They’re coming — the waves of migrating birds that make northern Ohio one of the continent’s birdwatching hotspots during the month of May.
The birds follow branches of the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways north through Ohio. They reach shore of Lake Erie and stop to rest and feed before crossing the water. Certain patches of nearshore habitat are concentration points where you can see an amazing diversity of birds.
On April 26th, I spotted some of the early arrivals around the Shaker Lakes, the parklands along Doan Brook just east of Cleveland. There were palm warblers with their rusty caps and bobbing tails and yellow-rumped warblers, affectionately called “butter butts” for the bright patch of yellow on their rumps. And there were ruby-crowned kinglets, hyperactive little birds that flit around so fast that it’s hard to train your binoculars on them.
But the big show — the height of the spring migration — is upon us. It’s celebrated as the “Biggest Week in American Birding,” May 6-15, a birding festival hosted by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory at locations around the western end of Lake Erie.
During this time, if you take an easy drive west of Cleveland and stop at Magee Marsh, you will find yourself in the “warbler capital of the world.” If the conditions are right (such as after a weather front that propels a wave of birds from the south), you can stand on the boardwalk of the marsh and see more than 20 warbler species in a day, perhaps even the extremely rare Kirtland’s warbler. It’s not too hard to see 100 bird species overall, including thrushes, tanagers, flycatchers, grosbeaks, eagles, and a variety of waterfowl and shorebirds.
This easily accessible diversity attracts crowds of birders from all over the country. The parking lot at Magee Marsh fills with cars with out-of-state plates. Birding — the number one sport in America, according to the National Audubon Society — has become a major tourist attraction for towns along Lake Erie. In response to the growing demand, the Ohio Department of Natural Resource has created the Lake Erie Birding Trail.
Around Cleveland, there are scores of great birding locations, including reservations of Cleveland Metroparks, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and Mentor Headlands State Park. And exciting sightings occur year-round, not just in the spring. In winter, for example, you can see huge flocks of of gulls and ducks collected in areas of open water along the lakefront. Sometimes these flocks include rare “accidental” birds brought in by extreme weather.
Birders in Northeast Ohio are excited about a new lakefront birding location near downtown — the Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve. This former disposal facility for river dredgings is being restored as an 88-acre natural area. Opened to the public on a daily basis in 2012, it’s already attracting attention as a birding hotspot.
One of the best parts of birdwatching is the camaraderie of fellow birders. Northeast Ohio has a vibrant birding community, with clubs and programs for all ages so it’s easy to get involved and share your knowledge. The GreenCityBlueLake website lists many of the local organizations, as well as some of the best local birding locations.
A list of guided spring bird walks is here.
Birders travel all over the world to see birds, but more and more are discovering that some of the very best birding is right here in Ohio. To prove the point, Cleveland Metroparks naturalist Jen Brumfield did a “Big Year” of birding in 2012 that was restricted just to Cuyahoga County around Cleveland. She saw 270 different bird species!
David Beach is director of the GreenCityBlueLake Institute, the sustainability center at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History. He goes out birding as often as possible with the Museum’s curator of ornithology, Andy Jones, one of the region’s top experts.
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Photos via David Beach/Cleveland Museum of Natural History