The Biggest Week: A Warblerific Epiphany

Black-throated Green Warbler. © Laura Kammermeier

Black-throated Green Warbler. © Laura Kammermeier

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.

Birding the Biggest Week with best friends. Priceless.

Birding the Biggest Week with best friends. Priceless.

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 attracts rabid birders as well as people who have never heart "bird" used as a verb. In fact, I believe that latter, more casual audience makes up most of the attendees.

The Biggest Week attracts rabid birders as well as people who have never heard “bird” used as a verb. From the looks of the boardwalk, I believe that latter, more casual audience makes up most of the attendees. Everyone is welcome and everyone comes.

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.

The Magee Marsh boardwalk is a cornucopia of color and cultures.

The Magee Marsh boardwalk was a cornucopia of avian color and human cultures. Many families from Ohio’s Amish country were present this year. Time and Optics – an Amish Ohio optics dealer – was an exhibitor.

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 Kaufmans and Stokes led a boardwalk. Members of each also gave keynote addresses.

The Kaufmans and Stokes led a walking tour. Members of each couple also gave keynote addresses.

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.

Biggest Week birders

Biggest Week guides  (including Erik Bruhnke and Ben Warner, left to right) wore bright yellow hats. David La Puma (far left) represented Leica optics and many happy birders (to the right) watched for Golden-winged Warbler.

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.

Several Biggest Week Bloggers and I, including Donna Madrid-Simonetti, above, had a chance meeting in the parking lot. Bless their hearts, every one of them. I wish I had a pic of all of us. © Donna Madrid-Simonetti

Several Biggest Week Bloggers and fans met for the first time. Above left, I meet Donna Madrid-Simonetti, Linda Rockwell meets Greg Miller (center) and Linda Rockwell and I meet in the flesh (right).  What great moments. Thanks to Donna Madrid-Simonetti for the images.

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.

Bryan and I kicked back and birded the boardwalk in the early morning, when the crowds are thin.

Bryan and I kicked back and birded the boardwalk in the early morning, when the crowds are thin. © Courtenay Willis

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.

Blackburnian Warbler © Laura Kammermeier

Blackburnian Warbler © Laura Kammermeier

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.

Magnolia Warbler © Laura Kammermeier

Magnolia Warbler © Laura Kammermeier

It also offered abundant looks at what I consider more common species: Yellow-rumped, Yellow, Black-throated Green.

Yellow Warbler © Laura Kammermeier

Yellow Warbler © Laura Kammermeier


Prothonotary Warbler © Laura Kammermeier

Prothonotary Warbler © Laura Kammermeier

Cape May Warbler © Laura Kammermeier

Cape May Warbler © Laura Kammermeier

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.

Palm Warbler © Laura Kammermeierr

Palm Warbler © Laura Kammermeierr

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.

Photographer/Wildlife guide Brian Zwiebel of Sabrewings tours hosted a 3-hour bird photography workshop.

Photographer/Wildlife guide Brian Zwiebel of Sabrewings Nature Tours hosted a 3-hour bird photography workshop.

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.


Founder Laura Kammermeier. © Courtenay Willis


Visit the Festival Website to stay tuned to next year’s festival.


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  • Linda Rockwell May 21, 2013, 23:52

    What a fantastic post! The Biggest week is a lovely festival with wonderful birds and wonderful birders, and your post brought the whole week right back to me. Thank you for that. 🙂 I did so enjoy meeting you in Ohio. Can’t wait until our paths cross again! xoxox

    • Courtenay Willis May 22, 2013, 19:33

      Beautifully written, Laura! It was an incredible experience, meeting so many people from around the world, and seeing so many beautiful birds, and I too came away from it feeling refueled and restored. So grateful we could share it together 🙂 xoxo

  • Larry Selman June 2, 2013, 20:12

    Sounds like a fantastic week for birders and photographers alike.
    When visiting the area don’t forget about the Cuyahoga Valley National National Park system to the east.
    Especially photographers. Check a few pics of warblers and songbirds from that park close to the time of the biggest week MostlyBirds

    Larry Selman

    • Laura Kammermeier June 4, 2013, 11:04

      Hi Larry,
      Yes! I agree. I used to work at CVNP years ago, and have explored many its corner. Buttermilk falls, the Towpath Trail, the Winking Lizard….many great photo opps. Especially great trip for the urban repressed! Check out

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