Sunday, December 30, 2007


This odd plant would seem a seasonally apropos topic, although seeking strange plants wasn't my number one priority today. Nope, birds were the target today - it was the running of the re-scheduled Beaver Christmas Bird Count, and I went down to the hill country to cover my favorite CBC area. I've been doing the same Jackson County patch since the inception of this count, in the early 1990's, I believe. My turf contains a real diversity of habitats, and is very rural. It's great to be able to stop nearly anywhere, as traffic is nearly non-existent.

Today, Blue Jays, which are truly a botanical bird, ruled. They were everywhere; the Numero Uno species. This abundance of Bluish Screamers undoubtedly speaks to the lush acorn crop, and the woods in my area are mostly upland oak-hickory that produced plenty of Blue Jay bounty. There were other goodies, too, chief among them a Wilson's Snipe in a wet pasture that often has them if conditions have been mild enough. Also had three Hermit Thrushes, a shy species that winters here in Ohio in far greater numbers than is widely known, particularly in the state's southern reaches.

Anyway, while traveling one of the back roads I came upon one of my favorite trees in Ohio. It is a massive White Oak, Quercus alba, all by its lonesome in a mowed pasture. I think I first saw this tree 10 or 12 years ago while passing through the area with Dave Minney, and it's good to renew its acquaintance again each year when doing the Beaver CBC. This gnarled old beast is copiously festooned with Mistletoe, Phoradendron leucarpum.

From head to toe, this grand old oak is covered with orbicular masses of Mistletoe, which generally is not a common plant in Ohio. Mistletoe-seekers will want to travel to the Ohio River Valley, as the vast majority of this arboreal plant is found right along the banks of the Ohio River, which pretty much marks the northern limits of its range. This tree is a good 30 miles north of the river, and Mistletoe gets pretty scarce this far from our largest stream. The massive clusters of this evergreen epiphyte lend the tree a strange, diseased look, and I always wonder if the landowners know what it is. I imagine so; you just can't miss the "toe" and anyone would wonder what it is and probably make the effort to find out its identity. In fact, maybe they want more. Judging by all of the newly planted seedling protected by "deer tubes", they've planted a lot more trees in the pasture since my last visit.

A zoomed in view of the Mistletoe plants. These are some healthy plants, for sure. This is the very species that has been popularized in Yuletime tradition. Not the easiest thing to collect, I can tell you. It's normally just too high up in the trees. One effective method that I can't publicly endorse is to shoot it from the boughs with a shotgun. I've heard that works well. The fleshy succulent green leaves grow right from the trunks and branches, where they are attached by specialized roots known as haustoria. Mistletoe blooms quite late - mid-November or even into December, although noticing the flowers is hard in the wild. The seeds are quite sticky, and birds are undoubtedly the primary dispersers.
I wish this mistletoe oak well, and hope to visit it for many years to come.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Winter Botanizing

Last Saturday was the Wooster Christmas Bird Count, organized by Roger Troutman. He's been at it a while, like 50 years or so. It's an interesting count circle, containing Killbuck and Funk Bottoms wildlife areas among other good bird-seeking spots.

My area included what is easily the most interesting botanical feature in the count circle, but hey, this isn't the Christmas Plant Count. Nonetheless, I made a point of walking through the swamp woods that buffer Brown's Lake Bog, and on into the bog. As any seasoned birder knows, you'll find more birds when you are out and about on foot, when all of your senses can come into play. In fact, just south of the bog, we were walking McFadden Road when I heard approaching geese. In addition to the Canadas, the high-pitched tinny calls of Cackling Geese rose from the pack, and moments later three of these pint-sized honkers passed over with a number of Canada Geese. They really sound different, and we would have never found them from the confines of an automobile.

On to the bog...

Brown's Lake Bog doesn't look like much in winter. This is the bog's core, with the deep pool of open water frozen over. A few thousand years ago, the open water would have been far more expansive. Over time, nature reclaims these kettle lakes with vegetation, and different plant communities form in concentric bands around the water. The outermost zones are swamp forest; inside of that are shrub zones; and ringing the water is the most interesting habitat, open bog mat.

Not a bog plant, but nonetheless interesting. We saw the old pods of this conspicuous plant nearby. It's Wild Cucumber, Echinocystis lobata. The spiny fruit are quite distinctive, as is its vining habitat.
Here's a true bog plant, Tawny Cottongrass, Eriophorum virginicum. Quite the rarity in Ohio, it is only found in bogs. The cotton candy-like tufts from the inflorescences persist well into winter, and one might argue that the plant looks at its best this time of year. Long, silky bristles attached to the achenes (seeds) create the showy tufts. The genus Eriophorum is quite northern; only two species occur this far south but there are plenty of them in the arctic.

To many plant enthusiasts, this is the creme de la creme of bog plants. Northern Pitcher-plant, Sarracenia purpurea, still looks good in the winter. The anthocyanins (colored pigments) in the leaves become bolder after the growing season, creating brilliant reddish-purple splashes amongst the soft lime-green beds of Sphagnum moss.

Straight down the gullet of a pitcher. This is a carnivorous plant, one of few true plant carnivores in Ohio. These modified leaves are effective traps, and enable the plant to capture insects; effective sources of nitrogen and protein. In the bottom of the leaf pools rainwater, injected with chemicals produced by the plant that reduce bouyancy and speed digestion. Basically, if you are a bug and fall in, it will be hard to float, and your soft parts won't last long. Those stiff, whitish hairs lining the throat are retrorsely directed; that is, they point down. That's great for the bug walking into the trap, but very bad for the bug that wises up and decides to bail. Quite hard going against those hairs, you know.
After the brief botanical interlude, it was back to tallying birds. We didn't find anything to top the Cackling Geese, but a Short-eared Owl was nice, as were two American Pipits.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Strange place for an owl...

