Birders descend on Lake Erie shore to spot rare songbirds

The Kirtland's warbler, which was almost extinct 50 years ago, winters in the Bahamas and is extremely habitat-limited since it nests only in stands of small jack pines in northern Michigan, Ontario, and Wisconsin. It's recovering but it still is a rare sight. (Wisconsin DNR)

TOLEDO, Ohio — Nature makes no promises, but with just a smidge of good fortune, spending part of a May day in any of Northwest Ohio’s birding hotspots could afford you the opportunity to see a ruby-crowned kinglet, a Cape May warbler, a gnatcatcher, a warbling vireo, a prothonotary warbler, a red-eyed vireo, a black-throated blue warbler, or a Philadelphia vireo.

Or you just might see all of them. And if the birding planets are aligned, the very rare Kirtland’s warbler could possibly flutter into your field of vision.

“Anyone who is knowledgeable about birds has understood for decades that we live in a place where you have the opportunity each spring to see many different species of birds,” said Matt Anderson, an avid local birder. “The birding here is really incredible, and now with social media connecting so many birders, the word gets out quickly if someone locates a certain bird, and the next thing you know, there’s a dozen people there to see it.”

The marshes, woodlots, meadows, and natural areas along the Lake Erie shoreline are a collecting point for hundreds of thousands of songbirds – the stars of that show – on their arduous migration journey from their wintering grounds in the tropics to their breeding grounds in the northern forests.

“Lake Erie is a barrier on that long migration route, so the marshes and habitat along the lake become the perfect stopover point for all of these warblers and other types of birds that come through the area,” said Meredith Gilbert from the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

“They congregate here to rest and refuel, and that creates a tremendous opportunity to see so many different species in one place. For a birder, this is the pinnacle. If you come here at the right time, you will likely see a wide variety of birds.”

One of those making an appearance could be the ruby-crowned kinglet, which winters in Mexico and the southern U.S. and is just passing through on its way to Canada or Alaska. This bird is tiny – weighing from 0.2 to 0.4 ounces, but the male flashes a spikey shock of bright red feathers when agitated that would make the comedian Carrot Top proud.

That Cape May warbler is another regular guest in our region during spring migration, stopping over after spending the winter on the islands of the Caribbean, where it dined on nectar with its unusual curled and somewhat tubular tongue.

The blue-gray gnatcatcher is a close relative of the common wren and, despite its moniker, gnats are not the mainstay of its diet since it prefers spiders and also uses spider webs in its nest building. And if it is feeling somewhat cosmopolitan, the blue-gray gnatcatcher goes by its French name _ Gobemoucheron gris-bleu.

“We get so many different species, so many of the warblers, because this area is a funnel on their migration route,” said Mark Shieldcastle, a retired wildlife biologist who spent his career working along Lake Erie, and now serves as the research director for Black Swamp Bird Observatory, the driving force behind the Biggest Week festival. “Overall, we are a migration site for many of these birds. As part of their life cycle they pass through here twice a year, in the spring and in the fall.”

The spring migration appears to bring the greatest concentrations of the migrant species, since they use the pockets of habitat near the lake as an oasis before attempting the long water crossing. Whether in one of the habitat-rich marshes, or at numerous other sites that loop west in the corridor close to the lake, birders can check a dozen or more species off their “life list”, which is a journal of all the species they have encountered.

The warbling vireo does not have the striking colors many of the other spring travelers display, but the male of the species lets you know he is nearby with a fast-paced, rollicking song that shows he deserves the warbler tag.

The Prothonotary warbler that is often among the May crowd is one of the heavyweights of the warbler clan, weighing in at around .45 ounces. The name comes from the bird’s bright gold feathers, which resembles the equally brilliant yellow robes worn by papal clerks in the Roman Catholic church, called prothonotaries.

The Kirtland’s warbler, which was almost extinct 50 years ago, winters in the Bahamas and is extremely habitat-limited since it nests only in stands of small jack pines in northern Michigan, Ontario, and Wisconsin. It’s recovering but it still is a rare sight.

Shieldcastle recalled his first Kirtland’s at Magee Marsh back in 1980. “At that time, you could put all of the Kirtland’s warblers in the world in a couple of grocery sacks,” he said.

The global population of Kirtland’s warblers is now estimated at about 2,300 pairs, and after considerable work by conservation groups and government entities, it could soon be removed from the endangered species list.

“No matter what species it is, they are all amazing,” said Mary Warren, who worked as a naturalist at Magee Marsh for about 20 years and now volunteers with the Friends of Magee Marsh organization.

“Pretty much throughout the whole month of May, the warblers are what all of the people come to see. And even after experiencing it for all of these years, I’m still fascinated by them. They are so small and they travel so far. It’s a real treat every time we get to see them.”

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