Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Trio of late migrants

Kim and I had been out of town (Autumn Weekend at Cape May) and I should have been catching up on work, but a glance at the weather patterns of the last few days prompted me to go out and see if any odd birds were around today (Tuesday October 31). None of the birds that I saw would be considered rarities for Ohio, but three were very unusual for the end of October. In the small woodlot at the end of the road at Metzger Marsh, I saw one each of Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Eastern Wood-Pewee, and Yellow Warbler.

My source for expected dates here is Birds of the Toledo Area by Matt Anderson et al. (2002), backed up by info from The Birds of Ohio by Bruce Peterjohn (1989) and Birds of the Cleveland Region by Larry Rosche (2004). Yellow-billed Cuckoos are essentially gone from the area by the middle of October, although there is a mid-November record for Toledo (and other November records for Cleveland and elsewhere in the state). The latest dates listed for Eastern Wood-Pewee are October 14 for the Toledo area and October 26 for the Cleveland area (Peterjohn's latest date listed for the state is October 21). Considering the lateness of this bird, I studied it carefully for the possibility of Western Wood-Pewee, but it looked typical for an Eastern in all respects. Yellow Warbler is a very early fall migrant, with most leaving northwestern Ohio before mid-September. The late date listed for the Toledo area is November 1, although there are later records elsewhere in the state, but any individual in October has to be considered late. Remarkably, Brian Zwiebel had seen and photographed a Yellow Warbler at Maumee Bay State Park, just a few miles west of Metzger, Oct. 26-30. Looking at his photos, I think my bird was probably a different individual.

This concentration of late dates raises the question: are these just lingerers that haven't made their way south yet, or could they be birds that came up from farther south on the recent strong southwesterly winds? The latter kind of phenomenon is believed to occur at some heavily birded spots on the Atlantic Coast, where strong south winds in fall are often followed by records of such "late" birds. In this case it can't be proven, but I didn't see any of these birds on multiple visits to Metzger in mid-October, so it's possible that they came north in recent days.

Aside from these three, there were very few migrants in the woods at Metzger. The most interesting were a Blue-headed Vireo (also rather late, but not strikingly so) and an Eastern Towhee. A handful of birds seen in a scan of Lake Erie from the end of the road included at least 20 Forster's Terns, 2 Common Terns, one Caspian Tern (getting late), 2 Common Goldeneyes, 14 Lesser Scaup, and 30 Ring-necked Ducks. All of these birds were some distance offshore.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Hermit Thrushes, Com. Moorhen, northwest Ohio

With limited time today, I went out to the small patch of woods at the end of the road at Metzger Marsh, Lucas County. This woodlot on the edge of Lake Erie is small enough to concentrate any migrants that are in the area and it gives me a quick read on what birds are moving. The bird of the day there today (Friday Oct. 20) was unquestionably Hermit Thrush -- I saw / heard at least 50 in an area of woods that can't be much more than an acre in size. Several times there I had five or six visible at once. No other thrushes (except robins) were seen or heard.

Later I heard that this had also been a huge day for Hermit Thrushes at the main Black Swamp Bird Observatory banding site, on the shoreline of the Navarre Unit of Ottawa NWR, about 10 miles east of Metzger. But Kim and I checked out another wooded site south of Magee Marsh, a mile or two south of the lake, late in the day, and had only a few Hermit Thrushes, so the species may have been quite localized along the lakeshore itself.

At Metzger and south of Magee, Ruby-crowned Kinglets were abundant today, far outnumbering Golden-crowns. Other migrants were in expected numbers. The Metzger woods had one Orange-crowned Warbler (foraging in the goldenrods) and one Blackpoll Warbler along with the Yellow-rumpeds, as well as an Eastern Phoebe, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and five Brown Creepers.

Out on the marsh itself there are still hundreds of American Coots, and I saw one Common Moorhen with them. According to published reports, moorhens were common in the Lake Erie Marshes half a century ago, and late October would have been well within the expected span of dates; but these days the species occurs here only in very small numbers in summer, so the date seemed notable.

Friday, September 1, 2006

Notes on fall migrant concentrations

The boardwalk at Magee Marsh is justly famous as a concentration point for migrant songbirds in spring and fall. The boardwalk runs through a prime section of woods on the beach ridge between the marshes and Lake Erie, and on a typical day in migration season the beach ridge will have a relatively high concentration of birds compared to areas away from the lake. But that isn't the case every day, even in peak season.

