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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Spring Migration in the Midwest

2011 Tour Narrative

Our tour to the Midwest this year produced all 38 species of eastern wood warblers, although our views of Swainson’s Warbler were marginal.  On the other hand we had exceptional and prolonged views of a walking male Connecticut Warbler, at one point within inches of a male Mourning Warbler. Kirtland’s Warblers were quite cooperative and we saw at least seven.  Other than Olive-sided Flycatcher we saw every migrant species of Neotropical land bird.  These included both cuckoos and excellent comparative views of the five eastern Empidonax flycatchers.  Other highlights included several singing Henslow’s Sparrows, a female Black-necked Stilt, all three species of scoters, and nearly two hundred Long-tailed Ducks, and two Little Gulls.  A male Garganey near Cincinnati, a breeding adult Arctic Tern at Killdeer Plains in northwest Ohio, and two Fish Crows at Pt. Pelee were the rarest birds of the tour.

Our tour began late in the afternoon of 9 May, where after a quick trip to the airport, we visited Fernwald Preserve northwest of Cincinnati.  Here a male Garganey had been found about 29 April and had been seen daily since.  Our guide, Gary Stegner, was there at the headquarters and fortunately the bird was on the closest pond.  We had superb views of it and watched it for a good long while.  This highly migratory Eurasian species has occurred now in most states and provinces, including once before in Ohio.  The Asian population has declined markedly over the last decade and a half and records for the West Coast are much more infrequent than in the 1980’s.  Other species of note at the Preserve included a small number of shorebirds, a late female Ring-necked Duck and several Grasshopper Sparrows which were very cooperative.  On the way to the Fernwald we saw two Black Vultures just across the Ohio line.

We left early the next morning for Lexington and then headed east towards the Cumberland Plateau.  We picked up Brainard Palmer-Ball, Jr. en route and shortly afterwards he pointed out the first high promontory, Pilot Knot.  It was here in June of 1769 that Daniel Boone first viewed the Blue Grass region of Kentucky and his tales soon led to a western migration through the Cumberland Gap to the south of Pilot Knob.  Our destination was Red River Gorge, the northern limit of breeding Swainson’s Warbler.  We hiked several trails amongst the mountain laurel and rhododendron and did hear a distant singing Swainson’s Warbler.  Late in the day another bird was very responsive to tape, but didn’t remain long at any point for viewing.  We did see a variety of other warblers including breeders like Pine, Yellow-throated, Hooded, Worm-eating and Ovenbird and migrants like Magnolia and Bay-breasted.  Scarlet Tanagers were numerous and we heard several Pileated Woodpeckers. The Blue-headed Vireos were of the Appalachian subspecies, alticola.  A few had a chance to see, though we all heard, Louisiana Waterthrush.  Several Cope’s Gray Tree-Frogs were calling.  Brainard pointed out a blooming American Chestnut, a formerly dominate species of eastern North America, but wiped out by the blight.  They still exist but only grow to a low height before they get infected.  Later in the day we headed north to the Ohio River and Portsmouth.

The following morning we birded the Shawnee Forest west of Portsmouth.  It was a warm day but we found many breeding warblers, including many Ceruleans (at least ten), as well some ten Kentucky Warblers.  Other breeding warblers included Blue-winged, Hooded, Worm-eating, and Yellow-breasted Chat as well as migrant Blackpolls.  Other species of note included Broad-winged Hawk, Philadelphia (a migrant) and Yellow-throated Vireos, Wood Thrushes and a single singing immature male Summer Tanager.  A singing Blue Grosbeak must have been an immature male, but looked exactly like a female.  Later to the west we saw a pair, including a fully blue male.  Butterflies were especially numerous given the warm and sunny conditions.  We had numerous swallowtails of three species (Zebra, Eastern Tiger, and Spicebush) and a single scarce (for so far north) Gemmed Satyr.  Late in the afternoon we headed west to Adams County where we had good views of several singing Field and Henslow’s Sparrows, the latter species being overall quite scarce, local, and often highly secretive, even during the breeding season.  Here we also heard a Northern Bobwhite, a declining species.

We departed from Portsmouth the next morning for Scioto Trails State Park, where the mix of species was much like Shawnee.  We again heard, but did not see Louisiana Waterthrush.  An Acadian Flycatcher was new for the trip.  Later in Columbus we had a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron sitting on a nest, which is a known location for the species.  Later in the afternoon we arrived at the famous Magee Marsh bird trail where the warm conditions produced many migrants including some 21 species of warblers, highlighted by some forty Magnolias and seven Cape Mays.  A roosting gray morph Eastern Screech-Owl (we saw a rufous morph the next day), and a migrant female Eastern Whip-poor-will were certainly of interest.  At Metzger Marsh to the west we had a single immature male Yellow-headed Blackbird and two Common Moorhens, a scarce and local species in the Midwest.

We spent much of the next day, 13 May, on the boardwalk at Magee Marsh.  Based on the observation of local birdwatchers it was said to be the best day of the spring.  We tallied 25 species of warblers, most in numbers, including twelve Canadas.  A highlight was a male Connecticut Warbler that cooperated for hundreds including our entire group.  At one point it was within inches of a male Mourning Warbler, providing outstanding comparisons.  Although these two species seem related, in fact recent genetic studies show they are not.  As a result Mourning, MacGillivray’s and Kentucky Warbler will be moved to the genus Geothlypis, the genus of Common Yellowthroat, while Connecticut will now be the sole member of Oporornis.  A male Cerulean was also well viewed.  It is much scarcer at this latitude than in the Ohio Valley.  Other species of note included another (or the same?)  Whip-poor-will, two Black-billed Cuckoos, a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, a very tardy Winter Wren, two Gray-cheeked Thrushes and two Veeries, and six Lincoln’s Sparrows.  Nearby we found a flock of five Sandhill Cranes. 

