Here in the Midwest, it’s been a glorious spring—something we deserved after that brutal, seemingly endless winter. And all the more glorious for the fabulous songbird migration I witnessed in southern Ohio and southern West Virginia.
I’ve been a birder for 36 years, and spring migration is always a much-anticipated annual treat. But this is the first time my job (as managing editor for Bird Watcher’s Digest, only since last October) has practically pushed me out of the office and into the forest for much of late April and early May. Lucky me!
Of course, birding close to home in Marietta, Ohio, was rewarding, too, but not nearly as bird-intense as my trips to Shawnee State Park in the boonies of extreme southern Ohio, and the New River Birding and Nature Festival in West Virginia, AKA paradise.
The former was a weekend-long 10th anniversary celebration of the Ohio Ornithological Society, with dozens of organized birding outings, and hundreds of birders enjoying the migration as much as I did. The first night, we took a nighttime drive hear a chuck-wills-widow singing his little lungs out! That’s not an easy-to-find sound in Ohio!
Cerulean warblers and American redstarts decorated the trees near the park’s cabins. They were so cooperative! Even beginning birders got scope views of those gorgeous birds. And what a great opportunity to learn their songs—hearing them right outside our sleeping quarters!
On an outing to a low-lying riparian area, we got ovenbirds and Kentucky warblers and Louisiana waterthrushes. We watched two male northern parulas engaging in a fight that caused them to tumble, entangled, from about 20 feet into the air onto the ground—twice!
We drove on narrow, winding roads up steep hillsides to find worm-eating warblers. I was hoping for Blackburnian warbler and blue-headed vireo, species I’ve seen only a couple times in my life. Sunday morning, birding with my new friend Trish, we hit the jackpot! On a high, narrow saddle, where the top limbs of big, old oak trees were at eye level, those species presented themselves to us for long, satisfying views! We were pishing, but weren’t using a recorder to call them in. No matter, they were basically right in front of us, along with hooded and black-throated green warblers, scarlet tanagers (including a funky, hot pink and leucistic one), and oh, too many others to list here. It was mind-blowing.
It was hard to go back to work in the office on Monday. But immediately after work, it was another road trip! The New River Bird and Nature Festival is a relatively small annual gathering, co-hosted by and centered at Opossum Creek Retreat, near Fayetteville, West Virginia, and next door to the New River Gorge National River.
The retreat itself couldn’t be more idyllic. A blue-headed vireo was building a nest in a tree near the cabins! Local brews flowed from taps on the back porch! Big name birders provided fascinating, sometimes hysterical presentations late every afternoon and evening, and the food is home-made on site with love. The memory of the food makes me salivate. What a place. What a setting. What an event!
The main attractions, though, were the outings, starting very early and lasting into the afternoon—led by big-name birders, and going into spectacular, diverse habitats. Numerous chestnut-sided warblers gave us spectacular looks, and even though it was rainy, the bobolinks were active and noisy in a highland field. Bobolinks sound just like R2D2, or maybe it’s the other way around!
And then, in a rhododendron thicket along a stream, I got a life bird: Swainson’s warbler! I recognized its song, which I think ends with a phrase that sounds like whippoorwill, but Sibley hears SISTerville. No matter, I heard it and recognized it. My annual, late-winter intense review of warbler songs paid off. It came out to have a good, long look at our small group of birders. I love it when they do that! Many of us did the life-bird wiggle that morning!
We had a ramps lunch at a rural, Pentecostal church. Ramps in the scrambled eggs. Ramps in the fried potatoes. Ramps in the beans. No ramps in the heavenly dark chocolate cake, though, thank goodness. Ramps, for those outside of Appalachia, are a native plant in the onion/leak/garlic family with a taste all their own. Some say it’s an acquired taste, but it’s a taste I acquired in one bite. I’ve heard that big-city, five-star chefs have acquired a taste for ramps recently, too.
Unfortunately, I could only spend two days at the weeklong festival. Next year, I hope, I can arrive early and stay late.
I was happy and relieved when winter finally ended, but I’m sorry spring migration is winding down. I missed out on several warbler species this year, and unless I head north, won’t have a chance at them until fall, when finding them is tougher because they’re not singing.
Still, I’m already looking forward to fall! Gotta love birding: It builds both wonderful memories and eager anticipation.
About the Author
Dawn Hewitt is the managing editor for Bird Watcher's Digest and Watching Backyard Birds. She has been watching birds since 1979, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald Times newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.