Fireworks in the Woods

It’s May in the Oak Openings region of Ohio, and that means things are busy busy busy! Not only is bird migration already in high gear, but my Wild Ones chapter is in the middle of our annual native plant sale. I’ve been in charge of setting up the website for our pandemic-version online sale, and it’s taken up a lot of my time over the past month. But I’m happy to say that the sale is open now and we’re doing very well so far, so it’s time for me to allow myself some relaxation.

The other day I treated myself to a long walk with a friend to look at more spring wildflowers. I’d gotten a hot tip on the location of a plant I’d never seen before — goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) — so we set off into the woods with that as our primary goal for the day.

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)

Are you familiar with that rush of adrenaline when you first set your eyes on something you’ve been ardently searching for? I felt it when we spotted our first goldenseal, but quickly realized it was too far off the trail to get a good photo. I was disappointed when it looked like that was the only one, but was relieved when we came upon a couple larger patches and were able to see them without leaving the trail.

Goldenseal grows natively in 27 states, and more than half of those have declared it as threatened, vulnerable, or uncommon. At the end of the 19th century, goldenseal populations had dropped significantly due to overharvesting (for purported health benefits, or for use as a dye) and habitat destruction.

My interest in it is because of how visually appealing it is, with the petal-less flowers projecting like white fireworks above the beautifully-textured leaves. I was quite pleased to meet this striking ephemeral flower!

My friend isn’t as much of a wildflower enthusiast as I am, and so it was gratifying to be able to answer many of his questions. Teaching others always helps to improve my confidence, and it showed me that I’m not as much of a novice as I tend to think I am. Having said that, I had to admit to ignorance when we came upon these trillium with maroon flowers.

The first one we found had the flower hanging below the leaves, and I boldly proclaimed it as drooping trillium. I’d never seen them before, but it seemed obvious to me what they were. But shortly afterward, we found others with the maroon flowers standing above the leaves. A quick web search on my phone indicated that both red trillium (Trillium erectum) and drooping trillium (T. flexipes) can have red or white flowers, and both can occur above or below the leaves. Well that’s no help! So I took pictures, and only after I got home did I discover that I probably needed to have better pictures of the interior of the flowers for a positive identification of either one. Apparently, it’s all got to do with the relative lengths and colors of anthers and filaments. As I tried to figure it out, reading about flower parts….pistils, stamens, anthers, filaments, sepals…my eyes quickly crossed and I gave up. I’m sure this stuff is obvious for a botanist, but it’s apparently beyond the limits of my interest in plants, because I just can’t get myself to spend much time figuring it out.

And, after all that I realized that red trillium mostly exists in the eastern half of Ohio — where we’re not — and so all the flowers we saw that day were most likely drooping trillium (T. flexipes). Thank goodness for range maps to help narrow down likely candidates! My brain hurts.

The state wildflower of Ohio, White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)

Earlier that day, before I met up with Ryan, I’d gone to Irwin Prairie State Nature Preserve to see one of my favorite spring flowers, wood betony. More specifically, this is Canadian Wood Betony (Pedicularum canadensis). I don’t know a lot about this flower, but it’s a favorite because of its interesting structure.

Remember when I said that the goldenseal reminded me of fireworks? Well look at this! It seems I have a fondness for flowers that are exuberant…they actually bring a smile to my face and lift my spirits. (By the way, did you know that you can improve your mood just by smiling? Even if you don’t feel it, do it anyway and see if you don’t notice a change in how you feel. Works for me every time.)

As I finish writing this, I’ve just come home after walking in the woods with a different friend. She commented on how she especially loves the woods at this time of year because of all the young leaves and the pretty greens. I agreed, and added that I love touching fresh leaves because they’re so tender and soft and full of new life. I talk often about the healing power of nature, and today was one of those days when I got a much-needed dose of “vitamin N” by touching some of the plants we encountered in the woods.

Touching tender new growth on a mayapple

Next time you’re out in nature, make a point of touching the plants and noticing how they feel against your skin. Leaves, petals, bark, and soil have such varying shapes and textures! It’s one thing to walk in the woods and take pictures, but adding the tactile sensations can be a richer, more intimate way to experience the natural world. And I’d love to hear your thoughts afterward.

