Magee Marsh, Kirtland’s Warbler & The Upper Peninsula of Michigan

This tour touches down at one of the most highly regarded “migration sensation” locales in eastern North America: The Magee Marsh Wildlife Area/Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in Ohio. What is the appeal of this area, you may ask? In a word, warblers. It’s all right to admit that we’ll be after them like crazy. Brilliant spring attire turns Cape May, Bay-breasted, Blackburnian, Blackpoll, Blue-winged, and Mourning Warblers into stunning jewels that brighten the newly budding trees. But parulas, waterthrushes, redstarts and other warbler-folk will not be the only focus. For good reason the area has been dubbed the “warbler capital of the world”. Our trip closes with a visit to the Jack Pine breeding grounds of the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler.

Day 1: Detroit to Port Clinton. After meeting in Detroit in the afternoon, we’ll make our way to Port Clinton for a three-night stay. Time permitting, we will kick off with some late afternoon birding in the flatlands of Northwest Ohio. The plowed fields outside of Port Clinton are sprinkled with ephemeral mudflats, where we hope to encounter wandering bands of shorebirds, including Black-bellied Plover, Dunlin, Pectoral Sandpiper, and Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs. Numerous species of waterfowl, Horned Larks, Savannah Sparrows, American Kestrels, and other countryside birds will provide a pleasant introduction to this rural region.

Prothonotary Warblers call in the flooded woods of Ottawa NWR
Prothonotary Warblers call in the flooded woods of Ottawa NWR (Iain Campbell)

Days 2-3: Magee Marsh, Metzger Marsh, and Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. A recent USA Today survey voted Magee Marsh as the best birding site in the country, and anyone who has witnessed a spring day full of warblers there will know why. The boardwalk at Magee offers, arguably, the best warbler viewing in the US, with 20-plus warbler species days the norm at this time of year. Attention will be given to the boardwalk, of course, where species like Black-throated Green, Bay-breasted, Black-throated Blue, Blackburnian, Cape May, and Prothonotary Warblers are all often easy and conspicuous; seemingly oblivious to the ready number of admirers looking on. However, Magee is not the only hotspot in the area, and we’ll also check other close areas like Ottawa NWR, which is a haven for shorebirds and wading birds, and has a less high profile woodlot of its own, which is no stranger to birds like Ovenbird, Mourning Warbler, or Golden-winged Warbler. A tiny lot right on the lakeshore at Metzger, also offers prime migrant habitat, in an area, where they are often extremely close too, meaning we will not lack for options on these days. We’ll combine warbler watching with marsh birds, shorebirds, and wading birds too, and with our long history in the area we’ll be connected to the grapevine should something exciting appear; Kirtland’s Warblers, Ruff, and others have all turned up in recent springs. These two nights will also be spent in the quiet, charismatic town of Port Clinton.

Magee warblers do not read the rulebook, and make use of the handrail to forage
Magee warblers do not read the rulebook, and make use of the handrail to forage (Sam Woods)

Day 4: Oak Openings Preserve Metropark to Michigan. A mere hour’s drive from our base in Port Clinton provides a drastic alteration to the landscape and bird diversity, with the spectacular and unique Oak Openings region. Dubbed by the Nature Conservancy as “one of America’s Last Great Places,” and “one of the most important ecosystems in the country,” the Oak Openings Region used to be part of an extensive patchwork of oak savannas that at one point covered 30 million acres and represented a unique meeting of the Western prairies and dense Eastern forests. Our target list for the day includes some very specialised, highly “wanted” species: Blue Grosbeak, Lark Sparrow, Summer Tanager, Prairie, Cerulean, and Kentucky Warblers, Henslow’s Sparrow, Alder Flycatcher, Red-headed Woodpecker, and Yellow-breasted Chat. After a busy morning at Oak Openings, we’ll bid farewell to Ohio and head north into Michigan, staying overnight in Grayling, the famous base for our Kirtland’s Warbler Foray the next day.

Magee Marsh is a great place to get your lifer American Woodcock
Magee Marsh is a great place to get your lifer American Woodcock (Sam Woods)

Day 5: Kirtland’s Warbler Foray. We will begin our search for Kirtland’s Warbler at 7:00am, and expect the search to take from two to four hours, hopefully scoring some good views of this renowned endangered species. After we’ve had our fill, we’ll bird the Jack Pine Wildlife Area for open pinewoods-brush-grassland species such as Clay-colored, Lincoln’s, and Vesper Sparrows, as well as Upland Sandpiper. In the evening we will visit Hartwick Pines State Park, one of the top spots in the nation for enjoying brilliant Evening Grosbeaks up close. Another night will be spent in Grayling.

Extreme close ups with warblers are the norm at Magee
Extreme close ups with warblers are the norm at Magee (Iain Campbell)

Day 6: The Upper Peninsula. We’ll spend the day on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. An early start puts us on the back roads of Hiawatha National Forest, surrounded by stunning boreal woods and bogs where we’ll seek out the most-wanted Connecticut Warbler, Le Conte’s Sparrow, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and Black-backed Woodpecker. If we’re lucky, Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee and Spruce Grouse, on the southern edge of their breeding range, may be found in the areas we visit. At the end of the day we’ll return to Grayling for a third and final night.

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Day 7: Grayling to Detroit/Departure. We will spend the morning backtracking to Detroit, so that people can take afternoon departures back from Detroit.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE:Moderate. There are some early starts (breakfast will typically be 6-6:30am); long days spent in the field; some lunches may be taken in the field, from fast food sandwich stores or similar.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY:Easy. Most of the walking will be along good, well-maintained trails, and along roads. On average around 2 miles (3km) will be walked daily.

CLIMATE: At this time of year the weather is changeable, varying from cool to warm, with regular rain showers. Temperatures range from lows of around 40 Fahrenheit (4.5 Celsius) to highs of around 68 Fahrenheit (20 Celsius).

ACCOMMODATION:Good to excellent throughout, with full-time electricity, hot water and en-suite facilities at the standard motels used everywhere. All places used have Wi-Fi Internet.

PHOTOGRAPHY:Although this is a birding focused tour, there will be good opportunities for casual photographers, especially at Magee Marsh where warbler viewing and photography is some of the best in North America.

WHEN TO GO:The first two weeks of May is when the peak of warbler migration occurs in this part of the Great Lakes, and therefore the tour is perfectly timed for the greatest variety and numbers of migrants, and migrant warblers in particular. By this point in the season the Kirtland’s Warblers have usually already set up territory too, making that part of the trip well-timed too.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS:A valid passport is required for non-US citizens; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Most foreign visitors to the USA need to APPLY FOR AN ONLINE ESTA BEFORE LEAVING THEIR COUNTRY OF RESIDENCE. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help..

WHAT’S INCLUDED?:Accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 6; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 7; spare drinking water in the vehicle when required; Tropical Birding tour leader (who is also the tour driver) with scope and audio gear from the afternoon of day 1 to the morning of day 7; one group airport pick up at a designated time on day 1; one group airport drop off on day 7; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from the afternoon of day 1 to the morning of day 7 in a rental vehicle; entrance fees to birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?:Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader (who is also the driver on this tour); tips for any luggage porters used; international flights; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.