Magee Marsh

May 16, 2016 by Bruce Beehler


There's nothing quite like experiencing the spring migration of songbirds first-hand, out in the field. I like to do this each year with a field trip to a place where I can revel in the glory of wood warblers, vireos, thrushes, and more. It is such a vital, experience—like a big shot of some rejuvenating elixir!

Blackburnian Warbler © Bruce Beehler

This year I took a three-day overdose of songbirds at Magee Marsh, on the southern shore of Lake Erie, in northern Ohio. Since it was my fourth spring visit to this Mecca of migration, I knew the ropes and prepared well. Research, preparation, and flexibility are critical to a successful trip. It all about understanding the influence of large-scale weather systems on mid-continental bird movements and the mechanics of migration across the Great Lakes.

Bay-breasted Warbler © Bruce Beehler

First one needs to understand that large masses of birds move after a period of northerly winds from Canada which is common in mid-May. Once this north-wind pattern is broken by a low in the lower Mississippi, southwest winds blow up toward the south shore of Lake Erie, temperatures warm up, and the songbirds follow the benign winds toward northern Ohio. Some percentage of these migrating birds are brave and cross Lake Erie to Ontario at the end of their long night's flight. These brave birds fill the vegetation at Point Pelee, Ontario, on the north shore. The more timid of the migrants see the vast lake and decide to drop into the narrow strip of woods on the south shore, at Magee Marsh, Ohio. Both Point Pelee and Magee Marsh are famous migrant traps because not all birds do the same thing. Great days at Point Pelee tend to match great days at Magee Marsh.

Wilson's Warbler © Bruce Beehler
Chestnut-sided Warbler © Bruce Beehler
Northern Parula © Bruce Beehler
Palm Warbler © Bruce Beehler

So why do I visit Magee Marsh with more frequency? Because it is easier to get there from my home in Maryland and there is no need for an international border crossing and a passport check. Both places are great, and both should be visited some time in a birder's life. Here's why.

Visiting a migrant trap is special because of the raw numbers of birds, the species diversity, and the close encounters with foraging songbirds at eye level that rarely happens in other circumstances. I had three great afternoons this spring—May 11th -13th. Each afternoon, as the wind died down and the sun warmed certain patches of forest-edge, warblers and other small songbirds concentrated in these spots, where insect prey was abundant. Clots of observers and bird photographers would cluster in favorable viewing locations and simply let the birds do their thing. Singletons and twos and threes of Cape May, Bay-breasted, and Blackburnian Warblers would forage actively in low bushes and flowering willows, often moving no more than a few yards in an hour.

Yellow-rumped Warbler © Bruce Beehler
Cape May Warbler © Bruce Beehler

One could watch a Tennessee Warbler foraging in a small apple tree for what seemed like an eternity. The birds would be completely oblivious to a dozen or more observers and photographers standing on the adjacent boardwalk, no more than a few yards from the birds. Communing with these colorful and courageous little creatures is a nearly mystical experience—taking part in the migratory act that takes these birds from tropical rainforests to the boreal forests of Canada.

Tennessee Warbler © Bruce Beehler

In my three days of birding Magee Marsh this spring, I observed twenty-four warbler species and a total of a hundred bird species altogether. The overall crowd highlight was the singing male Kirtland's Warbler that tantalized a group of several hundred birders and bird photographers. I quickly got a quick look at this elusive and rare bird in song and then moved out of the way (I had spent time with this species on its breeding grounds in northern Michigan in 2015). Other interesting species I encountered included Summer Tanager, Black-billed Cuckoo, Lincoln's Sparrow, and Gray-cheeked Thrush.

Baltimore Oriole © Bruce Beehler
Black-billed Cuckoo © Bruce Beehler

For those who have not made a pilgrimage to this special place, be prepared for dense crowds of birders. Also it is best to be flexible and make the trip when Kenn Kauffmann predicts a big flight on his blog. Magee Marsh is a wonder. There are few migrant traps comparable—Point Pelee, Central Park, and Chicago's magic hedge on the lakeshore to name three. In all of these, on the right day with the right winds, the wonder of spring migration appears in Technicolor and 3-D.

Bruce Beehler is a research associate in the Division of Birds of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.