"Coloring the Conservation Conversation--One Word at a Time!"

Monday, May 14, 2012

Black Birder in the Black Swamp

Nashville warbler -JDL
Anyone who knows birds is stoked to a shaking, shivering hyper-active state when names like Point Pelee, Whitefish Point, Cape May, High Island or Dauphin Island are mentioned. All of these places are revered by birders as migration as "hot spots".   They are “migrant traps”- locales that due to geography provide places for migrating songbirds to rest and refuel. If the weather cooperates in that particular location, birds will fall out of the sky to find shelter and food until the conditions set things in motion for the movement to breeding or wintering areas to continue. As the vernal/autumnal cycles of move, mate and move again have persisted  for eons, it is likely that birds evolving in the stew of time and changing landscapes have been finding barrier islands, peninsulas, and expanses of open water as either critical stepping stones or barriers in their migratory march.   Given that many passerines are reluctant to cross large bodies of water with wind in their  faces or in rain that can drive them into the drink, migration may stall.  It might stall for a few hours, a day or a week. And so in the spring savvy birders become amateur meteorologists, keeping an eye to the sky and watching the sweeps of radar for winds that will push birds to them  on a northbound train or storms that will stall them out and provide a birding bounty as starving hordes of warblers, vireos, tanagers, flycatchers, grosbeaks and other neotropical migrants choose special places to concentrate in staggering numbers.  

palm warbler - JDL

Magee Marsh and the string of conservation reserves strung along the southern shore of Lake Erie in Northwestern Ohio provide the perfect locale for such events to occur.  A well known fact among many birders. that fact escaped me as I flew into the region for the first time.  The bird’s eye view of the rural landscape revealed a compulsively-arranged Midwestern checkerboard of huge brown, green  and gray agriculture  fields manicured like giant  lawns cleared and cleaned by plows and harrows. I imagined that the squares now destined for amber waves of grain and other crops once waved wild with bluestem, Indian grass and prairie wildflowers. Prairie chickens could’ve danced in such a landscape and wooly-headed bison probably once trod the same tracks that the tractors now claimed. Now though, there didn't seem to be a whole lot wild between the  green lines of the drainage ditches ditches that framed the squares. Everything from up there seemed in order. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a vision for what Ohio should look like but it certainly didn’t look like a very birdy place as the jet I was sardine-packed in to on the half hour flight from Chicago dropped closer to its destination.  The closer the plane got to the ground, the more I wondered about this “Biggest Week” thing.  What self-respecting songbird would want to get trapped down there?
Remnant swamp at Ottawa NWR

First impressions can be faulty and enlightenment is a wonderful thing. What I learned once I was on terra firma was that the legions of birds that fly across this landscape and find themselves here are better judges of its value than I am.  I love the moments of discovery driving across a new place. In those miles between the rental car agency and my destination I try to take in the locale’s character. There wasn’t a whole lot of geographical relief here.  Other than the on-ramps for the interstate I didn’t climb a single hill that challenged the cars transmission. Sporadic copses of trees and hedgerows that used to be forest gave dimension to what was otherwise a surprisingly flat landscape.  This corner of Ohio was much wetter in the past than it is now.  A little bit of a history lesson at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Ottawa (NWR) revealed that the whole region was once covered by an expansive wetland called the Great Black Swamp that stretched into Indiana and covered almost 2,000 square miles. The counties where I was headed, Ottawa and Lucas were once covered in largely uninhabited swaths of marsh, shrubland, upland hardwood and swamp forest up until the mid 1800’s. The rich dark soil and water standing in the low spots in crop fields that dunlin, yellowlegs and other shorebirds found on their way to arctic and near arctic breeding sites, was indicative of just how wet this place once was.  While Ottawa and Lucas still hold on to pieces of the wetlands that once dominated the area, much of the muck that used to draw waterfowl and shorebirds in by the millions has been drawn into ditches to make way for the expanses of agriculture and “progress” that I was driving through. 

The Great Black Swamp formerly covered northwest Ohio
 In spite of what has been drained, cut, and otherwise lost in the region, there are still treasures that remain.  The remnants of forest draw birds in like magnets.  As they pile up in the woodlots to feed and wait for favorable weather to cross the obstacle that Lake Erie presents, the birders are drawn in by the thousands to seek them out. “The Biggest Week in American Birding”, a festival sponsored by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO; http://www.bsbobird.org/)  has become one of the  birding world’s biggest festival attractions .

