Friday, December 30, 2011

Birding with the Amish

Christmas Bird Counts in Wayne and Holmes counties often include a large number of Amish birders, many of them teenagers.  I enjoy the eagerness in which they approach the subject.  Nothing gets past their keen eyes and ears. 

Last weekend this group of young men had an unusual find in the Secrest Aboretum.  A December White-eyed Vireo!  Vireos are insect eaters and the pickings are mighty slim by this time of year.  All of its relatives have long gone south; this little slow-poke is an amazing find!

White-eyed Vireo on a Christmas Bird Count

In fact, it was significant enough Roger Troutman ( our count compiler) wanted a photo to document the little birdie.  Since the Amish don't take photographs,  Ryan Steiner and I were asked to show up with our cameras at the arboretum.  Now this photo won't make it into National Geographic (or anywhere else for that matter) but it is diagnostic.  The boys got their bird, and I was happy to help the young men out.

If you would like to know more about the Amish or even a bit about our birding experiences, Amish Values for your Family is a nifty book written by my friend, Susan Woods Fisher.  Several chapters have back stories about birding with the Amish. Local birder, Bruce Glick is quoted regarding the Holmes County CBC. 
One of the keys to success" Bruce writes, "is the encouragement of young birders.  These youngsters can tag-along, gradually learning the birds, and eventually becoming leaders themselves.  On the most recent Millersburg Christmas Bird Count were 113 participants, of which thirty were eighteen or younger. Many of these young folks are amazingly good birders already, having learned from older siblings, friends, and parents." 

Tommorow is my last CBC for this year and we will likely get to see many fine young Amish birders in action once again. Wish us luck- and good weather!

Quote from Suzanne's book was with "Permission Granted by Revell Books"

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Down at the Bog

Oh, the places you will go on a Christmas Bird Count!  My partner Ryan Steiner and I pulled the lucky task of having Brown's Lake Bog in our Wooster CBC route.  This property is owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy and is a dedicated Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves site.

Ryan clued me in to the great birding along this edge line.  It was a happy spot for White-throated Sparrows, Tufted Titmice, Northern Cardinals and a calling Carolina Wren.

But always the weed-picker, I would not be satisfied until we had a quick peek at the bog mat in the center of this preserve.  Growing out on the mats of lime green moss, we found our winter wonders. Pitcher-plants, Sarracenia purpurea are carnivorous plants, a rare find in Ohio due to their habitat requirements.  Mid-Ohio especially, does not offer many kettle hole bogs.

Pitcher-plants, Sarracenia purpurea in winter.  

It is a little easier to understand the Latin name's specific epithet  "purpurea" once you've seen these plants in the winter!  They take on  a reddish-to-purplish hue due to anthocyanins- the same chemicals that make maple leaves change colors in the fall. 

The pitchers weren't catching many flies on this chilly winter morning, but we looked deep into the pots for evidence of previous prey.  Enlarge the photo and note the one-way (down-down-down) hairs that prevent a fly or beetle from crawling away from certain death.   Sarracenia are  exciting plants- anytime of year!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Welcome to the CBCs!

Welcome! The next couple articles are on experiences on some local Christmas Bird Counts.

I am glad you joined me for a tour of our local birding spots, and I invite you to Saturday's Wooster CBC. Details can be found on the GMAS website

Christmas Bird Counts are an important way to gather information on the changing populations of birds.  They are also a lot of fun.  If you were directed here by Jim McCarty's Aerial  View  you will want to roll down to the Dec. 19th Weekend CBC post.  Thanks to Jim for the great reporting he does on our birds and birding community.  I am certain that is the information that he wanted you to enjoy.  The more recent post concerned some environmental issues we have been dealing with in Ohio.  While I cannot turn my head and pretend I don't see these issue going on, I certainly would not use Jim as a platform for my causes.

So if you are new to CBC's and want an uplifting story  GO Here.  But if your are a regular birder, consider this- Ohio is undergoing some serious environmental issues.  Remember to take part in protecting those birds we all love to see.

