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!

Monday, November 29, 2010

The North Coast

The Western Basin of Lake Erie is known for its Bald Eagles. The Division of Wildlife has monitored their successful nesting and enjoyed their return from the brink of extirpation in the 60's. No other bird captures the hearts of non-birders like this majestic emblem of our country.

And while visiting the Magee Marsh Sportsman's Center, we witnessed 4 fly-bys, along with this artistic rendition of a pair of Bald Eagles on a nest. The center has an amazing collection of birds and bird history from the Great Lakes.

And what makes the region so dog-gone birdy? It is perched on the intersection of not one..

... but two Fly-ways. The Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways converge here, and migration takes place from February through December each year. The north bound waterbirds start the year off, and the parade to the breeding grounds continues through early summer, when some south bound shorebirds begin their long trip back to the wintering grounds. It may be the worlds most fascinating drama- of life and death- played out each year in our "backyard."
And that is why we feel so strongly that wind power is a disaster-waiting-to-happen in this region.

The next time you are on the North Coast - stop in and say "Hi" to the fine folks at Magee. The Friends of Magee operate a gift shop, and the displays are a fascinating way to see birds up close.
And while we all love to be at Magee for the spring warblers, migration is happening most of the year on the North Coast. It is a drama you'll not want to miss.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

On Being Thankful...

It is not a traditional day of turkey and pie for me- but that doesn't make me a bit less thankful. A cooking incident that went horribly awry has left my house a difficult place to for me to be, while the smoke residual is cleaned away. Hopefully, it will be put back to order in a week or so. Until then, I find myself in need of being away.... no matter.

For I have wonderful friends with whom to share the most beautiful locations in Ohio (Huron Lighthouse.)

I can see birds that make my heart soar... (Sabine's Gull)

And spend time with people who love nature, respect the awesomeness of our natural world, and work to preserve it for the future.
It all makes little things like kitchens and pies seem less important, and family- especially my family of friends- more important.

So no matter what life hands us, as long as we count our blessings- like the call of tundra swans on the wing, ruddy ducks paddling about our reservoirs, and gigantic sandhill cranes... the rest is not important. I can always bird.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Marshes and Migration

Lake Erie and the surrounding marshes are magic- and just like magic- they are disappearing before our very eyes.

Think of the incredible pressure development has put on these natural bird and wildlife sanctuaries. Cedar Point Amusement Park- home of the Blue Streak was once home of the Great Blue Heron. Condos, marinas, restaurants- all concentrated on the lake shore- have certainly made a tremendous negative impact on our wildlife.

Here is the original vegetation map of Ohio- purple indicates wetlands. See the purple stuff in the Northwest corner? That was the Great Black Swamp; now only 5% of that area remains wetland. Perhaps it is due for a name change: The Little Black Swamp. Were it not for Ottawa National Wildlife and the State of Ohio's holdings, I fear our migrating birds would have no place to "fall out" during migration.

Here is a "bird's -eye-view" of the Marblehead Peninsula from the sky- (shot out of the airplane window as we were headed west on vacation)
Spring and fall each year, a miracle goes on above our heads. Birds migrate to and from their breeding grounds in Canada and beyond. Their only hope for continued survival is to cross that lake in hope of successful nesting. Each year hundreds of thousands of birds need to make a critical "re-fueling" stop at the wetlands along Lake Erie: Metzger Marsh, Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Magee Marsh, Sheldon's Marsh, and Old Woman Creek.
These are all critical habitats for our avian species.

And now, these birds are being handed an obstacle course to maneuver on take-offs and landing. Radio towers, buildings and a new danger- wind power.
The thought of greener, cleaner energy is music to any environmentalist's ears. But if wind turbines are placed at the intersection of two major migratory flyways, it is hard to believe it won't become a massive slaughter. This is not something that could happen in the future- this is happening NOW. The Black Swamp Bird Observatory needs our help to put the brakes on this wholesale disaster- before it happens.
  • Please sign their petition for a 3 year moritorium to study the effects on wind turbines on the birds passing through the Great Lakes. Please go here.
  • If you really want to make an impact- Send a check to BSBO to help them protect these birds.

For more information- go to the BSBO website or read Kenn Kaufman's blog post.


IF we do not act now, who will speak up for the birds? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure- and once wind power comes- it will be too late to stop it.

* I would be ALL FOR WIND POWER as long as it is properly sited. A migratory path is NOT a proper site.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Mudflat Mavens

Mudflats attract all kinds of species-
lots are two legged waders- and the birdwatchers that follow them. This year, many of my best looks at birds were - at close range- from a kayak. It is surprising how much tolerance shorebirds have for a person well ensconced within a giant orange plastic bobber.

Greg Cornet shot some great photos of this Western Sandpiper at Hoover Reservoir in late October. Western Sandpipers and Dunlins are some of the later fall migrants to pass through Ohio on their southerly route.


Saturday we floated along with three Dunlins who were foraging on a sandbar mudflat at Pleasant Hill Lake near Mohican State Forest. Many species can be targeted simply by the habitat they prefer. Both Dunlins and Westerns tend to hang out on moist mudflats, where one might also expect to find Pectoral Sandpipers, Least Sandpipers or Common Snipe.

