Crane Creek, Ohio

May 9-11, 2003

by Bill Murphy

Each May since 1994, several of my birding friends and I have made a pilgrimage to a fantastic bird migration hotspot, Crane Creek State Park. Crane Creek is located on the Lake Erie shoreline between Toledo and Cleveland, Ohio. To orient you to the site, here is a series of increasingly close-up images of the area. Click on an image to see a larger version of it.

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This year we stayed at the Econolodge in Curtice, Ohio. On the upside: it's the closest motel to Crane Creek and advertised a restaurant opening at 5 a.m. On the downside: the restaurant opened at 6:15 a.m. on Saturday, the next closest source of hot food was 10 miles away, a live band rocked the motel Friday and Saturday nights, and the rooms weren't very clean and had an unpleasant odor. Regardless of any shortcomings, the great fellowship among our group overcame these trivial matters.

tn_wilds.jpg (180x116; 23023 bytes) On Thursday, Rob Gibbs (Damascus, MD) had carpooled with Phil Olsen (Thurmont, MD) to Cory Gildersleeve's house in Parkersburg, WV. The next morning the three of them carpooled from Parkersburg to Crane Creek, stopping along the way to bird at the Wilds, a restored strip mine near Zanesville, Ohio. Here's a shot of Rob and Phil birding, taken by Cory.
tn_henslows.jpg (179x180; 31226 bytes) At the Wilds they found and videotaped Grasshopper and Henslow's Sparrows. This is a Henslow's Sparrow that Cory videotaped.

Dan Leach (Bedford, IN) and I (Indianapolis) also arrived on Friday afternoon. Frank Gray, a friend of Bruce Bowman's (Ann Arbor, MI) from the Sacramento, CA, region, drove in from Point Pelee, Ontario.

Saturday morning we were awakened by a thunderstorm a few hours before dawn. The lightning over Lake Erie was spectacular, but we really didn't want the day to be rainy. The closest lightning strikes set off car alarms in the parking lot. I checked the restaurant at 5:30 a.m. -- all dark. While we prepared at the motel for the day ahead, a lone waitress arrived and opened the restaurant. Thus we were able to have a hot breakfast and still arrive at Crane Creek shortly after the gates were opened at 8 a.m. The rain had almost stopped by then.

