Sunday, November 27, 2011
The power of birding and chance encounters
This is a story that started in the spring of 1989 and came full circle on this 2011 Thanksgiving holiday. It began at a spring 1989 bird watching class I was teaching at the Lake Erie Nature & Science Center. As the Center’s new Executive Director I decided my contribution to the Center’s education program would be to provide a series of programs for birders of all ages. One program in that series turned out to be a truly serendipitous and unusual experience for me and the participants.
I came to the Center early that evening to set up for my class and was distracted by an unfamiliar sound. I could hear a steady, high- pitched series of squeaks, which I thought might be an errant bearing in some mechanical equipment. It was not; but the sound persisted. I had to find the origin knowing my hypothesis was incorrect.
I realized the sound was coming from our exterior, live-animal exhibits located behind the Center. Upon further investigation, I could see the resident male Barn Owl at the bottom of his cage stomping his feet and simultaneously belting out the constant shriek. It was quite comical and something I had never heard or seen before.
As I pondered what was going on, I saw a white flash out of the corner of my eye. It was a wild Barn Owl. About this time participants began to arrive for the class. Much to my delight, two of my participants were Father and son. Dad and ten-year-old, Nicholas finally found their instructor peering into the animal exhibits from the windows of a classroom. The Taylors began to watch the drama unfolding at the Center.
Mr. Taylor was a private investigator and offered to go to his car and get his night vision camera to document the captive male Barn Owl that had a attracted what we surmised was a wild female Barn Owl. Mr. Taylor started filming and to my astonishment anther wild Barn Owl appeared in addition to the first. Mr. Taylor documented the foot stomping, the squeaking and the antics of what now appeared to be three very frustrated but excited Barn Owls.
Let me put this event in perspective. In 1989 there were 18 known pairs of wild Barn Owls in Ohio. There were likely 40 birds in the whole State. A caged Barn Owl just attracted 2 wild Barn Owls right before our eyes. That’s 5% of all of Ohio’s wild Barn Owl population. Furthermore, the wild birds were migrating to the limited extent this species does. The wooded Reservation where the Center is located is anything but the open grassland areas these birds call home. The only reasons wild barn Owls were here was because the birds were on the move and attracted by the caged bird.
The whole event was saved for posterity, shared with the Ohio Division of Wildlife and the memory forever etched in the mind’s all that witnessed this chance encounter. It was a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity and an event unlikely to ever be repeated.
I lost track of the participants of that birding course over the years but I have shared this story thousands of times in several different teaching contexts over the last 22 years. Barn Owls are beautiful, interesting and endangered in Ohio. Their ecological history in Ohio is a fine example of how Ohio has changed over the last 200 years.
When the first Europeans entered the Ohio region there were no Barn Owls. It was said that a squirrel could get on a tree on the Ohio River and never touch the ground until it reached Lake Erie. It was contiguous, mature, hardwood forest. When the Europeans settled in Ohio they cleared massive amounts of forest for agriculture. The open landscape and explosion of mouse populations foraging on the spoils of poor harvesting techniques attracted Barn Owls in sustainable numbers.
In the 1950’s when agricultural harvesting reduced wasted grain and fence rows were removed for barbed wire fences, mouse populations plummeted. As the mice decreased in numbers so did their nocturnal predator, the Barn Owl. The 18 pair in Ohio in 1989 lived in balance with available mouse populations in the agricultural counties of the state. In short, Barn Owls flourished because of man’s influence and declined from the same as well.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend I went birding at Rocky River Park just a few miles east of the Nature Center I retired from after 21 years. When I arrived there was a gentleman scanning the Lake with binoculars. I did the same. Eventually we struck up a conversation. This fellow was from New Jersey was home for the holidays to see his family. We talked about birds and Lake Erie and birds and the New Jersey shore and eventually both of us moved on. He was going to spend time with family and I was, of course, off to yet another birding spot.
The next morning I started my birding day at Rocky River Park since it is about 2 miles from where I live. Not too long after I got there the gentleman from New Jersey arrived and joined me and other birders. We were talking and he probingly asked me what I did for a living when I was working. I told him, among other things, that I retired as the Director of the nature Center.
He stepped back and said “I saw a Barn Owl at the Center with my Dad……” I almost flipped out because I knew before he could finish his thought that this man I had met was Nick, the 10 year old boy that took my birding class with his private investigator father.
Nick Taylor is a Senior Environmental Scientist for a private New Jersey company. He is an avid birder that has difficulty fitting this avocation into his busy schedule. After all these years and the course of two very different lives, our trails crossed once again just a few miles from the place where, on one magical night, we all had another chance encounter of the natural kind.
Turkey and dressing aside, Thanksgiving really is a time to reflect and count our blessings. This Thanksgiving I am thankful for chance encounters. I am reminded that the things we do today can and will be relevant 22 years forward.
New Years is quickly approaching and I hope you resolve to spend more time exploring “the middle of nowhere”……..where chance encounters are created and memories abound for many years to come.