January 2006 Issue
Winter Sky Wonders
Ohio offers exceptional bird-watching in fridgid months, including glimpses of rare seasonal visitors.
On a winter's day in Wyandot County, the short-eared owl, a meadow vole clutched in its talons, flew toward a perch and an anticipated feast. Out of the electric gray, as quick as a cruise missile, bolted a bird little bigger than half the owl's size.
The startled, slow-flying owl - often an attacker but seldom the attacked - let loose its furry morsel as the fast-closing bogey, a merlin, screamed past. As the vole began to fall, the aerial aggressor made a swift u-turn in pursuit of its prey and magically snatched the plummeting rodent. Its shakedown mission accomplished, the aerobatic falcon flew off with a morsel the owl had thought it earned.
"It was pretty spectacular to watch," eyewitness Ned Keller says.
So spectacular that Keller, a lawyer from the Cincinnati area, counts the incident, which occurred about 20 years ago at the Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area north of Marion, among his most memorable in almost 30 years of bird-watching. The encounter was remarkable, too, if for no other reason than both birds likely came long distances to cross mean paths over a field mouse in the chill, leaden sky of north-central Ohio. Neither the falcon nor the short-eared owl is anything but a visitor, driven south from dismal Canadian forests, fields and tundra during winters to find food in places like the remnant plains at Killdeer and the man-made plains of the Wilds in Muskingum County.
Killdeer's 8,627 acres of pre-agricultural grassland, wetland, water and timber are renowned as one of Ohio's best winter birding spots. Home to numerous year-round residents, such as sprightly chickadees, flighty titmice, and splendidly arrayed red-headed woodpeckers, Killdeer's star winter attractions nonetheless have to be the birds of prey.
"You don't have to get out of your car. You can just drive around," says Julie Shieldcastle, director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, a nonprofit research organization based at Oak Harbor in Ottawa County.
Falcon sightings aren't an everyday occurrence at Killdeer, but the short-eared owls make regular appearances as afternoon gives way to evening. The owls are crepuscular, meaning they become active at dusk as they pursue the small rodents that tunnel and track through the vestigial prairie made up of grasses and forbs.
Bill Whan, a Columbus resident and editor of an Ohio birding journal known as The Cardinal, remembers seeing as many as 65 vehicles parked on Killdeer's gravel roads in the dying daylight. The commuters had come to watch the deadly short-eared owls glide from their day berths in the trees to begin low-flying sorties across open fields in which voles scamper under the illusion of safety. Whan refers to that time as "a shift change," when the owls take over the flight paths from northern harriers, a type of hawk that hunts the same terrain all day. A vole can never take life for granted.
The harriers, too, generally are northern nesters whose annual southerly journeys lead them to Killdeer, where small mammals are plentiful and conditions to hunt them agreeable. Harriers, which range in size from 16 to 24 inches with 3 1/2- to 4-foot wingspans, fly so low they practically skim the brown fields as they hunt.
The rough-legged hawks and bald eagles are truly the show stoppers. Spring-through-fall residents of the Arctic and subarctic tundra - which parts of Killdeer remotely resemble in Ohio's least-forgiving months of January and February - the rough-legged hawks hang out only for the eats.
"They come a long way," Whan marvels. "The nearest rough-legged hawks' nests are 1,500 miles away." Not so with bald eagles, which have built at least two nests at Killdeer, visible from a vantage point near the wildlife area's headquarters.
"Eagle nests are huge, like Volkswagens stuck in trees," Shieldcastle says, hardly exaggerating. Visitors aren't permitted to get close to the nests for fear that human activity will upset housekeeping, which begins in mid- to late winter. By driving slowly, though, visitors can sometimes get within easy viewing distance of perching eagles, mature birds easily recognized by their white heads and tail feathers and immature ones by their size.
Shrikes, diminutive assassins known as "butcher birds" because they apply the coup de grace to their victims by impaling them on thorns and barbed-wire fences, can be found in bare shrubbery overlooking open fields. Though more akin to songbirds than to raptors, the shrikes carry a remorseless attitude rivaling that of any bird of prey.
"If the loggherhead shrike were the size of deer, we'd all be hanging out there on thorns," says a laughing Jim McCormac, president of the Ohio Ornithological Society. "Oh, they're barbarians. They're very violent and will attack birds up to the size of robins."
In late winter, 52-inch-long tundra swans, too large for even the meanest shrike to mess with, touch down in Killdeer's fields. Next to the resident Canada geese, the whitewashed swans seem massive and regal, even out of place. And so these visitors are, resting oh so briefly on their way north to the arctic nesting grounds that give them their name.
For an eye-opening look at waterfowl during an Ohio winter, Castalia, home of a once-heralded but now off-limits spring known as the Blue Hole, is the place to go. It is here - only minutes by vehicle from Sandusky and a mere hour's drive from Toledo and Cleveland - that water can be found that never freezes because it emerges, at a constant 55 degrees, from the subterranean limestone that anchors western Erie County. "In the winter that's like a sauna," Whan says. "The place has wall-to-wall ducks."