tn_Dcp_3243.jpg (180x114; 8373 bytes) In the motel parking lot just before leaving for Crane Creek. L-r: Frank Gray, Rob Gibbs, Cory Gildersleeve, Dan Leach, Phil Olsen, Bill Murphy.
tn_Dcp_3244.jpg (180x120; 8962 bytes) This was the scene that greeted us at the parking lot. By midday the crowd was by far the largest I'd seen in the 10 years I'd been visiting Crane Creek. The structure at the far end of the grassy area is a raised platform that offers wooden benches and illustrations of all warbler species likely to be encountered in the area. My first discovery was a Brewster's Warbler in the tree that overhung the platform. Other birds I found and pointed out to others on Saturday were Woodcock, Broad-winged Hawks circling high overhead, and a Peregrine Falcon. It felt good to be back in the birding community again.
tn_Dcp_3245.jpg (180x126; 8659 bytes) A very personable fellow, Tom Bartlett conducts a "Big Sit" at the west entrance to the Crane Creek boardwalk on the second weekend of May each year. For about 12 hours he counts all the species he hears or sees from within a limited distance from his chair. It's incredible how many species he tallies during the day. We helped him out by assisting him to get his binoculars focused on a late Dark-eyed Junco and a Lincoln's Sparrow. During the 1990s I served with Tom on the Ohio Bird Records Committee.
tn_Dcp_3246.jpg (180x120; 9713 bytes) For most visitors, here's where the day's birding begins -- the west entrance to the boardwalk. Birds that have spent time in the woods gradually work toward the northwest corner of the area and concentrate there. The size of the crowd this year was impressive.
tn_Dcp_3247.jpg (180x131; 10796 bytes) Cory awaiting the arrival of another warbler. From the entrance platform Cory had opportunities to videotape such species as Cape May, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, Black-throated Green, and Mourning Warblers at point-blank range. One can find the experience overwhelming. Notice the look of disbelief on Cory's face.
tn_Dcp_3248.jpg (180x132; 9757 bytes) Among the species that Frank and Rob observed within shouting distance of the entrance were American Redstart, Magnolia Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, and Baltimore Oriole from this spot. The most common species were Gray Catbird, American Robin, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Common Grackle, Red-winged Blackbird, and White-throated Sparrow.
tn_Dcp_3249.jpg (180x120; 10456 bytes) Many of the birds were above eye level, which required looking up, often into the sun. As a result, Rob had gotten somewhat sunburned by midday.
tn_Dcp_3250.jpg (180x126; 10310 bytes) Phil, Cory, and Frank at a brushy spot that has been reliable for Mourning Warblers over the years.
tn_Dcp_3251.jpg (180x174; 15438 bytes) As the day warmed, Rob unzipped and removed the bottom half of his trousers. Here he refers to his field guide.
tn_Dcp_3252.jpg (180x147; 12925 bytes) Frank helps other birders locate a Northern Waterthrush. Jon Benedetti, a birding friend of mine from Parkersburg, told me that he'd already seen more Northern Waterthrushes that day than he had seen in his entire life. Frank saw a considerable number of species at Crane Creek that were new for him.
tn_Dcp_3254.jpg (180x120; 10206 bytes) Phil, Cory, Frank, and others study the birds. Two gray-morph Eastern Screech-Owls and two perched Whip-poor-wills were some of the special birds we saw along the boardwalk on Saturday.
tn_Dcp_3256.jpg (180x122; 10794 bytes) As Cory demonstrates here, the word "crane" has more than one meaning at Crane Creek.
tn_Dcp_3257.jpg (180x120; 11365 bytes) Frank, Rob, Phil, and Bill as photographed by Cory, who temporarily forgot the meaning of "horizontal".
tn_Dcp_3258.jpg (180x135; 11344 bytes) Phil and Rob, satiated by the avian glut that parades before them.
tn_Dcp_3261.jpg (180x122; 10718 bytes) Photographers with $12,000 image-stabilized Canon lenses were almost as abundant as Yellow-rumped Warblers. Annoyingly, they often set up shop in the few "pull-offs" on the boardwalk, some of which are the best places to observe the birds. Their tripods sometimes extended onto the walkway, impeding foot traffic, and their multiple strobe flashes undoubtedly affected the birds.
tn_Dcp_3262.jpg (180x120; 11082 bytes) Between last May and this May a tower had been constructed not far from the west entrance. Birders atop the tower could at times see treetop species of birds at eye level.
tn_Dcp_3263.jpg (180x120; 9688 bytes) Dan Leach, Secretary of the Indiana Audubon Society, was one of the birders who enjoyed observing birds from the tower. Dan had led an IAS foray to Crane Creek in May 2002 in which I participated. During that trip Dan and others discovered a Garganey, a teal relative. It was the first of its kind ever to have been sighted in Ohio. Our submission to the Ohio Rare Birds Committee was accepted, and the species was added to the list of birds seen in Ohio. Dan and I had birded the Yucatán together the previous October and will be birding Trinidad and Tobago together next October. This year he became one of our Crane Creek gang.
