Friday, April 18, 2014

Magee Marsh's legendary boardwalk

This mile long elevated wooden boardwalk is one of the most famous trails in North America. Winding through a 30-acre patch of swamp forest and wetland at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, it is a destination for tens of thousands of birders, especially in May. In May 2012, traffic counter surveys conservatively estimated over 66,000 visitors made the pilgrimage to the "Bird Trail". The number may have been even higher, like around 75,000 or more people. And nearly all of them are birders, of every stripe and level of expertise. They come to witness the magic of Neotropical birds - flycatchers, vireos, thrushes, orioles, tanagers, and others. And, of course, WARBLERS! Nothing gets the blood flowing like warblers, and they are the standout stars in a cast of exceptional players.

It is possible to see over 100 species along the boardwalk and elsewhere in Magee Marsh on a good day. Most of the songbirds have come from the tropics: Central America, South America, the Caribbean. Many will have flown 1,500 miles or more northward to reach Magee, and the Bird Trail woods is but a way station as they journey to more northerly locales. Upon reaching Lake Erie, which at a glance through a songbird's eyes appears an endless ocean, the birds stop to rest and refuel. It's only 28 miles across the lake to Canada, if one takes the longest route, but most of the birds hedge their bets and stay to fatten up for a bit before making the crossing. And in the process, thrill thousands of birders who can observe the feathered transients at close range.

This scene is not atypical along the Bird Trail during the second weekend in May, which is the best timeframe for maximum bird numbers and diversity. Epic crowds to be sure, but a scene that everyone should experience. It's amazing to see so many birders gathered together, and one major plus is that virtually no Connecticut or Kirtland's warblers or any other rarity will go undetected.

The 25th anniversary of the Magee Marsh Bird Trail boardwalk is this year. A quarter-century of ever-growing foot traffic, coupled with the humid conditions of the swamp forest, has taken its toll on the wooden planking. The vaunted trail is in need of refurbishing.

Enter the Friends of Magee Marsh. This group exists to support the wildlife area and does so in many ways. Their latest and greatest project involves an ambitious fundraising effort with the aim of completely redoing the boardwalk. The Friends have already raised $25,000, and begun to transform dollars into boards. When you visit this spring, you'll see that sections of the boardwalk, at either end, have been replaced. In the photo above, old wood in the foreground meets brand spanking new lumber. The new wood should last for a long time to come.

A view down the steps from the tower near the boardwalk's west end. The punky old wood of the tower's spur trail is now fresh and new.

Ambitious efforts such as this don't come cheap. An estimated $300,000 is needed to complete renovations to the boardwalk. When you're at Magee this spring, you'll see this sign near the boardwalk. Please help support the project. If every birder who visited Magee in May dropped a fiver towards the boardwalk, it'd easily be a done deal.

Five bucks is a small price to pay to support the legendary Bird Trail boardwalk that has played such a huge role in North American birding. There is no entrance fee to gain access to Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, so perhaps this year you can donate a five dollar bill to the Friends of Magee Marsh, and consider it a one-time voluntary user fee that goes for an absolutely fantastic cause.

Major thanks go to the Friends of Magee Marsh for spearheading this project; be sure to give them your regards (and donation) when you're at Magee this spring. Or CLICK HERE to help.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A fine kettle of fish!

Little Darby Creek, in southwestern Franklin County, Ohio. The Little Darby, and its sibling stream the Big Darby, are among the most aquatically diverse streams in the Midwest. The riffle pictured above is especially noteworthy, particularly for its diversity of small colorful fish known as darters.

I was in the stream last Sunday morning, with some of the best aquatic ecologists around.

John Tetzloff (L) and Mac Albin work a seine in the creek's swift waters, while Anthony Sasson inspects a captured fish in the holding tank.

John is the longtime president of the Darby Creek Association, and a tireless advocate for the protection of the Darby Creeks. Mac is Franklin County Metroparks' aquatic ecologist, and no one knows the fishes of these streams better than he does. Anthony is freshwater conservation manager for the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, and has spent many years working to ensure the conservation of these streams. You can see why I was excited to get afield with these guys, and I greatly appreciate Anthony's orchestration of this expedition.

A typical haul of the seine - lots of interesting little fishes.

My primary purpose was to make photos of seldom-seen fish, and seining them out of their riffle, ever so temporarily, is the best way to go about this.

Only once before, several years ago, had I endeavored to shoot photos of live fish, and the results were so-so. You can see them HERE. This time, I put a bit more thought into it, and definitely had better camera gear than before.

I lugged the small aquarium, shown above, out to the stream, and had the bottom of the tank pre-prepped with clean rocks. I even brought along a gallon of fresh distilled water. If you take water from the creek, even if it looks relatively clear, you'll find that all of the suspended sediments drift in the tank's water column and create a somewhat murky look.

So basically you capture fish with the seine, place them in small holding tanks, and place the subjects to be photographed into the modeling tank. After capturing images, the fish is released back into the stream with no harm done.

A Greenside Darter, Etheostoma blennioides, gazes at the camera. This darter and many of its ilk are astonishingly colorful. I suspect most people have no idea such tropical looking fish live in local streams.

When the creek water reaches certain temperature parameters in early spring, it stimulates physiological changes in the male darters. They become intensely colored - their breeding plumage, if you will. Darters in spring transform into the warblers of the underwater world, and it was this colorful group of fish that I really wanted to photograph.

In addition to keeping the fishy photography subject's best interest in mind, there is another compelling reason for shooting photos as quickly as possible once the animal has been removed from the stream. Once exposed to warmer water, such as in a tank, the brilliant breeding colors can soon fade, and of course we want to see them at their brightest.

I am reasonably pleased with how these photos came out, but upon review see room for improvement. While it may seem like "shooting fish in a barrel", photographing fish in this way isn't as easy it may look. It's hard to keep small bubbles from gathering inside the tank in places where they impinge on the photo. Sometimes reflections from objects outside the tank appear in the photo, although they aren't obvious at the time. Of course, much of this can be corrected with PhotoShop but I am a PS minimalist. Finally, the fish themselves are often less than cooperative, and extended herding and prodding with a long stick is usually necessary to get them into the best position for photos.

I believe this is a female Greenside Darter, but please feel free to correct me if I'm in error. I think someone may have called it a Fantail Darter, Etheostoma flabellare, but I may have gotten my fish mixed up. In any event, female darters are usually much duller than the colorful males, just as is often the case in the bird world.

Note how she sits on the bottom, propped up on her pectoral fins. Darters are members of the perch family, and most of them largely lack swim bladders. Thus, they sink rather than float. This is an advantage if you feed on the bottom, and wish to stay among the rock cobble of swiftly flowing riffles. If you wade into such a habitat and carefully watch the bottom, you'll probably see darters rapidly darting out of your way. Seen in this way, they just look like tiny black flecks rocketing off. It isn't until one does what we did that their true beauty can be fully appreciated.

A male Banded Darter, Etheostoma zonale. This species is common in Ohio's waterways in the Ohio River drainage. Interestingly, it has never found its way into the Lake Erie drainage.
An old warrior by the looks of him, is this Variegate Darter, Etheostoma variegatum. Note the rather tattered condition of his adipose fin (top, just before tail) and tail. As darters go, this is a large species with jumbos taping out at 4 1/2 inches. Accordingly, they typically occur in the fastest chutes and riffles of moderate to larger streams. One gets a real appreciation of the adaptations these fish have that allows them to operate in such waters when trying to stand in their fast riffles. If you are inexperienced in working streams, it can be hard to hold your balance against the current. Add a big seine that catches the water like a porous balloon to the equation, and falling in the drink is a real possibility.

I'll post Part II before long, as I've got even flashier photos to share. I am grateful for Anthony, Mac, and John for making this aquatic foray possible.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Earth Day program!

The spectacular vista from Buzzard's Roost Rock in the Edge of Appalachia Preserve, Adams County, Ohio.

Next Tuesday, April 22nd, is Earth Day. This annual celebration to promote our environment and its protection began in 1970, and millions of people worldwide participate in various Mother Nature-friendly activities on this day. I was delighted to be asked to give a program for Columbus Audubon on Earth Day, and enthusiastically accepted. The program begins at 7 pm, and will take place at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center at 505 W. Whittier Street in Columbus. It's free, and all are welcome. More details RIGHT HERE.

One of the strangest, and rarest, of Ohio's 46 native orchid species, the Crested Coralroot, Hexalectris spicata.

I've had great fun thinking about this talk, and assembling it. The history of the modern environmental movement in the United States is a fascinating tale, and one that I will touch on. It involves pollution unimaginable to most of us today, and a stepping stone series of great environmentalists who paved the way for eventual environmental reform. We must also thank one of our most infamous presidents, an accused spy, and a colorful warbler for the founding of the EPA and greatly strengthened environmental laws. It makes for an interesting tale.

Nearly indescribable in its beautiful intricacy is this tiny Juniper Hairstreak - one of over 130 species of butterflies recorded in Ohio.

