Saturday, March 29, 2008

Rusty Blackbird migration

Right now there are relatively large numbers of Rusty Blackbirds in our general area. Of course, at this stage in the migration there are very large numbers of blackbirds in general, so the Rusties don’t necessarily stand out. It takes some effort and attention to see them. And it's worth doing, too, especially since there is now a lot of speculation about population declines of the species. But today I saw about 700 individuals in less than 3 hours of actively looking for them, so they're certainly present to be found at the moment.

Rusty Blackbirds strongly favor swampy areas at this season. A swamp, by a birder’s definition, is an area with trees standing in or immediately next to slow-moving or still water. It’s different from a marsh (a more open habitat with mostly grasses or other low plants in standing water) and different from a muddy field or a pond or lake. So -- trees and water, that’s the combination. There are a lot of Rusties along the road in from Rt. 2 to Crane Creek / Magee Marsh, especially around the BSBO center (we saw several out the windows there this afternoon) and in the swampy woods just beyond the Sportsmen’s Migratory Bird Center, past the hawkwatch tower. There are fair numbers in the woodlot near the old parking lot at Ottawa Natl Wildlife Refuge, and in the woodlot at the end of the road at Metzger Marsh. The biggest numbers I saw today (Saturday March 29) were south of Route 2 along Toussaint Creek. Where Benton-Carroll Road crosses the creek, about 2 miles south of Route 2, there were at least 250 Rusty Blackbirds associating with even larger numbers of Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds (and smaller numbers of Brown-headed Cowbirds). I also saw a few Rusties with blackbird flocks farther south on Benton-Carroll Road and on other area roads, foraging out in flooded fields; this is another kind of situation where you find them but it doesn’t seem to be one of their favorites.

When they’re with mixed groups of other blackbirds, Rusties are sort of inconspicuous. Often they’re down foraging quietly at the water’s edge, or wading in very shallow water, singly or in little clusters of their own kind. The males are black with just a touch of iridescence and the females are mostly dark slaty. They’re a little longer-tailed than Red-winged Blackbirds but distinctly shorter-tailed than Common Grackles (and slightly shorter-tailed than Brewer’s Blackbird, a rarity here). One of the best ways to find them is by their song, a "rusty-hinge" sound, ksh-tsh-leeee, the last note high and creaking. Now, at the end of March and beginning of April, you can hear this sound regularly around the edges of swampy woods in the Magee - Crane Creek area. Numbers of Rusty Blackbirds will drop off sharply by late April, and by early May they’ll be hard to find. Right now is a good time to focus on getting better acquainted with this generally uncommon bird.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Hawk Flight on Wednesday, maybe

The weather prediction has changed again (surprise!) and the forecast for Wednesday, March 26, now calls for the wind to shift from W to WSW by about 1:00 in the afternoon. If that happens, with the forecast for partly cloudy skies and temperatures up in the high 40s, there could be a significant passage of Turkey Vultures, Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks, and others in the afternoon. If you're going to be out anyway, pay attention to the wind direction, and think about looking for hawks if the wind shifts toward the southwest. Aside from the hawk tower at Magee, another good viewing site is the sledding hill at Maumee Bay State Park, farther west and closer to the lake.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Next Big Hawk Flight

Yeah -- like I could really predict when that will happen! But here are some notes on how to predict it for yourself.

Hawks and vultures move north across Ohio on a broad front in spring, and in this part of the state they mostly move northwest to go around the west end of Lake Erie. Under most wind conditions they are widely dispersed, but when there is a light to moderate breeze out of the southwest, they concentrate in a fairly narrow band within a mile or so of the lakeshore. Such a flight happened this Sunday. BSBO maintains a regular spring raptor count from the hawkwatch tower east of the Sportsmen’s Migratory Bird Center on the road in to Crane Creek - Magee; I stopped up there Sunday afternoon and in less than an hour I saw more than a dozen Red-shouldered Hawks and more than 200 Turkey Vultures, plus a few Rough-legs, Red-tails, harriers, Bald Eagles, and others, all moving strongly west-northwest. The official counters had over 500 birds total for the day.

As late as midnight on Saturday night, the online weather data that I checked were predicting light north winds for the next day. But I was out Sunday afternoon and when I realized that the breeze was from the southwest, I headed for the hawk tower. At the level of the tower the wind was only about 5 mph, so it doesn’t take much to concentrate the raptors on this flight line.

Looking ahead, the weather predictions don’t show another ideal hawk day for a while. They’re calling for WSW winds on Tuesday March 25, but with strong winds (gusting to 40 mph) and a strong chance of rain, the raptors may not be moving (but I could be wrong, so I may check Tuesday anyway). Currently they’re predicting west winds on March 26, east on March 27, northeast on March 28, and north to east over next weekend. Beyond that, the predictions are too unreliable to count on anything. In short, I don’t know when the next good flight will occur.