Standing in a Cloud of Monarchs

On the weekend of September 8 and 9, we got lucky here on the Ohio shore of Lake Erie. I’d thought it was going to be a good weekend to hunker down indoors with coffee and a good book, and maybe even build the first fire of the season as a big storm dumped endless buckets of rain and whipped the lake into a frenzy.

I was so wrong!

Monarch on butterfly weed in my yard - blogOn Saturday afternoon I saw a few Facebook posts about big numbers of monarch butterflies roosting at places along the south shore of the lake.  I figured that they would move on before I could get over there, so I didn’t get too excited about it. And besides, I’d always heard that THE place to see the massive monarch migration was at Point Pelee, on the Canadian side of Lake Erie. I figured I’d get over there one of these years to see it; for some reason I didn’t feel any urgency about it.

But on Sunday morning I read on social media that there were tens of thousands of the iconic orange and black butterflies roosting at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (ONWR), and that was all it took. The moment I read that I jumped in the car and began the 40-minute drive over there.

Monarch chrysalis ready to eclose - blog
Monarch in chrysalis ready to emerge

ONWR has a wildlife drive, a road that winds through the immense refuge allowing you to see more of it from your car than you can generally see from the hiking trails. They open it on weekends from spring to fall, with the route varying depending on conditions within the various marshes. It’s very popular with local birders, and I’ve driven it many times.

But on Sunday they had opened parts of the wildlife drive that I’d never been able to drive on before, the farthest northern parts, closest to the lake shore. Why? Because that’s where tens — or maybe hundreds — of thousands of monarch butterflies had been forced from the skies by the storm.  I was so awestruck by the sight that I didn’t take nearly enough photos, which I greatly regret.

monarch migration at ONWR (4)

This was one of the first clusters I found, and it was just a taste of what was to come as I got closer to the lake shore. I stopped periodically and got out in the wind and rain to take a few photos, but these photos don’t begin to convey what it was like to see this phenomenon in real life. A couple times I found myself driving verrrry slowly below massive clusters of butterflies with my jaw hanging open and tears forming in my eyes.

monarch migration at ONWR (13)At one point I stepped out of the car and was enveloped in a cloud of wind-tossed monarchs; I’ll never forget what that felt like. It reminded me of a time when I had a similar experience standing beneath an enormous flock of swallows as they swooped all around my head. It almost feels like time stops for a brief moment as you’re swept into the world of these amazing animals.

I took some video to try to give you a better idea of what it was like:

Here’s another one that I took just to show how they can hold on even in very strong winds:

I’ve always thought of butterfly wings as being so delicate and fragile, but they’re obviously stronger than they appear.

Most monarchs only live for a few weeks, but this last generation of the year will live until next spring. They’re on their way to Mexico, where they’ll hibernate for the winter before returning here to lay their eggs in the early spring. There will be three generations hatched next year, until the process repeats itself next fall.

I released a new monarch into my garden just last week, and he’s probably joined this massive migration already. It’s inspiring to think of these paper-winged insects flying thousands of miles, isn’t it?

Male monarch released in my garden on 9-7-18 - blog

This is the male monarch I raised and released last week. I’ve got three more in chrysalises yet to emerge, and I can’t wait to send them on their way to join the rest of their “family.”

Monarch chrysalises 9-11-18 - blog

Oh, and since I don’t have enough good photos of this amazing experience, I suggest you go see my friend Jackie’s photos on Facebook — here’s the link to that. She was there on the same day I was, and her photos will really blow your mind!

Rx: Go Birding, You Fool

Well, it’s been a long, hard winter in northwest Ohio, but we’re finally able to see light at the end of the tunnel. Birds have started arriving from their winter homes in the south, some trees are beginning to bud out, and a few wildflowers are popping up here and there. The transition feels excruciatingly slow, but all of these things are soul-healing sights after we’ve endured months of brutally cold weather, lots of snow, and then barren landscapes of brown and gray in every direction.

Today I went to my nearest metropark to get some exercise and see if I could find any more bird species to add to my year list. So far this year I’ve recorded 95 species in my home county, and today I added two more, which I’ll tell you about below. I thought I’d just recap the walk as I experienced it, because it was full of interesting bird behavior. The weather was still chilly, with a temperature in the low 40s but made to feel colder by a light but persistent northern wind. The sun was shining though, so that made it tolerable.

