Bird watchers flock to ‘Biggest Week’ event

By Matt Markey
Toledo Blade outdoors editor

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OAK HARBOR, OHIO: Autumn Rose McAllister arrived at Magee Marsh north of here on Thursday as a bright, inquisitive teenager with little more than a passing interest in the bird life all around us.

She will leave this weekend as a passionate birder — one of likely thousands who received their informal baptism into this growing outdoors experience during “The Biggest Week in American Birding.” The festival celebrating the huge concentration of migrating birds passing through this region concludes today.

“I feel like I’ve opened up a door that I never really thought would be open,” McAllister said. “Before this trip, I had been a little confused about all these different birds, and I never really understood all of the sounds and the many different colors and patterns of plumage. This really brought the birds up close.”

The soon-to-be 15-year-old from Pike County in southern Ohio had visited here before, but was too young then to take in all the fuss over the many warblers that use the marshes and woodlots along Lake Erie as a resting and feeding station before making the long flight across open water.

“What I found most interesting is that some of these birds have been halfway around the world, and they all end up here,” she said. “They are so tiny, but many of them have come from Central America and South America and they leave here and go way up north in Canada to nest. I’m just amazed at how far they travel.”

McAllister’s experience is not out of the norm, according to Stacy Tornio, editor of Birds & Blooms magazine, who also attended this year’s birding festival.

“Since there is now a lot more interest in being ‘green’ and getting outdoors to experience nature, I think birding provides a great gateway to make that connection,” she said. “A lot of people, young and old, come here as beginners, but the birding community is very inviting. They watch new birders getting excited about everything they see, and it becomes contagious.”

Besides drawing veteran birders from across the globe, the Biggest Week also serves as a de facto recruiting tool that builds the ranks of birders. The crowds the festival attracts, which are expected to eclipse the 70,000 mark this year, are heavy with newcomers.

“I’m amazed at the number of people who are experiencing this for the first time,” said Mark Shieldcastle, who worked as an avian biologist with the Ohio Division of Wildlife for three decades and is now the research director for Black Swamp Bird Observatory, located at the entrance to Magee Marsh.

“This area is known around the world, so we didn’t need a festival to bring in the experienced birders. This is for the people who are new to birding, to get them to come out, and once they get here, the birds sell it. When people see the birds, they get it.”

Kim Kaufman, the executive director of Black Swamp Bird Observatory and the driving force behind the Biggest Week, said introducing the next generation of birders to the sport is the primary goal of the event, which is in its fourth year.

“This was never designed to be an exclusive event for elite birders. This festival is designed for beginners,” she said, alluding to the many workshops that focus on learning about the varied species that visit the area each spring, and how to identify them.

“The idea is to engage new birders so they will become invested in the resource. They will care more about it, because now it will mean something to them. That’s how we improve and preserve more habitat, and protect these birds.”

Martin McAllister likely witnessed his daughter Autumn Rose become a birder on Thursday’s leisurely walk along Gallagher Trail at Magee Marsh. With a borrowed camera and a telephoto lens to bring the brightly-colored warblers up close, and a series of images to review and identify, she jumped right in.

“Seeing her enjoy this was a big thing for me,” said the elder McAllister, who was introduced to birding as a college student nearly 30 years ago on a field trip to witness the spring migration along the lake.

“I wanted my daughter to experience this phenomenon, and with that camera in her hands, she could zoom in and have an image to show us and talk about. It was very rewarding to see her stay interested in this all day long. I think we’ve opened up a new realm.

The Biggest Week in American Birding continues today, with a variety of workshops, tours, and outings.

The complete schedule is online at www.biggestweekinamericanbirding.com.


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