Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Preparing for Visitors

Seasons greetings from Mid-Ohio, the land of corn and beans. Most of the habitat in my neighborhood is suitable for Horned Larks and the occasional American Kestrel on the wire.
Currently we have visitors from the north, and I don't mean Santa and his gang. Thanks to two of my conservation inspired neighbors, we have Northern Harriers, Short-eared Owls and the occasional Rough-legged Hawk within 2 miles of my house. No wonder I can't get any preparations made for the relatives that will soon be arriving: there are "Roughies" to watch!

Rough-legged Hawk- the tree topper.

My friend Janet Creamer, naturalist in Indianapolis, once laid out an interesting observation for me. When you see hawks perched at 4:00 and 8:00 in tree- look for Red-shouldered hawk. If the bird is in the 10:00 or 2:00 position, you probably have a Red-Tail Hawk. And if the bird is perched high atop (especially on thin looking branches) look close for that possible Rough-legged Hawk.
There are exceptions, as with any rule, but you might be surprised how often this observation pans out.

My poor photos don't do this bird justice, but its coloring is spectacular. These winter visitors from the arctic tundra compare size-wise to our local Red-tailed Hawks. The Rough-leggeds have slightly longer wings, and yet they weigh a bit less than our locals. These birds are experts at "kiting" effortlessly in the wind and one can nearly imagine a string attached to them as they hover over fields.

Photo by Greg Cornett
My friends Greg and Leslie popped up to see this bird, and captured a few more shots - of much better quality.

Photo by Greg Cornett

And a special thanks to my neighbor with the "Pheasants Forever" field. I suspect he can take a good bit of the credit for this bird hanging around the neighborhood. Although it is only a 2 acres patch, I have seen the Hawk working it faithfully.
Maybe we can explore some of the botany he has, and why it may be so attractive to this bird. There is also a larger successional field growing nearby, and the combination of these two fellow's efforts is really paying off big time, at least for me!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Mansfield's CBC

Christmas Bird Counts provide a great reason to bird watch, rather than Christmas shop. Enough said, I would far rather endure 17 degree temps on an early morning than endure that pack of wild animals hanging out at Walmart and the mall.
My Richland County territory is a mixed bag of industrialized city (250 Rock Pigeons), the OSU Mansfield Branch Campus (Wild Turkeys and Ring-necked Pheasant), and a wet woodland/ residential area generally good for at least one Red-shoulder Hawk.
...........................Photo by Dave Lewis
But two species account for the majority of my sightings. It is not unusual to find me circling the ball-fields across the street from MANCI (Mansfield Correctional Institution) counting the 700 plus Canada Geese grazing there- in hopes of a rare Snow Goose or something interesting.

The something interesting this year, was a coyote- (photo "borrowed" from the internet) who was also counting those birds. As he edged along the far end of a grassy field, he created ripples of nervous tension in the flock resting on a frozen water hole. As he crept along, the geese peeled out 20-25 at a time. As they continued to take wing in small groups, it provided a excellent opportunity to inspect each mini-flock for unusual birds and allow for easier counting.

The birds quickly added up to over seven hundred Canada Geese- and Mr. Coyote seemed to think I could certainly spare just one! I doubt that a coyote would try to take on a Canada Goose, unless is was very old or in a weakened condition and left behind from the flock. From what I have seen of geese, several adults make a formidable foe, one this furry fellow best avoid.


American Crows- the Mansfield evening roost holds thousands upon thousands now. Early morning and late afternoon an endless stream of crows fly in and out of the city on their daily peregrinations. There is protection and warmth in numbers as they huddle together at night in winter-flocks within the city. In the mornings they disburse like rays of sunshine erupting from the city. Well, most folks would equate them with plumes of smoke, but these intelligent birds are endlessly fascinating to watch and to listen to their calls of encouragement within their family units.
A bit of historic scenery from my end of the Mansfield CBC, the old Mansfield Reformatory. Built at the turn of the century, it first provided housing and a hope of reformation for young men. The grounds were dotted with tree lawns and a lovely pond provided an excellent picnic spot for the locals. Follow the link to learn more about its history, and the tours available at this trendy tourist hot-spot.
Once again, I encourage you to take part in your local Christmas Bird Count. It is an excellent way to volunteer -and to use your birding skills. Many of my Audubon friends help with this amazing nationwide wide count which provides valuable scientific data provided by "Citizen Scientists."
A CBC makes you feel good about spending a day with the birds. Besides, the crows and I enjoy scenery.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Lakefront on the News

The Cleveland lakefront may not be your number one spot for winter sight-seeing, but somehow, it has an irresistible pull- especially for Lariphiles.

