Kirtland’s Warbler is both rare and beautiful. Photo: Bruce Mactavish
There may be no better place to witness the spring passage of songbirds in North America than the states of the Midwest. The three main eastern migration routes converge here and since the birds are nearing their breeding grounds the males are usually in full and vigorous song. With impressive, often spectacular numbers and diversity of migrants on the best days, the Midwest is certainly comparable to any other migration site in North America.
Our tour takes in two prime locations for spring migrants, Crane Creek and the famous Magee Marsh Bird Trail at Ottawa NWR (Ohio) and Tawas Point (Michigan), and we also spend two days in the Carolinian forests and grasslands of eastern Kentucky and southern Ohio, where we expect to find most of the southern breeding species. Between these sites we should see nearly all of the eastern Neotropical landbird migrants (last year we missed only one - Olive-sided Flycatcher), likely including as many as 35 species of warblers - and there is a decent chance of seeing all 37 species.
We’ll conclude the trip with a visit to the Kirtland’s Warbler breeding grounds in northern Michigan.
Day 1: The trip begins at 4 pm at our motel in Florence, Kentucky near Cincinnati, Ohio. Fernald Reserve, an area grasslands and ponds, is nearby and we have our best chance of seeing Dickcissel here near the eastern end of their regular breeding range. Other species we might see include Grasshopper Sparrow, Blue Grosbeak and Orchard Oriole. Alternatively we might visit Culpability Farm in Versailles, Indiana, an area maintained for birds. It consists of grassland and woodland. The Northern Bobwhite, a declining species, is found here in decent numbers, and we are likely to at least hear it. Night in Florence, Kentucky.
Days 2: We’ll depart early for the Red River Gorge east of Lexington, Kentucky in Daniel Boone National Forest, a breathtakingly beautiful place with its limestone and sandstone rock formations, some of which cross the Red River – all in a heavily forested environment. Along the way we’ll drive through Kentucky’s ‘Blue Grass’ and the fabled horse farms. Red River Gorge holds a few pairs of Swainson’s Warblers, here at the northern edge of their range, as well as many of the more southern warblers such as Blue-winged, Yellow-throated, Pine, Worm-eating, and Hooded and Louisiana Waterthrush. There is always the remote chance of seeing Ruffed Grouse. Acadian Flycatcher and Eastern Phoebe also breed here. The forest is noted, too, for its variety of butterflies, notable among them the striking Zebra Swallowtail, which should be numerous. Heading north in the afternoon we’ll stop at an industrial park in a reclaimed strip mine in Greenup County, Kentucky, not far from Portsmouth where Henslow’s Sparrow breeds along with species such as Prairie Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Blue Grosbeak, Grasshopper Sparrow and maybe Dickcissel. We’ll be accompanied today by Brainard Palmer-Ball, Jr., one of the best birders in the East and the author of Kentucky’s breeding bird atlas and the state’s recent annotated lists. Night at Shawnee State Forest lodge.
Day 3: We’ll spend much of the day in the beautiful and extensive Shawnee Forest close to Portsmouth, where nearly all of the southern Carolinian specialities are found in good numbers - Cerulean and Kentucky Warblers are almost common here – and we’ll probably find any we missed yesterday.
If we haven’t connected with Henslow’s Sparrow, we may try checking the fields in Adams County again on our second morning, or we may end up there late in the day in an early evening attempt for Chuck-will’s-widow, here at the regular northern end of its breeding range. On warm evenings we can hear Eastern Whip-poor-will from the porch of the lodge. Night at Shawnee State Forest lodge.
Day 4: We’ll depart for Crane Creek and the famed Magee Marsh Bird Trail on Lake Erie, and should arrive in time for some late afternoon birding at this premier location. By then the crowds of birders from earlier in the day should have diminished. Along the way, we may stop near Scioto Trail State Forest near Chillicothie whose forested ridges have many breeding species and can be full of migrants. Chillicothe was Ohio’s first capital from 1803-1810 and was again the capital from 1812-1816. Night in Oregon.
