Each May, northern Ohio’s Magee Marsh is a magnet for birders who want to see a wide number of warblers and other migrants up close. The local Ohio birders make the trip even more worthwhile by throwing “The Biggest Week in American Birding” festival during the height of warbler migration, with all kinds of activities held at birding hotspots throughout the area. If you are a birder, it really is an awesome adventure.
This year’s festival ran from May 5 through May 14. Jim and I traveled from Maryland to bird the area from May 6 until May 12. It was our first trip there. We saw so much and learned so much and got to see one hundred and one bird species (sixteen of them warblers.) We added twenty-seven new birds to our life list, including five warblers we had never before seen.
This post is an account of what the experience was like for us as first-time visitors to the marsh and the festival, including some of the logistics of staying in the area and visiting the marsh and other local birding hotspots. I’m also working on a companion post with additional photos of the birds we saw that will touch on what we learned in trying to photograph them.
Why Go to Magee Marsh?
Magee Marsh is known for spring warblers. Many of these tiny birds migrate very long distances, traveling from as far as South America to spend the summer months in their breeding grounds up in Canada. The marsh is located right up against the south side of Lake Erie, which is a huge lake, so it makes a consistent “migrant trap”. Birds migrating up through the area from the south typically stop at the marsh to feed up before tackling the lake crossing. When they arrive, they are so tired from their trip to that point that they will hunt for insects among the new spring foliage along the marsh’s boardwalk even when it is filled with people only a few feet away. So instead of the more typical experience of trying to dimly view tiny warblers way up in a tree, birders on the Magee Marsh boardwalk have a closeup view.
If you’ve heard of Magee Marsh, you may have heard that the boardwalks can get very crowded, particularly in areas where interesting warblers are sighted. But we didn’t find crowded spots on the boardwalk to be a negative thing. Everyone was there for the same thing and shared the same interests. So there were interesting people to talk with who didn’t think staring at birds through binoculars or camera lenses was at all weird.
All those eyes meant that someone was sure to see any bird that came near the boardwalk. You knew that an interesting bird had been spotted when you saw a large group of birders all pointing their binoculars or cameras in one direction, like a mass of bird paparazzi. When birds were spotted, there were usually enough experienced birders around that an ID was quickly circulated throughout the crowd and there always seemed to be someone willing to direct their fellow birders to the exact tree branch where the bird was located. It made for a very cool, very inclusive, birding experience.
Timing a Trip to Magee Marsh
Migration is physically taxing. And in the spring, strong winds coming from the north can cause migrating birds to hold up while they wait for more favorable winds. This can work in a birder’s favor if the birds happen to pause for a few days in a spot where they can be easily seen, like Magee Marsh, but can work against you if they are held up further south.
Ideally in the spring, you hope for winds coming from the south to help the birds arrive and then a little bit of north winds to hold them in the area for a few days. This year, winds coming from the north kept many of the warblers stuck south of the marsh or looking for another way north, so the week started off relatively slow. On the first few days we spent on the boardwalk, the dominant warblers were lots of Yellow Warblers and quite a few Palm Warblers. (There were so many Yellow Warblers in the area that after awhile, it was hard not to get a little jaded about them!)
But each day brought a few new warbler species and by the end of our week on the boardwalk, bird activity was picking up. According to the festival’s website, “Over the course of the 10-day festival, leaders and guides saw a total of 235 species and 35 warbler species. Despite the blustery and rainy start to the week, we ended up only one species shy of last year’s grand total.”
Many birders love the Magee Marsh experience so much that they come year after year. Quite a few who we met on the boardwalk told us that this was the slowest year they had seen. One birder told us that the boardwalk was usually “dripping with warblers”. Several told us that there are usually so many warblers in every direction that you don’t know where to focus your attention.
This year, we typically saw one or two warblers of one species at a time. It was only later in the week that we started to see multiple species working the trees in one area. But for us, on our first visit to the marsh, it was still a great experience. Over the course of the week, we saw sixteen different warbler species, most on the boardwalk, but some also turned up in other birding hotspots in the area, as well as a whole lot of non-warbler birds that were new to us. It was definitely worth the trip.
Warblers Jim and I saw: Orange-crowned, Chestnut-Sided, Prothonotary, American Redstart, Cape May, Northern Parula, Magnolia, Bay-Breasted, Blackburnian, Black-and-White, Nashville, Black-Throated Blue, Black-Throated Green, Yellow-Rumped, Yellow, Palm.
