Sunday, January 18, 2009

Birding Ohio's North Pole

I am very grateful to be writing this from a place of warmth. Because, yesterday, it was anything but warm and I think I'm still thawing out.

For the past four years, the Ohio Ornithological Society has organized a Winter Raptor Extravaganza in partnership with the Wilds. The latter organizations is a large animal conservation facility that occupies some ten thousand acres of reclaimed strip mine land, and this habitat often supports lots of raptors. Birds of prey numbers vary from winter to winter, depending on population levels of meadow voles - little furry sausages with legs that have periodic peaks and crashes.

In total, we had just over 200 people register for yesterday's field trip. Mortality was high - about 115 ended up showing. The no-shows and cancellations were perhaps the smarter ones, and better able to understand weather reports. At our rendezvous time at 9 am, the temperature was about 10 or 12 BELOW zero! This is serious cold by any reckoning. But most everyone stuck it out until mid-afternoon, and I know my group probably spent more time outside the vehicles than in. By later afternoon, it had warmed to the low 20's, but the wind had picked up, cancelling out any increased warmth in the ambient air temperature.

The Arctic-like landscape of the Wilds in below zero temperatures. Looks cold, eh? It was.

A view of the parking lot just before we got going at 9 am. We were amazed so many hardy souls showed, but are glad they did. Birds were a bit sparse, and who can blame them? Many will often reduce activity to cope with such extreme temperatures and finding them can be more difficult. But find birds we did, and there was some good stuff tallied.
A BIG thanks to everyone who made this expedition possible. On the OOS side, Marc Nolls was his usual extremely organized self, and did a fantastic job. Cheryl Harner also helped a lot, and we were fortunate to have the services of a veritable who's who of Ohio's best birders to lead trips and find birds. They include, in no particular order, Janet Creamer, Ethan Kistler, Brad Wilkinson, Andy Jones, Kathy Mock, Bob Placier, Dana Bollin, Sheryl Young, Jim McCarty, Bret McCarty, Hugh Rose, Judy Kolo-Rose, Glenn Crippen, Tom Bain, Jackie Bain, Bill Jordan, Laura Jordan, Ed Pitts, Carole Pitts, and Jason Larson. Very sorry if I inadvertently omitted anyone!
We really appreciate the support of the Wilds as well. They are very accommodating of the birding community, and provide lots of logistical support for our winter outings. Special thanks to Troy Burch for being our liaison and lunchtime speaker, and his co-worker Denise. Nicole Cavender, Director of Restoration Ecology at the Wilds, for supporting avian conservation and promoting birding. Finally, kudos to Al Parker for really creating the birder/Wilds connection way back when.
Here's our group, scanning for the Golden Eagle. I think it had warmed to 5 below by this point. No eagle for our group, although others saw it. These are big, tough birds, but even they might balk a bit about soaring about in such temperatures.

One of the more interesting finds for us was this gorgeous, heavily leucistic Red-tailed Hawk. Some of the flight feathers were brown, as was most of the head, and the upper tail was reddish, but other than that it was ghostly white. We also saw plenty of Rough-legged Hawks - both light and dark morphs - some Northern Harriers, American Kestrels, and normal-looking Red-tails. Jim and Bret McCarty's group had a Merlin - always a great midwinter bird at the Wilds. And a smattering of Short-eared Owls were seen.

This crew was an interesting sight for our group. The Wild hosts about 30 species of large animals, and these African Wild Dogs are among the more interesting. They were hardly put off by the frosty temps, and seemed very excited to see us. They no doubt would have been more excited to see one of us inside the pen, as they could have then practiced their social pack-hunting skills.

Closer view of the African Wild Dogs adding us to their lists. The large, round ears are distinctive, and rather Mickey Mouse-like. They are sometimes called painted dogs due the the bright patchy colors of their pelage. One of the Cheetahs was out roaming in the area beyond the dogs. One never knows what one might see on the Wilds landscape. If you've never done so, I'd strongly recommend taking a tour of the place.

We packed into one of the buildings for lunch, in two shifts as we couldn't all fit in at once. Troy Burch gave both groups an excellent program about the Wilds and it's mission.

The wide-open landscape of the Wilds and the thousands of similar reclaimed strip mine lands owned by American Electric Power make for excellent American Kestrel habitat. There's but one problem - kestrels need cavities for nesting, and those are in short supply in these places.
To try and remedy this situation, the Ohio Ornithological Society, the Wilds, and American Electric Power joined forces and worked together to create a "trail" of kestrel nest boxes, such as the one that your blogger is posing with. There are about twenty of these spread around the area, and 2009 will be the first nesting season that they'll be available to the kestrels. We hope some of these beautiful little falcons - which seem to be declining rapidly - take us up on our offer.
The same trio of partners also erected a number of large-telephone-sized raptor perches in the most open, perch-free areas, and these should provide additional favored hunting spots for birds like Rough-legged and Red-tailed Hawks, and perhaps even Golden Eagles.
A big thanks to everyone who came out yesterday - hope your feet are unfrozen by now!


Butmonky said...

Great day Jim!! If anyone had told me that I'd be birding on day that started at -18, well, I would have laughed at them. But I did it, and lived to tell the tale. Good birds and good friends were seen. Thanks to all that helped make it a great day.

Sandy Brown

KatDoc said...

Zip up your coat, Jim! It's COLD!


dAwN said...

Wow how did I loose a few days of your blog?...well here I am catching up...
wow cold...!!!!!!!
You guys are so brave up there in the North Pole! from the photos it really does look like the artic..
I can understand why people didnt show for the birding..but i probably would have bundled up to be there...
Luckily I am in a warmer area now...tee hee.
ok now i will read your other posts...see ya