Sunday, June 1, 2008

Birding by Ear

The sounds of birds was the focus at a special workshop held this weekend at the Wilds, and ably orchestrated by Al Parker, along with help from a number of other Wilds' staff. They've been conducting the Birding by Ear weekend every year for several years now, and this was the first year I was able to attend. I appreciated the invite, and had a great time.

I cast a long shadow over the Wilds shortly after dawn this morning. I arrived at the field trip rendezvous site early, to study the various grassland birds that abound in this area. The Wilds is BIG COUNTRY. Ten thousand acres of Wyoming-like scenery sprawls in every direction. Early in the morning, especially, it is possible to get quite far from any other people. It's neat - and rare enough in Ohio - to have thousands of acres all to one's self.

It is a good Bobolink year at the Wilds. They are everywhere, and at times a cacophony of R2 D2-like metallic spinks, spanks, pinks, and panks of the odd mechanical bubbly gurgling songs of the males fill the air. Singing high over the meadows, they cast their tunes across the grassslands on stiffly quivering wings. These Bobolinks have come a long way from their Argentinian wintering grounds - theirs is one of the true miracles of bird migration.

Al packed 'em in this year. We had a pretty full house of birders keen on honing their skills, who came in from all over the state. And we mustered up lots of birds. Many a lifer was had, and many a song learned. Here, we were helped by Dr. Danny Ingold of Muskingum College and Dr. Jed Burtt of Ohio Wesleyan University, both of who conduct grassland bird research at the Wilds.

The banding nets snared some goodies. This is a Grasshopper Sparrow. Quite abundant in these grasslands, Grasshopper Sparrows are rather retiring and sing a soft, insect-like trill. Up close in their breeding finery, their plumage is stunning. Beautiful golden-yellow highlights pop from the bend of the wing, and the lores.

If you want to see Henslow's Sparrow, this is the place to go. They are everywhere. I spent a fair bit of time studying a singing territorial male this morning through my scope, before the group arrived. Teed up on a low weed, he repeatedly sang his superficially pathetic insect-like hiccup. Lasting but 3/5 of a second or so, the song of the Henslow's doesn't sound like much. In fact, most people who hear it - assuming they'd even notice - would never suspect the sound came from a bird. But it has its own charm, and I've found that most people, when shown a singing Henslow's well, as through a scope so that the bird can be seen well, are invariably delighted by the singer's efforts.

The view of a Henslow's Sparrow is what you would have if you spent all of your time on your belly. Your life would be a dense tangle of green grass, viewed from within. But, when the testerone flows in spring, the males mount their two-foot tall perches to issue hiccups. This is a major production, if you are the sparrow. From his mount, he looks about, possibly to see if any ladies watch. Then, with all of the panache of one of the Three Tenors about to launch an aria, he tosses his head straight back. The arietta Of Sparrow doesn't last long, but the bird's body shakes with effort, his tail trembling and wings fluttering. Every ounce of his effort goes into the song.

Our group had some extraordinary birding experiences. Great looks at fine birds were commonplace, and we were really able to study what we found, and focus on learning songs and other vocalizations. An added bonus was all of the breeding evidence we collected for the Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas. The above is last year's nest, of a Red-eyed Vireo. Notice how the finely woven cup is carefully placed right in the fork of these spindly American Elm branches. But thanks to a number of sharp-eyed participants, we also found a number of active nests of this season. Neat was a Red-shouldered Hawk aerie with some fuzzy white young. Neater yet was, even though we were some distance away from the nest, the way that the adult hung hundreds of feet over our heads, motionless, as if suspended from invisible strings.

At one magical spot in the forest, we saw an Eastern Wood-Pewee constructing its nest, one of two that we found. From the same spot, we could see an Acadian Flycatcher incubating eggs on its nest, a rather leafy cup, with just her tail sticking over the side. Nearby, an American Robin flattened itself on its more substantial mud/plant cup. Plenty of other species were seen carrying food or otherwise offering proof of their efforts at reproduction. Atlas season is in full swing.

Andrea Schiedler holds a big Black Rat Snake. Of course, there were many non-bird elements of natural history that we found, and this was one of the more impressive. Driving along a narrow gravel country lane, I saw the snake, frozen on the road. We stopped, leaped out - me figuring it for roadkill - and were glad to see it was just fine and as alive as could be. After a bit of handling, it settled right down, as Black Rat Snakes generally do, and was no problem. I'll give Andrea kudos for admiring it; most people have an unnatural and completely unjustified fear of snakes. This beauty was in fine shape, having recently shed its skin; gleaming and glossy. Good-sized, too, between four and five feet. They are known to reach eight feet! When we were through admiring it and getting some photos, we put it well of the road, on the side it was headed for.

A fence stretches off into infinity at the Wilds. Not just a fence, though. This time of year, more a linear Bobolink-perching device. It was good to see everyone this weekend, and congatulations to everyone on their life birds!

1 comment:

Kathi said...

Some day I've got to make it to this work shop. Look at the lovely sparrows! Aaaahhh...


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