April 2007 Issue
Head to the Toledo area for some of teh best bird-watching around.
The Toledo area doesn't get much hype as a spring break destination.
That's unless you're a birder, in which case you and thousands of others from around the world -- we found bird bloggers from as far away as Ireland and Brazil who have made the trip -- think it's the only place to be in April and May. By the end of this month, spring migration is in full swing, and the dunes, marshes and woodlands along the western shores of Lake Erie are a favorite pit stop for birds heading north to their nesting areas in Canada and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Lucas County's Oak Openings region and Oak Harbor's Magee Marsh have long been amusement parks for hard-core birders who flock for the chance to see the rare and diverse species that make an annual appearance there. Both spots also serve beginning birders, since the staggering number of birds and bird species passing through means you won't go home disappointed, even if you don't own binoculars. Bird checklists, a great tool because they list the type of bird, how common it is and when you're likely to see it, show a lot of shared species between the two locations (which are about 45 minutes apart), although the experience of finding them is different. "When I think of birds in the Oak Openings, I think 'rare,'" says Jim McCormac, the aviation education specialist for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Wildlife and president of the Ohio Ornithological Society (www.ohiobirds.org). "When I think of Magee Marsh, I think 'wow.'"
It's easy to get hooked after a day at either place, agrees Karen Mitchell, a retired schoolteacher turned naturalist for the Metroparks of Toledo. Naturally, Mitchell suggests doing a little homework before you go. "There are three basic waves of migration from April to May," she explains, "and different birds arrive at different times in each wave. If you want to see something specific, it's good to know when the bird typically migrates and what kind of habitats (forest, marsh, shoreline, etc.) they prefer." She also suggests starting at sunrise, since that's when the birds are most active and easiest to see. Finally, she says, in a voice only a seasoned teacher can master, remember that nature can't be scheduled. "We do nature walks at Oak Openings, and at the end we ask participants what would have made the trip better. I've seen comments like 'If I'd seen more birds' and 'better weather,'" she laughs. "I tell them this isn't a video. You can't do that with nature."
Crane Creek State Park, Magee Marsh & Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge
During spring migration, you probably won't get past the entrance to Crane Creek State Park and Magee Marsh before you'll be looking up. The number of birds passing through and nesting here is unparalleled, and some birders joke that they never make it out of the parking lot during the morning rush hour. McCormac remembers bringing Senator George Voinovich on a birding trip here about five years ago. "He hadn't been [to Magee] before, and as we were standing in the parking lot making introductions, we saw five Baltimore orioles and six rose-breasted grosbeak," he says. "We saw so many birds up close, that he's been back every year since."
JUST AROUND THE BEND
A weekend bird-a-thon along the lake showcases the natural wonders of the Toledo area. But while you're there, get to know the cultural and historical sides of the Glass City, too. No other area has the birthplace one of America's greatest minds (Thomas Edison, born in Milan on February 11, 1847), a fabulous collection of glass artworks (the new Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art) and three of the world's top 10 steel roller coasters (Cedar Point), all within a short drive.
For history hunters, Fort Meigs means a day in the trenches learning about this important battle site. Built in 1813 to defend Ohio against the British invasion, the 10-acre fort - the largest wooden walled fortification in North America - opens for the season this month, and its museum is open year-round. America's 19th president is honored at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont. The property includes the Hayes family's 31-room mansion and a presidential library containing more than 70,000 books, including those from Hayes' personal collection.
If education and art appreciation are your favorite subjects, the Blair Museum of Lithophanes at the Toledo Botanical Gardens has the largest collection of these unusual porcelain pictures in the world. Or, head west to Sauder Village, where costumed guides lead daily cooking, quilting and craft demonstrations that will help you understand what life was like more than 100 years ago.
If at the end of the day it seems nature has your number again, more than 60 acres of display gardens and plant collections await at the Toledo Botanical Gardens.
For details on other attractions and lodging, contact the Greater Toledo Convention and Visitor's Bureau at 800/243-4667 or www.dotoledo.com.
Kim Kaufman, the education director for the Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO), an independent agency dedicated to conservation that's located at the park's entrance, says that the area is a great place to bring kids who might not have the patience to wait for birds. "Once you get kids here, between the beach and the boardwalk, even if they think birding isn't 'cool,' they'll be off and running," she says.