I also plan to talk about the incredible wealth of natural history in Ohio, including the greatest land acquisition project in the state of Ohio.

A bizarre Mottled Sculpin, photographed in Little Darby Creek. The sculpin is like a living rock with a big mouth to snap up lesser beasts.

These Columbus Audubon meetings are always lots of fun, and I hope you can make it next Tuesday. Again, the details are HERE.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher!

Golf courses are not normal hangouts for me, and they're seldom birding destinations. That wasn't the case yesterday. After a busy morning capturing and photographing fish with some ace ichthyologists in Little Darby Creek in central Ohio, I pointed the Volkswagen north. As in two hours north, all the way to Huron on the shores of Lake Erie.

Last Thursday, April 10, Dan Gesualdo found a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at the Sawmill Creek Resort golf course, pictured above. The course's western boundary abuts Sheldon Marsh State Nature Preserve, a birding hotspot that attracts many birders. Dan got the word out pronto, and several hundred birders have made the pilgrimage thus far. By the way, if you ever need a topnotch place to stay in the heart of some of Lake Erie's best birding areas, Sawmill Creek Resort is your place, and I say that from experience.

I arrived around 3 pm yesterday, parked in the nature preserve parking lot, and quickly strolled the 30 feet or so to the golf course. I saw a group of birders looking into a tree, checked it with my binoculars, and there was the bird! A few seconds later, it flew down to a fairway, enabling great views and allowing me to get the above photo.

As I've said here before, I am really not a hardcore lister, and never have been. Except when it comes to Ohio. If a bird shows up here that I've not seen in the state, it gnaws at me if I can't go for it right away. Scissor-tailed Flycatchers only show up here every few years - this one is only about the 20th record, ever. Those that have come to Ohio never stick around very long, and my schedule would not permit a chase until Sunday. So I was especially grateful that this flycatcher is so smitten with the golf course. This Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was #370 for me in Ohio, and I don't get the opportunity to add a new Ohio species very often anymore.

Soon after arriving, I ran into Shane and Laura Roberts. One great thing about mega-rarities is the crowds that they draw. I always run into friends at these scenes. Laura didn't rent the golf cart - the owner of the resort, Greg Hill, loaned it to her at his insistence! Before I got there, Shane and Laura struck up a rapport with Greg, and Shane took him over to see the bird up close. He was quite interested in the gorgeous flycatcher, and has been especially tolerant of visiting birders. Considering that the primary order of business here is golf and golfers, accommodating masses of optics-toting birders should earn Greg a medal from the ornithological society.

Part of the group ogles the flycatcher, which is teed up atop the small maple - furthest tree to the right. Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are not shrinking violets, and this one is no exception. He flew in and landed within 50 or so feet of the group on this occasion, allowing magnificent views by all.

The flycatcher returns from an aerial sally with an insect, one of many that it caught in the two hours that I was there.

It returns to the summit of a favored maple after making a successful yo-yo flight for a bug. This bird is either a first-year bird, or a female, and I presume it is the former. Adult males usually have even longer tail streamers, believe it or not.

I got lucky in capturing the bird as it flew in front of a distant cart driven by golfers. I believe they were watching the bird, too. The local paper ran on a story about the wayward Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and it has become something of a local celebrity. I stopped into the clubhouse, and the bartender knew all about it, and so do many of the links regulars, apparently. We showed the bird to several golfers and other interested locals. Showing someone new to looking at birds a spectacular Scissor-tailed Flycatcher probably has more impact than, say, a Henslow's Sparrow would.

Major props to Dan Gesualdo for finding this bird, and getting word out. The Sawmill Creek Resort Scissor-tailed Flycatcher has been seen by hundreds, and for many it was a state bird, and even a life bird for more than a few folks.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Darters and avian rarities

I saw a lot of our great state of Ohio this weekend (as etched out by the red line). On Saturday, I visited one of my favorite places, the vast Edge of Appalachia Preserve in Adams County. I was invited to participate in a field trip hosted by Josh Knights, director of The Nature Conservancy, and he, TNC'er Briana Walsh, and I led some Edge supporters through the wonders of Abner Hollow.

An impossibly colored male Rainbow Darter stares slack-jawed at your narrator.

This morning, I met three of the most knowledgeable aquatic ecologists you'll ever cross paths with at Little Darby Creek in southwest Franklin County. I'll tell that tale, with plenty of pictures, soon. After our highly successful fishing expedition, I headed north to Huron on Lake Erie. A very rare (in Ohio) Scissor-tailed Flycatcher has been frequenting a golf course there for several days. I saw it and basked in the bird's presence for several hours, and got plenty of photos. More on that tomorrow.

