Friday 23 May 2014

Magee Marsh, Ohio - Final Day

The final day started wet and having walked the first fifty meters along the board walk it appeared that there had been a quite considerable clear out of birds. The place seemed deserted. However, along the first small loop I picked up another flycatcher, this one was also silent, but while watching it for a while I was joined by two experienced birders who knew enough about these species to assign it to Least Flycatcher (based mainly on the bold eye-ring and a diffuse pale line demarcating the throat from the chest). This is the commonest species of Empidonax at Magee Marsh also.
I continued on and stopped at the small bridge across the creek to watch two males Prothonotary Warblers having a little spate. It was quite a tussle and at one stage the two birds locked feet and tumbled in a kind of downward spiral out of the sycamore above me and down towards the board-walk. I tried to step out of the way but the two birds collided with my face at which point they separated and flew to into different trees. Neither bird was harmed in any way and soon continued their tussle slightly further away. I had been happy enough just to see Prothonotary Warblers up to now, but to have them actually touch me like that was a privilege, I doubt they even noticed!
Further on I stopped to take in some more views of Prothonotary Warblers and got talking to a couple of birders from Tennessee who had actually started their birding holiday in early April near Galveston, Texas and had been moving north along with the warblers before reaching their final destination of Magee Marsh. That's quite a trip. They had a brief view of what they were certain was a Connecticut Warbler, unfortunately it had disappeared before I got a chance to see it, even though I was only ten yards away. I gave it two hours in the same spot later in the afternoon with a couple of other birders. We could hear it singing much further back but we couldn't see it. Pity, would have been a life bird for me. In the time I spent at that spot though I managed some reasonable shot of a male and female American Redstart, a male Blackpoll Warbler and another singing male Prothonotary Warbler.

Female American Redstart

Male American Redstart

Male Blackpoll Warbler

Male Blackpoll Warbler

Male Prothonotary Warbler
And I did manage to add Alder and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher to my life list also. In fact, while warbler numbers were down, the expected arrival of flycatchers had been accurately predicted. They were slightly harder to photograph, staying further back than the warblers so there was usually foliage or a branch in the way. Here's a shot though of Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
The day was moving on, I decided to make my way back slowly to the parking lot. I gave myself enough time because this would be my last walk along the famous board walk and I knew it would be hard to extract myself from the place.
Canada Warbler numbers (males only) seemed to be up for the day though. Along with the still present Magnolias and Redstarts, these were the commonest species.

Male Canada Warbler
Before I left I got a little bit of luck and came across a reasonably showy Veery. Up until now, I had only fleeting glimpses of this species and it is possibly my favourite of the Catharus thrushes.

And of course I couldn't go without trying once more for some Pronthonotary shots, these ones I think worked out the best.

Male Prothonotary Warbler
And one last photo before I left, an American Woodcock came into view foraging around on the deck near to the tower. A clear shot was difficult but here's one with the eye. You can just about see it from the photo that their underparts are much more rufous than their European counter-parts.

American Woodcock
I eventually left the board-walk for the last time.It was hard to leave but my time was up, I felt I had finished on a high!

The next morning I packed up, drove back to Detroit, dropped the car off and flew back to England. I'm still jet-lagged but on a high from such a great trip.