This was THE YEAR for Northern Saw-whet Owls. Fall 2007 saw unprecendented numbers of the tiny hooters moving south, no doubt because favored prey such as Red-backed Voles had crashed in the north woods. Probably somewhere on the order of 200 were reported from Ohio between mid-October and now, which surely crushes any existing previous tallies. Much of the total is attributable to two banding stations, one in Chillicothe and Tom Bartlett's efforts on Kelleys Island.

Bruce Peterjohn, in his book The Birds of Ohio (2001) states "Their fall migration has never been well defined in Ohio". Probably true at the time Bruce penned those words, but it shows how fast our knowledge of a species can evolve. Almost entirely because of banding studies, we are learning much more of the southward movements of these furtive hooters.

But, surprises always await, and Laurie Boylan sent along a neat one recently. Her friend Audrey Dragony was exiting the Diamond Building in downtown Cleveland - at Superior and 12th - on October 27th, about 11:30 pm, and noticed a small brown lump on the sidewalk. A closer look revealed an apparently unhurt Northern Saw-whet Owl sitting like a little avian panhandler. Audrey had her camera - good work, Audrey! - and snapped the following photo.

"Hey bud, gotta bit of change for an owl down on his luck" At least he didn't have a sign saying "Owl will work for food - help a hooter in need"!

Audrey's sighting coincides with the beginning of saw-whet migration, and it's appearance in the cement jungle of downtown Cleveland isn't as odd as it may seem. Being hard on the shores of Lake Erie, many migrant birds crossing the lake hit shore here, and filter through the inner city. I've seen tiny postage-stamp downtown parks in Cleveland swarming with migrants in fall just after dawn.

Hopefully this saw-whet overcame its disorientation, picked up and moved on. It probably did. Thanks to Audrey and Laurie for sharing this interesting experience with us!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Tough Little Hummer

Most people think of hummingbirds while sharing thoughts of warm weather and abundant flowering plants. After all, hummers are truly botanical birds, thriving on nectar. The amazing eons-long process of evolution has sculpted the bills of hummingbirds into amazing appendages, aptly suited for reaching into all manner of flowers and extracting the goods.

There is also a frequent misconception that hummingbirds are rather wimpy and certainly not cold-tolerant. That's not true, at least in many cases. I think this is in part because they are so small, and to many of our minds, cute. So, something so small and cute can't possibly endure the rigors of an Ohio - or Wisconsin (think Green-breasted Mango) winter. But they can, and do. As for wimpy, well, if most hummingbirds were the size of swans, we'd all be dead. They'd impale us on those spike-like bills and cast us aside if we horned in on their action. Just watch some hummingbirds around a feeder, and how they deal with each other, and other birds.

But enough of that. The other day, Steve McKee, Director of Richland County Parks, phoned with news of a Selasphorus hummingbird that was visiting a feeding station in Mansfield. I use the genus name Selasphorus because this bird was a female or immature, so it could be either a Rufous or Allen's Hummingbird. Separating the two in the field is tough to impossible if they aren't adult males. All of the data thus far compiled on Ohio's birds points to Rufous, as every one of these Selasphorus so far verified has proven to be just that. Still, Allen's has been recorded in the east and is possible. Consequently, if we want to verify the identity of a non-adult male Selasphorus hummingbird, it requires either capturing it, or obtaining nearly impossible to get closeup photos of the tail. The latter is a real trick on a free-flying hummer.

So, we enlisted the aid of Michigan-based hummingbird researcher Allen Chartier, who graciously agreed to make the journey to Mansfield today. Allen loves to work with these sprites, and has banded many hundreds of hummingbirds. Because of his work, and other researchers like him, we've learned a lot about the peregrinations of these vagrant western species, like the Rufous Hummingbird, that show up in the east. Since the first Rufous Hummingbird was documented in Ohio in 1985, the numbers have steadily increased, and we've had several dozen records since.

Following are pictorial highlights of today's adventure.
It didn't take long to spot the hummingbird. Within 20 minutes or so of our arrival it zoomed in and began lapping up sugar-water from its favored feeder. Even in this distant in-flight shot, the strongly rufous flanks can be made out.
Now that we've got the lay of the land and a sense of the hummer's modus operandi, Allen moves in to set the trap. As you might imagine, capturing a hummingbird isn't that easy, and standard tricks like mist nests won't generally work. That's why Allen has placed that cage where the feeder was. Looks like something you'd keep a canary in. He's getting ready to place the feeder inside the cage.

As is I earlier said, it's good this hummer isn't Tundra Swan-sized or it probably would have dealt severely with Allen. While he was setting the trap, it waited impatiently nearby. Then it went through a brief, very brief, curiosity phase. I would too. After all, the normally unadorned feeder is now encaged in a large contraption built of wires. This sends up a red flag to the bird, and it flies briefly about, investigating the trap. Here, it cocks a tiny eye at the setup. Seconds later, we had it.Allen is reaching through the trap door and gently extracting the now caught hummingbird. The trap's a pretty cool device. Although intrusive in appearance, it seldom dissuades the hummingbirds for long. They are so fixated on the feeder that they'll fly right over, and buzz around the bars looking for a way in. Soon, they come to the open door and shoot right in to happily lap up sugar-water. Allen, watchfully waiting in the wings, triggers a James Bond-like remote control that causes the door to fall shut. And we've got it. And now is where experience kicks in. Becoming licensed to band these tiniest of birds is not easy, and requires gaining lots of experience and apprenticeships with other banders. Allen had this bird out of the trap and in the bag in seconds - not an easy feat!

