On a 17-day, 4,600-mile road trip in April, we had one birding day worth mention.
It was a trip planned for family visits, so birding was, for once, not top priority.
Our really good day was at Magee Marsh in Ohio, a wooded swamp along the Lake Erie shore. "Really good" is relative. Actually, held for close examination against decades of birding, this was a lousy day. But it had its moments.
Magee Marsh is perhaps the best place in the U.S. to be for spring songbird migration. You want to aim for the middle two weeks of May. (Mid-April is by far a lesser choice.)
The marsh is perfect for birders as well as birds. It's situated directly south of Point Pelee, a Canadian location also among North America's best places for spring songbirds. Magee gets birds that halt migration at lake's edge to rest and refuel before flying across. After crossing Lake Erie, many birds land at Point Pelee to recover from the trip.
Magee has the advantage of being more conveniently located. It also has been equipped for birders. An elevated boardwalk winds for more than a mile through the swampland. You often can see birds eye-to-eye. Photographers love Magee Marsh.
The only comparable spot in Minnesota would be Park Point in Duluth, on a day when weather is holding migrants in place. A foggy morning following a strong migration flight the night before can offer once-in-a-lifetime birding. Warblers are the most likely species. They can litter the ground, like spilled jewels.
Some birders would say that the Gulf coast of Texas is the place to be in the spring. The Houston Audubon Society maintains a small piece of shoreline land in Texas, south of the town of Winnie, known as High Island.
Birds crossing the gulf can find first landfall here after that long flight. High Island on the right day can offer another spilled-jewels encounter. High Island is a 1,200-mile drive. Magee Marsh is near half that, about 700 miles.
Duluth, of course, is but 150 miles up the road, and while fog is wonderful it is not essential on a particular day. If mid-to-late-May migration is heavy, songbirds have the same rest/refuel motive for stopping along Park Point as they do at Magee.
It's a matter of fortunate timing wherever you go.
Enjoying slimmer pickings
So, in April, inadequately dressed for unexpected windchill weather (I'm old enough to know better), I got out of the car at Magee, put on gloves, and walked the boardwalk.
Two minutes in, I flushed a winter wren, thinking, how appropriate. The bird flew as that species does, like a jet-propelled mouse. Up, — if 6-inch altitude can be called up — out, and down, just like that.
You identify this bird by its dark brown color and its get-out-of-town flight. Seen as it forages beneath logs and in leaf duff, it is a deep-sable color, with a short, cocked, striped tail.
Heard in the woods singing, its long and complex courtship song is another lifetime experience. There is no woodland song like it.
Other birds seen on that brief walk were brown creeper, ruby-crowned kinglet and blue-gray gnatcatcher. All are early migrants, weather notwithstanding. The three species have similar feeding strategies — nonstop skimming of leaves, branches and tree trunks.
Makes you wonder how they can so quickly see and capture anything. But they do.
Magee Marsh hosts what is called the Biggest Week in American Birding each May, with many events. Dates this year were May 8-17. To make plans for 2016, go to www.biggestweekinamericanbirding.com.
Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at email@example.com. Join his conversation about birds at www.startribune.com/wingnut.