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When It Rains Birds
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AH, THE VERNAL DESIRE, the explosion of insects, the bustle of wings, the struggle for existence, the great rush north of migrating birds. In few places is it more dramatic than here along the shores of Lake Erie.
Yeah, Lake Erie, not far from Detroit and Toledo. Here warblers pour from the skies like manna from Heaven. Shorebirds pile up and pound mud like sewing machines on their great journey to the Arctic. Rare birds – I mean really rare stuff – are hardly rare here; they are to be expected.
So here I am – into the beautiful maelstrom of spring migration. You want the audacity of spring? Take that exceedingly rare Kirtland’s Warbler I photographed out here a few years ago. You want songbirds pouring from the skies? Quit your job. Sell your house. Come here. Now.
I do love my home state of Vermont, where forest and fen, marsh and mountain are beckoning country for wildlife and migrating birds. But here, in this crippled corner of the Midwest, a blend of topography, weather and avian flight plans conspire to produce epic birdwatching.
Think of songbirds moving in a broad front, up from the Gulf of Mexico and across the eastern portion of the continent, many staying west of the Appalachian Mountains. Weighing barely an ounce, they’re flying at night, pumping tired wings in an ancient annual ritual – to get north to nest, to exploit our bloom of insects for the gaping, demanding beaks of their young.
Then comes dawn — and water. Migrating songbirds aren’t thrilled about crossing water. That’s why we love Lake Erie. Warblers and thrushes, flycatchers and vireos, orioles and sparrows — they slam on the brakes at the lake’s southern shore, which is barren or developed in many places, and then they search for woodlands to fuel up on food. They find, among other sites along Ohio’s blissfull coastline, the welcoming swamps of Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, about 20 miles east of Toledo. They’re tired and hungry. Too tired and hungry to fly away from the eager birdwatchers below. We’re in paradise (the birders – not the birds).
Once fed, they break out again, eager to get north to claim the best breeding territories in the US and Canada. They launch, on two wings and a prayer, across the lake. First stop: that huge peninsula, pointing south, Point Pelee National Park near Leamington, Ontario, which shortens the crossing. It’s a port in their long journey north.
Standing there at the point, I’ve seen songbirds at dawn, pumping tiny, tired wings, their flight muscles burning in pain, barely a foot above the waves, a foot from certain death, only to crash land on the beach. At the point, I’ve seen warblers at my feet. I’ve seen birds that have no business being in Ontario – Ruff or Western Tanager, for example.
Today (May 7), for example, here in Ohio, highlights included yet another Ruff (black and rust) and a Worm-eating Warbler. And the Bay-breasted Warblers, tired and singing, close enough to love even more than the absolute of love, made me grateful for being alive with my legs, my eyes, my heart and a pair of good binoculars.
But mostly, here in Ohio and across the way at the Point, I’m here to share one of nature’s greatest events, each precious day of it offering a lesson in humility and the essential, unadulterated joy of nature in spring.