out-of-state

My First Trip to Magee Marsh

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The entrance to the boardwalk trail at Magee Marsh on Friday. We had to be careful not to slip on the boards. © S.G. Hansen

When migrating warblers reach Lake Eerie, they see a rather large body of water, decide not to cross, and use Magee Marsh as a rest stop. They have traveled thousands of miles and are exhausted. Early next morning, they eat and sing upon rising, and then they fly over Eerie to Canada, where they will reach their breeding grounds.

In my previous post in which I detailed my process for studying warbler songs, I stated an upcoming Saw Mill River Audubon trip to Magee Marsh. The entire trip lasted May 1-9. I opted for the first half – from the 1st to the 5h (the 9th was my birthday and I didn’t want to spend 9 hours traveling). This trip seemed like a fantastic chance to fulfill my New Year’s resolution of observing more warblers – both the numbers and species. I hoped for at least fifteen species a day and a few lifers (keep in mind, Sibley’s fold-out guide covers 38 warblers). How about a Prothonotary or Kirtland’s?! I was thrilled at the idea of a colorful collage of warblers at eye and ground level instead of craning my head up to the canopy the entire time and suffering “warbler neck.” I felt totally confident about identifying warblers by sight. However, at the beginning, I felt anxious that the songs I studied would fly out the window as soon as I got there. Bird songs vary in the field…application takes practice.

Now that the trip has passed…. Suffice to say, I didn’t see Magee Marsh at its fullest potential. When you’re repeatedly told that warblers are trickling from the trees at every angle, and you don’t feel agoraphobic in spite of the throng of like-minded birders, you go in expecting a certain level of birdiness.

Ever since I caught birding fever, I quickly learned that expectation can be met with disappointment. The birds are unpredictable. What you get is what you get. Alternatively, the outcome might be better than what you originally sought.

Now when it comes to weather, you pray pray pray. During the weeks leading up to the trip, leaders Anne Swaim and Charlie Roberto closely followed the forecast. Initially, the weather was ideal: sunny and warm. But as time progressed, the predictions changed. The forecast eventually stuck with cold, wet, and windy. A storm was supposed to occur on Thursday, when we scheduled a ferry to Pelee Island.

We only had two “good” days out of five: Monday afternoon (my arrival) and most of Wednesday, which, though a tad cold for early May, were sunny. The other days were not great. Songbirds hate high winds, thus so do I. It was windy and overcast. Warblers don’t feel so inclined reveal themselves if there is no sun, which draws out insects. Warblers pretend they don’t exist when the wind feels like it can tear off a car door.

Though the rain didn’t start until the afternoon, our Thursday ferry to Pelee Island was cancelled. We still made a trek to the boardwalk trail spotted decent birds. Friday was the worst. It rained all day long. The wind by Lake Eerie’s shore felt and sounded like hurricane-level. The joke “Hold onto your hats!” was told one too many times.

Our hotels were half an hour away from the Magee Marsh, so we drove back and forth on Route 2 every day. We passed the same landmarks and fields and ponds multiple times. On Thursday and Friday, we could truly see how much rain was falling. The rivers and ponds rose drastically. Egrets huddled in the vegetation to escape the downpour and the wind. Another day or two of this storm and Route 2 could have flooded. Large puddles coated the farm fields. One side road was closed to due to flooding.  On Thursday late afternoon, we tried a brief visit to Metzger Marsh but left immediately. Lake waves were washing over the part of the parking lot. On our way out, a lower stretch of the driveway was flooded by several inches. It wasn’t flooded when we drove in.

Charlie and Anne mostly drove us to various hotpots around Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. Waterfowl, shorebirds, and wader birds would the warbler void. As we crept by on the narrow roads, we scanned from our vehicles through open windows. The wind blustered in. The rain pelted us, sharp as needles. When we stopped every fifty feet, not everyone ventured outside. Most of us expected actual May weather and were under dressed, even with rain pants. (I didn’t have rain paints – extra misery points for me.) I mostly stayed inside too. I made up my mind to go out unless Anne or Charlie put their scopes on something different or exciting. I couldn’t handle this read-a-book-by-the-fireplace weather any longer. The rain kept falling. Eventually, we resorted to strictly observing from within our vehicles, windows closed.

No matter the weather, actually, there were a lot of highlights as we went around Ottawa and visited Metzger during the week. I’m thankful that waterfowl, shorebirds, and wader birds don’t mind cold and wet weather. I heard Trumpeter Swans for the first time. I saw more Blue-winged Teal than I have had at Montezuma NWR. I finally had an opportunity to see Dunlin in their breeding plumage, with rusty backs and patch black bellies. I had never seen so many Great and Lesser Yellowlegs at once. We observed more than thirty Sandhill Cranes throughout our five days, flying, calling, foraging, and walking. Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons were everywhere, especially along Route 2.

We also saw an American Pipit in breeding plumage (not something you’d get in Westchester County), a great number of Bald Eagles, a flock of 40 Wood Ducks, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a handful of Swainson’s Thrushes and Horned Larks, a large flock of various swallows flycatching all around us as we walked the beach, a Lark Sparrow and several Red-headed Woodpeckers at Oak Openings Preserve, and an Eastern Whip-poor-will sleeping mere feet away from the Magee Marsh boardwalk (a surprise lifer!).

In spite these highlights, I can’t help but feel more disappointed than content. I went on this trip solely for warblers. I spent a lot of money on it. Did I set myself up for disappointment in spite of my philosophy? On this scale, it hurts. It’s hard to escape bitterness.

I couldn’t bring myself look at the eBird lists from the 6th to the 9th. I finally asked someone who signed up for entire trip how things went. Though the weather was sunnier, the wind didn’t calm down. No improvements in warbler diversity except for a sighting of a Prothonotary. He and the others also saw Marbled Godwit, Least Bittern, and Soras. Alas, all potential lifers. Birding is fun yet so cruel.

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We spent a lovely afternoon at Oak Openings Preserve on Wednesday. Charlie found a ring-necked snake. I got to hold it! When it doubt, snakes. © Philip Heidelberger

I personally observed 17 warbler species over the course of the five days: Northern Waterthrush, Blue-winged Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Cape May Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Palm Warbler, Pine Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, and Canada Warbler.

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We’re trying to get on a not-so-cooperative Canada Warbler. © Charlie Roberto

Many were First of Year, mostly observed on the boardwalk and the Ottawa NWR Crane Creek Trail. The Blue-winged and the Prairie were heard-only’s. I saw so many Yellow-rumped and Palm that I was done with them by the end of the trip (as said before, I wanted diversity). Expressing this sentiment aloud brought out teasing from Charlie. As beautiful as these warblers are…well, I wasn’t the only frustrated person. I also heard and saw many Yellows. I nearly confused one’s song for that of a Chestnut-sided Warbler. In fact, I was surprised to not have observed Chestnut-sided at all! I missed my favorite warbler.

One of my favorite of the trip is the Orange-crowned. The only other time I got one was more than a year and a half ago at Cape May. Although I wasn’t confident I would be able to ID it on my own, I still counted it as a lifer. It’s plumage is a subtle olive-gray. Rather drab like the Warblering Vireo. Speed forward through time, I saw up to four during this trip. These little guys were literally over my head (kind of what I generally expected for every other warbler during the trip). I had such excellent looks that I was able to notice the diagnostic flank stripes and eye line. My ID skills have definitely improved since Cape May. Additional good looks include Canada, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, and Northern Parula.

I barely missed the two Blackburnians a couple others saw Monday afternoon, one of the better days. It would have been a year bird, but I’m glad to have missed it over my first-ever Nashville Warbler. I got only a glimpse of it. The Nashville didn’t perch out in the open long, though my first look was a good enough: soft blue-gray head, warm yellow throat and breast, a fine olive back, and a bright white eye ring. I had admired the bird from afar in the Warbler Guide’s photos. Seeing the Nashville personally proved again that the live bird in front of you is quite astounding. I thought I would have trouble ID’ing by sight like – and might even confuse it with – the Connecticut and Tennessee, which are the more subtle-colored warblers. Though as soon as I put my binoculars on it, “Nashville” clicked right away. I gladly present the fact that I was the only person in group to have observed it that day.

One other warbler counted as a lifer: the Cape May. I had considered it a “mythical bird” (others used to be the Barred Owl, Harlequin Duck, and Red-breasted Nuthatch). You haven’t seen it yet other people have. It’s the subject of many photos and videos. You can’t believe such a bird exists. Too much of a striking creature, simple in its own life yet profound in yours. How can this plumage pattern have formed, and those particular colors? When will you chance come?

I was lucky saw two individual Cape Mays two days in a row. The first one – someone notified me as we slowly strolled on the boardwalk and I practically ran over to the spot. I had a little trouble getting on it since flitted deep in a shrub some yards away from the boardwalk. As soon as I found, I locked my eyes on it until it went out of sight a couple minutes later. This one’s plumage was more intense than what I’d seen in my field guides’ illustrations. Strong yellow, deep orange cheek patches, and dense black breast streaks. It foraged near the front of the shrub, obligingly staying put in one spot for more than two seconds, clinging to the flimsy ends of branches upside down, pecking the underside of leaves for insects.

The next day, we had just completed the boardwalk and lingered outside the entrance. A small bird swiftly fluttering in a short tree caught my eye. At first look I noticed streaks on a yellow breast – yellow warbler – but the streaks were too dark and heavy. “Cape May Warbler!” A crowd drew around.

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Photographer eyes on the Cape May Warbler. © Charlie Roberto

This Cape May was lighter than the other, having finer streaks, cheek patches colored a more delicate orange. It foraged so thoroughly and out in the sunny open that everyone in our group got their bins on it. No one should miss this warbler or dare to give up on it when it’s so cooperative.

Of course, now I must return to Magee Marsh one future May. I have a feeling that my yearning for more warblers will never subside even after then.

Magee Marsh also seems like an extraordinary duck habitat. Thank goodness I can turn to ducks for their reliability.

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Yes, I’m smiling. It wasn’t so windy when this photo was taken. With my friend Kathleen, a luckier trip go-er who went with the flow and didn’t mind the lack of warblers. © S.G. Hansen

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The Young Know What They Are

I returned to the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary an hour before dusk. I went on the Bayview trail with my parents that afternoon. I had a good open view of some shorebirds on the mudflats, but the heatwaves and the backlighting obscured the birds. Unsatisfied, I suggested we returned in the evening to watch the sunset instead of walking on a beach again. I wanted to go on the boardwalk trail, to go near the end where the marsh was. My father ended up going with me.

At 7 in the evening, the visitor’s center had been closed for two hours. Tourists were long gone, at dinner. The pitch pine forest blocked the orange sunlight, covering the entrance area was in shadows. Except for one man just crossing the gate to leave, my father and I were the only people there. I simply heard common songbirds (cardinal, chickadee, catbird, goldfinch).

I like the solitude in a natural setting while birding. I don’t mind passersby – other birders, walkers, joggers, or dog walkers (the dogs better be on leash!) – but I am more in control of my relationship to the surroundings. I can easily modulate my presence. I am the only human that needs to quiet their step, consciously. The more I make it seem like I have always been a part of the setting, the less the birds hide. They continue their activities without feeling the need to adjust their own presences.

My father, a quiet person, also appreciates the quiet of nature.

The air cooled a little more. We went on the part of the path that went through a patch of oak trees. The songbirds eventually quieted down to silence. I got a little too eager for action at one point. I thought I saw a strange bird tapping at a sycamore tree. It was just a piece of bark randomly flapping (there was no breeze as far as I could tell).

A little further up, I saw a little side trail to the left. My parents and I visited the Wellfeet Bay Sanctuary three years previously when we last vacationed in Cape Cod. We walked the entire boardwalk trail then. On the way, we went on this little trail and briefly stopped at the bird blind that overlooks the large pond.

This was the summer before I got into birdwatching, just a few months before. I was like non-birders: Who stands around to look at birds like that? Uh, boring?

I didn’t pause when I saw the little trail. Remembering it and the memories associated with it, I headed down. I was a birder this time. One must visit a bird blind.

I approached the blind – a small gray wooden hut with two rectangular windows – as gingerly as I could, taking care not to creak the floorboard steps. I kept my gaze through the windows as I entered. Immediately, I saw two juvenile Black-crowned Night-Herons. I hissed at my father, who was waiting on the path, to get in and look.

Juvenile Black-crowned Night-Herons look radically different from the adults, who have crisply clean plumage: gray-black wings and back, off-white underside. Juveniles are brown and white with spotted wings and a heavily streaked breast. They also lack the lone white plume that extends from the back of the head.

Not even fifteen feet away, the two night-herons were perched on an upright fallen  branch that split into a short fork. One on the left fork, the other on the right fork. I didn’t have to use my binoculars. I lent them to my father.

The sunset was now more orange, lighting the shallow water brightly and surrounding the night-herons in a glow. Bugs tapped the water around them, making numerous small short-lived ripples. On either side of them, by the water’s edge, were reeds and tall grasses.

Almost fully grown, they had the stocky, hunched composure of an adult. I didn’t have to guess whether they heard and saw me approach. The one of the left had its back to the blind. After a short moment, it craned its head as if to see what new commotion as going on in the blind. Then once more it moved, turning its whole body to face its sibling. Meanwhile, the one of the right remained motionless. I couldn’t tell if they were staring at me (with one eye each locked on the blind), staring into space, or staring at each other. Still, they looked aware. Incredibly aware. Very, very still. They had a mature air, enigmatically poised.

I normally perceive adult birds like this. Juveniles birds were awkward. Teenagers awkwardly in the middle of puberty. Juvenile herons especially look awkward because of their Doc Brown-like white down feathers. And in general, young birds often don’t recognize that humans are another potential predator they need to be cautious around. So they get a little too close for their own good. Luckily, it’s not for their own good if the humans are birders.

For these two young night-herons to have more dignity and grace than even an adult Great Blue Heron was surprising. I couldn’t help but turn around a few times and excitedly whisper to my father what he was looking at. At this point I would be truly projecting human qualities on them: each time I did move and whisper, I felt that they disapproved of me a little more, and would get closer to flying away from us.

The pond darkened. I didn’t keep track of how long we stayed in the blind. At some point we turned our attention to the Belted Kingfisher perched on a stump in the middle of pond. It was the first time my father saw a kingfisher and I wanted him to get a good look at it. Still, we kept most of our attention on the night-herons. My excitement for the moment didn’t dwindle even a little, but it seemed that we were spending too much time in the blind. We may have already stressed the night-herons enough (Or did we? Were they already so motionless before my father and I went into the blind? Did they not care about our presence? Were they aware but kept going with their business of resting (meditating??) regardless?), and I told my father we should move on. An amateur photographer without a good camera, he rued for a series of lost pictures. Nevertheless, later at the motel, he expressed how happy he was to accompany me, as he almost skipped out.