A sign outside Bench Farms on Route 2 in Ottawa County reads, “Welcome
Top: Michael Lamarche focuses on some egrets at McGee
The staff at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, located in the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, are talking to bird watchers arriving here from Uganda, England, Japan, Holland, Spain, and across the North American continent.
“Everyday has been very busy. It’s wonderful,” BSBO Executive Director Kim Kaufman said. “People are coming from all over the country and really from destinations from all over the world.”
What is the attraction? Birders come here in May to see concentrations of warblers and other migratory songbirds.
“The attraction is this is a critical area — a stopover habitat for migratory birds,” Kaufman said. “Another words, they can’t get from the tropics where they are over wintering without having some place to stop. It’s like a bird gas station.
“What happens is that these small birds, these song birds — they migrate at night. As they come up they see the lake and they think, ‘Okay, here’s a big body of water. I’ve got to stop and refuel before I cross this big body of water.’
“And the habitat has been developed where there are small remaining patches right along the lakeshore. So for the birds it’s tough because there are only small patches of habitat, but for birders it’s good because these birds are condensed into a lot of little areas and there are a lot of birds.”
It’s all part of the bird observatory’s first “Biggest Week in American Birding” Festival May 6-16. The Lake Erie Marsh Region of Northwest Ohio has been dubbed the “Warbler Capital of the World.” The festival includes workshops, free guided activities, keynote speakers, half-day trips, and of course, warblers.
“There’s a lot of very happy energy in these places,” Kaufman said. “Birders tend to be great people, honestly, but here it’s such a special phenomenon. It’s different than other birding hotspots in the country for migration because in those areas birds tend to be up high. Here, there’s sort of a special effect where the birds are feeding on a specific insect, and the (insects) are down low so the birds are low. It’s so spectacular.”
While local hotels are filling up, birders from around the globe post their finds on a Twitter page linked to the BSBO website, www.bsbo.org.
“208 species seen (so far) during the Biggest Week in American Birding! 34 of the 37 warblers have been ticked off,” reads one recent post.
Another reads, “Cerulean Warbler caught in mist nets on Saturday, May 8th at Navarre Marsh Migration Monitoring Project.”
Kaufman said a lot of the birds begin their journey in Central and South America. Some will remain here throughout the rest of spring and summer, while others have destinations further north. They make the trip over thousands of miles, even though most of the warblers weigh about as much as an average ball-point pen.
“Most of them are heading up to Canada, and some of them all the way up to the Northwest Territories and to Alaska,” Kaufman said. “It’s pretty amazing what these little birds can do.
“It’s a genetic thing, because these little birds, like these song birds, their parents don’t show them the way. It’s completely instinctive and the birds just know where to go. It’s been proven that the birds navigate by the star patterns.”
Magee Marsh, Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area, Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, and Crane Creek Beach Ridge have been steadily building a reputation.
“To be perfectly honest, many people have been coming to this area for many years,” Kaufman said. “It’s sort of like the best kept secret in the birding world.
“Word had been starting to spread, and a couple years ago the bird observatory thought with our partners, instead of just have the people passing through, why not have some type of meaningful interaction with them where we can try to teach them about other places to go birding? We can get businesses involved and make this beneficial for everyone, including the birds because ultimately what it means is more understanding and support of bird conservation,” she continued.
Kaufman, who sits on the board of the Ottawa County and Erie County visitors’ bureaus, says the global tourist draw demonstrates how nature and recreation can be beneficial to the local economy. She suggests creating even more habitat for these birds along the lakeshore.
“They (tourists) are coming straight here just for the birds,” Kaufman said. “We’ve got people from 44 different states registered for the festival.
“We have filled up a lot of hotels and we have a lot of business partners to the east. I have a lot of contacts (with the visitors bureaus), and I’m really working on a lot of businesses to the west of us now because we have a lot of birders in those establishments. It’s great.
“Ecotourism is terminology that just a few years ago nobody even heard off,” Kaufman continued. “But a lot of people are starting to look at this now. Organizations like ours, big corporations are starting to throw their support behind it because it’s a great way to support the resource and support businesses along the lake.”
Kaufman said eco-tourists who registered for festival activities “represent only a tiny portion” of the total number of birders arriving here.
“I would say during the end of spring migration — between mid-April to the end of May we will have 50,000 people through here just birding,” she said. “The visitation here has been really increasing and we’ve been trying to promote and market the area.”
Kaufman said the observatory could not operate without its partners and volunteers. The festival is one of many programs that Kaufman’s observatory supports.
“We’re doing a lot of outreach,” Kaufman said. “Something we’d really like to do is diversify the bird watching world. In other words, you tend to see a lot more Caucasian faces out there, and that’s great, but we’d really like to reach out to the Latino population, the African-American population, and there are huge movements out there to do that.”