Kenn & Kim Kaufman (photo Nat. Audubon Soc,)
Ornithological luminary and fellow Sky Dawg Paul Baicich says that it is more than a festival though. In the magnitude and scope of its happening and impact he calls it an event. The Kaufman’s, Kim and Kenn, are the leaders of the push to make ‘The Biggest Week” event loom even larger. Kimberly Kaufman, BSBO’s Executive Director and her birding/naturalist/conservationist/ author/ superstar/ good guy/husband Kenn  have been tireless leaders , along with an equally  dedicated staff of volunteers, to make birding an indispensable part of the region’s culture and economy. The "Kimmer" is the human version of an American redstart; energetic and always moving. She is one of birding’s  most energetic and eloquent emissaries. Her husband, Kenn, is a dean of American birding who has revolutionized not only how we identify birds in his field guides but also how we think about the human component of birding. Both Kenn and Kim push bird conservation and diversifying the activity with a passion and persistence that carries weight far beyond anyone I know. Their reputations carry weight and they use that influence humbly and effectively. They  invited me to the festival to give a keynote of the importance of “colorizing” the birder demographic and of course to witness the spectacle that spring migration can present in the Black Swamp region.  As good as they are at birding and conservation, they are even better at being good, genuine human beings. I’m honored to call them my friends.

Once I reached the BSBO and the Magee marsh complex, I was amazed at the activity that was already going on. The parking lot at the observatory was filled with cars from at least seven or eight states as people whetted their ornithological appetites with creamesicle –colored Baltimore orioles feeding on oranges at the feeder behind the station. It was noon by the time I got there but the songs of yellow, chestnut-sided, Wilson’s and common yellowthroat warblers along with incessant chattering of warbling vireos and metallic “clips” of rose-breasted grosbeaks filled the patchwork of cattails, willows and oaks surrounding the building.  As the human visitors filed in and out of the gift shop, dollars and enthusiasm were being pumped into bird conservation and the local economy.  The buzz was beyond electric and it was all about the birds. But this was just the appetizer! The main course was yet to come and I was quite frankly unprepared, even with all the hype I’d heard, for what I experienced in the next couple of days. 

yellow warbler - JDL
The boardwalk  is perhaps the most famous birding promenade in the world.  It is certainly that for folks looking for the “butterflies of the bird world”, wood warblers.  Most of these tiny, colorful passerines  have traveled from the Neotropics ; the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America, overcoming weather, predators and habitat loss to land in the Magee Marsh forests.  With built in GPS units evolved  to deliver  a package of feathers and muscle weighing less than an ounce to habitats separated by thousands of miles, the miracle of the epic journeys the birds make is part of the appeal that pulls people to the area.

The photos of the birding throngs I’d seen on social media sites intimidated me a little. After all, birding is usually a solitary or small group thing for me.  But at Magee, it is a spectator sport with hundreds upon hundreds of uber-birders blending shoulder-to-shoulder and binocular-to-binocular  with beginners  in a listing, twitching, photo-snapping, feather- finding- free-for-all. In fact, over the weeks of May when migration is heaviest, tens of thousands of people travel to the Ottawa/Lucas County area to see birds. In that pilgrimage, millions of dollars travel with the birders and businesses flourish in their wake.  Driving back and forth on the highways to the different areas, I began to encounter “Welcome Birders” signs on restaurants and other businesses. Kim even told me that in a year when the fishing and hunting had slacked and the economy suffered, the fledgling festival's impact was significant, saving the season for many businesses.  And so with the effect of so many meaning so much to the birds and the local community, I embraced the idea of the spring songbird spectacle and even began to revel in it.
Magee Marsh Birding Bonanza! Photo by Gunnar Engblom

Soaked to the bone but happy to be birding!
American redstart -JDL

 The first full day started with a downpour and the thinking was that it had probably brought some new birds in.  With the radar showing a break in the precipitation, things could get really good as the new birds might have been grounded overnight and they would be in a feeding frenzy once the rain abated.   Entering the west end of the boardwalk was  like entering a mystical migrant portal into a world of warblers, tanagers, flycatchers and other winged sojourners. 
Prothonotary warbler - JDL
scarlet tanager - JDL