The festival has posted a list of all the warblers and many other birds the guides and leaders saw during the 2017 festival. We saw about half of the birds on the list. To see all of them, you would need to go on all the van trips and spend more days on the boardwalk than we had on our schedule.
For those of us who don’t live in the area and have a limited amount of time to spend on the trip, choosing the timeframe for the trip can be tricky. From reading the 2017 festival Twitter feed and Kenn Kaufman’s “Birding the Crane Creek” blog posts about this year’s migration, it does look like bird activity picked up in the days after Jim and I left. Looking back at Kenn’s blog posts from the 2016 migration, mid-month was a busier period last year as well, again due to persistent winds from the north that held migrants back or caused them to skip the lake area.
As anyone who has tried to plan a picnic knows, nature isn’t always predictable. Who knows how the winds will be blowing in future years. One advantage of coming in early May is that the trees tend to be less leafed out, making it easier to see the birds. When temperatures are cooler, birds follow the bugs down to lower levels in the trees birds and so are more likely to be closer to eye level. And the festival itself, with all of its trips and other activities tends to be on the earlier side of things. (Next year’s festival is set for May 4 through May 13.) But when northern winds slow things down, coming early can mean you miss out on some warblers you might see if you stayed a bit later. (Warblers arrive waves, with the bulk of some species tending to come earlier and some later.) On our next trip, we may hedge our bet and adjust our timeframe to make sure that a bit more of it overlaps mid-month.
The Biggest Week in American Birding
You can visit the marsh or other area hotspots on your own and not participate in any of The Biggest Week in American Birding festival activities. Or you can go all-in and dive into the festival’s many scheduled talks, birding trips and walks, and social events. Or you can pick a few activities and do your own thing the rest of the time. One thing to keep in mind is that a few of the festival trips were to private locations that you might not be able to otherwise access. But most are to areas that are open to the public. Having knowledgable guides who know where to go and can identify birds that are new to you does make these trips very worthwhile.
When Jim and I decided in March to make the trip to Magee, we found that most of the festival birding trips and many talks/workshops were already full. But we still found some things that interested us and signed up for a few. There is a registration fee for the festival itself and then separate fees for each trip, workshop or walk, so your budget can be a factor as well. Registration is online and closes about a week before the festival begins, although you can register and sign up for things in person once the festival begins.
On Saturday, our first full day in Ohio, we spent a big chunk of the day on a van trip to several birding spots in Pickerel Creek in the Sandusky area southeast of the marsh. (As you can see in the above photo, people are dressed warmly. Most days started in the low to mid 40’s and then hovered in the 50’s or maybe low 60’s on a warm day. Pack a jacket and dress in layers!)
The following day, we attended an hour-long talk at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge by The Warbler Guide’s authors Tom Stephenson & Scott Whittle about “Identifying Spring Warblers” followed by another hour-long talk by Kenn Kaufman on “Principles and Pitfalls of Field Identification”. The evening after that, we went on a walk near the entrance to the marsh with a federal park employee to seek out male American Woodcocks doing their evening courting sky dancing. We very much enjoyed each activity and if we go next year, we’ll definitely sign up for a few trips and listen to some talks, although we’ll check out the selection as soon as the schedule goes up next time around.
Navigating the Boardwalk
One cool thing about seeing warblers at Magee Marsh is that they feed all day long. So if you don’t feel like getting up at the crack of dawn to go birding, you need not feel guilty. (Although some migrant warblers may be singing at dawn so if you are birding by ear, you may still want to get up early.) I’ve read one bird photographer’s thoughts on the boardwalk who suggested that later in the day can actually be a bit better as the birds may be feeding a bit less frantically then and so can be easier to see and/or photograph.
We tried arriving around eight in the morning some days and around two or later in the afternoon on others and did like late afternoon because we found that the boardwalk seemed less full of people then and when the sun was shining, the late afternoon light was really nice for photos. Weather on any particular day can of course make a difference.
Some dedicated birders can spend twelve hours on the boardwalk. While we spent as much as five hours in a given day, on other days when we were birding elsewhere, we only spent a few hours there. Obviously, the more time you spend, the more opportunities to see birds and photograph them.
There are two entrances to the marsh, one at the east end and one at the west. When you arrive at the boardwalk area, you find yourself at the start of a series of parking lots, the first right near the east entrance with a big sign over it. For a new visitor, it is the obvious place to begin and we explored the boardwalk from east to west on several days.