I should mention that I purposely left my heavy birding camera in the car today, because I didn’t want to carry it and I thought I’d just enjoy the birds without worrying about trying to get good photos. So the photos in this post were not taken today, but I still want to give you a representation of what I saw on my walk.

Before I even left the parking lot I heard some woodpeckers raising quite the ruckus in a large tree. At first it seemed to be an interaction between two Red-bellied Woodpeckers, but I quickly saw that there were three of the smaller Downy Woodpeckers also hopping around them, as if they were spectators egging them on. And a lone Eastern Bluebird sat off to the side on the end of a branch, calmly observing this melee.

(For some reason the normal caption won’t work on this, so the Downy is on the left, and the Red-bellied is on the right)

I watched the woodpeckers for a couple minutes, until they eventually quieted down and flew across the adjacent mowed meadow and into the woods. I’m still not sure what they were bickering about, although the red-bellies were a male and female, so maybe it was part of courtship. And perhaps there was a nesting cavity in that tree that the downies were interested in as well, who knows?

Eastern Towhee male
Eastern Towhee male

Just 50 yards farther along I heard some birds rustling around in the leaf litter of the woods, so I stopped to scan the ground and found a beautiful male Eastern Towhee poking around near a fallen log. These are such pretty birds that I don’t see all that often, so I walked slowly around the edge of this section of woods to try for a better look. Towhees have a pretty song that sounds like “drink your tea!” and I was hoping to hear him sing that one. He didn’t, but he did toss out a few repeats of his “chew-ee!” call, which was good enough for me.

Field Sparrow at Oak Openings w sig Kim Smith
Field Sparrow

Moving along, I headed toward an area along the river where I’d had some rewarding bird experiences last year. And I was not disappointed. I followed a mowed path that eventually just ended in a field surrounded by a broken down fence. I’d never walked this particular path before, and wasn’t sure I was supposed to be there, but I could see across the field to the place that was my destination, so I just continued into the field. I startled a cute Field Sparrow, who popped up and watched me with his sweet baby face.

Brown Thrasher at Magee w sig
Brown Thrasher

Then, as I turned my head I saw a Brown Thrasher dive like a bullet into a thicket about 25 yards in front of me. I was really excited by this, as he was the first thrasher I’d found this year. I slowly approached the cluster of tangled shrubs (maybe forsythia, but not blooming yet so I can’t be sure), walked all around it, finally locating the thrasher hopping around inside on the ground. These are usually pretty shy birds, so I didn’t expect to get a good look at him. But then he began singing his seemingly unending series of twice-repeated notes that is so distinctive to this species. It was, literally, music to my ears.  Here’s a Brown Thrasher song recorded by David LaPuma at Cape May, New Jersey:  (Courtesy of Xeno-Canto Creative Commons license.)

There are a few bird songs that make me just stop in my tracks and smile, and the Brown Thrasher’s is one of those. It’s up there with the song of the Wood Thrush, Northern Mockingbird, and Gray Catbird, in my opinion. Just melt-your-heart, catch-your-breath stunningly beautiful, jubilant song.

As I continued my walk along the river’s edge, I kept hearing the screech of a Red-tailed Hawk. I’d caught a couple glimpses of it soaring over the trees, but then I heard it once more and when I looked up I saw a mature Bald Eagle flying a lazy circle above the river.  And immediately I saw the hawk dive at him, and the eagle gave his squeaky chattery call as it tried to ignore him.

There’s an interesting bit of trivia about the call of a Bald Eagle that most non-birders don’t know, so I’m going to give you the scoop right here and now. Many times in tv or movies, for some reason the producers use the call of a Red-tailed Hawk when they show a Bald Eagle. If you’ve ever seen the opening sequence to The Colbert Report, you’ll see a Bald Eagle swoop across the screen as it screeches an ear-rending call. But the thing is, that’s the sound of a Red-tailed Hawk, not the eagle. I can only guess that it’s because people think a Bald Eagle needs to sound fierce.  Here’s what a Bald Eagle really sounds like:

(Courtesy of Paul Marvin on Xeno-canto.)

Golden-crowned Kinglet for blog widget
Golden-crowned Kinglet

Next I came upon an area on the river bank that was just hopping with birds — the first ones I noticed were Northern Cardinals and Song Sparrows, both belting out their lovely songs. There were Tufted Titmice and Black-capped Chickadees here too. But then I hit the jackpot. Ahead of me about 30 yards I could see a pair of titmice hopping around on the ground and thought I saw a Golden-crowned Kinglet near them. My plan was to slowly approach them and try for a confirmation of the kinglets, but suddenly I heard more of them very close to me, so I stopped in my tracks to listen.

