Thursday, November 29, 2012

Ring-necked Snake, a harmless charmer

In a recent post, I included this photo and made mention of a cool reptile that was on that flat rock and that had captured the attention of the assembled throng. I also said that I'd be back later to highlight the animal, and give it some air time on the vast World Wide Web. So here we go...

A gorgeous animal by any possible criteria, this Northern Ring-necked Snake, Diadophis punctatus edwardsii, is what had us so enthralled. From the outset of this August 18 trip to the wilds of southern Ohio, I had been exhorting my expedition comrades to "find a ring-neck, find a ring-neck, find a ring-neck". We had three topnotch snakers along: John and Vince Howard, and David Hughes. I am NOT much of a snake-finder. I really like them, but get too fixated on other pursuits while afield to devote much time or energy to turning rocks and logs, and doing what is required to produce snakes.

Anyway, the three aforementioned snakists spent a fair bit of time flipping objects, and one of them (can't remember who) eventually produced this beauty, which was carefully placed on this rocky runway for a modeling/photography session.

If I had to pick a favorite snake, it would be the Ring-necked Snake. What's not to like here? Ring-necks are stunning little animals, and a wonderful entree into the world of snakes. They are small - a whopper only reaches a bit more than a foot in length - and exceedingly gentle. I've never had one attempt to bite, nor have I heard of that happening. Even if a ring-neck snapped someone's finger, its mouth is so small it couldn't do anything. Thus, the ring-neck is a wonderful animal to introduce to someone with a fear of reptiles, or who has had little experience with snakes.

The colors and patterning of the Ring-necked Snake are striking indeed. The dorsal, or upper, surface is plated in a dark steely blue-black, and the ventral (lower) side of the animal is a beautifully contrasting golden-orange. The effect is quite striking - no pun intended - and is augmented by the pale yellow neck collar.

Ring-necked Snakes are common in parts of southern and eastern Ohio, where they inhabit rocky streams such as where this one was found, moist forested slopes, regenerating clearcuts and other such wooded habitats. They're a bit of work to find, though. Occasionally I just stumble into one that is out and about, but apparently ring-necks are primarily nocturnal. Hence the need to go poking under hiding spots in good habitat to find one.

We noticed that this specimen had a hitchhiker. The orangish object on the snake's neck collar is a mite. Snakes can become afflicted with parasitic mites, which apparently can become a real problem with captive animals. In the wild, mites are probably not so much of an issue for the animals. I know very little about mites, especially those that parasitize snakes, but I don't think this mite is the same species that plagues captive animals. For all I know, it is just using the snake to ride to a new locale - mites often hitchhike on animal taxicabs. Anyway, it made this snake experience all the more interesting. Perhaps one of the herpetologists out there can shed some light on this.

I'm sure that I'm preaching to the choir here, but I want to reinforce that snakes are beneficial and should be protected at all costs, whether relatively "cute" species such as this Ring-necked Snake, or less enchanting behemoths such as Black Rat Snakes. If you don't like them, let them be and they'll do the same. If a snake is somewhere you'd rather it wasn't, such as an Eastern Garter Snake in the garden or an Eastern Milk Snake in the shed, please just relocate it to somewhere else. Or have someone move it for you. I get a disconcerting number of photos sent to me each year from people wanting to know the identification of a snake, often thinking it might be a venomous species. They're invariably harmless species, but what bothers me is how many of the snakes in these photos are dead - slaughtered by the blade of a shovel. The ignorant killing of snakes absolutely disgusts me, and it is almost never, if ever, neccesary to slay them.

If everyone had firsthand exposure to a gentle Ring-necked Snake, and could see up close and personal just how cool snakes are, I'm sure our tubular reptiles would have many more fans.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Barn Owl and cat hit it off, big time!

I'm on a bit of an owl jag, but one can never get enough of owls! A friend shared the following video with me, and it is amazing. It features a Barn Owl, Tyto alba, that was raised from a chick and trained for falconry, of all things. The owl is named Gebra, and her most unlikely buddy is a black housecat dubbed Fum. These animals live in Spain, and were born in early spring of 2010. They were introduced when only a month old, and as you'll see, hit it off rather grandly.

