Biggest Week in American Birding

I actually remember when I first learned about the Biggest Week. I was in my first year of birding and was attempting to identify a small yellow bird in Kentucky. A fellow hiker asked what we had spotted. He was surprised and skeptical about our Kentucky Warbler ID (rightfully so – I now am 95% sure it was a Hooded Warbler). We went on to discuss birding and he asked if we had attended the Biggest Week. He explained that a natural phenomenon occurs where birds who spend their winters in the tropics and summers in the arctic briefly pass through the midwest. They are half an ounce of strength and determination, literally guided by the stars and an instinct developed over millennia. They fly thousands of miles but are stymied by the vast waters of the great lakes, intuitively understanding the survival risk posed by the miles without perches, food, or shelter from bad weather. Thus every spring millions of birds congregate on the southern shores of Lake Erie, gorging themselves within the low, yet-to-leaf branches as they wait for wind conditions to be favorable. These natural circumstances provide excellent viewing conditions for those of us interested in seeing these transitory birds.

A few years ago conservation and capitalism converged to create the Biggest Week in American Birding – a 10 day birding festival that brings individuals from all over the world to see these amazingly tiny and colorful birds at eye-level just outside the industrial district of Toledo. My first visit was 2015, and I missed 2020 terribly. On my 6th visit, I decided to create MY official DOs and DON’Ts list for anyone who might be considering attending. I understand it can be overwhelming to think about taking the step from generally liking the birds that visit your backyard to attending a birding festival. That’s for die-hards, right? I will argue that anyone with a pair of binoculars and the ability to get to Toledo in May should consider the trip. If people can fly from Japan for it, those of us in the mid-west should check it out at least once, right?

So here are my suggestions for anyone attending the Biggest Week in American Birding (BWIAB):

DO visit the Magee Marsh boardwalk. This is the epicenter of Biggest Week activity. Birds, guides and other birders all seem to converge on this area. The true scope of this event hits you as you arrive in the parking lot. These are the kind of crowds you are used to seeing at amusement parks, not nature festivals. Photographers shrouded in camouflage aim military-grade lenses at the bushes. Yes, their gear probably costs more than your car. Most of the crowd ignores the Bald Eagle nest, but if one of the resident pair returns home with a large stick or other nest improvement, many binoculars and cameras point that way. Groups generally make their way to the entrance of the boardwalk and the entry does make you feel like you are crossing the threshold into a birding Nirvana. As with all things in nature, your boardwalk experience will vary greatly. Some days are truly magical with bright Prothonotaries popping up within arm’s reach and Blackburnians hovering just overhead. Other times, you will see nothing but hundreds of Ruby-crowned Kinglets or female American Redstarts. Either way, the crowds are infectious. If you happen to be there on a day an owl is showing or a relatively rare warbler such as a Golden-winged has been spotted, you will be lucky to squeeze your way through.

DON’T skip the many other locations in the area. While the boardwalk is famous for a reason, great birds can be seen in many locations near and far. Since I camp at Maumee Bay State Park, I tend to start there (the Maumee boardwalk almost guarantees a Screech Owl) then hit Howard Marsh, Metzger Marsh, Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, and end at Magee Marsh. Within Magee Marsh, there are trails such as the Estuary Trail that can be every bit as good as the boardwalk itself. About an hour east are the great locations in and around East Harbor State Park. Oak Openings is one of my all-time favorite parks and is a great opportunity to see tanagers, grosbeaks, and other birds less common around the shore. Lark Sparrows that nest in the area are particularly popular. The Biggest Week hosts a website with lots of great location ideas and maps. I spent a week in the area this year and feel like I barely scratched the surface of great birding locations.

