In recent years we’ve enjoyed November odysseys out among the reservoirs of western Ohio, sometimes doing the southern ones and other times the northern ones. This fall, the first in many years to feature hungry northern finches, we aimed for spots with reliable recent reports of these birds. By the time of our trip, Ohio reports had gone from ho-hum news of a nuthatch invasion to multiple pine siskins, evening grosbeaks, red crossbills, and common redpolls. Saw-whet owl numbers spiked quite high, as their prey rodents suffered as much as the finches from a poor seed crop in Ontario. Could pine grosbeaks and Bohemian waxwings be far behind?

Feeders in Geauga County had hosted grosbeaks and siskins for over a week, and various predictable lakeshore spots had seen snow buntings, redpolls, and crossbills, often repeatedly. It appeared cave swallows were staging a minor incursion once again, with several reports in the Lake Erie basin. It was time for jaegers, loons of several species, and a tundra swan movement—always strongest in the NE—was at hand. Bonaparte’s gulls were moving, and with them little gulls had been found. The waterfowl migration, while still skimpy, promised more. And so among these possibilities we strung a web of hopeful stops designed to fill a short—but unseasonably warm as usual—late fall day.

A large Avids contingent was off birding in Argentina, but guests from West Virginia and Michigan brought our number to twelve, three carloads with fuel prices at three bucks and a quarter. Not long after dawn we arrived at backyard feeders in South Russell where after some county-listing four female evening grosbeaks perched and called overhead. Greedy for males, we spent an hour at a nearby park that had hosted some two days earlier, but had to settle for close looks at a pine siskin. The day’s only rain fell during our drive to lakefront lookouts, the first of them the bluff at Perry Park.

The forecast sunshine and mild winds had been trumped by angry clouds and a stiff onshore breeze. A gang of Amish birders were on station already, and reported not too much. Despite decades of experience, I continue both to believe weather forecasts and to forget the Lake Erie shore is always, always 20 degrees colder than inland this time of year. Apparently I was not alone, but at least we toughed it out till the Amish folded their scopes, seeing only a few distant passing waterfowl and gulls, then refashioned our plans. We skipped another blufftop, and stopped at Headlands Beach, where we found ourselves shadowing the Amish guys again as we walked through an empty woods to scan an empty harbor and an empty lake.

Improvisation continued. Cave swallows were out, as were winter finches. Realistically only gulls and waterfowl remained to be sought, but they’d been hard to find. Eastlake, with its warm water outflow, had attracted a few hundred gulls of three species, some cormorants, and astonishingly few red-breasted mergansers, which are usually present in many thousands. A stop at Sims Park, in recent winters a hot spot for scoters, brought modest success in the form of a few diving ducks, including two black and one surf scoter. The sun was dropping fast. Our choice lay between taking a chance on rarer gulls at Lorain Harbor, or a gander at waterfowl at Oberlin and Wellington Reservoirs. Maybe it was the temperature differential that caused us to choose the latter.

Sure enough, the sky cleared, the wind dropped, and we enjoyed a lovely fall drive south through agricultural country in Lorain County to the reservoirs. Here there were surprisingly few gulls, and few of many waterfowl species, but enough of the latter to keep us occupied picking them out among the throngs of ruddy ducks and coots, thousands of them. As the sun plummeted the last finger-width toward the horizon, the cold grew uncomfortable, and we rushed to tease out duck species on Wellington, fluffing the list to a respectable 68 species. Here it is:

Canada gooseTundra swan (~150)
Green-winged teal
Ring-necked duck
Lesser scaup
Surf scoter (1)
Black scoter (2)
Common goldeneye
Hooded merganser
Red-breasted merganser
Ruddy duck (2000+)
Ring-necked pheasant
Common loon (4)
Pied-billed grebe
Horned grebe
Double-crested cormorant
Great blue heron
Turkey vulture
Cooper’s hawk
Red-tailed hawk
American kestrel
American coot (1500+)
Killdeer (~40)
Bonaparte’s gull (~200)
Ring-billed gull
Herring gull
Great black-backed gull
Rock pigeon
Mourning dove
Belted kingfisher
Red-bellied woodpecker
Downy woodpecker
Hairy woodpecker
Northern flicker
Blue jay
American crow
Horned lark
Black-capped chickadee
Tufted titmouse
Red-breasted nuthatch
White-breasted nuthatch
Carolina wren
Ruby-crowned kinglet (1)
Eastern bluebird
American robin
European starling
Yellow-rumped warbler
Spotted towhee
American tree sparrow
Fox sparrow
Song sparrow
White-throated sparrow
Dark-eyed junco
Snow bunting (5-6)
Northern cardinal
Red-winged blackbird
Common grackle
Brown-headed cowbird
House finch
Pine siskin (1)
American goldfinch
Evening grosbeak (4)
House sparrow