Yellow warbler flying at Magee Marsh boardwalk in Oak Harbor (photo by Matt Shiffler)

See the Biggest Week in American Birding at Magee Marsh

With the arrival of May, this northwest Ohio wildlife area becomes one of the best places in the world for bird-watching, thanks to a mix of location, conservation and appreciation.

A rusty-colored marsh bird known as a Virginia rail emerges from its nest, a mass of twigs and marsh plants that is so well camouflaged most people would never spot it. “There it is!” someone excitedly whispers from the group of birders gathered on the boardwalk above the marshy canal, and a whir of camera clicks fills the air. After a few minutes of pictures and closer looks through binoculars, the group begins moving so others can see the bird. 

A few feet down the boardwalk, another group is watching a Canada warbler, a tiny gray bird with a bright yellow face and breast, a black “necklace” of dots and a white eye ring. This bird spends its winters in South America and is on its way north to its breeding ground.
     Orchard oriole at Biggest Week in American Birding in Oak Harbor (photo by Matt Shiffler)

A photo of an orchard oriole captured during the Biggest Week in American Birding at Magee Marsh in 2023 (photo by Matt Shiffler)

Later that same day, a flock of American white pelicans, which used to be a rarity here but have exploded in population in recent years, flies overhead toward the greenish-blue waters that sparkle in the sunlight just on the other side of the boardwalk parking lot.

All of this is happening at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area — a wooded marshland along Lake Erie in Oak Harbor, about 25 miles east of Toledo — during the Biggest Week in American Birding. The 10-day festival organized by Black Swamp Bird Observatory coincides with peak bird migration in this part of Ohio. (The Biggest Week runs May 3 through 12 in 2024.)

It’s one of the best places in the world to see migrating birds, especially the tiny warblers that tend to be the biggest draw for visitors. Thirty-six species of warblers are known to migrate through the area, says Kelly Schott, Magee Marsh wildlife education specialist for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife. Other songbirds like thrushes, vireos, orioles and blue jays also pass through around the same time.
      People bird-watching on Magee Marsh boardwalk in Oak Harbor (photo by Robyn Elman and Paul Steil / A Couple Without Borders)

Magee Marsh’s boardwalk is 0.7 miles long and provides ample opportunities for birders to identify area species. (photo by Robyn Elman and Paul Steil / A Couple Without Borders)

“I’ve been just completely awestruck because there are just birds everywhere,” Schott says of visiting the Magee Marsh boardwalk during Biggest Week. “At times, you feel like you’re in an aviary at a zoo.”

Dianne Rozak, a trip co-leader for the 2024 Biggest Week, describes the boardwalk as a treasure hunt because, no matter the time of day, there are always sightings. For her, visiting for the first time in 2014 was a life-changing experience. She had just started getting into nature photography when her mentor, Brad Dolch, suggested they visit Magee Marsh and see why the birding there was so popular. They had walked maybe 50 feet on the boardwalk when they encountered hordes of people looking up, and someone pointed out a yellow-billed cuckoo.

“I looked at Brad and said, ‘What is a yellow-billed cuckoo doing in Ohio?’ Brad said, ‘Dianne, I think that’s part of why people come here,’ ” Rozak recalls. “That got me hooked.”
      Green heron on a branch near the Magee Marsh boardwalk in Oak Harbor (photo by Jordan West)

A green heron, a marsh bird, walks along a branch during the Biggest Week in American Birding. (photo by Jordan West)

Magee Marsh, especially its 0.7-mile-long boardwalk, is unique because it provides opportunities to see many out-of-the-ordinary birds, as well as resident ones up close. Jasmine Cupp, Black Swamp Bird Observatory outreach director and the festival coordinator for the Biggest Week, recalls getting a video of a Kirtland’s warbler, which up until 2019 was on the endangered species list.

“I could have reached out and touched it,” Cupp says. “It couldn’t have cared any less that people were around. They feel safe enough that they can pop around in those trees and just let the people be.”

Magee Marsh and the surrounding area are at a crossroads of a couple of major flyways for migrating birds. Many are traveling from South and Central America on their way to the northern United States or Canada to breed. They reach Lake Erie and see it as a barrier. The remaining marshland that hasn’t been developed, including the 2,200-acre Magee Marsh, is perfect habitat to rest and refuel before crossing the lake.
      Observation area at Oak Harbor’s Magee Marsh (photo courtesy of Ohio Department of Natural Resources)

Magee Marsh preserves 2,200 acres of natural areas that make prime places for birds to rest during their migration. (photo courtesy of Ohio Department of Natural Resources)

“It’s like all the birding stars align for us in that magical place. That has helped us build it into one of the best places in the world for birding,” says Kimberly Kaufman, Black Swamp Bird Observatory executive director.

When John Magee bought the land now known as Magee Marsh, he had planned to drain it and farm it, but he couldn’t keep Lake Erie water from flooding it, Schott says. Instead, he turned it into the Magee Marsh Hunt Club. Other duck hunters also built their clubs in the marshes. 

“They were the ones in the field recognizing the landscape was changing [and] the populations were declining,” Schott says.
      Four American white pelicans near estuary at Magee Marsh in Oak Harbor (photo by Steven Brynes)

American white pelicans skim an estuary during the Biggest Week in American Birding. (photo by Steven Brynes)

When the Magee Marsh Hunt Club sold Magee Marsh to the state of Ohio in 1951, it was purchased thanks in large part to money collected from duck-hunting licenses. In the years following, wildlife officer and conservationist Laurel Van Camp started noticing migrating birds in the area where the boardwalk and other public trails are today. He began taking people on walks there and noticed birders were coming on their own to watch migrations. In the late 1980s, the state built the boardwalk that provides incredible views while protecting the birds’ environment.

Since the biggest week started in 2010, it has greatly increased awareness of the opportunities to experience peak bird migration in Ohio. In 2023, the ODNR counted 90,000 people coming through Magee Marsh during the Biggest Week, Cupp says. Although the crowds might be a turnoff for some, Kaufman calls them “bird snuggles.” There is an opportunity to see things that other birders point out and talk with people with similar interests, many of whom have traveled great distances to visit.

“To me, that experience is one of my favorite things about the Biggest Week in American Birding,” Kaufman says. “We’ve been bringing so many people together that lifelong friendships have been formed. That’s such a beautiful thing to be a part of.”

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