Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Holy Grail of Ohio Rails

Birds in the family Rallidae, or rails, are notoriously secretive. They live and breed in wetlands, a habitat which is difficult to bird.  Scientists and hunters who frequent the marshes during fall migration tell me they are numerous.  So why are they so hard for birders to see?

King Rail at Glacier Ridge, photo by Bruce Miller.
Birders are willing to travel many miles and stand for hours for an opportunity to see a King Rail in Ohio.  Are King Rails that rare, or are they just difficult for the novice to find?  Since rails are generally limited to wetlands, and Ohio has lost 90-93% of our wetlands, would it be surprising if rail populations are also limited?

BSBO's Mark Shieldcastle with King and Virginia Rails in hand.
 Photo by Hugh Rose.
The best way for a birder to see more rails, is to support the scientific endeavors to study them. Black Swamp Bird Observatory has been conducting studies on rails in the Lake Erie Marsh for many years.  Biologist Mark Shieldcastle will be telling the story of BSBO's study during the Fall "Rally for Rails" being held in Lakeside.

King Rail outfitted with transponder. Photo courtesy of Winous Point.

 A very large King Rail study has been going on at Winous Point Marsh Conservancy.  Transmitters have been attached to King Rails to help scientists better understand their migratory movements, life history- and possibly shed light on the sheer numbers of their population.

This Virginia Rail was a re-capture, already outfitted with a transmitter.
 The Soras and Virginia Rails are outfitted with a much less expensive transmitter that helps to track their localized movements within the marsh.  This helps the team understand preferred habitats and life history while present in Ohio's marshes.

John Simpson examines a recently captured Sora.
 These scientists at Winous Point take their jobs very seriously.  The birds are treated with the utmost care while being weighed, measured and fitted with tracking devices. Good information is reliant upon healthy and normally functioning birds.  The primary goal is to gather information with the least disturbance to the population.

A closer look at the Sora.
 Soras are one of Ohio's more abundant rails.  Other better known Rallidae, or at least one more frequently seen by birders, are coots and gallinules.  Because King and Virginia Rails are difficult to monitor visually, the tracking devices are providing needed information about those populations.

Oliver Cornet and Brendan Shirkey gently fit a harness on the Sora.
 The transmitters are attached to a harness, much like a micro-backpack.  The biologists gently work the harness onto the bird and double check to assure the bird's wing movement is not restricted.  The bird's feathers settle back around the harness.  The actions and walking gait of a recently "harnessed" bird appear normal and unencumbered.

Brendan adjusts the harness for comfort.
Brendan Shirkey will be sharing more details about the work of Winous Point and the Marsh Conservancy at the Ohio Ornithological Society's "Rally for Rails."  It will be held in conjunction with our fall Annual Meeting in Lakeside, Ohio.  Registration is now on line at

Special funds generated by this program for the conservation and study of rails will be directly applied to programs designed to conserve these wonderfully secretive birds.

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Point of Conservation.

They call it Winous.  Winous Point.

It may well be the best kept secret in Ottawa County.  It had its origins as a shooting club in 1856. That makes it the oldest continuously operating hunt club in America. Impressive, to be sure, but it may seem an odd place for a Weedpicker and her fellow conservation enthusiasts to visit.

The main Clubhouse at Winous Point,
complete with Canada Goose weather-vane.
Winous Point Shooting Club is a repository of history of hunting. Through limited use, it protected the shores from development along the Sandusky Bay near the Sandusky River and Muddy creek. Winous Point conserves about 5,000 acres of wetlands and shorelines, providing some of the last remaining places for the massive water fowl and shorebirds migrations, as well as year round habitat for all forms of wildlife.

Historically, Winous Point is a Shooting Club, but in 1999 the Winous Point Marsh Conservancy was formed to study the marsh and the inhabitants therein. We will particularly focus on their on-going rail study. 

Rail habitat- is the edge habitat. 
Winous Point is key to the educational experience Flora-Quest and the Ohio Ornithological Society have planned for birders and plant lovers this fall. Several members of our OOS Conservation Committee visited the Winous Point conservancy experts to see their rail study in action. We ventured out to the sedge meadows and edge habitats where lures were set to attract these secretive birds.

Oliver Cornet discusses the plant life at Winous Point.

One of our guides for the morning, Oliver Cornet, specializes in the management of invasive plants. It was fascinating to learn more about the efforts to improve vegetation and create viable habitats for various shorebirds birds, rails and waterfowl. 

Brendan Shirkey demonstrates the rail trap.
 Brendan Shirkey will be one of our guest speakers at the OOS Rally for Rails in October 1 and 2nd.  You will not want to miss the details of their humane live trapping and data tracking of Ohio's most secretive birds.  We are just starting to peek into the lives of these marsh inhabitants, and the Winous Point study (partially funded by Ohio Division of Wildlife) is providing much of the critical data.