And since I was a scant 5 minutes away from 55th St. today, I could not resist stopping by to see the lake, the gulls, the ice, and luckily- one of my favorite Lariphiles (bird watcher who is fixated on larids/gulls.)

Who other than Jen Brumfield- birder renown and guide for Local Patch Birding and Tropical Birding would be scanning the waters in search of some rarity? Slaty-backed Gull anyone? Sorry, not today.
Although the number of gulls was down a bit, the light was particularly good for sorting the those difficult-to-ID "shad snatchers" and we had numerous Great Black-backed Gulls.
Unfortunately, I had promised only to "look at the ice a bit," but you know I simply had to get out the the car and gawk at just a few of the 2-thousand-plus gulls flying by on this brisk morning.

The lake had decorated the shoreline and all of its trees with a translucent icing. It has a breath-taking quality to it- or maybe that was the 17 degree temps and wind that made it difficult to breath?
Either way, Cleveland got a bit of good press on a national scale today when Al Roker from the MSN-TV Today Show commented about our lighthouse which was also "Erie"ily encased in ice. Go right here* to watch the video.
* If that video link doesn't work- now you can see it on BBC The video has gone viral!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ohio Winter Birding

Winter is a slow time for botany, but it offers a few speciality birds for folks interested in wildlife.

I have to thank many of my local Audubon friends for giving me the birding "bug" about 6 years ago. What started as an opportunity to do springtime walks to look at wildflowers has blossomed into a life-style habit that has enriched my life immensely. And the Christmas Bird Counts is an event I look forward to each year.

Winter birding is a great way to connect with nature, and much of it can be done without ever leaving the car! Consider counting birds for your Local Audubon's Christmas Bird Count. Whether you count the birds at your feeder, or spend the day going further a field, all records go into the data base and adds to over 100 years of bird censuses in America.

A complete listing of Ohio's CBCs can be found at the OOS website.

One of our most exciting "winter birds" is the Short-eared Owl. I took this photo at Killdeer Plains a few years back, and it is always a thrill to watch Short-eared owl as they work a field in search of mice or voles.
I hope to spot a few north of Mansfield on my annual CBC count. Finding the right habitat- old field growth, not too high, not too thick- is the key to locating these crepuscular fliers. They are most often found dawn or dusk, in those twilight hours, slightly flapping ghostly white-wings just above the browned vegetation.
If you have not yet seen Short-eared Owls, or if you you would like to have a better opportunity to study these birds, I suggest you make hast for Big Island, Ohio. This year astonishing numbers of Short-ears have gathered at a wildlife area just outside of Marion Ohio. At the junction of Route 95 and Epysville Rd, go south. Last evening, along that abandoned stretch of Ohio farmland, we saw the most amazing owl display I have ever witnessed. There were often 10-15 owls in view at any given time. And the best part, they seem to be working an early shift - starting as early as 4:00pm when good light (for photography) is still available.
IF you get any photos- I would be thrilled to see them. So, good winter birding! Hope you have an opportunity to see these magnificent birds!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Hot Zone

There has been a bit of controversy surrounding the use of wind power and the potential collateral losses of wildlife. Are those impacts significant- or not? David Quamenn, my favorite science author, had an excellent article on Migration in the Nov. 2010 National Geographic. It featured photos of losses in terms of the bat populations. They don't even have to hit a blade to die, basically they "explode" due to negative air pressure cause by the spinning turbine.

Green cleaner energy is a good thing and I may even be persuaded to accept some collateral losses in wildlife, if I knew what numbers we could expect. I don't buy anything without asking the cost first. A few birds and bats maybe a reasonable cost....

........................................photo by Dave Lewis

Unfortunately, we won't know until we do the science. We don't have good research data on what impact wind power would have in a migratory stop-over vs. a turbine out in a mid-Ohio cornfield. I may be willing to accept some losses in Mid-Ohio- my backyard- but I sure would like to have someone tell me the "cost" before we litter this red zone with wind factories.

This map was created by Ohio Division of Wildlife and ODNR.
They spent quite a few dollars protecting Bald Eagles and nursing their numbers back from the edge of extirpation. The red or "hot" zone is where ODNR feels wind power would have extensive cost to wildlife. The orange circles- (the red zone would be littered with them) represent known Bald Eagle nests. Since they are Federally protected I would guess you agree, no one wants to see these majestic birds subjected to a obstacle course of fan blades.

So lets keep our wind power in the green- the minimum impact zone.

................................Buff-breasted Sandpiper photo by Dave Lewis
"Wait, wait wait..." Mr. Buff Breasted says. "Aren't you calling for a complete STOP on all wind power in the red zone?"
Well actually, no. We are asking for a 3 year moratorium on the three miles closest to the lake (represented by the black dotted line on the map.) BSBO and Bowling Green University both are planning studies. Give us three years to conduct these studies, and then we will know the cost.
We could be skating on thin ice. Let's check it out.

