THE Warbler Tour: 3 States and Over 30 Warblers

Spring migration in the eastern United States is an avian phenomenon that draws people from all over the World. Undoubtedly the main attraction among the hordes of migrants are the eastern warblers, and this tour has been designed to look for them all. It is the ultimate one-stop-shop for warblers, while picking up lots of other migrant birds along the way.

The tour starts in the south, where the state of Kentucky will offer up some of the southern warblers often missed at sites in the north, like Swainson’s, Kentucky, Hooded, and Worm-eating. Moving north into southern Ohio, Yellow-throated, Prairie, and Cerulean Warblers, and Yellow-breasted Chat are shoe-ins with a visit to Shawnee State Forest. Continuing north, the tour will have an extended stay at the so-called Warbler Capital of North America, Magee Marsh, where at this time of year 20+ warbler days are commonplace. No warbler tour would be complete without the rarest of them all, Kirtland’s Warbler, which will be seen on their breeding grounds, where it will be combined with a visit to Michigan’s own migration Mecca, Tawas Point.

Kirtland's Warbler is one of the star attractions of this tour.
Kirtland's Warbler is one of the star attractions of this tour. (Iain Campbell)

Day 1: Arrival in Lexington (Kentucky). After arriving in Lexington airport, a hotel shuttle will be taken to our nearby airport hotel.

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

Day 2: Red River Gorge (Kentucky) to Southern Ohio. We will leave early (5:30am) to reach the gorgeous Red River Gorge Geological Area, where we will spend much of the day. A visit to forests in this area is a must, for our first chance at some breeding southern warblers, unlikely at other sites in the north later on the tour. The beautiful mixed woods of sugar maples, oaks, hemlocks, white pines and hickory are home to more than 100 species of birds, including Worm-eating, Hooded, Prairie, and Swainson’s Warblers, which will be our primary targets. After much of the day in this area, we’ll travel north to Ohio for a two-night stay, close to the beautiful Shawnee State Forest.

Shawnee State Forest is home to breeding southern warblers like this Hooded
Shawnee State Forest is home to breeding southern warblers like this Hooded (Sam Woods)

Day 3: Shawnee State Forest (Ohio). A full day day will be spent in Shawnee, located within the Apalachian foothills, an area of such scenic beauty it has been nicknamed the “Little Smokies”. Southern warblers will again be on the agenda, with such thrillers as Cerulean, Kentucky, Blue-winged, Prairie, and Yellow-throated Warblers all on our hit list, as well as Louisiana Waterthrush and Yellow-breasted Chat.

Blue-winged Warblers breed at several sites on the tour
Blue-winged Warblers breed at several sites on the tour (Iain Campbell)

Other warblers that may feature include Ovenbird, Northern Parula, and Pine Warbler. Other birds we may find in this verdant area include Scarlet Tanager, Yellow and Black-billed Cuckoos, Red-headed and Pileated Woodpeckers, Yellow-throated Vireo, Wood Thrush, and Acadian Flycatcher.

Another
Another "southerner", the Prairie Warbler will be a target in Kentucky and southern Ohio (Sam Woods)

Day 4: Shawnee to Magee Marsh (Ohio). After a final morning at Shawnee, mopping up whatever we still need, we will head north to one one of the most revered sites in North America: Magee Marsh. This is area has become so hallowed that it was voted in a recent US Today survey as the top birding destination in the US, and is often referred to as “The Warbler Capital of the World”. The sheer variety of warblers, and the supreme quality of warbler viewing, making this a must visit site for anyone interested in this stunning group of birds. Four nights will be spent in the quiet town of Oregon.

Canada Warbler are not often this photogenic!
Canada Warbler are not often this photogenic! (Iain Campbell)

Days 5-7: Magee Marsh (Ohio). Three full days will be spent around this mega site on the southern shore of Lake Erie. It is famous, as twenty species warbler days are the norm in this season, and the views they often give are simply unbeatable, making this a favorite for both birders and bird photographers.

The Magnolia Warbler is one of the star birds of North America
The Magnolia Warbler is one of the star birds of North America (Iain Campbell)

A simple, mile-long boardwalk snakes its way through the woods, where birds like Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Blackpoll, Blackburnian, Bay-breasted, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, Black-and-white, Prothonotary, Nashville, Cape May, Mourning and Tennessee Warblers are all regularly seen, and regularly seen well. We shall also visit nearby sites like Ottawa NWR for waterbirds, and Metzger Marsh, a tiny lakeshore woodlot, also famed for getting stellar looks at migrant birds, including warblers. These nights will also be spent in Oregon.

Blackburnian Warbler is always a crowdpleaser
Blackburnian Warbler is always a crowdpleaser (Sam Woods)

Day 8: Magee Marsh to Oscoda (Michigan). After another full morning at Magee, we will bid farewell to Ohio and this extraordinary birding destination, and continue our migration north into the state of Michigan, where we’ll make our way to another migration hotspot, Tawas Point. The next two nights will be spent in Oscoda.

Black-throated Blue Warblers often feed low
Black-throated Blue Warblers often feed low (Sam Woods)

Days 9-10: Tawas Point and Kirtland’s Warbler (Michigan). On these days we will visit three fantastic birding areas. We’ll start our day in an area of stunted Jack Pines near Tawas, where the rarest of all the breeding warblers can be found: Kirtland’s Warbler. After enjoying this local breeding specialty, we will make our way over to the migrant trap of Tawas Point. While Magee Marsh has received considerably more publicity in the birding press, Tawas Point arguably equals Magee in many aspects, and a good variety of warblers can be expected.

Michigan is home to breeding Golden-winged Warblers
Michigan is home to breeding Golden-winged Warblers (Andrew Spencer)

It is impossible to know which warblers will be on show on any given day, but birds like Bay-breasted, Blackpoll, Mourning, Blue-winged, Golden-winged, Canada, and Blackburnian Warblers are all regular here during this birding high season, and there is a chance to find a Connecticut Warbler passing through to their breeding grounds farther north. In the afternoon we will visit Au Sable State Forest, where Cerulean, Golden-winged, Blue-winged and Mourning Warblers all breed in the same woods. The final night will be spent in nearby Oscoda.

Kirtland's Warbler is one of the rarest breeding warblers in North America
Kirtland's Warbler is one of the rarest breeding warblers in North America (Andres Vasquez)

Day 11: Tawas Point to Detroit (Michigan). After another visit to Tawas Point, to check what migrants have dropped in overnight, we will drive back to Detroit to spend the final night of the tour.

Day 12: Departure from Detroit (Michigan). A hotel shuttle will be available to connect with flights out of Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate to Intense. There are some early starts, and some long days in the field.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. All of the walking will be easy, with no tough hikes. There are a number of long drives (drives of 4 hours are undertaken on 4 days of the tour).

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. There are often other warbler photography opportunities too at the breeding grounds, like for Kirtland’s Warbler and Blue-winged Warblers in Michigan for example.

WHEN TO GO:This tour is timed when the peak of warbler migration occurs in the Midwest – around the middle two weeks of May – but also after the southern warblers have arrived on their breeding grounds in Kentucky and southern Ohio.

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 11; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 12; 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 evening of day 1 to the night of day 11; one hotel airport shuttle per person, on the arrival and departure days; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from the morning of afternoon of day 1 to the evening of day 11 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.