Thursday, February 27, 2014
It's high time to get spring's schedule straight, and high time I plugged the New River Birding & Nature Festival! This event is centered on one of North America's great biological hotspots, the ancient New River at Fayetteville, West Virginia. This year's dates are April 28th to May 3rd, and if you want to start spring off with a bang, make this scene. The festival has no peer when it comes to beauty of the scenery, biological diversity, and quality of the guides and speakers (possibly excepting your narrator). Following are some photos of what you can expect to see; for the complete festival low-down, CLICK HERE.
I hope you can make it, and CLICK HERE for registration information.
If you want to read more firsthand accounts and see plenty of photos, type in New River in the search box in the upper lefthand corner of this page. I've made many posts about this festival in past years.
We've never had a Black Skimmer in Ohio, and I don't expect that we will. But if one were to turn up here, now, it'd hurt its beak. Most all of our water is still in ice, and that doesn't make for good skimming. Here in the North it is the winter that won't end. It is 16 F as I write, and tomorrow's high will be 18 F, dropping to a low of 6 tomorrow night. For the most part, low temperatures such as those are forecast for the next week or so.
Perhaps if I offer up this Black Skimmer as a photographic propitiation to the gods of summer, heat, and sun, they will make winter relinquish its hold.
Monday, February 24, 2014
Saturday, February 22, 2014
A big female Great Horned Owl stands sentinel at the entrance to her nest site, a broken snag. Gary Meszaros took this photo the other day near Cleveland, and (obviously) gave me permission to share it. This is without doubt one of the coolest images of this species that I've seen. To see more of Gary's work, CLICK HERE.
Great Horned Owls are surprisingly common, and no doubt lurk near you. They are the nocturnal analogs to Red-tailed Hawks, so if you see the latter chances are good the big owls are around, too. In fact, the most common nest site for these owls, in these parts, are the nests of Red-tailed Hawks. If the larger more powerful owls decide to appropriate a hawk nest, tough luck to the rusty-tailed raptor. A distant second regarding nest sites are broken-off tree snags, such as in Gary's photo. A small percentage of owls will modify squirrel drays for nests. A dray is a leafy arboreal nest of tree squirrels. Occasionally an owl pair will commandeer a Great Blue Heron nest, creating an uneasy alliance when the herons return to their rookery.
The big owls commence nesting in the midst of winter. Eggs are commonly laid between mid-January and mid-February, and at least some nests will be full of owlets by now. The downy white owlets grow with startling rapidity, and before long resemble fuzzy grocery sacks. Their parents ply them with all manner of food - Great Horned Owls have the most diverse diet of any of our owls. Even skunks are not off limits.
The Great Horned Owl is one of my favorite birds, and I've amassed a significant body of unforgettable memories involving these "winged tigers" (in the words of Ernest Thompson Seton). Once, while cruising a back road in Ross County in the darkness, I rounded a corner and there was a Great Horned Owl in the middle of the road. It had a freshly killed rabbit. The owl ran me through with its piercing yellow gaze, and refused to leave its kill. Finally, the prey being too much to get airborne, it stumble-flapped its victim up the road bank and into the bush.
Another time, I was passing through the heart of the Ohio State University's campus, at 15th Avenue and High Street, not far from downtown Columbus, when the giant shape of a horned owl whisked ghostlike through the intersection. Some owls are quite the urbanites, and woe to any rat that crosses their path.
Several years ago, a Great Horned Owl nest was discovered mere feet from busy Cleveland Avenue in Columbus. It had appropriated a Red-tailed Hawk nest high in a silver maple on the grounds of St. Ann's Hospital. Word got out, the Columbus Dispatch featured the owl in its pages, and the rush began. The hospital ended up cordoning off a big chunk of parking lot to accommodate the throngs of admirers. Thousands of people must have seen that fierce-looking owl as she sit high above, occasionally deigning to glance down at the assembled rabble with her glaring eyes. In spite of her innate ability to make us feel less than, everyone was thoroughly charmed by the animal.
We've come a long way in our attitudes towards high-end predators such as the Great Horned Owl. It wasn't that long ago that owls and hawks were routinely shot on sight, sometimes to the point of utter elimination. Less than a century ago, it would have been very hard to find a Great Horned Owl in the region where Meszaros made this photo. Nearly all of them had been shot out.
