.......and Reflections

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

If You Can't Beat the Summer Heat: Deal With It

Like a whole lot of people in most of the country, I'm about sick of this unusual and relentless heat wave. I don't have air conditioning and it has been mighty uncomfortable without some relief from 24 hour heat and humidity. So I've gotten really good about complaining. And guess doesn't help.

So I decided I was going birding and I was just going to deal with it. I had low expectations, as the standard thinking out there is that birds are less active in the "heat of the day". There is some truth to this belief but this day would challenge that theory.

I started out with a round-trip tour of locations that provide access to marshes, lakes, farms, forest and other variations in these habitats. I started at the Lorin impoundment that is adjacent to Lake Erie; Medusa Marsh,Willow Point and Pickerel Creek Wildlife Areas that are adjacent to Sandusky Bay; Grasslands, "sky ponds" (flooded farm fields), and seasonal ponds inland in northern Seneca County; and finally Bacon Woods in Vermilion River Reservation on the Vermilion River in Lorain County.

This "circle" at this time of year can produce about 65-70 species of birds. Corn and bean crops are coming into their own, wheat and hay fields are cut, forest song birds are fledged and disbursing, marshes are just beginning to attract southern bound migrant shorebirds and waterfowl are mostly puddle ducks that are emerging from eclipse plumage and barely recognizable by species. For all practical purposes it is a typical hot July, dog days of summer, birding in northern Ohio.

The first third of the day was spent in marshes that produced the regular marsh species, several but expected shorebirds, a few species of waterfowl and a representative smattering of marsh songbirds. The only exceptions were the herons. I found the usual Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets and Green Herons. I didn't find any Black-crowned Night-herons but I found a Snowy Egret at Medusa marsh and later an adult plumage Little Blue Heron on a seasonal pond in Seneca County.

The middle of the day was spent scoping out farm fields, sky ponds and grasslands in Seneca County. I added Stilt Sandipers at the ponds but not much else. A local Peregrine Falcon had shorebirds on alert. At one sky pond I was patiently scoping through a large number of Yellowlegs when I heard a song nearby that is dear to my heart. Just several feet from where I was standing was a singing Grasshopper Sparrow. This is an insect-like song that I rarely hear due to hearing loss. But this song rang loud and true. Hearing the Grasshopper Sparrow song was the highlight of my day. This bird was, incidentally, singing "in the heat of mid day" when songbirds have a reputation for going silent, especially this late in the summer.

I decided to head a few miles south to a mixed grass "prairie," that has been managed as such for several summers on a government subsidy program to encourage nesting grassland  bird species. Here I found another Grasshopper Sparrow gathering insects from on and around the road for feeding babies. The nest was just a few feet off the rarely-traveled Township Road. I got a lot of great pictures, one of which is posted with this blog. I couldn't identify the insects she was carrying which challenges my vision of being the complete naturalist. I doubt that the Grasshopper Sparrow knows the species name either and I'm sure it was of no concern to hungry, growing chicks! Lets just call it...lunch.

The prairie grasses were quiet with a few Eastern Meadowlarks and Red-winged Blackbirds but little else. I happen to be looking down the road when a raptor came into view. It was a beautiful black, gray, and white male Northern Harrier. Of the 13 species of long-winged Harriers worldwide, the Northern Harrier is the only one found in North America. It is a rare and endangered species in Ohio because of the scarcity of grassland habitats they require for nesting. Seeing the male Northern Harrier at the end of July is likely attributed to a breeding pair somewhere in the vicinity of the Seneca County grasslands. Not only was this diurnal raptor a good July sighting but a friendly reminder that listing birds is simply a means to a better understanding of the ecology of which we humans play a large role in shaping.

I decided to tally my list and see where the numbers were compared to expectations. Surprisingly I had 87 species. Over the years I have enjoyed seeing if I could get a hundred or more species in any single day. So the wheels started turning. I decided that 100 species wasn't possible on a hot summer afternoon so I decided to go to Bacon Woods on the Vermilion River and see what forest birds might be around in spite of the heat. I was hoping to break 90 species which is a notable late July day list.

I arrived at Bacon Woods and it was hot and dead still. There was no breeze and no birds seem to be moving or singing. I was sure I would get to 90 but more than that would be a bonus. I used three techniques to survey the Bacon Woods climax and riparian forest, edges and meadow. Probably the best tool is listening, not just for songs but call notes and non vocal sounds that if you can tune in on them, can work very effectively in finding birds. The second tool is pishing and emulating the Eastern Screech-owl. This can be an effective way to congregate resident birds. And the third tool is knowing what birds reside and nest in this park and where. Although it sounds simple and obvious it helps to know what the possibilities are.

I was greeted by two new birds at the beginning of the trail, a Black-capped Chickadee and an unexpected Northern Parula Warbler. A hundred yards into the woods I heard a call note that led me to an Acadian Flycatcher, then an American Redstart and a foraging Hairy Woodpecker. As I finished the trail through the woods I used the Screech-owl call to attract a Great-crested Flycatcher, Eastern Wood Pewee, a pair of Scarlet Tanagers and Yellow-throated Vireo. As I walked into the meadow I heard an Eastern Bluebird calling and then in the distance a Wood Thrush. It was wicked hot and humid and yet the birds were way more active and responsive than I expected.

I was playing the song of the Orchard Oriole in the meadow where they nested this year. I got no response. However, a bird that was conspicuously absent during nesting, popped up in response to the singing oriole tape. The bird was a Blue-winged Warbler, one of three I would see on the trail this day. Where were these Warblers earlier in the summer, I wondered. As I entered the woods trail returning to my truck I counted 100 species. I was shocked and pleasantly surprised, not so much with the number but the productivity of birding on a day when it was least expected. As I walked the trail contemplating my day I saw a large bird moving behind leaves high in the tree. I could not see it but patiently waited and sweated, until a young Barred Owl gracefully and silently glided to another lower perch.

Wow, 101! That's pretty cool on a hot day. So I headed down the road home, tired and relieved that a tiring day was drawing to a close. About the time I started fantasizing about a beer and a cold shower, as I approached the freeway ramp, a male Orchard Oriole flew across the road in front of me. It was somehow the perfect ending to a perfect hot and sweaty 102 species summer day. The lesson learned here is this: wildlife and birds have little choice when it comes to what Mother Nature throws at them. If it gets hot and stays hot than birds have only one with it. Perhaps we humans have created so many options that we have lost touch with nature at least during the hot dog days of summer.

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