Magee Marsh certainly lived up to all my expectations. The birds do indeed come within touching distance and it pays to have a 300mm lens also or an extension tube on your 500mm (thanks for the tip Rob Holmes). I used external flash for the first time and while I struggled early on it did work out in the end and there were shots I got with it that I wouldn't have otherwise managed. I timed my trip to avoid the crowds of the Biggest Week festival. I was a little afraid that I would miss the peak warbler arrival but I don't believe I missed any species by being a week later and the crowds apart from Saturday and Sunday were not too bad. It also worked out nicely because by being there on 19th and 20th May I got the arriving Empidonax flycatchers, all of which were lifers for me and a very interesting group of birds too.
The birding scene in the US is interesting. I would respectfully say that many of the people I met at Magee were comparatively new to birding and still learning to ID a lot of species. Having said that I did meet some very competent and experienced birders especially in the last couple of days, who were very helpful and worthwhile chatting to. I was fascinated to see so many Amish families birding. Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan are strongholds for Amish communities so maybe I shouldn't have been too surprised. I also met one bird photographer opening carrying a revolver on his hip, I had to ask him why and he said it saves him from getting any hassle when he's out with $20,000 worth of gear. But all the same, it still looked odd to me as a European where even the police in the UK and Ireland don't carry guns.
Above all though I was very impressed with how polite, courteous and friendly everyone was to each other. That's not just the birders and photographers but right across Ohio and Michigan, the people in the supermarkets, the restaurants, the airport, car rental, everywhere in fact. US birders I spoke to have an impression that the scene in the UK is tight-lipped and cold. That's a generalization but not without some element of truth. As I said, ID skills weren't always that advanced, but no one mis-behaved, neither photographer nor birder and everyone respected each others wish to see and or photograph a bird.

Magee Marsh, Ohio - Day Five

With a little bit of extra 'gen' from Dermot Breen, I checked the fish ponds and flooded meadow area either side of the causeway as you approach Magee Marsh parking lots. Here I had several small flocks of summer plumaged Dunlin and there were about three Semi-palmated Sandpipers mixed in with them as well as two Semi-palmated Plovers in and around the same spot. I also added Black-crowned Night Heron and Green-winged Teal to the trip list.
I birded the board walk east to west and it was clear that there had been a clear-out of warblers, numbers were lower than previous days as were numbers of birders. I heard but did not see a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (disappointed about that, a bird I'd love to see) and met another birder who'd had a brief but good view of a Black-billed Cuckoo, I looked also for that but neither saw or heard it.
I did at least add Willow Flycatcher to my life list, a silhouette perched in a tree but giving its distinctive 'Fitz-bew' song. I received a field tutorial from a US birder on the songs of the Empidonax species, 'Fitz-bew' for Willow and 'Free-beer' for Alder were the bits that I remembered. Although the warblers were moving on, we were entering prime time for these flycatcher species.
At this stage of the day the light was very harsh so it was pointless to take the camera out. I walked the shore before lunch and had a few small flocks of Ruddy Turnstone with the odd Dunlin sitting on the breakwater jetties. After lunch I walked the estuary trail and had a single silent (and therefore unidentified) Empidonax. I also checked an area of flooded meadow off the Benton-Carroll Road (just off Highway 2 less than a mile east of Magee Marsh) and added Lesser Yellowlegs to the list. I was told that Greater Yellowlegs and Pectoral Sandpiper had also been seen here but all I had were Lessers. With little else to see for the day and feeling quite tired, I decided to call it a day at 2.30pm and get some rest before the final full day of birding on Tuesday.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Magee Marsh, Ohio - Day Four

Today, Sunday, I was a feeling a bit tired and so I slept in back at the hotel. I expected the crowds to be  on the boardwalk again but I knew if I spent another day at the photography spot it would be more of the same.
That afternoon I walked the board walk with my gear. Its possible to find a spot where there are no people, make a little space for yourself and just wait for something to show. I will add also that people are very polite and courteous towards one another, no-one misbehaves and everyone tries to give each other an opportunity to see or photograph a bird.
I joined a small group of birders first near the east entrance trying to get shots of a female Golden-winged Warbler. There were several females around during my visit but none showed too well. This particular individual came very close at times but there always seemed to be either a part of the boardwalk or a branch in the way of a shot.
Numbers of Canada Warblers (all males) seemed to be up too compared to previous days. I first saw this species in Ireland in 2006 when Maurice Hanafin and Seamus Enright found one near Kilbaha, County Clare. That was a female first winter. I also had tree-top views of males in Panama and they are striking birds but it was fantastic to see males so close at Magee Marsh, so close at times there was no need for bins as they fed within touching distance (and no, I didn't try to touch them!).

