March is the time to be thinking of waterfowl, as well as some early migrant shorebirds, raptors and landbirds. Even though this March has been spotty for waterbirds, there was a steady stream of them through central Ohio. But where is the best place to take in a good diversity of them? Hoover Reservoir has great deep-water habitats, but its marshy habitats are small. Big Island and Pick Ponds have marshy habitat galore, but deep-water habitats in either are rare. Delaware Wildlife Area, however, has the combination of deep-water Delaware Lake, plus the many marshes in the adjacent Wildlife Area. Long championed by Dr. Jed Burtt and his ornithology students at Ohio Wesleyan University, this area is starting to receive more interest from Columbus birders. With the new emphasis on finding great birding locales closer to our homes in central Ohio, this attention is long overdue.
Columbus Audubon, reinforcing the trend to highlight nearby birding hotspots, lined up Sean Williams, one of the OWU ornithology students, to lead a trip there on March 21. Even though the morning dawned cold, and the weather outlook was iffy until the last minute, 5 of us hardy souls ventured out with Sean and discovered one of the best areas for concentrated waterbird diversity near to Columbus. We spent the morning almost entirely within a half mile area in the southern end of the Wildlife Area, around Panhandle Rd and Leonardsburg Rd. It’s not that we couldn’t go elsewhere, but we really didn’t need to go anywhere else. It was that good.
We met Sean at the parking area overlooking the southern end of Delaware Lake off Panhandle Rd. A quick scan of the lake revealed many flocks of diving ducks, with healthy numbers of dabbling ducks and other waterbirds thrown in. Most of the flocks were Lesser Scaup (perhaps 400+ of them), but mixed in were Ring-necked Ducks, Redheads, a single Canvasback, Bufflehead, Mallards, Gadwall, Wigeon, Red-breasted & Hooded Mergansers, Pied-billed Grebes, Horned Grebes, and even 2 Cormorants. Sean was even able to pull out a few Greater Scaup from the hordes of Lessers. Along with the ducks were an attendant group of gulls, including 300+ Ring-bills, 6-10 Herring, 30+ Bonapartes, and a prize Lesser Black-backed Gull that spent most of its time sitting on the beach across the reservoir from us. Tree Swallows foraged over the Lake surface, and large numbers of them accumulated on the wires along Panhandle road, near where Dick Tuttle had set up a matrix of nest boxes. Raptors were also present, and included a Sharp-shinned Hawk, Red-shouldered hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, and an adult Bald Eagle flying south towards a downriver nest site. We didn’t see an Osprey, but Dick Tuttle assured us that the male of the nesting pair up at the northern end of the Lake had already returned this Spring. If we had quit before seeing another site, most of us would have been happy.
Fortunately, Sean pulled us over to the nearby Leonardsburg marsh, the biggest nearby impoundment, that was just east of the parking area. This was the site of one of central Ohio’s first Bald Eagle nests; the nest is still there, but abandoned. The eagles had relocated to a nest south along the Olentangy River this Spring. First, we drove back south ¼ mile to the flood-control dike that rings the Wildlife Area. Parking and walking east along the dike allowed us to get a great view of the southern reaches of the marsh, which had lots of little mud- and marshgrass-islands scattered among the open water. Tree Swallows were darting all over the marsh, and we had flyover Turkey Vultures, Red-tailed Hawks, and Kestrels. The open water was infested with Ring-necked Ducks, Bufflehead, and 8 species of Dabbling ducks. Most common were the Ring-necks, but also numerous were Mallards, Northern Shovelers, and Green-winged Teal. Less common were Wigeon, Gadwall, Pintail, Black Ducks, and Blue-winged Teal. Many were already paired up and displaying; we even got to see the unusual contest flights of courting Gadwalls. Perhaps the prize here, though, were 2 very early Pectoral Sandpipers foraging along the muddy edge. The dike itself was clear of vegetation, but the shrubby edges below it held a mix of sparrows, some Robins, and Redwinged Blackbirds.
Afterwards, we drove around to the north side of the marsh, viewed from a small parking area off Leonardsburg Rd. Along with all the aforementioned waterfowl, we also had 7-8 Wilson’s Snipe zipping around. A few landed where we could see them standing on the mudflats here. Tree Swallows, blackbirds, Cowbirds, and grackles were numerous along this edge. At one point we had a helicopter fly over and flush up nearly all the waterfowl. The cloud of birds numbered over 500, and presented a spectacle that we don’t often find in wetland-scarce central Ohio. Between here and the nearby Lake, we estimated seeing over 1000 waterfowl in the span of a few hours. Only Big Island can match those numbers, and its diversity wouldn’t be as great.
Afterwards, Sean & I took a brief side-trip to a large swamp forest near the east end of Leonardsburg Rd. Called GreenTree Swamp by locals, the area is a thicket of willow and buttonbush beneath a canopy of dead or dying Cottonwoods and Ash trees. It’s tucked against the border dike, which pools the water around the roots of the plants. It usually has Red-headed Woodpeckers, but they were avoiding us this morning. We saw plenty of Downies & Red-bellieds as consolation. It was also swarming with grackles and redwings, but we couldn’t make any of them into Rusty Blackbirds. This has become one of the few reliable spots in central Ohio for this increasingly rare blackbird; Sean had seen a few here earlier in the week.
All of these areas are within a half-mile of each other, and a group of birders could adequately cover them in perhaps 2-3 hours. Sean and other Delaware birders have even walked or biked the area, with good results. As the Spring turns into Summer, the area becomes a lush swamp-marsh mix housing lots of nesting marsh birds and landbirds; in combination with Delaware State Park on the west shore of the Lake, it boasts one of the highest densities of breeding species in any central Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas area. It’s remarkable that we’ve been so focused on driving past this area to get up to Big Island & Kildeer Plains, that perhaps we’ve been missing out on great birding much closer. I know that I’m going to make a point of stopping here more often now.