Keep a close eye on hawk and heron nests in your travels. Sooner or later, you'll see the telltale ear tufts of a Great Horned Owl sticking over the top, or the big pieces of white fuzz which are the owlets.
Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Even though Lesser and Greater Scaup look very similar and can be confusing to separate, the two species are apples to oranges. Greaters are far hardier, and are normally rare to casual at best away from the open waters of Lake Erie. Lesser Scaup winter commonly to the Gulf Coast and beyond - I have this species on my Guatemala list. While Greater Scaup are not technically "sea ducks", they are the closest thing to them in the genus Aythya. Most Greaters winter in salt water along the coasts, although a fair number ride out winter on the Great Lakes.
Bruce Satta took this gorgeous image of a Long-tailed Duck (Oldsquaw) on the tailwaters below the Deer Creek dam several days prior to my visit. I was really hoping it, or another, would be there but no such luck. But as the (former) Oldsquaw is central to this story, I wanted to use a photo of one of the central Ohio birds, and Bruce was kind enough to allow the use of his image.
Long-tailed Ducks have also been turning up in large (for Ohio) numbers away from Lake Erie. Like the Greater Scaup, this sea duck is most often seen on our Great Lake, and sightings inland are few and far between. This winter, it seems that any area with open water might produce one or a few.
These Arctic-nesting ducks are extraordinary divers, and are capable of propelling themselves to depths of 200 feet or more. Mussels are a favored prey.
In tandem with all of the inland Long-tailed Duck reports have been a raft of White-winged Scoter sightings. This astonishing shot was made by Kirk Hewitt at Lake Isabella in Hamilton County. The bird struggles with a massive fish (it recalls THIS POST), but like the Long-tailed Duck, mussels are the preferred foodstuff of White-winged Scoters.
An interesting facet of the recent scoter invasion is that all, or nearly all reports are of White-winged Scoters. Not Black or Surf scoters. Why might that be? One important difference between the three species involves feeding habits. Blacks and Surfs are relative shallow divers, typically foraging in waters less than 30 feet deep. White-winged Scoters tend to dive to much deeper depths, often feeding on submerged mussel beds in waters 65 feet deep, and deeper. Thus, the white-wingeds can hang out in deeper waters than their scoter brethren, and often do.
Long-tailed Ducks and White-winged Scoters have invaded inland areas throughout the eastern U.S., not just Ohio. To get a feel for the extent of this sea duck incursion, CHECK OUT eBird.
This U.S. EPA map shows the various water depths of Lake Erie. The majority of the lake ranges from 50 to well over 100 feet in depth (the average depth is 62 feet). From my experience, the deeper (blue) portions are those most likely to support open leads in shifting ice, and that's where the birds are in iced-over winters. And there are undoubtedly plenty of beds of tasty nonnative zebra and quagga mussels down on the bottom; a relatively new (first found in 1988) food source that seems to have lured more sea ducks such as scoters and Long-tailed Ducks to spend time, and even overwinter, on Lake Erie.
Remember, both the Long-tailed Duck and White-winged Scoter are champion divers, routinely submerging to depths of 60 feet or more to feed. Mussel beds in the deeper portions of the lake would not be off-limits to them, although they might be avoided by lesser divers such as Black and Surf scoters.
I wonder if our major inland incursion of Long-tailed Ducks and White-winged Scoters is related to Lake Erie's (and perhaps lakes Huron and Superior) nearly complete covering of ice. If this is the case, it would show how much we have yet to learn about the lake. Because of the nearly inaccessible nature of open leads in Lake Erie ice, we know very little about the numbers and species of ducks that may overwinter on them. This brutal and nearly complete freeze may have forced these birds off the lake (and perhaps other Great Lakes) and into more easily observed situations. And given us a window into the numbers of Long-tailed Ducks and White-winged Scoters (and Greater Scaup) that might be wintering out there.
Sunday, February 16, 2014
It's nice to see a bird species garnering more ink in the papers than most politicians. Today's Columbus Dispatch featured an article on Snowy Owls, peppered with photos from a number of Ohio photographers. The images are stunning, and a must-see. Read the article RIGHT HERE.
Snowy Owls have garnered lots of press this winter. Their irruption into the Midwest and eastern U.S. has been nothing short of phenomenal, and of such a scope that probably no one alive would have remembrances of a comparable event. It would probably be necessary to go back to the 1920's to recall an irruption of similar scale.
