WBU Riverside - Bill Heck

2014 Birdathon Results

The Wild Birds Unlimited – Columbus team recorded 167 species in approximately 20.5 hours of birding (about 2:30 am – 11:00 pm), driving about 350 miles on Monday, May 12, 2014.

The Birders

The WBU Columbus team consists of Tom Sheley, Steve Landes, and Bill Heck. Tom volunteered to drive, demonstrating once again his amazing ability to function with minimal sleep. Steve, possessor of the youngest ears in our group, was our designated finder of birds by song. Bill held down the job of keeping the list of species seen. Of course, all of us are experienced and enthusiastic (some would say obsessive) birders who love the challenge of finding as many birds as possible in one far-too-long day!

WBU Riverside - Bill Heck WBU Riverside - Steve Landes WBU Riverside TomSheley
Bill Heck Steve Landes Tom Sheley



This year’s adventure really started about five days before our scheduled Birdathon. The weather forecast called for serious precipitation in the form of thunderstorms, along with high winds, in various parts of Ohio. The forecast kept changing in different areas right up until our departure. In fact, we seriously considered postponing the Birdathon to wait for better weather, deciding only the day before that we would hope for decent weather somewhere.

Getting Started

We met to carpool just after 2:30 in a parking lot not far from the Polaris Fashion Mall, not exactly a prime birding destination in itself but a well-lit area where we could leave a couple of cars safely. Normally we already have a detailed route mapped out by the time we get together. But this time, because of that changing weather forecast, we spent a little time discussing the alternatives in light of the most recent predictions. We decided against heading south, opting instead to commit to doing most of our birding in northern Ohio. As it turned out, this was a really good decision.

Alum Creek and Northern Delaware County

Plan in hand and smartphone weather apps at the ready, we headed for the northern edge of Alum Creek Reservoir. We knew that we could spot Ospreys on nesting platforms, probably identify a few birds by ear, and potentially pick up a calling owl or two. The ospreys were at home, of course (we did not disturb them); a few birds piped up while we were there (Great Blue Heron, Canada Goose); and the owls remained silent. We then swung by a spot in northern Delaware County where we found a nesting box containing an American Kestrel, which we did not disturb either. Then it was on the way to our first major destination, Oak Openings Preserve on the west side of Toledo.

Findlay Reservoir

On the way to Oak Openings, we realized that we would pass close to Findlay Reservoir, so decided to stop to see if we could spot a previously reported Common Loon. How could we do so in the dark? Easy: low clouds provided plenty of sky glow from the city of Findlay. We managed the feat, also finding a Horned Grebe and hearing a few other species in nearby fields, including as Savanna Sparrow and Horned Lark.

If we had time during the Birdathon for reflection, this would be one of those times in which the weirdness of what we are doing might strike us. Consider the picture: three otherwise normal grown men standing at the edge of a reservoir in the wee hours of the morning gazing intently at the water through binoculars and scopes with only the dim glow of a cloudy sky and the occasional sweep of one of our portable spotlights to brighten the rural darkness. Now consider what the neighbors must have thought – thank goodness the reservoir is kind of a park so there are no really close neighbors. Better yet, consider what the sheriff would have thought had he or she come by at a particular time. It’s moments like these that we realize the truth: we’re nuts. Or rather we would realize the truth except that we’re too focused on looking for birds. Hey, it’s the Birdathon! No thinking allowed! So after confirming our new species, we jumped into the car and headed onward.

Oak Openings Preserve

Grasshopper Sparrow at Oak Openings (Photo Tom Sheley)We arrived at Oak Openings right around dawn. The temperature was already in the lower 60s, quite a change from last year when we arrived to find 28°! We quickly spotted both Henslow’s and Grasshopper Sparrows, both of which were singing lustily. Over the next two hours, our list mounted steadily. There were plenty of warblers, including several more difficult to find in northern Ohio, such as Blue-winged, Hooded, and Pine. Vireos were quite cooperative, as we found Red-eyed, Warbling, Philadelphia, White-eyed, and Yellow-throated. A few Cedar Waxwings showed up, as did some Oak Openings specialties such as Summer Tanager, Red-headed Woodpecker, and Lark Sparrow, and even a few bonus birds such as Yellow-breasted Chat. We did miss a few hoped-for species, such as Blue Grosbeak and Red-shouldered Hawk. Still, we are left feeling very good about our start for the day. And, just to show that we never really stopped birding, we picked up a few extra species, including Spotted Sandpiper, near the toll booth as we entered the Ohio Turnpike!

