Sunday, May 24, 2009

Birders: Myth and Reality

From Port Clinton, Ohio, Kenn writes: As amazing as this might seem, there are still some people out there who are so totally uninformed that they think of birdwatchers as nerdy, dorky, or dull. (Of course, there are some people who think the earth is flat. When the real information is so readily available, at some point the ignorance becomes the fault of those who carry it.) For anyone who is so backward that they still cling to a belief in the "nerdy birder" stereotype, I wish I could have plunked them down in Mango Mama’s last night.

Our band, 6-7-8-OH, was playing a gig at Mango Mama’s in Port Clinton. Unlike some of our gigs, this wasn’t a fund-raiser for anything, just a Saturday night of playing in a bar. And there was a very good crowd there most of the evening. But what was most noticeable to me was the fact that it was the birders who packed, and rocked, the house. Birders made up only one-third of the band, but probably more than three-quarters of the action in the place.

Where was the stereotypical birder that you might see in a magazine cartoon? Certainly not in this crowd. No, we had the real birders. Three of the sharpest young bird experts in the state, Jen and Phil and Ethan, all twenty-something or barely-twenty, were there to rock all night after birding at Magee Marsh all day. Rebecca and Laura and Michelle were there from the National Wildlife Refuge; we’re accustomed to seeing them as professionals in the conservation field, but here they were lively pretty girls, drawing looks from all the non-birding guys in the bar. Several fun couples from the birding scene were here: Bob and Blake (the Killer Bs), he looking studly, she looking glamorous; likewise Tim and Dana, and Hugh and Judy, still amazingly energetic after all the work they’d been doing at the bird observatory. Another bird observatory mainstay, the amazing Karen, was there, a total live wire as always. Tough guy Henry and his cute daughter Olivia had been out birding all day at Magee Marsh but they came to listen to the music for half the night. Iain, Josh, and Sam, professional tour leaders from Tropical Birding, tanned and rugged and lean, probably danced with every lady in the place, and Michael and Matt may have done the same. But the dance floor was filled with birders practically the whole night.

The month of May has been a high-energy time at Black Swamp Bird Observatory, with crazy numbers of birds and birders in the area. Kim and I are both pretty well fried by now, and it felt good to just get up there on stage and rock out. No one has worked harder than Kim, and she should be absolutely exhausted by now, but she was so wound up and so full of life that no one would have guessed. With her beautiful voice and powerful delivery, she knocked everyone out as always. When we launched into a Joe Walsh tune, instead of "Spent the last year the Rocky Mountain way," Kim sang, "Spent the weekend birding at Magee," and everyone went crazy. At least, all the cool people did -- all the birders.

My beautiful Kim rocking out on stage

That's me on bass, adding to the driving foundation of the songs. Photo courtesy of Kevin Loughlin at Wildside Nature Tours.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Warblers On The Brain

A Black-throated Green Warbler pauses in northwest Ohio, along with a few hundred thousand of his fellow warblers

From Oak Harbler, Ohio, Kenn writes: See that typo? I’ve done that dozens of times recently. We’re actually located in Oak HARBOR. But for the last three weeks, whenever my fingers type the letters A - R - B, autopilot takes over and finishes the word with L - E - R. It’s that time of year. It’s warbler season.

More than 50 species of warblers occur north of the Mexican border, and many of them are abundant, but most people never notice them at all. Because the warblers are tiny, hyperactive, and fond of hiding among dense foliage, they simply escape the attention of the uninitiated. For the average citizen, warblers exist only as the occasional flit of yellow between the treetops, not enough even to register on the conscious mind. But for those who have discovered birds, warblers are magical creatures, a dizzying galaxy of feathered delights.

A male Bay-breasted Warbler, with its tones of burnt chestnut

Because they thrive on insects, almost all the warblers migrate to the tropics for the winter. When they come flooding north in spring, resplendent in the colors of their breeding plumage, birders go flooding outdoors to see them. Most of the warblers are primarily eastern, and east of the Rockies there are many regions where more than 30 species of warblers are possible in the spring. Going out to look for them is like a treasure hunt. We never know which species we’ll find, and we go out again and again, trying to connect with as many warblers as possible during the brief period when they pass through on their way north.

A Canada Warbler lurks in a thicket on its way north through Magee Marsh, Ohio

The finest place for observing spring warblers in the month of May is in northwestern Ohio. When the northbound migrants reach the south shore of Lake Erie, they pause, often for days at a time, resting and feeding as they prepare for their next flight northward. Literally thousands of warblers can be found here on certain days. The most famous spot for observing them is the boardwalk through the swampy woods at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area. Here the warblers gather in droves, often foraging at eye level in the trees along the boardwalk or along the edge of the parking lot. Birders gather in droves also, thousands of birders, from seasoned experts to newcomers seeing their very first warblers. Photographers gather here, too: warblers are famously difficult to photograph in most places, but here they seem almost to pose (briefly!) for the cameras. During the month of May, there are undoubtedly more warbler photos taken at Magee Marsh than in the entire rest of the United States combined.

