Dunlin by David Sibley

It was a dark and stormy night.

What a great sentence to start a Birdathon report! Too bad that it was instead a clear and pleasant, if rather cool, night. And technically it was morning: we assembled at 2:30 am in the Giant Eagle parking lot north of Columbus. After transferring scopes and supplies to Tom’s CRV, we were on the road headed north.

The cast this year included three of the usual characters plus a new recruit. Tom Sheley, owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Columbus and crack birder/photographer, would handle the driving. Steve Landes, he of tremendous birding by ear skills, was our navigator. Bill Heck, husband of chief cookie baker Mary, was maintaining our official species list. Finally, our guest team member this year was Chris Lotz of Johannesburg, South Africa. Chris had been in Ohio for a couple of weeks representing his birding tour company, Birding Ecotours, at the Biggest Week in American Birding festival. Fresh from that duty, he was spending a few days on R&R with Bill and Mary. Birder that he is, he jumped at the chance to be part of an intense Ohio birding experience.

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


Once underway, our first stops were in Delaware County. We drove to a location along the upper reaches of Delaware Reservoir, where we knew that Cliff Swallows were nesting under a bridge and Ospreys were nesting on platforms. We kinda leaned out the car windows for the swallows, and did hear a faint squawk that we attributed to one of the Ospreys – and a much louder “gronk” from a Great Blue Heron that we disturbed in its slumbers.

A couple hours of driving brought us to Findlay Reservoir where we expected to find a few waterfowl species and perhaps a Common Loon. Well, we struck out on that stop: a few Ring-billed Gulls were floating about, but more interesting birds, ones that had been reported in the area a few days before, had found new homes.

You might be wondering how we were doing all this birding at the reservoir in the dark. Well, we should note that there are security lights here and there around the reservoir. A cloud cover hid the moon, thus reducing the available light, but those same clouds reflected sky glow from the nearby city of Findlay, thus increasing the available illumination. Finally, it’s amazing how binoculars and spotting scopes gather quite a lot of light!. This enables birders to see far more than one would expect even in pretty dark conditions. You don’t want to hang around with birders next time you’re trying to sneak off for some nefarious purpose!

Despite more clouds on the way north, the weather looked good. It was chilly, down in the 40s (F) and rather breezy, but the skies were clearing as we reached the northern tier of counties.

The sky was lightening as we arrived at one of our best locations, Oak Openings Preserve in Toledo. Oak Openings provides a wide variety of habitats in a relatively small area and, along with other lakefront wildlife refuges to the east, is a magnet for migrating birds preparing to cross the lake. The music of birdsong was allegrissimo: “There, a Yellow Warbler” – “White-eyed Vireo” – “Oops, was that a Northern Parula?” – “Yeah, another Chestnut-sided Warbler” – and on it went for the better part of an hour.  Tom and Steve in the front seats were calling out names like mad, with Chris adding to the chorus and Bill alternating between leaning out the window to hear what was going on and scribbling furiously in an attempt to keep the list current. We found a remarkable 84 species here! The stars of the show certainly were the warblers, those magnificent little feathered jewels, but there were vireos, sparrows (including the Oak Openings specialty, the Lark Sparrow, a bird found only in this far corner of the state), a lovely Blue Grosbeak (rare this far north outside of Oak Openings), Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, even a Yellow-billed Cuckoo…the list goes on and on.

Exhilarated by our fine start to the day, we moved a few miles north to a farm field at the Intersection of Angola and Robb Roads, where flocks of shorebirds had been reported previously. Unlike our Findlay Reservoir no-shows, these polite birds had remained. We quickly added seven species, from the seemingly omnipresent but smartly handsome Dunlin to an unusual (for Ohio) and much sought after White-rumped Sandpiper.

We next stopped by Pearson Park, another Toledo Metro Park. We didn’t find anything comparable to the Black-bellied Whistling Ducks of a couple of years ago, but did manage to add a few more species typical for the area. (Note to non-birders: Black-bellied Whistling Ducks are native to Central and South America, with a range extending northward primarily into Arizona, Texas, and the Gulf state. They are not exactly common in Ohio!)

Next we headed for Maumee Bay State Park. A quick stop on the way at the Bayshore Power Plant turned up the usual Peregrine Falcon. (They nest in a box provided by the power company on the side of a smokestack). You never know what might be around on the beach here, but today things were fairly slow, with just a few Ruddy Turnstones lurking in a tiny cove at the water’s edge.

Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area was next, and it was at this point that we realized that things truly were slowing down. The breeze – no, make that wind – was up and many of the birds that had been here just a few days ago had moved on. Still, we managed to cop an extra warbler species or two and, after a protracted struggle, found a Common Gallinule (formerly known as Common Moorhen). By the way, if you follow the link above to the Metzger Marsh Web page, you will find a photo of a stunning Yellow-headed Blackbird, which is a pretty big deal in Ohio. We didn’t find one; no bird, no photo. OK, not surprising, that bird is unexpected. But Black Terns had been reported here a few days ago and we couldn’t find them, either. Drat!

When birders – and even many non-birders – think about birds in Ohio, they think first of Magee Marsh. It’s an internationally famous location for migrating North American songbirds. Just a couple of days before we arrived, the place had been packed with attendees at the Biggest Week in American Birding festival. Moreover, it had been packed with birds! By the time we arrived, though, it was less packed, both with birds and with people. It wasn’t bad, certainly quite good by most standards, but again it seemed that we were just a little too late for a real bird jackpot. We found a few new species, but were out and on our way in record time for this location, which usually is one of our longest stops of the day.

