Biggest Week in American Birding 2016

The Biggest Week in American Birding is an annual event held in northwestern Ohio. This year it is being held from May 6 to May 15, 2016. Every spring many species of small birds in the warbler family migrate from South America to Canada. In order to store up energy for the flight across Lake Erie, the birds spend some time on the southwestern shore of Lake Erie fattening up on insects. While the birds look for insects, the people look for the birds. We’ve participated in two previous Biggest Weeks toward the tail end of the event. This year we decided to see what it was like at the beginning of the Biggest Week. We joined other birders on the 7th and 8th at Magee Marsh, the Ottawa Wildlife Refuge, and the Toussaint Wildlife Area.

Yellow Warbler




The Boardwalk at Magee Marsh

We had our best luck at spotting birds at Magee Marsh. I confess that I’m not that great a birder outside of this event. For the most part I hear birds singing, but I can’t locate them. Or I spot them, but they just look like dark, little silhouettes. However, one of the advantages to attending the Biggest Week is that the trees are just starting to get leaves, so the visibility is good. The population of birds is dense. And at Magee Marsh, a lot of the trees and shrubs near the boardwalk aren’t that tall, so the birds are nearer to eye level.

If you haven’t been to Magee Marsh, among other things it features a boardwalk that is wheelchair accessible. It was possible to see a lot of birds from the boardwalk. Some people complain that it gets a bit too crowded on the boardwalk, but for novices like us, the crowds help us to locate and identify the birds. In addition, the second day that we stopped by, it was supposed to rain. I think I got about two raindrops on me, but a lot of more prudent people had left before we even made an appearance.

One of the entrances to the boardwalk at Magee Marsh

The boardwalk at Magee Marsh; you can see a crowd gathering in the distance.

An observation deck at Magee Marsh

Crane Creek Estuary Trail at Magee Marsh

Every time we go to Magee Marsh we always wander over to the shoreline; I’m still amazed at how large the lake is. While we were looking at the beach, we noticed a sign for the Crane Creek Estuary Trail. It is billed as a “Magee / Ottawa Parntership Trail.”. It is a short trail, just a half mile or so, but we decided to take it. It was a fun excursion, we continued to see birds, and though there were some clumps of birdwatchers in general it seemed more open than the boardwalk.

While at the beach we checked out the birds on the breakers, then took the inland portion of the trail.

Bonaparte’s gulls to the left and Caspian terns to the right with the black caps.

Deb leaving the beach for the inland portion of the Crane Creek Estuary Trail.

Some birders gathering on the Crate Creek Estuary Trail. Look at those big telephoto lenses!

An egret in the estuary

A trumpeter swan

The Warblers

Below I’m going to share a sample of the warblers that we saw at Magee Marsh and elsewhere. All the photos were taken with a point-and-shoot camera (a Canon PowerShot SX50 HS). It was challenging since the little things kept flitting around. I can’t tell you how many photos I ended up with of empty twigs.

Prothonotary Warbler

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Black-throated Green Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

Palm Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

The Birds of Prey

The main attraction of the Biggest Week is the warbler migration. However, we can’t go to this area without being amazed at how many eagle nests there are. We saw three active nests at Magee Marsh, and we also saw another active nest at Ottawa Wildlife Refuge. Park staff erect barriers to keep people some distance from the active nests when the eagles build them near parking lots or trails. There were two nests at Magee Marsh near the area’s parking lots. But even from the other side of the barricade, we were much closer than usual to a nest and it was a thrill seeing the eagles and eaglets.

Barrier closing off path to protect an eagle’s nest at Ottawa Wildlife Refuge.

The eagle parent decide to stand up before flying off to hunt for birds.

This eagle parent is perched on a tree near the nest. It looks like it is making a mighty eagle call, but eagle vocalizations actually resemble chirps.

The young eaglet is peering out of his nest. Bald eagles don’t get white heads until they are several years old.

There is a brown, eaglet head to the right, and its parent to the left.

Were it not for helpful birders on the boardwalk at Magee Marsh, I would have totally missed seeing the young Great Horned owlet peeking out of his nesting cavity below.

A great horned owlet peers out of its nest at the crowds on the boardwalk at Magee Marsh.

The Critters

We saw several muskrats while looking for birds, but in most of our photos they are fleeing. But not the bold little guy below. This muskrat was browsing vegetation about four feet away from the boardwalk at Magee Marsh while a crowd of people watched. He is unusual in having such light colored skin around his eyes and nose.

Muskrat eating leaves near the boardwalk at Magee Marsh.

The turtle below were basking in the canals at the Ottawa Wildlife Refuge. We saw about a half dozen map turtles basking in the canals at the Ottawa Wildlife Refuge which was a treat because I don’t get to see this species often. We also saw many painted turtles.

Common Map Turtle (Graptemys geographica); note the ridge going down the middle of its shell, and how the shell has a scalloped edge near its rear.

Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata); the “paint” consists of the red markings near the edge of the shell, plus the red markings on the neck, legs, etc.

Common Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon); also spotted in one of the canals at the Ottawa Wildlife Refuge.

Wrapping Up

In general we saw the most birds at Magee Marsh. We saw the most critters at Ottawa Wildlife Refuge. Although Bob and I walked along the canals at the Ottawa Wildlife Refuge, it was also possible to ride through the park in the trailer pictured below. We also went to Toussaint Wildlife Refuge because a birder told us last year it offered an equally good opportunity to see the migrating birds, but without the crowds. However, all we saw were yellow warblers, trumpeters swans, downy woodpeckers, and egrets. But admittedly we are not great birders, so maybe more were there and we were just missing them. In addition the grassy trail at Toussaint was fairly overgrown, so that made it a little less pleasant too.

Public transportation at Ottawa Wildlife Refuge

Our most amusing sighting of the day was at the Ottawa Wildlife Refuge. Besides the active eagle nest, I was using my telephoto lens to photograph a number of other eagles nests that appeared to be abandoned. But when I got home I discovered that one of the old eagle nests had been taken over by a Canada Goose! Admittedly the photo isn’t that great, but you can still make out the goose.

Canada goose nesting in an eagle’s nest; there is an inset showing an enlargement of the goose’s head.




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