Oak Openings Chiller (Photo Tom Sheley)

2013 Birdathon Results

We recorded 158 species in approximately 18.5 hours of birding (start 2:30 am; end 9:00 pm); driving about 450 miles.


One of our regular team members, Steve Landes, was unable to participate on our Birdathon day. Fortunately, another friend, Ben Warner, was able to join us at the last minute. Veterans Bill Heck and Tom Sheley completed this year’s three-person team.

Getting Started

Tom and Bill met just north of Dublin near the Columbus Zoo at 2:30 a.m. After piling our equipment and supplies (mostly snack food and optics) into one vehicle, we headed for a neighborhood where Tom had located several nests. We quickly picked up Barred Owl, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Pileated Woodpecker. Tom had alerted the homeowner on whose property the nests were located that we would be coming by, and apparently the neighbors weren’t too worried about a strange car cruising slowly through the area at that time of the morning – or else we were out of there before the local police arrived to investigate.

We then headed to Delaware, where we picked up Ben, and were on our way to our first major destination, Oak Openings Preserve on the west side of Toledo. We quickly had a bit of unwelcome excitement, though. Just north of Marion, the flashing lights of a Highway Patrol car flared behind us. In the pitch dark, with hardly any other vehicles on the highway, and chattering away about the prospects for the day, none of us had noticed that our speed had gradually increased well beyond the legal limit. One ticket later, we were again on the way. (Tom vows always to use cruise control on the highway from now on…) Oh, the hazards of an all-day Birdathon!

Northwest Ohio: Oak Openings

Oak Openings Chiller (Photo Tom Sheley)We arrived at Oak Openings in the dark a little after 5:30 am. With the temperature at 28°, we were worried that birds would not be singing, moving, or otherwise betraying their presence. No problem, though: birdsong was abundant and varied. Although we were unable to locate one of our targets, Henslow’s Sparrow, we quickly racked up good numbers of migrants and residents.All of our very early birds were identified by song. “There’s a Wood Thrush…over there, a Song Sparrow…did you hear that Vesper Sparrow… finally, a Cardinal….” And so it went as the skies gradually lightened.

Dawn at Oak Openings (photo Bill Heck)We greeted the dawn with a rapidly expanding list, which only grew, and grew quickly, as we started identifying birds not only by sound but also by sight. Before long, we were collecting the specialties of Oak Openings, birds that we could not reasonably expect elsewhere. Girdham Road yielded its usual Red-headed Woodpeckers, and a little bit further on we found the real specialty of the area, Lark Sparrows.

We stopped by the Nature Center to check the feeders and use the facilities. The Nature Center was not open so early (gee, I wonder why) but – fortunately – the restrooms were. After all, we were drinking a lot of coffee to fight off the cold! Meanwhile, we could view the feeders easily and picked up a few common residents, such as White-breasted Nuthatch.

The Sun Also Rises at Oak Openings (photo Bill Heck)

By this time, the sun was heading higher in the sky and we were feeling pretty good about our chances for the day. Granted, we were half frozen, and we had already stayed at Oak Openings far longer than our schedule allowed, but were off to a good start.

Finishing up at Oak openings, we worked our way from west to east across Toledo, stopping briefly at Pearson Metropark in Oregon, Ohio, where we found a few northern Ohio residents and a beautiful Lincoln’s Sparrow. (Oddly enough, although Toledo is a fair size city, it’s hard to find a quick and direct route across town. All the freeways go more or less around the city. We think that’s a bad sign….)

Birding Pearson Park (Photo Tom Sheley) Nature Center Entrance at Pearson Park (Photo Bill Heck)

Northwest Ohio: the Lake Erie Marshes

Outdoor Art at Maumee Bay State Park Nature Center (Photo Bill Heck)Boardwalk sans Ash Trees at Maumee Bay (Photo Bill Heck)Our next stop was at Maumee Bay State Park, one of the westernmost access point to Northwest Ohio’s Lake Erie marshes. Even though the undeveloped areas are a mere remnant of prehistoric wetlands, they still support very large and diverse fauna, and are a mecca for birds and birders alike. Today, though, things were a little slow at Maumee Bay. Aside from a few gulls, the beaches were largely empty. Similarly, the boardwalk behind the nature center yielded a couple of woodpeckers but only one or two of the expected migrants. We also noted that the loss of ash trees to the Emerald Ash Borer has been quite severe, as seen in the photo to the right.

