28 May 2009

Reflections on Migration: High Island (Texas) vs. Magee Marsh (Ohio)…

So while volunteering this spring at both of these places a frequent question other similar-minded “migration junkies” have asked me is which is better? The diplomatic answer, (and it just so happens the genuinely true one for me personally), is that they are both excellent venues for immersing yourself in the spectacle and thrills and spills of spring migration, but they are also very different. So they complement each other well, and as they peak at different times it is perfectly feasible to bird them both in the one spring and pick up all the A-list migrants in the process. High Island is good for the rush of migrants dropping in off the Gulf en-masse, and that exhilarating feeling of birds on the go, happening right there beside you, and Magee of course is the “Warbler Capital of the World”, where you can get the most inviting looks of “treetoppers” hanging out down at eye-level. In short do them both once, then do them again the next year, which is exactly what I hope to do next spring. I am hooked on High Island and mad about Magee, what more can I say?!

The photos were both taken at the "Warbler Capital"; Northern Parula and Wilson's Warbler

Farewell to Magee Marsh..for now (Magee Marsh, Ohio): 25 May 2009

Boarded a plane from Cleveland and travelled via Houston, Texas (always good to see the Lone Star Flag flying along the way) to my ‘hometown’, Quito in Ecuador. Going to be based there for a while guiding for Tandayapa Lodge and Tropical Birding, and hopefully along the way I can get the odd photo or two to post…

Just before I posted this I heard that the banders at Black Swamp literally enjoyed a "fistful of Connecticuts" (warblers) the other day - it is a cruel world. All I wanted was one!

26 May 2009

More Nuclear Birds...(Navarre Marsh, Ohio): May 22, 2009

Just a few more shots from the Black Swamp Bird Observatory banding station the other day. The pair of Blackpoll Warblers are particularly interesting, as they are one of the marathon migrant songbird species that breed in the US and Canada and journey down to South America for the boreal winter. Each year they undergo a migration of around 12,000 miles, and in the fall they take a mammoth flight from the northeastern US and Canada over the sea all the way in a single mad flight to the north of South America. This takes around 80-90 hours non-stop, and in preparing for this they pack on the fat, swelling in body size so that they can almost double their usual 13g weight, at which time they reportedly can have difficulties completely closing their wings! A ridiculous but true natural story. These ones were looking a little trimmer as they do not need to body-build at this time of year quite so much, as their spring migration is a little less harrowing. The other one pictured is a male Wilson's Warbler sporing his distinctive black 'skull cap'.

Nuclear Banding Station…(Navarre Marsh, Ohio): May 22, 2009

As a break from treading the boards at the Magee Marsh boardwalk Josh Engel and I went down to the local power station to see some bird banding. The “nerve centre” for all of this is the banding station at Navarre Marsh (on the southern shore of Lake Erie), in the shadow of the giant Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station, one of the tallest ones around, and also reportedly the source of 2 out of 5 of the worst recent nuclear incidents in the US!!! An integral part of being a birder though is going to the strangest and most unlikely places to see birds. Onto the ringing though, Mark and Julie Shieldcastle were there carrying out their daily spring banding program for the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, (and are two of the “famous five” that originally founded BSBO back in 1992). Mark pulled bird after bird out of the bag for our viewing pleasure, that included this male Mourning Warbler (sporting a good solid black “mourning” patch that led to its name), Red-eyed Vireo, and this female Bay-breasted Warbler (all pictured here). As a “banding virgin”, having never had the opportunity to observe this before, it was great to see a good selection of warblers, flycatchers and orioles fluttering around in the banders bags ready for our consumption.

23 May 2009

Prothonotary Love...(Magee Marsh, Ohio): 22 May 2009

A couple of shots of a pair of "Lemonheads" (Prothonotary Warblers) trying to nest right now at Magee Marsh in Ohio...

