Sunday, December 22, 2013

Birding (and mammaling) at the Wilds

Yesterday was the Chandlersville Chistmas Bird Count, ably orchestrated by compiler Scott Albaugh. Scott's been running the count for the past five years or so, and I've been along for all or most of them. The day dawned overcast and rainy, and it didn't abate until the very end of the day. At least it was fairly warm, with temperatures in the upper 50's. Such wet balmy weather allowed us to add an amphibian to the count list - Spring Peeper.

The 15-mile diameter count circle is quite diverse, including large tracts of woodlands, numerous ponds and wetlands, and vast grasslands. It's a lot of ground to cover, and we don't have too many people to deploy. If you enjoy bird counts, put the Chandlersville count on your calendar for next year.

Most birders know this region of southeastern Muskingum County because of the Wilds, a sprawling 10,000-acre large animal conservation and research facility. The Wilds, and thousands of acres of surrounding lands, were cleared and flattened in the course of coal strip mining. Diverse mixed mesophytic forests were destroyed, and in their place, "reclamation" resulted in expansive rolling grasslands. But to make lemonade from lemons, the new and utterly artificial grasslands have proven to be beneficial breeding habitat for a declining suite of grassland birds, and good wintering grounds for a variety of raptors.

I am fortunate indeed that Mr. Albaugh assigns me to cover the fenced off interior of the Wilds. These areas are normally off-limits, unless you take one of the tours in the open season. The Wilds provides us with hosts who escort our team throughout the inner sanctum, and it is always interesting. Kudos to the management of the Wilds for supporting research, surveys, and management of native birds, in addition to their core work involving large mammals.

Susan Nash and I were paired with Win Fox and Rachael Glover, who are apprentices at the Wilds. They were fabulous hosts and excellent spotters, and shuttled us though the core of the Wilds. Once inside the fence, one will quickly be reminded who the VIP's are. These Bactrian Camels were reticent to move from the road as we approached.

The Wilds' various big game comes first, and all we could do was hope that the camels decided to allow us past. They did, finally, sidling to the edge of the road while we hoped that they wouldn't spit in the window.

At another point, a fine herd of Bactrian Deer browsed near the road. Note the herd's stud-in-chief, center, with the huge rack. In all, the Wilds works with over 20 species of large mammals, including rarities such as Przewalski’s Wild Horse. This species had disappeared from its native range in Mongolia and China by the end of the 1960's. The Wilds' and other facilities' successful propagation programs has allowed about 400 of the horses to be reintroduced back into their native haunts.

The Wilds also works with Cheetah, Fringe-eared Oryx, Greater One-horned Asian Rhino, Persian Onager, Giraffe, African Wild Dog and many others. Seeing strange beasts such as these as one birds the place is a rather surreal experience. Be sure and take a tour of the Wilds sometime. It is one of the most interesting outdoor experiences that one can find in Ohio. CLICK HERE for details.

Many indigenous mammals also can be found on the Wilds' property. This Red Fox (some would argue it ISN'T native!) was huddled in a sheltered spot along a fence, trying its best to stay out of the steady rain. Scores of White-tailed Deer roam the landscape, as do plenty of Coyotes. This area seems to have plenty of Bobcats, too, and I saw my first wild one here back in 2009, and detailed the experience, with photos, RIGHT HERE.

In spite of the nonstop rain, we did fairly well with the birds. Our team tallied 46 species, including plenty of waterfowl, a count first Double-crested Cormorant, two Ruffed Grouse, three Short-eared Owls, gorgeous examples of both light and dark morph Rough-legged Hawks, and much more.

If you want an interesting wintertime immersion into the Wilds, consider signing up for the Ohio Ornithological Society's annual foray on January 18th. We've been doing this event for a decade, and about 150 birders usually show up. It's a blast, with lots of interesting birding. Details HERE.

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