Ann, the homeowner, was very interested in her bird and very gracious towards us. She allowed Allen to set up a temporary hummingbird lab in the study, so we could work with the bird out of the cold. For its benefit, not ours. In addition to placing a tiny band on its leg, data such as wing length, body fat, molt and coloration patterns, bill corrugations, etc. are carefully gathered and recorded. And weight. Here's the weigh-in. Our champ is nestled in that soft little sack for safekeeping. This whopper tipped the scales at a robust 3.73 grams. That's about the same as a shiny new penny.

Of course, in the back of all of our birding-fanatic minds, we were hoping that it just might turn out to be an Allen's Hummingbird. Nothing like a new state record to get the blood going. No such luck, and these tail feathers tell the story. Note that there are ten, and each are numbered from the inside out. So, the outermost tail feathers (known as a rectrix) are number fives. In Rufous, the outer tail feathers are quite broad in comparison to an Allen's, which has very narrow ones in comparison. So, because of that feature as well as other characters we knew this bird was an adult female Rufous Hummingbird, Selasphorus rufus. And we were scarcely disappointed that it wasn't the hoped for Allen's. It's always a treat to see any hummingbird, especially a rare Rufous in mid-December in snow-covered Mansfield, Ohio.

One wonders what is going on in that Lilliputian mind, as she watches us with those inscrutable little eyes. Rufous Hummingbirds handle well, and remind me a bit of working with Northern Saw-whet Owls. They are unflappable, and seemingly not too put out by all of the gymnastics we put it through during the banding. Some of the most beautiful feathers in the bird world are the central throat, or gorget, feathers of hummingbirds. When the light hits just so, they gleam irridescently.

When the time came to let Ms. Rufous go, Allen let homeowner Ann do the honors. It sat in her hand ever so briefly, then shot off like a rocket emitting high-pitched chitters. Hummingbird expletives, probably. It got over any hard feelings quickly enough, and had returned to the same feeder we caught it at within 25 minutes. This same bird or one much like it was here last year about the same time. It will be interesting to see if it returns again next year. Now that it's been marked, we'll be able to tell. Thanks to Ann for letting us invade and work with her special visitor, and to Allen Chartier for lending his time and expertise.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Pine Warbler, Take 2

Josh Dyer, a naturalist with the Crawford County Park District, saw my recent post about Cathy Herm's Pine Warbler in Wooster, and sent along one of his own. Josh reports that it has been hitting the feeders at the Lowe-Volk Park Nature Center since November 30th.

Tough Crawford County Pine Warbler. Probably not too many winter records of this species from the county that brought us the Bucyrus Bratwurst Festival. Maybe none, for that matter. In fact, I wonder why it would show up there as a winterer, when the closest place that they breed is probably Mohican State Forest, which probably does have occasional wintering Pine Warblers. But, there's plenty of big pines and hemlocks at Mohican, which is your best bet for finding them, even in winter. Crawford County is distinctly un-Mohican-like in regards to habitat. But, it looks like the blurry green in the background of Josh's photo could be the boughs of white pine, so maybe there's some nice conifers at this park that lured it in.

I wish I had time to pore over the records, and analyze all of the winter warbler reports from Ohio and nearby states. There seems to be no question that they are increasing. The bird above isn't too surprising, but Ovenbirds, Louisana Waterthrushes, Northern Parulas and the like are. Among the first and most obvious responders to changes wrought by global warming will be things with wings. In the case of warblers, we may see more lingering into winter far north of their usual haunts. It doesn't take much of a temperature increase to keep insects alive, and provide food, along with the feeding stations. I think we are already seeing some interesting and new responses among butterflies and dragonflies as conditions warm.

Thanks for sharing your Pine Warbler with us, Josh.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Christmas Bird Counts

Over on the OOS website, Mike Busam has posted some interesting compilations from Roger Troutman's epic tome documenting Ohio's history of the venerable Christmas Bird Counts. Check it out right here. You'll learn fascinating tidbits such as Downy Woodpecker and Northern Cardinal are the all-time leading native species found on Ohio counts, and that the 1956 Buckeye Lake CBC set the record of 96 species, which the Millersburg count tied much later, in 1995. It'll be a hard record to beat, but there are some other contenders. For instance, the Toledo CBC - which always stands out in my mind due to the amazing 112 Eastern Screech-Owls they tallied in 1981 - had 90 species last year.

Speaking of that 1956 Buckeye Lake CBC, the legendary Milton Trautman ws no doubt a participant. And Milt's name is on the list of the 78 people that have participated in at least 50 counts. I really thank Roger for assembling that, and Mike posted it on the website. Mainly because looking through those names allowed me to wax nostalgic and think back on many counts shared with many of those individuals. Many of whom are still out and active and doing CBC's to add to their total. At #1 is Ernie Limes at 246! That's a staggering number, and a benchmark that will be very tough to beat. I've done a far number, weighing in with 69, but I'd have to do at least six a year for 30 years to eclipse Ernie's amazing milestone. Don't see anyone on the horizon to threaten that record. By the way, next time you are on the Magee Marsh boardwalk, check out the plaque along the trail dedicated to Ernie and featuring his picture.

Skim through the list and you'll recognize many of the names. I did, and it was good to reflect back on field experiences with many of them.

Photo by Ernie Cornelius
Roger Troutman receiving the OOS Outstanding Volunteerism Award for his work with Christmas Bird Counts and numerous other projects over the years, given at our May 2007 annual conference at Mohican State Park. Thanks for everything, Roger!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Pine Warbler

When it comes to warblers, the Yellow-rumped Warbler is the indisputed cold weather champ of the bunch. Most of the warblers that breed or pass through Ohio are long gone, basking in the warm tropical climes of places like Costa Rica, Honduras, even Venezuela. Not so the "butter-butts", which routinely overwinter here, becoming largely frugivorous and eating such botanical delicacies as poison ivy berries.