Today at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, the shallow water along the drive held good numbers for Canada Geese and various ducks. I was intrigued by the 4 Sandhill Cranes peeking out of the taller grasses in the back. Often I hear folks criticize DOW or the Feds for "only managing for ducks." But if it is good for ducks, other species benefit as well. Even mudflats covered with 2-4 inches of water will attract shorebirds; they are just more difficult to see! Fly a Peregrine Falcon over and you soon find out how many were hiding in that stubble!
Ottawa NWR hosted Mark Shieldcastle of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory for an informative program on Shorebird Monitoring and the management of wetlands. It was a scientific look at the habitat needs and preferences of migrating shorebirds, and the management portion is much more complex than it looks to be!
Mudflats are a fickle habitat, in need of constant rotation. What provides excellent habitat one year, may be poor habitat the next. And not too surprising, much of it is based on vegetation. Vegetation has in important role in feeding the invertebrates, which in turn feeds the shorebirds. It is a complex cycle of drying and flooding at the proper times to encourage specific species.

Why am I not surprised that botany plays a huge role?
This close-up photo, a mudflat covered in emergent vegetation, was taken at Hoover Reservoir a couple of years ago. The minute pink flowers of Sessile Tooth-cup (Ammannia robusta) would barely be notable, unless you were on your knees admiring all those micro-sedges no bigger than a dime. And yes, I got muddy.
It is a fascinating world of wet- and one I hope to delve much deeper into understanding. The intricate relationships between invertebrates, mud and plants that makes finding the birds all the more interesting!
Hope you enjoyed the balmy weekend weather long enough to visit some mudflats and the of the last of 2010's migrant shorebirds. Like old friends, we will really miss them when they are gone.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Preserving Daughmer Prairie

Have you ever admired a singular oak tree?

When left to grow uninhibited by man's buildings, power lines, or cramped in woodlots, their breadth and spread is simply a work of art. This legacy tree speaks to us of what was - before white man changed the land known as O-hi-yo (meaning- "it is beautiful".)

Unencumbered in a Crawford county field, this oak stands tribute to passing time and our country's history. One oak, a last remainder for bio-diversity, in the plowed ground "canvas" for agricultural monocultures.


Now imagine a hundred of these trees.
Behemoths in the landscape, Bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa) spread as wide as they are tall, reaching across unplowed soils boasting of over 150 some species of native grasses and forbs. Wet sedge meadow meets prairie grass on this 30 acre museum of natural history. This savannah was maintain by fire in Crawford county's pre-history, where Native Americans appreciated the end result of flame to the landscape: large open grassland where only the heat resistant oak could survive. Plentiful game- with grass to graze and acorns to forage. This was their O-hi-yo.

These Sandusky Plains are celebrated by a state marker, and this patch of land has created many a sleepless night for a handful of concerned naturalist in Crawford, and many other counties throughout our state. The stakes are too high to lose this last living remnant of what once was. Daughmer Prairie is well noted as the best example left of a prairie / oak savannah in the mid-west, and it looks like Ohio Division of Natural Areas Check-off funds will be used to achieve its long-awaited preservation.

Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) blows freely in the breeze.

This land of incredible beauty is also a land of incredible bio-diversity. Red-head Woodpeckers thrive on this open lot, while dragonflies and butterflies of every manner cruise the grassland and wet meadows all spring and summer.
Thank you to everyone who has worked so hard to achieve the permanent conservation of this land. You are giving the gift of our past- to the future.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Crayola never invented a color to compare with our rarer fall "blackbirds"- the Rusty. Burnt sienna tinged with pumpkin pie, these members of the Euphagus family look to be thoroughly stained by tannins in the shallow waters they seem to adore.

Rusty Blackbird photos by Greg Cornett

A little afternoon visit to Alum Creek paid off with a close up study of the fall blackbirds. Generally found in wet woodlands, they were passing time flipping oak leaves at the edge of the water, no doubt looking for yummy invertebrates.

The adult males are slightly darker, and both genders have the characteristic golden eye. The female (first photo) also shows a better view of the light eye line.
Known for their voice, much like a "rusty" gate or creaking door, these fall foliage birds are often best located by their call: "Cccreeak...."

Map by Wikipedia

Rusty Blackbirds breed in wet woodlands in Canada and spend their winter months in the eastern-central United States. Fall marks their journey south, where they'll spend winters in wetland habitats reminiscent of their damp forest home.
Rustys have been much studied in recent years, as a noticeable population decline has squarely placed the birds as "Vulnerable" on the 2007
Red List of Threatened Species.

In my photo, three Rusty Blackbirds make their way along the backwater, flipping leaves and looking for tasty morsels. We noticed them playing pee-a-boo, hopping up on the logs, and diving back down between them. I can think of worse ways to spend an autumn afternoon.
This fellow came up with the goods! Little did I realize, Rustys do enjoy the occasional acorn- but apparently sharing is an issue. Greg nailed this photo for sure!
You can't blame him for wanting to enjoy his prize. I know we felt pretty happy about the prize we stumbled across on the waters edge. Good Birding to you!