Sorry, for some reason YouTube won't allow me to embed this video, so just click on the following link to view it:

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Eastern Screech-Owl becomes one with the tree

This stretch of bike trail along Alum Creek in Westerville gets lots of traffic - runners, walkers, bikers - just not at the moment that I made this photo. The trail has of late seen an uptick in a new element of user - birders. For some time, there has been an especially cooperative Eastern Screech-Owl, Megascops asio, roosting in a tree in the swatch of scruffy riparian woodland shown in this image. As this locale is only 12 minutes from my office, I've been wanting to pay a visit, camera in tow, for some time. Finally, after seeing another post to the Ohio Birds Listserv about the owl from Ira Shulgin, I had to trot up there yesterday over the lunch hour. Ira was good enough to give me precise directions to the roosting tree, which enabled me to quickly locate the little hooter.

Young riparian, or streamside, woods are often scruffy places, in part due to a proliferation of Box-elder trees, Acer negundo. These gnarled and scraggly maples are often a dominant tree in early successional habitats, and what they lack in aesthetics they more than make up for in wildlife value.

This is the owl's home turf, as seen from the edge of the bike path. The spot that is circled in red marks the owl cavity about 20 feet up in a Box-elder, and it would be extremely easy to walk right by and never notice. Scores of people do just that every day.

However, a close look at the Y-fork in the tree reveals a sleepy little owl, soaking up early afternoon rays. Eastern Screech-Owls are consummate bark mimics, and their plumage can match the bark of trees to a remarkable degree. Such camouflage serves to hide them well from potential predators, and the owls tend to hole up tight in spots such as this during the daylight hours.

That doesn't mean that they'll be missed by everyone. Tree-gleaners such as chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice often stumble into roosting screech-owls as they go about their business of inspecting tree trunks. When this happens, quite the hue and cry will be made and before long an entire gang of noisy chickadees and other songbirds will form a conspicuous twittering crowd around the hapless owl. Many a birder has discovered a roosting owl with the assistance of mobbing tree-gleaners.

Eastern Screech-Owls come in two classic color morphs: red, and gray. This individual is a gray, and this color form really blends well with bark. For the 20 minutes or so that I admired the bird, it never bothered to open its eyes and give me a glance, near as I could tell. Such slothfulness is typical daylight behavior for a screech-owl.

These owls are very common throughout Ohio - easily our most common owl species. They have a strong affinity for streamside habitats, and places such as the site depicted in this post almost always have them. This is in part due to the Box-elder trees, which often form good roosting cavities. It's a great irony that tree species that are typically derided as worthless by loggers, foresters and the lumber industry are often of the greatest value to wildlife.

If you are interested in owls - and who isn't! - mark your calendar for the weekend of February 15-17, 2013. That's when the Ohio Ornithological Society and Greater Mohican Audubon Society will be holding its Owls of North America Symposium at beautiful Mohican State Park. The event is headlined by the incomparable Denver Holt of the Owl Research Institute, and what a speaker he is! In addition to talks, there'll be field trips, owl-banding for Northern Saw-whet Owls, and much more. GO HERE to register.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Short-eared Owls at Lawrence Woods

A pair of Short-eared Owls, Asio flammeus, hunt over an old field in the gloom of post-dusk. The other bird is in the background, bottom righthand corner of the photo. Don't expect award winning owl photos in this post - the short-ears didn't take to the wing until it was nearly dark and it was all my camera could do to make any images at all.

Short-eared Owls can be curious and this fellow suddenly materialized over my head. It's always a treat to watch these owls hunt the grasslands and meadows, barking and scuffling with neighboring owls and occasionally plummeting earthward to Whack-A-Mole (or vole). I saw four, and possibly five, owls tonight. A Northern Harrier was working the fields earlier, and a dark morph Rough-legged Hawk was also nearby.

This was the place of the owling - Lawrence Woods State Nature Preserve in Hardin County, Ohio. We're looking east down Township Road 190, with the preserve lands on the right, and a big prairie/grassland on the left, the latter courtesy of Pheasants Forever. The big woods - the preserve's namesake - can be seen way off to the right. This preserve encompasses over 1,000 acres, and roughly half is the woods, and the rest is meadow. The owls were hunting the field on the right, and were easy to view until conditions grew too dark.

This map shows the locale, should you wish to go Short-eared Owling at this spot. The area outlined in blue are the good owl fields. The section of Township Rd. 190 highlighted in red bisects the fields, and there is virtually no traffic along here and the verges are wide and flat, so viewing from an automobile should be no problem. The red line heading south from 190 is the gravel drive back to the preserve parking lot, and good viewing can be had from there as well. Note that the preserve is open only during daylight hours, though.