The Magnolia Warbler is the most abundant migrant through northwestern Ohio for a brief period in mid-May every year

The Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO), where Kim is executive director, is located along the entrance road to Magee Marsh, so we’re in a wonderful position to interact with the thousands of birders and thousands of warblers that come here in spring. The month of May -- we call it "May-hem" -- is a whirlwind of activity and lack of sleep for us, and it can be exhausting, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else at this season.

A Cape May Warbler shows off its tiger stripes

All of the warblers are wonderful, of course, but some cause more excitement than others. Sheer beauty is one cause for excitement -- we always hear "ooh" and "aah" whenever a bright male Blackburnian Warbler pops into view, stunning in its Halloween hues -- but with birders, of course, rarity is an even bigger draw. The striking little Golden-winged Warbler has become very uncommon in recent years, so one obliging male along the Magee Marsh boardwalk a week ago caused quite a stir. Josh Engel, who was guiding bird walks for BSBO that morning, told me that he estimated more than 200 people looking at this bird at one point in the morning. I was there later in the day and calculated there were over 100 people watching it then. Josh said he was sure that more than 1000 birders saw this same individual Golden-winged Warbler during the course of the day.

A male Blackburnian Warbler, always a crowd-pleaser

When we talk of rare warblers, the true prize is Kirtland’s Warbler, one of the rarest birds in North America. Its total population as of 2008 was over 1,700 pairs, but at a couple of points in the 1970s and 1980s its population dipped below 170 pairs, a terrifyingly low number for a songbird; it was seriously close to extinction. Kirtland’s Warblers nest only in a few counties in Michigan (and at a couple of sites in Wisconsin and Ontario), they winter only in the Bahamas, and extremely few are ever seen in migration between these locations. But northwestern Ohio is one of the few areas where migrants are seen several times per decade.
One of those rare sightings was made on Sunday, May 17th, in a plot of woods along the entrance road to Magee Marsh. This Kirtland’s Warbler was found and identified by a sharp teenaged birder, Andy Johnson. He came to the Black Swamp Bird Observatory to tell us about it, and soon there were a score of eager birders scouring the woods where Andy had seen the Kirtland’s. The bird proved elusive, foraging quietly in a few pines and spruces within the dense woods, but during Sunday afternoon and Monday the bird eventually was seen by dozens of observers. It wasn't a brightly colored individual, and our photos of it didn't turn out particularly well, but we didn't care; it was the rarity that counted.

A super-rare Kirtland's Warbler perches and flutters in conifers at Magee Marsh, Ohio, much to the delight of scores of visiting birders

We still have a couple of weeks of fine warbler-watching ahead of us, because the last migrants will be moving through in the first days of June, but by that time May-hem will be over and the level of visitation by birders will go back to normal. Then we’ll just look forward to September, and seeing the warblers coming back south in their confusing fall plumages!
For more information about warbler-watching in northwest Ohio, see the Black Swamp Bird Observatory's birding pages.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fabulous IMBD Weekend at Magee

Cape May Warbler: named for Cape May, NJ, but in spring it's far more numerous at Magee Marsh

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: For a few weeks every year, northwest Ohio -- and specifically the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, which is practically our back yard -- becomes one of the most popular birding sites in the world. Literally thousands of birders come here to witness the warblers and other migrants that concentrate in the woods along the Lake Erie shoreline at Magee and nearby sites. The action peaks on International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD), the second Saturday in May. This year the timing worked out perfectly, with a huge arrival of birds obvious on the morning of Friday, May 8th. The variety of birds in the area was even better on Saturday, and continued to be outstanding through Sunday and Monday. I seriously doubt that any of the thousands of visiting birders went away disappointed.

The Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) -- where Kim is Executive Director, and I’m a volunteer birding guru -- is involved, up to its ears, in this birding spectacle. That’s most of the reason why we haven’t been posting anything on this blog recently! The observatory’s office is located on the entrance road to Magee Marsh, and the observatory sponsors a series of web pages on which I and others provide detailed information on birding the area. When it’s May and the mobs of birds and birders are arriving, our days are packed from dawn to late at night.

Looking back on the IMBD weekend just past, it was about as full and as satisfying as one could imagine. I had predicted on the website that Friday would have a big arrival of migrants. Some people follow my predictions and actually take days off of work or school when I make such a forecast, so it was a relief to head out at dawn on Friday and find that, indeed, there were swarms of warblers darting through the trees at Magee. That morning I met up for a brief round of birding with Dave Rintoul from Kansas State, one of the listowners of BirdChat, the granddaddy of all birding listserves. Then I raced back to a phone for an hour-long radio show about bird migration with Fred Andrle from WOSU in Columbus. Then I put the final touches on a program about migration, drove over to Port Clinton, and gave my migration talk at 6 p.m., and then our band played from 8 to midnight, in a benefit concert for the Ohio Young Birders Club.

A male Blackpoll Warbler. The long-distance champion migrant of the warbler world. Every individual that we see in spring has already survived at least one round-trip flight to South America.