Upon leaving Magee, we reversed course a half mile back to the west to visit the Ottawa NWR. We didn’t really expect many new species here, having visited a chain of areas with similar habitat. But we were quite impressed with the collection of Great Egrets (a few dozen) and the much rarer Snowy Egret (at least five) in the relatively small marshy area just north of the entrance.

A few minutes driving took us to the new wetland unit along Benton-Carroll Road just south of OH-2. The presence of other birders there was a good sign, and we quickly added a few more shorebird species – the specialty of the house, so to speak. An unexpected bonus was a spectacularly colorful Wilson’s Phalarope lurching about in his (or her) characteristic phalaropish way.

Earlier in the week, Steve had scouted Medusa Marsh, which is along Barrett Rd (old OH-2) between Bay View and Sandusky. It’s not really named Medusa Marsh; that’s just a nickname. And although the Ohio Ornithological Society description (see the link above) says that this is private land, it isn’t. At least we don’t think it is. But it really is a marsh….we think. Here’s a little clarification: decades ago, the Medusa Cement plant was a large concrete building in back of this area as seen from Barrett Rd. The plant closed long ago and the building eventually was torn down. In the meantime, birders found that this marshy area could yield bonanzas of waders and shorebirds. The birders had to call it something, and the name “Medusa Marsh” stuck. For whatever reason, over the years the area became far less productive in birding terms, so birders mostly stopped going there; meanwhile, the private owners, whoever they were, had basically abandoned it. Our current understanding is that the state of Ohio, presumably the Division of Wildlife, has acquired the land; whether by coincidence or because of habitat improvement, more birds are showing up here these days. For us, it was a nice stop, as we picked up several badly-needed waterfowl species, including Redhead and Northern Shoveler. (For the non-birders, substitute “ducks” for waterfowl and you’re close enough.)

Finally it was time to start the long southward run. In an attempt to avoid some traffic, we ended up going through Bellevue where we had our most discouraging incident of the trip. In this day and age, we forget that some little burgs still run classic speed traps: by that I mean they patrol stretches of road that seem deliberately designed to catch unwary drivers. Bellevue has one – a stretch of rural state highway, passing among the cornfields and approaching a railroad crossing, that somehow still is within the city limits. Following the car in front of us, with no signs in sight, we gradually accelerated away from town, only to be stopped by the city police and ticketed for about 47 mp in a 35 zone; incredibly that’s a $120 violation. We’ll certainly avoid Bellevue in the future; meanwhile, you have been warned.

Happier times awaited when we reached our final target area, Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area. By now the morning’s chill was a distant memory; warm afternoon sunshine made for a most pleasant experience. The wind was an issue, though, not because it bothered us directly but because it discouraged the birds from coming up where we could see or hear them.

We first scanned the upground reservoir at the east end of the refuge. The water level was very low, exposing the remains of long-drowned trees where a few ducks played hide and seek with us. In the sky above, a Broad-winged Hawk soaring just past the tree line was an excellent sighting for the day.

Roaming around the refuge, we managed some other nice finds as well. For example, while we had found Common Terns back at Metzger Marsh WA, we saw seven Forster’s Terns here, something a bit uncommon in Ohio in spring, and delighted in the swooping acrobatics of these graceful, almost ghostly pale birds with their black caps. Careful study of a group of shorebirds convinced us that about four of them were Long-billed Dowitchers, not their nearly identical cousins, Short-billed Dowitchers. A Pileated Woodpecker flew across the road directly in front of us; an Acadian Flycatcher sang as we wandered by. And so it went: both we and the birds had settled into a gentler, less urgent rhythm as the sun sank slowly through late afternoon.

We had realized hours ago that, while we were having a decent day, it wasn’t going to be a really big one. As we finished our wanderings through Killdeer Plains and reviewed our species list, we understood that we could add only a few species no matter where we went or how hard we worked. To top it off, Steve had been hit by a stomach bug or food issue; he was fighting through but it clearly was a struggle. The rest of us, meanwhile, were operating on sleep deficits because of activities over the previous several days. We put all the factors together, called it a day, and headed for home. Did we leave any possible species out there? Maybe a couple, but the odds were long and so was the upcoming drive! By the time we arrived at the parking lot, it was approaching 10:00 pm, so we certainly had full day.

All in all, this was a fun Birdathon, even if just a little frustrating. The frustration was a result of high expectations. On Monday, birders we talked to were telling us about the “best day ever” at Magee, or at least the best day in years. By Wednesday, we still had good birds but obviously nowhere near the numbers that were around just two days earlier. In addition, several “really good” birds that had been present for days before the Birdathon mysteriously disappeared before we hit the field.

But no, there really was no mystery. Those birds were carrying on a cycle far older than we, one that we hope will be here long after we are gone. Some years we manage to hit the peaks and other years we hit the valleys (and occasionally the chasms!). This one wasn’t our best, but it wasn’t our worst either. The day turned out to be beautiful and 160 species of birds cooperated enough to let us find them.  We raised some money for Columbus Audubon, a cause in which we all believe, we enjoyed the camaraderie of birders birding, and we even got a little extra sleep that night. What’s not to like?

The Wild Birds Unlimited Columbus Team would like to thank each and every one of you who support our Birdathon team. You make it all worthwhile!