DO talk to other birders. Many of my best birding memories have been the early years of more experienced birders pointing out warbler females and calls. One gentleman helped me improve my binocular technique. Another taught me the finer point of Thrush ID. If you see a large group, head over and ask what they are looking for. It may very well be a rarity such as Kirkland’s Warbler. Or perhaps it is a well-camouflaged bird. This is the only place I have seen a Whippoorwill. They are not uncommon, but these nocturnal birds have evolved to allow them to sleep in the open undetected by predators and curious naturalists. But thousand of birders means thousands of pairs of eyes. Part of the joy of BWIAB is getting to share a love of birds. As a bit more experienced birder, helping another birder get a lifer is almost as good as getting one myself. This year I loved hearing a young birder thrill at spotting a Baltimore Oriole. They had been ubiquitous at the campground, but when you hear someone else trill in excitement about their striking black and orange pattern, you can’t help but watch them for another few moments.

DON’T worry about the few less-than-friendly birders. Any hobby has a few less-than-social individuals. Some actually make a living off the photos they take in this week, so they approach the spotting of a rare warbler as if their next meal depends on it. Others push themselves to maximize their fun. If you have ever been to Disney, you will see people who are so intent on DOING ALL THE THINGS; they completely exhaust themselves to the point of being incredibly grumpy. Maybe you are one of those people. The BWIAB has those people as well. I have been one of them. Sometimes in my 12th hour of birding, I need to remind myself this is supposed to be fun. Sometimes you will ask someone what they are looking for and they will take out their frustration that they have been waiting three hours for a Mourning Warbler. Move on. Birding can be a frustrating hobby. You may encounter someone who is very frustrated. It is not personal. 99% of the people there are more than happy to talk about and share birds.

DO come prepared for a long day of birding. BWIAB birding is an endurance sport. In addition to optics, I suggest great shoes, food, drink, and good layers. Most walking routes are short, so a lot can be left in the car. But I have traded cheese and crackers for birding knowledge on more than one occasion. Some folks full-out tailgate the situation with tables and a smorgasbord. At the least, come prepared with all the layers. I have birded in light snow, heavy freezing rain, and blistering heat. Spring in Ohio can bring any of the above or more. Make sure to have plenty of sunscreen, water, and snacks at the very least.

DON’T get gear envy. It is very easy to do. Like I said earlier, you will see lenses beyond what you thought possible. And it will feel at times that everyone has at least a 600mm. And a lot of people do. As someone with a few thousand dollars invested in my photography set up, I will say that there are point and shoots out there that get excellent pics. But I will also say there are entire days I decide to not take pictures at all. Sometimes I just want to enjoy the birds. And these birds are usually close enough to be able to enjoy with basic binoculars. Pro Tip: When we are not in a pandemic, people with very expensive scopes set on a good bird are usually happy to let you have a peek.

DO pick up a folding “Warblers of the East” from the Black Swamp Bird Observatory gift shop. This is a great visual guide if your brain is trying to rapidly process the many variations of black and white and gray and yellow pattern that make up our warblers. In 2021 an experienced group of birders gathered around my copy to refresh our memories on a possible female Kirtland’s. And while you are there, support the endeavor financially if you can. All of the money from officially registering for the festival, becoming a member of the BSBO, or buying gear does a little to preserve the land and therefore the birds who live upon it. It should never be a barrier to participation, but if you can afford it, please consider it.

DON’T forget about the many warbler-like birds you are likely to encounter. Kinglets, vireos, sparrows, thrushes, and finches are also likely to be seen. When in doubt, you are probably looking at a female Red-winged Blackbird.

DO celebrate lifers with a slice of pie from Blackberry Corners. I should probably back up a step here. Birders tend to keep track of the birds they have seen in their life. A new bird is a “lifer”. If you are interested in starting a list, eBird is a great option. I actually keep a paper copy in my Sibley Bird Guide. But there is something fun in recognizing the first time you recognize a new species of bird. In northwest Ohio is has become tradition to celebrate adding a new bird to your life list with a piece of pie from Blackberry Corners.

DON’T miss out on this incredible natural phenomenaon. I get it. You don’t think you are the kind of person to go to a birding festival. I wasn’t either until I was. If you are the kind of person even remotely interested in birds or nature, invest one weekend in May. Camp in Maumee or reserve a hotel in Toledo. Spend a few hours on the boardwalk. There is a chance you don’t like it. But most of my nature friends end up in awe. This incredible miracle has been happening their entire lives outside their notice in our backyards. It is worth witnessing at least once.

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