As I waited for a kinglet to come into view, I saw another of my absolute favorite birds, the tiny little Brown Creeper. Creepers are aptly named, because their feeding behavior is one of creeping along the trunk of a tree in a spiral pattern, then dropping down to the bottom of an adjacent tree and repeating the spiral creeping pattern up that tree.  The creeper was several trees away from me, but I knew he would probably end up on the tree right beside me if I held very still. So I did, and he did. And it was awesome.

Brown Creeper

And just as the creeper moved past me, a Golden-crowned Kinglet landed in the tree beside me, just below my eye level.  The kinglet was my second FOY (first-of-year) bird today, after the thrasher I’d seen earlier. And this tiny creature paid me no attention as he searched the branches for insects to fuel his continuing migration journey. There were several more kinglets with him, and I stood on the boardwalk along the river bank for about 20 minutes watching them and another creeper who showed up. A two-creeper day is an excellent day for me. (Here’s where I wrote about a three-creeper day a couple years ago.)

My entire walk only lasted about 90 minutes, but as you can see, it was chock full of great bird sightings. And it went a long way toward lifting my spirits and helping me shake the winter blahs. Isn’t it amazing how nature can do that?

Sky-High Anticipation

Sandhill Crane family vocalizing - grainy dusk pic
Family of Sandhill Cranes vocalizing as they meet in the marsh at dusk

I’ve had a love affair with Sandhill Cranes since the moment I heard their prehistoric-sounding bugling calls.  It’s hard to believe I only saw my first of this species in July of 2011, just two individuals walking around on the lawn at a metropark. Those first birds were silent though, and I had no idea what a thrill was still in store for me. But I found out later that summer, when I had a dramatic encounter with a pair of these statuesque birds on a remote lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

It was near dusk and I was in a kayak on a small private lake, trying to sneak up on a beaver so I could take some photos of it. I was floating quietly near the tall vegetation at the water’s edge…waiting…when suddenly there was a commotion just a few yards away. Before I knew what was happening, a crane burst out of the phragmites and flew right over my head, only 15 feet above me, belting out some of the most spine-tingling sounds I had ever heard.  Click below to hear a sample audio of Sandhill Cranes from the National Park Service.

Sandhill Crane flyover BEST
This photo isn’t from the day I’m describing here, but it illustrates what I saw from my kayak.

My reaction was swift and automatic: I swung my camera up and snapped a couple blurry shots of it before it dropped down on the other side of the small lake. As it did so, I realized its mate had been hidden over there, probably also warily watching my movements around the water. They both continued calling for a couple minutes before eventually settling down for the night. It took a long while before my heart rate settled down that evening, and I can feel it again now as I recall this story.

Why am I talking about Sandhill Cranes now? Because in less than two weeks I’m going to see more of them than I’ve ever seen before, and I just cannot wait! I have to stop letting myself listen to audio and video of them because it’s just making me too excited.

In 2012 I attended Michigan Audubon’s Crane Fest and got a taste of what a mass migration spectacle is like. The number of cranes in the marsh at Baker Sanctuary that year was several thousand. I loved the experience, and got some distant photos of the birds in the water as well as some flyover shots. I went back to Baker Sanctuary with my friend Tracy a couple weeks ago, but the cranes were very distant and not present in large numbers. Although we found a few hundred of them during the day, foraging in farm fields in the surrounding area.

Sandhill Cranes in flightBut now I’m preparing for my first experience at Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area in northern Indiana. I’m told it’ll be possible to see maybe 8,000 cranes this time, and in much closer viewing conditions. I’ve watched some videos from Jasper-Pulaski on YouTube, and I can tell it’s going to be one of the highlights of my year.