A close second is the Pine Warbler in terms of hardiness. At least some no doubt winter in Ohio every year, but when they are out in the woods in places like Shawnee Forest, no one is likely to detect them. However, Pine Warblers do have a penchant for visiting feeders, and then become plain as day. Cathy Herms wrote me about a Dendroica pinus that is frequenting her suet feeder in Wooster (county seat of Wayne County). Linda Stoller snapped the followong photos and was good enough to let me put them up.

Pine Warblers also eat seed. I remember being at a B & B in Tennessee a few years back in late winter, and several pines were frequenting the feeders.

Thanks to Cathy for tipping us off about this bird. With all of the people that feed birds anymore, one has to wonder what rarities appear that no one ever hears about. There's probably a Golden-crowned Sparrow hitting someone's feeders right now...

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Refuges and the Economy

An interesting study that evaluates the role that Federal Wildlife Refuges play in local economies was recently released, and provides much ammo for justifying land protection on a level that doesn't get the scrutiny it merits. The report, entitled Banking on Nature 2006: The Economic Benefits to Local Communities of National Wildlife Refuge Visitation, can be found it its entirety here.

Ohio's own Ottawa NWR tallied about 177,000 visitors in 2006, and they collectively pumped about $3.5 million into the local economy. At Ottawa, it's estimated that about $21 was produced in terms of of local economic input, for every $1 spent on the refuge by the Federales. This is an aspect of land protection that I don't think gets the due it deserves. We should take a longer view regarding large-scale land protection, and recognize that it benefits not only plant and animal populations, but humans as well. Also of interest is the conclusion that, at Ottawa, around $3.2 million was brought in by out of area visitors. Obviously, refuges drive ecotourism in a big way. I'd bet that similar figures would be produced for many nature preserves, wildlife areas, parks, etc.

The following nicely done article from the Refuge Watch blog summarizes things nicely:

Wildlife Refuges Help Local Economies
Back in 2003, the National Wildlife Refuge System celebrated its centennial anniversary with various events held around the country that showcased the amazing collection of 535+ refuges that formed the System. Many laudatory speeches were made at that time, including ones by former Secretary of Interior Gale Norton and President George W. Bush, during which they applauded the many benefits of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Now four years later, the Bush administration is pursuing its agenda to cut 565 jobs from the Refuge System — a 20% reduction — which will result in over 200 refuges having no staff at all and many visitor services and conservation programs ceasing to exist.

There is no doubt that the Refuge System is highly popular with the American public. Almost 35 million citizens visit the Refuge System annually, using the lands for recreation, education, and exercise. Yet there is an added taxpayer benefit to the Refuge System that is often overlooked — the economic boon that these lands bring to their local communities.

Yesterday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of Economics issued their “Banking on Nature 2006″ report, which details the many economic benefits that national wildlife refuges bring to their local towns.

According to the Service, the report “focuses on final demand, employment, income and tax revenue effects recreational visitors to refuges have on the economies of local regions. In addition to the economic effects of refuge hunting and fishing programs in local communities, it measures the economic impact of ‘ecotourism,’ the relatively recent phenomenon of large numbers of people traveling substantial distances to take part in nonconsumptive uses of the natural environment.”

The report clearly indicates that national wildlife refuges are a great value to taxpayers, returning about $4 in economic activity for every $1 the government spends.

Below is a quick overview of some of the more interesting results:
Recreational visits to national wildlife refuges generate substantial economic activity. In FY 2006, 34.8 million people visited refuges in the lower 48 states for recreation. Their spending generated almost $1.7 billion of sales in regional economies. As this spending flowed through the economy, nearly 27,000 people were employed and $542.8 million in employment income was generated.

About 82 percent of total expenditures are generated by non-consumptive activities on refuges. Fishing accounted for 12 percent and hunting 6 percent. Local residents accounted for 13 percent of expenditures while visitors coming from outside the local area accounted for 87 percent. Refuge recreational spending generated about $185.3 million in tax revenue at the local, county, state and Federal level.

Surveys show refuge visitors would have been willing to pay more for their visit than it actually cost them. The difference between what they were willing to pay and what they actually paid is their net economic value or consumer surplus. Visitors enjoyed a consumer surplus of nearly $860 million in 2006. Over $664 million of this amount (77 percent of total net economic value) accrued to non-consumptive visitors.

The “Banking on Nature 2006″ report features a breakdown of the economic contributions of refuges from every region in the System. One good sample refuge is Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Chincoteague NWR is located in Virginia but has an economic area that includes both Accomack County in Virginia and Worcester County in Maryland. According to the report:
The Refuge had 7,485,286 visits in 2006. Non-residents accounted for 89 percent of all Refuge visits. Almost all of the visits were for non-consumptive recreation with saltwater fishing accounting for 145,200 visits and hunting accounting for 2,592 visits…

Total expenditures were $238.7 million with non-residents accounting for $232.4 million or 97 percent of total expenditures. Expenditures on non-consumptive activities accounted for 98 percent of all expenditures, followed by fishing and hunting at 2 and less than 1 percent respectively…

Final demand totaled $315 million with associated employment of 3,766 jobs, $94.8 million in employment income and $50.3 million in total tax revenue…
…for every $1 of budget expenditures, $155.42 of total economic effects are associated with these budget expenditures.

So for every $1 of taxpayer money, the local economy saw $155.42 in economic benefits. And this is just one refuge.

As Congress works with President Bush to reach a compromise on the budget stalemate, it’s important to remember that the National Wildlife Refuge System rewards American taxpayers in many ways — recreation, resource conservation, environmental education, ecosystem services, and economic benefits.Contact your representative and senators today, and remind them that you support a budget increase for the Refuge System. The annual increase that the Refuge System needs each year to keep up with inflation — $15 million — is what we spend in Iraq about every two hours. Americans can afford to invest more in this vital federal land system.