Pearson Metropark

We already had planned to stop by Pearson Metropark on the east side of Toledo, but we found extra motivation when we received a report of eight Black-bellied Whistling Ducks there. These waterfowl are common in far southern US locations, such as southern Texas. But there are only a few records for Ohio, all of single birds, so the prospect of seeing eight at once was tremendously inviting. The ducks were to be found in a newer part of the park with marsh habitat, but we inadvertently turned into the older, heavily wooded portion of this beautiful area. As it turned out, our mistake was beneficial, as we found our only Yellow-throated Warbler of the day. We also noted a Black-capped Chickadee; although this species is quite common in most of northern Ohio, it can be surprisingly tricky to find near the lake. Eventually finding our way to the correct location, we spotted not only the ducks, but also a Solitary Sandpiper and Greater Yellowlegs.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks at Pearson MetroPark (Photo Tom Sheley) Black-bellied Whistling Duck at Pearson MetroPark (Photo Tom Sheley) Black-bellied Whistling Ducks at Pearson MetroPark (Photo Tom Sheley)
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks at Pearson MetroPark (Photos Tom Sheley)

The Lake Erie Marshes

Our next stop was 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.

Scanning the shore at Maumee Bay SP (Photo Tom Sheley)Our first stop, Maumee Bay State Park, yielded several helpful birds, including Forster’s Tern and, near the nature center, Purple Martin, Cliff Swallow, and what turned out to be our only Veery of the day.

Common Nighthawk, Metzger Marsh (Photo Tom Sheley)We soon moved on to Metzger Marsh, where we found several expected species, such as American Coot, Common Gallinule (formerly known as Common Moorhen), and a single Caspian Tern. A flyover Bobolink was a nice surprise. After a good bit of scanning with spotting scopes, we finally located three previously-reported White-faced Ibises. Frankly, the view was terrible as the birds were far, far across the marsh. Still, for a Birdathon, we take what we can get! We had a much better view of a Common Nighthawk. Though this species is not uncommon in Ohio, the name “nighthawk” is appropriate: these are indeed birds of the night, or at least the evening, when they swoop through the air feeding on flying insects. During the day, they rest on tree branches and similar perches, hoping to remain as inconspicuous as possible so as not to attract potential predators — and, we suppose, to get a good day’s sleep. Luckily for us, Tom took his eye off the road long enough to catch a glimpse of a dark shape in a tree. Further investigation revealed a nighthawk on a branch, as shown in the picture to the right. A very lucky find for us!

Continuing eastward, we were fortunate to find a lone Upland Sandpiper along Krause Road near the edge of the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge.

We finally arrived at Magee Marsh (also known as Crane Creek), a legendary spot among birders. This location has become internationally famous for warbler migration, attracting tens of thousands of birders in May. Fortunately for us, a mere several thousand were on hand when we arrived, as we needed to avoid the crowds and move quickly to stay on pace. We almost succeeded: the birding community in Ohio is a tight-knit one and we frequently encountered old friends on the boardwalk through the prime birding area. We explained our mission and generally refrained from lengthy conversations as best we could.

Northern Waterthrush at Magee Marsh (Photo Tom Sheley)Magee Marsh is particularly famous for the number of warblers easily visible, and it lived up to its reputation this day. We soon had a great collection, including some we had previously missed such as Ovenbird and Nashville, Canada, and Mourning Warblers. Thrushes here included several Gray-cheeked and one Swainson’s. A beautiful Lincoln’s Sparrow showed itself just was we had almost given up hope for this species, and a Blue-headed Vireo popped into view just before we left the boardwalk.

House Wren at Magee Marsh (Photo Tom Sheley)Up until this point, the weather had been far better than we expected. We had known it would be seasonably warm, and indeed it was with temperatures in the very comfortable upper 70s. But amazingly, the only rain we had encountered was during our drive from central Ohio to Oak Openings. Other than that, it had been at worst cloudy, with the sun breaking through frequently and no rain in sight. Perhaps we were lulled into a false sense of security? At about 3:00 pm, we started walking out the Estuary Trail, which runs from the beach at Magee to the estuary of Crane Creek inside the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, without checking the weather and without our rain gear. We had our comeuppance: just as we neared the estuary after a ten minute walk, the heavens opened with a downpour. We were completely soaked in moments! There was nothing for it but to hike back through the rain and dry off as best we could when we reached the car. Fortunately, it was so warm that we were not really uncomfortable. And hey, it’s a Birdathon, right? We shook it off as best we could and continued on our way. Oh, and to add insult to injury, we took a quick look at that estuary just after the rain started before we walked back – not a bird in sight!

Killdeer Plains/Big Island

Feeling that we had done yeoman’s duty in the north, we headed toward Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area in central Ohio, just south of Upper Sandusky and north of Marion. It’s very flat land, and not well drained, so marshes and pools naturally form. Human-made dikes have been used to form additional, deeper ponds as well. The ponds were created primarily to support waterfowl nesting and migration, 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. Moreover, we had gotten word that the area managers had drawn down the water in one of the very large ponds, creating what we hoped would be tremendous shorebird habitat. While on the way, we received word of several Wilson’s Phalaropes and a few Short-billed Dowitchers in the area.