U.S. 68 can be seen on the left of the photo, and the city of Kenton is a few miles to the north. This site is less than an hour from Columbus, and makes for a great field trip. There is a fabulous boardwalk through the woods, and traipsing its length prior to nightfall should produce Red-headed Woodpecker and all of the other expected woodpeckers. Barred, Eastern Screech, and Great Horned Owls are also present, so with a bit of luck and careful listening you might tally four species of owls at this site.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Those hard-working Beaver (with video)

A Beaver, Castor canadensis, at his work station. I photographed this individual a few years back in Delaware County, Ohio, as the animal busily girdled huge Eastern Cottonwood trees along the shoreline of a lake. If a tree is too large to gnaw through and drop, Beaver will often girdle it, which eventually kills the tree.
Beaver are the consummate mammalian engineers, and their labors modify their environment to a degree that is probably unmatched by any other among our mammals (excepting Homo sapiens). These animals are clever, and hard-working to a fault. I've had the good fortune to see them on many occasion, and see the fruits of their labors many times. But few of us will experience the views of a Beaver at work that is shown in the trail cam video later in this post. David and Laura Hughes have been at it once again, and outdone themselves with this clip.
We should be grateful that Beaver are still around and making wetlands. The pelts of these animals have long been highly valued, and the pursuit of Beaver furs led to their extirpation in Ohio by 1830 or so. Eventually laws were enacted to govern their protection, and populations began to increase. Beaver began to trickle back into the state in the early 1900's, and by 1947 Ohio's population was estimated to contain 25 colonies in 11 counties. By 1972 their ranks had swelled to over 4,400 in 37 counties, and just four years later (1976) an estimated 7,500+ Beaver ranged over 40 counties. Today, there are probably in excess of 27,000 animals in the state, in all 88 counties. Trapping of Beaver is highly regulated, and current prices for a large grade A pelt is about $25.00.

A Beaver slices through the still waters of a pond that he and his predecessors created in northern Michigan's Presque Isle County. Few mammals are as at home in the drink as are these flat-tailed swimmers. A Beaver's entire life is spent in or adjacent to water, and all of their efforts go towards manipulating the hydrology of streams to better suit their purposes.

The animal in the above photo was a big 'un. A robust specimen can tip the scales at 70 lbs., although 40 lbs. would be a more typical poundage. You'll often hear a Beaver before seeing it. When danger is spotted, the animal will often slap the water's surface with its paddlelike tail, which creates an astonishingly loud SMACK! That sound alerts his fellows to potential peril, and then the tail-smacker will submerge. Extraordinarily oversized lungs allow it to remain below for up to 15 minutes.

This Google Earth photo shows an incredible Beaver-engineered and maintained wetland complex in southern Ohio's Lawrence County. Two huge dams (traced in red) back up two ponds in the small valleys of a forest. The area outlined in blue - which disappears off the left side of the image - is a fantastic wetland spawned in the soggy overflow from the Beaver's primary ponds. A well-developed dam can be in excess of 50 feet in length, and often has a sinuous shape as these two dams do. The Beaver are dligent about maintaining these structures and keeping water levels at precisely the levels that their needs dictate.

I stumbled into the wetland complex above in 1999, and was awestruck by its compexity. The wetlands in the wake of the dams' outflow contained a remarkable diversity of flora; far more plant species than would have been present had the Beaver not taken up residence. The botanical diversity in turn sparks an enormous spike in animal diversity. We found American Bittern and Prothonotary Warbler in this wetland, both of which are rare in that part of Ohio. Dragonflies and other aquatic insects abounded, as did scores of other wetland-dependent animal life. When I first saw this Beaver wetland about a dozen years ago, it was obvious that the dams had been in place for some time. And as the Google Earth image is a recent one, they're obviously still there, and hopefully will be for some time to come. I want to make a return visit next summer, and marvel at this engineering feat firsthand once again.

If you regularly follow this blog, you may have seen the exceptional videography of Bobcat and River Otter made by David and Laura Hughes, which they kindly allowed me to share. Well, they've outdone themselves with this video, also made in Monroe County, Ohio, which shows a Beaver hard at work as it labors to drop a tree. Turn up the volume and you'll hear the sound of gnawing as the oversize rodent busily endeavors to bring down the tree. Note too the size of the wood chips that spew from the animal's maw as its huge incisors make mincemeat of the wood.

Thanks again to David and Laura for once again sharing their work with us.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The moths' last hurrah

One of the many plume moth species at rest under your blogger's porch light, tonight. It's certainly cool outside, but a chill 50 degrees is warm enough to bring out the last of our straggling moths. Plume moths - at least some of the species - seem to be among the last of the moths to survive into late fall and early winter.

A gentle prod with a finger stimulated the animal to splay its legs and antennae. I believe this is a female, going by the narrow wiry antennae, and I will take a semi-educated guess that it is the Morning-glory Plume Moth, Emmelina monodactyla.

