I’m afraid my blog has been distressingly free of any new content for — my heavens! — can it be a week now? Say it ain’t so, Joe! Well, it does happen, especially when we get just a teeny bit preoccupied, which does make all those good intentions fly right out the window! The distraction last week was SPRING! And not just toasty weather, nice new green leaves and flowers, but SPRING Migration! This may not mean much to all you normal people out there, but for birders (even for halfway, fairly frivolous birder types such as myself) spring migration is a very big deal indeed, especially if you live in a northern location where for the rest of the year the birding can be rather dull.
Migration’s most fundamental attraction is simply visual — birds are beautiful to look at, especially during the spring when they’re wearing nice new feathers and bright colors. The reason is obvious; they’ll soon be staring in their own version of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” as they’re migrating to summer mating and nesting areas. There’s also the simple fact that there are birds to look at, after a long winter during which there are few to be seen. During migration you not only see more birds, but you also have the chance to see bird species that are passing through your area as they travel to their summer home somewhere else. Spotting a species that you don’t normally see, or that you see only rarely, is like winning a lottery prize, albeit a non-material one.
There’s a more serious note, at least for me, however, that underlies the visual beauty and the enjoyment of being out of doors and that’s an almost mystical sense of how various creatures and processes make up the great web of life. Did you know that a North American warbler, for example a Blackpoll, weighs less than a ballpoint pen and is only about 5 inches (15 cm) long? Yet in the fall that tiny thing (and keep in mind that a Blackpoll is one of the larger warbler species) flies over 1800 miles non-stop, crossing parts of the the Atlantic Ocean to reach its wintering grounds. The journey is so tough that the bird’s body starts to literally consume itself, feeding off muscle and even organs that the bird doesn’t need as it flies, such as its digestive system (remember the warbler’s not eating after it launches itself over open water). Warblers and other song birds can only sustain their flights for so long; for them it’s literally reach ground before their bodies consume themselves or die. And, of course, many of them do. A storm; unusual weather patterns; a strong wind from the wrong direction; a housing development where a feeding stop used to be; gulls or migrating raptors looking for a snack and … well … you get the idea. The individual bird perishes, but the species goes on, at least until we finish paving the world over with concrete. When I see a migrating warbler I sometimes think of the moment when that warbler reaches the Atlantic, or the Gulf of Mexico or Lake Erie and, without knowing the outcome, strikes out into the unknown, simply hoping to reach a good spot on the other side of those vast and terrifying depths. If that isn’t a metaphor for human existence, I don’t know what is.
Well, enough of the heavy stuff! One more factoid and I’ll shut up and let you enjoy photos. Did you know that birds, like airplanes, follow regular travel routes? These “flyways” usually occur along coastlines, rivers and mountains; if a species is lucky some nice nature group, like the Audubon Society, will have located a refuge providing food and a rest stop along its travel route. (The Audubon Society has a great website showing flyways for several common North American species).
I spent my week of non-blogging (and rather limited reading, I must admit) at Magee Marsh, a nature refuge on the southern shore of Lake Erie, one of the five Great Lakes along the northern United States (four of the Great Lakes form part of the border between the U.S. and Canada).
Although it’s not on a flyway, Magee Marsh is a critical stopping point for migrants that come to Lake Erie and need food and rest before they’re strong enough to attempt a crossing. Essentially the Marsh, which is one of Lake Erie’s last bits of undeveloped wetland, is a giant bird hotel that provides shelter, food and water for the birds, and a boardwalk trail for the birders. Both groups appear happy with the arrangement.
Here are some of the things I saw at Magee Marsh last week:
Over 300 different bird species pass through Magee Marsh each year. Although warblers are certainly the main attraction, many other wonderful things also rely on the Marsh to survive during spring migration:
For a wildlife refuge, Magee Marsh is easily accessible from several midwestern cities, including Cleveland, Toledo and Detroit. It’s easy to stay in one of several small towns withing driving distance. I usually pick Port Clinton, a small town that’s primarily centered on sport fishing (it styles itself “the Walleye capital of the World” and who’s to say it isn’t?). Port Clinton has a sprinkling of older houses and an impressive array of yachts; it also doesn’t really come alive until late May, after spring migration is over and birds and birders have left.