Days 5-6: Crane Creek and the Magee Marsh Trail are Ohio’s best migration spots. The spectacle is similar to the one at Pt. Pelee National Park in extreme southern Ontario, but here the concentrations of migrants don’t appear to be as weather-dependent, and even on slower days there are plenty of birds. The narrow strip of woods along the lake is more open than at Pelee, and migrants are delightfully visible. Here we can usually count on finding more secretive species such as Mourning Warbler, and we typically encounter an American Woodcock or two sauntering and bobbing through the wet leaf litter. Although the odds are only about 20%, it’s here that we have our best chance of Connecticut Warbler. This is by far the hardest of the 37 species of wood warblers we hope to encounter during our tour.
Adjacent Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge has a variety of waterbirds, including shorebirds if water levels are appropriate, and the adjoining woods attract migrants. If we tire of migrants, the woodlands around Toledo have a number of breeding birds, including Acadian, and Willow Flycatchers and Blue-winged and Pine Warblers; and nearby Oak Openings has breeding Lark Sparrows, their only regular location in the eastern Midwest. Red-headed Woodpecker breeds here too and this might be our only encounter with this striking and declining species. A few Summer Tanagers at the north end of their breeding range have recently summered here. Nights in Oregon.
Day 7: After a final morning of birding at Crane Creek, we’ll drive north to Tawas City, Michigan. Night in Tawas City.
Days 8-9: One of Michigan’s best migration spots, Tawas Point has harboured an astonishing variety of rarities. In 2017 a Fork-tailed Flycatcher remained for two days and in 1995 we had a White-collared Swift. The narrow peninsula is lightly covered with tree clumps and bushes that can be full of migrants given the right winds, and since vegetation is so low, the birds are often more visible. A long sandy spit usually hosts a variety of shorebirds, sometimes including Piping Plover, which has nested here in recent years if the lake water levels are not too high.
One of the real pleasures of Tawas Point is the absence of crowds of birders which can at times overwhelm the boardwalk at Magee Marsh, and even if there are few migrants, the Tawas area is rewarding. Nearby marshes support American and possibly Least Bitterns, and Sora and Virginia Rails, and further afield near Au Gres, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and in some years Sedge Wrens. Abandoned fields host Clay-colored Sparrows alongside many Bobolinks. We’ll also likely make a stop at Rifle River State Recreation Area. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers breed here, as do warblers including Golden-winged, Mourning, and Canada. Even Kirtland’s Warbler has nested here in recent years in a young jack pine stand within 30 minutes of our motel! Night in Tawas City.
Day 10: After a final day of birding around Tawas Point, we’ll drive north to Mio stopping along the beautiful Au Sable River where we might see breeding Winter Wrens and Purple Finches. Just north of Mio are many Amish farms, where Upland Sandpipers and other grassland species breed. Weather permitting, we’ll look for American Woodcock and Eastern Whip-poor-will this evening, if our views on previous days have been insufficient. Night in Mio.
Day 11: We’ll spend the morning searching for the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler. Almost the entire known population of the species (recently about 5,000 birds) breeds in the Michigan counties around Mio and Grayling, and with the help of a U.S. Forest Service guide, we’re likely to find one or more of these special warblers. Other species in the area include Hermit Thrush, Vesper Sparrow, and Eastern Towhee. We should add that in recent years we’ve encountered a few (seven actually) migrant Kirtland’s Warblers at either Crane Creek or Tawas Point. If we’ve already had superb views, we might head west to Grayling and Hartwick Pines State Park, a never-logged forest. Here Evening Grosbeaks are somewhat regular at the visitor center’s feeders and Blue-headed Vireos and Winter Wrens can often be found close-by. Night in Romulus, near Detroit.
Day 12: The tour concludes this morning in Romulus.
This tour is arranged by our American partner WINGS
Updated: 26 November 2018