Plume moths are very distinctive as a group. When at rest, their tightly inrolled wings and cylindrical body form a T-shape. As you may have guessed from the common name, the caterpillars of this moth feed largely on members of the morning-glory family, although they also apparently eat a number of other low weedy plants.

Taking photos at night, and/or of macro-type objects is always a tricky business. Thanks to a tip from Jack Hoying, I recently got the cumbersome looking boxlike contraption above. It is a Lumiquest Softbox III, and it quickly attaches to the camera's Speedlite flash via quick-release velcro tabs. Tonight is the first time I've had a chance to fool with it, and I look forward to working more with the softbox. Under friendlier conditions, too - shooting moths on a rather blase wall under the glare of a nearby porch light never achieves really great results, no matter what one does.

Diffusers such as this device soften the flash, and can help achieve some really remarkable photographs.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Lisa holds a Northern Saw-whet Owl, Aegolius acadicus, shortly after it was captured in a mist net near Chillicothe, Ohio. I was down for my annual visit to this banding operation lasat Friday night, and this was one of two birds caught that evening.

Until the mid-2000's, no one had any clue as to just how common Northern Saw-whet Owls were in Ohio. If one were to go only by the relatively few reports made by birders who lucked into roosting birds, you'd have had to assess their status as rare, or uncommon at best. Of course, it stands to reason that such a secretive animal would largely go undetected. In my guide, Birds of Ohio, which came out in 2004, I made the statement: "...the vast majority of Northern Saw-whet Owls no doubt go undetected in Ohio".

Such opinions are speculative, however - concrete research is needed to prove or disprove such things. Well, 2004 was the year that the Chillicothe banding station whose work is featured here got fired up. Since that time, they have captured well over 300 owls, in a habitat and a locale that no one would have predicted as being optimal for saw-whets. Their efforts are not solo - a few others also focus on saw-whets in Ohio or nearby, and they too have captured a great many birds. Thesee banding stations are part of a systematic nationwide survey of Northern Saw-whet Owls known as Project Owlnet, and this research collaborative has revealed reams of information about the migratory habits of what was not long ago one of our most poorly understood North American birds.

Having an accurate  knowledge of an animal is key to successfully conserving its populations, and in the case of the Northern Saw-whet Owl, it is the efforts of banders who have revealed the mysteries of what could be our most charismatic owl.

The team works on an owl back at the research station a short walk from the nets. Dan and Ryan, in the foreground, and Lisa and Kelly Williams-Sieg in the back. Kelly is the driving force behind this banding station, with much help from this crew, and Bill Bosstic and Bob Scott Placier.

Owls caught and banded in Chillicothe have been recaptured numerous times at far-flung places across eastern North America, and the Chillicothians have captured a number of owls that were banded in other areas. All of this work via Project Owlnet has revealed a scope of migration that no one was previously aware of. October through mid-December is the tiime of the big southward push, and it appears that such irruptions are cyclical, and probably related to populations of voles and other small animals which are the owls' primary prey.

Dan checks the keel, or breastbone, of this owl, feeling for muscle and fat depositions. Many data points are collected, and an effort is made to determine how much fatty reserves the birds have built up. If it looks like the bird is enjoying this inspection, it probably is. Saw-whets seem to respond to touch in much the way that a house cat does: hooding their eyes and pushing into one's finger as if to urge the holder to continue the stroking.

Few birds are as mellow as saw-whets. For the most part, they make no attempt to struggle or otherwise indicate displeasure; mostly just staring curiously at their captors. After all, most of these owls have probably never seen people, coming from the wilds of the vast boreal forest as they do. Furthermore, saw-whets have low metabolisms and are not high-strung or fidgety, which probably serves them well to conserve energy.

The odd black light test. Porphyrins in the feathers can help reveal the age of the bird, and these compounds glow pink when exposed to black light. These is a hatch-year bird; porphyrins fade with age and become less pronounced on older individuals.

Deb came along on this Friday evening outing, and got the opportunity to witness a few Northern Saw-whet Owls up close and personal, and learn about the fascinating morphology of owls up close and personal. Well over a thousand people have been exposed to the marvelous but mostly unwitnessed life of owls at this banding operation.

One aspect of owl morphology that saw-whet banders quickly become acquainted with is powerful talons. Small as these micro-hooters may be, their talons are sharp as hypodermic needles and those little - although proportionate to the bird, huge - feet are strong indeed. Woe to the mouse that falls victim to one of these predators, and double woe to the careless bander whose finger is seized.