In all, I covered about 500 miles this weekend, from the Ohio River to Lake Erie, and took well over 1,000 images in the process. I look forward to sharing some with you as soon as I can sort them all out.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Neotropic Cormorant: One to watch for

Photo:Hans Hillewaert/Wiki Commons

The Neotropic Cormorant, Phalacrocorax brasiliensis, is one to watch for in Ohio. I believe we could be considered well overdue for an appearance by this diminutive relative of the Double-crested Cormorant. New Jersey birders are relishing that state's first record as I write this, and with luck Ohio birders will soon confirm this species in our state.

Neotropic Cormorants are very similar to the Double-crested Cormorant, and vagrants are likely to be fraternizing with that species. The first thing that will probably catch your eye is the size differential - the Neotropic Cormorant is noticeably smaller than its robust brethren. It's over a half-foot shorter in length, and a full foot shorter in the wingspan department. Neotropics also weigh about a pound less on average, and that translates to a bird that appears daintier than a Double-crested. The tail also looks big in proportion to the rest of the bird. Problem is, there are two subspecies of Double-crested Cormorant (normally occurring in Florida and the Caribbean) that are also noticeably smaller than the typical Double-crested Cormorant subspecies that we get in this part of the world. Upshot: you can't go on size alone for a positive identification. The elfin Double-crested Cormorant subspecies could also conceivably appear here, too.

Rather than me rehashing field marks here, consult your Sibley or other good guide for identification characters. And go on high alert if you do spot a tiny cormorant.

This fine map by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology shows the overall distribution of the Neotropic Cormorant. It's much more widespread in the Middle and South Americas than it is north of the Mexican border.

This is the Birds of North America Online map, and it gives us more detail regarding the northern limits of the Neotropic Cormorant's range. The dashed lines and outlying red dots indicate vagrancy, although I'm not sure the Pennsylvania record is correct. At least I couldn't find verification on the PA rare birds committee website. Even if it is in error, Pennsylvania will probably get one soon. This is a cormorant on the march. The overall population is growing, and new nesting colonies are cropping up outside of traditional breeding areas.

The number of Midwestern and Great Lakes region records has soared in the last decade or so. Illinois has had at eight since 1992, and Indiana has had at least five since 2011. A Neotropic Cormorant in 2012 was practically within a stone's throw of Cincinnati, and another was found in the state just a few days ago.

Kentucky is up to at least two records - 2007 and 2013 - and just across the International border at Point Pelee in Ontario, Canada, they've found three in the past few years, including last year. Point Pelee is only 23 miles from Kelleys Island in Ohio waters. Even Michigan has had one, in 2008.

You get my point. Neotropic Cormorant is a very likely candidate to appear in Ohio, so don't ignore those cormorants!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Red-necked Grebe update

Photo: Phil Fry.
This bird was on Kaiser Lake in Champaign County today, and was yet another county record in the ongoing invasion.

Red-necked Grebes are normally a rare sight in Ohio, or anywhere else in the interior U.S. south of the Great Lakes and away from the Atlantic Ocean. Not this spring, however - these chunky grebes have staged an invasion of epic proportions; a movement previously unrivaled in scope. I wrote in more detail about the likely origins of these birds, and the reasons for their massive invasion of interior eastern North America, RIGHT HERE.

If you know of any additional county records not depicted on the following map, please let me know. It's been tough to try and keep track of all the Red-necked Grebe reports that are bombarding various forums, and I haven't yet made a detailed eBird analysis to try and pick up additional records.

UPDATE: I posted this map, with a plea for additional sightings, to various Facebook birding pages today. A whopping 55 new birds came in, as well as three new counties. Thank you to everyone who contributes your sightings, whether it be to Facebook, the Ohio Birds Listserv, eBird, or anywhere else. An updated tally appears below the map.

I cobbled together this map showing the Ohio records. Data comes from reports submitted to the Ohio Birds Listserv, various Facebook birding groups, the Cincinnati and Toledo birding websites, and direct reports. I'm quite sure there are other records floating around, and as always I welcome additions, deletions, corrections of any sort, and of course, any praise, however faint, is always welcome :-)

The map depicts a staggering invasion of Red-necked Grebes. Sixty-two counties, and a total of 370 birds by my reckoning. This far eclipses the previous record flights, which took place in February and March of 1994, when 111+ grebes were tallied in Ohio, and 2003 when around 200 birds were reported. This year's irruption is not confined to Ohio; many eastern states are experiencing a similar incursion. And I'm sure we'll have additional records before April's end.