In my role as The Urban Birder, I have been lucky enough to have visited countless locations around the globe and have had a brilliant time doing what I love most – watching birds. During May this year, I was honoured to have been invited to America to be a Keynote Speaker at a series of birding festivals including the world famous Biggest Week in American Birding in Ohio. My journey was essentially around eastern United States and also included stops at Cleveland in Ohio, Atlanta, Georgia and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and a couple of sites in coastal Delaware and New Jersey. I went birding with many great people and saw some fabulous species including sneaky views of Cooper’s Hawks, watching the curious-looking Black Skimmers with their strange beaks and had crippling views of gorgeous Lark Sparrows; a very shy and retiring bird which was also a new species for me.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of my near month-long trip was my visit to Presque Isle, Erie, Pennsylvania. Now, Presque Isle was somewhere I had never previously even heard off. Situated on the southern shores of the mighty Lake Erie, Presque Isle State Park, to give the area its full name, is an arching sandy peninsula that juts into Lake Eire. It lies 6km west of Erie, a small city that itself is a great place for urban birding. It is there that I enjoyed hours of watching visible migration atop a tall building as well as raptor watching sitting on camping chairs in a disused car park alongside a busy road. Real urban birding!
But it was the 34km of both wet and dry woodlands, beach and wetland trails on Presque Isle that really captivated me. I was visiting during the Presque Isle Audubon’s Festival of Birds so the area was coated with fellow birders all looking for the newly arrived migrants on their way north to their breeding grounds in Canada. Before long, I was knee deep in warblers. There were plentiful Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Bay-breasted, Magnolia and Black-and-white Warblers to gawp at. Coming from Europe and, despite being a regular visitor to the Americas, I still can never get used to the profusion of colour that these warblers display. Amongst them were equally gaudy Scarlet Tanagers, Eastern Bluebirds, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles. I soon found myself visiting every day during my week-long stay in the vain hope of finding a regional rarity. Such is how my mind works. It always amazes me as to how my North American birder friends are so good at hearing birds. I would hang out with them and look at them in disbelief as they called out unseen birds, that I could not hear, as they distantly called from the within the thick foliage. Over the days I began to tune into some of the sounds and realised that birds like Wood Thrush, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Red-eyed Vireo and Least Flycatchers were actually calling all around me. I was particularly excited to get close up views of Philadelphia Vireos, a bird that I originally saw as a wayward vagrant in the late 80s on the Isles of Scilly, off the western edge of Cornwall, England. Back then, I was standing in a posse of around 900 babbling twitchers asking myself, what the hell was I doing there!
It is when I am birding in open vistas, especially when there are wetlands and shorelines to examine, that I feel on an equal footing with my American colleagues. Although Presque Isle is also heavily visited by members of the public for general beachgoing, fishing, hiking and boating, incredibly there is still some space for wildlife to persist. My favourite area in the state park to visit was Gull Point at the eastern end of the peninsula. It was a bit of a tough walk through soft sand and scratchy bushes to get near to the end of the spit of land that looks back at the nearby mainland and the mini-metropolis that is Erie. It is on this tip of Presque Isle where its speciality bird nests: the globally threatened Piping Plover. One or two pairs of this enchanting little plover have recently chosen to nest on the dunes after 60 years of absence. Their breeding area is cordoned off and the birds themselves watched over and protected by eagle-eyed volunteers. I have always dreamed of seeing this bird. So, forget the large flocks of migrating Blue Jays overhead, the groups of feeding Short-billed Dowitchers, the hunting Peregrine, Merlin and Northern Harrier that were around whilst I was enjoying the plovers. Even the totally unexpected Wilson’s Phalarope that visited a nearby pool for just a few moments wasn’t a patch on my Piping Plovers. The moment I clapped eyes on a pair feeding along the beach, these endearing plovers automatically became the birds of my trip to America. Presque Isle State Park rocks!
Special thanks to Presque Isle Audubon Society, Mary Birdsong, Jennifer Ferrick, Jaimie Miller et al