Now that's an ear! Proportionate to the size of their skull, saw-whets probably have among the largest ears in the animal kingdom. Not only are they big, but saw-whet ears are doubly asymmetrical. Each ear is shaped slightly differently than the other, and the ears are also offset from one another. These adaptations allow the bird's "micro-processor" to better triangulate on sound and almost instantly calculate the precise location of prey in utter darkness - even a vole moving under the snow.

The eyes of a Northern Saw-whet Owl are enormous; the pair can comprise up to 5% of the bird's head! Big eyes coupled with double the number of rods and cones that you or I have allow the owl to see well in the dimmest of conditions.

Once the hapless mouse has been located, it'll never hear its cute grim reaper coming. The leading edge of the foremost primary flight feathers are "fimbriate", or fringed with soft comblike extensions. These serve to muffle the sound of flight, and are the reason that owls are silent fliers.

Before long, it's time to release the owl back into the dark woods. We put it in a soft bag, and walk it to the base of the hill, near where it was caught. By then, it's been in the dark for ten minutes or so and its eyes have re-acclimated to the nighttime forest. Oftentimes, the banders will place the owl on the outstretched arm of a visitor, to let the owl fly off on its own terms. The little fellow above was set on my arm, where it sat... and sat... and sat. It was a good seven minutes before the little hooter finally set sail, flitting up into the cover of a nearby red cedar tree.

An enormous side benefit of Northern Saw-whet Owl research is the opportunity to expose people to the little owls. Most people have not only never seen one, they did not even imagine that such a beast existed. The chance to see a saw-whet up close, and learn firsthand about their various morphological and behaviorial aspects that I discussed above wins many converts to birds, nature, and conservation.

The bulletin board above is one of several in the research lab, and they are papered over with newspaper articles, stories from magazines, and above all, notes from kids who have visited. The latter crowd is especially important, if we want to grow a new crop of conservationists. Seeing a magical little owl that seemingly appeared miracously from the gloom of the nighttime forest is sure to make an impression, and I'm sure that some of the saw-whets capured at this station have served as "spark birds" for budding young conservationists-to-be.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Long-tailed Salamander

A crew consisting of (L to R) Cheryl Harner, David Hughes, John Howard, and Vince Howard fixate on a very cool reptile perched atop that rock slab. Said reptile is not the subject of this post, but I do intend to get to the beast at a later date.

This photo was made back on August 18, and we found a veritable treasure trove of intriguing flora and fauna along this rocky little Scioto County stream. Such excursions into habitats rich in biodiversity generally net me far more blog material than I can get to in any sort of prompt manner, if ever, so sometimes I like to go back in time and revisit overlooked items.

A beautiful Long-tailed Salamander, Eurycea longicauda, peeks coyly at your narrator from the streambed. We were understandably quite pleased to find not one, but two of these charming amphibians hiding amongst the rocks of the creek.

It takes little imagination to infer the reason for the "long tail" part of the animal's name. Long-tailed Salamanders are incredibly alongate, slender, and whiplike. They're many, many, many times longer than wide and that incredible tail comprises over half the length of the animal.

The overall color and pattern of the salamander is exceptional. An adult is a striking shade of muted burnt-orange neatly marked with rows of small ebony blotches. Turning a rock and discovering a Long-tailed Salamander is always a momentous occasions.

Long-tailed Salamanders are common in many of the areas that they occur in Ohio, and the range extends across much of southern and eastern Ohio. They're secretive, and you're unlikely to stumble into one without working a bit. Carefully turning rocks and logs, especially in damp areas near watercourses, is the way to find one.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Common Feeder Birds: The Rest of the Story

Brash and bold, a Blue Jay swoops in to disrupt the ebb and flow of lesser birds at the feeder. Cut these extroverted corvids some slack, though - the avian Johnny Appleseeds play a major role in reforesting our oak woodlands.

I'm at least mildly tardy in giving up this plug, but should you find yourself in striking range of Westerville, Ohio tomorrow evening (November 14), I'm giving a talk in that fair city at 7:00 pm to the Herb Society of America. Said program is as follows:

Common Feeder Birds: The Rest of the Story
Bird feeding is big business, and brings birds up close and personal to people who might not otherwise notice them. Nearly everyone who tacks up suet blocks or sprinkles sunflower seeds have seen the Top 10 most common feeder birds in Ohio. It’s an interesting list, and each of these birds has a story to tell. Their roles in our lives go far beyond brightening the backyard, and in this talk we’ll explore the rest of the story.

The venue is the lovely Inniswood Gardens, and the price of admission can't be beat - it's free!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Cape May Warbler in November!