And, to make it even more exciting, I’ll have a brand new camera in tow!  My trusty Canon 60D has become a bit outdated and I think my newer Canon will give me more options.  I’m very close to springing for a new telephoto lens too, but can’t get myself to put that money out just yet. But anyway, I hope the camera arrives as expected so I can have several days to familiarize myself with it before the trip. Since many of these crane photos were taken in low light conditions, I’ve pushed the ISO setting on my camera too high, resulting in a lot of graininess. I’m hoping to get better results with my new camera and my slowly-improving photography skills. 🙂

Crane silhouette v1
Silhouette of a crane dropping from the sky with landing gear down

Along with their statuesque beauty and that fantastic trumpeting call, Sandhill Cranes are known for the “dancing” they perform as part of their mating and bonding rituals. I’ve seen this many times, and it never gets old. Imagine, if you will, hundreds or thousands of 4-foot-tall birds dropping from the sky into a marsh. Don’t forget to imagine those raucous calls too. And now picture many small family groups gathering within the large group, jumping up and down with enormous wings raised in greeting. It’s hard not to get choked up with emotion when you see and hear this joyous and life-affirming spectacle. (Here’s a video I found on YouTube.)

Chains of origami cranes
Me with origami cranes at a shrine in Tokyo, 1985

Cranes have been important symbols in many cultures around the world, including in Japan, where I spent five years of my life (a looong time ago). One quality they are believed to embody is longevity. They were said to live for 1,000 years; in reality they can live for more than 30 years, so perhaps they deserve this one. Because they mate for life, they are also used to represent fidelity. It’s also believed that if you make an origami chain of 1,000 cranes and leave it at a shrine, your prayer will be answered.  As you can see from the photo above, people really do make huge numbers of those tiny folded paper cranes.

Two cranes in formation

It’s surprising how often my photos show cranes in synchronized poses like this one. They’re mesmerizing no matter what they’re doing, but I particularly enjoy the transition from the sky to the ground, when they drop those long dangly legs below them.

Cranes landing with legs hanging down

I think they look like giant marionettes, with someone above working their strings, frantically trying to get those lanky legs positioned properly below them before they hit the ground. I really hope I’ll be back here in a couple weeks showing you even better pictures of these incredible birds.


Sandhill Cranes in marsh at Baker Sanctuary 2012
Cranes in the marsh at Baker Sanctuary in Michigan

Resources for further reading about Sandhill Cranes:

Birds of North America, by Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Michigan Audubon’s Crane Fest, held each October as birds are heading south for the winter.

Audubon Nebraska’s Crane Festival, held in March as the birds are heading north for the summer breeding season.

The Woodstock of Birding

Red morph Eastern Screech-owl
Red morph Eastern Screech-owl

I finally feel capable of attempting to write about my experience at this year’s Biggest Week in American Birding (BW), my fifth consecutive year of attending. I hope to convey why this festival is the highlight of the year for me and so many of my nature-loving friends. Ready? Okay, let’s do this.

Oh, first I should tell you about this little Screech-owl. Maumee Bay State Park is the festival headquarters for the BW, and they have a 2-mile long boardwalk through a marsh beside the lodge. This owl roosted near the boardwalk every day, allowing lots of birders to enjoy unobstructed views. After the challenge of trying to see and photograph fast-moving little warblers high in the trees, an owl is a welcome change of pace. I saw this bird on three separate days. On one of those days I’d been standing outside the marsh alone before an event, looking for warblers, when I struck up a conversation with another birder who came along. It turned out she was relatively new to the world of birding, and had never seen a screech-owl before. So I took her into the marsh to see this one, and we enjoyed seeing some warblers while we were in there too.

Which brings me to one of the best parts of this festival: Everyone is so friendly and enthusiastic. It’s easy to be happy when everyone around you is in love with birds and nature. I imagine it’s what Woodstock would have been like — peace, love, and lots of hugs. (Well, like Woodstock if you subtracted the pharmaceuticals and added in lots of birds.) For the past several weeks my Facebook feed has been full of dozens of pictures of friends hugging each other with big goofy smiles on their faces. It’s only now starting to slow down, almost two weeks after the event ended. I’ve never been any place else in the world that made me feel like this, and that’s probably why I shed some tears every year on the last day of this festival, when I have to get in my car and head home. I just don’t want to leave that place.