Best,  Cheryl Harner

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Lessons from a CBC

The first place I head on a Christmas Bird Count- is for the water.  Sunrise, birds stir, and fresh water is their first business of the day.  Usually, I am waiting for them, beside this little stream. 

Fresh Water:  a guaranteed morning bird magnet.

 Only this year it wasn't so fresh.  Someone "forgot " their deer carcase under the bridge.  It looked like a scene from  "Dances With Wolves."  Unbelievable!  Who could be so thoughtless as to foul the water for everyone down stream?

The definition of a true friend: the guy who offers to help me get them out of the water and onto terra firma where crows and coyotes can get busy composting them.  And- yes.  We did it!  Somehow, in the life of an environmental activist- for once it feels good to see immediate results- something tangible for your sweat and struggles.

Next stop: Mansfield Lahm Airport and one of our resident Kestrels teed up in view of the radar tower.

 Lots of new road work being done out this way.  In fact, we have a new injection well scheduled to go in.  They will be transporting "fracking fluid" from Pennsylvania to be pumped under ground in Mansfield.  Gee, I wonder why PA doesn't want it.

Irony.  Clean Water- this is the neighbor of the injection well site.  Unfortunately, Mansfield water may not be so clean if chemicals seep into our fresh water supply.  But how will we ever know?  They are not obligated to put any tracers or marker in the sludge they pump underground. 

Maybe it is better to share our  water with those dead deer?   At least I can see them on the surface and know my water has been fouled.

Fresh water and injections wells, learn more about them in this amazing film clip The Divide on the GMAS Website.  Click on VIDEO.   It will give you a whole new perspective on the importance of our water.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Weekend of CBC

Christmas Bird Counts.

Many of my friends were in the field this weekend, doing our bit for "Citizen Science."  We count birds.  We count all the birds we can find in our section of a count circle. Lest that sound boring to you, I assure you it is a good time and generally we are keeping some pretty good company. Most of the best naturalists in Ohio participate in these counts because they know the long-term collection of this data is truly useful.

 My section of the Mansfield count has several creeks.  This deep, rocky gorge slices right through the property of the Springmill Elementary School and is one of my favorite places to walk.  It is never too birdy, but the scenery is fabulous!  A handful of Black-capped Chickadees and Tufted Titmice sing greetings from the trail's edge.

Sears Woods, Crawford County: Sunday's count
This legendary woods is an excellent spot to tally birds, and I was accompanied by one of Mid-Ohio's legendary birders- Gary Cowell.  Nothing gets past Gary's keen eyes and ears.  He has been one of my birding mentors for over eight years now, as he has led many an Audubon Bird Walk in Mohican Country.  He is always a source of new bird information and with a little coaxing, will share his knowledge.

Gary is a true outdoorsman- totally attuned to nature.  He studies the birds, their behaviors, habitats, and food sources.  In his quiet way, he has done more to promote birding and environmentally sound practices in Richland county than anyone will ever know.  He just quietly goes about doing the right thing, in his own "Gary" way.   

 Red-headed Woodpecker-    photo from Dave Lewis.

Sears Woods is a sweet spot, a State Nature Preserve in Crawford County, and a sure fired location for these magnificent birds.  We found four working the tree snags in the middle of Sears. Always a good day.

American Buffalo (Bison)  or some type of near-related BEEFalo

Lest you think these birds counts are, well- for the birds- we see loads of other interesting things.  One never knows what we will come upon in our our little counties.  I had no idea there was a herd of Bison within 30 miles of my home. 

Beautiful stream side walks, field time with friends and like minded individuals, and important data.  Who knew "Citizen Science" could be so much fun?  If you haven't come out for a CBC, get involved! 

Call a local CBC compiler (found on the Audubon calendar) and offer to join in. They will start you out right- and pair you with an accomplished birder- so there is no reason to miss out on one of winter's best events. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

More Winter Wonders

Let's continue that winter walk in Mohican's Hog Hollow-

Hepatica, Heptica noblis
Durable leaves, with attractive mottling, stand up to winter's weather and eventually take on a lovely shade of purple.  These used to be separated into sharp-lobed and rounded-lobed plants, but have been "lumped" in recent years.  No matter what you call them, the blooms of this harbinger of spring is always a favored ephemeral. But even rarer- leaves that hold up so beautifully against the frost.

