Could it have been a year already?
The Biggest Week in American Birding—in the warbler capital of the world. Promise of brightly feathered raindrops sprinkling the trees, glistening in the sun. Hundreds of birders, new and old, coming together for one fantastic celebration of avian migration.
It was time.
As we picked up our name badges and festival packets at the Maumee lodge, I couldn’t contain my excitement—I was here! A weekend full of birds and birdy people lay ahead like the lake outside our window.
Our first destination was Ottowa National Wildlife Refuge, where my mom and I were scheduled to attend Kenn Kaufman’s talk on warbler ID. A fairly short drive from the lodge, we got there soon and had some time to look around before the presentation.
Outside, Purple Martins clacked and chirped, trilling through the air like aerial dolphins. Their exuberance was not dampened by the dark skies full of oncoming rain, nor were the spirits of the swift Tree Swallows as they raced across the meadow. Red-winged Blackbirds clattered everywhere, and a Yellow Warbler sang sweetly from the bushes. An amazing array of birds, and I hadn’t been there more than two hours. When it was time for Kenn’s talk, my mom and I found a seat in the front row, where I got to chatting with the kind woman next to me, showing her my Peterson guide iPhone app. While the presentation was being set up, Kenn noticed me and came to say hello, which was pretty exciting in itself. He told me how much he’s been enjoying my writing, and that’s an absolutely awesome compliment to receive from one of the birding world’s most knowledgeable experts! We had a quick chat before the talk began. Kenn presented his best approaches and tips for warbler ID, a much-needed refresher before we went out to Magee to see the actual birds. Being the wise owl I am, I actually knew most of what he said, but that’s partly due to reading his Field Guide to Advanced Birding. My mom learned a ton, however… she kept marveling that there were so many warblers, let alone the fact that us birders could identify them all!
Next, our newfound warbler skills would be put to the test as we drove to the famous Magee Marsh boardwalk, where, a year ago, I saw so many life birds and really experienced migration for the first time. I grabbed my hat, bins, and camera, and raced out to the boardwalk, its crowded path full of friendly birders all searching for those tiny gems of the forest. Right away, I spotted White-crowned sparrows, their beautiful white and black striped heads bright against the dimly lit leaves.
Magnolia and Myrtle warblers danced in the trees, while a Red-winged Blackbird displayed on the boardwalk’s railing. Soon I found a patient Veery on the ground, her eyes warm and shy.
Up on the observation deck, a bright Cape May male was foraging, the sun hitting his yellow and chestnut feathers enough to make them glow. A Blue-grey Gnatcatcher was in the same tree, flitting about and chattering at all the photographers. This charismatic little bird was like a long-tailed kinglet, bouncing about the branches energetically.
Joined by a Yellow warbler and a trio of Warbling Vireos, the Gnatcatcher eventually flew deeper into the trees. On the other side, I sighted a Palm Warbler above us and along with a female Red-winged Blackbird. Not long after that, however, a truly remarkable bird appeared—a male Prothonotary Warbler.
I had been studying warbler songs and had come to know a few. A few weeks ago I had ID’d my first warbler by song, a Northern Parula at Virginia Beach. This time, I recognized the emphatic SAWHEE SAWHEE SAWHEE SAWHEE song of the Prothonotary as he belted out his sweet notes, his coat of blindingly golden feathers lit by the afternoon sun. Closer, closer he came, singing at each perch. Eventually, I was practically bent over the side of the deck trying to photograph him! He was almost underneath the deck, his song echoing off of it. He gave quite a show before flying off, singing as he went!
It was getting late, and my mom and I had not eaten anything in a while. She wanted to get going, but of course I didn’t want to leave (as hungry as I was). I began making my way towards the entrance, however. I saw a Carolina Wren, stout and deep chestnut, freckled with blacks and whites.
