The BWIAB festival takes place on the southern edge of Lake Erie. It’s a bird watchers wonderland with access to several different nature preserves and a variety of habitats. I came across this sign post that showed 18 different designated birding areas within an hour’s radius.
I brought a wing-woman with me this year. My sister flew in from Central Massachusetts. It was her first “real” bird festival so sharing it with her made it even more fun, not to mention she made several of the key sightings of the trip. She’s also got a great ear for bird calls which is very useful.
BWIAB – Magee Marsh
The main attraction at BWIAB is the boardwalk at Magee Marsh. It’s much bigger than I remember. You can easily spend an entire day here just on the boardwalk, plus there are trails near their visitors center and surrounding the marsh itself.
For anyone who wants to get into birding, going to BWIAB and hanging out on the Magee Marsh boardwalk is a great way to start. Why? Because there are tons of highly experienced birders hanging around who are eager to share their knowledge and sightings.
The whole experience reminds me of going on the road with the band Phish in my college days. There’s a hippy-esque vibe. Everyone is smiling and gretting everyone else even though they’re strangers. Everyone parts with, “have a good day” (“have a great show man”) and are excited to talk about what the set list was from the day before. I even smelled pot at one point.
The highlight of this festival is the migrating warblers. Who knew there were so many different kinds? While I did reconnect with some of the friends I met last year, I could not believe how many different varieties we captured this year.
The Life Listers
I added several new life listers at this year’s BWIAB. The first was the American woodcock. This plump shore bird is extremely well camouflaged. As we walked the boardwalk, word spread that a woodcock was camped out in a “viewable” spot.
When we arrived, there were several people trying to show us where he was. Even with a laser pointer, it took more than half an hour before we could be sure we’d seen him and that was only because he finally started to move.
This was the best shot I got that day:
The next day Mr. Woodcock decided to appease the eager photographers so he settled down in a much more conspicuous spot. He plunges his long beak into the muddy marsh looking for worms, which is evident in these pictures.
The next two life listers were the Sora and the Virginia Rail. We were at a different boardwalk at Maumee Bay State Park. A passing birder told us both had been seen and approximately where, but these birds are fairly small and they duck in and out of the marsh grass virtually silently so there were no guarantees.
My sister spotted the Virginia Rail first. Despite him being on the ground directly next to the boardwalk we were standing on, this was the best I could get as he weaved in and around the marsh grass and reeds.
The sora was seen in the same relatively small area as the Virginia Rail. We scanned and scanned and patiently waited for him to show, and we were just about to give up when we came across a girl we’d met the day before at Magee.
“Have you seen the Sora?” she says.
“No, it was supposedly here. We got the rail but not the Sora.”
She looks to her right and points.
“There he is.”
That’s how these sightings happen!
Follow the Leader
The bird that was probably the rarest sighting from this trip was the bobolink. We were at Howard Marsh just taking our time photographing shorebirds on an overcast morning. I noticed a small group of people that seemed to be intent on something up ahead of me in the grass.
After some patient stalking, the bobolink and his wife appeared for a few brief seconds to sing us a good morning song. Pictures not great, but they are proof which was good enough for me.
Hi Tech Birding
If you are just getting started with birding, download the Merlin app from Cornell University. It has two really cool features. First, if you see a bird and want to know what it is you can plug in your location and a few simple pieces of info (size, color, where you saw the bird) and it will generate a photo list of the mostly likely birds in your area.
Merlin also had a sound ID feature that is super fun to play with. Just hit the sound button when you hear birds calling and it will start generating a similar list. It’s a great way to know what to look for.
We used the sound feature throughout our trip and successfully identified several species as a result. For example, we saw a thrush of some sort but didn’t get a full picture. Our Merlin app told us it could be the Wood Thrush, Swainson’s or Hermit based on where we were.
A quick sound ID verified him – Wood Thrush.
Documentation & The Big Day
Once you make an ID with Merlin, it links to another app called eBird where you can store your lists and submit them to Cornell. The Saturday of this year’s BWIAB festival corresponded with Cornell’s annual Big Day, so we used eBird to submit our lists.
Click on either image to download eBird.
One of the most fun things to find at BWIAB is the nesting birds. Unlike the other warblers who are still migrating north, the adorable yellow warbler nests in Ohio.
This prothonotary warbler decided to take advantage of a small crack in the boardwalk railing. You can see the green caution tape that had to be put up so the BWIAB crowd wouldn’t block her entrance.
Prior to our arrival to the official festival, we spent two nights on South Bass Island on Lake Erie in the village of Put In Bay. Super charming summer town complete with nature preserves where you can see plenty of purple martins in their manmade nesting houses and the gorgeous tree swallow nesting pretty much everywhere.
These birds consume thousands of insects everyday. Much better than a bug zapper at mosquito control.
Our fellow birders pointed out a green heron couple nesting across the marsh. This is one of my all-time favorite birds.
This adorable little girl is a blue-gray gnatcatcher. I’ve never been able to get a decent photo of one because they never stop moving. But this year, I not only got some nice pics, we realized Mrs. Gnatcatcher was starting a nest. You can see the beginnings of her mossy creation on the tree limb in the second picture.
And last but certainly never least, America’s pride. The incomparable bald eagle watching over her nest.
I have not yet made the leap to a big ultra zoom camera. I’m still using a point a shoot. While it can be frustrating trying to zoom and focus, my Nikon Coolpix P900 rarely lets me down. It has 83x optical zoom which allowed me to get this shot of a bald eagle that was at a significant distance (at least 100 yards) and in a tree several hundred feet off the ground.
There are newer models available, but this camera can still be found online for around $600.
The Set Up
I reconnected with my photography friends from last year, and got introduced to some more of the locals. These guys get up really early during the festival because for photographers, it’s all about lighting. They tend to take breaks in the middle of the day when it’s too bright for good shots.
They found other ways to occupy the time. This is a simple log set up with a hollowed out spot for grape jelly. Simple but effective.
Had to include these better than expected photos of a yellow warbler getting herself pretty after a bath.
The Grand Finale
On our final morning of BWIAB, we did the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge drive. Our legs and feet didn’t have the stamina to do much else after 4 solid days of 12+ hour birding.
We had two “hope to see” birds left. My sister was hoping for an indigo bunting because they are rare where she lives. I was hoping for a better shot of the sandhill crane. I saw 2 at BWIAB last year but the pictures were fuzzy.
BWIAB 2023 Wrap Up
It was the perfect end to a perfect trip. I’ll finish this post out with some of my favorite photos from BWIAB 2023. I had over 900 keepers in total.