By Neil Hayward Accidental Big Year birder.

“Welcome to a Big Three Hours”

Magee Marsh 09

I’m leading a walk this morning at Magee Marsh for the Biggest Week in American Birding. Squashed up against the gently-lapping shores of Lake Erie in northern Ohio, these woodlands are famous during spring migration. Throughout the month of May the place is overrun with hungry, tired migrants. Many have traveled hundreds or thousands of miles in the past few days on an epic journey to get here.

Here’s a recently arrived and very tired migrant…

An Eastern Scrub-Gerri migrant from Massachusetts. Note distinctive posture and loud, grating call.

There’s a group of 25 excited migrant birders standing in a semi-circle around me together with fellow guide Alex Lamoreaux. The predicted rain has held off, and it’s a beautifully crisp morning. I can hear Warbling Vireos warbling in the trees above me, radioactively bright Yellow Warblers zip in every direction like tiny meteors and Baltimore Orioles practice their hesitant, uncertain song.

Baltimore Oriole (male) – suckers for fruit.

Using one orange to attract another kind of orange. Baltimore Oriole (male).

I tell the group that if you’re going to do a Big anything, then a Big Three Hours would seem like a sensible choice. Unlike the Big Year, there’s no need to visit Alaska, chase any pesky grouse, or sleep in a car.

After last year’s Accidental Big Year, I’ve been very happy to turn the birding dial back to the “normal” setting. While there’s obviously a come down from the intensity (insanity) of running around the country looking at every new bird, I’ve enjoyed being able to slow down this year and spend more time with individual birds. A Big Year forces you to always think about what’s next, and doesn’t give enough time to enjoy the “what’s now”.

Slowing Down. Gerri and I joining the hundreds of other migrants – avian and human – at Magee Marsh.

Slowing down. Gerri and I joining the hundreds of other migrants – avian and hominid – on the boardwalk at Magee Marsh.

It’s not long before the group gets on the first mega rarity…

Seen moving confidently through the distant undergrowth is a bright, summer-plumaged Kenn Kaufman.

Today, I’m reunited with Leica. I ended last year on a boat out of Hatteras, North Carolina, birding with Travis the Traveling Trinovid. Travis was there for the (really) Great Skua – the last bird (#747) of my Big Year. After last year, Travis is taking a break, and leaving the big year stuff to Athena, the new optics girl on the block. Athena is an Ultravid. I’m not exactly sure what a vid is, but presumably (a) Athena has more of them, and (b) somehow that’s a good thing. Like Gerri, she would prove to be a great birding partner – very focused and super bright.

Neil with Athena

Looking good!

I ask if there are any target birds that the group is hoping to see today. This is always a great way to start a walk by instantly creating a list of birds that we’re guaranteed not to see.

Golden-winged Warbler. Worm-eating Warbler. Connecticut Warbler. Greg Miller.

And sure enough, we miss them all. Although I can’t help blaming Leica guy David La Puma for at least one of these misses. When he handed me Athena for the day, he forgot to give me the “Connecticut Warbler Adapter” that fits nicely on the binoculars and finds Connecticut Warblers for you (actually, if you tweak the settings, you can also pick up Mourning and Kentucky too). He was probably too busy drinking expensive coffee. Thanks David!

This is not a Connecticut Warbler, but no-one seemed to mind! I assume Blackburnian Warblers know how pretty they are.

This is not a Connecticut Warbler, but no-one seemed to mind! Blackburnian Warbler (male).

But still, even without the special warbler adapter, we did find some great birds, including…

Bay-breasted Warbler

Bay-breasted Warbler


Wilson's Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

Like all good guides, I was carrying a back-up supply of birds in case we came up short…

The Biggest Week bird bag – extra supplies of warblers in case we ran out. Also contained a surprise Black-billed Cuckoo.

The Biggest Week bird bag – extra supplies of warblers in case we ran out. This year’s contained a surprise Black-billed Cuckoo.

It wasn’t long before I needed it. Release the Woodcock!

American Woodcock

American Woodcock. Doing a good impression of a pile of leaves.

Whatever kind of Big you do in life, it never seems Big enough. The three hours were over too soon, as was the Big Year the year before. It’s hard to feel sated as a birder. There’s always something more to see, one more identification challenge, one more bird personality to study. As we closed the doors on our rental car leaving the crowded parking lot behind, I was already planning my return trip next year.

That wasn’t quite the end of the festival for me though. That evening gave me another chance to relive my Accidental Big Year. Apparently short of key-note speakers, I’d been invited to talk at the festival about my Big Year. As you can see, it was a popular event…

I'd like to thank you all for coming tonight.

I’d like to thank you all for coming tonight.

Actually, some people did turn up to see it. And some of them were pretty famous:

The 700 Club

The 700 Club – birders who’ve seen 700+ birds in a Big Year. From left: author, Jay Lehman, Greg Miller, Chris Hitt, Dan Sanders.

Thanks again to Jeff Bouton and Dave La Puma for entrusting me with Athena for the day and for coming to the talk and “politely” reminding me that I had to give her back before making my reverse migration back home.

Eastern Screech Owl (Gray phase)

Eastern Screech Owl (Gray phase) – “I think I just got a new life human. I’m pretty sure that was a Neil Hayward. Not as tall or attractive as the guide book suggested. Damn National Geographic field guide.”