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OAK HARBOR, Ohio — The Biggest Week in American Birding was nearing its conclusion over the weekend, and the 50,000 some participants from across the globe who took part were ready for a collective fist pump and a communal high-five to celebrate a remarkable experience.
Then Elvis showed up.
The rare Kirtland's warbler, which had teetered on the brink of extinction in the latter half of the 20th century, was sighted in the marsh areas along Lake Erie as the marathon birding extravaganza went though its final hours. Three individual Kirtland's were identified and hundreds of birdwatchers got to observe them from the boardwalks and trails of the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge and Magee Marsh Wildlife Area.
The Kirtland's appearance on International Migratory Bird Day slapped a crescendo on the event, according to Kim Kaufman, executive director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory and one of the primary organizers of the birding confab.
"Everything about this festival has conservation implications, and when three birds from the most endangered species of warblers on the planet show up and huge numbers of people get to see them, it is a little overwhelming," she said. "It was just a nice addition to what was already a spectacular experience for everyone involved."
Kaufman said the feedback from the participants in the 10-day celebration of the region's magnet-like ability to attract migratory birds has been uniformly positive.
"There was a tremendous collaboration of private businesses, government agencies, volunteers, and many individuals that partnered to make this happen. And it exceeded all of our expectations," she said. "And we've sent a lot of people home from Northwest Ohio with a great impression of our area."
The birds showed up in numbers and the weather was generally very favorable throughout the event, but the appearance of the Kirtland's was never a certainty. The tiny warbler winters in the Bahamas and then returns to its unique nesting areas in the jack-pine forests of Michigan each spring. Habitat destruction nearly led to its demise, but the numbers of Kirtland's are slowly showing improvement.
Kaufman said that despite the spectacle of having Kirtland's warblers sighted during the event, she sees the expansion of the birding community as the festival's most significant accomplishment.
"So many local people were inspired to come out and try birding for the first time, and that is vital to the work we are doing here," she said. "We have to make that connection to protect these areas, and to expand the habitat available for these birds. It is so affirming to us to see this all take place right here."
As part of a plan that in no way is intended to overwork the color-interpreting cones of the human eye, Blue Weekend 2012 is coming, as part of the Green Ribbon Initiative of the Oak Openings Region.
Blue Weekend is a hiking, biking, educational, and entertainment package of activities intended to create widespread awareness of the Oak Openings area, and to get more individuals involved in the protection and expansion of the ecologically unique locale. The events run Thursday through Sunday at a wide range of sites in Ohio and Michigan.
"We hope this gives people an opportunity to learn more about Oak Openings, experience some of its wonders, and maybe take an interest in the preservation side of things," said Erika Buri, conservation manager for The Olander Park System (TOPS).
"Once there is an increased awareness of the nature around us and its value, we think an appreciation for these things follows, and hopefully future decisions are made with the protection of this valuable area in mind."
Blue Weekend gets the tint in its title from two of the stars of the region — the wild blue lupine, a native flower, and from the endangered Karner Blue butterfly. The two have an intrinsic connection.
Wild blue lupine needs the sandy soil of the Oak Openings region to grow, and the Karner Blue butterflies need the lupine to survive. The lupine is the sole host plant for the butterfly, since the Karner Blue larvae eat only lupine leaves.
The guided hikes that are part of Blue Weekend will focus on identifying and observing some of the wildflowers, butterflies, birds, bats, and geology of the Oak Openings area. There will also be conservation demonstrations, live music, a bike tour, and a native plant sale.
The Oak Openings Region is a rare ecosystem that consists of sandy savannas that are home to native oak trees and grassland prairies, and a wide variety of rare and unusual plants and wildlife. The Nature Conservancy has dubbed it "One of America's Last Great Places."
The Blue Weekend is sponsored by TOPS, The Nature Conservancy, ODNR, The Oak Openings Region Conservancy, Metroparks, and the Green Ribbon Initiative of the Oak Openings Region.
"This is a lot of groups and many people coming together to showcase the entire region," Buri said. "There's so much here to enjoy, and we hope to open a few eyes to the real beauty of Oak Openings."
A schedule with highlights of the Blue Weekend events can be found at toledoblade.com on The Blade Outdoors blog.
-Coming Friday: True blue tilapia are the warriors in battle with pond algae.
-Coming Sunday: A comprehensive look at the spring fishing season and the outlook for the summer.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6068.