A Year in Ohio
American birding highlights of 2017
By Chris Lotz
I had the privilege of opening the US office of Birding Ecotours at the beginning of 2017. (You can read the full story of this event here. The new American office is in Columbus, Ohio, less than 2.5 hours’ drive from one of North America’s most famous spring migration sites, Magee Marsh (where the Biggest Week in American Birding is held each year. This birding venue is particularly well-known for the massive migration of spectacularly colourful, amazingly varied, American wood warblers. Magee Marsh is a short distance - at least ‘as the warbler flies’ - from the equally legendary Point Pelee just across Lake Erie in Canada. Huge numbers of dazzling wood warblers and other migrants such as equally brightly-coloured tanagers and orioles along with more subtly beautiful cuckoos (two species), flycatchers and so many others, accumulate on the American side of Lake Erie (and can be viewed at close quarters from the incredible boardwalk at Magee Marsh). These migrants wait for tail winds and good weather before they brave the journey northwards into their Canadian breeding grounds. The first point of entry into Canada is often Point Pelee, where birds arrive tired and hungry and can often be viewed at extremely close quarters especially when there’s a ‘fallout’ which can happen when the weather suddenly turns bad on the birds.
I want to highlight what I regard as the top handful of birds that I saw during my first year living in the USA. It started in Columbus, central Ohio, the new home that my wife Megan and I chose, and the venue for the new Birding Ecotours office.
I was very busy setting up the office in the first quarter of 2017, so the best birding for me only really started in the spring, when I was finally able to take short breaks from all the office and setup work. The start of my brilliant birding year was when I did a Columbus Audubon ‘Avid Birders’ day trip’ to the wooded hills of southern Ohio where species not usually making it as far north as Magee Marsh, can be seen. Included are big numbers of Cerulean Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler and a lot of others. Yellow-breasted Chat is relatively common here, too.
A little later in spring, two staff members, Anna Wittmer and Ben Warner, called me to say they had a Golden-winged Warbler at one of the beautiful metro parks within wider Columbus. I’d just seen my very first one in Costa Rica on a short visit there, but still ‘needed’ this warbler for my US list. We enjoyed wonderful views of this incredible-looking bird, in a mixed flock which included a host of other spectacular wood warblers (but which I’d seen before), there at Highbanks Metro Park. They included what I feel are the two most gorgeous of all the American warblers; Chestnut-sided Warbler and Blackburnian Warbler. For some terrific warbler photos take a look here at my colleagues’ blogs about American birding.
I should also mention here that the very rare Kirtland’s Warbler usually puts in an appearance in Ohio during spring migration, more often than not at the Biggest Week in American Birding. This year it didn’t, although in 2016 when I attended that event, I had one of the most memorable experiences of my entire birding career when one of these spent a few hours at the Magee Marsh boardwalk. If one misses this species on spring migration through Ohio, there’s an easy solution – drive the short distance to their breeding grounds in nearby Michigan where good views of this bird are almost guaranteed. (Our custom tours for all the warblers are focussed around Ohio but also invariably including a foray into Michigan.)
Next on my birding agenda was the Biggest Week in American Birding; well described on my colleagues blogs. I’ll only mention a couple of important species. Sedge Wren was a scarce species I’d tried for in previous years and which was threatening to become a proper nemesis bird, but a couple of us found one during the Biggest Week in American Birding in 2017. My colleague Dylan’s said “it looks more like a Zitting Cisticola than a wren when you first see it”, which I think is spot-on. We enjoyed fantastic views. Back in Columbus, when birding at one of my favourite metro parks, Battelle Darby, other birders I bumped into would often ask me “…have you seen any Sedge Wrens”, so I decided to make it my mission to try and find them there (it contains lots of suitable habitat) on the outskirts of my home city. I was lucky enough one summer day to find a few of them that stuck around for a few weeks, singing and displaying like mad. I actually managed to show a good number of local birders this tricky species. Many of the birders ‘need’ to see everything annually, because Ohio year listing is immensely popular, invariably usually ebird.org as the listing tool.
Starting my own Ohio year list was a fantastically, amazingly exciting thing to do, in fact, but I only got onto it very late in the year! Year listing does have some disadvantages. For example, it did encourage me to do some rather silly things, like twitch a feral Mute Swan, which I’ve seen stacks of in England and even in South Africa (there was a feral population of this species in South Africa for some decades, but it went extinct recently).
My next ‘most wanted’ bird was Connecticut Warbler. This species invariably arrives later in spring than most other wood warblers. Not surprisingly, therefore, there were no reports of this skulker until the very end of the Biggest Week in American Birding (which a couple of my colleagues and I happened to be at). I was actually leading an outing at Pearson Metro Park near the Biggest Week event, when the unmistakable song of a Connecticut Warbler suddenly resounded from the woods! It must have taken an hour before a few of us laid eyes on this sneaky little thing as it moved down from eye level and onto the ground where it loves to be! How exciting!
Then most of my summer birding was done around Columbus/central Ohio. Adding species like King Rail, Virginia Rail, Sora, American Bittern, Least Bittern and many of the American sparrows to my Ohio list proved great fun. Most of these species had been ‘heard-only’ birds for me as far as my state list went, but as a previous article states I only count things that I see, so I had to spend quite a fair amount of time patiently trying to actually see these species again that I’d already seen in other states. Birders can be crazy.
