There’s 4 inches on the ground, and more in the forecast. Why would any central Ohio birder be happy with that scenario? In fact, though, deep snow offers some great opportunities for birding that don’t occur in milder winters. Not only are some species, like longspurs, raptors, and shrikes, pushed further south into our area, but many birds normally scattered wind up concentrated along roadsides and at feeders. In the urban expanse of Columbus, big banks of feeders can have a good ‘fallout’. One of the best is the Nature Center Feeders at Blacklick Woods.
The recent snows kept me thinking about Blacklick, I journeyed over to the Nature Center right after the early March snowstorm, and found the feeders jumping with birds. Loads of House Sparrows and House Finches are normal here as at many feeders, as are a steady stream of ‘tree birds’ – woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches. There was also a large contingent of Cardinals brightening the snowy landscape. What sets these feeders apart are the unusual winter strays and errant migrants that show up here. For instance, even in early March there were still a small flock of Tree Sparrows, even after they’d mostly left surrounding areas. There was also a sporadically-visiting Purple Finch, and a small bachelor flock of Red-winged Blackbirds. One of the big highlights were hawks: several Turkey Vultures circled the area, attracted by a Red-tailed Hawk dragging around an old squirrel carcass. A Cooper’s Hawk also perched nearby, keeping the feeder birds on their toes.
Back in late December, naturalist Diana Morse posted about a very late Ovenbird hanging around the feeders. I went over to the Nature Center the next day, despite the fresh snow. Sure enough, there was the Ovenbird, though it was a challenge to actually get a good look at it. The bird opted for the only extensive open ground around — the open strip of ground under the eaves of the Center, almost directly beneath the observation windows,…… and not really visible from them! Every so often we’d get a brief glimpse of a greenish bird with a cocked tail, but it took almost an hour to have the bird actually fly out to one of the feeders for all of 20 seconds. This was the 3rd late Fall-early Winter Ovenbird in central Ohio this winter (but it was caught by a Cooper’s Hawk about 2 weeks later, alas).
Some species seem to be regular features of the Nature Center. Fox Sparrows have been reliable winter visitors here for several years now. These large brownish sparrows have features of both reddish Eastern Fox Sparrows and brownish Pacific Sooty Fox Sparrows, so they likely come from the hybrid zone up in NW Canada. A Red-breasted Nuthatch was a regular here this winter, often making several forays in to both the seed and suet feeders. A Rusty Blackbird had been an off-and-on visitor for much of January and February, but I wasn’t lucky enough to spy this rare blackbird here this year. The nearby swamp woodlands along the Buttonbush Trail probably make them feel right at home here.
These feeders have a good history of producing other winter rarities, especially during deep snow periods. In winters past, there have been Chipping Sparrows, Field Sparrows, Purple Finches, Pine Siskins, Evening Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls. The list just goes on. It’s not that these are a big set of feeders—there are some yard feeders that are larger—, but their location is very well thought-out. Not only are they at the edge of the Blacklick Woods (and a bit off the Blacklick Creek greenway), but they have a nearby pond and lots of cover plants. Add in the fact that it’s the only forest block for miles, and the recipe for a good vagrant trap is set. So, when the next snowfall re-arranges your birding plans, thank your lucky stars and head here.