Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Dike 14: a regional treasure

Like a giant vegetated boot, 88-acres of habitat known as Dike 14 juts into the waters of Lake Erie off the Cleveland shoreline. While utterly artificial - the place was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to accommodate dredge spoil - Dike 14 has become an Important Bird Area in a very real sense.

My history with the place goes back to its beginnings in the early 1980's. Then, Dike 14 was known as Gordon Park, and was new and raw. Dredge spoil spewed from the pipes, a thick soupy-brown milk shake-like goop, and consolidated in the open bowl of the impoundment. And created outstanding shorebird habitat. I saw my first Ohio Piping Plover here, and along with many others was ecstatic to see a beautiful Sharp-tailed Sandpiper in the Dike in 1984 - Ohio's first.


Common but nonetheless a show-stopper, the purple blooms of New England Aster, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, create a nice frontispiece for the scrublands of Dike 14. Beyond lies the marina where Ohio's first and only Black Guillemot was found, in November 1990. I was fortunate to see that bird, too. So can you. It expired after three days, and is now a specimen in the bird collection of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, which is only about ten minutes down the road.

The view looking west, with Cleveland's skyline looming in the distance. The stacks belong to the power plant at East 72nd Street, and its warm water outflow creates conditions that support some of the best wintertime gull-watching in North America. A staggering 19 species of gulls have been found in this area.

Last weekend, I had the great experience of once again leading excursions into Dike 14, along with Craig Caldwell. We were there as part of the Ohio Ornithological Society's annual meeting, and these events always include field trips. Craig and I took groups into the Dike on both Saturday and Sunday mornings, and collectively spent about eight hours there. As always, I was struck by the importance of this habitat, and how heavily it is used by migrant birds.

White-crowned Sparrow, immature.

October means sparrows at Dike 14, and we were nearly struck dumb with their overall numbers. Saturday morning saw massive numbers of White-throated Sparrows - probably several hundred. The next morning, hardly any of the melodious little whistlers were left, illustrating the dramatic shifts in migrant birds along the lakefront. There were lots of White-crowned Sparrows Saturday, but their numbers went over the top on Sunday - we must have seen 400-500! Just after dawn, the White-crowns could be seen dropping from the skies, coming in off the open lake waters and seizing on the green oasis of Dike 14 like parched nomads stumbling into a desert spring. As we traipsed over but a small portion of Dike 14, I spent time speculating how many White-crowned Sparrows might be present over its 88 acres. 800? 1,000? Even more? Probably.

A real plumpster, a stunning adult White-crowned Sparrow peeks from cover.

It wasn't just White-crowns, though. We also had scads of Chipping Sparrows, and Sunday brought big numbers of Savannah Sparrows. While waiting on the group in the post-dawn dimness, I was astonished to watch a group of about 45 Savannahs come in off the lake and drop into cover. They were joined by blizzards of Dark-eyed Juncos, Canadian birds all. We also saw Field Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, and had one flyover Lapland Longspur.

In total, our groups probably tallied 1,200 or more individuals in the sparrow tribe, and there were many more that we didn't see.
Dike 14 represents an enormous potential natural resource for the City of Cleveland. Over one-half million people live within a 30 minute or so drive. Because of its location directly on Lake Erie, the dike lures wildlife - birds, especially - that won't be seen in the inland Emerald Necklace parks. There is plenty of other wildlife on the dike, too. Above, a buck White-tailed Deer scopes us from cover. We saw him sparring with another buck, close enough to hear the thud of the antlers. Other mammals calling Dike 14 home include Mink, Coyote, Raccoon, Groundhog, Long-tailed Weasel, Eastern Cottontail, White-footed Mouse and more.

The butterfly list is impressive as well, and sometimes migrant Monarch butterflies mass here; a stopping point on their incredible journey to Mexico.
An Orange-crowned Warbler tees up for our Sunday group. Mid-October is getting a bit late in the game for most warblers, but tardy orange-crowns peak about now. They aren't common in Ohio, and we were thrilled to see it, even if this species is a bit on the dull side.

September can bring major numbers of warblers of many species to Dike 14, along with many other migrant songbirds. Northern Saw-whet and Long-eared Owls are regular, and other raptors frequenty drop in.

The potential for creating truly exceptional habitats at Dike 14 is nearly limitless. Now, it is largely overrun by non-native flora, but while the vegetation is ho-hum to a botanist, it still provides good habitat for birds. But with some work, the 88 acres could be a fantastic mosaic of wetlands, grasslands, and shrubs and trees, and Dike 14's value to the Great Lakes ecosystem would spike astronomically.
Our group of birders celebrates the Orange-crowned Warbler, which is in the White Mulberry tree behind them. It was a life bird for several in the crowd, and this thrill of discovery is one that has been repeated MANY times over the years at Dike 14.

I hope that the powers-that-be in Cleveland do the right thing with this sensational resource.

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