22 May 2009

Widow Bagged at Black Swamp…(Black Swamp Bird Observatory, Magee Marsh, Ohio)…21 May 2009

Another day where warblers abandoned Magee and so we distracted ourselves with the gritty business of working out the flycatchers that have now checked into Magee’s woods. This all paled though when the call came in that they had netted a nifty nightjar at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. A few screaming cars later and we watched mesmerized as one of the top ringers paraded a chunky Chuck-wills-widow in front of us, and our cameras went into overdrive. A first record for the banders at the observatory, others having been heard very rarely in the area, and very occasionally being seen around the boardwalk in the past, but had as yet avoided their heavily loaded nets completely. A red letter day for birders and banders alike. A large and impressive “goatsucker” of note. A long time ago birds from the nightjar family like the Chuck’s were bizarrely and very wrongly believed to suckle goats at night!

Warblers check out, Flycatchers check in at the “Magee Migration Resort”…(Black Swamp Bird Observatory, Magee Marsh, Ohio): 21 May 2009

This week we had the high of the promise of southerly winds and a third wave of migrants dropping in at Magee Marsh, that was cruelly dashed as we realized with a little dismay that the large mass of birds witnessed on radar moving up from the south must have sailed straight over us under cover of darkness. A quiet time at Magee has seen many warblers desert the woods, although flycatchers have come in to replace them, and with a distinct change in the style of birding. Before we watched a myriad of colourful warblers dangling all around us. Now we scrutinized subtle grays, olives and whites to work our way through the Empidonax flycatcher crowd that has since come into Magee Marsh woods, on the southern shores of Lake Erie. These late movers are the biggest ID challenge in the US and we have enjoyed in similar proportion IDing some and leaving a good few unnamed too.

Over the past few days Willow Flycatchers have moved in around the Obs itself at Black Swamp, although despite calling continually in these areas I am still looking for my first countable one (i.e. one that I physically see singing, seeing as this is basically the only 100% reliable method of ID on current knowledge). An Alder Flycatcher sung his way onto my list today along the boardwalk that also held a few Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, the odd Least Flycatcher, as well as Eastern Kingbirds, Eastern Wood-pewee, Great Crested Flycatcher making for a bumper crop of 8 flycatchers over the past few days.

20 May 2009

Not so "Special K" for many at Magee...(Magee Marsh, Ohio): 18 May 2009

The female/immature male Kirtland's Warbler (opinions were divided between birders and banders/ringers on that one!) lingered on near the Sportsmen's Migratory Bird Center at Magee Marsh. Although, frankly the bird was a git to see and left many wanting, or even disbelieving its continued presence in the area. Just to prove it was still around on Monday here is another poor shot!

17 May 2009

“Special K” turns up the heat at Magee…(Magee Marsh, Ohio): 17 May 2009

After a bumper morning of warbler fun at the “Magee Migration Madhouse”, Iain Campbell and I opted for some downtime with local birder Ethan Kistler at another good Ohio birding site, Oak Openings. Ethan was hunting for Red Crossbill for his Ohio list. We had only been there for five minutes, (and already enjoyed a couple of smart-dressed Red-headed Woodpeckers and singing Field Sparrows), when the call came in – KIRTLAND’S WARBLER at Magee Marsh, where we had been guiding just this morning. All thoughts of crossbills were forgotten and we were quickly swinging the car back in the direction we came. Forty-five minutes later and still no-one had re-found the bird since the teenage birder from Michigan found it at 1pm. It was now near 3pm. Iain was unfazed and walked right onto the bird, when mayhem then ensued as many birders on site went into panic as this was a lifebird for many (the bird is endangered and highly localized, breeding almost exclusively in young, dense Jack Pine stands in Michigan, with just a few other very recent records in Wisconsin too). The bird popped up and we all happily labelled it a female, only for my later wings spread shots to reveal it was actually a first spring male. The bird was a bitch to be frank, and spent long hours evading us all, but right near 7pm (and after another long, long period of frustrating absence), Iain Campbell once again returned to the boardwalk and casually walked right onto the bird for the second time that day, and quickly created another rapid-fire on site twitch for the second time today. Lifebird for Iain and me, and the good old feeling for me of a classic British twitch of old (e.g. Golden-winged Warbler in 1989, minus several thousand people!). Good stuff.