But many of the folks that know Magee Marsh well, know that the west end of the boardwalk is a likely spot to find many of the most interesting warblers and so many people drive past the east entrance and start from the other end. There are particular areas along the boardwalk that are fairly consistently good for particular birds each year and some birders will beeline to those areas and hang out there waiting for the birds to make their appearance. We found this page with Birding Tips for Magee Marsh particularly helpful in learning where along the mile-long boardwalk to find various birds.
The east end of the boardwalk tends to be less busy, both in terms of birds and people. But it is still well worth visiting. The trees and foliage are mostly shorter in this area and closer to little Crane Creek that the boardwalk follows at this end, so when you do see a bird in this area, they are often low and fairly closeup. Here we saw Yellow Warblers and Palm Warblers, Warbling Vireos, Ruby-Crowned Kinglets and Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers.
We also saw an American Woodcock not far beyond the east entrance on two mornings and there are often shorebirds, Green Herons, Great Egrets, interesting less common sparrows and other ground feeding birds to be found to either side of the boardwalk here.
The west end of the boardwalk is more wooded with more tall trees. The less common warblers seemed to be more often found at this end and that is where the crowds of birders tended to gather. Warblers we saw here included Black-Throated Blue Warblers, Black-Throated Green Warblers, Chestnut-Sided Warblers, Bay-Breasted Warblers, Cape May Warblers, Blackburnian Warblers and a Orange Crowned Warbler among others.
This end also hosted other interesting non-warbler birds like Blue-Headed Vireos, a Red-Headed Woodpecker, Orchard Orioles, Baltimore Orioles and Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks. There is a Bald Eagle nest near the parking lots at this end and there were spots at this end of the boardwalk where you could see mom or dad bringing food to their little ones up in the nest.
The edges outside of the boardwalk area alongside the parking lots can also yield interesting birds and with less of a crowd. Tripods are discouraged on the boardwalk because of the crowds, but you can use them on the outside edges.
Magee Marsh Beyond the Boardwalk
The Magee Marsh property includes more than just the boardwalk area. Although that is the biggest focus of attention for most birders this time of year, there are also other interesting spots there that are well worth checking out, the most obvious of which is the causeway that you drive along to get to the boardwalk, where you’ll find a variety of shorebirds, ducks and geese, egrets and herons and cranes.
There are small parking pull-off areas along the causeway so you can stop and get out for a closer look with binoculars or a scope, although occasionally a driver will simply stop in the middle of the road to check out the window with binoculars, causing a birding backup along the road.
There is also a beach trail and an estuary trail near the boardwalk where birds can be found. We walked part of the beach trail one day and didn’t see much bird activity, but didn’t get over to the estuary trail where we have heard that people have seen some interesting birds.
Back near the entrance to the Magee Marsh property, there is a small building to the left of the road. This is the Black Swamp Bird Observatory’s headquarters building with a small gift shop. These are the folks who run the festival. Their regular role is research (they do bird banding.) Behind the building is a small trail where American Woodcocks can be found.
During the festival they set up a large tent next to the building with top optics companies represented (Zeiss, Canon, Nikon, Kowa, Swarovski and more.) Here you can check out their offerings and purchase them if you like. Jim and I kept meaning to stop there but never did find the time. It always seemed to be hopping every time we went by though.
Further down the road inside the marsh as you head toward the boardwalk is the Sportsmen’s Migratory Bird Center, where you’ll find displays, a giant list of warblers seen each day at the marsh, birding items for sale and public bathrooms. (Port-a-pots are offered in the parking area near the boardwalk.) They were doing a fundraiser when we were there, selling coffee and doughnuts and fresh fruit.
This is also a place where you can purchase the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s current Migratory Bird Hunting & Conservation Stamp (a.k.a. Duck Stamp) and the Ohio Wildlife Legacy Stamp, both of which help support the places where we go to find birds. (We had already purchased the federal stamp from the post office online earlier in the year, but purchased the Ohio stamp during our trip.)
Finding Birds Beyond the Marsh
Magee Marsh might be the focus of attention, but there are a lot of other good spots to find birds in the general area. Some are simply a flooded nearby field. Some are local, state or federal parks or wildlife areas. When you sign into the festival, they provide information in your packet about other good birding spots in the area and of course, the festival offers a slew of birding trips to these places. The festival website also has a page with suggested places in the area to look for birds.
There is also a festival Twitter Feed where the trip leaders and boardwalk guides report especially interesting bird sightings on the boardwalk or at other locations. I’ve never been a Twitter user but decided to sign up after talking to a fellow birder later in the week. She and her husband were using the Twitter feed to quickly locate warblers they particularly wanted to see before they left later that day. We only saw a couple days of the tweets while we were there, but from them learned that beyond the boardwalk, Pearson and Oak Openings Metroparks over in the Toledo area and the boardwalk at Maumee Bay seemed to be really hopping as well.
