.......and Reflections

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Birding the place, not just a targeted group of birds

Today is August 2nd and this is a significant date for birders although not one often celebrated. There is a lot of focus on the shorebirds that are making their way from the Tundra to destinations along the Gulf Coast, and Central and South America. And rightfully so, although we are far from the peak of shorebird migration in northern Ohio and elsewhere in North America. The changes to come are far broader than just peeps and plovers.

Lorain Impoundment, located in Lorain, Ohio is one of few habitats that will support shorebird migration in northern Ohio this year. It is situated adjacent to Lake Erie and is a wonderful opportunity for shorebirds to rest and feed along their epic journey to the places they will winter and prepare for the next trek to breed in the far northern hemisphere next spring.

The southern shore of Lake Erie is far more significant than just an attractive stopover for shorebirds. This weather-reinforced feature is a significant and integral part of all migratory bird species. Right now Lorain impoundment attracts shorebirds with mudflats and marsh that provide cover, food, and protection from the elements, predators and other migratory hazards. In addition to mudflats, the impoundment provides an abundance of seed producing plants and a stand of cottonwoods and willow. These elements are important too; not necessarily just for shorebirds but for a variety of bird species.

I always spend time surveying the cottonwoods and weed fields surrounding the impoundment, mindful that these habitats can and will harbor songbird migrants, raptors, waders and other birds. Since the end of July, I have watched the cottonwood stand and observed growing numbers of Yellow Warblers. Some of these warblers are in breeding plumage, some are females and many are juvenile birds. They are all ready to make the trip south.

Yellow Warblers remind us, with there early, almost mid-summer departure that the rest of the songbird migration will not be far behind. In fact, August is a great time to see migrating fall warblers in this region. It won't be long until the Yellow Warblers thin out and other warbler and songbirds will replace them. And yes the shorebird migration will also intensify as well.

Today, August 2nd was a day that is a case in point. As I rounded the impoundment I stopped at the cottonwood stand and surveyed the Warblers. I discovered, much to my surprise and delight, a Barn Owl, roosting on the edge of the cottonwoods. I thought at first it was a snag, but binoculars revealed it to be one of Ohio's rarest predators. While watching the woods and the Barn Owl, things were picking up behind us in cottonwoods out in the marsh.

Harriet Alger joined me to see the Barn Owl, a rare visitor to Lorain County and all northeast Ohio. When we started to leave Harriet inquired about what the heron was in the trees behind us. There were actually two heron species in view close to each other. There was not only one, but eventually, 4 Green Herons joining a lone immature Black-crowned Nightheron. All these birds are migrants. They are taking advantage of the impoundment on the first leg of their journey south.

Ohio's Barn Owls

The big story here is the migrating Barn Owl. This is the only owl that is found in temperate climates around the world. In North America they are in decline. In Ohio there are about 50 pair throughout Ohio. They were only common in Ohio in the 1930's when they were known to inhabit 84 of Ohio's 88 counties. This was a time when agriculture was at its peak and there were a lot of mice and voles associated with agricultural areas and farming practices. When farming became more mechanized and more efficient and  fence rows less important, the Barn Owl populations declined as did plummeting mouse populations.

Today this species is restricted to breeding in 17 Ohio counties. The population is relatively stable but very dependent on nesting opportunities in outbuildings and barns and sufficient food supply. Lorain County is not on the list. So this Barn Owl is a rare migrant. This species is not a great wanderer like the shorebirds. The young birds usually disperse into areas not too far from where they are fledged. So this bird's origin and destination is a mystery, perhaps even to the bird.

Barn Owls are an endangered species in Ohio. It is rarely seen outside the counties in which they breed. I have seen them along Lake Erie sparingly over the last 40 years, but today's encounter was special at every level.

So there are two important lessons here. The first, is to bird the place you visit, not just focusing on any single target bird group like shorebirds. The second, is that the Barn Owl, the Green Herons, the immature Black-crowned Nightheron, Yellow Warblers, and the shorebirds are begging us to pay close attention as the fall migration is well underway and if we take advantage of this monumental migration event, the rewards will be incredible.

No comments: