Birder Bait: A Rarity Lures Me Back to Ohio

I alluded to this at the end of my previous post, but after coming home from a week in Ohio  watching the migration, can you believe that I ended up turning around and going back down for a day trip? “But,” you say, “you were so exhausted and overwhelmed with photos and memories already…what could possibly make you go back so soon?” Well, I’ll tell you what: Not one but three Kirtland’s Warblers!

Singing his own tune! (This is the Kirtland's from last year.)

Singing his own tune!
(This is the Kirtland’s from last year.)

I wrote about the Kirtland’s situation last year, so you may remember that this warbler is on the Endangered Species List due to its very specific and limited habitat requirements. It nests only in jack pines found in sandy soil in northeastern Michigan, and small parts of Wisconsin and Ontario — that’s it. Nowhere else on the planet has the right conditions for them to nest and raise their young. They nest on the ground below the jack pines, but only if the trees are between 5 and 15 feet tall. Finicky birds, right? And as an additional complication,  the jack pines require extremely high heat (from forest fires) to release their seeds and regenerate. As you know, the modern world doesn’t allow fires to burn uncontrolled. We put those suckers out as fast as possible! The resulting decline in numbers of jack pines really caused problems for Kirtland’s Warblers, and the birds were down to about three hundred individuals in the 1980s. Thanks to intensive efforts to provide conditions for jack pines to grow, as well as trapping of cowbirds (who lay their eggs in Kirtland’s nests, causing the death of many Kirtland’s nestlings), the worldwide population of Kirtland’s Warblers is now up to around three or four thousand. There’s talk of removing them from the Endangered Species List soon, but for now and the foreseeable future they remain a highly sought-after bird for warbler watchers. (Here’s the Michigan DNR fact page about the Kirtland’s Warbler for those who are interested.)

So we got home on May 11, and on May 14 I saw reports that three Kirtland’s had been found on the beach at Magee Marsh. Of course, just like last year, they arrived after we’d already gone. But since the migration forecasts for the next day were extremely optimistic for lots of new migrants to be around, I decided to go back down the next morning and spend the day.

I was on the road at 6:45 am for the 115 mile drive to Magee Marsh. That alone is extremely unusual for me, a card-carrying “night person” whose brain doesn’t usually function properly until 10 am. As I exited the highway just outside Toledo, I stopped to check social media for updates. I found a message from my blogger friend Dawn saying “Kirtland’s at east Beach.. Kim – are you on your way?” I quickly told her that I was very close, and jumped back on Rt 2 heading east, trying desperately to stay at the speed limit. (The local police are very aggressive in issuing speeding tickets on that road — don’t ask me how I know that….)

Watching the Kirtland's Warbler on the east beach at Magee Marsh

Watching the Kirtland’s Warbler on the east beach at Magee Marsh

I could tell when I saw the parking lot at the east beach that the bird was still there — that lot is usually almost empty. But I was puzzled when I headed out on the beach at 9 am and didn’t see the large group of people I’d expected. The largest gathering I saw was about 10 people, and they were watching a cuckoo, not the Kirtland’s. They said it was further down the beach. So I continued walking eastward on the sand, beginning to sweat already at 9 am, burdened with my camera bag, camera with big lens over my right shoulder and binoculars over my left shoulder.  If you’ve ever tried to hurry while walking in deep sand, you know that I was getting quite the workout. I probably went a couple hundred yards down the beach and still nobody had the bird in sight. What the heck? So we all just spread out and kept searching the vegetation at the back of the beach.

Kirtland's Warbler, foraging in the sand

Kirtland’s Warbler, foraging in the sand

Finally, at 10:20, I found a small group that had a Kirtland’s in view! The bird was foraging on the ground, popping in and out of the shrubs behind some sumac trees. Most everyone was keeping a respectful distance, but one woman was on her knees creeping closer and closer with a large camera lens and big external flash, at one point only about three feet from the bird. Of course her actions caused the bird to retreat further into the vegetation, ruining the experience for the rest of us as well. We all asked her to please back up, but amazingly, she refused. I was flabbergasted. People started getting angry at her, heated words were exchanged, and I had to walk away because I was afraid I’d go grab her and pull her out of there. Unbelievable.

I decided to go check out the other warblers on the boardwalk, but as I went over there I paused to post on Facebook about what had just happened. The response was instantaneous and emphatic: “Call the feds on her!” Her actions were in violation of the protections provided by the Endangered Species Act, which provides that nobody can harass or otherwise harm a protected species.  I called the ODNR, which has jurisdiction over the Magee Marsh area, but nobody answered the phone there and the voice mail box was full. That was even more frustrating, but I decided that I wouldn’t let it ruin my whole day, and I went to the boardwalk. The warblers were much more plentiful there than they had been the entire week before, with American Redstarts simply everywhere. I saw my first ever Canada Warbler up close and singing, and then right away a Northern Parula in the same tree. And that was only in the first 25 yards of the boardwalk, so I knew this was going to be a great birding day, despite the temperature climbing into the upper 80s.

...still a bit obscured by vegetation...

…still a bit obscured by vegetation…

After lunch I heard that they had two more Kirtland’s on the west beach, very close to the boardwalk. So I went over there, hoping to try my luck again. This time I immediately saw where the action was, because there were about a dozen people gathered only 30 or 40 yards down the beach. They were watching a male Kirtland’s foraging right out in the open, often hopping up on bare branches a couple feet off the ground. This is the bird you see in the photos here.

I met some fellow members of Birding Ohio in the crowd, and we chatted a bit about the incident on the east beach earlier in the day. As we talked, I noticed a woman in this crowd behaving much like the one in the morning, sitting on the ground very close to where the bird was moving around. I was feeling very protective of these birds and I admit I was acting like a self-appointed Kirtland’s bodyguard. Sometimes when these rare birds show up, there can be a bit of insanity among the birders and professional photographers watching them. People often forget common sense in their zeal to get “that perfect photo” or the best up-close looks. So as we talked I kept my eye on the crowd to make sure nobody harrassed the bird.

...now in full view, after a vigorous preening session!

…now in full view, after a vigorous preening session!

Full belly, check. Nicely groomed, check. Ok, time to head north across that big lake!

Full belly, check. Nicely groomed, check. Ok, time to head north across that big lake!

After I shot a couple dozen quick shots, I stepped back from the crowd a bit to just watch and enjoy the bird. When I put the camera down and started observing this little guy going about his life with no regard for the group of people staring at him and following him as he moved along the shrub line, I got a little bit teary-eyed over the wonder of how he even managed to be there on that beach for us to see him.

He spent his winter in the Bahamas, as most Kirtland’s do, and then made the long flight back across the ocean and the entire United States. Solely by flapping his tiny little wings. He evaded predators and endured bad weather, wind turbines, and exhaustion, but he’d made it this far and was so close to his nesting grounds a few hundred miles further north. All he needed was some time to refuel and rest, and he’d be on his way to settle down with a mate under their very own jack pine tree.

In a few months he’d make the trip once again, in reverse, heading back to the Bahamas, leaving the rest of us suckers to endure the cold Michigan winter. (One more reason I think the phrase “bird brain” should be a compliment — they’re no fools!)

As for the woman I mentioned? I waited at the back of the crowd until she finally stood up and started walking away. I approached her and had a quiet conversation with her about my concerns, asking if she knew the bird was protected. She seemed a bit unreceptive to the whole thing, but her friend spoke up and thanked me for explaining about the federal protections for the Kirtland’s. She said they’d wondered why people were telling other people to stay away from it. I kept my cool and was very polite to them, and I hope they learned something from our little talk. Who knows, maybe they’ll be the ones to spread the word the next time a rare bird gets mobbed by overeager humans. These birds need all the allies they can get as they continue their difficult struggle for survival.

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5 Responses to Birder Bait: A Rarity Lures Me Back to Ohio

  1. Pingback: American Woodcocks at The Biggest Week | Photo Feathers

  2. Littlesundog says:

    Kim, I’m so proud of you for cooling down, and later, calmly approaching the woman to explain. It’s always best if these scenarios can be handled in a kind manner. And, I’m happy that you were ferocious about protecting the birds. I feel the same way about the wild orphans and injured wildlife I deal with here.

    Great photos to boot!!

    • Kim says:

      Thanks, Lori. I was proud of me too. 😉 Wondering if you might have some injured or orphaned animals to take care of soon in the aftermath of these awful storms. Such devastation.

  3. Corralena says:

    Beautiful photos and a thoughtful commentary about being respectful of wildlife. Thanks for an excellent post!

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