Brendan retrieves a Virginia rail unharmed.
 The third trap of the day held a surprise: a Virginia rail which was already outfitted with a radio transmitter!  This bird was a recapture.  Brendan returns to the awaiting trucks with the unharmed bird.
Virginia rail seeking companionship.
As Brendan said, "This guy must be looking for love in all the wrong places."

After the rail was gently bagged we returned to the station to take its general health updates for the study.  We learned this bird has been found in the trap three times! After gathering their data, the birds are returned back to the area in which they were originally found.  Apparently, the experience must not be too traumatic or this Virginia rail would have likely avoided the trap the second time.

- To be continued.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Wetlands at work.

If you love plants, birds and mammals  -biodiversity in general-  you should seek out wetlands. Often called the "cradle of biodiversity," these places are crawling with life!

One of Ottawa N.W. R. newer projects
 A few years back, during the Midwest Birding Symposium held in Lakeside, Ohio, we collected donations for Carbon Offset Birding Project.  The Ohio Ornithological Society also kicked in funds to seed some efforts on a wetland restoration in Ottawa county. This previously wet county was part of the Great Black Swamp. It had been mostly drained for farming, but now a few of those fields are being re-purposed back in to wetlands for wildlife.
Dottie McDowell enjoys the boardwalk and viewing platform.
 The area was enhanced with a viewing platform and parking area, as well as native plantings- both forbs and trees.

This reconstructed wetlands is attracting loads of migratory birds this spring.  It has been educational to watch the tranformation from corn field to natural looking wildlife habitat in just a few short years.

Mystery plant!
Certainly of the  Ranunculus family.
The mystery plant has been solved!  Check the comment below- by Helen.  It certainly is in the buttercup family, and commonly called Cursed Buttercup or Cursed Crowsfoot, Ranunculus sceleratus.  It is reported to cause blistering - especially in the mouth- when eaten by mammals. Hence the "cursed" part. BUt then again, most of the buttercups are rather toxic when eaten.

This is exactly why Flora-Quest 2016 is undertaking wetland plants as the topic for 2016.  Too often we learn the Spring ephemerals and never learn about the amazing botany driving the wetlands in Ohio!  Time to broaden your plant horizons.  Sign up now, as quests are filling!

Just a few of the birds being sighted here!
Wetland birds and mammals need wetlands.  Ohio has lost over 90% of our wetlands to development and agriculture.  Our federal dollars and the massive work of conservation minded hunters has protected the few significant wetland remaining in Ohio.  If you have not yet visited Ohio's Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, sign up for the Flora-Quest which offers a bus ride to normally off-limit sectors.

Working together for conservation.
Conservation leaders in Ohio, like Friends of Ottawa, Black Swamp Bird Observatory, Ohio Ornithological Society and Toledo Naturalist Association all pitched in for this project.  Flora-Quest is partnering with many of these organizations for our fall workshop in Lakeside. We want to help people understand some of the major plant players in these exciting and dynamic wetlands.  So go ahead, dive in and join us on Sept. 30, 2016.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A Birder's Life for Me.

Fresh off a natural high from the Biggest Week in American Birding, here is an effort to encapsulate a week-plus of birding.  A special thanks to Rob Ripma and Lester Peyton for allowing me to drive and guide birders on behalf of B.S.B.O. 

Blackburnian Warbler. 
Once you have seen this bird, you are hopelessly hooked.
There are a hundred reasons to love this event!  We meet the neatest people and go to the best birding locations. Sure, you may hear how crowded the boardwalk at Magee Marsh is getting, but we take folks away from the boardwalk at Magee.  We know twenty other cool places to bird, and many of them have incredible warblers like this Blackburnian warbler!  In fact, many of our locations are private areas and you only get in to see them with a Biggest Week Tour.

Bird-in-your-hand birding. Crazy stuff!!!
Photo provided by Julia Plummer.
Take this location for example:The Arnold property.  We had a lovely time birding around the diked wetland, often seeing Wood Ducks and warblers.  The Yellows and Common Yellowthroats were everywhere! Can you imaging be tired of warblers?!

Then, in swoops  Scruffy the Black-capped Chickadee. The property owners, Robin and Gena, have the little guy trained to take seeds from hand.  Imagine how exited folks from California were to see this! Black-capped Chickadees were a life bird for them one day, and the next day we are posing with a chickadee perched on our hand!  Mind. Blown.