 Chilly weather, the ice testifies.  Interesting formations gathered at the ripples and falls along the creek.
"Ice Doodles" called by some, I wondered if there is a more scientific term? 

 A closer look reveals misshapen icicles, a scientific puzzlement. What could create the "belling" where one would expect a terminal end?  Perhaps water temperatures mere inches away, super cooled (yet still liquid due to movement)  affected the freezing process?    Feel free to comment...

Crystal clear. Water.  Perhaps the most precious of all of our Mohican area resources. If you think you can't live with out gas and oil, just try living without fresh water for a while.

Dec 12, 2011  An all-time early 
     record for emerging Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus?

Poking tips through the water, now ice. The earliest of all our spring botany, the Skunk Cabbage at Hog Hollow is getting a jump on the season.

Winter, just another season to botanize.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Winter's Green

Seeking out winter's green is a most enjoyable way to spend a chilly morning, and Hog Hollow Trail at Mohican State Park and Forest hosted several attractive offerings.

Wintergreen, Gaulteria procumbens

Winner of the "Oh man this smells heavenly" Award, Wintergreen smells just like: wintergreen!  Also known as Mountain-tea, because (yes, you guessed it)  they made tea with this plant.  Exceptionally lovely in snow, the apple red berries are a bit smaller than a concord grape. 

Partridge Berry, Michella repans

A similar-looking, but more diminutive plant is the Partridge Berry.  Large expanses were found along the trail, creeping along the higher, dry ground. The fruits are generally sparse, but this was a rather robust plant. The berries are smaller than wintergreen, closer in size to a pea.     

Two "belly-button" spots mark each of the fruits, making this a stand-out among the creeping berries.  They are the calyxes remaining from the two flowers which previously bloomed side-by-side with fused ovaries.  Think of those spots as the bottom side of a little apple, same basic idea.

Michella repans in flower, line drawing from Wikipedia.

The drawing shows the delicate flowers blooming, two for each fruit.  This is a rather unusual arrangement amongst plants.

BONUS:  How many seeds does each fruit have? 
They can contain up to eight seeds.  However, they are difficult to propagate by seed and most partridge berries are reproduced by runners and cuttings (in commerical cultivation).

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Report from Killdeer Plains

Early December in Ohio can be quite picturesque -

Golden grasses on windswept plains

  Snow laden clouds hung above pools of waterfowl.
 Killdeer Plain's famous owl woods; we are searching for Long-eared Owls. 

 The best we could find was a sleepy Barred ( Bard?) Owl, perhaps with nom de plume Shakespeare, resting from his nightly work.

We had great company - Greg, Leslie Cornett and I ( not pictured) met up with Nina (the now near-famous salamander photographer and author) Harfmann and Tim Daniels, Division of Wildlife photographer.

The wet, open grass lands are excellent for Northern Harriers, once known as Marsh Hawks. 

We didn't stay late enough today to see the Short-eared Owls, but they are back.  This is one I photographed mid-day,  a few years back.

Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area lies south of Upper Sandusky, Ohio.  It is excellent for winter raptures, owls and migrating waterfowl.  For more information click- here.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Purple Sandpiper teaches lake ecology

Conneaut, Ohio.   The most north-east you can go in Ohio without leaving the state.  Sure, I could tell at least six different Conneaut jokes, as it has seen better days.  Those days were centered around rail transport and Conneaut was king.   Today, it remains a blue collar town with an active harbor. The only reason I could be persuaded to go to Conneaut (pronounced Konn-ee-ot' in Ohio) would be to see a good bird.

 Purple Sandpiper.  A good bird, in fact, a darn good bird for Ohio. 