My BW schedule crumpled after a long weekThis is a picture of my pre-festival tentative itinerary, which I drafted just so I would have an idea of what I “might” be doing each day–workshops I hoped to attend, friends I hoped to meet up with, and places I wanted to go birding. You can tell that many changes were made to it, right? Wow, that was crazy. For someone who normally lives a pretty quiet life, those ten days really wore me out. But in a good way. 🙂

Sunrise over Maumee Bay State Park golf course - showing fog on dunes (1024x598)
Sunrise at Maumee Bay State Park

There’s a great memory to go with this sunrise picture. I arrived at Maumee Bay Lodge early one morning to pick up a friend for a leisurely morning of photography at Magee Marsh. As I proceeded up the long drive to the lodge, the sun was just peeking over the hills of the golf course, illuminating the foggy landscape. As birders do, I slowed the car and put my window down, just in case I could hear any birds. And instantly I heard the song of an Eastern Meadowlark from somewhere out in the haze. Excited, I snapped a couple pics with my phone, and then quickly went ahead to pick up my friend Drew, wanting to share this beautiful moment with him. He barely had a chance to get in the car and I took off again, knowing that the sunrise would happen very quickly, and wanting to make sure he got a chance to see it.

He had his camera ready and jumped out of the car when I got to just the right spot. We both heard the meadowlark singing, and I slowly rolled the car along as Drew jogged down the road, taking photos at various vantage points. I hope I keep this special memory for a long time. I have to confess that, as a night owl, I haven’t seen all that many sunrises in my life. But this experience makes me want to start going to bed earlier so I can start seeing more of that beautiful part of the day!

So there were sunrises…and sunsets….

Lake Erie sunset
Lake Erie sunset

Field trips…

Field trip at Magee Marsh  - May 12, 2015 - Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle
Birders at Magee Marsh

…and I feel like I’m forgetting something. Oh! The birds! Do you want to see some birds?

American Golden Plover
American Golden Plover

I normally only see plovers in distant flocks requiring the use of a spotting scope, so I was thrilled when I happened upon this single bird along the auto route through Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. I was able to stop the car and verrry slowly stick the camera out the window to get this shot. Such a beautiful shorebird!

Cape May Warbler
Cape May Warbler

Warbling Vireo
Warbling Vireo

Chestnut-sided Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler

This next bird was another special moment. I’d arranged to meet two of my friends at Magee Marsh late in the afternoon on a cold and windy day. It was the only time the three of us could be together, and we only managed to spend a couple hours together, but it was wonderful. Because of the less-than-favorable weather, there weren’t too many people out birding that afternoon, so we had lots of room to stroll slowly, chatting and watching birds.

Northern Parula
Northern Parula

Me, Kelly, and Janet at Magee Marsh on the day we saw the Northern Parula
Me, Kelly, and Janet at Magee Marsh on the day we saw the Northern Parula

It seemed that most of the birds were staying up higher in the trees this year than in past years, and so it was a real treat when this Northern Parula came down low beside the boardwalk. And not only did he come down lower, but he sat still and preened for a couple minutes, allowing all three of us to snap dozens of photos of him at close range. It was the best view I’d ever had of this pretty species, and being able to share it with two special friends made it that much better.

I think this might be getting too long already, but if you’re still here I might as well tell you one more story from this day.  And I so wish I’d taken a picture to go along with it. When I was in Texas last November for the Rio Grande Birding Festival, I had a conversation with a couple of Texans when they asked me about the Biggest Week t-shirt I was wearing. I told them all about it and gave them my blog address so they could come here to read more. I didn’t think too much more about that conversation and went about my business. So when a woman walked up to me on the Magee Marsh boardwalk and said, “Kim?”, I didn’t realize who it was. It turned out to be Pam and John, the people I had talked to in Texas! They told me that they had come to Ohio because of how enthusiastic I had been when I told them about this festival, and that they were having the time of their lives. I was so blown away I could hardly form complete sentences. By now you’ll expect that I shed a few tears. Again. I was already having a great day, but they put the icing on that sucker right then, let me tell you. I’ll never forget how I felt at that moment. So proud of our festival and so happy that they were enjoying themselves on their first trip to Ohio.

My sister and I at Magee Marsh
My sister and I at Magee Marsh

And I ran into Pam and John again a few days later when I was at Magee Marsh with my sister, and they were still having fun!  As for my sister, well, I didn’t manage to turn her into a birder, but at least she got to see this place and why it means so much to me.

I didn’t go on many field trips, but I took two writing workshops that were very inspiring. One was about how to write about conservation issues in a way that motivates people to take action, and the other was a poetry workshop.