The Ohio total, insofar as I know, stands at 165 owls in 56 counties. New reports have tapered off, but still trickle in and I'm sure we'll learn of more. Many of these reports have come well after the fact, as observers learn that someone is interested in sightings after reading an article such as the one cited in this post. My updated map is below, and shows an interesting but expected distributional pattern. Owl reports are mostly lacking from the southeastern third of Ohio. That's the unglaciated hill country, which features rough topography and lots of forest. In large, not great Snowy Owl habitat. Owls have been reported from most of the glaciated northern and western parts of the state, and it isn't very daring to speculate that our large Arctic visitors have occurred in ALL of those counties.
For more details on Snowy Owl sightings in Ohio, CLICK HERE.
Thursday, February 13, 2014
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
These excellent images come courtesy of Ian Adams, celebrated landscape and nature photographer, and I appreciate him allowing me to share them. Shortly after Ian put out feeders at his Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio residence, he attracted this oddity to the tubed up thistle seeds. That's a male American Goldfinch up top, still largely in its somber winter colors. It won't be too much longer, and it'll shed those bland feathers and explode into the brilliant lemony hues of a wild canary.
The lower bird is not as clearcut an identification, and could be a stumper if it were seen by itself. The fact that it consorts with goldfinches helps on two counts: guilt by association, and the fact that we can readily compare it to other normally clad members of its species.
We beam in on the ghostbird, and can easily see the trademark characters of a male American Goldfinch bleeding through. This individual is leucistic (loo-kis-tik), leucism referring to a genetic anomaly that causes dark melanin pigments to become washed out and pale. I've written about leucistic birds plenty of times, and THIS ACCOUNT gives a more in-depth explanation of the phenomenon. Leucistic animals are sometimes confused with albinos, but the latter would have pink eyes and most likely be snow-white. Truly albino birds generally don't fare well, either, at least in the wild. Their feather shafts and other supporting structures tend to be weakened, and their vision can be impaired, none of which aids survival.
The prevalence of leucism is probably essentially an odds game. The more individuals in a species' population, the more likely a leucistic individual will show up. That's why "piebald" (as leucistic animals patchily blotched with white are often known) are commonly reported in abundant species such as American Robins, Red-tailed Hawks, and White-tailed Deer.
Thanks to Ian for sharing his images. I hope this goldfinch sticks around so that we can see what if anything changes as it progresses through its molt into alternate plumage. If you're in the Cuyahoga Falls area and are interested in seeing/photographing this ghostly goldfinch, flip me an email and I'll pass along Ian's contact info.
Sunday, February 9, 2014
I visited this Delaware County residence yesterday, after being tipped off to the amazing assemblage of birds by Dick Miller, whose sister and brother-in-law, Mike and Becky Jordan, reside in the home. Mike and Becky have been very gracious in extending their hospitality to visitors, including your narrator, which is much appreciated!
I'm not going to post their address on the Internet, but Mike and Becky do welcome birders who would like to witness the phenomenon that unfolds in the following photos. If you would like to visit, just send me an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pass along the pertinent information.
It was a frosty 2 degrees F upon arrival, warming only to 16 F by my departure. Observing and photographing this spectacular flock of birds was well worth lying in the icy snow, and enduring the Arctic temperatures.
The birds now seem to recognize Mike, and when he heads out in the morning, grain bucket in hand, they begin swarming towards the house, filling the air with rattles and whistles.
The BIG THREE of midwinter open country feeding flocks are Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, and Snow Buntings. All three species are in this image. The buntings are self-explanatory: brilliant white flashes adorn their wings and tail, hence one of their colloquial names, "Snowflakes". A dark-winged Horned Lark is bookended by Lapland Longspurs at the top of the image, and another lark is bottom left. Just to the right of the lower lark is another longspur, showing its white outer tail feathers.
The earliest of these tough songbirds will begin to arrive at Arctic breeding locales in April, when winter still has a strong hold and conditions are harsh. One way in which they cope is to burrow into the snow at night, creating sheltered bivouacs. Mike and Becky have observed them doing just that in the adjacent fields, in order to survive subzero temperatures and brutal wind chills.
The name "longspur" stems from the greatly elongated hind claw, which can be seen in this photo.