Occasionally found along Ohio's Lake Erie break walls, Purple Sandpipers have a habit of showing up in the worst of winter's weather.  Usually snow is flying the break walls are sheeted with ice when these stout, short-legged birds come to call.  However, we were not disappointed to view this bird as the thermometer shot up to the 50's.  The hardy lakeshore-birding fanatics considered it light jacket weather!

A group of us passed a pleasurable 15 minutes or so, while the bird sorted through the piles of lake mussels at our feet.  Several times the bird was so close were unable to photograph it.  Such a problem.

Its bill opens slightly at the end for pinching out the collop of meat from the shell.

After a bit of thought, I wondered it the historical highs of zebra mussels (a non-native introduced by ships ballast water in the early 1980's) was impacting the number of  Purple Sandpipers being seen along our lake?  A quick "google" showed photo after photo of birds feeding on "Zebra mussels" and records indicate Ohio has recent reports of  wintering birds.  Not at all like the historical- "just passing through" behaviors of PUSA.

So could these mussels- an opportunity for easy food- be attracting or prolonging Purple Sandpiper's visits on our lake shore? 
  • A.  If you are only interested in Purple Sandpipers...  you should skip on to the last photo.
  • B.  If you are interested in lake ecology, you can continue to follow. Warning:  I am about to go "geek" on you.
    Now the news about non-native  invasive mussels in Lake Erie. Seems those mussels are not Zebra mussels after all!  Zebra mussels, Dreissena polymorpha  in Lake Erie have lost the battle- to Quagga mussels,Dreissena rostriformis bugensis.  A larger, but very similar species, which out performs the basic Zebra mussel in our cooler waters.
The following link is a fact sheet on Quaggas, the big winner in the lake invasion market.  At least the 'Pipers find them tasty.

The break wall at Conneaut, the scene of the "crime" so to speak.  Piles and piles of mussels shells could look mighty attractive to a Purple Sandpiper. 

Wintering Atlantic coastal Purple Sandpipers ( photo taken in Maryland in 2008.)

Purple Sandpipers are the hardiest of the shorebird types, wintering on rocky east coast shorelines and jetties.  I once witnessed a small wintering flock of 15 or so working the mossy rocks; they were giving no heed to humanoids nearby.  These 'pipers will wing off to the Canadian high Arctic to raise their young, and are not likely to encounter humans again until returning to their coastal wintering grounds. 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Great Lake Birding

Ashtabula, Ohio found on the banks of Lake Erie and the river the Iroquois named Ashtabula: "River of many fishes."  Industry has been a major component of this port since the city's beginning in 1803.  It is still a bustling harbor, complete with ships, trains and many tons of coal and slag.

Ashtabula Harbor.

But this winter it has had a new component: Birders.  Lots of and lots of birders have been making their way to key locations since mid November to view Ohio's rarest bird, the Black-tailed Gull. 

 The bird is in here- mixed in with about a bazillion other gulls.  Although, we did get decent looks at it today, it is devilish hard to photograph from these distances.  To learn more about this gull- pop over to  Jim McCormac's Blog to get the complete low down and a photo.

The train yard is where my friends and I spent a good deal of our time today.  There have been several reports of not one, but two Snowy Owls hanging about this area.  Snowy's have long been known to winter on the Cleveland Lakefront, so this did not come as a huge surprise.  Accustomed as they are to daytime feeding on lemmings, other mammals, and even birds, these grand creatures were seen early today hunting in the grassy area.  They also have an affinity for break walls and water edges, not surprising as fish could be in their diet, according to Kaufman's Lives of North American Birds.

By the time we arrived the trains had been moving about, most likely scaring the birds out of the open yard.  We relocated one on the break wall (circled in red).  It wasn't a bad view from a scope, and one of the best part of birding for me is allowing other folks enjoy good views from our equipment.  We met several nice people that would not have seen anything but that white dot- had they not looked through our scopes. 

Snowy Owls are rarely easy finds in Ohio.  Most are given to airport runways and other large open (tundra like?) areas where they are difficult to get to.  However, a couple years ago, on a BSBO pelagic tour- we got our eye full of owl!