Jim and I arrived early Friday evening and left the following Friday afternoon, so we had six and a half days to go birding. In planning the trip, it seemed like a lot. Never having birded that many days in a row, we expected to need to find other things to do in the area to fill the time. But between hours spent each day on the boardwalk, our van trip and independent trips to other birding hotspots, our days were full and we easily could have spent another week there just birding.
The two biggest side trips we made on our own were Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, which is just to the west of Magee Marsh and the state run Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area that is just a little to the west of that. Both were well worth visiting and filled out our experience with an even wider variety of birds.
Where to Stay and Eat
Magee Marsh is located in an area dominated by farmland, so finding a place to stay takes a bit of thought. This year, the festival was headquartered at the Maumee Bay Lodge & Conference Center at the Maumee Bay State Park, where some attendees stayed and where the daily van trips originated. (The park has lodge rooms, cottages and camping.) The lodge also hosted a birders’ marketplace and nightly social activities. To the west of this, Toledo Ohio has a lot of hotels and rental opportunities and some attendees find accommodations in that area.
To the east is Port Clinton, a smaller tourist area that also has some hotels and rentals. We found a condo right on Lake Erie in Port Clinton through Airbnb that worked well for us. Because we traveled to the area from the east, it made more sense to us to locate there, although it did mean that any birding excursions over to the Toledo side of things would be a bit of a drive. (Magee Marsh is about twenty minutes west of Port Clinton. Maumee Bay is another twenty minutes or so further west of Magee and Toledo is another twenty minutes or so beyond that (depending on where you are headed.) Some of the Toledo hotspots were on the other side of Toledo, making it even further.) The Port Clinton condo made a good home base for us, although in a future year, we might switch things up and try to find something on the Toledo side of things to make trips in that direction more convenient.
There isn’t much right near the marsh in the way of restaurants, so many birders pack a lunch. The festival does have dining and lodging suggestions on their website. There is a restaurant at the lodge and light food was offered to festival attendees in the lobby each night during the social hours. There is a small cafe west of the marsh called Blackberry Corners Tavern where we heard the pies are particularly good.
There is also the Barnside Creamery, located not too far east of the marsh on route 2 with an extensive selection of ice cream and related goodies. Behind the building is a large flooded field and there were birders there checking things out almost every time we drove by. We stopped several times ourselves, first to check out the Marbled Godwit that someone saw there. Another visit yielded some Killdeer, a Semipalmated Plover, Dunlin and a Horned Lark among other birds. The lesson we learned here was that flooded fields that might look boring can actually be quite interesting. And the ice cream was good too!
We ate breakfast and some dinners at the condo, which saved us some money and time, although we did eat out a few times in Port Clinton, twice at Rosie’s Bar & Grill and once at Ciao Bella, liking both. Early May is just before Port Clinton’s tourist season begins, but there were restaurants that opened for dinner and a few that also offered lunch and places where you could order a pizza so we ate well.
The Birders and The Locals
The Black Swamp Bird Observatory group that puts on the festival is quite smart. Apparently the combination of the week of the festival and the draw of the marsh itself during the first three weeks in May can pull in as many as 90,000 birders. That is a lot of people. In 2016, BSBO’s Executive Director Kimberly Kaufman estimated that these birders added nearly forty million dollars to the local economy each year.
The festival leverages this to try and get support for birds and bird habitat preservation in the area, arguing that taking care of the birds is good for the local economy. They encourage festival visitors to walk around with binoculars in view and when they eat somewhere or buy something to let the local businesses know that they are there for the birding. They even give little birding business cards to festival attendees to hand out to businesses when making purchases so they’ll know that the festival brought them business.
While I think some of the local folks thought the birders were a bit amusing, we found them to be overwhelmingly welcoming. Many businesses have signs out front saying, “Welcome Birders.” There were birders everywhere in the area and whenever two birders meet, there is usually a conversation about what birds they’ve seen and where.
Apparently the one thing that drives the locals crazy about birders is our tendency to suddenly stop along the roadside whenever we see an interesting bird. The festival organizers ask birders not to do that on area roads and warn that the local sheriff’s department watches for that behavior.
Heading Back Home Again
At the end of our week of birding, it was hard to leave Ohio to head home again. (We even snuck back over to the boardwalk for a few hours on Friday morning before we got back on the road east and still didn’t want to leave even then.) We’ll definitely return to Magee Marsh and The Biggest Week in American Birding!
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