.......and Reflections

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Fall Birding Along the Incomparable South Shore of Lake Erie

It isn't hard to understand that Lake Erie is a prominent feature in Ohio, the continent and even on our planet. It is a massive body of water among the Great Lakes of North America. It isn't the largest, nor the deepest, nor necessarily the best known lake of the Great Lakes. But if you have any interest in the weather or birding and the ecology of the region it is impressive indeed.

I am sure that someone could easily blog about nothing else than the Great Lake Erie (and perhaps they do). It is significant in cultural and natural history. It is dynamic and complex. It is environmentally rich despite significant environmental assault since the Europeans settled in this part of North America. I find it interesting that most people in this region know very little if anything about Lake Erie aside from boating, recreation, and light houses. A fact worth remembering (to the unknowing) is that Lake Erie is the drinking water of the "North Coast" of Ohio.

Ohio is an ecologically diverse state that supports many breeding and wintering bird species. Lake Erie is the feature that enriches that ornithological base with some of the finest bird migrations anywhere on the planet. Spring migration through Ohio and beyond is influenced greatly by the Lake. It provides a passageway for migrants heading north east and west to breeding areas. The south shore of the lake and the lake itself combine to provide fuel for marathon migrants in virtually every bird family found in North America.

We aren't talking about some birds moving through. The spring and fall migration of birds along the south shore of Lake Erie and through the north coast of Ohio is so massive it is largely impossible to comprehend. The migration both ways is as complex as the lake itself. Lake Erie is rich in organisms that are destined to be food for masses of waterfowl, gulls, seabirds, shorebirds and all species traveling in the sphere of it's influence. The Lake influences our weather and creates a shoreline ecology that supports plants with seeds, fruits and other spoils necessary to support the substantial migration of songbirds, shorebirds, raptors and others.

What a great place to be if you are a birder! Lake Erie provides spectacular migration spectacles that even seasoned birders can't imagine unless they come here to see it themselves. This is especially true in the fall migration. Lake Erie is a refuge that provides rest and food for the long southward journey to the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic coast and destinations in Central and South America. Fall is a time when there are spectacular numbers of birds present, many of which are otherwise uncommon. There are many birds rarely seen in this region that make their way into the spectrum of possible sightings. This last November 4th was one of 2011 memorable migration extravaganzas.

An example from a November 4, 2011 post from Jen Brumfield on the Ohio Birds List Service:

COUNT TOTALS FROM ROCKY RIVER PARK: RED-THROATED LOON (1), Common Loon (400), RED-NECKED GREBE (1), Horned Grebe (600), Pied-billed Grebe (1), Canada Goose (6), SNOW GOOSE (2 blue morph), Mallard (250), American Black Duck (45), Gadwall (38), Northern Pintail (12), American Wigeon (13), Green-winged Teal (425), Canvasback (65), Greater Scaup (150+), Lesser Scaup (2000), LONG-TAILED DUCK (1), Surf Scoter (44), Black Scoter (52), White-winged Scoter (81), Common Goldeneye (14), Bufflehead (60), Hooded Merganser (4), Common Merganser (85), Red-breasted Merganser (2,800), Dunlin (850), RED KNOT (1), Sanderling (40), POMARINE JAEGER (1), Bonaparte's Gull (2,500), Ring-billed Gull (3,000), Herring Gull (600), Golden-crowned Kinglet (1 came off the lake at dawn), American Pipit (1), Snow Bunting (2). UNIDENTIFIED WATERFOWL (at horizon to 2 miles out): 10,500 individuals.
COUNT TOTALS FROM MENTOR: Common Loon (30), Horned Grebe (40), Tundra Swan (9), BRANT (14), LONG-TAILED DUCK (5), HARLEQUIN DUCK (2), Surf Scoter (37), Black Scoter (22), WHITE-WINGED SCOTER (205), Common Goldeneye (45), Bufflehead (75), Northern Shoveler (3), Northern Pintail (15), American Wigeon (25), Green-winged Teal (42), American Black Ducks & Mallards (abundant), Canvasback (25), Redhead (15), Gadwall (60), Lesser & Greater Scaup (2,000), Common & Red-breasted Mergansers (MANY), Hooded Merganser (1), RED PHALAROPE (1 at count, 2 observed by Emil Bacik at Headlands lighthouse), Snow Bunting (120).
I was at Rocky River Park to experience this spectacular bird movement and the challenge of identifying the many uncommon birds almost entirely in flight. But there is a story behind the story about these spectacular migration spectacles.