A robust male Black-throated Blue warbler was nearby, staying low among the twisted branches near the ground. As I looked back up, another Red-winged Blackbird was on the railing, calling and strutting his stuff! Finally, my mom told me it was time to go, and I reluctantly pulled myself away and exited the boardwalk… only to see a cluster of birders staring at a parking lot tree! I asked what they were seeing and they said, ‘Tennessee Warbler’. LIFE BIRD. It was hardly a satisfying look, the tiny bird foraging at the top of a tree in the muted early-evening light, but nevertheless a new warbler species for me. I spotted a male Blackpoll for the group, but he was quickly lost as he flew to another tree.
Behind us was a male Chestnut-sided warbler, round and active. On a nearby branch, a Warbling Vireo was pulling spiderwebs from underneath a leaf. The setting sun deepened the warm colours on her plumage.
Finally, I got into the car, much to my mom’s delight. On the way out of Magee, some adorable Canada goose goslings were sitting by the road. We stopped for a photo, much to the dismay of the parents—they hissed and glowered at us, warning to stay away.
After picking up Subway for our late supper, we headed back to the lodge to check out the silent auction and gift shop before retiring to our amazing loft room.
The next morning, Saturday, I woke up full of anticipation: we were going to the boardwalk first thing! I hurried to eat and get my things ready, and we headed out. The sun was shining bright and, although it was chilly and breezy, an amazing day was just waiting to happen. We pulled into Magee and of course I ran straight to the action. Upon walking to the first curve in the boardwalk, I saw everyone watching a Tennessee Warbler—the lifer from yesterday. Eager to get a better look at the bird, I found him in the tangles of vines, singing clearly for all to hear. What a fantastic song they have, so clear and ringing, a pleasant set of insistent thin whistles. I learned it quickly, for this particular bird was in good view and was letting no one escape his tune.
In a nearby tree, at the very top, our group sighted a Blackburnian male—the first for the year for me. Now there’s a beautiful bird! Further along the trail, I kept hearing the overflowing buzzy notes of a NOPA’s song, but it wasn’t until someone pointed the bird out that I actually set eyes on him. A little hard to see but no less delightful to listen to. Turning around, I was guided to the top of a tree to see a female Eastern Towhee, her rich chocolates and creams blending with white to create a coat of expresso coloured feathers. On her same tree, a quaint Black and White warbler female was going about her business, foraging up and down the trunk. Looking all around, the small warbler came closer with every hop. She was in the tree right next to me, and before long she had crept so close that even my bins wouldn’t focus on her! She was looking for insects, and as she searched I watched with glee. What an amazing, amazing encounter with the emblem of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory.
Soon it was time to head to over BSBO for the banding demo. I help out at Navarre Marsh with the BSBO banding crew, so I knew everything in the presentation yet I wanted to see those birds up close. It never gets old! In the BSBO tent was Ken Keffer, our education director, holding up a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak. One of our signature backyard songsters, this guy was putting on a show by flapping around indignantly. Amid all the flapping and fussing, Ken saw me and waved me over, behind the tent to join in on the fun. I was to help with the presentation! I chatted with Doug, another young birder I met at the OYBC conference, while we waited for Ken to move to the next bird. Ken let Doug release the grosbeak and then showed the crowd a White-crowned sparrow. He demonstrated how the banding process works while sharing facts about the BSBO, the banding crew, and the birds. Along with Doug and I, Rob, yet another OYBC member, was there, and he walked around with an AMRO as Ken talked about how we can identify the species, gender, and age of birds in the hand. After the robin, Ken let Doug take center stage and share his knowledge on a male Common Yellowthroat. Then, all three of us teen birders got to hold Yellow Warblers, but Doug accidentally let his go and mine was too lethargic to hold, so we let her rest and then released her. Ken then put a Common Grackle in my hand, and I held the bird for a moment before releasing. This was by far the largest bird I’ve ever held, and it was truly wonderful to have such a being resting in my curled hand. The feathers were so soft, the bill was so much larger than I had realized, the body so sturdy and full of energy. Grackles, so ubiquitous and overlooked, deserve much more acknowledgement, for it was (like all other birds I have held) this intimate look at one that I have gained a newfound appreciation and admiration for them.
