Sunday, August 31, 2008

Tricolored Heron continues near Sandusky

As of Sunday, August 31, an adult Tricolored Heron continues in Medusa Marsh, west of Sandusky and southeast of Port Clinton. The bird was first discovered by Jen Brumfield a week ago and has been seen off and on since. This is a rare visitor to northwestern Ohio, not found every year. To locate the bird, go to the junction of Rt. 2 and Rt. 269 South, just on the south side of Sandusky Bay, and turn north toward Bay View. From the overpass over Rt. 2, if you look toward the northeast, you'll see a large open area of shallow water and exposed flats surrounded by marsh and phragmites. To view this area, you have to go north (downhill) about fifty yards to a wide spot where you can park, and then walk back uphill along the road shoulder toward the interchange to get high enough to see over the vegetation.

I was there this afternoon and the Tricolored Heron was out in the middle of the open area. It was not at all obvious and took some scanning to find; and although it would have been identifiable through binoculars, a telescope is very helpful here for getting decent looks. Other birds out on the flats included at least 20 Snowy Egrets, several Caspian Terns and Forster's Terns, one Bonaparte's Gull, two American Golden-Plovers, good numbers of Semipalmated Plovers, Killdeers, and Lesser Yellowlegs, a few dowitchers and "peeps" at great distance, many Blue-winged Teal, and a few Northern Shovelers and Green-winged Teal. A couple of times, Bald Eagles made low passes over the area, causing many of the birds (including the Tricolored Heron) to get up and fly around before landing again.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Best current shorebirding in Ohio

Late August is a great time for shorebirding in northwestern Ohio if you can find areas of good habitat. A lot of shorebirds are using habitat in the state Wildlife Areas and the Ottawa Natl Wildlife Refuge near the lakeshore, but access to the best spots is difficult. Right now the easiest shorebird viewing is a little farther south -- south of Sandusky and east of Fremont -- in areas of flooded farm fields just west of Bellevue, along the Seneca - Sandusky county line.

Here are notes on some specific spots, with notable birds that I observed at these places on Friday, August 22 (I saw a total of 16 shorebird species and well over 1000 individuals). To find these spots, consult any detailed road atlas, such as the DeLorme Atlas for Ohio. All observation should be from the road shoulder, since all of these places are on private property.

Seneca County, pond on the north side of C34 between T79 and T80, a mile south of the county line: the pond is some distance away from the road, so a telescope is essential. Parking is a challenge as well, since the road shoulders are narrow; exercise extreme caution here. The water level is a lot lower from last week but on 8/22 the pond still had 163 Killdeer, 71 Lesser Yellowlegs, 4 Greater Yellowlegs, 4 Pectoral Sandpipers, 2 Short-billed Dowitchers, about 20 Least Sandpipers, and one Baird's Sandpiper.

Seneca County, pond on east side of T80, half a mile south of the county line: again, water level is down, but the pond had a surprising 9 Stilt Sandpipers on August 22. Other birds included 14 Pectoral, one Solitary, 2 Spotted, one Semipalmated, and 28 Least Sandpipers, 41 Killdeer, and 6 Lesser Yellowlegs. One female Yellow-headed Blackbird was with the starlings and Red-wings on the shore.

Sandusky County, flooded area on both sides of the railroad tracks on T292 (Riddle Rd) just north of the county line: The "road closed, high water" signs are still there, but there's no longer any water across the road south of the tracks, and only a narrow strip across the road north of the tracks. Off to the sides, though, there is still a very large flooded area, with hundreds of shorebirds present. On August 22, highlights at this spot included a juvenile Wilson's Phalarope, 2 adult Black-bellied Plovers, and several Semipalmated Plovers. In one section I counted 57 Stilt Sandpipers, a great concentration any time for Ohio. (Only two of those were adults, the rest juveniles.) A couple of quick sample counts indicated that there were well over 300 Lesser Yellowlegs and over 200 Pectoral Sandpipers here, over 200 Least Sandpipers, and at least 150 Semipalmated Sandpipers. The numbers of shorebirds were in stark contrast to their scarcity of the previous Saturday, when repeated passes by a young Peregrine Falcon apparently had moved some things out. This area continues to hold many Pied-billed Grebes and a variety of ducks, including a bedraggled Bufflehead, a species that rarely summers in Ohio.

Sandusky County, flooded area on 205 (Bonham Rd) between 296 and 288, north of US 20: no shorebirds here except a few Killdeers and a Solitary. Still a lot of water. This area still held American Coots, Common Moorhens, and many ducks; it seems like a place where some really odd rarities could show up.