We quickly moved on to Metzger Marsh, searching for waders and other waterbirds. Here again, the action was slower than expected. In fact, we were in something of a panic as we stopped at each pull off along the road through the marsh and were unable to find even a single Coot. Driving all the way out to the very end of the road saved us, though, as we located one or two Common Gallinules and a single American Coot. Oddly enough, there had been hundreds of Coots here just a few days ago.

Rough water with no birds off Metzger Marsh (Photo Bill Heck)In any event, we picked up a Snowy Egrets, a nice find for the day. On a non-birding note, Ben found a fox den and even saw the mother fox poke her head out for a moment. Why a fox chose to den right next to the parking lot is a mystery!

We finally arrived at Magee Marsh (a.k.a. Crane Creek), a legendary spot among birders. We knew the conditions were not the best: the temperature had risen to a balmy 50°, but a strong breeze has been blowing out of the North for several days, and north winds in the spring tend to prevent migrating birds from continuing. Sure enough, the number and variety of migrants was rather low. But, proving that there’s a silver lining to every cloud, the winds forced the birds that were around to come down from the treetops and move close to the boardwalk. The result was that we had incredible close-up views of some of our most attractive species, such as Blackburnian Warbler and Chestnut-sided Warbler, along with stunners such as Prothonotary Warbler. A particularly fortunate find was a Louisiana Waterthrush: this normally southern warbler species rarely makes it to northern Ohio. After thoroughly working over the boardwalk, we walked out to the beach, where we stopped to scope and photograph a small group of Ruddy Turnstones. We continued on the new Estuary Trail, which dead ends, aptly enough, at the Crane Creek estuary. At this point, we were standing in the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, which is owned by the state of Ohio, but looking into the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, which is operated by the federal government. It’s nice to see the close cooperation between the Ohio Division of Wildlife and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the respective managing entities, to help birders!

It was time to move on, so we piled into our vehicle and headed out. But we still had time for a quick stop at a well-market area in the grassy median of the parking lot where a mother American Woodcock sat with her chicks. Seeing where the Woodcock was to be found was not difficult, as the location was marked with a circle of yellow tape. Finding the Woodcock was somewhat more difficult: the cryptically colored bird was next to invisible sitting on the leaf litter in the several inch high grass. But find it we did, yet another check on the list.

A teaching moment on the boardwalk: Ben helps a young birder with a tough identification. (Photo Tom Sheley) A female Magnolia Warbler bathing (Photo Tom Sheley) Ruddy Turnstones lined up on a small pier along the beach at Magee Marsh (Photo Tom Sheley)
Mourning Warbler at Magee Marsh (Photo Tom Sheley) Tom chuckles as Ben and Bill point out the Louisiana Waterthrush at Magee Marsh Playing "Find the Woodock" at Magee Marsh (Photo Bill Heck)

Central Ohio: Killdeer Plains/Big Island

By this time it was mid-afternoon, so we headed to our final stop. Killdeer Plains is a Wildlife Area in central Ohio, just south of Upper Sandusky and north of Marion. It’s incredibly flat land, with a number of ponds created primarily to support waterfowl nesting. But a variety of other birds, including waders and shorebirds, take advantage of the ponds and often-soggy fields as well, as do raptors that hunt for the abundant voles and other small mammals.

Raptors were in short supply today, although we did see several resident Bald Eagles and innumerable Eastern Meadowlarks. A very late Common Loon floated on one of the ponds, surrounded by flocks of Barn Tree, and Northern Rough-winged Swallows, with even a few Bank Swallows mixed in. A few new waterfowl, such as Ring-necked Ducks, kept our count moving upward. We also found some shorebirds, some identifiable and others far too distant to name. The most enjoyable were in a small bit of wet field near the road, where we could watch them from under 50 feet away. Here also we found not only birds, but another birder: our friend, Dan Sanders. We quickly joined forces for the rest of the day.