rose-breasted groasbeak -JDL

A few steps in and Blackburnian, Prothonotary, black-throated blue and yellow warblers, melded song in the morning light. A few more steps forward and there was a northern waterthrush bobbing through a woodland puddle and a Nashville warbler singing a song way too loud for such a little bird. Find the crowds and find the birds.That one rule drives the throngs at Magee. It was indeed warbler world gone wild. There were black-throated blue, Cape May, Tennessee, Nashville, Wilson’s, ovenbird, bay-breasted,  American redstart, palm, yellow-rumped, black-throated green, blackpoll and the beloved “ “Maggie” (Magnolia) warblers everywhere.  By the end of the first day we’d tallied twenty-two species of  the little, feathered, wood sprites. In between the warblers there were “other” birds; a scarlet tanager igniting the canopy; an olive-sided flycatcher surveying the scene from a perch high in a dead tree;  furtive Philadelphia vireos; skulking Swainson’s thrushes; cinammon-colored  veeries; and brilliantly orange and black Baltimore orioles that became the “trash” bird,  too common to even draw more than a passing glance through the bins for most people. At spots along the boardwalk, ten, twenty or sometimes a hundred people would be gathered to drool over some bird.
Maggie (magnolia warbler)- JDL
And then there was  the migratory bird mob mentality that spread like some kind of communicable, feather-finding disease  when something rare showed up—or was  rumored to.  Whispers of a Connecticut warbler swirled but the bird never showed.  I’m not so sure that bird really exists anyway because it has escaped me like some gray-hooded ghost for all my birding life (insert sour –grapes-never-seen-it-before-but –want –to –really – bad- rationale here).  Social networking is the new and much faster rumor mill . When word came down through the Twitter feeds that the rarest of the rare, a Kirtland’s warbler, had shown up between (stop) #24 and #26, there was a mad rush from distant parts of the boardwalk to see the critically endangered bird. Most people walked fast to get there but some ran.  Of course with my “just flew” luck, I somehow missed the  looks at reach-out –and- touch- it- distance some people got as the bird flushed just as I raised my binoculars.  I tried to smile through the tragedy and the good Kirtland’s karma prevailed when I finally got to see it along with a couple of  hundred of other birders as it flitted about in a giant sycamore. I absorbed it from afar, watching it pump its tail in confirmation. There were hugs, high fives and smiles all around as the royalty of warbler-dom was added to legions of lists.
chestnut-sided warbler-JDL

black-throated green warbler-JDL
Can you see the Kirtland's?  We did!
Me, Doug and Rob
 Rob Ripma, Doug Gray, Paul Baicich and I wandered along slowly.  Sometimes we’d gawk along with the crowd and at other times find our own way and our own birds.  Besides the birds there were opportunities to reconnect with old friend and make new ones. The Magee Marsh boardwalk is almost like one, long, sinuous, buffet line with birds as the cocktails and appetizers. One moves along it at his or her own pace watching birds but constantly on the meet and greet.
Paul Baicich
 Smiles and conversation about "what's good here" and our lives back home made the event much more than an exercise in finding feathered things.  Some good-natured joking with the always affable Adrian Binns of Wildside Nature Tours and re-connecting with friends like Carlos Bethancourt from the Canopy Tower in Panama and Laura Erickson from Duluth help to re-center me in the birding flock. And there were new friends made too. Ted, a retired businessman from New Hampshire fell in like an old friend and became a Sky Dawg for day or two.  Cyber-friends who I'd only met through the magic of social media like the talented and ever enthusiastic Sherrie Duris and socially-conscious, neotropical,  tour operator Gunnar Engblom were added to my life list. Tony Defalco, an Audubon/ Together Green Fellow-friend from Portland who is part of the Center for Diversity and the Environment out there, blew in for a day of birding like a winged rarity. Catching up with him for a couple of hours as we studied the subtleties of "Philly" (Philadelphia) vireos and Lincoln’s sparrows was way better than checking off some mystical Oporornis warbler!  Of course it would have been beyond spectacular if Tony and I could have seen a Connecticut together...

While the boardwalk was the main attraction, we also found our way to other places like Metzger Marsh for Virginia rail and Stange Road for upland sandpipers.  As we bounced back and forth between the areas searching for birds, I noticed that there is a synergy of wildlife conservation in Ohio I’ve seldom seen elsewhere.  Private non-profits like BSBO, federal agencies like the US Fish and Wildlife Service at Ottawa NWR and state conservation agencies managing Metzger and Maumee Bay blend efforts such that it’s hard to tell one from the other. 

What’s more, they seem intent on breaking down the barriers between game and non-game conservation. The Sporting Birds Center at Magee highlighting waterfowl and warblers along with highway signs like the one strongly encouraging birders to support conservation by buying conservation and duck stamps are how it should be.   
A powerful message that birders must heed!
 After all, bringing whitetail deer and warblers together under the same conservation umbrella will only strengthen the effort.  “The Biggest Week” and BSBO are two critical vehicles for carrying the message forward. 