It is the weather that brings these birds to the Lake Erie south shore in these numbers. It is usually terrible weather, often cold, rainy and windy. It is brief. The above reported sightings were from daybreak until 11:00 am when the action subsided for the rest of the day. The key is being in the right place at the right time. So it isn't surprising that while most people are on the edge of their couch watching a great movie, birders like me are on the edge of the couch watching storm fronts develop in the Great Lakes region. There's nothing like a hurricane, a nor'easter, an early Pacific blizzard, or tornadoes in the Midwest to set the table for bad weather for Lake Erie and great birding along the North Coast in the fall.

Waterfowl surveys reveal the true abundance of birds associated with the open waters of Lake Erie. The numbers observed are impressive and generally well distributed along all the lake from Ohio to Canada. The bad weather from the north both east and west pushes and concentrates many of the birds spread across the lake to places where birders are able to use spotting scopes and binoculars to view them from shore. It is a challenge and it is sometimes brutal but it can be absolutely amazing.

Of course I have included pictures of Lake Erie in the fall and they obviously don't portray an image of an angry, turbulent Lake Erie with numbing cold and pelting rain. But the calm days with warm south winds can be great birding too. Our recent "Indian Summer" has been both productive and enjoyable. This morning I visited Columbia Park and counted 9 Black Scoters, 8 Hooded Mergansers, 116 Horned Grebes  with in my binocular view, 50 Common Loons, rafts of Red-breasted Mergansers totalling well over a thousand, and opportunistic Ring-billed, Herring, and Bonaparte's Gulls too numerous to count.

There are many days when the birds are scarce on the lake. This is the way it goes. It is the complexity of Lake Erie that makes all these things possible. When fall weather interacts with Lake Erie it becomes enhanced with incredible calm and violent storms. The weather, shifts in food supplies like Gizzard Shad upon which many species forage, and the passage of low pressure systems or cold fronts all provide spectacular birding as well as peace and tranquility for all.

Public access to Lake Erie is surprisingly limited. Most of the best observation points to the Lake are in the central basin of the lake from Huron on the west to Conneaute in the far northeast corner of Ohio. These locations are usually elevated above the water, 70 or more feet in typical. This provides maximum viewing of open water and the horizon where the water meets the sky. There are some locations near where I live which provide good vantages of the lake all within a bot a 6 mile stretch from Western Cleveland to Bay Village on the western edge of Cuyahoga County

Spotting scopes are essential for finding those birds that shy from the shoreline. Lake watching is an acquired skill and with practice and repetitive viewing becomes both a challenging but rewarding aspect of birding. I don't know anyone that likes to stand out in freezing and horrible conditions but they do it because it is an opportunity unlike any other. Once you have experienced a big day like November 4th you begin to realize just how special Lake Erie is in the fall and how important it is to birds using both hemispheres of our planet.

The Middle of Nowhere isn't always just a remote place. It can be, and often is, a regular or well travelled place that is special for reasons completely unknown to others that go there. My life is full of discovery and I see this world as an unlimited source of adventure and wonder. That's why I recommend, Huntington Reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks, Columbia Park, Cahoon Park, Bradsteet's Landing, and Rocky River Park in Cleveland's western suburbs for some exciting fall birding. Hope for bad weather....and good birding!

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