Monday, December 3, 2007

OOS Donates $10 K to TNC

For me, one of the highlights of last weekend's Ohio Ornithological Society Bird Conservation Conference was the formal donation of ten thousand dollars to our partner the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. Nobody does land conservation better than TNC, and no issue is more pressing than the need to protect land if we want to protect birds. It was a good feeling to know that, even with only 3 1/2 years under our belt, the members of the OOS could come together to raise enough money to provide this important match grant to TNC.

The $10K is a necessary match for Clean Ohio money that enables TNC to buy a very significant 24-acre parcel adjoining the 14,000-acre Edge of Appalachia preserve in Adams County. Known as the Conrad tract, this 24 acres supports mixed mesophytic forest, upland oak-hickory associations, and exposed dolomitic limestone outcrops with rare White Cedar trees. A number of neotropical breeding birds nest here, and the acquisition of this property is another key in the jigsaw puzzle of Edge inholdings and adjoining properties.
Birders are a huge potential force for conservation. And many of us already do a lot to help. Many of us belong to clubs and organizations such as the OOS or TNC, and our membership dollars help with special projects. However, something that has not happened very often is birders joining together to raise money specifically targeted for acquisition of critical landscapes for birds. That's why I view this donation as a milestone of sorts for our group, and am deeply appreciative of the many people who made it possible. While $10,000 may pale in comparison to a $250,000 check that can be written by the Ohio Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, or the millions of dollars that Ducks Unlimited has been funneling into wetland acquisition for decades, it is a positive step.

I see no reason why ornithological societies and bird clubs can't engage in conservation efforts, especially when excellent partnership opportunities with land-owning/managing groups like TNC exist. The OOS will always be very engaged in more traditional ornithological society pursuits, such as publishing articles and bird records, making ornithological information available to interested parties, holding conferences and symposia, sponsoring survey efforts like the Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas, etc. But in order to engage in those activities into the future, we have to have birds. That means protecting their habitats. I welcome your feedback on our efforts, and the OOS welcomes your support.

Presentation of the ceremonial check to TNC. From l to r: OOS board members, Ned Keller and Marc Nolls, Pete Whan and Lucy Miller representing TNC, and your blogger. Photo by Hugh Rose.

Here are some more of the all volunteer cast of characters that make the OOS go. From l to r: Peter King, OOS financial officer; Tom Bain, chair of the OOS Conservation Committee; Greg Miller, OOS board member; Cheryl Harner, member of the OOS Conservation Committee; Jen Sauter, OOS executive secretary; Jim McCormac, OOS president; Ned Keller, OOS board member; Marc Nolls, OOS board member; and Pete Whan and Lucy Miller of TNC. Photo by Hugh Rose.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Ohio Bird Conservation Conference

This weekend marked the Ohio Ornithological Society's first conservation conference focusing on the larger picture of protecting birds. We were fortunate to be able to partner with the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy to make this event happen, and appreciate their support immensely. A big thank you to all who attended, and especially those that donated their time and talents to pull the conference together. I think that I can speak for many in the birding community when I say that there is a real need for birders to band together and support active conservation; i.e. land acquistion. The OOS and its members can help with that through outright donations to organizations that have a successful track record of owning and managing land, such as TNC. We can also, as a group, do our best to educate about the importance of conserving landscapes for birds, and why we need to do so. I think a bit of both were accomplished this weekend.

Our venue was the lodge at Deer Creek State Park, and it proved to be an excellent facility for a birding conference. In addition to comfortable rooms and good food, the massive picture windows in the dining room overlook Deer Creek Reservoir. From our seats we could observe Bald Eagle, Belted Kingfisher, Hooded Merganser and other birds while chomping french fries or whatever.
As has nearly always been the track record of the OOS, we combine field expeditions along with the indoor agenda. Both Friday and Saturday night, we took attendees down to see the Northern Saw-whet Owl banding station near Chillicothe. As they always are, Bill Bosstic, Kelly Williams-Sieg, and Bob Placier were exceedingly gracious in allowing us to visit, and patiently explaining the operation. Best of all, they caught owls each night! This is part of the group from Friday night, with the saw-whet being held by Scott Weidensaul, with Bill Bosstic to his right. Kelly is three people to Scott's left. Bob was already out running the nets or I would have had him in this shot!

This is our cast of speakers, each of whom was outstanding. From l to r. Dave Ewert of The Nature Conservancy spoke about migratory bird stopover needs, especially in the Great Lakes region and Ohio. While we often think of breeding and wintering grounds conservation, more thought and effort is needed to protect habitat along the corridors that migrants use. Dave knows more about this issue than probably anyone, and shared that knowledge very well.

Paul Baicich is an exceptional ambassador for getting birders involved actively in conservation, and speaks to the topic perhaps better than anyone. He has been a very positive example for me personally. That's what he did for us this weekend - delivered a message of activism and involvement, whether it be purchasing a duck stamp or lobbying for "lights out" programs for skyscapers.

Scott Weidensaul was keynote speaker and it wouldn't be possible to find a more apropos choice. On Saturday evening Scott delivered an incredible program based on his book Return to Wild America, a retracing of the incredible journey of Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher 50 years prior. With the help of outstanding imagery, Scott took us to some of North America's icon natural areas, and talked about what they mean to Americans, and wildlife. We began the trip with Scott on the high bluffs of Newfoundland, teeming with Northern Gannets and other seabirds, and ended on massive cliffs overlooking the sea in Alaska, also abundant with birds. In between was a compelling story of the need to save what we have, delivered by perhaps the most eloquent voice advocating for nature. Scott's is a story that should be heard by everyone.

