Sunday, January 22, 2012

Big mammals make for interesting birding

If you want a novel Ohio birding experience, visit the 10,000+ acre former strip mine lands known as the Wilds. Located in Muskingum County, this site is buffered by thousands of additional acres of strip mine reclamation grasslands, and the overall ambience suggests the plains of Africa.

I was there in late December to participate in the Chandlersville Christmas Bird Count - one of umpteen trips that I've made to this area over the years.

Wintertime on the Wilds. It does look rather bleak and inhospitable, and cold temperatures and unrelenting winds mean one had better bundle up. But the birding can be stellar, and raptors are the star of the wintertime show. Rough-legged Hawks, Northern Harriers, Merlin, Red-tailed Hawks, Short-eared Owls and more. Golden Eagles have wintered here for many years now, and one of Ohio's few Prairie Falcons returned to winter for two consecutive years (2004-05).

In regards to our bird count, I drew a plum assignment. Nina Harfmann and I were paired with Jenise Bauman, who is the Wilds' director of conservation science training, and that meant we had access to the fenced off grasslands. Vast tracts are surrounded by fences for a good reason, as we shall see. There's lots of great birds to be found within the Wilds' inner core and we found some goodies, but many an interesting mammal also lurks within the fenced confines.

Birders have long made the pilgrimage to the Wilds in winter, seeking owls and eagles and other feathered quarry. For seven years now, the Ohio Ornithological Society has hosted a winter raptor day in January, which has drawn upwards of 150 enthusiasts some years. Here, some birders take advantage of the massive birding platform which overlooks an enormous expanse of grassland dappled by ponds. The Ohio Division of Wildlife funded the platform to the tune of $55,000, and it is known as the Birding Station at Jeffrey Point. Oh, that's Bill of the Birds scoping things in the foreground.

Birding the core of the Wilds can be a surreal experience. Yes, those are camels on the crest of that distant ridge, Bactrian Camels to be specific. The Wilds' primary mission is as a wildlife conservation and research center, and they maintain about 30 species of large mammals, many of which are imperiled in their native ranges. As birders, we use landmarks to get our fellows on birds, and that makes for some interesting dialogue in this place: "Rough-legged Hawk, one o'clock and flying left - just shot by the camels!"

One of the most numerous mammals is one of our natives, the White-tailed Deer. They're everywhere, and their ranks include some impressively racked big bucks.

Here's a much smaller ungulate, the Sika Deer, which was once found throughout much of Eurasia. It has declined or disappeared from most of its original range. These are adults, which unlike our white-tailed deer retain their speckling into adulthood.

These lumbering brutes are my personal favorites at the Wilds: the Sichuan Takin. The musk-ox-looking mammals are indigenous to the slopes of the Himalayas, and are utterly impervious to cold. Even the most brutal winter day at the Wilds is nothing to them.

A Takin is rather charming in its own special way. Big bulls can weigh over 700 lbs, and they're not possessed of a very friendly temperament.

Cute as buttons, a pair of Persian Onagers buddy up. These asiatic wild asses are nearly gone from the wild, with only a few hundred left in two regions of Iran. Onagers are incredibly tolerant of temperature extremes, and can endure temperatures of well over 100 degrees - not an uncommon occurrence in their native range. In winter, they grow a thick coat of insulating fur and have no troubles dealing with frigid temperatures.

Completing the surrealistic Wilds landscape is the stunning Grevy's Zebra, which occurs in Ethiopia and Kenya. Less than 6,000 of these gorgeous mammals are thought to remain in the wild. This is the largest of the three zebra species, and a mature male can weigh nearly 1,000 pounds.

This is but a sampling of the mammals that the Wilds works with. Birders who recently attended the Ohio Ornithological Society's raptor day were delighted by a special visit to see a baby rhinoceros. The Wilds has successfully bred rhinos on a number of occasions, as they have several other species of imperiled animals. There are also Fringe-eared Oryx, Cheetah, African Wild Dog, and many more. While we visitors delight at seeing such beasts in a huge landscape where the animals can free-range over vast areas, the major mission of the Wilds is research and conservation. Understanding the basic biology of animals is key to successfully protecting these animals in the wild, and the Wilds is working with the rarest of the rare.

If you've not been to the Wilds, plan a visit. Consider becoming a member, too - their work is some of the most important and innovative animal conservation and research in the world. Not only that, but they're protecting outstanding habitat for wild birds, and the staff of the Wilds strongly supports bird conservation and the birding community.

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