tn_Dcp_3265.jpg (180x155; 13248 bytes) Phil and Rob take a break for lunch. A local charity sold hot dogs, chips, and soda in the parking lot. Prices were great - $1 for a hot dog, 75¢ for a can of soda, and 50¢ for chips. Phil, Cory, and I get our caffeine from coffee. Rob, on the other hand, dislikes coffee and gets his caffeine kick from Mountain Dew, which has twice the caffeine as coffee!
tn_Dcp_3266.jpg (180x120; 6708 bytes) Having enjoyed lunch, Dan and Cory consider their next move. An incredible number of birders visited Crane Creek that day. Cars were parked from one end of the lot to the other. Only a few short years ago, sometimes I would find only 30 cars there on a good day.
tn_Dcp_3267.jpg (180x155; 8162 bytes) After lunch it started to drizzle. Rain gear makes a person hot and sweaty when the weather is warm, and the weather was warm. Here Phil and Rob display the proper use of umbrellas for warm-weather birding. The large number of Bank and Tree Swallows along Lake Erie was impressive.
tn_Dcp_3268.jpg (180x133; 10733 bytes) I sometimes like to bird at one spot for a long time, hardly moving. By so doing I was able to find a rarity, an Orange-crowned Warbler, feeding with Nashville Warblers in the tops of three young willows. Later, when the group rejoined, I took them to the spot. After a wait of perhaps 20 minutes, the warbler returned. Here are Phil and Rob awaiting its return.
tn_Dcp_3269.jpg (180x128; 10552 bytes) Palm Warblers were abundant, foraging everywhere from the treetops to the forest floor and on the beach. Rob and Phil study Palm Warblers, White-crowned Sparrows, and Lincoln's Sparrows at the west end of the parking lot.
tn_Dcp_3270.jpg (180x133; 10840 bytes) Cory at the "dump," still awaiting the Orange-crowned Warbler's return.
tn_Dcp_3271.jpg (180x123; 10639 bytes) During the afternoon we hooked up with Bruce Bowman and his brother, Gary, and sister-in-law, Lisa, (Vincennes, IN). As an indication of how busy the boardwalk was that day, they had been there all day and we hadn't run into each other. Here are Bruce, Gary, Lisa, and Cory. Although it took some time and patience, everyone got to see the Orange-crowned Warbler in the same tree where I had originally located it.
tn_Dcp_3272.jpg (180x135; 11782 bytes) Frank, Bruce, Gary, Lisa, and Rob.
tn_Dcp_3273.jpg (180x122; 11005 bytes) Dan the Solitary was enjoying birding alone, so this was the best group shot we could get that afternoon. Front row: Gary and Lisa. Back row l-r: Frank, Cory, Phil, Bill, and Bruce. Around dusk we decided to head to Toledo to a Hungarian restaurant named Tony Packo's, which was made famous by Klinger in M*A*S*H. Klinger was from Toledo and often mentioned Tony Packo's. I followed Phil's van about one-third of the way there before I realized that Dan wasn't in either vehicle. After talking it over with Phil and his group, Frank and I headed back to Crane Creek, where we found Dan in short order. Then off to Tony Packo's and a luscious dinner of chicken paprikas over tiny dumplings.
tn_Dcp_3274.jpg (180x117; 6825 bytes) Saturday dawned rainy again. Rather than take a chance at the motel restaurant, Phil drove Cory and me to the closest McDonald's, in Oregon, Ohio. Nothing's as good as hot McDonald's coffee, as long as you remember not to spill it in your lap. Back at the motel, we checked out and headed for Crane Creek again. I took a leisurely route, searching the plowed fields for Dunlin, which I found. Here's the kind of vista that lay before us that morning. Lots of Horned Larks but little else in the fields. The sky looked threatening.
tn_Dcp_3276.jpg (180x120; 5089 bytes) Hoping for Yellow-headed Blackbird I made a side trip to Metzger Marsh, an extensive cattail marsh with a tiny grove of trees at the lake shore. Sometimes that grove teems with birds, but today it held only about 10 species of warblers. Within minutes of my arrival the skies opened up. Here's what the world looked like to me at Metzger Marsh through my car window.
tn_Dcp_3278.jpg (180x132; 7199 bytes) Lack of sleep and a surfeit of food produced this bleary, bloated look as I left Metzger Marsh. After the tempest, isolated spots of blue began appearing in the sky. To the west, Indiana had received more than two inches of rain, and tornadoes had touched down all across the Midwest. All we got in Ohio was rain and steady high winds.
tn_Dcp_3279.jpg (180x116; 4371 bytes) What a dramatic sky dominated the horizon for the next hour. This is how it looked where I was.
tn_Dcp_3280.jpg (180x118; 4166 bytes) Along the way I visited the restored prairie along Krause Road, a dependable spot for Upland Sandpiper, Bobolink, and Grasshopper Sparrow. I saw the former two species and heard the latter. In fact, an Upland Sandpiper flew across the road in front of my car before I even turned onto Krause Road. How obliging! The clouds were definitely beginning to break up.
tn_Dcp_3281.jpg (180x120; 5667 bytes) The crowds at Crane Creek were a far cry from what they had been the day before. The wind and rain had kept most birders snug in their motels. The wind was picking up by the minute.. The sky was clearing, and as it did so, the temperature dropped almost 20°.
tn_Dcp_3282.jpg (180x118; 8808 bytes) A long line of mature Cottonwoods guard the shoreline of the park. These trees were excellent places to scan for Warbling Vireo and Baltimore Oriole. Although we had seen flocks of up to six Red-headed Woodpeckers in the trees in previous years, we saw none this year.