Male Canada Warbler
In the afternoon I birded a trail near the visitor centre and had White-crowned Sparrow and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. I almost stood on a Northern Water Snake (scared the crap out of me, not venomous but I didn't know that at the time). I watched an Eastern Phoebe flycatching from some pines in the parking lot.
In the evening I gave the photography spot an hour, I had it to myself and while the only decent shot I got was of a female Black-throated Blue Warbler, I did have tree-top views of a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak (lifer) and a Veery joined the other thrushes briefly before an American Robin chased it away (pity, as I really like Veerys and wanted a photo).

Female Black-throated Blue Warbler

Before I left a birder came up to me and asked if I had seen the roosting Nighthawk, I hadn't, so he took me off to show it. I was very glad he did, it was roosting high up in a sycamore near the west entrance. Here's a record shot of a life bird for me.

Roosting Common Nighthawk
As I packed up to head off I had the feeling that while tomorrow would be quieter, a lot of people that I gotten to know over the course of the last four days would also have finished their time at Magee and moved on too. The boardwalk would be easier to move around but a less people to share the experience with of seeing these amazing birds. The weather too didn't suggest that there would be an arrival of new migrants and I expected that a clear-out would be evident.

Magee Marsh, Ohio - Day Three

I knew that that today, Saturday, would be very busy so I started the day by birding the auto-route at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge which is just next door to the Magee Marsh entrance off Highway 2. A quick poke around some of the trails produced Green Heron, Brown Thrasher and Red-belled Woodpecker.
The auto-route (as its name suggests) involves driving on a dirt road around a serious of fish ponds and flooded meadow that can often hold shorebirds and waterbirds. I was a little disappointed to be honest not to see any shorebirds but I did manage to add Blue-winged Teal, American Coot, Pied-billed Grebe, Eared (Black-necked Grebe), American Herring Gull and Ring-billed Gull to the trip list.

2nd cy Ring-billed Gulls

Adult Herring Gulls (Smithsonianus)

I returned to Magee at lunchtime and the full parking lots indicated that the crowds were significant. I avoided the board-walk altogether and joined the photographers at the same spot off the west parking lot.
Yellow Warblers were present as usual and at least one male Chestnut-sided Warbler appeared occasionally.

Male Chestnut-sided Warbler

Female Yellow Warbler
I decided to take advantage of the confident and confiding Catharus thrushes that were still about. I tried lying on my belly using a beanbag but there was always a blade or grass in the way so I set the tripod up at medium height and got the best shots when the birds perched on low branches or a tree stump.

Gray-cheeked Thrush

Gray-cheeked Thrush

Gray-cheeked Thrush

Swainson's Thrush
Happy with these efforts I called it a day, Sunday would be another busy one.

Magee Marsh, Ohio - Day Two

The rain had cleared for the second day of my visit (Friday 16th May), the sun was out but so too were the crowds. Added to that, it was cold, very cold in fact. I layered up but anytime I stopped for a while to watch a bird I would begin to shiver.
This time I started at the east end of the boardwalk and warbler numbers were good with Magnolia Warblers and American Redstarts being the commonest species still. In the willows along the edge of the water I had a single Ruby-crowned Kinglet, my only one of the trip. Once I had done a full circuit of the boardwalk I returned to get my camera gear but the crowds and harsh light meant photos were very difficult.

Crowds and strong light meant photos were difficult

I took a quick stroll of the lake shore edge and added Killdeer and Spotted Sandpiper to the trip list.

Lake Erie shoreline

After lunch I joined the band of photographers who had set up in front of the woodland edge just off the parking lot near the west entrance. They had spiked oranges on the trees to tempt the Orioles and Tanagers and every so often some warblers would come to the edge of the wood and feed down low presenting good photo opportunities.

Male Baltimore Oriole

If this wasn't good enough then, the Catharus Thrushes would venture out of the wood and begin foraging on the ground around our feet. It wasn't uncommon to have a Swainson's Thrush poking around between the legs of my tripod. They were joined by Gray-cheeked Thrushes also and it was a great opportunity to compare the two species side by side. The Swainson's clearly a lot more buffy around the face and with a buff coloured eye-ring, the Gray-cheeks were colder and more gray looking simply.
On the warbler side of things, we had regular visits from a stunning male Bay-breasted Warbler

Male Bay-breasted Warbler
As you can see from the first shot, I continued to struggle a little with the external flash and fresnel lens set-up. This is de riguer for US bird photographers but a no-no in Europe. So this was the first time I have used the external flash and I found it tricky to balance the ratio of ambient light and light from the flash. The shot above of the singing bird has too much flash in my opinion, I may be able to reduce it a little in CS5 but I'm posting the image here to make a point. The second image is much better, I still used flash but I reduced the power by decreasing the FEC to -2.
We were also entertained by at least three male Yellow-rumped or Myrtle Warblers, the other guys didn't pay much attention to them but having only ever seen one before on Cape Clear Island, I was quite taken by these birds.

Male Yellow-rumped Warbler
We had brief visits too from a male Cape May, this was a species I hadn't paid too much attention to in the field guides before my trip (don't ask me why), but once you see it, it is a stunning bird.

Male Cape May Warbler
For me, the male Blackburnian Warbler is possibly my all time favourite species. One male was present but preferred to stay well back, he did come close-ish on one occasion and while I could always have a better shot, I was reasonably happy with this one.

Male Blackburnian Warbler
Before I finished up for the day a striking male Black-throated Blue dropped by, the light was going so I only managed one decent shot. Here he is with a bug in his bill.

Male Black-throated Blue Warbler
More on day three!

Tuesday 20 May 2014

Magee Marsh, Ohio - Day One

A trip to the "Warbler capital of the World" has been on my bucket list for several years now. Magee Marsh, Ohio is up there if not ahead of High Island, Texas or Point Pelee, Ontario as the place to see the American Wood Warblers at close-hand. On its famous board-walk, the birds will sometimes be within touching distance, often dangling above your head as they feed up before crossing to the far side of Lake Erie.
I timed my visit as close as possible to the middle two weeks of May when migration is at its peak. I tried as much as possible to avoid the crowds that gather for the modestly termed "The Biggest Week in American Birding" festival. The board walk can get crowded during this time. My first day at Magee coincided with the final day of the festival.
I arrived on Wednesday 14th May, flying from Norwich via Amsterdam to Detroit. At Detroit I picked up a rental car and drove south to the town of Maumee, Ohio (forty minutes drive from Magee) and stayed there for the duration of my visit. It was a little far from the reserve itself but options for hotels, supermarkets and restaurants were good. On arrival I grabbed a quick bite to eat from the restaurant next door to my hotel before hitting the hay early in preparation for my first day at Magee Marsh.
The next morning I awoke at 4am (still a bit jet lagged) and made the journey to Magee arriving at 7am as the rain began to fall. This was good weather for holding the warblers on this side of Lake Erie. I felt a great sense of anticipation as I gathered my bins, closed the car and headed to the board-walk for the first time. What would be the first warbler species I would see and how many lifers would I take in on just my first day.

West entrance to the Magee Marsh board-walk

Warbler number one was Yellow Warbler, not a lifer, but a fine bird nonetheless. They are in fact the most common breeding warbler at Magee so no real surprise to start with them. But the next two were lifers, American Redstart and Magnolia Warbler. I watched them for a while before moving on. The heavy crowds didn't seem to be present as I expected, however it was raining and it was early. In fact, as the first few hours moved on the rain got heavier and heavier. I was glad I packed water-proofs and had kept my camera gear in the car. Anyway, it didn't stop me birding. The rain had clearly held birds at Magee and in that first morning I came away with the following species;

Yellow Warbler
Protonotary Warbler (L)
Cape May Warbler (L)
Palm Warbler (L)
Blackpoll Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Northern Parula (L)
American Redstart (L)
Wilson's Warbler (L)
Black-throated Blue Warbler (L)
Black-throated Green Warbler (L)
Magnolia Warbler (L)
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler (L)
Black and White Warbler (L)
Ovenbird (L)

L denotes a lifer.

