08.28.22: American Redstart

A male American Redstart sings in Magee Marsh Wildlife Refuge, Oak Harbor, Ohio.

A male American Redstart sings in Magee Marsh Wildlife Refuge, Oak Harbor, Ohio.

Fighting the crowds during warbler season

Tech specs

  • Date/time: May 16, 2019 10:10 AM   
  • Camera: Canon EOS 7D Mark II
  • Lens: EF600mm f/4L IS USM 
  • Focal length: 600mm
  • Aperture: f/4
  • Shutter: 1/1000 second
  • ISO: 640

Photographers mark the seasons differently than normal folks. January is snowy landscape season. Late October marks the start of fall color season. And for me, May is warbler season.

I get nearly all of my warbler photos during the spring, when the birds are migrating north from their winter homes in Central and South America, and less often in the fall during migration south. The range maps for most warbler species show Central Ohio as part of the summer breeding range, but it's been my experience that few hang around here for the summer. Most head north into Canada.

But it takes a short road trip each May for my best opportunity to see warblers. I drive north a few hours to the southern bank of Lake Erie — Ohio’s “north coast” — when bird watchers from around the world show up in parks in that area for a week each May to watch the massive number of warblers in the trees and fields. It’s been dubbed the Biggest Week in American Birding.  It even has its own web site.

The prime focus is Magee Marsh Wildlife area, which is packed every year on Mother’s Day weekend when the spring warbler migration is at its peak. The birds gather in trees and bushes along the edge of the lake to rest and refuel before flying nonstop across the lake to Canada and their summer breeding range.

I’m not a bird watcher. I’m a photo hobbyist who happens to enjoy photographing wildlife. And I hate crowds when I’m shooting. So I usually avoid Magee Marsh, where people are jammed together shoulder to shoulder on a narrow boardwalk through the woods and one camera click pulls everyone in to see what the photographer has found. I spend my time at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, which is about a mile down the road and much less crowded.

But I do try to drop in at Magee Marsh for a short time to fight the crowds and see what I can find.

On a 2019 visit I found this male American Redstart singing in a tree. The redstart is a member of the warbler family, one of the many colorful varieties that migrate through the area.

According to All About Birds, my go-to website for bird information, adult male American Redstarts are mostly black with bright orange patches on the sides, wings, and tail. The belly is white. Females and immature males replace the orange with yellow or yellow-orange. They have gray head and underparts, with olive back and wings and dark-gray tail. 

The site notes that the American Redstart uses its colors while hunting prey. The redstart flashes the bright patches in its tail and wings. This seems to startle insect prey and give the birds an opportunity to catch them.

One side note: When I clicked the camera’s shutter release to get the photo, the massive crowd of people around me all pushed in with their binoculars to see what I was photographing. The birds seem to get used to it. This photographer? Not so much.

We see more than warblers during our May trips. I’ve photographed nesting Bald Eagles, nesting killdeer, Sandhill Cranes, Trumpeter Swans, Scarlet Tanagers and a number of other species that find the wetlands along Lake Erie to be a suitable summer home. It makes for a fun trip … especially when I’m someplace less crowded than Magee Marsh.

The American Redstart uses its colors while hunting prey. The redstart flashes the bright patches in its tail and wings. This seems to startle insect prey and give the birds an opportunity to catch them.

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