Sandusky County, flooded area on 175 (South Ridge Rd) east of 278, or about 2 miles east-northeast of US 20: Most of the water is gone, but the remaining four patches of water and the surrounding flats were crowded with birds, including a beautiful juvenile Red-necked Phalarope, 5 juvenile Baird's Sandpipers, one adult White-rumped Sandpiper, and 3 adult Black-bellied Plovers. Other birds there were 5 Semipalmated Plovers, 100-plus Killdeer, 4 Spotted Sandpipers, 3 Solitary Sandpipers, 100-plus Lesser Yellowlegs, 50-plus Semipalmated Sandpipers, 100-plus Least Sandpipers, 100-plus Pectoral Sandpipers, 42 Stilt Sandpipers, and 18 Short-billed Dowitchers.

The numbers and variety present right now make this the best current shorebirding in Ohio. It should continue to be good until the water dries up, which may happen soon at a couple of these sites if we don't get more rain. In the meantime, though, I expect there's daily turnover, and some of these spots would be worth checking every day for some exciting studies of migratory shorebirds.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Timing of shorebird migration

Shorebird migration seems to be proceeding at a normal pace in northwestern Ohio, in terms of both numbers and timing. Areas of shorebird habitat have been changing constantly over the last six weeks ... as is also normal. Stopover habitats for shorebirds are changeable by their very nature -- changing by the hour in tidal situations at the coast, changing by the day inland, as low-lying areas flood or dry up. The shorebirds, ever adaptable, are quick to take advantage of new habitat, quick to move on when it loses its appeal. Most migratory shorebirds are such strong fliers that they can keep going for hundreds of miles, at least, until they happen to find a good spot. In an inland region like Ohio, when an area of good habitat appears, shorebirds migrating over will drop in. So these temporary habitats give us a chance to take a sample of what is passing overhead.

I had a chance to sample what was pausing in the back country of Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge on Friday, Aug. 8, and today, Monday, Aug. 11, when I tagged along with a team doing research there. (Unfortunately, as reported earlier, the auto tour at Ottawa won't be open this weekend, owing to unforeseen delays in construction, but the main shorebird concentrations right now are away from the auto tour anyway.) These are my very rough numbers from one major impoundment from today, estimated when I wasn't up to my knees in glutinous mud:
Semipalmated Plover 20 (mostly adults)
Killdeer 35
Greater Yellowlegs 14 (mostly adults)
Lesser Yellowlegs 90 (more juveniles than adults)
Solitary Sandpiper 15 (those seen well were adults)
Spotted Sandpiper 10 (adults and juvs)
Semipalmated Sandpiper 120 (roughly equal numbers of adults and juvs)
Least Sandpiper 200 (more juvs than adults)
Pectoral Sandpiper 40 (adults)
Stilt Sandpiper 2 (juvs)
Short-billed Dowitcher 25 (1 adult, the rest juvs)
Wilson's Snipe 4
The mix on Friday 8/8 was similar, but with the addition of one Long-billed Dowitcher and two Dunlin, and larger numbers of Short-billed Dowitchers. Also on Friday, slightly fewer of the Semi and Least Sandpipers were juveniles.

I'm not mentioning these birds to frustrate birders who can't get into closed areas of the refuge, but just to indicate that there are indeed good numbers migrating through. Fortunately, I didn't see anything rare on the refuge, and all of these species could be expected in visits to the Bellevue ponds and other accessible sites.

The timing of dowitcher migration is worthy of special mention. Hundreds of Short-billed Dowitchers were passing through the area a month ago; for example, I counted 86 on one impoundment at Pickerel Creek on July 4, and others had higher counts there. Western Ottawa County had very heavy rains in early July, causing damage to some local crops but creating temporary shorebird habitat, and many dowitchers (all adult Short-billeds of the prairie race, hendersoni) paused in these flooded fields. On July 10 I saw a dozen in a flooded front yard in the town of Rocky Ridge! July is the peak migration season for adult Short-billeds here; by now the great majority of the adults have departed, and numbers of juveniles have not yet reached their peak. Meanwhile, a few adult Long-billed Dowitchers can be expected now, but juveniles aren't likely to show up until September.

Many areas of shorebird habitat near the lakeshore are far more accessible to the birds than to the birders. For good viewing, for the time being, it's probably best to keep checking the flooded fields near Bellevue. One particularly good spot recently has been on TR 292 just north of the Sandusky/Seneca County line; a few days ago, these ponds still had four Black-necked Stilts and three Wilson's Phalaropes.

Mid-August is a great time to be looking at shorebirds. The differences between adults and juveniles are very obvious for many species now, and the juveniles are particularly beautiful in their crisp new plumage. Paying attention to the ages of shorebirds in fall will really pay off in increased understanding of the timing of their migrations. For most species, the adults migrate south before the juveniles, and keeping this in mind will help you to make sense out of what you're seeing.

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