Finally, a week after returning from The Biggest Week in American Birding (BWIAB), I am able to sit down and recount the event without developing a lump in my throat. The event was a deeply emotional and satisfying experience for me on so many levels; let me try to explain why.
First, it was a huge honor to be one of this year’s official bloggers. I seriously enjoy being an ambassador that welcomes outsiders and helps them find their way in. All my posts on BWIAB continue to be among the most widely read on Nature Travel Network, which shows there’s a need for this among the people who enjoy nature travel.
- Happy Bird Watchers Enjoy Ottawa NWR’s New Estuary Trail (Ohio)
- Why Northwest Ohio Really Rocks in Nature Tourism
- Blogger Roundup: The Who’s, What’s, Why’s, When’s and Where’s of The Biggest Week in American Birding
- 6 Reasons to Attend The Biggest Week in American Birding 2013
I think this ambassadorship did some good because I managed to convince my best friend to fly in from Belgium (yes, Europe) to bird with me. I cannot take all the credit. My friend studied for her Ph.D. in Ohio and at one time made annual treks to Magee Marsh boardwalk and to band birds for Black Swamp Bird Observatory. And though my friend has lived and birded all around the world in magnificent settings, this place is special enough to justify a return trip. Other friends joined us by the weekend – one has come to birding late in life and is showing signs of an addict in the making.
The Biggest Week is definitely an international affair. One can hear murmurings of Japanese, German, Dutch, the King’s English and other dialects on the boardwalk, and crowds of Pennsylvania Dutch speakers drove in from Ohio’s fertile Amish country. No surprise, considering Ohio’s longstanding reputation as one of the top ten places in the United States to watch songbird migration. To all these visitors, the long-distance trip was worth it.
I can testify that the warblering is indeed special, though it may take a few days to get into the zone. I arrived to festival headquarters at Maumee Bay State Park Lodge late on a Tuesday. Birding was slow on Wednesday – the weather was “too nice” to sweep in any birds plus my birding attention span was close to zero from running into so many friends, both new and old. I could barely separate the song of a Yellow Warbler from a Common Yellowthroat; the birds’ regional dialects threw me off.
The festival was a virtual Who’s Who of birding – in addition to an impressive slate of keynote speakers—Kenn Kaufman, Don & Lillian Stokes, Christopher Wood, Ted Lee Eubanks, Dr. Drew Lanham, Paul Riss, Rick Wright, Amanda Rodewald—there were several notable speakers, well-known tour guides showing people birds on the boardwalk, and several reps from major optics companies. It was a pleasure to meet up with NTN contributors Adrian Binns (of Wildside Nature Tours) and Ethan Kistler (Ohio Ornithological Society board member and freelance tour guide). And I finally got to know the folks at the Partnership for International Birding, Cheepers Birding on a Budget, and Sabrewing Nature Tours.
I became especially verklempt when I ran into my old buddies from the Ohio Ornithological Society – Cheryl, Su, Ann, Bill, Paula, Sally, Bianca, Delores, Paul, Judy and Hugh and the big-hearted Greg Miller. Though we rarely see each other in person, it’s a meaningful connection; here’s never enough time to sit down and talk. Beyond that, I met many more excellent people, especially the other Biggest Week bloggers and Facebook friends, so many that I can’t possibly fit them all into this space. For the opportunity to meet such kind and interesting people that share my passion, the trip was worth it.
By the weekend I found the warblering zone, or the zone found me. A small overnight front had carried in birds, so I took an early walk with my friend Bryan Pfeiffer. Bryan is a bird guide and nature writer from Vermont; we quietly strung words, thoughts, and warblers together while strolling the boardwalk.
By the end of the weekend, and with Bryan’s help (though he’s so modest he won’t admit it), I came to know Ohio’s warblers better than I’d known them ever before.
The boardwalk and nearby trails and parks offer repeated and close views of spectacular species that I rarely see post-migration: Blackburnian, Cape May, Mourning, Northern Parula, GOLDEN-WINGED, Prothonotary, Blackpoll, Magnolia, Tennessee and more.
It also offered abundant looks at what I consider more common species: Yellow-rumped, Yellow, Black-throated Green.
All in all, I spotted 25 warbler species, out of a possible 37. By encountering them all in the same place during the same time, I came to know their differences well enough to ID most of them on my own. No small feat for a casual but passionate birder. For this warblerific epiphany, the trip was worth it.
By the way, in proper weather and light, the photo opportunities at the Biggest Week can be magnificent. Though I did not focus on photography, many amateur and professionals come here with 500 or 600 mm lenses to obtain their best-ever full-screen shots of warblers. Their captures are enviable, in a gut-wrenching sort of way. On Thursday, I attended a 3-hour Bird Photography workshop hosted by Brian Zwiebel and learned exposure tricks for working in the understory to shoot warblers. For an abundance of photo opps, the trip was worth it.
I left western Ohio buoyed by many things: by experiencing one of the planet’s greatest migrations, by enriching my knowledge of little-seen jewels in perfect weather; by feeling a deep connection to a community of birding enthusiasts who are equally jazzed by birds and birding; by spending time with, and feeling supported by, two of my best friends in the world (and for watching one quickly blossom into a keen birder); and by spending a week in the woods and feeling properly aligned to…a more natural state.
There are so many things to be grateful for. My list grows every time I think about it. But one thing sticks out more than all the rest. Emerging from The Biggest Week in American Birding, this web-of-life expression enters my mind: When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world. But in this moment, I am drawn to its positive corollary:
When one step inside of nature, he finds himself attached to the rest of the world.
Thank you, Biggest Week organizers, friends, colleagues, warblers, woods, and songbirds, for making me feel whole again.
Visit the Festival Website to stay tuned to next year’s festival.