Monday, January 18, 2010

Wilds Winter Extravaganza: Part I

Last Saturday marked the fifth annual Ohio Ornithological Society's "Winter Raptor Extravaganza". I'm not sure how the event evolved that name, but we'll go with it. As with all four prior WRP's, this one was a great time, and I've got enough material that I'm going to toss it up in two posts.

Early morning at the rendezvous point. Last year, it was 12 BELOW ZERO when we met. This year proved to be much balmier, with a high of 52. That's a temperature differential of 64 degrees from last year to this! That's Ohio weather for ya!

We had 150 in attendance this year; the ceiling for what we can accommodate. There were 199 requests, and we wish we could fit everyone in, but lunchtime meeting space and field trip logistics won't allow for any more. And speaking of logistics, major props to Marc Nolls, the OOS board member who spearheads this whole thing. Everything always works like a well-oiled machine, and that's because of Marc. We're also indebted to the numerous expert birders who graciously donate their time to lead the eight separate convoys, and the staff of the Wilds for hosting us and providing support.

A superficially bleak landscape, but the birding is always interesting at any season. The Wilds is sited on some 10,000 acres of reclaimed strip mine lands, and is adjoined by many thousands of additional acreage owned by American Electric Power. That's a lot of land to roam, and it's an Arctic-like setting that no doubt makes the Rough-legged Hawks feel right at home.

One of the most numerous raptors this year were Red-tailed Hawks, such as this adult. They were already getting chummy, with some pairs sitting side by side. We even saw one bird adding sticks to a nest.


Front view of the same red-tail. They stick out a mile away when their bright white breasts catch the sun. Our group and at least one other had extended views of a Golden Eagle - a major Wilds specialty - and we saw many Rough-legged Hawks. There were a few Northern Harriers, American Kestrels, a Merlin, one Bald Eagle, a few Red-shouldered Hawks, and a smattering of others. In general, raptors are way down in numbers this winter, due to a poor crop of small mammals. Next year will probably be better, as Meadow Vole populations are cyclical and hopefully will be on the rebound.

A group scans the grasslands from the Birding Station at Jeffrey Point, which offers awe-inspiring vistas. An interesting fly-by here was a Wilson's Snipe. These are tough sandpipers, and a few will overwinter in open seeps. We had other nice birds and the total list for the day was 50-some species.

This coyote put on a show as it streaked across the ice of a frozen pond. There are plenty of them around here. And more White-tailed Deer than you will ever see in one place in Ohio. Much of the Wilds is fenced in, the better to contain the 30 or species of large animals that the Wilds works with. These include everything from Takin to Bison to Bactrian Camel. The presence of the beasts sometimes makes for a surreal backdrop, and interesting directions: "There! The Short-eared Owl is over top of the Bison herd, just about to cross by the camel!"

Because wild White-tailed Deer are savvy critters, they've learned that the fenced confines of the Wilds is a safe haven, and it's not uncommon to have 30 or 40 in view at once.

Our group admires a distant Rough-legged Hawk sitting on one of those round hay bales. These big, round bales weigh 1,000 pounds, and make great raptor perches. It's a shame that, beginning next year, you won't see them anymore, as the Department of Agriculture has banned the round bales,

"Why?", I'm sure you are asking. Because, the cows can't get a square meal.

A day of driving the wet, clayey roads of the Wilds and vicinity produces a vehicle that looks like this. In this case, my normally shiny black VW Jetta, so smudged with grime that the back license plate can hardly be discerned.

We get enough people at this event that lunch must be done in two shifts, as the building can only accommodate about 75 people. We're not complaining - we're grateful that the Wilds opens the building especially for us. Not only that, their staff always provides an interesting lunchtime program about the facility. This year, Dr. Nicole Cavender presented an interesting overview of the Wilds, along with a video that showcased highlights of the operation.

Next up: photos of the cutest/ugliest little beast imaginable; a special behind-the-scenes highlight of this year's extravaganza.

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