In the afternoon, the rain died off but the wind picked up. The crowds grew a little but not that much so I put my camera gear together and set myself up by the tower near the west entrance. I was joined by a couple of other photographers and we passed a great couple of hours trying to get shots of Protonotary, Blackburnian, Cape May, Wilson's Warbler and American Redstarts that were frequenting the area under the tower. The light was poor but using the external flash (more or less for the first time) helped out.

Female American Redstart

My all time favourite bird - male Blackburnian Warbler

Female Cape May Warbler

Female Cape May Warbler

Female Cape May Warbler

Female Prothonotary Warbler

Female Prothonotary Warbler

Wilson's Warbler

Wilson's Warbler

At 6pm, I called it a day, the light was poor and I was hitting the wall. The next day promised to be dry and sunny, the birds would come out but so too the crowds!

Saturday 10 May 2014

A short trip to Latvia

I arrived back in Latvia last Thursday for just a short visit. Despite an early flight, once I arrived I was given a list of gardening chores to get along with. As I pulled weeds and raked the grass, a male Common Redstart sung from the trees at the back of the garden and was joined briefly by a Wood Warbler spinning his coin. A forty-five minute walk in the woods later that evening revealed up to five Wood Warblers already in song.
Yesterday Friday the tiredness hit me and I had other things to do, so no birding.
Today on our way into Riga by train I had a quick glimpse of two Hawfinches as they flew from one tree to another. A Latvian tick for me. Having done our business near the city we strolled back along the footpath that runs along side the train line. One one side is the rail track and on the other are gardens and a mix of whitethorn and hawthorn type bushes. I caught a brief snatch of Nightingale song. When I remembered what part of the world I was in I realised that it would have to be Thrush Nightingale (a lifer). It was singing very close by, but recent experiences of Nightingales in Norwich have taught me not to expect any sort of views without a lot of patience. However, I couldn't believe my luck when there it was in full view on a branch singing away. The song is of course like that of Nightingale, but different, maybe not quite so melodic or fluting. We listened and watched for a while before the bird moved away. I could still here it singing as we sat in the station waiting for the train.
We got back to Jurmala and I decided to take a stroll up to the Lielupe river area that I regularly bird when I'm here. This place never disappoints and today was no exception.
As I left the house the rain started to chuck it down. I thought about turning back but I was glad I kept going. Along the banks of the first small fish pond were ten Whinchats, a couple of White Wagtails and a single Blue-headed Wagtail. There was no sign of the male Stonechat which I found here last month, which was incidentally only the thirteenth record for Latvia. Next up was a rather sodden but pretty female Common Redstart. I hadn't much time so I tried to do a full circuit of this small reserve. I came around to a row of beech trees and willows near the allotments and picked up some movement. In fact quite a lot of movement, the more I looked the more I could see, these few trees were heaving with migrants. Presumably stalled by the heavy rain. First I had a Lesser Whitethroat, then another and another until soon I lost count of Lesser Whitethroats. Two male Blackcaps, then a female, then a Garden Warbler, then another Garden Warbler. In the tree beside me was a Tree Pipit, actually two Tree Pipits. Then, the special one!.....a stunningly beautiful male Red-breasted Flycatcher. I watched him for a while. A Wryneck whizzed past and vanished into cover. Willow Warblers were everywhere. A male Common Redstart was feeding around the base of a tree and I counted at least two Spotted Flycatchers and five Pied Flycatchers. All this in about three or four trees. There is no doubt the heavy rain had dropped them down. In the middle of all of this excitement, a Corncrake starts 'crex-crexing' from the long grass just behind while another Corncrake responds from about two hundred meters further off.
I had promised to be back by 6.30pm, I had to peal myself away from the place. For the last thirty minutes or so the rain had stopped and the bird numbers had begun to thin down as they moved on.
I got back to house in time to hear and see a Greenish Warbler singing from a pine tree along the side of the house.
Back to England tomorrow, but what a place for birding Latvia is!