The Biggest Week in American Birding takes place in Oak Harbor, Ohio when warblers start making their way back north over Lake Erie. Birders flock together to see the birds up close with and without binoculars and take plenty of photos.
While not a traditional festival, there are many events, guided walks, speakers, educators and more.
2023 Date: May 5-14. 2023
Locations: Various Locations (See Website for details)
This post documents my experience on May 8, 2010 during an event called the Family Bird Festival, which was an event of the Biggest Week in American Birding.
Many of the festivals I’ve attended in the past are based on the celebration of a local crop or product, an ethnicity, or some aspect of local history.
What makes International Migratory Bird Day and the Family Bird Festival different are that they celebrate an annual natural event (migration) through educational family activities and the unique pastime of birdwatching. The festival, itself, isn’t the highlight – it’s secondary to witnessing this pause in the birds’ migration. And the selling of merchandise and food are even less thought of by visitors.
However, there are some similarities to other festivals, especially in regards to a celebration’s yearly timeliness and the access it gives you to a subculture (birders).
Just outside of Oak Harbor, the neighboring and connecting Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge and the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area take part in a week-long event called “The Biggest Week in American Birding.” In this time period, Warblers galore head north, stopping along the Lake Erie shore to rest and eat before trekking across the great lake. In these marshes of NW Ohio, the area is considered the “Warbler Capital of the World.”
Here’s a better description of this event, as found at the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area (click the pic and then the magnifying glass for a larger version).
Here are the various Warblers seen…
But Warblers aren’t alone in this journey; there are also kinglets, sparrows, hummingbirds, orioles, tanagers, grosbeaks and others.
It’s quite a collection, especially for someone who wasn’t all that familiar with the Warbler to begin with! You can imagine my intrigue.
So, on that rather overcast, wet and chilly morning, I decided to venture out…
…down Route 2 West…
…past the nuclear power plant…
…and, first, to the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area.
There, I took advantage of the heat (I had forgotten to bring a sweater) to defrost my windblown skin for a bit. It wasn’t until I ventured out to their lookout tower that I realized my error in forgetting binoculars as well.
It was a tad difficult to spot the birds in this manner.
But I continued on, following the cars to the end.
As I searched for a parking spot, I noticed people walking or staring off aimlessly along a closed-off road (above on the right). Granted, some looked into the trees with their cameras and binoculars, but I couldn’t tell what the others were looking at as their eyes drifted off in various directions. They appeared lost.
Then, as I walked toward them, out of the parking lot and into that band of grass in the picture above, I noticed sudden, quick movements in my peripheral vision.
Tens of birds shot through the air, from the grass, from the trees, from the sky. They zipped by my ears, my legs. They came for my face, changing direction mere feet before striking it.
It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before.
It was magical (my aunt went there the following day and told me she felt like Snow White).
I stood there for minutes, admiring them. With my camera, I tried to time the delay of my camera to get the perfect shot of them. But, even when I did get them on film, the fast little buggers developed into specks or unclear streaks. A background of trees and grass made them practically invisible.
So I eventually continued on…
…passing a welcome tent, some tents with merchandise…
…and even a little something for the fatigued birder
Before making it to the boardwalk, I noticed a congregation of birders.
As I passed, an Amish gentleman pointed out a bird in the trees to the man sitting in the high chair. The man in the high chair responded that he had already called out that bird a few moments before.
Was this a birder game? An Eye-Spy among their culture?
I was greatly fascinated by the birder culture. They came from all over the world, speaking in various accents (Irish, English) and languages (Chinese). There were many Amish families, plenty of children and couples, and a plethora of binoculars and cameras…
…which were huge and expensive, I’m sure.As they looked over the marshes, they came together…
…making it difficult to pass.
So I, sometimes, decided to join the crowd…
…taking an occasional picture of them…
…and trying to see through their eyes (slightly difficult without binoculars).
When I wasn’t joining birder groups, I went off in search of some undiscovered wildlife activity…
…following the long boardwalk…
…and stopping to check the marsh every so often. To see a short video I took there, click here. The birds are the flying specks.
After I walked the boardwalk and back, I went to the beach. There, the birds were just as active as they were near the parking lot.
I was fortunate to get one shot where the birds can actually be seen.
Otherwise, I do have a video taken from my cell phone of the beach with the birds (check it out here).
I got back in the car as it started to rain just a little bit…
… and I headed to the neighboring Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge for the bird walk and Family Bird Festival.
According to their flyer, they had a walk from 9-11 with binoculars available (the main reason I never stopped at my mom’s to get one). Unfortunately, I misread it. Apparently there was only one walking group that started at 9 and finished at 11.
So I arrived too late for that.
Fortunately, the Family Bird Festival would start in the next hour, so I had time to check the grounds before then.
After defrosting from the cold once more, I took a stroll in the back…
…past their short boardwalk…
…stopping briefly at the cattails…
…and along the path.
I caught some birds in the trees, but not enough to keep me long. Some of the path was overly saturated from the previous evening’s storm, so I headed back in time to check out the festival.
There, a room was setup downstairs for kids to learn more about area birds…
…where they could get familiar with various types of nests…
…play Scavenger Hunt along the boardwalk…
…and familiarize themselves with various bird calls.
There were also some binoculars for them to use and a table for making their own bird hats. Definitely some educational family fun.
By now, I was getting tired and my stomach was growling. Apart from the ice cream I could buy from the Boy Scouts between the 2 sets of back doors, I figured it was best to quickly check out the upstairs of the building and then go out and find lunch.
So I ran up to a wonderful surprise on the second floor where a “Bird’s Diner” sign greeted me. Could there be food in that room ahead? I couldn’t smell any type of deliciousness wavering through the air.
There were various packages of food (mac and cheese, corn, etc.) and a wok. But those packages weren’t for cooking. Instead, they served as props to show how we involuntarily eat bugs and larva every day. And with the low calories and high protein content (let alone the many cultures that use insects in their own diet), why not incorporate them voluntarily?
That’s when I saw what was the wok was used for…
Live meal worms they pan-friend up and seasoned.
Well, if the Warblers could do it, so could I. I may look slightly fearful in the following pic, but they really weren’t bad at all.
In fact, I ate two of them.