The grayness of
evenings clouds envelope, hide
the Gnatcatcher’s movement
From 1951 till 1989 the Feed Materials Production Center at Fernald, near Ross Ohio, processed low-level uranium for use in nuclear bombs. Fernald is one of 2 former nuclear sites that have been decontaminated to the point where the public can visit. The other is Weldon Spring, a former Army facility 30 miles west of St. Louis. Both are part of the Department of Energy’s Legacy Management Program, which is in charge of the long-term management of sites that have been cleaned up.
Fernald covers 1,050 acres, with over 320 acres being grassland. With the addition of 7 miles of hiking trails you can see why this place is a great place to go birding. And one of my favorite grassland birds that frequents Fernald this time of year is the Dickcissel. And considering Fernalds past I don’t see in the foreseeable future any developments or soccer fields stripping this wonderful habitat.
It’s been hot in the Ohio Valley this week. Temps are reaching into the 90’s and the humidity has tipped that really uncomfortable level. So I headed out in the morning trying to see my target bird for the day before I started to melt. I wasn’t too log after arriving when I heard my first Dickcissel.
I’ve been a birdwatcher for a very long time, but it wasn’t till several years ago that I jumped into this wonderful obsession whole heartily. And it was about this time I sighted my lifer Bobolink at a local park over in Butler County Ohio called Voice of America Park. And today it’s a sad reminder of habitat lost and the disappearance of a once plentiful species.
In 1942 the United States Government purchased over 430 acres in southwestern Butler County as the sight to build the Voice of America Bethany Relay Station. This sight was to be used as a backup, inland facility in case Germany would attack the east coast locations in Massachusetts, Long Island, and New Jersey. The Office of War Information began broadcasting in July of 1944, which prompted Adolf Hitler to reply those “Cincinnati Liars”.
This place was massive and transmitted American radio programs all over the world during the war using 200,000-watt transmitters. After the war it became part of the newly created United States Information Agency in 1953. At it’s peak they had 3 transmitters broadcasting with 250kW, 3 broadcasting with 175 kW, and 2 broadcasting at 50kW. As a young kid my parents would drive by and me awe-struck by the sheer size of all the antennas and towers.
And as all things change,technology was the deciding factor in closing the Bethany Relay Station in November of 1994. And all the remaining radio towers were finally taken down in February of 1998. Other than a small piece of land used for a branch facility for Miami University and a museum that tells the story of the Bethany Relay Station, the remainder of the land has been taken over by Butler County Metroparks.
Fast forward a dozen years to June 2010. I was just beginning to get the “Twitch” as reports of bird sightings made their way onto social media, and state and local Listservs. With my new found freedom to chase new birds as a full time birder I was ready to take off at a moments notice to “tick” off any new life birds. And that’s what happened this one evening in June of 2010 as I closed out of my web browser and gathered my gear to add a Bobolink to my life list.
Having never actually been to the park before I drove off more worried about sighting the bird than how to get there. I had a general sense of location, and as I got close I turned down a street that I thought the entrance was on. That’s when I had my first gruesome encounter with a Bobolink as it lay dead in the road. Probably hit by a car. I pulled over, got out of the car and walked back to pick it up and lay it in the grass by the side of the road. However my spirits were lifted as I noticed more live ones on the other side of the fence.
Finally after making my way into the park and finding where to go to locate them, it was an amazing sight. I eventually discovered that they’ve breed here for years and that Voice of America Park is the “Go-To” place to see Bobolinks in the area. And it wasn’t just Bobolinks, Henslow Sparrows were frequenting the park, as on one occasion I counted 8 individuals.
And as the years wore on, demand for more and more sports fields as neighborhoods expanded with new homes. So overnight more of the grassy meadows where the Bobolinks and Henslow’s used to breed were now replaced by soccer fields.
Now it’s a fraction of what it used to be. The park board has put up a sign stating that it’s an “Important Birding Area”, but it’s too late. I was there this last Sunday. I tucked my pants into my socks, sprayed on Deep Woods Off, and forged ahead onto the mowed paths they have through the meadows. In all the time I was there I never sighted one Bobolink. What we have now are the more aggressive Red-winged Blackbirds and Tree Swallows.