Photo: Tom Sheley

Tom Sheley, who is the proprieter of the Wild Birds Unlimited store on Riverside Drive in northwest Columbus, brightened my email inbox by sending along two photos of an unexpected November feeder visitor.

This male Cape May Warbler, Setophaga tigrina, is visiting feeders in a Worthington, Ohio backyard well after most of his compadres are back in their Caribbean wintering haunts. Given that the weather here today was in the 40's and rainy, I would think this little tiger-striped beauty may be lamenting his decision to linger, if he is still about.

Photo: Tom Sheley

Tom made these images on November 8, and normally the last straggling Cape May Warblers are gone from Ohio by mid-October. It'll be interesting to see how long this bird toughs it out.

In spite of their primarily insectivorous diet - although Cape Mays do eat lots of fruit in fall and winter - these warblers can be surprisingly hardy. There are probably 15-20 early winter records, and a few Cape Mays have toughed it out at feeders well into January.

Out of the norm birds often show up at feeders, such as Tom's beautifully photographed Cape May Warbler. If you ever spot anything that seems out of the ordinary at your feeders, such as a warbler in winter, please let me or another birder know.

Lark Bunting, Take 2

Pastoral Holmes County, Ohio, which is near where the Lark Bunting of the previous post was found. Old meets new at the intersection at the base of this hill: a pickup truck rolls up, as does a horse-powered buggy. The latter is the primary conveyance of this area's large Amish community.

Photo: Hallie Mason

Two-wheeled pedal-powered modes of transportation are also common. These bicycles were probably hurriedly cast aside as their riders rushed off to look for the Lark Bunting detailed in my PREVIOUS POST, as this is the scene of that great rarity.

Hallie Mason dropped me a note with more details of this buntiferous find, and also allowed me to share a few of her photos of the scene. Leroy Erb was the bird's finder, and did it in spectacular style. He was strolling along this very road when an unfamiliar call note reached his ears. Hmmm. He tracked down the bird, which was unfamilar to him, but before even reaching home and his guides, Leroy had sorted through the possibilities and arrived at the correct identification.


Photo: Hallie Mason

This humble green hunting stool, perched along the roadside, holds the sign-in log. Scores of visiting birders have made the pilgrimage to see Leroy's rare find.

Discoveries such as Leroy Erb's Lark Bunting are inordinately common northeast Ohio's Amish Country, which is primarily Coshocton, Holmes, Tuscarawas and Wayne counties. In recent years, this includes megas such as Allen's Hummingird, Long-billed Curlew, Swallow-tailed Kite, Yellow Rail, Black Rail, Green Violet-ear, and more.

Why such a preponderance of rarities? This region has no Lake Erie or Ohio River, nor is it ridged with mountains, carpeted with virgin prairie, nor cloaked with old-growth woods. While Holmes and Tuscarawas counties are not heavily developed, and have lots of agricultural, the human footprint on the land is far lighter than it is in the glaciated flatlands of western Ohio, where agribusiness has laid waste to the landscape. The Amish and others in the Holmes County area engage in land management practices that are far more environmentally friendly than is the case in most other farmland regions of Ohio.

But the real reason that so many rare birds turn up so consistently in this area is the people. Some 40,000 Amish reside in this region, and their ranks include some of the best birders in the state. Also, a high percentage of the Amish community is far more bird-literate than the average population, so there are lots of knowledgeable eyes and ears out on the ground. Little in the way of avian occurrences seem to be missed.

Also, the Amish shun cars, and that choice greatly frees one to become more in tune with the environment. When confined to a motorized, nearly hermetically sealed automobile, the occupant cannot hear nor see birds - or most other things - nearly as well as someone on foot, riding a bicycle, or even in an open horse-drawn buggy.

I want to point out two things of interest to birders that visit the Holmes County area. One, if you have any optical needs, be sure to visit Time & Optics, which is run by uber-birder Robert Hershberger. His place is, by far, the most well-stocked and comprehensive optics shop in the state of Ohio. As an added bonus, Robert is the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet, and he knows everything there is to know about anything that you peer through to better see birds. And while you're up there, you can go bird some of the local hotspots, and eat at one of the sensational Amish restaurants. Time & Optics info follows:

Time & Optics
6954 CR 77
Millersburg, Ohio 44654
330 674-0210
866 308-0827
Call for a catalogue

Finally, mark Saturday, March 16, 2013 on your calendar. That's the date of next year's ever-popular Shreve Migration Sensation, one of the highlights of Ohio's birding festival circuit. There's no better immersion into birding Amish Country than a trip to SMS. The organizers don't yet have next year's itinerary posted, but CLICK HERE to see the 2012 details - that'll give you a good taste of what SMS is all about.

