard-to-see amazing species once in winter in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, foraging on top of the tallest pine tree. However skeptical, we decided to pay a visit to the metropark lodge about an hour from Maumee. When we arrived, there already were birders staking out at the perimeter of the lodge. After waiting for about 20 minutes, we saw a flock of birds flew into one of the pine trees. Those pine trees must have been over 100 feet up in the air so we didn't exactly get a great view of the birds but it was good enough to see and identify the birds through our binoculars. They truly are fantastic birds with most amazing bills (care to guess what kind of bill this bird sports?). After foraging in the pine tree, the birds flew to the back of the lodge so we all followed. I was absolutely dumb-founded to see them perched on low branches in the backyard. Then it all made sense: a flock of Crossbills flew down to take a sip from the small garden fountain in the backyard. We all watched this amazing species in absolute silence drink water from the fountain just a few yard away from us. Eventually, they flew away and disappeared into the distant pine forest. Magical moment like this keeps us hooked to birding over and over.

Still high from the Red Crossbill experience at Oak Openings, we drove back to Magee only to find that the place was packed with wood warblers. I could hear people murmuring how amazing it was. Whichever direction we looked, there were multitudes of birds. This day went by in blur till it came to a halt when it started to pour.

We celebrated our successful birding day at our favorite restaurant, Oregon Inn. Needless to say, we slept well that night.

MAY 10, 2018

It was a cold and wet morning. Thinking that this chilly weather would make warblers pretty inactive, we decided to go look for the resident Eastern Screen Owl (Rufous Morph) at Maumee Bay State Park. Unfortunately, we could not locate the owl but saw a plenty of nice birds including a gorgeous Golden-winged Warbler (sorry, no photo). While enjoying a fantastic view of a Wood Duck pair on a tree, Magee twitter alerted us that there was a lot of warbler activity there. We were on our way to Magee in 3 minutes.

We thought yesterday was an amazing day at Magee but today was amazing x 2. The little patch of forest was completely packed with birds, most perched at eye level! It had got to be a great day if we could see a Yellow-billed Cuckoo and a Black-billed Cuckoo foraging on the same tree! We thoroughly enjoyed this epic birding day! Birding was great throughout the day but the highlight had to be seeing fairly cooperative Canada Warbler.

MAY 11, 2018

It was another frigid day, just brisk and dreary but we were all smiles from yesterday's high. As usual, we were up before 7am but figured it would be too early and cold for small songbirds of Magee, so we decided to first check out shorebirds at Maumee Bay Beach. It was even colder with swirling winds at the beach but we were happy to see some nice shorebirds for a change...

We then drove to Magee hoping the weather would improve. To our dismay, it rained till about 10:30am and we patiently waited in the car for the rain to subside... As soon as the rain turned to drizzle, we were on the boardwalk enjoying the close-up views of various warblers. Our experience taught us that birds were particularly active before and after the rain and today was no exception. It was just another terrific day at Magee.

MAY 12, 2018

It was not as cold as yesterday but the air was again brisk and dump. We made a quick stop at Stange Road where a Broad-winged Hawk had been hanging out but no such luck as to spot the bird today.

The good news was that we could always fall back on Magee for guaranteed sightings of good birds. There just was no place like it where warblers fritter around within arms reach. The area is dubbed as 'The Warbler Capital of the World' for a good reason. We enjoyed our daily dose of close-up warbler views. Around 10:30am, it started to pour so, as usual, we scurried back to our car and waited for the rain to let up. It was almost one o'clock when the rain turned to drizzle. Needless to say, birding then was fantastic.

There is another hot spot near Magee called Metzger Marsh where a rarity often pops up. We hadn't been there yet since we got to Ohio so we decided to check it out. Unfortunately, the place was rather quiet and that was our cue to call it a day. Sadly, it was our last night in Ohio so we picked our favorite restaurant, Oregon Inn, for our last meal.

MAY 13, 2018

Before leaving Ohio, we had to spend the little time we had left at Magee. On our last day, we were gifted with a sighting of a rare visitor, a female Black-throated-gray Warbler, as if to say good-bye. By now, I sound like a broken record but there really is no place like Magee where all of us birders feel like a kid in a candy store.

We heard a report of a Yellow-headed Blackbird at Metzger Marsh where we had visited yesterday. We had some reservations but decided to give it another try. Luckily for us, volunteer bird guides let us view the bird through their scope but oh boy was the bird far. As a bonus, we also saw a Neotropic Cormorant at equally far distance. Not bad as the last bird of Ohio...

We drove for about 4 hours to a town of Clarion to stay for the night. We picked Clarion purely because it was the closest town to Piney Tract (Pennsylvania State Gameland 330) where we would be birding first thing tomorrow. We had a nice dinner at Clarion River restaurant. Funny thing that we had a trouble falling asleep on a nice comfortable hotel bed. I have to say there is something really calming about sleeping to the sounds of night critters in a tent.

MAY 14, 2018

Every time we drove through Pennsylvania to get to (or get back from, in this case) Ohio, we make sure to stop at Pennsylvania's State Gamelands 330 (a.k.a Piney Tract) to see ever-so-hard-to-find Henslow's Sparrows.

Let me tell you how we found out about this desolate gamelands. Did you see a movie, Big Year? The movie was supposed to be a box office mega hit with big name celebrity casts (Steve Marin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson). Sadly, the movie ended up being one of the biggest flops in the Hollywood history. Despite the overwhelmingly negative reviews, we had to watch the movie and we absolutely loved it: We felt that the portrayal of birders was spot-on and that's because the movie was based on a true story of three real-life birders. If you were one of the lucky viewers, do you remember the main character played by Jack Black? His real name is Greg Miller and is now a mini celebrity in the birding circuit. After his movie fame, he left his office job and became one of the most sought after bird guides in the birding travel industry. Like other well-known figures of birding, Greg attends the festival at Magee every year. Star-struck, we had a small chat with him during our first visit to Magee. Noel then sent him an email asking if he knew of good places to visit in western Pennsylvania. To our surprise, Greg emailed Noel back with information on a few places to bird including this gamelands. Needless to say, we are his biggest fans ever since. He truly is as nice as the character in the movie!

We arrived at the gamelands before 7am. It was a beautiful misty morning and we could hear Henslow's Sparrows singing from all directions. Shortly after, we spot a gorgeous male Bobolink. Oh what a treat to find this another grassland specialty. He too was singing his heart out. We then spot multiple singing Grasshopper Sparrows. As if that wasn't enough, we were interrupted by a beautiful Eastern Meadowlark. Grassland birds are particularly threatened due to increasing habitat loss so seeing them in such large numbers was just so extraordinary. We barely had a time to catch our breath with barrage of amazing bird appearances. This certainly was a fitting end to our magical spring birding swing. We said good-bye to spectacular grassland birds and started our final long drive back to Brooklyn. Interestingly, going back home wasn't as painful as our other birding trips as we knew that we would be back next year.