This was my fifth year attending the Biggest Week, and it was the best yet. I didn’t attend parties or hang out with a big group of friends this time, but mostly either birded by myelf or with one or two other people at a time. And that gave me more chances to have some really great conversations in the way I relate best to people, one on one. I was able to make some meaningful new friendships and cement some I’d made in previous years. And I even managed to get a few new birds for my life list:

My seven life birds at Biggest Week 2015
From my eBird life list


Kentucky Warbler, one of my most-wanted warblers in the past few years -- finally!
Kentucky Warbler, one of my most-wanted warblers in the past few years — finally!

I’ll continue adding more photos to my Flickr photostream, so hop over there occasionally if you want to see more.

Just writing this has put a big smile on my face, as all the memories come flooding back. I hope I’ve been able to give you a sense of the magic of spring migration in northwest Ohio. If you have even the slightest curiosity about what it’s all about, I urge you to come to the Biggest Week next year. It might just change your life too!

Great Blue Heron seen from the kitchen window of my rented cottage on Lake Erie
Great Blue Heron seen from the kitchen window of my rented cottage on Lake Erie

Zugunruhe: Do You Feel It?

Zugunruhe. Do you feel it too? It means “migratory restlessness,” and it’s normally used to describe the behavior of birds and other migratory species as they prepare for their long journeys in spring and fall. (It’s pronounced “zoo gen ROO ha” — or at least that’s as close as I’ll ever get to pronouncing a German word correctly.)

Humans are obviously not migratory species, but as a birder, I experience something similar to Zugunruhe each spring as I anticipate the arrival of the birds from their southern wintering grounds. I get antsy if I have to spend too much time indoors, unable to be out searching the skies and the trees for the first signs of birds returning from the south. Along with thousands of other birders, I begin reading the weekly “Birdcasts” from Cornell Lab of Ornithology (here), and watching radar images of birds taking to the skies each night across the continent. This image is from last night:

Bird radar April 1 2015

The blue circles are flocks of birds lifting off to head north. Isn’t that the coolest thing you’ve ever seen? If you’d like to read more about using radar to see birds, David La Puma has a great explanation on his Woodcreeper blog, here. And if you want to check the radar yourself, go here around dusk and keep refreshing your screen to watch in real time as the birds lift off. Just remember to watch for the “blue donuts.”

Some of the migrants have already started to arrive here in Michigan — the Red-winged Blackbirds, Killdeer, Turkey Vultures, and even the Tree Swallows. In a few short weeks we’ll begin finding the first warblers, signaling that it’s time for me to migrate to the southern shore of Lake Erie to witness the amazing congregation of my beautiful avian friends at Magee Marsh. (By the way, if you’re planning to attend the Biggest Week in American Birding this year, you should know that we’ve sold out virtually every space in all of the field trips already, but there are still spaces available in the educational workshops and presentations each day. And you can walk the Magee Marsh boardwalk for free, so if you’re ready for your world to change forever, come and see what all the fuss is about. You’ve got to do this at least once in your life!)

I want to share a bit of migration trivia with you today, to remind us all of the enormity of what these birds do twice each year. It’s mind-blowing when you think about it.

Migration Mania Trivia

    • The longest known bird migration is by the Arctic Tern, which can travel up to 25,000 miles per year in its two migrations. It flies from the Artic to the Antarctic and back, crossing the entire planet each year!

      Arctic Tern (Photo by Lindsay Robinson via Flickr Creative Commons)
      Arctic Tern (Photo by Lindsay Robinson via Flickr Creative Commons)
    • Some individuals of the tiny Blackpoll Warbler species, who weigh only half an ounce, fly a 1600-mile nonstop journey across the Atlantic Ocean from eastern Canada to South America. See, I told you this would blow your mind! You can read the fascinating details of the newly-published study here. (Hint: They put light-sensing backpacks on the birds to determine their flight paths.)

Blackpoll Warbler by Kenneth Cole Schneider (via Creative Commons license on Flickr)
Blackpoll Warbler by Kenneth Cole Schneider (via Creative Commons license on Flickr)

  • Before embarking on their journeys, birds experience hyperphagia, a period of nonstop eating designed to put on body weight. Some birds actually double their weight before the trip and burn off all the excess fat before finally arriving on their breeding grounds, exhausted and starving.

  • Raptors, swallows, and waterfowl migrate during the day. Songbirds generally migrate at night. This may be because they need the daytime to feed and replenish their energy; conveniently, it may also help them avoid many predators–like raptors–who migrate during the day.

