Winter at Killdeer Plains, 2016

Rough-legged Hawk - Light Phase

Fifteen hardy bird lovers assembled in Worthington for the annual Columbus Audubon Winter at Killdeer Plains field trip. This year, we did not need to be quite as hardy as usual, though: despite dense, threatening clouds and a stiff breeze, the temperature reached into the low 50’s.

Warm weather meant no snow on the ground. Normally that’s a good thing. But when you are trying to find small ground-feeding birds, the snow is your friend. Darkish birds in snow-covered fields stand out far more than birds hiding in weeds and corn stubble. Better yet, those wintering ground feeders often leave those snowy fields to come to the road where the birders are — but not this time.

Escaping the suburban traffic for a drive into the rural landscapes north of Columbus and Delaware, we “officially” started our Killdeer trek on Washburn Road, one of the best spots in Ohio for wintering Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, and even Snow Buntings. We heard the high, tinkling calls of Horned Larks repeatedly and finally managed to lay eyes on a few, but the other specialties eluded us. A rather distant Northern Harrier reminded us that other birds awaited.

We next looped around to a road along which a Northern Shrike had been reported recently, but we couldn’t find one. We started to notice a distinct lack of birds in general: apparently the clouds and wind were discouraging their activity. Turning up a few Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, and a lone White-crowned Sparrow took all the effort we could muster.

After a brief rest stop, we had excellent, if rather distant, looks at two pairs of Bald Eagles, both near nests. One of said nests had been in use for years, based on its size, while the other was so small as to appear almost new, perhaps having been in use for one or two years. It’s great to see that eagles continue to prosper at Killdeer Plains.

As the weather was holding, with feared rain not materializing, we decided to head for the famous owl grove, a stand of pines known for wintering Long-eared Owls along with occasional Barred and Saw-whet Owls. Alas, a careful search turned up mainly multiflora rose brambles. Several of us were momentarily fooled by a long-eared creature near the top of a tree: surely it was an owl…no, wait, its face is pointy….oh, it’s a squirrel. (You can tell we were getting a little desperate.) We searched some nearby trees along the road, only to hear a Barred Owl seemingly very close to where we had just been. The owl was conversing with its neighbors but apparently they said all they had to say before we could track them down.

A brief stop at Pond 33 turned up the expected Red-headed Woodpecker. We had nice scope views of this stunning black, white, and red bird, surely the most handsome of all of the eastern North American woodpeckers.

By this time it was late afternoon, so we headed to the Sportsman’s Center where we would be able to scan meadows for Short-eared Owls. Homemade cookies were distributed (thanks Mary!) and we settled in for the usual vigil, made somewhat easier than usual by the relatively mild weather…not to mention those cookies. Kay finally spotted movement across the field and soon everyone had some kind of look at a Short-eared Owl cruising low over a field. In keeping with the pattern of the day, only a couple of these ghostly hunters were about, and they stayed quite a distance from us. We tried a quick move down the road to try to get closer, but the owls wandered off in a different direction.

Overall it was rather a slow day from a birding standpoint, but everyone seemed pleased to get out of houses, away from work, and into the field. The announcement of an encore trip next month was greeted with suitable enthusiasm — those birds can’t hide for long!

Here’s our species list for the day:

Canada Goose
Trumpeter Swan
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Northern Harrier
Bald Eagle
Red-tailed Hawk
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Barred Owl
Downy Woodpecker
American Kestrel
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
European Starling
White-crowned Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
House Sparrow