Slate Run Metro Park in Pickaway County, Ohio. A section of the westernmost part of this 1,705 acre park is a mosaic of meadows, ponds, and wetlands.
It's sometimes easy to overlook the jewels in one's own backyard. Even though Slate Run is only a bit over a half-hour's drive, and it's been there for a while, I had never been to the place. That situation got remedied with two visits in the past few days, and I was impressed with what I found.
Immediately upon arrival, it was birds galore, and since finding and imaging the feathered crowd was the foremost priority of these expeditions, I was pleased indeed. Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks (wish they'd shorten that name! "Franklin County Metroparks") has long been a leader in ecological restoration and it shows at this park. Lots of native plant diversity in the wetlands and fields, and a logical blend of uplands and lowlands.
Slate Run was rich in sparrows during my visit, and their ranks included American Tree Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, and Eastern Towhee.
I crept into a good situation, and after a while the birds acclimated to my presence and carried on with their activities. This robin is perched on a perfectly sited log, which many of the birds used as a stop before or after a visit to the nearby water. While I like robins - one of the handsomest birds in North America, we're just jaded because they are so common - I've got scores of photos of them, and really hoped that a waxwing would tee up in this same spot.
The birds' close proximity allowed me to create portraiture shots such as this. This adult waxwing is impeccably groomed, as is typical.
Even this late in the year, the leaves of this understory plant remain green, and its branches drip with bright red berries. And the birds love 'em.
Amazingly, the various bush honeysuckles (there are a few invasive species) were still formally recommended as a wildlife planting by wildlife agencies into the 1990's - long after botanists and ecologists could have told them that this was a bad idea. The nursery trade must be implicated in this infestation, too, although I think by now virtually everyone has wised up and stopped selling the stuff.
But honeysuckle is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Even in a managed park such as Slate Run, there is far too much of it to eradicate.
I was pleased to hear the loud smacking CHAK! calls of a Fox Sparrow, and eventually saw 5 or 6 of the large handsome sparrows. I was not so pleased to see them succumbing to the honeysuckle addiction shared by many of their feathered companions. Note the evidence on the tip of this bird's bill.
So, if honeysuckle is such an abundant and rich source of bird food, what's the problem?
For one, the berries themselves. They are high in sugar and low in fat and protein - exactly the opposite of what birds need in winter. Native berry-producing shrubs produce far less fruit, but it provides much better nutritional needs for birds that might be subjected to severe cold snaps and ice storms which might largely lock the birds out of many food sources for days on end.
Too, the absolutely enormous berry crops lure many species to overwinter in much greater numbers far to the north of where they normally would. Like all those robins. This creates the potential for large winter die-off's, as has happened conspicuously with American Robins, should extended severe weather strike.
Honeysuckle also forms extensive tangles that choke out many/most native shrubs and other plants. It has been shown to be allelopathic as well - the roots exude enzymes which inhibit the growth of competing plant species. Botanical chemical warfare, if you will.
Perhaps most insidiously, the nonnative honeysuckles are unsuitable hosts for nearly all of our (in Ohio) 2,500+ moth and butterfly species. Their caterpillars cannot eat the stuff, because they share no evolutionary history. This means vast swaths of honeysuckle infestations that do not produce the caterpillars that are so essential to fueling our nesting and migrant songbirds.
On its face, the honeysuckle might seem a great thing for birds. But there is a much darker side to this story.