Diary of a day in search of rare birds

birders, Kelp Gull
Early birds.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I’m not a morning person. I could make a career out of sleeping in. Not this day.

I was the official driver of a group of guys in search of a couple of rare birds that had inexplicably showed up in northeast Ohio. I love to bird this way, with friends who happen to be expert birders going in search of uncommon species.

Up at 5 a.m. and out the door 45 minutes later, I was dressed for the seasonably chilly weather. After two stops, the troops were gathered, and we headed north in the thick blackness of the morning.

We arrived at the natural lake near Akron where an unusual gull had been spotted. To see it, you had to be there early in the morning or late afternoon. A dozen vehicles already filled parking spots in the little park on the lake’s south shore.

Early birders lined up along water’s edge, scouring the area through the pre-dawn dimness. Light snow amid a foggy haze above the lake made it difficult to identify the birds even with expensive scopes and powerful binoculars.

We were looking for a Kelp Gull, a bird that should be in the Southern Hemisphere. Somehow it ended up here with thousands of other gulls, mostly Ring-billed. The gulls’ familiar squawking rang out across the silvery water and through the snowy fog.

The gulls began to circle tornado-like over the water. Even for expert birders, it was difficult to distinguish one species of gull from the other in the haze of the morning’s twilight.

The gulls swirled in a chaotic chorus and sailed southeast for unknown destinations. If the Kelp Gull was there, we didn’t see it.

birding, birders, Brambling
Line of birders.

From there our group traveled a few miles northwest to a residence to see a Brambling. Like the gull, no one could say why this Asian bird had landed adjacent to a small county park in northeast Ohio thousands of miles from where it belonged. It just had, and avid birders near and far were thrilled.

This beautiful bird had arrived amid flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos and American Goldfinches. The homeowner was a retired park director who immediately perceived the rarity and had his finding verified by noted birders.

Once the word got out, there was no stopping the entourage of birders wishing to add this avian curiosity to their life list. Birders came from as far away as Mississippi and New Jersey to see this bird. We were among them.

To keep the bird and birders safe, observers lined up along the county road opposite the feeders where the Brambling frequented. We climbed the slanting roadway and instantly spotted the bird. As I aimed my camera for a shot, a neighbor scared us all with the harsh sound of scraping off the hard frost from his windshield.

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Brambling and an American Goldfinch.
The birds flew for cover. No one admonished the man. Good birders know to be patient. Sure enough, seed-eating birds began to return to the feeders munching the scattered black oil sunflower seeds.

Like humans, birds behave in routines, too. The Brambling flew to a small, stunted bush by the chimney of the house, checking its surroundings. Soon it again fed on the ground among finches and Northern Cardinals to the clicking of cameras and satisfied smiles of birders whose ages spanned three generations.

Even though we had missed the Kelp Gull, it had been a productive morning seeing the Brambling. The blessings lay not only in observing rare birds but in the company of congenial birders, too.

I’d gladly alter any morning’s familiarity for such delightful diversions with kindred companions.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

A little bird helped turn strangers into friends

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This was actually the very first photo that I took of the Rock Wren. I was so excited to see it, I didn’t realize that I had captured it singing until I downloaded the shots to my computer. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

By Bruce Stambaugh

A month ago, a wayward little bird, a Rock Wren, ended up far from home smack in the middle of Ohio’s Amish country. Its arrival caused quite a stir. Over and over again, the wren flitted from a farm to a residence to a barnyard to a business and back.

Here it was two miles east of my home at a crossroads colloquially dubbed Bowman’s Corners. The buildings, the pastures, the animals, hardly resembled the wren’s native habitat in the American southwest. Nevertheless, the wren made itself at home for 10 days, and then just disappeared.

Word of the rarity quickly spread, and birders from near and far came with binoculars and cameras with long lenses to catch a glimpse of the dusty-colored wren if they could. Since the only other Ohio sighting of this bird had been in December 1963, I wasn’t surprised at all the commotion.

By the end of its short visit to the world’s largest Amish population, the pallid bird had taken on rock star status. It was a Rock Wren after all.

People from all stages of life came from miles around hoping to catch even a glance of the vagabond bird. Young, old, women, men, boys and girls, novice and internationally known birders flocked to view the Rock Wren. In total, more than 500 birders came in search of this special appearance. Many got to see the fickle little bird while others did not despite their patient waiting.

The bird was the great equalizer. World-class birders stood side-by-side with youngsters gawking to see what all the fuss was about. When the secretive bird reappeared, a birder’s hand went up, excitedly waving. Other birders hustled to the spot to get a peek or to take a photo.

There was no class system, no pecking order, and no discrimination among these birders. If a birder saw it, he or she made sure others got to as well, even if it meant lending their own binoculars for others to spot the wren.