Trails throughout the complex are clearly marked, including the connector trail between Magee and neighboring Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, where hawk viewing is at its peak right now (Ottawa's entrance is about a half mile west on St. Rte. 2 if you prefer to drive.) Birders from across the country come to walk the half-mile-long boardwalk trail at Magee, which stretches through seven acres of marsh, making it easier to view birds in their natural (and otherwise somewhat inhospitable for walking) habitats. In mid-May, 30-some species of warblers refuel in the area before continuing north, and bloggers say the trees positively drip with them and other colorful species like the scarlet tanager and Baltimore oriole. Julie Shieldcastle, BSBO's executive director, adds that if you spend an hour in this area any time of year you're likely to see a bald eagle.
The access road stretches from St. Rte. 2 to Lake Erie, and the entrance to the boardwalk is at the western end of the beach's parking lot. The beach is part of Crane Creek, and another prime viewing spot for shorebirds like the Caspian tern.
When you go, expect to run into a few ornithological overachievers -- those for whom iPods are "bird pods," since the small devices make good field companions for calling birds. Just remember, nabbing a spot near one of these Columbia-clad enthusiasts can help when you're starting out, since most are more than willing to share information with a fledgling birder. Their presence alone tells you that something interesting is nearby. And that may be all you need to have your own "wow" moment.
For more information, visit www.dnr.state.oh.us/parks/parks/cranecrk, www.friendsofmageemarsh.org, www.bsbo.org or www.fws.gov/midwest/Ottawa. Call BSBO, 419/898-4070, for birding information on Magee Marsh, or the Ohio Division of Wildlife, 800/945-3543, for a Birds of the Magee Marsh checklist that gives details on when various migrating birds can be viewed.
Oak Openings Metropark
There's nothing like the Oak Openings region. Any credible naturalist, birder, geologist or botanist will confirm that. So will a simple walk. You don't need training to sense that the wide-aisle oak forests and peaceful open prairies here are special. Its 83,000 acres house more than 180 rare species of flora and fauna, thanks to its range of wet and dry habitats.
"There are more rare species in the Oak Openings than anywhere else in Ohio," says McCormac. "I don't think people realize how significant it is." Naturally, the region is a hot spot of bird biodiversity, attracting about 136 of the 180-some species that nest in Ohio.
One of the most visitor-friendly areas within the region is Oak Openings Metropark. During the spring, you'll spot migrating songbirds like the chestnut-sided warbler and indigo buntings that come to this area to nest. McCormac adds that it's the only place in Ohio to find the endangered lark sparrow. Parts of the park close in May and June to protect its nests, although viewing is still possible from Girdham Road.
First-timers should start out at the Beuhner Nature Center (follow the signs to Mallard Lake). Here you'll find maps and information about the area and its creatures, as well as a viewing window looking out on 13 feeders to whet your nature-watching appetite. The park's Web site also has a downloadable bird checklist and park map, which you'll want to bring along, since signage should be added to the park's list of rare species.
For more information, call 419/407-9700 or visit www.metroparkstoledo.com/metroparks/oakopenings.
Checklists for Magee Marsh, Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge and the Oak Openings region list more than 120 birds combined that you're likely to spot during spring migration. Here is Ohio Department of Natural Resources specialist Jim McCormac's list of the most common:
Bald Eagle: Adults are unmistakable. Prefers marsh and open water habitats.
Baltimore oriole: Orange and black are the distinctive colors of the adult male. Generally appears during the first warm days of May. Prefers woodlands, often near water.
Blue-winged teal: This duck sticks to wetlands. Look for the white crescent shape on the face of the male during spring migration.
Caspian tern: Its large red bill makes it easy to spot. Most likely to be seen along the lake.
Chestnut-sided warbler: Likes wooded areas. The male has chestnut-colored stripes on its sides during the spring.
Eastern kingbird: Look for the white band across the tip of its tail feathers. Prefers the edges of woods, wetlands and open fields.
Great egret: A large bird with a long yellow bill and black legs. Likes marshes, rivers and ponds.
Greater yellowlegs: A common shorebird, it likes wet conditions like marshes and flooded plains.
Ruby-throated hummingbird: This bird is usually out in the open near flowers, gardens and feeders, but its small size makes it difficult to spot.
Indigo bunting: Likes woodland edges. The dark blue color of the male can look black in the light.
Northern shoveler: Easy to spot its oversize bill and the male's green head. Likes marshlands.
Scarlet tanager: Likes woodlands, especially those in the Oak Openings region. The male's bright-red spring coloring (it becomes greenish in late summer) stands out.
Note: because they require certain habitats, some birds listed may not appear at every park.
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