The Biggest Week at the Warbler Capital

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Text and Sketches by Rafael Galvez.

The Leica Trinovids are no strangers to me – I’ve had the pleasure of using them under extreme field conditions for entire migration seasons at the Florida Keys Hawkwatch. I was very happy to learn I’d be carrying “Travis” the Traveling Trinovid for several days during The Biggest Week in American Birding in northwestern Ohio. I knew this would be a welcome contrast after spending the month of April in the Keys studying the ecological relationships of migratory birds in tropical rockland habitats. I’d experienced several migratory waves, particularly those of warblers arriving to Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West, and had spent plenty of time doing field sketches and paintings of warblers in South Florida habitats. It was therefore a great pleasure to fly up to Ohio following the flight of migrants as they arrived at the Warbler Capital of the World.

With all the exciting buzz surrounding Magee Marsh and the Biggest Week in American Birding, I was as giddy as can be at the thought of an extraordinary migration event in a region I’d never visited before. My expectations did not fall short! Naturally, my goal at the Biggest Week was to add as many species as possible to the Traveling Trinovid’s big year. With over 30 species of warblers seen during my 10 days at the marsh, I managed to add 15 new warblers to Travis’ list. However, my personal goal was to churn out as many field sketches as possible of birds from direct observations through binoculars, particularly those which were new to the Traveling Trinovid.

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Jeff Bouton – Leica Sport Optics Manager of Birding / Nature Markets - and I arrived Friday the 3rd in the early afternoon and set up at the Optics Alley by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. By Saturday afternoon, we were ready for some birding. In a mere 3 hours, we had tallied 25 warbler species with fantastic observations of many individual birds. Warblers were everywhere! Upon entering the boardwalk, one of the first birds seen gleaning from the mid-level canopy was a gorgeous male Cerulean Warbler. There were multiple individuals of the species present throughout the marsh, and I was fortunate to have many close encounters. The sketches above were done from observations of an individual with splendid plumage. Dark cockades lining its crown and mantle contrasted its blue upperparts. The bird fed intrepidly, darting from branch to branch, often downward. I attempted to capture an instance when it gripped onto a branch with one foot in pursuit of an insect and looped fully forward around the branch, to grip once again with both feet!

One of the opportunities I looked forward to most was having encounters with Mourning Warbler (above right), a species that rarely makes it down to my South Florida turf. My wish quickly came true when a male in breeding plumage emerged from within fallen logs, breaking into song.

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Worm-eating Warblers were a big attraction at the Magee Marsh boardwalk on May 5.

I use the process of sketching through binoculars as a practical way of studying birds in-depth while birding. Particularly when it comes to warblers, I find it a constructive challenge to render as many possible gestures of individual birds to better learn the shapes, forms and attitudes intrinsic to each species. While many of the American wood warblers may appear to be cut by the same mold, each has a particular structure and behavior. Would we be able to recognize a Blackburnian over a Black-throated Green Warbler if we were to see them solely as silhouettes? The drawings I had the opportunity to render during the Biggest Week were brief thumbnails that only scratch the surface regarding the structural nuances of each species, but I make the point to observe birds intently to capture their shapes as accurately as possible. Still much to learn!

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We saw our first Blackburnian Warblers behind the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, where there was no shortage of birds. I did the center sketch in watercolor on May 3, on the picnic tables outside while I observed a foraging male. The other sketches were done the following days on the boardwalk at Magee Marsh.

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Canada Warbler is always a favorite for me (above, left). I enjoy studying its relatively compact proportions. Like its congeners, Hooded and Wilson’s – all in the Wilsonia genus – they tend to occupy the understory and lower canopy when foraging. Pine Warblers (top, right) were not seen until May 7, when multiple individuals could be found foraging along the brush surrounding Crane Creek Estuary within Ottawa NWR. By contrast, the Pine Warbler is a larger species, with a relatively bulky body and a long stout bill perfectly suited for probing into bark and pine cones. The bird is quite at home, foraging on tree trunks, clinging onto inclined surfaces and peering at the underside of branches. The thumbnail above was done while observing a first year female for several minutes. This rendering is too crude to capture the beautiful subtleties of the bird’s plumage; while the tail, flight feathers and lower flanks were worn and drab, the crown, auriculars and mantle were fresh and  glossy olive. A blush of yellow was evident on its breast. A Black-throated Green Warbler is depicted at lower right.  The sketches above were not rendered in proportion to one another.

Magee Marsh treated me and the Traveling Trinovid to excellent observations of warblers of the Vermivora genus, which include Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warblers. These are relatively small birds with short and fine tipped bills. Below are sketches of Golden-winged (left) and Blue-winged Warblers (right) drawn at the boardwalk on May 4.

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Below, a Louisiana Waterthrush sketched from the boardwalk at Magee Marsh on May 5 while observed through the Traveling Trinovid.

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Sketching Birds at Magee Marsh
- with the Traveling Trinovid

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On May 10, a big push of migrants was evident all around. Hundreds of White-crowned Sparrows foraged along the beach near Magee Marsh. Among them, a Clay-colored Sparrow fed in and out of the coastal bramble, often perching out in the open on a Bigtooth Aspen. Crowds gathered for a look at this bird – a first for the Biggest Week. I sketched the Clay-colored right there and then, over the sand. Unfortunately, because of this endeavor I missed saying goodbye to my longtime friend David La Puma, who had joined Jeff Bouton and I to represent Leica during this spectacular birding event. It is easy getting lost among the hundreds of birders – and birds – at the marsh.

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An American Woodcock nested near the parking lot at Magee Marsh. Fortunately, park officials had roped-off the surrounding area to keep visitors from stepping on the well-camouflaged bird. I made the sketches above on my small pocket pad.

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The Rose-breasted Grosbeak along with the American Goldfinches and Pine Siskins above were sketched while observing them visiting the feeders at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory.

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Spring migration in northwestern Ohio was a fantastic experience I will not forget. Not only was the bird diversity excellent, but individuals of many species were abundant and close in proximity, providing me unparalleled opportunities for sketching in the field. From the moment Jeff and I arrived to the Cleveland airport, birds were everywhere. I sketched this Evening Grosbeak soon after seeing it fly over our car as we headed towards Oak Harbor on our day of arrival. I look forward to returning to the Biggest Week in American Birding next spring for more field sketching and birding!