Thanks to Hallie Mason for the added info and pics, and of course major kudos to Leroy Erb for discovering the Lark Bunting.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Lark Bunting in Ohio!

Photo: Dane Adams

Bird of the moment in the Buckeye State is a western vagrant, the Lark Bunting, Calamospiza melanocrys, which has occupied some brushy tangles in Tuscarawas County since last Saturday, November 3. I'm not sure who exactly discovered this easily overlooked bird, but Bruce Glick, Ed and Leroy Schlabaugh, and Leroy Erb were mentioned on what I think was the first email to announce the bird. It's a fabulous discovery of a very rare species (for us) that could have easily been overlooked.

Dane Adams made the scene a few days ago, and sent along some of his characteristically excellent photos. In the above image, the bird peers from the dense thorny shelter of a hawthorn tree; apparently it is fond of lurking in dense growth such as this.

Photo: Dane Adams

Lark Buntings belong to the sparrow tribe (Emberizidae), and just about anyone might guess that by looking at this bird, which appears to be a juvenile male. But if you were to see this animal next summer, you'd not even think it to be the same species. Adult male Lark Buntings in their breeding finery wear a coat of jet black, offset by large white wing patches, thus transforming into one of our flashiest sparrows.

Map: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

As can be seen from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's fine map, Ohio is a bit off the Lark Bunting's beaten path. This is a sparrow of the Great Plains that normally retires to the southwest U.S. and Mexico for the winter.

However, small numbers of Lark Buntings regularly wander well to the east of their normal haunts, and Ohio's current bird is by no means our first. This is probably the 13th or 14th record for the state.

Kudos to the finders of this bird, and congratulations to everyone who has successfully made the trek to see it. And of course, I appreciate as always Dane Adams' excellent camera work and his willingness to share his imagery with us.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Evening Grosbeaks (sort of) invade!

Lest you've been thinking about what to return as in your next iteration, avoid choosing a sunflower seed. One of the giant black-white-and-yellow seed destroyers that follow might get you. Your fate would be crushing: ground between the robust and powerful mandibles of our most powerful grosbeak, your tattered remnants to be unceremoniously expelled later from the bird's aft end.

But if you're not going to be a morsel for one, an Evening Grosbeak is just about the coolest, baddest, most eye-catching songbird that can grace one's feeders. Some years ago, these showy grosbeaks of the North Woods made regular southward incursions into wintertime Ohio. Up until the early 1990's, fairly large-scale invasions could be expected every few years. And even in the off years, there would be a smattering of grosbeaks to be found.

For newer Ohio birders, some of whom may not have even seen an Evening Grosbeak in the Ohio Territory, some of the counts of yore are nearly unimaginable. For instance, the Ohio Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) of 1969 collectively totaled 1,430 birds. Winter 1976 CBC's tallied 2,077. A jaw dropping 2,686 grosbeaks were counted in the winter of 1984. The average CBC total over the past decade is a paltry 16 birds. The decade prior to that saw average CBC totals of 122 birds each winter. Go back another decade and the CBC winter average over the ten year span was 653 birds.

You get the point. There has been a precipitous downward slide in the number of Evening Grosbeaks invading Ohio. Thus, I was delighted to get two recent emails reporting grosbeaks, each with photos.

Photo: Bob Rafferty

Bob Rafferty reports five Evening Grosbeaks at his Knox County feeders on November 2, including this handsome male with a more somber female.

Photo: Rosalyn Rinehart

Last Saturday, November 3, Rosalyn Rinehart glanced out the window of her Logan County home to see five of the showy big-billed gluttons making mincemeat of her feeder's stock. Strangely, few people object to the hefty seed bills that will be incurred should a flock of ravenous Evening Grosbeaks descend and settle in at the feeders. An Evening Grosbeak is the feathered version of Joey Chestnut, and can gobble down the sunflowers like no one's business.

These weren't the only Evening Grosbeaks to be found. At least four or five other reports have come in from widely scattered locales. Keep an eye on those feeders. Thanks to Bob and Rosalyn for sharing their reports and photos with us.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Brant invade Lake Erie

The wildly swirling edges of Hurricane Sandy rolled through Ohio last week, and really put the wallop on Lake Erie. This storm is probably the strongest hurricane fallout that we've experienced, at least in recent memory. With hurricanes often come wayward birds, blown far off course, and I most definitely planned to take off a day and try to get to Lake Erie. Last Tuesday was just too rough - waves pushing 20 feet!!! were slamming the Lake Erie shoreline, and the rough seas in conjunction with driving rain and high winds wouldn't have made for good viewing conditions.

