The Biggest Week in American Birding: Group Birding at its Finest!

The Biggest Week in American Birding is a ten day birding extravaganza in Ohio created by Black Swamp Bird Observatory to promote bird conservation and increase awareness of the amazing bird migration that happens in early May in northwest Ohio. It is an extremely affordable event, offering reasonably priced work shops, field trips, and presentations. In addition, it provides an excellent opportunity for birders from all over the world to meet, and for old friends to meet up!

This event attracts thousands of birders from every corner of the globe. To many (if not most?) birders (and birds?), this may sound like a nightmare. Typically, the bigger a group of birders is, the harder it is for everyone to see said birds.  I’ll admit that I was initially turned off by this idea when I first heard about it. Personally, I am not a very social birder. I prefer to bird in very small groups if not alone or just one other person. When I used to keep my own blog, the most fitting name would have probably been “The Anti-Social Birder,” or “The Hermit Birder;” most of my birding trips were solo, or with just a few others, by my own choice. Large groups of people can be loud, and not only does this make people like me cringe, it makes birds cringe.

"What is with all the people in Ohio?" Palm Warbler - Magee Marsh, Ohio (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

“What is with all the people in Ohio?” Palm Warbler – Magee Marsh, Ohio (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

However, the boardwalk at Magee Marsh, at the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, is a very special place. An open wetland landscape meets a large patch of deciduous trees surrounding a marsh, at the Lake Erie shore. Here, migrants from the previous night’s flight are pretty much having a GIANT bird party. Thousands of them. And birders are invited, thanks to an extremely well-built boardwalk that traverses the site. Check out this map for a better idea of what the boardwalk is like.

The boardwalk can be an overwhelming experience at first. When you get out of your car, you will hear multiple species of birds singing, which can send you into panic mode after a long silent winter. It is a good to bird with a buddy (or Drew Weber) so you can keep the bird songs straight in your head. Gulls, raptors, and waterfowl can fly over at any given moment. You really won’t know where to look or where to start. On top of the sensory overload, in the early morning hours, yes, the parking lot is full of cars, and yes, the boardwalk is loaded with people. But honestly, this makes no difference to the birds, because this isn’t just a gathering of annoying loud people…these are birders! People who are respectful of birds, nature, and each other. Birders do tend to get piled up in small groups along the boardwalk where small flocks of warblers are concentrated, or where a bird has been seen and its location “tweeted” (hehe…here tweeting actually makes sense…follow this link, Get Biggest Week Tweets Sent to Your Phone, for tips and tricks for keeping up with the Twitter feed, thanks to Melissa Penta!). This isn’t a bad thing, for a few reasons. When you come across these groups, people are friendly and tell you what they are seeing. If you want to see it, they will help you find it and get a satisfying look. If you’d rather be let by and move on to a new part of the boardwalk, there is always space to slip through the crowd. Or if you are among the crowd and need to get out, an empty spot on the boardwalk is never far away. So, travelling on the board walk is a combination of group birding and solo birding.

Birds do amazing things on the boardwalk. An individual will find a place it likes, and create a small temporary niche. Last year, a sunning Yellow-billed Cuckoo was seen by hundreds (Typically it is no easy task to catch a glimpse of a sneaky cuckoo). A pair of Great-horned Owls had a visible nest in a broken off tree. An Olive-sided Flycatcher stuck around for a very long time in the same area on the boardwalk! Friendly people were set up along the boardwalk with scopes focused on these cooperative birds, and you will probably have the best looks at certain species that you have ever had.

Great Horned Owl Nest - Magee Marsh, Ohio (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Great Horned Owl Nest – Magee Marsh, Ohio (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Olive-sided Flycatcher  - Magee Marsh, Ohio (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

Olive-sided Flycatcher – Magee Marsh, Ohio (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

My favorite method of birding the boardwalk is finding a nice quiet place to sit, and just seeing what appears. This is one of the best ways to get looks at Veerys, Hermit Thrush, and Swainson’s Thrush, along with American Robins, all of which can be found by scanning the forest floor and by listening for rustling leaf litter.

Veery - Magee Marsh, Ohio (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

Veery – Magee Marsh, Ohio (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

Swainson's Thrush - Magee Marsh, Ohio (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

Swainson’s Thrush – Magee Marsh, Ohio (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

This is also a good way to find resting American Woodcock, and Eastern Screech-Owls on roost.

Eastern Screech-Owl  - Magee Marsh, Ohio (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

Eastern Screech-Owl – Magee Marsh, Ohio (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

On top of this, the looks at warblers along this board walk are truly amazing. There will always be those individuals who never seem to leave the highest parts of the canopy, but many species have no problem foraging at eye level or even lower, just a few feet away from you. If you are already in a stationary position, and a warbler is headed your way, chances are it will pass right by you, for frame-filling shots, or even too close for photos. A good example from last year was this Prothonotary Warbler. It appeared in view near our feet, and proceeded to frantically pick small caterpillars off branches. It found a nest of spider eggs and ate them like it was famished. In the same second it was singing its chubby yellow head off. I really felt like if I had a caterpillar in my hand, it would have jumped on and devoured it. I refrained from trying to grab it and stick it on my pocket (Note: trying to capture cute birds with intentions to keep them is frowned upon/illegal).

Prothonotary Warbler  - Magee Marsh, Ohio (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

Prothonotary Warbler – Magee Marsh, Ohio (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

Of course, one has to realize that with the sit and wait method, your quiet spot may soon turn into the next big group spot when a rarity/specialty pops into view! But, this really isn’t the worst thing in life, when the bird is a Kirtland’s Warbler, as was the case with the photo below. Amazingly…the bird stayed in the same tree long enough for most people (who weren’t on field trips) to see.

Birders observing Kirtland's Warbler -  Magee March, Ohio 2012

Birders observing Kirtland’s Warbler – Magee March, Ohio 2012

So don’t let the idea of group birding and crowds keep you away from the Biggest Week. With so many people around, rarities have no chance of slipping through the cracks, and along with the Twitter feed, you’ll be able to maximize the number of species you see while getting great looks at them!