‘Fall’ birding in the USA is an interesting concept as its really spread out, with some species expected in early fall (practically late summer) while others are only expected months later (pretty much the start of winter). I had a lot of exciting fall species to see, but there were two that were ‘essential’ from my point of view. I had to see both of them during brief periods at home between foreign trips. I almost kicked myself for arranging trips to South Africa and England in August, and to northwest Argentina in September, as this meant that I was gone for some of the most exciting Fall birding windows in Ohio. I did miss quite a lot of Fall species that would have been new for my Ohio list, but I did thankfully (just) manage to see my main targets. Buff-breasted Sandpiper was my biggest ‘want’ bird but none pitched up anywhere near Columbus until just before I was due to leave for Argentina. At the eleventh hour, one was located only an hour away from Columbus, near Dayton. My wife Megan and I drove there, got the bird, and drove back, then I packed for the trip.
The next species (in late Fall) that Ohio birders start getting very excited about, are the two ‘orange sparrows’, Nelson’s Sparrow and Le Conte’s Sparrow. I’d never seen the former before anywhere, whereas I’d seen the latter a couple of times, including magnificent views at the Biggest Week this last spring. Nelson’s Sparrow was another species that had to be squeezed in between trips (to Argentina and Philadelphia – the latter for the American Birding Expo). I had to drive 1.5 hours (almost all the way to Cincinatti), twice as I dipped on this species on my first try – a waste of precious time which was a scarce resource between trips. Fortunately, I was rewarded with excellent views of this beautiful sparrow, after much hard work. There were stacks of other sparrow species, and many other superb birds, around as well. The Ellis Lake Wetlands are indeed a great place to bird!
Next, something really unexpected happened. I was meant to be meeting a birding friend, Bill Heck, for lunch, when I got a message from him saying ‘emergency change of plans, we need to go and see a CALLIOPE HUMMINGBIRD’, Ohio’s second ever one and a very lost one at that, within an hour’s drive of my home. This tiny bird pitched up in a private garden in Delaware County, Ohio, and the owners very kindly allowed birders to visit. This is the smallest bird species in North America.
Then there were some species that are easier to see in late fall than in winter, although smaller numbers of them do linger through the winter. Birds like Winter Wren and Golden-crowned Kinglet, the latter moving through in huge numbers during a short time window, are most easily seen in a short available time window. The wren is easy in late fall but a bit tricky in winter and very scarce in summer. It was great to add these species to my Ohio list. Trumpeter Swan is also a species that moves through in really large numbers during a narrow window and literally everyone was reporting flocks of them flying overhead …except me – for the life of me I couldn’t find any! Until I volunteer-led a Columbus Audubon Society morning outing to Battelle Darby Metro Park half an hour from my home (and the main Sedge Wren site during the summer as per the above). During this outing, we fortunately saw a small flock of them flying over, yay! And, it was wintery enough at this stage for Northern Harrier to have moved into central Ohio in good enough numbers for me to finally get the species onto my list (not one, but many, in fact, all at once!). Short-eared Owl also moves in around the same time as the harrier and in fact occupy the same habitat/sites. When the harriers go to bed, the owls wake up (at dusk). It was great seeing this bird again (and getting it safely onto my Ohio list) after not seeing any of them for years since living in Wyoming during my post-doc.
Many ducks suddenly started becoming very common in the early winter as Canadian lakes were icing up, forcing the wildfowl to move southwards into Ohio. It was great to see large numbers of Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail and a good number of other common species. I narrowly missed a much rarer Long-tailed Duck at Hoover Reservoir right on the outskirts of Columbus, and had to wait until my friend Bill Heck and I went northwards to look at winter birds on Lake Erie (which is over two hours’ away). On the way home from this productive day trip to the big lake, we twitched a small flock of this beautiful duck species, allowing me to get it onto my US/ABA and Ohio lists (I’d only seen it in Tromso, Norway, before, one year earlier). Lake Erie proved excellent and I added several new birds to my Ohio list as well as a new world (or “proper”) life-bird, Black Scoter, too.
Next on the birding menu was to ‘get’ one of the Red-necked Grebes that were putting in appearances all over the state. Most of them were over two hours’ drive from me, but luckily one pitched up near Dayton only an hour away so I managed to immediately twitch it as soon as I got news of it. As it turned out, a Red-throated Loon pitched up nearby the next day – you’ve got to love birding - I had to return to the same site to get this species onto my US and Ohio lists (I’d only previously seen it in Scotland, although there it was in its gorgeous breeding plumage).
My wife Megan and I then decided to go and look for Snowy Owl, again on the shore of Lake Erie, adjacent to downtown Cleveland. It was my fourth Snowy Owl (I’d previously seen one in Minnesota and two in Colorado), and Megan’s first. The two goals of this day were in fact to see this incredible owl, and to spend some time at the amazing Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – which is, conveniently, right next to where Snowy Owls are often seen (I bet folks have in fact laid eyes upon Snowy Owls from the upper level windows of this museum). This winter, Ohio is experiencing a big irruption of Snowy Owls into the state.
Although I always love visiting home South Africa, this time I hardly wanted to leave for my family trip scheduled from 1-21 January 2018. I left my Ohio list at 256 species, a very modest number compared to local birding friends, but good enough for me considering I was away in other parts of the world a lot of time in 2017 and missed some important migration windows (not to mention being super-busy setting up the new office). I can hardly wait until I return to Ohio in late January though, as it will be the peak winter gull time on Lake Erie! I still need a few of those! This year (2018) I’d like to do an Ohio Big Year, but the challenge is that I’ll be away a lot in the first quarter (South Africa and India). One day I’ll need to do an Ohio big year seriously!
Please do contact us (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you ever want to visit our office in Ohio – I’m always tempted to get out birding for a couple of hours in case you have a target or two. You can peruse our North American birding tours here or on our other website here, which offers quite a range of American trips.
6th January 2018