Mourning Madness at Magee…(Magee Marsh, Ohio): 17 May 2009

Just a couple of shots of two different Mourning Warblers seen at Magee Marsh today (while I was there continuing to volunteer as a guide for the Black Swamp Bird Observatory), the duller one was “photoed” around marker 4 on the boardwalk, while the other was in the area of the Kirtland’s Twitch (see above) in the afternoon, near the Sportsmen’s Bird Center. At least two other “Mourners” were around today at Magee.

Migration Madhouse...(Magee Marsh, Ohio): 14 May 2009

Just a few late posted shots of warblers taken at the Magee Marsh "Migration Madhouse" - for me the very best place for warbler fanatics at this time of year. (Cape May and Magnolia Warblers).

16 May 2009

Nightcocks...(Black Swamp Bird Observatory, Ohio): Late post from 10 May 2009

Just a quick late post of an American Woodcock watched during the Black Swamp Bird Observatory's "Woodcock Extravaganza" walk. On this we took out a group of birders and beamed a calling and displaying woodcock out the back of the gift shop. The whole thing goes in three distinct phases, first the bird "beeps" and calls from the path, then the "whinnying" sound of the wings reveals the male has jetted up high into the dusky sky, where he soon becomes a dark dot high in the nightsky, then finally a "whitting" call is given as it drops suddenly and dramatically almost to the very same spot where he shot up from. So what we did was check where he shot up from, and quickly position ourselves quietly beside the spot, and watched on in amazement as he dropped down right beside us. Good job by the "timberdoodle".

Battle of the Bobolinks…(Mallard Club/Oak Harbor, Ohio): 15 May 2009

A welcome break from pounding the boardwalk and a shift in guiding today involved a half day trip out to some areas just outside Magee Marsh with a group of members of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. A fun group and really fun representative from the observatory staff (the ultra-enthusiastic Chris Knoll) led to a great mornings birding in some marshes and prairie outside Magee. The fanatical group of birders and the top brass birds that gave us top notch looks led to a much delayed arrival time back at the observatory at the trip end, and late lunches all round. No one complained though as we chalked up some stunning looks at sparrows in full song, (Field, Song, Savanna, and Swamp Sparrows at Mallard Club marsh, and a tardy Grasshopper Sparrow that turned up at the last minute near Oak Harbor), as well as some other marvellous marsh birds including displaying Marsh Wrens at Mallard, and a bumper crop of Common Yellowthroats standing guard from the reeds there too.

Top sighting of the morning though involved a few pairs of duelling Bobolinks doing battle in a remnant patch of prairie near Oak Harbor. The males puffed out their golden napes, sung vociferously from atop the low grass stems, and when that did not seem to work did battle in mid-air with each other. A great birding experience, that got us all as pumped and psyched as the birds were themselves!

We ended the day in Port Clinton listening to the “rock-and-roll birding celebrity”, Kenn Kaufman (he performs regularly in a rock band, with his wife Kim on vocals, to raise money for the young birders of Ohio), giving a great talk on the phenomenon of bird migration in the US. This stunning spectacle of migrants on the move has got me addicted after just two seasons in High Island on the Upper Texas Coast, and during this first spell on the lakeshore of Erie in Ohio. Every birder needs to see it at least once (although it is hard not to come back, I have not managed this yet).