Swarms of black ducks, mallards and wild-domestic hybrids - sometimes nudged aside by bruiser Canada geese - approach within a few feet to gobble up bread or corn offerings tossed out by human visitors at two parking areas overlooking a 12-acre pond. Not quite so bold but just a corn-kernel toss offshore are representatives from a dozen or so resplendently feathered species of dabblers and divers. American wigeons mix with pintails, buffleheads bump against ringnecks, scaups dive beneath redheads. A Crayola-colored wood duck might also be among the quacking mob. The lucky or the vigilant might encounter a rare glimpse of a long-tailed duck or a Eurasian wigeon. Whan says blue-winged teals sometimes hang out in the balmy water all winter, even though they're typically the first ducks to head south and the last to return north.
The fiercer the winter, the better the bird-watching at Castalia's open-water pond. "When the large bodies of water are frozen over, that's the hot spot," Shieldcastle says.
Hotter still in terms of water temperature if not quite so extravagantly endowed with compacted ducks are the warm-water discharges that dump into Lake Erie. Power-plant effluent gouges out pockets of bird-friendly open water during the most ice-bound winters. Discharges at Oregon near Toledo, Avon Lake to the west of Cleveland and Eastlake to the east of the city, provide avid birders with opportunities to pick their spots. Yet, the "hot water" area at Cleveland Lakefront State Park probably rates as the best in terms of birder accessibility and bird possibility, says John Pogacnik, the natural area specialist at Lake Metroparks who regularly makes all the lakeshore stops.
Wintering ducks, such as goldeneyes and mergansers, can be commonplace. Once in a while a sea-going rarity like a scoter, eider or harlequin duck will drop in to find shelter and a morsel. Because of the scads of fish that the warm water attracts and then kills, the park is a gull magnet. While commonplace herring, ring-billed and black-backed gulls pick floating meals off the water surface, warmly dressed birders come to the frigid shore hoping that winter blasts drive down Arctic species, which doesn't happen every year. When it does, large, white-winged Iceland gulls and even larger glaucous gulls dazzle the pilgrims to the Erie shore.
Approximately 100 miles south in Muskingum County, the Wilds has been in recent years the winter home of at least two out-of-place birds that draw oohs and ahs. The prairie falcon, a medium-sized bird of 15 to 19 inches, appeals to those with a discerning eye, good binoculars and the knowledge that this is a bird of the Far West. However, the sight of the golden eagle, which stands almost 40 inches and soars on wings that stretch some 7 feet, can grab the attention any passerby, birdwatcher or not.
Winter bird-watching requires warm clothes, waterproof footwear, binoculars and a field guide. Highly recommended are Field Guide to the Birds of North America by the National Geographic Society and Birds of Ohio by James S. McCormac and Gregory Kennedy.
Where to Go
Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area - Managed by the Ohio Division of Wildlife, this area features common winter birds of prey including bald eagles; rough-legged, red-tailed and Cooper's hawks; northern harriers; and short-eared owls. Flocks of horned larks, snow buntings and lapland longspurs can be seen in open fields. Tundra swans pass through during late winter. To get there: From U.S. Rte. 23 about 14 miles northwest of Marion, turn west onto St. Rte. 294. Pass through the village of Harpster and continue to Co. Rd. 115. Drive south about 1 mile.
Castalia Duck Pond - Look for Canada geese, black ducks, mallards, pintails, wigeons, ring-necked ducks, shovelers, scaups, buffleheads, mergansers, teal, redheads and wood ducks. From St. Rte. 2 west of Sandusky, turn south on St. Rte. 269. The pond, which features two parking areas, is located just south of downtown Castalia.
Cleveland Lakefront State Park - A warm-water discharge area from a nearby power plant creates acres of open water during the most ice-bound winters. Look for mergansers, goldeneyes, buffleheads and other hardy duck species, including the occasional sea-going variety. Common gulls include herring, ring-billed and black-backed. More exotic are the glaucous and Iceland gulls that come to southern Lake Erie during particularly harsh winters. To get there: From Interstate 90, take the E. 72nd St. exit and turn north. Travel a short distance to North Marginal Road. A parking lot on the left leads to the warm-water discharge area.
The Wilds - More than 9,000 acres of savannah-like terrain in Muskingum County creates a habitat attractive to bald eagles and to a variety of winter-hardy hawks, owls and perching birds. In recent years, a prairie falcon and a golden eagle have spent the winter. African animals roam the grounds of this private preserve, which is closed during winter months. Birding opportunities are limited to perimeter roads and to the Birding Station at Jeffrey Point, located off St. Rte. 284.
For information, call 740/638-5030 or log on to www.thewilds.org.