Chris Bedel's message was one of biodiversity, delivered in his always engaging and over the top enthusiastic style. The 14,000-acre Edge of Appalachia preserve in Adams County was his topic, and Chris educated us on the incredible array of life found there. Birds, wasps, lichens, mussels, plants, snails - you name it, Chris knows about it. "The Edge" is where the OOS has donated $10,000 for land acquistion, and it was good for everyone to hear from Chris that even though we've helped to protect birds, much other biodiversity comes with the package.

Amanda Rodewald kicked things off, fittingly, with an overview of her work with Cerulean Warblers. That species, as you may know, is the icon bird of the OOS. Cerulean Warblers have declined by an estimated 70% since the 1960's and fully deserve out attention. Amanda is somewhat of a rarity, in my experince, in that she is an academic researcher who can also convey her work to the general public exceptionally well. She is an enthusiastic and articulate speaker that doesn't go over our heads, but yet describes intense research work. Amanda spearheads studies on Ceruleans on their wintering grounds in the Andes of Venezuela, and among other things has documented the importance of shade-grown coffee plantations in the wintering ecology of this beautiful bird.

At our Friday night get-together, Scott Weidensaul graciously signed many, many copies of his books. Here, Don "Donald the Birder" Morse gets an autograph.

The OOS and other friends presented Jen Sauter with this token of our appreciation on Saturday night. Jen is Executive Secretary of the OOS, and the driving force behind planning and executing these conferences among other things. It was the least we could do, and I wish we could do more to honor all of her contributions. Her gift is a signed painting of a Golden-winged Warbler by Jennifer Brumfield.

We also took the opportunity to recognize Cheryl Harner, president of the Greater Mohican Audubon Society, on the left. Cheryl has made real contributions in Ohio's conservation community, and been another driving force behind developing and implementing innovative efforts to further land protection and get people involved. We presented Cheryl with a hand-carved Wood Duck decoy created by Laura and Tim Dornan.

We also presented this check for $1,500 to Amanda Rodewald to help with her work on Cerulean Warblers. From l to r: me,, OOS financial officer Peter, Amanda, and OOS conservation committee chair Tom Bain, who also did an outstanding job as emcee for the conference.

Thanks to all of you who support the OOS and make it possible for us to support work such as Amanda's. In a digital fit display of bad manners, my camera somehow destroyed the photos I had of our presentation of a check for $10,000 to The Nature Conservancy for an important land acquisition project. Others took photos of that presentation and I'm hopeful someone will send me one so that I can share it here.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Pine Grosbeak

One of the most exciting birds of late is the Pine Grosbeak, Pinicola enucleator, discovered by Matt Anderson back on November 21. The bird has been frequenting an area next to the Oak Openings Metropark in Lucas County, not far from Toledo. Displaying amazing site fidelity the likes of which we've not seen here before with this species - at least in modern times - it is still being found in this area. Many an Ohio birder has gotten their state or even life Pine Grosbeak because of Matt's find. And an amazing bit of birding skill it was to find this jumbo finch. The area in which it occurs is not exactly eye-catching, nor a spot that most birders would probably spend much time in.

I was fortunate enough to see the bird myself last Sunday. Shortly after arriving at the spot and joining several other birders in the stakeout, I heard the grosbeak calling not far off. A minute later it shot right over our heads and landed near the top of a tall Hackberry tree, offering us stellar views. It appears to be a young male, not yet in the full pinkish-raspberry hue of an adult.

This is the spot. A weedy semi-wooded edge choked with non-native plants. All that green understory is Amur Honeysuckle, Lonicera maackii, a Eurasian invader that is now prolific in many regions of Ohio. This bush fruits prolifically and the shrubs are decked with red berries. That's apparently what the grosbeak is gorging itself on. Pine Grosbeaks are largely frugivorous (fruit-eating), and it won't run out of fodder here for some time. The issue is the poor nutrient content of honeysuckle fruit. Like vegetative M & M's, they look great and probably are tasty to birds, but are deficient in lipids and proteins. It's likely that a diet of such fruit lacks the necessary substances to sustain birds well when the winter weather gets tough.

Here's our guy. Large and confiding, Pine Grosbeaks are known for their docility and often can be closely approached. The typical modus operandi for this bird is to fly in from the south, and alight in the top of this small Hackberry tree just to the east of the gate in the above photo. There he sits, surveying his kingdom for a few minutes while the assembled throngs of birders ooh and aah over him. Then, like a meteor falling from the sky, he dives straight down into the thickets, presumably to engorge itself on berries. You've got to be there at just the right time; a number of birders have either missed it altogether - as I did my first visit - or have had to wait hours before King Finch made an appearance.

Pine Grosbeaks are northerners, birds of the vast boreal forest. They rarely stage irruptions southward in any great numbers, and only very rarely venture as far south as Ohio. The largest Ohio invasion ever was during the winter of 1961-62. That winter, flcoks or individuals were seen in a number of laocales, including an incredible flock of 100 near Akron. At least one bird made it all the way to Cincinnati. Interestingly, that year they began to show up in November, right around the same time this bird did. The record is not quite clear as to the last confirmed Ohio sighting prior to this one; either 1987 or the perhaps the early 1990's. In any event, this Pine Grosbeak was a spectacular find and has thrilled many of us.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Sabine's Gull

Wow, an extraordinary number of unusual birds have been appearing of late, stimulating rarity fever amongst the masses. Matt Anderson's fantastic discovery of a Pine Grosbeak leads the list in terms of sensationalism - the last dates from 1987. This beak is nearly everyone's state Pine Grosbeak, of those who have been lucky enough to see it. I was one, and have some photos that I'll blog later.

Late hummingbirds are also appearing. One came to light today near Toledo, that appears to be our record late Ruby-throated Hummingbird. I got a call about another today at a Cincinnati-area feeder and will hopefully get photos soon. These late ones really need scrutinized closely, especially as most are females/immatures and often not readily separable from other similar species. Don't just assume Ruby-throated...