A Day of Mourning at Crane Creek…(Magee Marsh, Ohio): 14 May 2009

The promise of this day at the Magee Marsh boardwalk was a little less more than the delivery. A good day of warbler activity (standard at this time of the spring at Magee) sure (with a notable rise in females working the boardwalk woods), but not the barnstormer we’d hoped for after the stormy evening before. Of course I did get a personal tally of over 20 wood-warblers, although by this point of the season at Magee it has become abundantly clear that you would have to try pretty hard to NOT see 20-plus warblers in a day there, as they seem to spend so much time dangling within inches of you, daring you to not see them! It was a healthy day for Mourning Warblers with few birders leaving empty-handed, and I managed to see at least two during my daily travels along the boardwalk, guiding and trying to photograph anything that even flinches. By late afternoon birder numbers had dropped and after a ridiculous 15,000 birders were estimated to have visited during the mega-day of the International Migratory Day last Saturday it was strange to sometimes have a boardwalk all to yourself, and a rare moment of birding solitude. The Black-throated Blues showed their appreciation for this too, by picking bugs up off the wooden railings along the Magee boardwalk…

13 May 2009

Whip'whill and Woodchuck...(Magee Marsh, Ohio): 13 May 2009

Here are some photos taken on the Magee Marsh Boardwalk today - a fine Whip-poor-will that roosted out in the open all day long (much to the delight of more than a few photographers, including me), and a Woodchuck that tried to foil us by popping his head out of different holes at various times.

Warblers Give us the “Low Down”…(Magee Marsh, Ohio): 11 May 2009

Whilst guiding for the Black Swamp Bird Observatory at Magee Marsh I spent the day chasing warblers for others birders and (once I realized a personal best was in the offing), for me too! An incredible 25 Species of warbler were reported today, and I got all of them, more than I had ever achieved before (never was an Orange-crowned Warbler so important and took on a whole new realm of importance once I knew this target was so close I could sniff it!) Personal favourites today included a sharp-dressed male Mourning Warbler decked out in its typical “funeral attire”, Black-throated Blues again (just because I like them big time, particularly as they seem rather partial to hopping around just above head height, unlike some of the other “canopy fodder”. However, that was what for me was so top notch about the day-most of the warblers abandoned the treetops and spent the day dangling around so close at eye level that they gave us all the feeling we were fools to being carrying around a pair of bins. Other treats was a good dose of thrush, with Veery, Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked all easy to find, with the latter two ID-pair hopping around on opposite sides of the trail so great side-by-side comparisons could readily be made.

Crazy, crazy Crane Creek…(Magee Marsh, Ohio): 9 May 2009

This International Migration Day is infamous amongst Ohio birders as THE day to come to Crane Creek (now best referred to as Magee Marsh, as that former name has fallen into disuse). Some 10, 000-15, 000 birders swarm the boardwalk, and many events go on, including Tom Bartlett’s infamous Big Sit, where he sits perched precariously on a ladder for some 8 hours while racking up near one hundred birds from his limited circle of sight. The worry with such a big day on the Ohio birding calendar is that migration itself would be dismal and the birders walking around in despair. However, that is one thing about the Magee Marsh boardwalk, you come at this time of year and it rarely lets you down. It is for good reason that birders “in the know” refer to Crane Creek as the “dirty little secret”. Pelee may grab all the headlines, but Magee pulls in the goods time and again, and should perhaps be referred to as “old faithful”. While Pelee suffers the massive highs and lows typical of the typical boom and bust pattern of migration found at such classic fallout sites (which are of course top notch on some given days for sure), Crane Creek is trusty day in day out all spring long. That is not to say it is unimpressive, far from it. What we got this day was a stack of warblers, performing with aplomb. Birders swarmed the lots, scoured the woody edges, lined the lake shore of Erie, and blazed the boardwalk in their attempts to turn up “Top Trump” warblers. The warblers were good to us today with around 30 species roaming the beautiful cottonwoods. Personally I managed to rack up 23 species for me alone, when I was guiding for Black Swamp Bird Observatory and therefore not exactly chasing the dream 30 for myself (although that goal is getting more appealing by the day!)

