Sunday, June 24, 2012

Turkey Vulture nestlings

Of the 196 species of birds confirmed breeding during the latest Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas (2006-11,, it is probably safe to say that Turkey Vultures have one of the lowest nest confirmation rates out of all common species.  Perhaps this is due to the fact that they prefer to nest concealed away in old, abandoned barns, hollowed out logs and rocky niches. Using data from the breeding bird atlas, the comparable Red-tailed Hawk clearly shows the difference between confirmation frequencies. (Note: black represent confirmed).

Red-tailed Hawk - Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas II results
Turkey Vulture - Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas II results
Interesting enough, using eBird data for Ohio, during the past 10 years for the months of June-July, Red-tailed Hawk had a report rate frequency of roughly 11% of all checklists, while Turkey Vulture hovered around 17%. With that said, you can imagine my excitement being able to monitor a nest right down the road.

For the past three and a half weeks I’ve been in west-central Ohio doing some non-bird related work in the agriculturally dominated Darke County. Upon arriving, a local birder and I checked an old barn that has had Turkey Vultures nesting there for several years and sure enough, here is what we found…

Turkey Vulture young
As we climbed the ladder, their raucous hissing immediately caught our attention.  A simple impression in the hay tucked in the corner of the loft is all these prehistorically-looking fuzz balls need. 

After a couple weeks, we ventured back and discovered our ugly friends have doubled in size. I took this quick video before leaving them be. No, that’s not my cell phone having sound issues, that is the sound of two angry vulture nestlings. Some say it has the distinctive sounds of whip cream coming out of an aerosol can.

I've always had a keen interest in bird ecology and behavior so having the opportunity to observe the nesting habits of vultures has been quite educational. In a few weeks they’ll make their first flight attempts and eventually leave the nest.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Local Patch Big Year

Most birders have a local patch – either a county, backyard, neighborhood park, or a defined radius surrounding their home and will keep a running tally on all of species seen or heard within this boundary. Some birders will go one step further – commit to a local patch big year to see as many species as they can in a single year – and I did just that.

Back in mid-January, I moved to northwest Ohio to join the team at Black Swamp Bird Observatory as the new Education and Outreach Specialist. Of the many perks, one that clearly stood out was the fact that I was now living less than three miles from the famed migrant trap – Magee Marsh. Combined with the nearby Ottawa and Cedar Point National Wildlife Refuges, Metzger Marsh and Mallard Club Marsh Wildlife Areas and Maumee Bay State Park – the Magee region is clearly an incredible area that offers a lot migrant stop-over habitat, wintering grounds for tens of thousands of waterfowl and prime coastal habitat along Lake Erie. I was set.

When planning a local patch big year, or any kind of big year for that matter, a boundary must be created. As with several other birders in Ohio who are doing local patch big years, I wanted to set a county as the boundary – however, my ‘local patch’ is basically split right in half by two counties, Ottawa and Lucas. Seeing that I already have quite an advantage with one of Ohio’s birdiest regions, I opted out doing an entire county and set the boundary below - approximately 18 miles by 4 miles.

Local Patch Big Year boundary
From the beginning, I set my goal at 250 species – the bar was set high but still reachable. By the end of May, my patch list was already sitting at 229 with some ridiculous misses (i.e. Greater Scaup, Common Loon, Black Tern, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Pine Siskin). But there’s still plenty of time.

Starting in mid-February, which is when I initially started my local patch big year, I quickly checked off the more uncommon winter species – Long-eared and Short-eared Owls, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Northern Shrike, White-winged Crossbill and Common Redpoll.  Thanks to the invasion of Snowy Owls this past winter, two appeared within my patch. Normally, Snowy Owl would go under the list of unlikely patch birds so it was good to get that one right away.

February and March yielded good numbers of waterfowl – 27 species to be exact. Ottawa NWR holds impressive numbers of waterfowl including upwards to ten thousand Tundra Swans. Late March through April provided decent shorebirding, especially south of Magee Marsh off Benton-Carroll Road and at several of the units in Ottawa NWR. Twenty-one species of shorebirds is nothing to complain about seeing that fall is yet to come! Highlights include American Avocets, Upland Sandpipers, and a Wilson’s Phalarope.

American Avocets - Maumee Bay (Photo by Sherrie Duris)
Then May came around – what can I say? April 20th I was sitting somewhere in the 140’s. By the end of May I added 80-90 species. For those not familiar with the incredible birding in the area – Magee Marsh is one of the top migrant stopover spots in the United States. Tens of thousands of birders flock to Magee every spring to see warblers and other migrants literally dripping out of the trees. I ended with 35 species of warblers including two Kirtland’s and several Connecticut’s. Swainson’s and Worm-eating are the only eastern warblers I still need for my patch. Other highlights for the month of May include American White Pelicans, Glossy and White-faced Ibis, Eastern Whip-poor-wills, several Clay-colored Sparrows and the greatest highlight yet – Least Tern! Thanks to Ohio birder, Sherrie Duris, on May 16th, she called me stating that she was sitting there looking at a Least Tern at Maumee Bay State Park. Even today, I have no idea how I got there so quickly but was able to observe it for the rest of the evening as it roosted on the beach and took several passes along the shore. It ended up sticking around for several days offering great views to a lot of birders. It’s not every day you get a state bird in your local patch!

Biggest Week in American Birding crowd
looking at a Kirtland's Warbler
Least Tern - Maumee Bay (Photo by Sherrie Duris)
Now that its mid-June, the birding has slowed down considerably and most of my time is being spent elsewhere. It’s been over two weeks since I’ve birded my patch and I don’t have any plans to do so for another couple weeks. Before the end of summer I will have to find some time to target some of the breeders including King Rail, American Bittern, Black Tern, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. Then fall will come around and the possibilities are endless – more shorebirds, migrants and vagrants.