Case in point, based on my own observations and those of various other people that I talked to. Yesterday (Thursday Aug. 31) the boardwalk was very slow for migrants, and this morning (Friday Sept. 1) there was only a moderate amount of activity there. But on both days there were good numbers of migrants just a short distance to the south, only one to two miles south of the lake front. In trees around the BSBO headquarters (just north of Route 2 on the road in to Crane Creek / Magee Marsh), Kim and I saw numerous warblers including Wilson's, Blackpoll, and Blackburnian, plus Philadelphia Vireo, Veery, and various other migrants. At Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, at the parking area for the old office and hiking trails, there's an excellent little swampy woodlot just west of the parking lot. In a short visit this morning I saw a good variety of warblers including Black-throated Blue, Canada, Tennessee, Wilson's, Bay-breasted, Mourning, and lots of Magnolias, as well as Gray-cheeked and Swainson's Thrushes and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. On both days, I think I would have been disappointed if I had confined my birding to the boardwalk.

It may be that the very strong northeast winds on Thursday pushed birds away from the lake. The point of this post is just to advise anyone who makes a long drive to bird at the Magee boardwalk: if it's unexpectedly slow, it doesn't mean you should turn around and go home. It's worth checking other spots just a mile or two south of the lake shore to see if the concentrations might be temporarily shifted inland.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Shorebirds and their habitats

On Saturday the 19th, the Black Swamp Bird Observatory held a workshop on shorebird identification, and after the indoor presentation we had a follow-up field trip out into the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. Our purpose was to study the i.d. of the birds, not to run up a big list, but still we had 16 species of shorebirds. Highlights included both species of dowitchers (with five adult Long-billeds in various stages of beginning to molt, and some beautiful juvenile Short-billeds looking typical of the expected bright race hendersoni), molting adult Stilt Sandpipers, a pristine juvenile Baird's Sandpiper, and a very odd Wilson's Phalarope -- apparently a juvenile that had gotten discolored by some oil or some other pollutant, giving it some very dark marking on one side of the head. (In terms of seasonality, the rarest bird was a female Bufflehead -- there are no August records listed in Birds of the Toledo Area by Matt Anderson et al.) Some participants in our workshop also got to see a Marbled Godwit out on the Crane Creek beach before or after the event.

There has been some good discussion recently about creating artificial habitat for migrant shorebirds. As one who moved from the middle of the Sonoran Desert to the middle of the Lake Erie Marshes, I've had a lot of occasion to think about artificial vs natural habitats (and especially natural-but-managed habitats) for shorebirds. When I lived in Tucson I could go out and expect to see virtually every shorebird within 30 miles, because they were all on a few artificial wetlands. Here in northwest Ohio I can never hope to see more than a fraction of the thousands that come through within a few miles of my house. Rare shorebirds, paradoxically, are harder to find here than they were in the desert. But there's no doubt that in terms of total populations, this region is far more important to the birds than Arizona ever could be.

Several people have made good points about the fact that it's possible to create shallow impoundments and flats that are ideal for attracting and viewing migrant shorebirds in an area where no such habitat had existed before. I fully agree. But I also want to point out that the same principles that apply to an artificial sewage pond of a few acres can't be applied to a marsh complex of thousands of acres. I can't speak for the people who manage Ottawa NWR or the state wildlife areas, but my understanding is that they intended to have some good flats available for shorebirds close to the roads, just in an attempt to please the birders, but they were stymied this year by the extreme weather -- record-breaking precipitation in July, followed by sudden drying in August. The people managing these areas have to deal with a lot of challenges, including changing lake levels and lots of invasive nonnative plants, and it appears to me that the managers are doing a good job of providing for wildlife. I wouldn't want to see Ottawa or Magee or Metzger chopped up into a lot of little sewage-pond square sections just to make the birders happy. Sure, it would make the rare shorebirds easier to spot, but it wouldn't mean there were actually more of them there; and it would do away with the habitat for the King Rails, American Bitterns, Least Bitterns, Common Moorhens, Black Terns, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and other birds that really need the marsh.

There are a lot of shorebirds in the refuges and wildlife areas and state parks of the Lake Erie Marshes right now. Most of those birds are out of sight for us most of the time. The best habitat for birds is not always the best habitat for birding, and that's an important distinction to learn. As conservationists we should favor the welfare of the birds over the short-term ease of birding, so that we'll have birds to watch in the future.

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