Like most birders, I keep a life list. It is simply a list of the first time and place I saw any particular species. Compared to some, I’m a casual lister; my U.S. list is 500-plus, but I don’t know the exact number. It’s not that important. But I still get excited when I add a new species.
I’ve seen most of the species here on the ridge, so seeing new birds requires travel. Two species in particular, mourning warbler and Connecticut warbler have been gnawing at me for years. I know places where they can be seen during migration in May, but I’ve never made the effort. Until last week.
On Sunday afternoon I drove to the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area on Ohio’s North Coast. It is known as one of the best birding spots in the world during spring migration. Migrants move through at generally predictable times, though daily weather plays an important role.
Lake Erie is a formidable barrier, so many song birds stop for a day or two before crossing the lake. Consequently, wooded areas by the lake become havens for tired, hungry migrants and magnets for birders.
My target birds are late migrants, so May 23 was a date that seemed perfect. Local expert Kenn Kaufman had told me a few weeks earlier that on or around May 23 the likelihood of seeing a mourning warbler was about 80 percent and 50 percent for a Connecticut warbler. But just showing up at the right time doesn’t guarantee success.
When I drifted off to sleep Sunday night, I was almost giddy with the prospect of picking up two life birds. I felt like a kid on Christmas eve. I arrived at the boardwalk that’s built beneath a strip of trees just south of Lake Erie at 6:45 a.m.
As I parked my car, robins and red-winged blackbirds were everywhere. Not far from the entrance to the boardwalk, I climbed an observation tower and two birds caught me eye as they foraged in the outer branches of a tree about 40 feet away. At a glance, they appeared to be red-eyed vireos, but a cardinal rule of birding is to examine every bird.
I glassed the closer individual. It lacked a red iris, and its breast was quite yellow. It was a Philadelphia vireo. I’d been on the boardwalk only five minutes, and I’d picked up a bonus lifer.
For the next 2.5 hours I walked the boardwalk and got great looks at many species — prothonotary, chestnut-sided, magnolia, Canada, Wilson’s, yellow, and bay-breasted warblers, American redstarts, and Swainson’s thrush to name a few.
A one point, a beautiful Baltimore oriole flew to the ground just ten feet off the boardwalk. It foraged for insects among the leaf litter and fungi-encrusted fallen logs. For more than five minutes it ignored me completely and showed off its orange, white, and black plumage. Binoculars were unnecessary.
It turned out that many of the people on the boardwalk were also looking for mourning and Connecticut warblers. Shortly before 10 a.m. a crowd had gathered at spot near some fallen trees and dense ground cover where mourning warblers had been seen the last few days.
After about 20 minutes of patiently waiting and watching, a man walked briskly past me and stopped about 20 feet away.
He scanned the ground before us and called to his wife in a low calm voice, “Janet, if you want to see the mourning warbler, I’ve got it right here by that log.”
I fell in right behind Janet, saw movement, and then got a great extended view of a male mourning warbler. Its olive back blended into the ground cover, and its yellow belly was conspicuous. But my eyes focused on its entirely gray head. And on its chest the gray hood turned into a rich black band. Just like in the field guide.
The Connecticut warbler eluded me. Perhaps I should have gone to Presque Isle State Park in northwestern Pennsylvania. Someone on the Pennsylvania birding list-serve mentioned they got both mourning and Connecticut warblers last Sunday. Good for them.
I’m content with memories of a mourning warbler and Philadelphia vireo.