Let's get the information before we accept an irrevocable impact on our migrating birds. This moratorium is for such a tiny section of the state of Ohio, it will hardly crash our economy. Let's get the facts, and base our decisions on science. (See BSBO website for more info.)
I have great hopes that the two schools that have already placed wind turbines in the red zone will work with scientist to study the impact on migrating species. This could even be an awesome opportunity to work with biologists and study good science as data collectors. Maybe we can all learn something, if we only work together.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Learning from trees.

Winter is a fabulous time to practice plant identification. Studying trees in their starkest form is a great way to focus on important features like bark, buds and seed.

But there are clues we can also take from nature- such as usage and animal preference. Sometimes birds or mammals can lead us to some surprising revelations. For example this tree trunk:

On a recent hike, our party's first impression of this tree was noting the damage at the base. It looked healthy above, but its deep furrowed bark had been peeled away- leaving some rather nasty gouges in the wood. Studying that bark, and looking on further to large swollen buds, started to bring our puzzle pieces together.

This majestic tree was standing along the beautiful Clear Fork River, one of the feeders to the Mohican River and both local reservoirs: Pleasant Hill in Loudonville and the Clear Fork in Lexington. I noted the tree's humongous size and shape would be conducive to Bald Eagle nesting. Perfect habitat, perfect location.

Nearby we found a mudslide. A good sized beastie had been using this for entrance to the crystal waters babbling past the snowy shore. But how can that help us identify this tree as a Cottonwood?

Too soft to be utilised as lumber or fuel, cottonwood is considered a "junk" tree to many Ohioans, but many species of wildlife would disagree. Beavers love the tasty buds and bark! Our girdled tree and mudslide points to an active beaver community in this secluded portion of the Butler, Ohio backwoods.

Beaver are well deserving of our admiration and praise. I know a former EPA employee that says the beaver is the most efficient engineer of diverse and productive wetlands, and joking said he may raise them in his retirement. Their networks of ponds and dams played a tremendous role in the history of Ohio. Not only other wildlife benefit from their engineering, their pelts were greatly sought after by both Native Americans (see Beaver Wars) and French Trappers supplying an endless craving for their pelts used in hat making.

I have the greatest admiration for their renewed populations working back into the streams and ponds of Ohio, knowing they create habitat for many species. But I worry that many will not greet them with my enthusiasm. Recently a dead beaver was found in Richland county off the Orweiler Road wetland, poached- probably due to fear of creating flooding.

Man has the uncanny ability to dominate habitat and the wildlife there in, often without an understanding of the delicate balance at play. Our actions have changed the natural balance and left us at odds with a species that once created much of Ohio's once abundant wetlands. Our agriculture based society has a hard time appreciating the diversity supported by two of Ohio's original cohabitants- the Cottonwood and Beaver.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Birding with Greg

If you are a birder, I imagine you have heard about this terrific book...

A highly entertaining, true-to-life story was written about three obsessed birders and a competition to see the most birds in one year. And it features an Ohio birder, who is a heck of a nice guy, and a pretty good friend of mine. Last night Greg Miller gave a presentation at Shawnee Nature Club in Portsmouth, Ohio and had them all in stitches.

Greg (on the right) told his tales, signed some books, shook hands like a politician and helped them celebrate their Annual Potluck Banquet. Having some compelling business in Southern Ohio, I tagged along to enjoy the show.

And in case you have not yet heard, that book is the basis for this fictional story- about three similar birders. It should be released this summer and is creating quite a stir in our birding community.

If you missed the event at Portsmouth, don't worry.

Greater Mohican Audubon Society will be hosting Greg as a speaker on Saturday January 8th at 2:00 pm at Gorman Nature Center in Mansfield. Put it on your calendar now, 'cause you'll want to join in the fun!

And although it was a snowy, gray day for travel, we scored a total of 5 Bald Eagles and a pleasant stop at a natural area off Route 23, just north of Waverly, Ohio offered a few special highlights.

Keep this place in mind next spring, as Scioto Trail State Forest and Park is like a mini- Shawnee Forest. Greg says it produces some excellent warbler-watching in late April. Even today, the lovely wooded roads with steep embankments and ambling stream beds offered a sprinkling of Juncos, Northern Cardinals and a Carolina Wren.

This old bald hornet's nest was being raided by a Tufted Titmouse- he flew out from that hole in the center. I was a second too late on the shutter, or I would have had the photo of the year!

This dilapidated cabin proved less troublesome for me, and I was able to capture the image before it moved. Honestly, it could have fallen in before our very eyes!

It was a great day of watching the birds glean seeds along the roadside and enjoying our first snow of the season. I hope you enjoyed the day too!