Cape May Warblers sunned themselves by the main parking lot, Hooded Warblers flitted furtively in the underbrush, lemon-headed Prothonotary Warblers sung powerfully from the swampy areas, bluetastic Black-throated Blues gleaned within inches of our faces while we looked on with some satisfaction (although by the end of a double figure day for them had almost been consigned to trash bird status), while in the trees above Blackburnians, Canadas, Bay-breasteds, Black-throated Greens, Northern Parulas and others raced around in a frenzy of feeding activity. A pair of roosting Eastern Screech Owls got steadily closer as the day wore on and the chilly western wind picked up, in their attempts to keep out the cold. On another “holy” spot a Common Nighthawk sat statuesque throughout the day, unaware we had him our ‘scope sights the whole time. One of the undoubted highlights was a scene of Zugunruhe right at the death, when a flurry of warblers danced around the nighthawk in a late frenzy of feeding activity just before sunset, and appearing to be readying themselves for the mad dash across Lake Erie for their northern breeding grounds. A great sight and also somehow convenient as the nighthawk acted nicely as a makeshift centrepiece for our imaginary clock so that we call out the warblers positions on the clock from there! Surreal and fantastic.

Most of what was offer today was lapped up by all as most of the star cast put in a sterling show for anyone who wanted to watch. This included an obscenely tame female Kentuck, KC, or simply Kentucky Warbler. This “star of the south” remained faithful to a particular muddy pond edge where he faithfully worked the muddy edges just feet from an admiring crowd looking straight down on it from the boardwalk. So close in fact that birders appeared to be looking straight down at their own feet with their bins – just one of many strange and wonderful warbler-related events from today at “The Creek” (Crane Creek/Magee Marsh).

Cruising into Canada…(Point Pelee NP, Ontario, Canada): 7 May 2009

A last minute invite via the Black Swamp Bird Observatory (Ohio), and before I knew it, I was sitting on a ferry bleary-eyed and riding into Canada for my very first time. On top of that I was heading out to Point Pelee, the migration Mecca on the north shore of Lake Erie. There I was volunteering for Black Swamp on their guided walk on the famous point. We checked a couple of trails around the visitor centre which provided slim returns for our efforts, in between bouts of drizzle. Best of the bunch was probably the princely Prothonotary Warbler that sang his lungs out along the woodland trail, regularly returning to a specially placed nest box for him over the small swamp. Although a gaudy male Golden-winged Warbler along the same wooded trail was not bad either. Both overshadowed my only lifebird of the day, a Black-capped Chickadee, that having spent my only US birding time down in the south in Texas and Arizona was a nice easy, “shoe-in” lifer up here. Apart from bundles of Yellow Warblers, (that even competed for food on a lawn with the local chippers and White-crowned Sparrows, a few Blue-headed Vireos, and a scorching male Blackburnian, there really was not a lot happening. The Ontario Big Bird Event venue, Point Pelee, had been out hyped by the hype itself. I was underwhelmed, although to be fair we just did not get the weather for the birds.

The main show of the day was me being hauled out of the immigration line on the way back into the US for minor visa “violations”. (In reality all I had done was legally try and come back into the US at a birder point where US border patrol were not adequately equipped to process/fingerprint me). I was a little shaken up, but not stirred, as they eventually ticked me off, and then allowed me to slowly walk back onto US soil and carry on as before!

Onto Ohio…(Crane Creek State Park, Ohio): 5 May 2009

Late last night we arrived and checked in to a trailer park for my next instalment of US guiding and birding – this time for the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, Crane Creek State Park, Ohio. This has been touted as Ohio’s “dirty little secret”, the serious rival to Point Pelee north of the border, for number one migration hot spot in the northern US. I arrived with bated breath, looking forward to extending my migration season just that little bit further. As the warblers were in theory going to begin slowing down in the south in Texas, they are expected to ramp up to high octane levels here in Ohio, as it is only just entering the very best phase of spring birding migration there.