I also just received word of a very interesting Northern Saw-whet Owl that was captured at the Chillicothe banding station already sporting a band. This one has come a LONG way, and I'll get those details up here soon.

But, the showiest of all is an amazingly cooperative Sabine's Gull found at Huron on Turkey Day, November 22, by Mike Busam. Congrats to Mike for locating this bird and tipping everyone off. Because he did so, a great many folks have seen this beautiful small gull for the first time. Sabine's Gull is quite rare in Ohio, with only a few seen each fall, if that. Most don't stick like the Huron bird, either. These arctic breeders are highly migratory, wintering primarily in tropical seas off Africa and South America. Relatively few pass through the Great Lakes.

Upon arrival in downtown Huron and the river, one is greeted by mobs of Bonaparte's Gulls, making a cacophony of noisy squeaking buzzes. Masses of Bonies are always great places to look for rare gulls. Indeed, this horde contained at least two Little Gulls, according to other reports.

Adult Bonaparte's in flight. These small gulls are quite striking with their flashing white leading edge to the upper wing, and bouyantly graceful flight. They are not the trash-eating McDonald's scavengers that some of their larger brethren are; Bonies are highly piscivorous, deftly picking small fish like Emerald Shiners from the water.

Adult Bonaparte's Gull at rest. A strikingly beautiful bird, even without the black hood they sport in breeding plumage. The best is yet to come, though.

Ground zero at Huron, the terminal point of the municipal pier. The lighthouse is a great place to watch birds moving past on the lake. I've spent countless hours out there, many of them in November. Conditions are often not very pleasant, with blustery winds and freezing temps. Such was not the case today, with hardly any wind and low 40's. Quite balmy for a late November Lake Erie day! This is the spot that the Sabine's Gull is fixated on, and it made frequent flights right around the lighthouse, sometimes flying within ten feet of us, or roosting on the water nearby.

Sabine's Gull, Xema sabini, at rest. Doesn't stand out nearly as much as when in flight, as you'll soon see. About the size of a Bonaparte's Gull, the brown mantle of the Sabine's is distinctive, as are those blotches of brown that extend forward onto either side of the breast. This may be the only gull named for an astronomer. Sir Edward Sabine was an astronomer who accompanied an 1818 expedtion into the Arctic, and helped discover the gull. His brother, Joseph, named it in his honor.

I was fortunate in running into my friend Brian Zwiebel upon arrival at Huron, and we were able to spend the afternoon birding and admiring the Sabine's Gull. Brian is a topnotch professional shooter, as you can see from the above photo, which is his. Although often close at hand, getting crisp in-flight shots of the bird was not easy. As befits such a long-distance migrant, the gull is quite effortless on the wing, and deceptively fast. The upper wing pattern is unmistakable and stands out from great distances. The slightly forked tail is also characteristic and adds yet another interesting touch to an already visually stunning bird. If you haven't made the pilgrimage to see this Sabine's, I'd go while the getting is good.

Thanks to Mike Busam for finding this bird and communicating it to all, and to Brian for graciously letting me use his photo.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Butterfly Named for Ohioan

Check this out... Apparently having a butterfly named in one's honor does not come cheap. But, if that is what you desire and can pony up some serious bucks, might as well choose something showy like one of the oddly named owl-butterflies...
Cassia's Owl-Butterfly, Opsiphanes cassiae. Not the species named for Mrs. Kitzmiller - read AP story below - but presumably somewhat similar.

Butterfly naming rights draw $40,800 bid; named to honor Ohio woman's memory The Associated Press
Tucson, Arizona Published: 11.23.2007

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A butterfly species discovered in a Florida museum has a new name after an anonymous bidder paid $40,800 for naming rights in order to honor a woman who died in 1972.

The butterfly's common name will be the Minerva owl butterfly. It's being named after the late Margery Minerva Blythe Kitzmiller of Malvern, Ohio.

While the bidder's name was not disclosed, the payment was made on behalf of Kitzmiller's grandchildren.

The butterfly's scientific name will be Opsiphanes blythekitzmillerae.

University of Florida researchers George Austin and Andrew Warren discovered the new species while looking through a butterfly collection at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville earlier this year. They found it was misidentified as an example of another species.
The 4-inch butterfly is brown, white and black and lives in Sonora, a Mexican state bordering Arizona. Proceeds from the auction will go toward further research of Mexican butterflies.
Beverly Sensbach, director of development for the museum, said Kitzmiller's grandchildren wanted to honor her through the name of a beautiful butterfly because she was "an extremely creative person who wrote poetry, played piano and sang."

The rights were sold via an online auction. Warren had said before the auction closed that the researchers were hoping to raise at least $50,000, which would fund two years of work in Mexico.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Everything is Rare, Somewhere

One of the most abundant birds in Ohio and much of North America is the Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura. Hardly a soul over here would walk two steps out of their way to admire one. Not across the pond, though - read the following BBC blurb kindly sent along by Kathy Mock. DEFINITION: "Twitchers" is Brit-speak for rabid listers. You know, the type that would appear at Conneaut Harbor within two hours should a rarity like Horned Puffin appear there.

American dove attracts twitchers

The American mourning dove has caused a stir

A dove spotted only a handful of times in the British Isles has drawn dozens of bird watchers to North Uist.
The American mourning dove was first seen by Brian Rabbitts about three miles (4km) from where he previously saw one in 1999.
Wildlife guide Stephen Duffield said more than 100 twitchers had flocked to the Western Isles to see the bird.
The British Birds Rarities Committee said it was aware of the sighting and was awaiting a recording.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Fall Colors

I was able to spend some time in a remote, off-the-beaten path glen in the Hocking Hills today, and it was well worth the hike. Many of the trees still retained splendid colors, and mosses and lichens are at their crusty best at this season. Following are a few of the few hundred photos that I snapped.

