Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Wilds Winter Raptor Extravaganza

Yesterday dawned bright and unseasonably balmy for the 9th annual Wilds Winter Raptor Extravaganza, organized by the Ohio Ornithological Society. As if heralding the beautiful day to come, three Eastern Meadowlarks lit on the wires just beyond the telephone pole as I made this photo. Filled with the promise of spring, the males burst forth with their clear whistled songs - a classic melody of the grasslands. I didn't make any photos of the meadowlarks, or any other birds for that matter. The Canon largely stayed in the car, as we were too busy finding birds and sharing them with our group, and photography had to take a backseat.

Temperatures were in the 30's at starting time, a far cry from a few years ago, when it was an insanely cold minus 12 when participants mustered in this parking lot. Highs would reach into the low 50's, and coupled with the clear blue ether overhead it made for a fabulous mid-winter day to be afoot with bins in hand.

The primary allure, as you've figured by the name of this event, is raptors. Lots of birds of prey frequent the many thousands of acres of grasslands that blanket the Wilds and surrounding American Electric Power lands. We saw American Kestrel, Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk and many other species, including a very special performance by the most coveted of the talon-bearing set.

About 155 people showed up for this year's event, which is about typical. In order to manage things and keep everyone out of each other's hair, we divide into eight groups and all head off in different directions. Having some 30,000 acres to fool around in allows for that. Mike Edinger and I led Group 4, and we did some bushwhacking. As part of the "reclamation" of these former strip mine sites, groves of pines have been planted here and there. Most of our group split up and furtively sneaked about these pines, on an owl quest.

We did have success, finding two Long-eared Owls. Unfortunately the owls were uncooperative and we could not get a long range bead on them as they roosted, so we moved the group out. Repeatedly flushing roosting owls is bad for their business; if you can't arrange a way to view Long-eareds from afar and out of their sphere of discomfort, it's better to just leave them be.

But we did snatch up a few pellets. A tiny Meadow Vole skull (I think) sits on a nice bed of digested and upchucked fur.

We also hit a few woodland habitats, in an effort to pick up new birds for the day list. We had a Red-shouldered Hawk at this spot, and a few other species that we found nowhere else.

Two groups meet up along Zion Ridge Road. Vultures were the main attraction here. Down the hill to the left was either a carcass of something, or perhaps fresh afterbirth from one of the cows that was frequenting the pasture. No volunteers could be located that would go down there and check it out. No matter, we had fabulous looks at numerous Turkey Vultures, and better yet, three Black Vultures. We rarely find vultures at this event - normally it is bitter cold and snowy, and the massive carrion-eaters are in balmier climes. I think these were the first Black Vultures that we have ever had.

A very happy group puts their hands in the air like they just don't care after being treated to an outstanding experience with a Golden Eagle. The Wilds is the only Ohio locale where one can go and have a reasonable expectation of seeing one of these magnificent raptors. At least one bird, and sometimes more, has wintered here every year for a dozen years or more. But just because they're here doesn't mean a sighting is guaranteed. The Goldens cover a massive range, and some years we find one, others not.

Following lunch shift #1, a good chunk of the people took a bus ride over to the Giraffe House to see the long-necked beasts up close. A few of us waited around on top of restaurant hill, when Larry Dow spotted the bird far off and on the wing. Closer it came, until the eagle settled at the edge of a distant pond and began digging into some sort of carcass. We rued the absence of the other people and wished for them to hurry back. Finally, we saw the bus pull out from the Giraffe House and head up the very road that skirted the pond where Golden Eagle was happily chowing down. Alas! The bird flew before the bus got within view, and quickly drifted behind a hill and out of sight.

Upon the return of the others, who were understandably disappointed to have missed the eagle show, we set up a vigil and hoped for the bird's return. And return it did, the succulent carcass apparently too tasty to leave alone. So now, nearly half of the entire group was treated to great views of the Golden, but another group had bused off to the Rhinoceros House. Deja vu, as we hoped they would return in time to see the bird. Finally, the bus came lumbering up the road towards the eagle pond, and we hoped they would spot the bird in time to stop and view it before it flew. Not to worry - sharp-eyed observers on the bus saw the bird and everyone on board had great looks, and from far closer than those of us on the distant hill. That's the bus in the distance; the eagle is not far to their right and just on the other side of the road.

The primary reason we limit the Raptor Extravaganza to 150 or so is the size of the restaurant. The Wilds staff kindly opens the building for us and it's a welcome lunchtime respite from the wind and chill. But it only holds 75 people, so we split the group into two lunch shifts, packing the place each time.

We're even treated to a brief presentation about the Wilds by the education department staff. Lunch shift #1 went smoothly. However, right in the middle of lunch shift #2's presentation, pandemonium erupted when the aforementioned Golden Eagle had the bad manners to fly right by the restaurant's windows. Apparently a shout went up and the place cleared in the blink of an eye. Well, at least that meant that nearly every participant at this year's Extravaganza got to see the eagle, and that certainly doesn't happen every year.

The Wilds Winter Raptor Extravaganza is always a blast, and brings birders from all parts of Ohio. This year there were quite a few young birders, some very young, and a fair number of new birders. We had a great time as always, with lots of interesting birds, including Common Redpoll and Northern Shrike in addition to those already mentioned. And of course part of the fun is seeing people only uncommonly encountered, and meeting new birders.

The Ohio Ornithological Society does a lot for Ohio's birding community, the Raptor Extravaganza being just one of many yearly activities. Consider becoming a member. We'll be doing the raptor event again next year, I'm sure, and I hope that you can be there.

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