My first day checking out the delights of Magee Marsh Refuge was interesting in comparison to Texas. So far the scenery of the area is impressive, the trees stand upright (no hurricanes here of late), and extensive stands of Dogwood and other local trees proliferate in the area, unlike the island of limited habitat in High Island, the area seems to abound with wooded spots to lure in the migrant that we desire so much. Sure, a rather large nuclear power station looms on the horizon, but us birders like to nothing more than to bird right on the edge of some of the seemingly most unlikely spots for nature, that all too often prove to be the very best places for birds.

My first jaunt around the area produced three lifers – a Trumpeter Swan gliding gracefully over the marsh, a Rusty Blackbird hopping around a dark pool out the back of the boardwalk, and top of the pile were four or more American Woodcocks seen in display flights and walking around in the throws of courtship just a few feet away from me and I my spotlight which helped to provide me with an awesome birding experience. Aside from having a pair displaying to each other just a few feet away on one of the Black Swamp footpaths, one bird seemed to be attracted to my beam, on several occasions running excitedly toward the light and an excited me standing behind it, just a few feet from this “timberdoodle” as one local Ohio birder called it. Other birds today included dozens of American Robins-a bird that is pretty uncommon on the Upper Texas Coast in spring, Field, Lincoln’s, White-crowned & White-throated Sparrows, female Blackpoll Warbler, lots and lots of Yellow Warblers, a multitude of “Myrtle” Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a few Black-throated Greens, Warbling Vireos and one Yellow-throated Vireo. All on what I was told was a quiet day, although felt birdy enough for me anyhow.

Mammal lifers came in the form of a pair of Beavers cutting through a channel and many Muskrats.

04 May 2009

Highs on High Island..(High Island, Texas)

Just a final few shots taken through this spring...

The Final Word on High Island…(High Island, Texas)

Who knew what to expect this spring out of High Island? Part of the huge area ravaged by hurricane Ike last autumn, I had mixed feelings about returning there this spring to guide for Houston Audubon. As it turned out, it was a much better spring than last year, with some really exciting rarities to boot.

What was markedly different this spring compared to the 2008 season was just how early things got on the move, with some great days in the early stages of spring in late March/early April and actually fewer dull days waiting for the spring to kick in like last year. I managed to get four lifers out of the spring, and one of these came on only our second walk of the spring on 28th March when the huge chunky form of a Chuck-wills-widow lifted off the ground in front of us in Boy Scout. In the end I sighted three or four of these huge nightjars during daytime walks there.

The other highlight for me was a good run on rarities keeping us on our toes, with a scorching male Hooded Oriole squeezing nectar from a birder-friendly neighbours Cape Honeysuckle for a few days in early April, and lifers provided due to a good year for some of the migrants that normally migrate further east from this part of the Texas Coast. These included at least four Cape May Warblers, of which I managed to get choice looks at least two females and one chestnut-patched male bird in HAS Smith Oaks. On a personal level finding one of the 3-4 Black-whiskered Vireo found in Smith Oaks this spring was especially pleasing (especially after gut wrenchingly missing the first one by minutes earlier in the spring). The other lifer came for me on my final day, when after five frustrating days scratching around the woods hopelessly, one of this springs five Black-throated Blue Warblers finally took pity on me and put in a fine performance, when a male flitted about right in front of me in HAS Boy Scout in early May. An excellent final fling.

Other highlights for me was really getting involved with some of the early season drip action, when warblers and other birds dropped in by the photo blind, and bathed within feet of me, newly armed with a Canon 50D. Worm-eating and Swainson’s Warblers were especially good to see in this way. Shame though the good number of ice blue male Ceruleans did not come in to the blind for me! I cannot finish without mentioning a certain Bobcat, another lifer, the first view of which was a full frame head shot through Christian's 'scope, as it drank from Don's Drip at HAS Smith Oaks, and then walked nonchalantly by us as our mouths hung open in shock.

All-in-all a really enjoyable season, four lifers, great Texan food and company, and a good mix of regular spring migrants and rarities to keep us all alert. I have included some photos of some of my personal highlights…