Blogging had become something of a chore, rather than a pleasure, so I took a little un-announced leave of absence. Thanks to gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) nudges from loyal fans, I have been encouraged to get back on board. Here is a tale of the Ohio Ornithological Society's 2010 trip to The Wilds.
The Wilds, in case you have forgotten, is an area of Muskingum County, Ohio that was destroyed by surface mining for coal in the 60's and 70's. In surface mining, aka strip mining, huge machines were used to strip all the vegetation and top soil off shallow coal deposits. Mining companies kept the coal and trashed the rest of what used to be beautiful rolling hills. See my post here about The Wilds, a home for endangered animals, that is breathing new life into this once barren land.Nest boxes for American Kestrels, provided by the OOS, dot the property around The Wilds.
Every year, the OOS sponsors a trip to The Wilds to look for its other form of wildlife, wintering raptors. The target species are Rough-legged Hawks, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrels, and Short-eared Owls. If you are lucky, you might even find a Merlin or a Golden Eagle spending their winters in this unique Ohio habitat. Non-raptor species are here, too - Horned Larks, American Tree Sparrows, and the elusive Northern Shrike could be around the next corner or over the next field.Last January was my first winter field trip to The Wilds. Regular blog readers will remember that it was cold. How cold? DARNED COLD, as in -18 F in the morning, even without the bitter, cutting wind that constantly blows across the landscape. I swore never to return. I'm glad I didn't keep that resolution.
The weatherman predicted temps in the 30's for the weekend of Jan. 16-17. "Remember," Julie said, "Thirty degrees at The Wilds is like ten degrees anywhere else." Who cares? I was going birding with friends - Julie Zickefoose and Bill Thompson III, Nina of Nature Remains and her husband, Tony, fellow OOS'ers like Anne Oliver, Jim McCormac, Peter King, Marc Nolls, Cheryl Harner, and many more. Plus, the announcement promised a special treat this year. Who could resist?Mad birders line the roads, scanning the horizon for raptors. Do you see the Golden Eagle? Neither did we.
We did see plenty of Rough-legged Hawks. Here are a couple of ID tips for you, courtesy of trip leader extraordinaire, Mr. BT3.
One: Long wings, a long tail, and dark "wrist patches." This bird is a light morph - they also have a darker form.Two: Since Rough-legged Hawks are birds of the tundra, where they nest on the ground and don't see many trees, they have tiny feet. They can perch on much smaller branches than a hawk like the Red-tailed. So, when trying to distinguish between the two, the hawk perched on skinny branches at the tip of the tree is more likely to be a Rough-legged; one on a large branch near the trunk of a tree is a Red-tailed.We also saw lots and lots of White-tailed Deer. They seem to know they are safe from hunters within The Wilds' perimeter fence, and are abundant here.
This protected little spot, with its rivulets of melted ice and snow, was full of bathing American Tree Sparrows. At first, I thought they were the Horned Larks we were seeking, and was embarrassed by missing the ID. Later, a much more experienced birder than I made the same mistake. Whew! I'm not alone in making bad calls.
Cow fields. "The place" for Horned Larks, promised Bill, and he was right, as usual.
Lucky us, we had a way to direct everyone in our group to the birds. The White Cow was our official landmark. She must have been the most popular cow in Muskingum County that day.
The Horned Larks are to the left and behind the White Cow. Honest.
In contrast to last year's low of -18, the temps this year started out in the upper 20's and we hit a high of 52 degrees. That's 70 degrees warmer than Jan., 2009 - and no wind! Ohio weather is just like a box of chocolates; you never know what you are going to get.
In between looking for birds, we found other amusements. Like, trying to take a photo of a camera-shy blogger. Gotcha, Nina!
Other bloggers are much less concerned about having their picture taken. Guess who?An unofficial hat contest broke out, the contestants vying for the honor of looking like Elmer Fudd.
Bored children threw slush balls and built slush-men. (The snow was melting too quickly for a true snowball fight to break out.)Later groups, passing this spot, would announce on their walkie-talkies: "Looks like Phoebe and Liam have been here!"
As the afternoon turned into evening, dozens of hopeful birders gathered at the birding station at Jeffery Point, hoping for Short-eared Owls at twilight. No owls deigned to appear.
Oh, and that promised surprise? Come back in a day or two - all will be revealed.