We avoided the boardwalk the next day given the crowds on the Saturday, but heard that migrants were much reduced.  We birded around the Ottawa headquarters where we found a few migrants and had lovely scope views of a singing Wood Thrush.  Willow Flycatchers had arrived overnight and we counted six singing birds on territory during the day.  On the auto tour of Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge we had excellent views of several Virginia Rails.  Later in the afternoon at Oak Openings we found Red-headed Woodpeckers and Field and Lark Sparrows, the latter species being at the eastern end of its breeding range.

The next morning (15 May) it was raining and after hanging out a bit at the headquarters at Ottawa where our only Snowy Egret of the trip was present, we chose to head south and out of the rain, or at least most of it.  At Killdeer Plains the day before a flock of American Golden-Plovers had been present along with a rare (for Ohio) Black-necked Stilt.  We eventually found the female Black-necked Stilt and also found a breeding plumaged tern which we eventually got decent enough views to determine it was an Arctic Tern, a casual species in Ohio.  No doubt the strong north winds and inclement weather dropped it.  It remained until late in the day when a flock of Common Terns had joined it.  In addition to its casual status our record was early.  Well to the north at Ottawa, Ontario, the species is noted annually, but normally not until after 22 May. From Killdeer Plains we headed north and west to Interstate 75 and Michigan, crossing into Ontario at Detroit and eventually getting to Leamington. 

By the next morning it was obvious that the cold front was well entrenched at Pt. Pelee.  Migrants were still rather numerous, but some of them were in trouble.  We had outstanding views of many of the stressed birds, including a number of Alder and a single Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.  One of the Alders eventually became a specimen.  The next morning an Acadian Flycatchers provided equally outstanding views near the tip at Pt. Pelee.  We encountered 22 species of warblers, but most in reduced numbers from Crane Creek.  A Lesser Black-backed Gull was notable at the tip as were both species of cuckoos and fifteen Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, mostly males and nearly all being very cooperative for extended studies.  A pair of calling Fish Crows going back and forth during the afternoon was notable.  This species, formerly unknown in Ontario, is now nearly annual at Point Pelee, although this is the first time that we have recorded this species for the tour.  Interestingly Ohio just got its first report this spring (from the Magee Marsh Boardwalk).  The species normally breeds up the Ohio River to southwest Indiana.

We spent the next morning looking through the rafts of ducks on the west side of the Point.  A female King Eider had been reported, but we were unable to find it.  Still, we tallied some 40 Greater Scaup, an adult male Long-tailed Duck, and all three species of scoters.  We have only rarely encountered single scoters on this tour and have never seen Black Scoter.  We counted at least ten, including an adult male.  Later at Hillman Marsh, a Wilson’s Phalarope and two Little Gulls were of interest.

On our final morning at Point Pelee we noted that migrants were much reduced.  On the West Beach we had excellent views of an adult stakeout male Summer Tanager, rare this far north, and found a single Orange-crowned Warbler (a scarce migrant).  We would later see several more Orange-crowns up in Michigan.  Later in the morning we headed for Michigan, eventually arriving at East Tawas late in the afternoon and doing some birding at Tawas Point. 

Conditions were still not ideal for migration while we were at Tawas Point, but we found a variety of migrants.  A single American Tree Sparrow was notably late and some four Orange-crowned Warblers were certainly notable.  From Tawas City looking out onto Lake Huron we tallied nearly 200 Long-tailed Ducks, an exceptional number for so late in the spring and indicative of the overall late spring.  Roger Ericksson took us on some back roads where we encountered a roadside Ruffed Grouse, a species we seldom find on this tour.  His friend up on the Au Sable River had several Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in the yard and we watched eastern Purple Finches visit his feeders.  Certainly our best sighting was the male Golden-winged Warbler on the south side of Tuttle Marsh that Kim Eckert had found earlier in the day while leading an MOU trip.  Although this species has bred at this location, I believe from its behavior that this individual was a migrant.  It was the only Golden-winged we had on the tour.  Later on the 20th, we headed west towards Mio.  We stopped in the Amish farming region north of town where we located a pair of Upland Sandpipers.

Our morning of the 21st couldn’t have been more ideal weather wise and we saw at least seven Kirtland’s Warblers, many singing at close range in ideal light.  It was our 38th and last eastern wood warbler.  Although we recorded all eastern species, our views of Swainson’s were hardly ideal, and many missed Louisiana Waterthrush.  On the other hand we miss Connecticut four out of five years.  We were very fortunate to see this enigmatic species and to see it so well.  Other species of note in that area included a male Brewer’s Blackbird and Clay-colored and Vesper Sparrows.  A Black-billed Cuckoo in the jack pines seemed out of place.  Later east of Standish we were able to call up a Sedge Wren and saw a male Cerulean on territory at the northern end of its breeding range.  An immature Rough-legged Hawk nearby was very late.  Our final stop was at Kensington Metropark in Oakland County where we viewed a single adult Great Horned Owl. 

In addition to 38 species of eastern wood warblers we essentially found every Neotropical migrant land bird, with the single exception of Olive-sided Flycatcher, a rather scarce migrant that we see about 50% of the time, more often than not at Point Pelee.

- Jon L. Dunn

Updated: July 2011