Best bet: If you’re out in the general area anyway, watch the weather. If it’s not raining and there’s a light wind from the southwest, consider going to the hawkwatch tower. BSBO will have counters up there every day through early May, and they’ll be able to tell you whether there’s anything happening.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Magee Marsh waterfowl March 23

On Easter afternoon, despite the surrounding snowy conditions, almost all the ice was melted off of Magee Marsh. The Wildlife Area here protects a very large acreage, only a small percentage of which is readily visible from the causeway. But the open water that I could see this afternoon held at least 1200 ducks of 17 species. A telescope is useful here, and some of the more distant ducks to the east would not have been identifiable without one. But the area should be good for a variety of ducks for at least the next month. At the end of the road (Crane Creek beach), Lake Erie is still ice-covered for at least half a mile out, but when the ice melts or is moved offshore by wind, the lake should be good for rafts of diving ducks through the end of April.

There were hundreds of Tundra Swans at Magee this afternoon (out of the thousands that are currently present in the general area), mostly some distance away to the east of the causeway. A few Trumpeter Swans are there as well. As a general rule, the swans that sit unconcernedly near the road at Magee (and on the Ottawa entrance road) are Trumpeters, as the Tundras that migrate through here tend to be slightly more wary.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Metzger and BSBO, March 19-20

A week ago, the marsh areas at Metzger were still mostly frozen (but with about 5000 waterfowl in the open spots). By Wednesday March 19, the marsh was almost entirely open and the water was quite high. Numbers of ducks here are outstanding. On the 19th I made a careful estimate of 4000 Redheads, 900 Ring-necked Ducks, 700 Canvasbacks, 500 Gadwalls, 500 Mallards, and lesser numbers of 12 other ducks, 17 duck species in all. Also present were a few Pied-billed Grebes, plus hundreds of Canada Geese and American Coots. Mute and Trumpeter Swans were here in small numbers. (There are at least a thousand Tundra Swans in the general area but they seem to be feeding in the fields near Rt 163 several miles west of Oak Harbor, and roosting in Ottawa NWR and Magee Marsh WA.) Lake Erie is still mostly frozen over off Metzger, but by the evening of the 20th there was a substantial opening in the ice just off the end of the canal at the end of the road, with a collection of Lesser Scaup and Canvasback. There are a few Greater Scaup in with the Lessers on the canal and on the marsh, for some good comparisons.

On the evening of the 20th there appeared to be slightly fewer ducks present, but the birds move around a lot (for example, hundreds flush every time a Bald Eagle flies over). The spectacle will be well worth seeing for at least the next couple of weeks.

It sounds like a joke (and in some cosmic sense, it is a joke), but the National Weather Service is predicting 3 to 8 inches of snow locally for March 21-22. If you don't get snowed in, consider checking out the Lake Erie marsh scene. About sunset on the 20th, Kim and I were at the BSBO office (just north of Rt 2 at the entrance to Crane Creek / Magee Marsh). Hundreds of Tundra Swans were coming over, in groups of a dozen or two, and thousands of Canada Geese and various ducks. At one point I heard the high-pitched yelping of Greater White-fronted Goose, and sure enough, there were four White-fronts together with a V of Canadas. Rusty Blackbirds were calling with the flocks of grackles and Red-wings in the trees, and of course as the sun went down the American Woodcocks began giving their peent call. Regardless of weather, this is a fabulous time of year to be in northwestern Ohio.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Magee / Metzger March 13

In the area of Magee Marsh / Ottawa Natl Wildlife Refuge / Metzger Marsh, things are changing daily now, with big numbers of waterfowl moving in and moving around. Today I checked out Magee and Metzger, and found some changes already from what Karl Overman had reported yesterday. Metzger Marsh was still more than half frozen, but in the areas of open water I carefully estimated 2800 Redheads, 850 Ring-necked Ducks, 500 Gadwalls, 250 Canvasbacks, 100 N. Pintails, and lesser numbers of ten other duck species. Magee is still mostly frozen, but there was much more open water visible from the causeway today than yesterday, and a decent number of Redheads, Am. Black Ducks, Tundra Swans, and others. Killdeers are still arriving in force; I saw / heard close to 40 today, in half a dozen spots. Red-winged Blackbirds and Com Grackles are increasing in numbers daily, but I was surprised to see no Rusty Blackbirds today. The field on the north side of the road on the way in to Metzger Marsh was one good spot for them last spring; today I carefully checked the Red-wings and grackles in that field and found no Rusties, but there was one male Brewer's Blackbird there. Greg Links has recommended "scanning blackbird flocks in eastern Lucas County in March" to find Brewer's, and it worked today.

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