  • Monarch butterfly chrysallis (Mission, Texas, November 2014)
    Monarch butterfly chrysallis  (Mission, TX, 11/2014)

    Birds aren’t the only animals that still migrate–whales also migrate twice each year. And many insects migrate as well; the best-known insect migration is that of the monarch butterfly. But the monarchs that winter in the mountains of Mexico will not make the journey more than once. On their way north in the spring, the females stop to lay eggs on milkweed plants as they travel. Some of the adults will make it all the way north, but most will die along the way. The next generation emerges from their eggs and continues northward. When you see a monarch with tattered wings early in the season, that’s probably one that wintered in Mexico. The newest generation will have fresh, untorn wings. According to, summer generations only live two to five weeks; the last generation of the summer is the one that migrates to Mexico, and that generation can live for eight or nine months.

  • Elk in Yellowstone National Park
    Elk in Yellowstone National Park

    Some large land mammals still migrate in Africa, but the only remaining one I know of in North America is the elk. Many thousands of them migrate each year in and around Yellowstone National Park. Most other land mammal migrations on this continent have been disrupted by the ever-expanding human population and our need for homes and roads.

I hope you learned something from this, as I did while writing it for you. Now get outside and tune in to the wonders of bird migration! See you on the trails….


Migration Mania #3: Black-and-white Warbler

Okay, those of you who are paying attention have already said, “Hey, wait, it’s not migration time yet! What are you trying to pull here?” And you are absolutely correct–migration is many weeks away. But there’s no reason we can’t daydream about pretty little birds to help us get through the depths of winter, right? So I’m picking up with my Migration Mania series early this year. You may have forgotten about this series because I started it in 2013 with two articles (here and here) and then neglected it last year. But I didn’t forget…aren’t you glad?

Black-and-white Warbler

So in this edition of Migration Mania I’m going to tell you a bit about the Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia). He’s unusual among warblers because he doesn’t wear any of the bright colors we usually think of in these birds — yellows, oranges, and blues. The BAWW (that’s cool birder-speak for Black-and-white Warbler) wears a bold graphic pattern of…wait for it…black and white!

And not only does he stand out for his appearance, but he’s got a different way of feeding than the other warblers too. Most of them forage for food around the leaves of trees and shrubs, but this guy spends a lot of his time on the trunk and branches, probing the bark for hidden goodies. This is how you normally see a nuthatch or a creeper feeding, not a warbler. It’s an advantage for those of us trying to take warbler photographs, because it’s easier to keep focused on a bird moving up a tree trunk than one that’s hopping over and under leaves at the speed of light (well, that’s how fast it seems sometimes…).

So where are the BAWWs now, while we’re freezing our tushies off up north? They’re down in Central and South America, that’s where. Places like Ecuador, Colombia, and Panama. Nice and warm, and plenty of food. You can see on this map that there are some of them in the southern U.S. now, but they’re probably not on the move yet. By early or mid-March we’ll start seeing some northerly movements though, and they’ll be off on their long journey to their breeding grounds in the U.S. and Canada.

eBird map of Black-and-white Warblers in January 2015

Since this species is one of the earliest to move northward in spring, some of them will already be nesting in April. It’s thought that they can come north earlier in the spring because of their ability to feed from the bark of trees–they don’t need the leaves to be opened before they come up here, like most of the other warblers. That’s a cool little fact to know, isn’t it? There are a few more fun facts below these photos.

Black-and-white Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler (2)

Fun facts:

  • These little birds weigh less than half an ounce and will fly an average of 20 miles each night during migration. Yes, that’s right, they migrate at night. As dawn breaks they drop down from the sky to feed so they’ll have energy to fly again the next night.
  • What do they eat? Butterflies, moths, ants, flies, bugs, click beetles, round-headed wood borers, leaf beetles, weevils, leafhoppers, plant lice, spiders, daddy longlegs, and more. Yum!
  •  The females build their nests on the ground, using dry leaves and grasses. The nest is usually at the base of a tree or beside a fallen log.

Black-and-white Warbler undertail
I love the pattern on his undertail coverts (the feathers that cover the base of his tail feathers).

I hope you enjoyed getting a closer look at one of my favorite warblers! And I hope you’ll be inspired to look for these adorable little birds when you’re outdoors this spring.

(Source for the stuff I didn’t know: Birds of North America Online from Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)