Monday, October 11, 2010

Headlands at Dawn

One of greater Cleveland's most noted hot-spots for birds, Headlands Beach ( Mentor, Ohio) was just one of the locations for OOS field trips last weekend.

Northern Saw-whet Owl- photo by Judy Semroc

Near the main entrance to the beach front trail, a Northern Saw-whet Owl was found resting in a tree. These micro-owls, not much larger than a man's fist, are known for daytime napping in grapevine tangles. They can be extremely difficult to locate- even when you know where to look! But once they are found, they seem tolerate the annoying human presence with aplomb.

After sufficient gawking at the owl, our group proceeded to the grass covered sand dunes just beyond the beach. We were in search of warblers and rare sparrows, but we were not above looking at any common species either. While the rest of the group focused on the Eastern Bluebirds, Swamp Sparrows, and a couple of Nashville Warblers, I became more interested in what they were feeding on.

The predominate grass, with arching, fuzzy seed heads, is the state listed Coastal Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium littorale. Any disturbance of the stems sent up a puff of airborne midges- the perfect migrating warbler fuel. As swirling insects were rising with the sunlight and warming temperatures, birds began feeding mid-air.

Want birds? Find their food source. And while botany does not drive midge production, it was certainly providing habitat for them.

Often called "Muffleheads" due to the feathery antennae on the males, these nearly invisible fliers are fascinating if you take a closer look!

Most species of Chironomid midges should be considered beneficials- and do no harm- other than the annoyance they create for some homeowners. They are often listed as bio-indicators, and a measure of a healthy ecosystem, but most of the interesting reading on the fuzzy headed bird-food is produced by agencies promoting means for killing them. I would think you might use ecological controls, like promoting Eastern Bluebirds as a means to control them. However, most publications promote electrocution (bug zappers), poisoning the aquatic nymphs or spraying the adults without impunity.

Kind of makes it hard for a warbler to eek out a living, doesn't it?

Two of the most amazing field trip leaders, Judy Semroc and Larry Rosche clearly understand the connection between nature's gift of insects and our beloved birds. It is not a matter of taking the good with the bad, but rather understanding nature is many things... and beauty can be found even in the life-cycle of a fuzzy-headed midge.


  1. Sounds like fun was had by all, Cheryl- The little bluestem that grows along the eastern Ohio Lake Erie beaches is a diffrerent species- it's the state endangered- Schizachyrium littorale, coastal little bluestem. It's a pretty cool version that is somewhat rhizomatous looking if you look closely at the base of the plant. It used to be considered a variety but is now considered a real, distinct species.

    When I blogged about "muffleheads" a few years ago, I had some interesting comments(FLAK)referencing a quote that I used from a prominent state agency that suggested lots of midges = healthy lake. After more research, I found conflicting information what lots of midges actually meant. I've read that these large hatches are signs of a healthy Lake Erie and other stuff that has has said these are signs of a non-healthy anoxic Lake Erie. Can we say more study is needed? :)


    P.S. Larry and Judy Rock

  2. Thanks Tom! The Bluestem species is noted- and changed! Thanks for setting the record straight, that will teach me to go birding without a botanist along to keep me out of trouble!

    PS- I read info both ways on midge populations and lake health too. Either way they are an indicator- we just need to know WHAT they indicate!