It’s a major traffic jam, the likes of which I’ve never seen before. Birding buddy Sharon, her sister Susan, and I were right in the thick of it. Chaos and noise reigned everywhere.
Of course, everyone wanted to get across the water to the other side. It looked like this jam could last for days, even weeks, and no one was happier than we were.
No, I’m not talking about crossing the Chesapeake Bay bridge to go “down the ocean.”
The spectacular traffic jam we were in was the annual warbler migration at Magee Marsh on the southern shore of Lake Erie in Ohio.
Our little group, along with 25 other intrepid birders, made the bus trip to Magee in mid-May. Not wanting to be totally ignorant about what we were getting into, I read up on Magee and looked at lots of pretty photos taken by visitors over the years. Could it really be as good as everyone said?
I was skeptical. First and foremost, the weather forecast was not exactly in our favor. It rained, it stormed, the wind blew and temperatures alternated from downright cold to sticky hot. I couldn’t imagine that the birds, let alone us birders, would be one bit pleased with this soupy, windy mess.
I learned quickly never to underestimate Mother Nature, let alone an unstoppable group of hardy bird enthusiasts. If the birds could manage the nasty weather, so could we!
From the minute we stepped off the bus and entered the marsh, it was like stepping into the best Christmas light show I had ever seen. Flashes of color were everywhere! For the next few hours, I barely made it past the entrance to the boardwalk.
Patterns of movement quickly became apparent to me. In this case, I’m talking about people, not birds. Masses of birders loaded down with hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment gathered like a giant swarm at the entrance. Bushes and trees were loaded with so many warblers that people were tripping over themselves to get better views.
When someone called out an unusual sighting, we slid like a massive amoeba further down the boardwalk. This went on for hours and this was just the beginning.
I was overwhelmed by it all. It was more than I could ever imagine. People stretched out over the length of the boardwalk (a bit less than a mile) and settled into clumps, lineups and even the occasional solitary soul. I felt relieved when I got away from the masses. Crowds are not my favorite thing. I knew I missed some good sightings when I wasn’t part of the “amoeba,” but like a fish, I had to come up for some air.
In the meantime, the warblers, along with lots of other birds, seemed oblivious to our presence. They were busy stuffing themselves with insects and waiting for the magic moment: the right winds to get them across Lake Erie to Point Pelee in Ontario, Canada, and breeding grounds further north.
Of course, warbler sightings were at the top of everyone’s list. I personally saw eight different warbler species that I had never seen before. A few other surprises, though, made the trip even more special. Among them were a sandhill crane, American woodcock, sora, bob-white, night hawk, screech owl and great horned owl.
All totaled, the group saw 137 species of birds in less than four days.
By now you might be thinking what’s the big deal here? Sure, I can see many of the same warblers here at home, one peeking out here, another there.
Here’s the difference at Magee — take the world’s greatest choirs, gather them all in one place, hear them sing and swing on the wing, and you have some of the best music and sights God ever created. That’s just how good it is!
To be honest, though, the best part was sharing the experience with like-minded people. The York Audubon sponsored group we traveled with ranged in age from the early twenties to the seventies (maybe even older). Experience was equally broad, from novices like me to experts. Even better yet, we all got along and we all looked out for each other. Everyone shared a genuine sense of joy in each other’s company and the birds we saw. Guided by incredibly organized and patient host Becky Stabler of NatureStabler Explorations, we not only saw the best birds but stopped at some of the best places to eat (the local pie and ice cream were fabulous).
At the end of the day, looking at all the beautiful pictures I took will never do this trip justice. Magee Marsh should be on everyone’s bucket list, not just for the birds, but for the experience. There is no better metaphor for nature’s beauty and perfection.