This young Snowy Owl was perched out in the open on the back side of Burke Lakefront Airport.  We had spectacular views from the water.  Most often Snowy Owls seen in Ohio are females or juveniles- which have dark streaking.  Adult males have all white plumage, like the one we saw in the harbor today.

Birding an industrial sight always leaves me in wonderment.  How many more birds might there be if the lake front was still a pristine environment instead of a coal yard?  Moreover, why are these birds attracted to such high traffic areas as airports and city harbors?  Maybe if we keep birdwatching long enough, someday we'll figure that out.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Mohican's Lyons Falls

Mohican State Park could well be called the center of the universe- for a tree hugger in mid-Ohio. Within a 90 minute drive for over 7 million- yes, that is million- Ohioans, it is a verdant forest, boasting of an unglaciated gorge bisected by the Clear Fork River. Equal parts Canadian forest and high-and-dry oaks of a southern forest. The best of both worlds, hosting a multitude of breeding birds, including warblers, Bald Eagles and Osprey. Unusual plant communities include many species of ferns and several varieties of orchids.

Big Lyons Fall is accessed from the picturesque Covered Bridge trail.

It was a special treat to revisit this local landmark with a visiting friend from Belgium. We Americans tend to forget how truly extraordinary our State and National Parks are. For the first time in history land was set aside - for the pleasure of the common man- not kings or queens. It is our legacy and gift to preserve for future generations, and it is up to us to leave it unspoiled for those who follow.

Colm was appreciative of Little Lyons Falls as well. A steady stream of hikers passed through this area while we photographed the jagged rock and waterfall. One has to wonder if they know our Ohio state parks and forests are in danger of becoming industrial sites? How many fracking wells or timber sites will it take to mar the beauty and quietude of our pristine gorge?

It seems a poorly thought out plan to tout industry within a park to achieve finances for long deferred maintenance. Once the roads are over-burdened with semis hauling fracking fluid and timber, where will one go for the peace and sanctuary we have come to cherish? After all, who will want to visit our state parks? Will there be a need for improved lodging and facilities for anyone but the few gas workers and truck drivers?

Our natural areas are best kept natural. That gas has been in the ground for a long time now, and will keep for a few more years until we learn how to extract it safely without contaminating water and creating huge gas drilling "footprints" through out the park. If the state parks belong to the tax payers of Ohio, maybe some one should ask us how we feel about this plan.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Loons at Clearfork

Most people were focused on a turkey on Thanksgiving Day, and our family did indeed participate in a food fest. But some unexpected birds also arrived in time for Thanksgiving.

Common Loon. Photo by Colm Otten.

Our nearby Clearfork Reservoir had a "fall out" of loons! Over 200 loons were found floating about on the day before thanksgiving, and continued on for two days. But even more impressive, two of those loons were Pacific Loons- extremely rare visitors to the state of Ohio.

Our family made several trips to see them, but there were a bit out of our camera's range.

Birders at Mansfield sailing Club. Photo by Colm Otten

There was much excitement among the birders, as we set up our scopes in front of the Mansfield Sailing Club. It provides a good overlook of the lake, which is need to sort through 200 loons. The Pacific is bit smaller, and more delicate looking bird than the Common Loon, a heavy bodied water bird. Pacific also have a distinctive "collar"marking just below its head. Bonus birds were a female Long-tailed Duck and 30 or so Red-breasted Mergansers swimming in formation.

Cheryl Harner and JJ Soski. Photo By Colm Otten

My daughters are home for the holiday, and JJ is visiting from Philadelphia- where she works at Adventure Aquarium. She is way more interested in fish than birds, but she humored her ma and visited the Clearfork with me.

If you have an interest in swimming with the sharks at her aquarium, JJ can fix you right up. It is a bit of a strange job, but someone has to do it. (I guess...)

Later in the day we caught this fabulous sunset on a hike from the other side of the reservoir. I must say this is one of my favorite views in Richland County, and I never tire of sharing it with friends and family.

Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving!