Baltimore oriole at Magee Marsh.

Baltimore oriole at Magee Marsh.

There are birding festivals that are  wonderful because of the avian attractions they offer. There are also birding festivals that are wonderful because of the programs offered and the people assembled. The Biggest Week in American Birding fits both categories and is something not to be missed. The event is organized by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory whose executive director is Kim Kauffman. She had graciously invited me way back in September 2012 to give a talk on passenger pigeons for the 2014 festival: it was the first bird festival I had ever attended. She invited me again this year to present the documentary David Mrazek and I made, From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction.

The screening was scheduled for Friday night which would ordinarily mean I would have arrived the day before. But so many attendees are now good friends I reached out to a few I knew would be there too. Rick Wright, Book Review Editor of Birding, suggested I come on Wednesday which also was the narrow window for Ontario friends Justin Peter (who works for Quest Nature Tours) and Sarah Rupert (a naturalist at Point Peele National Park) to make the trip south. The lodge at Maumee Bay State Park is the center of the festival and I arrived around lunch time, a few hours before I was to meet the others. I made my way to the very nice restaurant and was seated next to Drew Lanham and Katie Anderson. Katie is an active volunteer for the festival and we had a chance to chat last year. Drew is an ornithologist at Clemson University who had me on his radio show last year when the book came out. At the 2014 festival, we met, literally like ships passing in the night: at the very moment I was walking through the lodge doors to my car and the trip back home, Drew was entering. I yelled his name, we shook hands, lamented not having more time, and proceeding on our prospective ways. But this time Drew, Katie, and I had a leisurely lunch where we spent more time chatting than eating.

At the appropriate time, I perched on a chair by the lodge entrance waiting for Rick, Justin, and Sarah. It felt like being at a hawk watch, checking off the birding luminaries I knew. “Oh my gosh, there is John Kricher (from MA).” “By the other table, Chris West.” (I had met Chris while we both searched Long Lake at the Indiana Dunes in an unsuccessful effort to see  a lesser sand plover present the previous day). And then Kim Kauffman arrived: she is unbelievably busy handling all kinds of tasks at the event but she always finds time for a conversation and a hug. (I would not see Kenn until the next day and somehow I missed any photos with either of the Kaufmans.)

Dunlins and utility wires.

Dunlins and utility wires.

Eventually all three migrants arrived and we went to check a flooded field for shorebirds prior to heading off for dinner. The wet spot yielded a lesser yellowlegs and a nice flock of breeding plumaged dunlin, with waves of ring-billed gulls overhead. Sarah and Justin were staying at the same hotel I was while Rick was at the lodge so we agreed to meet at Magee Marsh early the next morning.

Justin, Blogger, Rick, and Sarah. (Photo by Jim Berry)

Justin, Blogger, Rick, and Sarah. (Photo by Jim Berry)

Eating breakfast in the hotel, I noticed someone looking at my name tag. He introduced himself as Dave Fischer, whom I had not seen in 32 years. For a year or two, he and I spent hours in Waukegan, Illinois counting hawks. Then he left to pursue a doctorate studying raptors at Brigham Young University. It was a real surprise and pleasure. (And we would run into each other later on  the boardwalk.)

Magee Marsh was, of course, magical. Warblers took center stage with such species as prothonotary, Blackburnian (“just another Blackburnian”), bay-breasts (more than I have seen in a long time), Canada, Cape May (all females), and maybe fifteen more. You know you are at the peak when early species like yellow-rumpeds are still around and they have been joined by Canada’s and mourning (which I did not see but others did.) A green heron posed for a long time so that even I could capture a decent photo (but not as good as Justin took) and a black-billed cuckoo called from deep within the foliage. Another striking aspect of the Magee is that between the four of us, every few minutes someone  would be stopping to stay hello. Sometimes it felt as if we were at a wedding reception. One person with whom we shared the boardwalk was Jim Berry, former executive director of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute. Both Rick and I have the pleasure of knowing Jim, who graciously took this photo of the group. We birded for about five hours: after that Justin and Sarah had to go back across the border, and Rick and I headed back to the lodge (where I stayed the last two nights)

Black-throated blue warbler at Magee Marsh (Photo by Barbara Jablonski)

Black-throated blue warbler at Magee Marsh (Photo by Barbara Jablonski)

Prothonotary warbler at Magee Marsh. (Photo by Barbara Jablonski)

Prothonotary warbler at Magee Marsh. (Photo by Barbara Jablonski)

Rick and I met again as we each sought lunch at the lodge. Soon thereafter, Kenn and I crossed paths and continued our conversation as he collected something from his car. It was almost time for the first keynote address of the day and that was by 14 year old Matthias Benko, another of Indiana’s stellar young birders. He focused on how birding fuels the fire of conservation and did a fine job. (Hats off to Kim for her work on promoting young people in birding: that she invited someone who is barely a teen to present a keynote both shows her commitment to this vital aspect of birding and her understanding that such an honor will not soon be forgotten by Mr. Benko.)

At first break of day, such as it was, I was at Magee Marsh. Unfortunately, there was more rain that light. Most of those present had assembled under the shelter of the tent waiting for the torrents to abate. A few hardy souls ventured onto the walk. I had my poncho on but it just seemed fruitless to enter into falling water that would make eye glasses and binos much less effective. Two of the people sharing cover were US Fish and Wildlife employees, one from Florida and one from Columbus.. Magee Marsh abuts the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge , and because there are so many visitors during the festival,  the service seeks birding  employees throughout the system to bolster personnel for this busy time. Eventually, the rain subsided and I had another fine three or so hours birding on the boardwalk. One highlight was a very tame white-eyed vireo on a bare branch.

Under the tent at dawn waiting for the rain to be replaced by light.

Under the tent at dawn waiting for the rain to be replaced by light.

While kibitzing on the boardwalk, I learned that there was a drive tour at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge which is on the way back to the lodge. On two occasions earlier in the trip I had run into this delightful young couple from the Detroit area: Benjamin Prouse and Jacqueline Mannino. He is a graduate student who works at two nature centers and she is a blood expert working in a hospital.  Soon after starting down the drive tour, I saw them birding. They had left their car at the refuge headquarter so I asked if they wanted to join me. At one of our first stops we saw a palm warbler, an early migrant that should be gone by now. It was fun listening to singing willow flycatchers, which neither Benjamin nor Jacqueline had heard before. The route meanders  along a large lake where we saw two bald eagles, Caspian terns, and two common terns.

Benjamin, Jacqueline, and Blogger at Ottawa NWR.

Benjamin, Jacqueline, and Blogger at Ottawa NWR.

The Kaufmans  and Jeff Sayre just completed a fine volume entitled Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of the Midwest. Such a book can not be comprehensive, but it is an entree into unfamiliar taxa, facilitating the process of identifying a perplexing critter or plant. As are all of the Kaufman Field Guides, the images are stunning photos. It will certainly encourage and illuminate the way for naturalists who want to explore a broader array of nature than they know. Kim introduced her fellow authors, and Kenn and Jeff presented a thoroughly entertaining discussion of their valuable contribution to the natural history of the region.

black swamp kaufman

The screening of the movie was at 7. A nice crowd was present and Kenn introduced me in such glowing terms, I was moved to almost tears. I can not say enough about how supportive he has been of me over the years. I am really honored and privileged to have Kenn as a friend. (Kim’s comments after the film were also extremely generous and touching: these two will always have a special place in my heart.)  After the screening, there was an enthusiastic discussion which is always enjoyable.

I can hardly wait until next year.

 

Warbling vireo at Magee Marsh. (Photo by Benjamin Prouse)

Warbling vireo at Magee Marsh. (Photo by Benjamin Prouse)

 

 

Green heron at Magee Marsh (Justin Peter)

Green heron at Magee Marsh (Justin Peter)

Leave a Reply

You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>