My naturalist reenactor friends
In the end, my short three days at the third annual “Biggest Week in American Birding” lived way beyond my expectations. I tallied a few lifers that I’ll always connect with this place.  Philadelphia vireo, yellow-bellied and olive-sided flycatcher along with that Kirtland’s warbler will always be Magee Marsh lifers no matter where or when I see them again. And then there were the fascinating humans I added to the  list.  There was a surreal meeting with a group of 18th century colonial naturalist reenactors with whom I oddly seemed to have much in common personally, professionally and yes, even politically!
Diversity takes different forms on the boardwalk!

There were the Mennonite birders in straw hats and their young children who are already way ahead of the bird learning curve.
Not a pocket guide for sure!
 And there was the occasional human oddity, like the one birder carrying around an Audubon Baby Elephant folio as his field guide. Talk about old school! 

After a day of birding and people watching there were the wonderful meals and gatherings at establishments like BlackBerry Corner's with “fruit pie fallout” and Kenn, Kim, Deb, Katie and other volunteers helping to close long days with laughter. At Blackberry Corner's, a well-known birder hangout that serves homemade fruit pies to die for, I learned what a "Vulfinch" was and even met an eighty-something year old World War II bomber pilot turned botanist who’ll be my newest e-pen pal.  There was pizza at Porky’s and my introduction and beginning addiction to fried walleye at The Oregon Inn.  And there was beer-always beer. After exhausting days afield and a soul satisfying meal and conversation, I slept like a log in a cozy lakefront house that birding tour guide Dana Bollin  (http://www.blackswampbirdingtours.com/index.html) graciously donated for guide/speaker housing during the week.  Volunteer efforts like hers and all of the businesses that belong to the wonderfully innovative “Black Swamp Birds and Business Alliance”, make birding and the festival a vital cog in the wheel that stimulates the economy and spirit of this largely rural community. And so it seemed once again to come down to the people I met who made the birds even better.
A common sticker in area businesses
Blackberry Corner's -birder hangout and fruit pie fallout!
The future is now!
Appropriately, my keynote centered on the human aspect of things. It is critical that we broaden the involvement of birding and conservation to include faces of multiple hues. As America changes demographically, I believe that conservation will hinge on how inclusive we are of non-traditional stakeholders. Simply put, this means reaching out more to people of color. My arguments are simple; diversity at every level of biological integration is always a good thing. From genes to ecosystems, it defines success visa vie resilience and stability.  It will be no different for birding and conservation as it cannot remain a conversation or avocation that only speaks to or involves well-to-do white folks. Each time I venture afield to a birding festival, to give a bird walk locally or to hunt with friends, I learn that the human factor is what will make things go. I also know that I want to see more people of color doing what I do.  
SkyDawg Doug and new photog. friend Otis
Ohio again, seems to have a leg up on the diversity thing. I saw several groups of African-American students from Cleveland and Toledo touring Magee and Ottawa NWR. In my short time there I saw more people of color being exposed to nature than anywhere I’ve ever been.  I  talked to a couple of the young men and they seemed comfortable in the surroundings and genuinely happy to be there.  I watched a group of high schoolers surrounded by a flock of swooping, chittering barn swallows laughing, embracing and enjoying the close encounter. My heart smiled at the sight.  That’s the first critical step in the process of diversifying what we do-comfort in just being there.  If birds are to be their thing too, then that feeling of security and self –confidence is essential. Apparently the schools and other urban civic and educational organizations see the value in bringing different people to this place.  I applaud the efforts. The prospects for the future of conservation in northwestern Ohio look colorful. I hope to be a part of exporting that attitude to places closer to home.
The critters-- feathered, furred, scaled and finned, will do what they do if humans manage themselves to give them the room to do so. If we are wise and widen the audience who cares about such things, the warblers and other migrants will continue to flock to Magee Marsh and other places like it, even as the faces watching the birds and making decisions about the land become more colorful.  As I flew out on Wednesday, I looked down on the same landscape I'd doubted as I flew in. Now though, I was viewing things through a different prism and a newfound appreciation for what I was leaving behind. The throngs and excitement  over the birds are what the “Biggest Week in American Birding” is all about. Even more so because I see a commitment towards conservation that seems to embrace a bigger picture that is inclusive and innovative. If Kim and Kenn will have me back, I'm as good as there! Until then , I hit the send button on the link to join the Black Swamp Bird Observatory the other night (http://www.bsbo.org/membership.htm  ) and I’m proud to be one of the newest  supporters of what Kimberly and Kenn Kaufman are giving new voice to; passionate bird conservation that is paying serious heed to a more colorful future. I left Ohio prouder than ever to be a black birder--and a  Black Swamp birder too! 


  1. Drew, thanks for this heartfelt tribute to Magee and its promoters and protectors and friends. I hope I'll be able to meet you the next time you come here.

  2. Wonderful site and next year I will make it a point to come too Thanks ;-)

  3. I've been meaning to put pen to paper (figuratively) to express some sense of The Biggest Week to friends who haven't had the opportunity or impetus to see it. I see now my work has been done for me, as I could not improve on your description given the rest of the year until Migration 2013!

    My wife and I made note several times of the people of every color and others who wear their religion on their sleeve - all in one place and of one mind. I wanted to thank every one of them for dismissing stereotypes like we all dismissed every Red-winged Blackbird on those trails. And every time I saw a person pointing out a warbler, a frog, or a fern to a young child I wanted to speak on behalf of nature and thank them. It's easy to be cynical about the future most of the year. Not so much during The Biggest Week. Thanks to people like Kenn and Kim, the van-loads of Mennonite families, and you...I think we're winning.

  4. It was a very nice description of your experience. I live near Magee and it is a wonderful place with wonderful people. I am so glad you enjoyed yourself here!

  5. Hello, Mr. Lanham.
    As fellow birders at Magee this year, it's been extreemly interesting to read all the pots from all the different bloggers. I really enjoyed yours. I hope you do indeed make it back to Magee next year. You haven't had the best Magee can offer. We've been there on a cool, rainy day and didn't even have to get out of the car to bird for hours. And then when you have a day like that and the birds come down out of the trees to eye level,too close to even use your binos,your heart just does that birder's flip and you know you're where you need to be! Great Birding!

  6. Thank you for visiting our area and writing such wonderful things about it. I have lived here for 21 years and have just started birding. I don't know what took me so long. Did you by chance get to see the eagles just down the road from Magee Marsh? We witnessed "breakfast" being brought back to the nest...poor papa duck...but it was a moment I may never again see. I hope you come back next year!

  7. We need to see more birders like you! It would be great to break down more barriers. Take care and good birding mate! Mike

  8. What a beautiful story of your time at the Biggest Week, Drew. I SO wish we'd been able to stay around to hear you speak. I'm glad you had such a positive experience and that you're sharing it here for the rest of the world to learn from. I'm sure this article will convince more than a few people to give birding a try! ~Kim Smith

  9. Very nice summary of your experience at the Big Week Drew! A very inspiring and uplifting commentary! Nicely done indeed!

  10. Drew... Thanks for your heart-felt, poetic reflection on birding in NW Ohio. So glad your experience here was colorful and color inclusive. I am proud to say I'm one of the long-standing volunteers dedicated to the mission of BSBO. My time spent here has been nothing short of magical, much like the intense experience of songbird migration in the region. Kaleidoscopic! Thanks for your participation in The Biggest Week! Your presence made a difference. I'll look forward to your return visit... Warmly, Karen Zach

  11. I really enjoyed your article! You are probably familiar with the book, "Birding for Everyone, Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers" by John C. Robinson. I happily received a copy of it at "Birding's Biggest Week" a couple years back. I would recommend it for students and birders everywhere.

    However, it didn't take a book for me to drag my friend Todie who lives in the heart of Akron out to the woods. Every year we try to do a girl week so we've been hitting places like the Everglades and just got back from the Smokie Mountains this year. She doesn't always chase the birds but with a camera in hand, she appreciates being out close to nature.

    Just thought I'd give you the girls' views...
    Hope to see you at Magee next year.

  12. Wow, what a terrific blog post! I've never been to Black Swamp but feel like I have after reading this! Mind if I link to your blog on my next blog post for the Willistown Conservation Trust?


  13. Very good, enjoyable read, nice photo's also. I would very much like the chance to walk the board walk of Magee Marsh and experience the spring migration. To see that many different Warblers in one area, has to be one of the best birding opportunities ever. Thank you, Best Regards Doug

  14. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.

  15. Hi Drew,
    Your blog very nicely captures the spirit of the Biggest Week! I chuckle when I see that your photo of the "straw hats" (men) includes me in the middle of the group ... slightly "older", female, raised a Seventh-day Adventist, there amidst them. And I've only been birding for about 10 years, so I was already "older" when I started. How's that for diversity!

  16. A young(er) birding friend just posted your last blog entry on Facebook and I was so touched by it that I promptly read quite a few more of your entries! I am so touched by your eloquence, by the pictures you paint in my mind, by your energy and your emotion. Reading through the entry about BSBO makes me want to go there! I share your desires to see birding become more inclusive, as well as your desire to educate our youth about nature, conservation and being active, responsible participants in the world around them. I laud your efforts!

    Well done sir!!!