tn_Dcp_3283.jpg (180x136; 11957 bytes) Hardly anyone was up and about at 8 a.m. It was easy to find a place on the platform from which to bird. The tree that overhung the platform was being scoured by a dazzling male Cape May warbler. Two other warblers, a Chestnut-sided and a Bay-breasted, returned again and again to forage in the foliage. Each time, the Cape May chased them away. Three different Mourning Warblers made their appearance within a few yards of the platform. There were too many species around for me to list here, but eventually almost all the warbler species we'd seen the day before had made an appearance. The three that generated the most excitement were Mourning, Cerulean, and Yellow-throated, all at or a little above eye level. The temperatures had dropped quite a lot since dawn. Here are Cory, Rob, and Frank trying to back up far enough to focus their binoculars on "in-your-face" warblers.
tn_blackwhite.jpg (180x126; 21590 bytes) This is a male Black-and-white Warbler that Cory videotaped.
tn_Dcp_3284.jpg (180x125; 11716 bytes) Here is the type of habitat that Mourning Warblers preferred. Also seen skulking in such places were Common Yellowthroat, Swainson's and Hermit Thrushes, Lincoln's Sparrow, and Carolina and House Wrens.
tn_Dcp_3285.jpg (180x149; 13504 bytes) I love the look of bliss on Phil's face in this shot as he savors a peanut butter cracker. Here are Phil, Bruce, and Cory among fellow Mourning Warbler seekers. One Mourning Warbler ventured out into the grass only a few yards from the nearest birder. Another one did the same thing closer to the platform but was chased off by an inconsiderate photographer who kept moving closer and closer until the bird flew away. During one such scene, Cory finally said, "You with the camera -- back off!" I think that most of the birders felt the same way -- "Back off, all of you photographers who feel that you need to shove your lens in the birds' faces! Your expensive lens does NOT exempt you from the rules of birding etiquette!"
tn_Dcp_3286.jpg (180x131; 9760 bytes) The strong winds blew away all the clouds, blessing us with a crystalline sapphire sky. Almost all of the birds wound up on the north face of the woods, leeward of the wind. It hardly made sense to leave the entrance area because the birding was so good. It's wonderful to have so many birds to look at that your arms get tired from unbroken stretches of time during which you don't lower your binoculars.
tn_Dcp_3287.jpg (180x120; 11150 bytes) Just for the heck of it I braved the wind and climbed the tower. I was the only one there, the only one lacking common sense. No birds were flying -- no Canada Geese, Ring-billed or Herring Gulls, or Double-crested Cormorants like the day before. The brilliant sunlight was intense and contrasty, not conducive to photography, as demonstrated in this shot.
tn_Dcp_3289.jpg (180x118; 8423 bytes) From the tower I could watch willows and poplars bending almost 45° as gusts of wind tore branches away. Just beyond the levee was one of the impoundments of the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge.
tn_Dcp_3290.jpg (180x120; 8510 bytes) More willows bending in the wind. Birding was out of the question in the open. There was no way to hold binoculars steady. I had to lean into the wind to keep from being blown backwards. Fun!
tn_Dcp_3291.jpg (180x120; 11547 bytes) One last lap around the boardwalk produced little but fallen twigs and leaves. The birds were resting or staying sheltered from the wind. As in this shot, pull-outs formerly claimed by photographers were once again the realm of the tranquil observer.
tn_Dcp_3292.jpg (180x120; 11117 bytes) Having the major portion of the boardwalk almost to myself was a contrast to the previous day.
tn_Dcp_3293.jpg (180x128; 12495 bytes) Except at the west entrance, that is. Here's a reddened Rob, distancing himself from the crowd at the platform.
tn_Dcp_3294.jpg (180x117; 11667 bytes) One of the more considerate photographers takes his place in a reasonable spot, allowing seniors and children a chance to see the gems of the bird world.
tn_Dcp_3295.jpg (180x102; 8222 bytes) So it went through the afternoon, birders combing the woods and wood-edge and photographers vying for choice spots to set up. Some of us used the time to check out the stunted trees at the extreme northwestern corner of the park. The bushes there held Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a Blackpoll and a dozen other warblers, and many other species. A Golden-winged Warbler that had been seen earlier eluded us. Author and tour leader Jon Dunn came along. I told him about the Orange-crowned Warbler and described the location where it had been seen. Luck wasn't with him, however; the willows in which it had been foraging were being tossed about by the strong wind, and no birds were anywhere to be seen in that pocket of the park.
tn_Dcp_3296.jpg (180x134; 8958 bytes) Here is one happy guy. After two nights of scant sleep and exceptionally early mornings, Rob found a pleasant, comfortable place to stretch out and relax.

We all agreed that the weekend had been one of the best we'd ever experienced at Crane Creek.
tn_Dcp_3297.jpg (180x110; 10045 bytes) One final gathering of the Old Guard before we dispersed to our home states. Until we meet again, happy trails and good birding!

Next year at Crane Creek --our 10th annual reunion!