Last week, several members of the Bird Watcher’s Digest staff headed to the shores of Lake Erie to spend a few days birding at the famed Magee Marsh and Maumee Bay State Park, in search of fall warblers and other migrants. Our advertising partner Neff Brothers graciously provided us with an RV to use, which a few of us stayed in while others tent camped. This was our first work birding trip since February, and it felt so good to be out in the field together again, especially in one of our favorite hotspots! As we like to say, birding is better with friends, and the BWD team is truly a family of birding friends.
This excursion was my first serious attempt to identify and study some fall warblers, and I set my expectations low: I would be happy to really get to know just one of the confusing fall warblers. I figure if I learn a new one every fall, perhaps I will be confident in my IDs by the time I’m in my golden years, ha!
I was in luck, as on our first morning, we seemed to be in the midst of a fallout at Magee, and we had no shortage of birds to watch and even sometimes identify, when they stopped flitting about long enough to get a decent look. They were not messing around on their quest to fuel up for the next part of their journey south!
It was a joy attempting to work out the identifications together, as our group consisted of a mix of knowledge and skill levels, each with our own preferences of field guides and apps for reference. I still consider myself a relatively young birder (in birding years, not age!), having only been seriously birding for nine years now. Any chance to be in the field with more experienced birders who are so gracious in sharing their knowledge is as much of a gift as the birds themselves.
The most common warblers of the day were bay-breasted, Cape May (a lifer for me!), and magnolia. I feel pretty confident that I could correctly identify one of these fall visitors if they showed up in my yard… this year anyway! But we also saw a few gorgeous black-throated blues, black-and-white, chestnut-sided, and yellow-rumped warblers—plus redstarts, eastern phoebes, black-capped chickadees, and the uncommon gray-cheeked thrush, to name a few. We also got great looks at our first-of-year red-breasted nuthatch, which seem to be having an irruption year after no sightings in our neck of the woods last year.
What we did not see were people. We are used to a packed boardwalk at Magee every spring at the Biggest Week in American Birding, and it felt strange and yet lovely to have the whole thing to ourselves. Socially distant birding was no problem, and even if more people had been present, a one-way path was clearly marked to promote safe birding.
Another fun aspect of the day was trying out some new optics. We brought along an array of binoculars and we field tested several models, giving particular attention to a few new ones we are now carrying: Steiner’s Peregrine and XH models as well as the hot-off-the-press Zeiss 8×32 Victory SF. (I’ve decided the Peregrines are my go-to when someone new to birding asks me for a bins recommendation, and I really enjoyed trying out a pair of 32s for the first time—they are the preference of several of my closest birder friends, and now I appreciate their light weight and bright, wide field of view.)
In the evening Kelly Ball and I spent the last bit of daylight on Maumee Bay’s boardwalk, and again, we hit the jackpot with bay-breasted, Cape May, and magnolia warblers. It was very satisfying to feel (fairly) confident in our identifications and just soak up all the warbler action we could, enough to hopefully sustain us through the winter until we see them again next spring.
We also enjoyed a group of trumpeter swans, mostly juveniles, preening and resting in the middle of the wetlands, and we had a magical moment where a pair of American bitterns flew over—which we might never have seen had one not emitted its nasal haink call and pulled our eyes up.
All in all, it was a five-star birding day, capped off by a gorgeous evening next to the campfire (with a gourmet fish and ratatouille dinner courtesy of Chefs Wendy and Dawn) outside our luxurious RV home. I had actually never been inside an RV before, and I was amazed at how much room there was, how modern and comfortable it felt. Kelly, Wendy, and I each had our own “room,” with plenty of personal space, and we certainly could have accommodated more folks in other beds that folded out of seemingly every nook and cranny. (Dawn and Bruce were snug as bugs in their personal tents on our campsite.) I slept way better than I expected to in a new, shared space, and I completely get the appeal of this style of travel, especially in these socially distant times.
My only regret is that I couldn’t stay more than one night, but duties back home beckoned. My colleagues stayed on for a few more nights, but even that one magical day went a long way in filling the hole of birding travel that I’ve been missing since last winter. Come what may with travel in the months ahead, I hope this is the first of many bird camps and RV adventures with my BWD family!