American Redstart at Pipe Creek Wildlife Area
We visit other locations, which are well-known and well-loved.  Pipe Creek Wildlife Area in Sandusky, Ohio has a long history of providing rarities.  The warblers were dripping off the trees the morning we birded at Pipe Creek!   Our guide, Tim, also has a knack for working the Soras! Good birding doesn't only happen at Magee.
The Erie County trip with Tim Jasinski  (far right.)
Meeting people, learning from other guides, enjoying the great outdoors, oh yeah, and birds.  Every day was different, every trip was wonderful!   And when the birding was slow, patrons were likely to get introduced to some local plants! 

New friends from New Mexico: 
Roberta Winchester (almost my twin!) and Linda Rockwell.
Much of the Biggest Week is about seeing friends, old and new.  My long time friends Hugh Rose and Judy Kolo-Rose put me up (and put up with me) for the whole week!  They should get extra hugs from everyone in the birding community that knows them.  They have also been sharing their knowledge and teaching others about birds for many years as well!  We birders love to share.

It is also about sharing our love of Ohio's special places with travelers.  I couldn't wait to get my friends from New Mexico on some gorgeous birds at Sheldon Marsh State Nature Preserve in Huron, Ohio. One can hardly believe that few minutes after I took this shot, it started to snow in mid-May! Agh, Mother Nature, give us a break.

Red-headed Woodpecker
It is not all about warblers.  This Red-headed Woodpecker (a non-migrant) made a huge impression as well. Even common-to-us birds, like Blue Jays are often a life bird to the visitors from the west coast. All of these birds are exciting and a part of our bigger ecosystem 

Whether you are a new birder or some jaded, old life-lister, the Biggest Week had something for everybody: Curlew Sandpiper, Whip-poor-wil in your face, Kirtland's Warbler! 

The Biggest Week in American Birding: Come for the birds,  stay for the love.    

Hi-diddle-dee-dee. It is a birder's life for me!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Our Public Land: Shawnee Forest

Each year a rush of naturalists head to Shawnee State Park and Forest in Southern Ohio.  It is the first blush of spring, in a magical land of forest and flowers. It was the home base of Flora-Quest for many years.
Pinxter Azalea, Rhododendron periclymenoides 
You'll notice a sweet smell.  Shawnee is home to the fragrant Pinxter Azalea, a southern specialty.  Look along the steep road-side embankments where they cling for dear life.

Squawroot, Conopholis americana
 Look along the base of Oak trees for the parasitic Squawroot, some times called Cancer-root.  Its sickly-white color attests to its lack of  green-pigment or chlorophyll. 

Yellow-breasted Chat

 Listen to wood song.  This Yellow-breasted Chat performed his entire repertoire in rapid fire. He would have been a welcomed sight for any of the birders on the recent OOS field trips which filled the lodge.

Black Huckleberry, Gaylussacia baccata
Even the simplest of under-story shrubs has a story to tell.  This is where the Newcomb's Wildflower Guides come out, and we note each detail of the low-woodland shrubs.  The berries to come will provide sustenance for forest foragers.

Trumpet Honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens
 Look closer at the seemingly common vines.  This is Trumpet Honeysuckle a rarity to Ohio.  It is spreading along a forest opening created by an ice storm eleven years ago.  The first time I ever visited Shawnee was on a trip to document this rare plant!

Native pollinator on the Wood Betany
We forget the abundant pollinators in a forest.  As Ohio and the nation ramps up our efforts to protect habitat for native pollinators, we destroy the habitat we already own!  This forest is a buzz with pollinating bees, bumblebees, bee-flys, wasps and butterflies.  It is not just the forest flowers- trees provide pollen, too! 

Showy Orchis, Galearis spectabilis 
 Orchis are orchids, and they grow along the road. Look closely or you will miss this beauty! Good photos must be taken from a prone position.

Woodland flowers: Crested Iris and Wild Geranium 
 Shawnee park and forest are a reservoir of wildlife, both flora and fauna.  Bird song and insect hum fill the air.  Ohioans from far and wide travel to this far off corner of the state to revel in nature.  No one looks up and wonders how many board-feet of lumber this forest would make.  How much pulp wood can we send to China from our tiny 3% of Ohio's public lands?

Where have all the flowers gone?
We should ask ourselves, "Is this the way we want our lands managed?"  Do we need clear-cuts, logging roads and habitat destruction in our public forests?  This is not the way Ohio managed our public lands ten years ago.  Have we become so needy- or greedy- that we must sell off the last of our woods?

Why are we spring-mowing?
 More grass, fewer flowers.  Ecologists note the loss of flowering forbs in constantly mowed areas.  We are losing our forest flowers to grass maintenance. Certainly, road edges need to be cut in the fall to manage for woody sucessionals.  But deep mowing can wait- the birds and bees need the nectar and insects the flowers bring. Let's go back to the days of a two-foot clearance mow on the edge of the forest, and leave something for the bees... and me.