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The excitement of State birding - Part 2

my second year in Ohio


I wrote Part 1 of this blog just before I vanished to Sri Lanka for 2.5 weeks, having reached 90 birds on my “January 100” by 10 January. I was way ahead of most other birders in Ohio, but while searching for Sri Lanka’s endemics, Blue Whales and Leopards, I couldn’t bird Ohio! So, I regularly checked e-bird every few days, only to see everyone else overtaking me in while I was away. Worse still, Ohio’s first Slaty-backed Gull pitched up while I was in Sri Lanka and left before I returned home. The life of a birder is never easy! Anyway, Part 2 of this blog is meant to describe some of the excitement about the 2018 birding year in Ohio! So here goes…

I only started my 2018 birding in Ohio in April, as before that I had long trips to South Africa and India. Luckily (but strangely), a lot of the winter species lingered late that year and I managed to see many of the winter ducks in April even though they usually depart for Canada by March. Amazingly, Snowy Owls also stuck around and we even found a couple of them in May! Plus, there were species such as Brown Creeper, Dark-eyed Junco, Winter Wren and various other passerines usually only present in winter but this year sticking around pretty late into early spring.

The end of April is when warblers and other migrants start arriving en masse in the hills of southern Ohio on the edge of the Appalachians. So, each year I join the Columbus Audubon Society Avid Birders’ outing to this part of the world on the last Saturday of April. This is a really good way of bumping up one’s year list pretty fast. 2018 was (again) unusual, as we actually missed some of the strategic late April species of southern Ohio as they were late arriving this year. Notably the beautiful Cerulean Warbler and the unusual Worm-eating Warbler. Luckily, I managed to catch up with both of these later in the spring. The Avid Birders’ trip did generate a Western vagrant, Black-throated Grey Warbler, a very straggler to Ohio!

May is the most exciting month in Ohio as hundreds of thousands of migrants accumulate in wooded parks all along the shores of Lake Erie before they brave the long crossing to Canada (and in the case of the rare Kirtland’s Warbler, Michigan). Magee Marsh in northwestern Ohio along with Point Pelee on the Canadian side where tired, hungry migrants arrive after the great lake crossing are two of the most famous such sites. A great variety of brightly-coloured wood-warblers, Scarlet Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles and other dazzling birds can be seen and photographed at eye level as they’re more concerned about finding food than worrying about predators at this time. Flocks of Blue Jays, which seem to be scared of water, fly out across the lake and then back again, repeatedly, until finally they get going on their long crossing, eventually arriving on the Canadian side. In May, Ohio is arguably the best place on the planet for finding all the eastern wood-warblers – along with other migrants – and tours such as the one shown HERE take advantage of this.

Kirtland’s Warbler put in a brief appearance at the Biggest Week in American Birding, but only a handful of people managed to successfully chase it. However (amazingly!), an incredibly co-operative one pitched up at a Columbus metro park and put on a spectacular show, at a later stage so I managed to see my second ever one and get this onto my year state list.

Shorebirds also pass through Ohio in May, although the Fall is better for them. I always hope for a vagrant, and this year I was indeed delighted to catch up with Curlew Sandpiper. I narrowly missed this species the previous year, so it was great to finally get it onto my state list. The previous year, I arrived at the site a Curlew Sandpiper had lingered the past few days, only to be told by fellow birders “it flew off half an hour ago”. Well, it actually never came back – earlier that morning was the last time anyone saw that bird again! As I so often say, the life of a birder is never easy!

With many of the winter species and most of the spring species behind me, I started looking for the summer breeders of Ohio to grow my year state list. Many of these can be found in the amazing, free, metro park network around Columbus, central Ohio, where the Birding Ecotours’ American office is situated. Henslow’s Sparrow, a subtly beautiful bird with pinkish and yellow hues if seen well; it ‘sings’ constantly from tiny bushes. The so-called song must be the most disappointing of any passerine, though. The very scarce Sedge Wren favours the same habitat as Henslow’s Sparrow. Sora and Virginia Rail and Least and American Bitterns, are not uncommon at Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park, a site one should visit several times during the year if one’s serious about year state listing. I lead free outings there for the Columbus Audubon Society, which of course also help me grow my own list.