It was one of the saddest days of birding I’ve ever had because I remember how it used to be. I remember the evening when I picked up my best friend Phil and I helped him get his lifer Henslow Sparrow. I remember you didn’t even need to get of your car to spot Bobolinks. I remember Bobolinks perched on the tops of the small trees singing that bubbly song they sing. They’d flush from the path as you walked along. And they’d pose for us budding photographers.
Sometimes it’s tough to remember :(
Has this scenario ever happened to you. You were a little negligent in getting your hummingbird feeders cleaned, filled, and hung up outside after a long winter? Were the hummingbirds looking at you through your front window with pitiful looks on their little faces? Or in the case with my own hummingbirds, they would hover in the exact location where I’ve hung my feeders for the past several years. One in my front yard tree, another from the eaves of my front porch, and one more hanging from a shepherds hook in my perennial garden, also in my front yard.
So my question is, do they remember where feeders were hung from previous years? And if they were the same pair of hummingbirds that would make sense, however how would one find out if they were the same pair. And if they are different birds how would they know that hummingbird feeders were hanging there at one time?
I would watch (feeling quite guilty by the way) as they hovered either under the tree, or under the eaves looking for my feeders. I never noticed this behavior before since I normally get my feeders up in the early part of April, which is just about right for their arrival in my part of Ohio. It’s usually a male and female who claim my yard as their own, plus the romantic in me want to think it’s the same pair I’ve had for several years. Which would explain why they were looking for their feeders. I felt like a bad owner of a pet dog or cat.
But now their happy, chasing each other around the yard and posing for some photo-ops.
At just over 15,200 acres the five main wildlife areas and two state parks of northwest Ohio along Lake Erie, the birder has endless possibilities to search out and hopefully find that one elusive bird. Starting in the west with Maumee Bay State Park and ending in the east at East Harbor State Park, (which in itself has wonderful birding opportunities) we can’t forget Mallard Club Marsh Wildlife Area, Cedar Point National Wildlife Refuge, Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area, Ottawa National Wildlife Area and finally Magee Marsh Wildlife Area. Except for Cedar Point N.W.R. all other are open to the public. And in the short time I was visiting I was able to do a little birding at all, even Cedar Point as Jon and myself stood on the border with the refuge as we walked the border line with Mallard Club Marsh.
For most of the year except a certain times Ottawa NWR can only be accessed either on foot or bicycle. And at 6,500 acres this is a sizable refuge to get around on foot, and my bike isn’t built to off-road on gravel roads. So you wait for when they open up the auto tour. This gives the birder a lot of flexibility to drive a little, park their car and do some birding as long as you don’t wander too far from your car. You could spent the whole day here, which I’ve done in the past.
The past few years when Kathy and I visited it was more of a leisurely birding trip. We’d go visit some sights and do things Kathy likes to do since she’s not really a bird watcher. She appreciates them, but not at the same level I’m at. So this trip since I’m all alone it gave me more freedom to travel far and fast, and bird from sun rise to sun set.
As you drive from one spot to another you have to remember that some of the best birding can be right along the road your traveling on. Large open fields can hold sky-pools that offer some really great shore bird habitat. This Least Sandpiper was found at such a place next to a Marina.
I can’t seem to get enough of Eastern Kingbirds. These 2 photos were taken while I was in my car driving through Ottawa. But sure as anything if I’d had gotten’ out of the car they would have flown off.
Birding in northwest Ohio during the Spring can be a phenomenal experience for the beginner or the experienced birder. Hotel and camping options are plentiful, with special rates for festival goers. Driving distance between all the parks and wildlife areas mentioned are manageable. From the cabins at Maumee Bay State Park to my hotel in Post Clinton, it was an hour drive. So you see it’s a relatively small area with a large amount of potential for birding.
Everything I could possibly need was packed into the back of the bird-mobile. A rolling suitcase with all my necessary clothes and do-dads. Another rolling suitcase with all my optics, cables and connectors, and one field guide. A small cooler with enough peanut butter and apricot preserves to make 6 sandwiches, Fiber-One bars, and kettle cooked potato chips. My typical birding breakfast and lunch when you’re on the go. Tripod and a pillow, and that’s only because I hate hotel pillows.