Sandstone outcrops define this site. A rocky mesa juts above the surrounding valleys, and the core rocks are fractured into crazy slump blocks. In places, it is like a rocky maze of narrow tunnels, each filled with a bed of newly fallen leaves.

The leaves still impressed. The orange-red mist is the foliage of Sourwood, Oxydendrum arboreum, our only tree in the heath family. It grows in the poor soils of rocky ridges, such as this one. The pale yellow leaves are those of Chestnut Oaks, Quercus prinus. It is another tree of acid ridgetop soils, and festoons sites like this in abundance.

That big, left-listing trunk is a Chestnut Oak. This photo really demonstrates the rocky nature of the ground they spring from. Soil on sites such as this is thin, and poor. A Chestnut Oak of this size will have taken lots of years to reach such girth. The bluish-green circular patches on the rocks are a type of lichen, Flavoparmelia baltimorensis. Lichens begin the long, long process of breaking down sandstone rock.

A Sourwood leaf adds an electric burst of flame to the somber tones of the bark of a Chestnut Oak. This old tree is garbed in thick coats of lichens, of several species. I believe these grayish foliose lichens are in the genus Hypotrachnya. Lichens are the products of commensal relationships between algae and fungus, collectively forming the organism we see above. They are hyper-sensitive to air pollution and are amongst the first organisms to vanish if air quality suffers.

North meets south in this special place. The rocky grotto in the backdrop is choked with a river of Great Rhododendron, Rhododendron maximum, in such profuse tangles that one might be excused for listening for Swainson's Warblers. This is nearly the northernmost outpost for this Appalachian heath. Overshadowing it are plenty of Eastern Hemlock trees (Tsuga canadensis), a northern tree nearing its southern limits here.

The stunted, twisted trunk of a Mountain-laurel, Kalmia latifolia. This smaller relative of the Great Rhododendron also has thick, fleshy evergreen leaves and is still bright. The gnarled trunks resemble wild bonsai, especially this one, as it springs from a lush bed of pincushion moss (genus Leucobryum).

The last wild flowers of the year - Witch-hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, right on schedule. November is the time to look for the spindly pale yellow blooms dangling from the barren branches of these small, multi-trunked woodland shrubs. It's easy to miss them, and easy to wonder how you missed them once you see them.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Northern Saw-whet Owl Invasion Update

I made a trip back down to Chillicothe last night, to re-visit the banding station that is focusing on capturing and banding Northern Saw-whet Owls. Thanks, as always, to Kelly Williams-Sieg, Bill and Donna Bosstic, and Bob Placier for being so gracious about hosting guests. With endless amounts of patience, they allow us hangers-on to ogle the tiny hooters, and ask all manner of questions. These small owls of the North have proven to be outstanding avian ambassadors, undoubtedly being the "spark" to who knows how many folks to get them interested in birds. But, the data that is being generated by the efforts of this group and many other banding stations that are part of Project Owlnet is also offering previously unknown insights into a secretive species that we hadn't known very much about.

And man, I was glad some owls turned up last night! We had a rather celeb cast on hand, partly on my invite, and we would have felt bad if no owls showed. They did, fortunately, with three birds being caught. One had been banded the previous night; the other two were new birds. This brings the total capture since October 10th - 28 nights of banding - to 93 different birds! That's over three an evening, on average. This is definitely the year os the saw-whet.
As always, the owls were over the top in terms of being photogenic. Megan Nadolski, a professional photographer who was along to photodocument the owls and the operation for an upcoming magazine article, took over 800 photos! Many of them were stunners, too. I bumbled along with my less than mad skillz and - by comparison to Megan's - rinky-dink camera, and captured a few images to share with you below. We are going to take people over to see this operation - and with luck, real owls - the evening of the upcoming Conservation Conference on December 1st. We'd welcome your attendance at that event, and go here for all of the details. Weather depending, we'll head over to see the owls after Scott Weidensaul's talk that evening. The owl site is less than one-half hour from the Deer Creek Lodge, the conference venue.
Northern Saw-whet Owl. An almost shockingly "cute" animal. Inestimable numbers of "oohs and aahs" have been provoked by these elfin beasts.
This is the last view that a Deer or White-footed Mouse would have of this world, were it to glance over its shoulder in time. As cute as these owls may be, they are nonetheless complete predators fully equipped to take out mammalian prey, and they do so with gusto. The two mice mentioned above are small species in the genus Peromyscus, and undoubtedly saw-whets eat many when down our way. In their boreal forest breeding range, the owls likely also feed heavily on Red-backed Voles, Clethrionomys gapperi. This small vole is common throughout much of the saw-whets' breeding range, but was quite rare and local in Ohio, with only old records from the northeastern corner of the state.

Measuring an owl's foot. Not for a shoe fitting, but to gather additional data that might help in sexing birds. Sometimes, telling males from females is not that easy and banders are still learning ways to distinguish the sexes. These owls are incredibly tolerant of people, and the banding process. Generally, they just lay there and look at the people with a rather curious attitude. I suspect that for many owls, we are the first humanoids they have ever seen, and that in conjunction with their calm dispositions leads them to view us rather peacefully. Sometimes, upon release an owl will be placed on someone's arm. There it will sit, sometimes for several minutes, before deciding to fly back into the dark forest.

Something rather amazing that we've found is that saw-whets seem to greatly enjoy having their necks rubbed. That's what is going on here, and the owl has hooded its eyes and is pushing back into the fingers of the petter, much in the manner of a cat. I found that when I gently rubbed the sides of their heads, they also relished that feeling and would push hard against my fingers and practically become entranced. No, I don't think the micro-owls suffer much from their banding experience and I'd be surprised if their heart rates even elevate a beat.
If you make it down for the Conservation Conference, I hope you'll get to come over and experience these owls firsthand, too.