Fancy, expensive automobiles sat beside plain black buggies. Boys with suspendered denim pants, and straw hats stood alongside strangers old enough to be their grandparents. They were there for the same reason, and nothing else mattered than to catch a glimpse of the Rock Wren.

Those who were kind enough to host the posse of birders during the wren’s Amish country vacation seemed to enjoy the people as much as the bird. Of particular note was an older couple from the Cleveland area. Their story earned the respect and admiration of several, and served as an example of the dedication of birders.

The elderly gentleman was 95, and his wife was 90. Avid birders, they were undecided about making the two-hour drive form their home. Finally, they committed to coming, and they were not disappointed. Their zeal for birding brought smiles all around.

In its happenstance landing at Bowman’s Corners, the Rock Wren helped make new friends of those who sought to see it. More importantly, despite gender, age, wealth, education, birding experience or life’s station, they gathered as one through a common interest, a genuine love of all things created. The Rock Wren had woven its magic, innocently converting strangers into friends.

The Rock Wren was a splendid surprise. The gracious hospitality availed by the property owners of Bowman’s Corners that enabled so many folks to see this precious bird was no surprise at all.

bowmanscornersbybrucestambaugh
The Rock Wren roamed around Bowman’s Corners, a little crossroads in Ohio’s Amish Country three miles south of Mt. Hope, OH. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

Chasing the elusive but beautiful Snowy Owls

fromadistancebybrucestambaugh
The Snowy Owl as viewed from the lane north of Mt. Hope, OH.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Birding is one of my many hobbies. I’m not the best birder by any stretch of the imagination. But I consider it a compliment to be called a birder.

I’m not alone. Believe it or not, birding is one of the most popular sports in the world. Birding is an international activity that can be enjoyed by anyone, any age at anytime. All you need are birds and an awareness to see and hear what is flitting right around you.

Birders have long been interconnected. That’s because it’s equally fun witnessing the enthusiasm and excitement of others experiencing the same bird you got to see. Ask my wife. I’ve called her to the kitchen window many a time to view the beauty and antics of our backyard birds.

Today birders connect in many ways. Bird alerts via phone, texts, email and Internet posts keep avid and amateur birders alike apprized of any rarity that arrives. Organizations and clubs also promote birds and birding.

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A Spotted Towhee recently spent several weeks at a feeder at an Amish home west of Holmesville , OH.
Over the years, we’ve had our fair share of rare birds appear in Ohio’s Amish Country. They get noticed here more than other places perhaps because we have so many good birders who live here. Many of them are young Amish folks.

We’ve had Wood Storks, Rufous Hummingbirds, Northern Wheatears, Spotted Towhees and Swallow-tailed Kites. The latest rarity influx has been Snowy Owls.

When my friend, Robert, called just before Christmas and asked if I wanted to see a Snowy Owl that was reported near Mt. Hope, I was elated. I stopped what I was doing, gathered my binoculars and cameras, and picked him up.

Snowy Owls normally winter in southern Canada. Once in a great while, the impressive white birds will wander farther south into Ohio and other states.

sunpillarbybrucestambaugh
The Thanksgiving Day sunrise produced a marvelous sun pillar.

Robert had also called about a Snowy Owl the day before Thanksgiving. It had been seen between Berlin and Walnut Creek. When we arrived at the location given for the bird, it was gone. We drove around scouting for it without success.

As soon as we arrived back home, Robert received another call that the Snowy Owl had returned to its original spot. It was close to dusk, and we both decided not to retrace our tracks, thinking we could see it the next day.

We were wrong. We were up early Thanksgiving morning. It was frigid, but a beautiful sunrise brightened the horizon with a spectacular sun pillar thrown in for good measure. But no Snowy Owl.

I wasn’t about to miss this latest opportunity. When we arrived at the reported location north of Mt. Hope, the Snowy Owl was right where it was supposed to be. The large white bird with gray speckles sat unconcerned in the middle of a corn stubble field. I took several pictures of the astonishing bird while Robert used my cell phone to call others to confirm the bird’s sighting.

snowyowlbybrucestambaugh
The Snowy Owl seen Dec. 23, 2013 near Mt. Hope, OH.
After soaking in the beautiful bird and quietly celebrating our success, we returned to our respective homes. I alerted other birders about the Snowy Owl. Half the fun in birding is sharing what is found.

Since November, several other Snowy Owls have appeared in more than half of Ohio’s 88 counties. Such an invasion of rare birds is called an irruption. People were reporting and photographing Snowy Owls all around Ohio, and even in other states, including Florida.

I’m glad Robert and I got a second chance at the Snowy Owl. I hope you get to see one, too.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014