So at exactly 2:25 last Friday, with my I-Pod on shuffle, I pulled out of work on my way for my annual pilgrimage to Lake Erie for some serious migration birding. I was tired, but stoked. It was a long week at work and the idea of driving for several hours wasn’t exactly what I really wanted to do. What I really wanted was to take a nap. But birds were calling and being a careful driver I put the cruise control on and pointed the car north. And in 3 1/2 hours exactly I was turning off Highway 2 into Magee Marsh, and the prospect of some great birding.
Birding predictions were pretty sketchy as to whether birding was going to be good, or great. As we all know the weather plays such an important part in bird migration, and as I walked onto the boardwalk Friday in the early evening it looked like it was going to be a great weekend.
And then it seemed the bottom fell out. There must have been movement overnight and the birding wasn’t as good as I’ve experienced in the past. I’m sure for the most part birders had to work pretty hard to check off birds for their trip list, and i was no exception. Don’t take me wrong, we had a fairly good variety of birds, just the sheer numbers were lower that I’ve seen in the past. That’s migration for you.
I birded till about 7:30 and then made my way over to Port Clinton for a dinner of some fish tacos at the Jolly Roger Restaurant, and checked into my hotel for a good nights sleep, since 5:00 am comes way too early. I have to beat the morning crowd of birders and mega-photographers to the boardwalk, plus having a close parking spot pays off big time when and if it starts to rain, and your rain jacket is still in your car.
It was a 45 minute drive to the turn off into Magee Marsh and the sun was just starting to rise. I slowly crept over the causeway pausing to listen for Rails and Bitterns. Except for the half dozen or more cars in the parking lot the boardwalk was just how I liked it……quiet!
It was the last full weekend for the Biggest Week In America Birding Festival, and it can get kind of noisy at times on the boardwalk, so getting there early can be a benefit when you’re birding by ear. Within 30 minutes the parking lot really starts to fill up, as does the boardwalk.
Jon was already up at the lake, having arrived with some of his family and his wife Thursday evening. Once everyone got up and feed he was going to meet up with me that day. So I continued on working the boardwalk checking the tree tops and the ground, and everywhere in between for birds.
As the morning wore on the sun started to warm the air, and then as I was standing with my bins in my hands I noticed 5 to 6 guys walking rather briskly towards the exit. For myself when I see behavior like this a red flag goes up. So I naturally followed them. Off the boardwalk and across the parking lot towards the estuary trail which takes you onto Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. From the chattering of info I was picking up as the group walked along was that a Connecticut Warbler was seen near the trail. Then for some unknown reason the group stopped. They were in a discussion and they all had a confused look on their faces. So I walked up and asked them if they were heading over to see the warbler. They were, but didn’t have a clue that the trail continued on towards the actual estuary where Lake Erie flows into and out of Ottawa and it’s marshes.
So I helped them out by pointing them in the right direction, and off we went. The trail is actually the top of a dike that runs parallel to Lake Erie, with the marsh enclosure on one side and the lake on the other. And in between is some pretty thick undergrowth of mature trees and scrubby bushes with lots of leaf litter. Perfect for a Connecticut to hang out in. As we approached the far side of the trail then we saw all the people. Dozens upon dozens, all training their bins downward into the brush. And you know that bird is there, because it keeps singing every minute.
I sent Jon a text and filled him in on what’s going on. It’s a lifer for him. A few people catch glimpses of the bird, then it goes back into hiding. The mass of people swell and then separate into smaller groups to cover more ground. Jon and I scoot 20 feet to the right by ourselves and scan the ground. Since we’re on a small dike we’re a few feet above the floor of the wooded section we’re scanning. A small pool of standing water about 10 feet in front of us. Jon first sees the bird foraging along the edge of the pool. He loses it as it moves away and vegetation gets in the way of our vision. I catch a quick glimpse and say “there it is”. People start to move in our direction as I sit down on the ground and Jon crouches low. Then the bird moves. Lands on a branch at eye level 8 feet in front of Jon and myself. And that quick it was gone.
It was a few hours later when I learned that Samantha, Jon’s wife, got a tip on a Yellow-headed Blackbird seen from the auto tour at Ottawa. Not wanting to appear rude or anxious, I said my good-byes and raced off to my car.
I’m now going to run through the trip list and save my next post for when I went to Ottawa N.W.R. with more pictures.