Over the past few decades, climate change has resulted in earlier waterfowl spring migration. In other words, waters to our north are opening earlier, prompting ducks to leave Ohio and had for their nesting grounds. Veteran Birdathoners remember May big days that included many of our more common ducks; for the most part, those days are gone along with the ducks that move north in April or even earlier. This year, though, a few ducks did hang around and we found a Northern Shoveler, a few American Wigeon, and a couple of Ring-billed Ducks, as well as two Blue-winged Teal (the last being an Ohio nester).

Wilson's Phalarope at Killdeer Plains (Photo Bill Heck)We then made our way to those drawn-down ponds, where our first reaction was disappointment. From the westernmost parking area, huge expanses of mud flats of appeared empty of shorebirds. But our eyes had deceived us: at the next parking stop, we realized that shorebird camouflage had worked well and in fact there were dozens, if not hundreds, of shorebirds in front of us. They were rather distant, but we easily identified a few dozen Semipalmated Plovers and many Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs. Even further out were several larger shorebirds – wait, could they be? – yes, Willets, unusual but not surprising in Ohio. Looking across the road into partially flooded fields, we found the reported Wilson’s Phalaropes. Reversing the pattern for most bird species, female phalaropes are the brightly plumaged ones, with males being much duller. The three or four females that we saw were stunningly beautiful and elicited appropriate exclamations of delight from us! We also found a few smaller shorebirds, such as Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, along with a couple of White-rumped Sandpipers, another good find for Ohio. We then drove to the location where Short-billed Dowitchers had been reported and found four spectacularly colored individuals in plain sight.

We knew that we would be running out of daylight very soon, so we quickly drove south toward Big Island Wildlife Area. Although it has a different name and, so far as we know, is managed separately, Big Island is very similar to Killdeer Plains. Stopping at one of the major impoundments, we almost immediately (and accidentally) flushed an American Bittern. We quickly scanned the area, mostly finding birds that we had already seen, but were stunned to run across a Purple Gallinule. This bird of the south occasionally shows up in Ohio, but none have been reported so far this year. Nevertheless, even in the fading light we could just make out the indigo sheen that gives this bird its name, along with its red bill, pale bluish frontal shield, and thick yellow legs as it clung to a large reed above the water.

As darkness fell, we tried for a few singing night birds without much luck. But we were quite done yet. As we walked back to our car, a Barred Owl started working through his noisy repertoire, including the famous “who cooks for you?” We also ticked a Barn Owl just down the road. Speaking of ticks, both Killdeer and Big Island had oodles of these pests; we were forewarned, had applied repellant to pant cuffs, and even stuffed pant legs inside our boots to prevent ticks from sneaking up our legs. A few managed to hop aboard but were quickly detected and dispatched. Those visiting these areas should take appropriate precautions.

We hardly expected to add significantly to our total while driving back to Columbus in the dark, but we did manage a couple more birds after all. First, we stopped by a known nesting location of a Red-shouldered Hawk. That should have been the end of the story, but – incredibly – the parking lot where we left our cars yielded one final species. As we transferred equipment among our vehicles, we heard the easily identified hoot of a Great Horned Owl close by, answered by a second owl somewhere across the road. Stunned that we would be hearing owls conversing in this most unwelcoming habitat of asphalt and concrete, we waited and, within a few moments, saw the first owl fly from the top of a light post less than 100 yards away. We quickly located the second owl by ear on the top of another light post, but the glare of the bright parking lot light made it impossible to see this bird. So we left this duo to their own birdy ways and headed back to our respective homes, thoughts of good birds dancing in our heads.

Notes on Logistics

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

Our comparatively late start time of 2:30 am (yes, that is late compared to some previous years!) allowed us to catch some sleep before launching our big day. Obviously we were pretty tired by the end of our Birdathon, but not as completely wrecked as in some previous years.

Staying awake during the day isn’t difficult once the birding begins, not to mention that the coffee was flowing freely for some of us. The harder part is late in the evening during the final drive home, but we knew that we had done well this day and the enthusiasm still was running high, making it easier to stay alert.

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.

As to our field time and distance, our reported time of 20.5 hours is pretty much all birding and driving aside from a few short bathroom breaks and refueling stops. Our driving distance of about 350 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 often 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 northern and southern parts of the state 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 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 extra hours to driving that should be spent birding. This year was our second in which we have foregone the southern leg of the trip and, so far, it has worked out quite well. We tentatively plan to follow a very similar route next year – yes, there will be a next year and we already are planning for it!

Special Thanks

We are deeply indebted to everyone who supports our Birdathon and we thank each and every one of you for doing so. Our Birdathon day is always fun, but the larger purpose is to raise funds for the work of Columbus Audubon. We are proud and happy to do so, and we certainly could not do it without our loyal supporters. We also want to thank our long-suffering spouses who not only allow and even encourage our manic adventures, but even help by making muffins, cookies, and coffee – lots of coffee.