Friday, October 7, 2011

Ottawa NWR auto tour Oct. 9: Shorebird bonanza

Hudsonian Godwit in fading juvenile plumage at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Ohio, on October 7, 2011.  The dark face is typical of many Hudsonian Godwits at this season, but it's purely temporary, caused by probing in deep mud with their long bills.  Ottawa NWR is the best place in Ohio to see this uncommon species.  Photo by Kenn Kaufman.
 News update:  the auto tour at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (Lucas / Ottawa counties, n.w. Ohio) is going to be open this Sunday, October 9, from 8 to 4. I surveyed parts of the auto tour route this morning (Friday October 7) with Laura Bonneau of the refuge staff; I was very impressed with the numbers and diversity of shorebirds present, and wanted to share some information about them.

The main concentration of shorebirds on the refuge now is on the impoundment called MS 5. (For those who aren't familiar with the refuge auto tour, see our map on the BSBO birding pages under "Birding hotspots: directions and maps."   MS 5 is a very large area, with patches of open water and mudflats and emergent vegetation, so it isn't even remotely possible to view the whole impoundment from any one spot. Flocks of shorebirds move around a lot, with some apparently moving out to the Crane Creek estuary part of the time. There is good viewing of various patches of habitat all along the south and east edges of MS 5, but on Sunday that section of road probably won't be open, in which case it will be necessary to park near the southeast corner of MS 4 and walk in along the south side -- carrying a spotting scope, since many of the birds will be quite distant. But for those who are willing to make the effort, this could be richly rewarding.

The shorebirds on the refuge right now include good numbers of several species that aren't common in the experience of most Ohio birders. Jason Lewis, the bird-savvy manager of Ottawa NWR, told me that MS 5 held a lot of Hudsonian Godwits, and he wasn't kidding: I estimated at least 80 birds, and at one point I counted 52 visible at once. Ottawa is probably the best place in Ohio for this uncommon species. The birds that I saw today all looked like juveniles, mostly gray with subtle buff edgings, but they have the same flashy flight pattern and distinctive calls as the adults.

Also notably numerous today were American Golden-Plovers (estimated at least 180, with 140 visible simultaneously at one point; all seen closely were juveniles); Black-bellied Plover (at least 60, mostly juveniles); Long-billed Dowitcher (at least 55; all seen closely were juveniles; no Short-billeds identified today); Stilt Sandpiper (at least 45, mostly juveniles); and White-rumped Sandpiper (at least 22, mostly juveniles). I estimated at least 500 Dunlins in the area, many of these seen only in flying flocks, but those seen closely included an interesting mix of plumages: some adults essentially in winter plumage, some adults in worn and faded remains of breeding plumage, and many juveniles beginning to molt into first-winter plumage. We seldom get to see Dunlins in full juvenile plumage south of the Arctic, but some individuals seen today were close to that stage, with only a few obvious gray replaced scapulars. So right now is a superb time to study interesting plumages and uncommon species of shorebirds.

Although we tallied 21 species of shorebirds, these didn't include anything really rare. The only notable species, aside from those mentioned already, were Marbled Godwit (one), Wilson's Phalarope (two), and Red-necked Phalarope (one). (Also in a deeper section of MS 5 were three American White Pelicans.) Given the sheer numbers and variety of shorebirds present, I wouldn't be at all surprised if some genuine rarity turns up this weekend.

I want to point out that creating shorebird habitat in a huge impoundment like MS 5 is no small challenge -- it's not as easy as raising or lowering the water level in a small pond. Refuge manager Jason Lewis and his staff went to considerable effort to ensure that Ottawa NWR would have good stopover habitat for shorebirds during this migration period; they had to overcome some setbacks, including the major flooding rains that hit this area in September. If you take advantage of the opportunity to go see these birds on Sunday, you might stop and thank any refuge staff people that you see, to let them know that we birders appreciate their efforts. The refuge is planning to hold their "Big Sit" count on Sunday, somewhere near the start of the auto tour, and Jason Lewis probably will be out there taking part in it for much of the day, so this would be a good opportunity for you to stop and say hello -- of course he's a dedicated professional, but he's also a friendly guy and a keen birder, a real asset to the Ohio birding community.

Nature Blog Network