Year state listing, which is ever so popular in Ohio, forces one to see (or at least hear, depending on how strict you are) each species every year, encouraging birders to get excited about all the species, even the common ones, over and over again. However, one also has to be ready to chase rarities. A Northern Wheatear was one of the most exciting of these rarities. It probably bred in Alaska and was trying to get to Africa – what a strange migration. One of these Northern Wheatears pitched up in Amish country, and the farmers were very hospitable and opened their driveway to hundreds of birders desperate to see this Lower 48 rarity. The Amish community has lots of very enthusiastic and competent birders, who often find rarities on their land.

Common Raven (which in Ohio is actually extremely rare, despite the name) and Fish Crow are two tricky species one has to find each year in Ohio. I’d never actually made ‘the raven run’, in which one has to drive two hours east of Columbus just for one species I’d seen stacks of in Wyoming. However, I justify this kind of thing because it allows me to get to know my state better. A couple of us embarked on the raven run, enjoyed a good sighting of this bird, and then travelled along the scenic, historic Ohio River northwards to Conneaut right near the Pennsylvania state line, a legendary site for rarities that drop in on the only sand spit in the area after migrating along Lake Erie. Sadly, we didn’t find any vagrants that day, so we drove west to Cleveland in search of Fish Crow which we found quite easily but as usual had to wait for it to make its nasal call before we could clinch its ID. It looks almost identical to the ever-abundant American Crow.

As always, the ‘Fall’ (which for shorebirds starts in July/August) brought good birds including Hudsonian Godwit. Late fall brings the secretive Nelson’s Sparrow and usually also le Conte’s Sparrow but sadly this year none of us could find any of the latter. However, we did have a very confiding individual of the former near Columbus.

Late Fall is a good time to do lake watches on Lake Erie especially when onshore winds push migrating species such as Brant closer to the land. It’s similar to sea-watching and is a good way of adding year birds to one’s list. Better still is to join a Lake Erie pelagic, but I was only able to get a spot on a January 2019 one. A couple of birding buddies and I were doing a lake watch when we heard the disturbing news that Ohio’s first Grey Kingbird had pitched up in the other corner of the state, 3.5 hours drive away (or less the way Cole drove). What a waste – we’d already driven over two hours to get to the lake watch site, only to now be forced to pack it in and go for the kingbird. Earlier this year, I was about to chase some other good state birds when a Western Kingbird pitched up right near my home – that was also a fantastic new state bird for me and I managed to squeeze it in and still make it in time for the other species I was after. The Grey Kingbird was less convenient, to say the least.

I still had a handful of rare but regularly occurring winter geese and gulls to see, as the fall started coming to an end and winter proper rolled in. While chasing a Snowy Owl in November, I managed to find my first Ohio Snow Goose, but Ross’s Goose had to wait until January 2019. I did see a stunningly beautiful flock of over 800 Tundra Swans as a by-product, as I tried to pick out a tiny Ross’s Goose that was hanging around this flock, but missed it for my 2018 year list.

Further into the winter, I chased a superb Little Gull (a beautifully diminutive species with stunning black underwings that stand out from a mile away) and at the same time found one of my nemesis birds I’d tried unsuccessfully chasing so many times, a cute little Cackling Goose that is like a tiny Canada Goose with a stubby bill.

I still had two other rare but regularly occurring winter gulls to see, Iceland and Glaucous. Iceland was a self-found bird (which is always the best) but when I reported it with a photo on Ohio Chase Birds (one of the best Facebook groups for rarity chasers in the state) no one else could relocate it. In January, I saw quite a few more of these lovely gulls, along with Glaucous, a species I failed to find in 2018.

All in all, 2018 was a fantastically fun year of birding all corners of Ohio. I got well into the 280s this year, short of the magical 300, but I was very happy with my total as being out of the country so much simply makes it too difficult for me to be as competitive as most state year listers. I’m now sitting on 298 overall state birds, and hope that in 2019 I can bring this total to 310 or more.

9th February 2019