So, I waited until Wednesday before jumping in the car at 5:15 am and heading north to Lake County. My first stop was John Pogacnik's house, which overlooks the lake and offers a commanding view of a nice swath of water. Because of his location, and the fact that John stocks his yard with scores of feeders, and he watches the lake closely, his yard list must be the largest in Ohio. I think he's seen over 250 species from the property, including lots of odd and rare bedfellows such as Green-tailed Towhee and Long-tailed Jaeger.

This photo was taken with my Droid, at Conneaut Harbor. It shows the conditions that we had to endure for most of the day. Cold, windy, and near consistent drizzle if not outright rain. It definitely was not a day for getting killer photos, but I was very impressed with my new Canon 5D's performance. I generally just left it on shutter priority at 1/500, in order to try and freeze the birds with a fast shutter speed. That meant that the camera would bump the ISO as high as 12,800 at times, but there still is next to no graininess in even those images.

John and I spent the first few hours of the morning parked on his picnic table overlooking Lake Erie. One of the first cool "yard birds" we saw was this obliging female Long-tailed Duck (Oldsquaw) that was loafing just offshore. We were to see two others at different locales before the day was through.

Other highlights from the Pogacnik "yard" included 119 Brant, 2 White-winged Scoters, 32 Black Scoters, 3 Harlequin Ducks, 61 Common Loons, and four birds that were probably Red-throated Loons. Believe it or not, this was slow compared to what John and some of the other veteran Cleveland area lake-watchers were seeing in the two days prior.

A stop at Fairport Harbor yielded more scoters, of all three species. This group is comprised of three White-winged Scoters on the right, and two Surf Scoters on the left. As always, click the photo to enlarge and see more details.

John and I made it as far east as Conneaut Harbor, which is as far east as one can go on Lake Erie without entering Pennsylvania. The weather was rather inhospitable, as described previously, and as the gate was shut we had to walk a fair piece through the damp sand to reach the observation platform. Once there, we hunkered under the tower's modest shelter, and saw a fair number of interesting birds. About 20 Dunlin - one of our hardiest sandpipers - hunted the shoreline, and they were joined by two rather late Sanderlings. We were quite pleased when a Red Phalarope, pictured above, rocketed by and settled on a small pond not far away. It bathed and preened for a few minutes, then flew back out over the lake, That's typical of Conneaut Harbor - birds pop in and out constantly, and often don't linger for very long.

The highlight at Conneaut - and bird of the day (and week) in my view - were the Brant. We saw 71 of the small sea geese foraging on Conneaut's sand flats, and between all of our stops, John and I observed a grand total of 240. From October 27 through the end of the month, perhaps 1,500 - 2,000 Brant were reported from Ohio's Lake Erie waters, a staggering total. For historical perspective, Bruce Peterjohn in his The Birds of Ohio cites the previous one-day high count of Brant as 290+ on November 11, 1985 off Vermilion. He notes that Brant are normally rare and produce six or fewer sightings annually. In the latter days of October, there were multiple observations of 300+ Brant in a morning. I would guess that strong westerly winds associated with Hurricane Sandy caused Brant to track further west than normal, thus piling them up in Lake Erie. Most Brant move south from their Arctic breeding grounds via southern Hudson Bay and James Bay, then move southeast through Lake Ontario and other points east of Ohio before ending up along the Mid-Atlantic coast.

Note the flock of four Brant in this photo contains two adults, and two juveniles. The youngsters can readily be told by their strong white "wingbars" and the lack of white on the neck.

At least 43 Brant are visible in this shot, making for a scene reminiscent of coastal New York or New Jersey - certainly not something one expects to stumble into in Ohio!

We finished the day at Fairport Harbor, and were greeted by 50 more Brant on the beach. John and I darted under the protective shelter of a building's alcove, which also acted as a blind. Something flushed the flock at one point, and they wheeled around and settled in right in front of our hideout. It was neat to hear the flock's collective low chuckling honks, and watch them bicker among themselves like old maids.

By now, I suspect these Brant and most of the ones that we saw last Wednesday have made it to the sea, which is their true domain. After all, the Brant's scientific name is Branta bernicla: the specific epithet means "barnacle". So tightly wedded to the sea are these small geese that legend has it that they hatch from barnacles. Their peregrinations into freshwater habitats are rather rare and brief, and it was our good fortune to experience such an unprecedented albeit brief invasion of these marvelous little geese.