Rob talked about his YEWA, and then…it was time. Ken told me he’d give me a Grey Catbird to share with the crowd. I asked him what I should say about the bird, as I didn’t know much biological information about the species. He turned to me and said, “It’s a catbird. It’s your bird!” … and then I knew what I had to say! Taking a deep breath, I clasped the creature in my gentle hand and stepped in front of the assembled onlookers.
As some of you may know, the GRCA is indeed, “my bird”. It was the first wild bird I ever held, a year ago at the 2011 International Migratory Bird Day. It was when I first met Kim and Ken and Kim offered to let me release a GRCA. It was, in short, a truly magical experience, and I realized perhaps for what was really the first time how much I loved and respected birds. Those soft, pastel feathers were so plush in my fingers… the deep maroon eyes stared back into mine, softly distant but questioning. The energy as that bird took wing from my palm is something I will never, ever forget.
So, needless to say, I was excited about talking to this crowd about the Grey Catbird. I didn’t, however, expect to cry. Yes, yes, yes…don’t poke fun. I got emotional over the bird. I started with some basic facts about the species itself, and then went into my personal connection with the catbird. I just got so overwhelmed with what that first catbird taught me, what he led me to, how his connection inspired me to pursue my birding passion to where it is today. I choked up not just for the bird, I believe, but the memories this species brings back. Of a an incredible, inspiring year full of wonderful new friends, thrilling experiences, new knowledge and skills, and a dazzling array of birds. I can’t imagine life without the BSBO, OYBC, Biggest Week, or all the friends I’ve made through it all.
Ken, as I started to tear up, rushed over and gave me a hug. Everyone was touched by my speech, though, and clapped as I finished (with “…So, this is a catbird, and I love them.” Real eloquent, I know.). I had many people approach me the rest of the weekend, saying that they were there for my speech and that I’d almost made them cry. I joke now that I’ll have the reputation of being the “crying bird lady”.
Ken wrapped up the demo with a feisty female Northern Cardinal; then it was time for a video shoot with Birds&Blooms magazine! They’re creating a mashup of shots of all the different birders at the events they go to, and are going to compile it all for their YouTube channel to the song “I Like Birds” by Eels. This song is one of my favourites, so I was super excited to dancing to it with all my birdy friends. We did the penguin shuffle (it was cold), the flap-your-arms-crazily move, and were just plain silly as we danced across the picnic table holding BSBO and BWIAB signs. BSBO pride! Even my mom joined in, and the boys too. Look for the video on Birds&Bloom’s YouTube.
Since it was so cold, my mom bought me some early birthday gifts: a BSBO hoodie and bird socks. They kept me warm and quite relevant…
We then headed to Ottowa for a bit, preparing to go to Chris Wood’s conservation talk, but we had to pass since our bellies were growling for food. Since I’m vegan, the only real option for eating there was Subway, so back we went. I ate in the car on the return to ONWR and after we were finished, we checked out the gift shop and stopped in to say hi to Jessie Barry. She introduced us to the parents of Andy Jonson, and then her fiancée Chris Wood. We all had a nice chat before my mom and I had to leave for the Maumee lodge to catch Kenn’s talk on bird migration.
We arrived early, so we checked on our bid in the silent auction and visited the different vendors and tables set up in the lobby. We looked at the Leica binoculars and spoke with the representatives- very nice folk and I must say, those optics were stellar. While we were talking, Kim came up behind me and said ‘birds rule’! We said hi and asked her about her binoculars, before learning she would be at Kenn’s speech. She said she’d save us a seat if she could. (Love you, Kimmer!)
Soon it was time for the presentation and we made our way to the room Kenn would be speaking in. Find Kim there, she had not gotten us a seat but we found three together and saved one for her. Quickly Kenn began, and Kim bounded over to sit next to me. It was a fascinating lecture, and although I know a fair amount about bird migration, some of the facts he shared simply astounded me. Even those that I knew already shocked me again. The journeys of our neotropical migrants simply floor me every time I hear about them. Kenn said it was amazing physically what these birds are capable of, but also spiritually incredible. They are daring travellers, and we are but the spectators of their amazing race for survival.
Afterwords, Kim and my mom and I chatted and then I went up to the table where Kenn’s books were being sold—another early birthday present was his field guide! And there was no better time to buy it, for he was right there willing to sign the books. I was last in line and waited patiently. Finally, it was my turn and I said ‘hello’ for the second time that weekend. Kenn and I marveled together at the astounding feats that the birds accomplish, and I praised him on his books and told him some birdy stories from my neighborhood. It was just awesome to be able to converse with Kenn, for he is so knowledgeable and accomplished in the birding/nature community, yet remains so accessible and approachable. What’s more, he complimented me on my talents of writing and photography. That made my night…
We said our good-nights and headed back to our loft. A good night’s sleep was welcomed…
Sunday morning we prepared our luggage and packed it all up, took it out to our car, and headed back to Magee, of course. More warblers! For us early morning birders, a Palm Warbler was resting in full view (with his back to us), stretching his wings and tail and replenishing a bit of the energy he had already expended that morning.
I also saw the Tennessee warbler again, along with Black-throated Blue, Blackpoll, Blackburnian, and Yellow-rumped warblers. Further down the boardwalk a crowd was gathering—an American Woodcock was strutting about the undergrowth, close to the trail. Woodcocks are such odd birds, and so interesting and fun to watch. Nothing, however, could compare to the brilliant sprite that was the male Prothonotary. Back at his usual rounds by the observation deck, this breathtaking bird came so close and sang so loud that I was almost shaking with delight. The PROW is one of my all time favourite warblers, and birds. They are just stunning.
As the PROW sang, Tree Swallows chitted about and a Red-breasted nuthatch climbed the tree above our heads. A smart looking male Blackpoll also showed up. Next I descended from the deck and walked just a bit further. I saw a Maggie in the vines but he didn’t come to quite a good view to photograph, but I did the best I could. It was still amazing to hear his Hooded-Warbler-like song.
Then, we realized the time and remembered that we had to head off to OWNR for the shorebird walk. We ended up having to follow the guides to Camp Sabroski for a better chance at seeing some birds. We walked to the marsh area, where I sighed my first Dunlin, Solitary Sandpipers, and Least Sandpipers. I also counted 51 Great Egrets! Two Trumpeter swans were placidly preening on one side, and on the other, many Yellowlegs (greater and lesser) probed the mud.
We were there for a few hours before driving to OWNR for the guided auto tour. There, I saw many roadside Yellow Warblers claiming territory with their cheery songs and found Gadwall and Blue-winged Teals. The best part about the driving tour, however, was when we stopped near the end at a small patch of trees. I had noticed a sandpiper land within them and decided to stop and look. I found the sandpiper, but I couldn’t identify it. A pair of singing House Wrens were busily gathering nest material for their home in a cavity in one of the trees, and an American Robin was perched atop her nest. Then, I heard it—a Common Yellowthroat. Waiting, waiting, I soon spotted the masked bandit, his black and olive-yellow disguise conspicuous in the afternoon sun. He allowed some wonderful looks, but unfortunately my camera battery was dead.
From there we drove back home; on the way I took a nice long nap. In all, I saw SEVENTY SEVEN species of birds! The weekend was utterly exhausting but one of the best I have ever had. I cannot express how amazing everyone at BSBO/the Biggest Week is. This event is stellar, from its birding to its events to its people. I’m so glad to be a part of it all!
Here’s to a great upcoming International Migratory Bird Day,