Of course we didn’t sleep much that night, because we had to be up at dawn for International Migratory Bird Day. The day was insanely busy. I would have estimated somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 visitors in the general area, but the Division of Wildlife reportedly estimated closer to 15,000. Who knows? But there were more than enough birds to go around. With strong southwest winds, the warblers and other migrants were concentrated along the north edge of the woods at Magee, many of them feeding low for wonderful views. The photographers were having a field day, blasting away at birds that are usually elusive denizens of the treetops. Scores of beginning birders were being taken on birdwalks led by experts. (This year, through an arrangement with the tour company Tropical Birding, we have several world-class birders on the site, leading free birdwalks for BSBO every day until May 25.) Julie Shieldcastle and others from BSBO were putting on banding demonstrations, showing hundreds of people birds up close. It was an amazing and heart-warming extravaganza of warbler-watching.

A male Prothonotary Warbler, glowing like molten gold in the swampy woods

Back at the observatory itself, it was a whirlwind of activity all day. Kim was in her element, inspiring everyone with the magic of birds. Vic and Lois were serving up lunch to hordes of hungry birders, Robert from Time & Optics was demonstrating binoculars and scopes, Kevin from Wildside Tours and Iain from Tropical Birding were telling people about other birding destinations to consider, and Karen and Hugh and Judy kept things bouncing in the gift shop / book store.

The real hosts of the weekend, however, the warblers - - the wonderful, varied, active, colorful, beautiful warblers - - continued to show off all day Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, as the crowds of birders continued to arrive to admire these little feathered gems. The great thing for me is that the birds are so unconcerned about the presence of all these people. They continue to forage actively within a few feet of the birders, oblivious to the oohs and aaahs and the camera flashes. If they were bothered, of course, they could flit back into the thickets and be safely away from us, because birders don’t go off the boardwalk and into the woods. So the warblers are able to feed and rest and refuel for the next leg of their migration, and the watchers are able to appreciate these little wonders at close range.

And by the time the weekend is over, Kim and Kenn are also in need of rest and refueling! Late Saturday night, I found myself trying to remember whether IMBD stood for International Migratory Bird Day, or Insane Madness Bird Daze, or Insomnia Makes Birders Dumb, or Incrementally Maniacal Bed Deprivation, or just, I May Be Dead!

For more background on this entire phenomenon, see the website of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO):

and the observatory’s birding pages:

And for another fine perspective, see the account by Kevin Loughlin of Wildside Tours: (hint: if you're on bird overload by now, Kevin also has photos from Friday night's rock concert)

Or this account by top Ohio naturalist Jim McCormac (go back to May 9):

Or the always-entertaining posts from Dave Lewis and his "Birds From Behind":

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Catch-up: The Hinden-Bird

From way behind on blogging, Kenn writes: Okay, to set the scene, this was Sunday, April 26, and we were in the town of Idabel, down in the southeastern corner of Oklahoma. It was late evening. Jeff Cox, Jim Arterburn, and I were sitting in the motel, glued to The Weather Channel. We were trying to gauge the likelihood that our Big Day attempt the following day would be pulverized by weather. Storms were rampaging across the plains, and the commentators were having a field day with discussions of tornadoes and floods and lightning strikes, but these updates were inserted as interruptions in the regular program. That regular program was one of TWC’s funky specials: "When Weather Changed History: The Hindenburg Disaster." So while we waited for the return of the "Local on the 8s" and the detailed radar picture of the storms crossing Oklahoma, we were watching, over and over, grainy newsreel footage of the giant German airship crashing and burning in New Jersey in 1937, the mighty Hindenburg going up in flames. Reportedly in real life the airship burned up in about a minute, but on The Weather Channel it was burning up over and over, in excruciating detail, for a full hour.

In a masterpiece of understatement, Jeff made the dry observation that "This isn’t exactly a good omen for our Big Day."

Indeed it was not. We started at midnight, and despite the threatening skies we managed to hear most of our nocturnal targets: Whip-poor-wills, Chuck-will’s-widows, Virginia Rails, and more. When the gray dawn finally came, we continued to rack up notable birds: Neotropic Cormorant, Mottled Duck, Anhinga, local stakeouts that most birders wouldn’t expect in Oklahoma. But bouts of rain, and a stunning lack of migrant songbirds in the woods, continued to slow us down, and a slowdown was something that we couldn’t afford on this day. By the time we got to the western terminus of our route in late afternoon, a cold front had pushed through, with plummeting temperatures and a howling wind out of the north. We didn’t break the Big Day record for Oklahoma, and in fact we missed it by a mile. Of the three Big Days that Jeff and Jim and I have done, this was our worst species total.

I’m proud to say, though, that we didn’t just fail, we failed spectacularly. Our wildly ambitious route was one that certainly could produce 200 species on the right day, so I’m proud that we gave it a shot. We may have crashed and burned, figuratively speaking, but we had a great time anyway. If there were a category for competition in bad jokes and good laughs per day, we would have won that one hands down.