I will leave you with this brief video of birds swarming about the Jordan's drive. The action will probably remain strong as long as snow blankets the ground, but when it melts the birds will forsake the cracked corn donations and head back into the fields to forage.
Thanks again to Becky and Mike for their hospitality, and I'm sure that buntings/larks/longspurs thank them as well. Again, if you wish to visit, feel free to contact me for information.
Friday, February 7, 2014
I made this photo in 2011, at a wetland in Florida. This Great Blue Heron was wrestling with some sort of huge catfish (I think it was a catfish). We were amazed that the heron could even pick the thing up. Circumstances dictated our departure before the drama played out. I don't know if the bird ever managed to wolf that thing down.
It seems that some birds have eyes bigger than their stomachs. If potential food swims along, they just can't resist grabbing it, even if choking it down may be problematic.
Leslie Sours sent along a fabulous series of images of a Common Loon successfully capturing and swallowing an impressively large fish. I can't tell what species the victim is; if anyone knows, let us know. If I remember the story correctly, this loon was frozen into a patch of water too small to take off from, and was captured and released elsewhere in the Columbus area.
The following images document the epic struggle between the gluttonous loon and the unfortunate fish.
That oughta hold the loon over for a while! Thanks to Leslie for sharing her images!
Wednesday, February 5, 2014
I was conferring today with Mary Ann Barnett today, who serves (quite well!) as CEO of Mothapalooza. CLICK HERE for a post I recently made about this event, and HERE to go to the event's website.
We opened Mothapalooza for registration about a week ago, and have already filled 84 of the 120 available spots. As anyone who gets involved in conference organization knows, this is an enviable spot to be in, especially as the event doesn't take place until the end of June. I must confess to being a bit surprised by this moth fervor. When we cooked up Mothapalooza I, which took place last year, and it attracted 120+ people, we all were a bit shell-shocked. But because of that experience, we weren't too surprised to see how rapidly Mothapalooza II is filling.
Anyway, I make this post as a reminder to sign on soon if you wish to make the scene. It'll be an awesome time, I guarantee you that. REGISTRATION IS HERE.
Tuesday, February 4, 2014
While Snowy Owl reports are slowing, I'm still regularly receiving new ones. Reports come in via the Ohio Birds Listserv, various Facebook groups, and personal messages. A recent article in Ohio Outdoor News triggered receipt of at least a half-dozen new reports, none of which would have probably made their way to the birding community. To date, we're up to at least 159 owls in 54 counties. There will definitely be more. I've heard of a number of injured birds that were taken to rehab facilities, but have not yet run down details on those birds.
An updated map is below. As always, if you know of other owls, please let me know. And of course, if anyone sees errors, omissions, numbers that need to go up, down, or whatever, please do correct me. There will always be some margin of error when trying to tally Snowy Owls, especially at certain Lake Erie locales where it is impossible to know with certainty if the same owl is being counted twice as they shift around. But I stand ready to be corrected by those who know better.
As word of the Snowy Owl irruption has spread through both traditional media and social media, an increased number of reports have come in from nonbirders. Prior to seeing a story or post about the owls, these observers didn't know if anyone would be interested or where to go to report their finds. Most of these reports have either had photos attached, or good descriptions. I am always interested in Snowy Owl reports and you can email me at: email@example.com
For more information about Snowy Owls in Ohio, and their probable source of origin, scroll down the alphabetized index of subjects on the righthand side of this page, and click on "Snowy Owl". This is certainly the largest irruption to hit Ohio in decades. The last invasion to rival this one was in the winter of 1949-50 when at least 41 birds were tallied in northeast Ohio, and an unspecified "Sizable numbers... along western Lake Erie and south to Cincinnati" (from Peterjohn, Birds of Ohio 2001). One must go back further, such as the winters of 1941-42, when perhaps 150 birds appeared in the Cleveland area alone, to find larger irruptions.
It is reasonable to assume that many more owls dot our landscape that haven't come to light. Keep your eyes open for large white objects in fields, on fence posts, telephone poles or other prominent perches in open landscapes. A few observers found their owl when it flew right in front of their vehicle. Alas, vehicles are one of the snowies' biggest downfalls, and many get Buick'ed during these irruptions. I know of at least four roadkills so far in Ohio.
To keep up on many of the current sightings, join the Ohio Birds Listserv or skim the Facebook Birding Ohio page.