A large flooded field along State Route 67 just outside of Killdeer Plains provided a rather unexpected bonus. Several new waterfall, including Blue-winged Teal were there, along with several species of shorebird such as Least Sandpiper and both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs.

Scoping the shorebirds with Dan Sanders near Killdeer Plains (Photo Tom Sheley) Yellow Warbler on Nest (Photo Tom Sheley)  A very bad photo of a very pretty Blue-winged Teal near Killdeer Plains (Photo Bill Heck)

Sundow? Who cares? We just can't stop birding at Big Island! (Tom Sheley)Finally, we headed for the Big Island Wildlife Area. Although it has a different name and, so far as we know, is managed separately, it’s really an extension of Killdeer Plains. The main difference is that there are several very large ponds with less surrounding woodland than at Killdeer. Here we found another couple of species of waterfowl, along with an American Bittern doing its “chug-a-lug” call. As the day waned, we were treated to a beautiful sunset – at which point the temperature started to drop pretty quickly. But we weren’t done quite yet. We listened for Screech Owls without success, but just as we were ready to leave, Tom remembered that a nearby abandoned barn had hosted Barn Owls in the past. We found the place and no sooner arrived than a floppy-winged shape flew through the darkness – a Barn Owl right on cue. Figuring that we were unlikely to top that one, we headed south toward Columbus and home.

Notes on Logistics

Some of you may wonder about how we met the human needs of the day. Sleeping – and staying awake? Eating?

Because we elected not to begin at midnight, we all were able to get a reasonable amount of sleep before starting out. Even with our 2:30 a.m. start time, we could snooze until a comparatively late 1:30 or so. Now that may seem pretty early, but with a very early bedtime and perhaps a little pharmaceutical assistance, it allowed for five or six hours of sleep. That’s a huge difference from starting at midnight or so; the latter means at best a short nap and at worst no sleep at all. Obviously we were pretty tired by the end of our Birdathon day, but not as completely wrecked as in some previous years.

Staying awake during the day isn’t that difficult once the birding begins, not to mention that the coffee was flowing freely for some of us. The really tough part is late in the evening of the Birdathon day during the final drive home.

Eating was mostly a catch as catch can affair. We all had packed lunches and snack food and ate on the go as we drove from location to location. Once we decided that we had finished after our time at Big Island, we stopped in Marion, which was on the way back to Columbus, for a quick dinner. The spot we chose, Steak and Shake, had four major advantages: it was open late, it had tables and chairs into which we could collapse, the food was pretty fast – a cut above fast food but not too fancy, and it was cheap. Those are pretty much the requirements after a Birdathon!

As to our field time and distance, our reported time of 18.5 hours is pretty much all birding and driving; there were a couple of very short bathroom breaks; as I described above, meals were on the go. Our driving distance of about 400 miles was considerably less than some of our previous efforts.

Finally, a note about our route. We’ve experimented with different routes in the past but generally have included both far northwestern Ohio (Oak Openings and east to Magee Marsh) and southeastern Ohio (Clear Creek Metro Park and surrounding areas). Including both the far north and far south does provide a shot at the greatest possible number of species. In southeastern Ohio, it’s relatively easy to get a few of the more southern warblers, such as Worm-eating, Cerulean, Kentucky, and Hooded, along with Louisiana Waterthrush; we also would have better shots at a few flycatchers and some resident species, such as Pileated Woodpecker. However, this increased variety comes at the cost of spending less time in the bird-rich northwest part of the state and dedicating a couple of extra hours to driving, which is pretty much dead time, in the middle of the day no less. At Oak Openings, we usually can get Cerulean Warbler; Hooded Warbler is seen at Magee Marsh with some regularity; and this year we lucked out with a Louisiana Waterthrush at Magee Marsh (that last one is pretty unusual). We will be assessing our prospects for next year – and yes, if you’re wondering, there will be a next year!

Check out our photo album from the trip.