Whether you do it with an expensive camera and lens, a Point and Shoot, or binoculars, birding has become a popular pastime for many people. I hear and read about places all over the United States that provide excellent bird viewing opportunities throughout the seasons. Consequently, birders from all over North America have heard about the bird-rich section of northern Ohio between Toledo and Sandusky, Ohio referred to as "the Crane Creek - Magee Region".
On a pleasant June morning, about four years ago, I was standing on a small section of boardwalk in the prairie at Jennings Environmental Education Center in Slippery Rock, PA. I was standing in front of my photography gear, set up for any warblers that may come my way when an elderly man walked up to me and asked if I’ve ever been to Magee Marsh. My immediate response was “No, where is that?” He explained to me that hundreds of bird species can be seen in the Magee Marsh area during spring migration. Migrating birds will stop to refuel before making the jump across Lake Erie to points north. If you are there at the right time, this stopover is a great place to see and photograph birds. There have been as many as 300 species found in the area. Needless to say, my interested was piqued. I visited the following May and have returned year after year ever since.
In this three part photo blog, I’m going to share the experience of visiting Crane Creek – Magee Region. More specifically, I’d like to focus on the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge and Magee Marsh areas.
So, grab a cup of coffee, sit back and relax because we’re going to Ohio.
Spring birding in this Ohio region doesn’t fade away at 11 am and remain quiet until dusk. You can count on an exciting day of birdwatching that may even make you forget to eat your lunch. About 2:00 in the afternoon your stomach will begin to growl and you will wonder where the time went.
One of the two areas I’ll take you to is the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge manages about 6,500 acres of wetland, grassland, and wooded habitat. It provides habitat for a diversity of waterfowl and other migratory birds, resident wildlife, and endangered and threatened species. The other area is Magee Marsh.
It is said there are about 37 species of warblers that usually make an appearance at Magee Marsh. Think of it, each spring there are thousands of birds weighing less than an ounce making at least a 1,200 mile journey north to raise their families. The birds going all the way to Canada need someplace to rest and feed before crossing Lake Erie. They tend to gather on the forested beach ridges in large numbers and provide spectacular bird watching opportunities. A boardwalk meandering through the swamp aids tremendously in bird viewing (see map on the left). In May of each year, they have a birding festival called Biggest Week In American Birding.
On the morning of Friday the 13th, (Yes, I know!) my wife Elena and I left home very early to make the 3.5 hour trip to Magee Marsh. There aren't any hotels in the immediate area so search in a 20 mile radius of Oak Harbor, Ohio to find one. Nearby Port Clinton has hotels and a lot of evening activities too. Anyway, we made arrangements to stay with our niece, who lives 18 miles from Magee. Elena arranged to spend a few hours birdwatching before joining up with family.
Once you enter the Magee Marsh parking lots, you will find two active Bald Eagle nests. I don’t spend a lot of time watching these nests as I have plenty of opportunity for that at home, but it’s hard to pass up the awesome photo opportunities the mature eagles provide as they come and go from the nests.
This adult made several trips out into the marshes and returning with talons full of soft, marsh grasses. I'm assuming they were collecting the soft grasses to line the bole of the nest for the eaglets.
Walking the woods line between the parking lots and the marsh can be rewarding too. Although certain areas of Magee Marsh have habitat that certain species of birds like, it is hard to say specifically what you will find on any given day. One species that I always look for in the tall trees in and around the easternmost parking lot is the Common Nighthawk. Sure enough, this one gave a lot of people a chance to see a nighthawk during the day. This isn’t my first Common Nighthawk but it is my first that had its eyes open. Yippee!
Several birds can be found along the woods line too. Every year, people bring oranges, cut them and hang the orange halves in the trees to attract Baltimore Orioles. The orioles sure love them and hang around the "orange trees" all day.
When you approach the boardwalk you can hear the songs of hundreds of warblers. That sweet sound gets me charged up wondering what I'm going to photograph this day. Below is the sign that they installed last year at both entrances to the boardwalk.
We started out on the west entrance this morning. About 150 yards in, the boardwalk became jammed with birdwatchers.
The woods surrounding this section of the boardwalk is very dense and sometimes very difficult to photograph birds. It is one of the reasons I usually pass it by. Today, we found some Tennessee, Nashville, and Yellow Warblers among a few other birds.
This Tennessee Warbler has pollen all over his beak from probing for insects in the willow catkins.
Isn't it a coincidence that I found a Nashville Warbler hanging in the same tree as a Tennessee Warbler? Check out the insect on the tip of his tongue.
Next, a Male Yellow Warbler checks out the underside of the branches.
In the distance, a Great Crested Flycatcher showed up.
After birding in this section slowed down, I headed into the central portion of the boardwalk where you can find warblers that tend to stay in the forested areas. One of the birds I found was this male Black-and-white Warbler.
Another warbler that was plentiful this year is the Black-throated Green Warbler.
We made our way through the entire boardwalk and decided to watch the woods line outside of the east entrance. Elena said I am never in any photos so she grabbed my second camera and snapped this shot.
Right around lunchtime our niece and her family drove over to pick up Elena to go do other things. I decided to stay until dusk so I said "see ya later". I ate my lunch in the parking lot and headed back into the boardwalk to see if anything else came into the open.
I guess the birds are more powerful than hunger pangs as these birders remained on the boardwalk through lunch.
The Northern Cardinal, Ohio's state bird, made a statement when he landed in the sea of green.
Just like the Tennessee and Nashville Warblers, this White-throated Sparrow had his beak into some willow catkins.
The Eastern Screech Owl can be very difficult to see. This bird was about 25 feet up in a tree that was rooted about 30 yards from the boardwalk. I wish I could say I found it, but I can't. A group of people pointed it out to me as I was walking past. I gotta get better at finding the hidden gems.
When the trees began to block the setting sun, I hopped into the car and went 1/2 mile west to the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. A large marshland on the east side of the park is accessible by car. It provides a perfect opportunity for magical "golden hour" photography.
On my way into the refuge, I passed a few Canada Goose families. I couldn't pass up the fuzzy little geese that were still small enough that they needed to be near a parent and close together as if they kept each other warm.
As I continued down the road into the refuge, I began to find Great Egrets.
I enjoyed watching them fish but I love an opportunity to catch them in the air.
They appear to be lanky, yet they are graceful.
As this day was coming to a close, it was a great surprise to find a few Trumpeter Swans. I photographed this one as it laid on a mound in the middle of the marsh at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge.
That wraps up my first day of bird photography in northern Ohio. I joined up with my wife, our niece and her family at their home in nearby Oregon, Ohio and had an enjoyable evening. Like a kid at Christmas, I couldn’t go to sleep in anticipation of what I might see at Magee Marsh the next day.
Go straight to "Birding Ohio’s Crane Creek - Magee Region Day 2" for more birding activity.