I’m always pleased when I discover a bird that I have never seen in my yard before. I was photographing some woodpeckers when I noticed a little bird darting around the trunk of the large sugar maple tree in the backyard. Not only did this bird move fast, it blended in perfectly with the bark of the tree.
I know I’m getting old. I have a birthday soon to prove it.
I thought I just wrote about what November would bring us, and here it is done and gone already. How can that be? I think I have some answers, all of them as lovely as the month itself.
Given the last two winters, we began this November with more than a little trepidation. We had good reasons for our collective unease.
Would we be blasted with another surprise snow in the middle of the month like last year? Could we even begin to hope that November would be half as beautiful as October was?
As you happily know, November gave her best to replicate October’s stunning weather here in Ohio’s Amish country. The eleventh month wasn’t quite as bright and pretty as October, but she sure tried hard.
Even with standard time returning and the daylight hours growing fewer by the day, November was a welcome, pleasant surprise. It exceeded all expectations.
Overall, the month turned out to be a much better than average November if only measured by weather. November charmed me with its hospitality, a welcome relief from the state of affairs on the national and international political front.
It’s not too many Novembers in Ohio that you see a father and his young son walking along a sidewalk in short sleeves mid-month. Last year they would have been bundled up throwing snowballs.
Municipalities, stores, and homeowners took advantage of the decent days to put up their holiday decorations. It beat trying to hang banners and Christmas lights in blizzard-like conditions.
In some locales, Christmas decorations and Halloween displays stood side by side. I wasn’t going to judge. I just enjoyed the intended spirit each reflected, even if the timing was a little off.
The horses and cattle had to be enjoying the extended stay in the open pastures. Frequent November rains made the grass as fresh as after April showers. In fact, folks were mowing their lawns this November on the same day they were plowing out their driveways last year.
I took advantage of the excellent weather, too. I cleaned and readied my multiple bird feeders. I was hardly inside when I spotted a few infrequent Pine Siskins on the cylinder feeder by the kitchen window. They feasted on the cracked sunflower hearts.
With my firewood supply tenuous, I had three pickup loads of split and seasoned hardwoods delivered. Over the space of three days, my wife and I had it all neatly stacked behind the garden shed. Remember, I said I was getting older soon.
November’s brisk winds made regular appearances. That was good news for those who hadn’t yet raked their leaves. Their eastern neighbors may have a different viewpoint on that, however.
We had days of rain and drizzle. We had clear blue-sky days, too. And we had those days of cloudy one minute and sunny the next. None required a snow shovel.
Driving around the November countryside, the landscape seemed wider, more open. Perhaps that was due to the leafless trees affording a three-dimensional illusion, no special glasses needed.
This November frequently offered amazing sunrises and sunsets for all to enjoy. Sometimes they lingered for the longest time. Mostly, though, you had to look sharp, or you would miss the colorful show, just like the month itself.
Like Thanksgiving, November has come and gone. Bring on December and hope that it learned a little kindness from its closest sibling.
Recent rains made the sparkling mountain stream joyfully sing its way through the sylvan hollow to the broad valley below. The late morning sun’s reflection shimmered as the cold water rushed over and around ancient boulders.
I had driven to this little paradise on the advice of my daughter. She recently had hiked with her family a trail that crossed the creek and scaled one of the precipices of the old, rounded Blue Ridge Mountains. I wasn’t that ambitious.
I was content to drive the 22 miles out of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to the end of Port Republic Road to enjoy a morning stroll. I took the much easier firebreak road that shadows the meandering stream.
Stepping stones across the usually placid braided stream broke the trail my daughter took. Today the stream roared rather than lapped its way into the valley.
The native brown trout had to be happy to play in other pools for once. I was happy, too.
The temperatures warmed as the sun rose higher above the foothills. The shedding oaks, maples, dogwoods, sycamores and quaking aspens filtered the sun’s splay. Sunrays backlit the remaining colorful leaves. They glowed against the drab earth tones of tree trunks, ferns, and long shadows.
The creek drew me down from the road to its shallow banks. Sapling undergrowth made the way tricky, but not hazardous. I was surprised by both the speed of the stream’s flow and the water’s clearness, especially after recent steady rains. Weeds and reeds normally rustled by the wind swayed submerged.
In the shade, the cooler creekside temperatures chilled me. I didn’t linger there for long.
I returned to the more inviting sunny, well-maintained service road. At times, the stream ran against the narrow berm. In other places, the road curved slightly north while the creek twisted south and out of sight, but never out of earshot.
No car horns, no train rumbles, no jake brakes, no jetliner noise overhead, no boom boxes interfered with the numerous natural sounds. A fox squirrel skittered from the road to the safety of a tree trunk as I approached. It barked at me, and I shot it with my camera.
Click on the photos to enlarge them.
Through the trees.
Up ahead, birds flew across the firebreak. To keep my load light, I had left the binoculars in the vehicle. Fortunately, the birds sat still even as I quietly approached.
I smiled at sighting my first of the year Dark-eyed Juncos, freshly arrived from the Canadian tundra. The flash of their outer white tail feathers against their slate-colored revealed their identity.
The mountain’s granite core stood exposed from time to time. Whitish-gray outcroppings reflected the morning sun both at manmade cuts and in natural talus slopes. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near the latter if the massive rock pile decided to slide.
Soon hikers a decade older than me approached from the opposite direction. We bid each other adieu, and I asked them how far the road reached.
“Ten miles,” they said, “But it’s an easy walk to the top,” referencing the mountain. The road ended at the Skyline Drive. I took their word for it.
A few trails flared off in either direction. I was content to stay the course for a while before returning to the car for lunch under the noonday sun.
The earthy fragrances, the laughing stream, the vibrant colors pleasantly seasoned my simple fare, which was only right. It had been a sumptuous morning in every aspect.
Birding is one of my many hobbies. I’m no expert birder to be sure. I merely enjoy the sport, and try to weave birding into every travel opportunity.
Birding is an activity enjoyed by folks of all races, religions, cultures and countries. I’m usually side-by-side with men, women, boys and girls wherever I bird.
When these good folks discover I’m from Holmes County, Ohio, I often am asked the same question. Why do you have so many rare birds there?
I smile, pause, and give them my standard answer.
“It’s not that we have any more rare birds than other places,” I say. “Rather, we just happen to have a lot more rare birders.”
That’s when I get the looks. Some vocalize their consternation. The nonverbal cues from others reveal their puzzlement. Still others get it right away.
I believe that the Holmes County, Ohio area has so many unusual bird sightings because it has so many outstanding birders. Many of them are teenagers or young adults.
The varied habitat of the Killbuck Valley and adjoining manicured farmlands east and west create familiar, safe harbor for a wide variety of birds. Marshes, ponds, brushy fencerows, and extensive stands of woodlots provide excellent cover and feeding grounds for birds big and small.
Birders who reside here know to keep a look out for anything extraordinary. If they see or hear something unusual, they tell someone. An authoritative local birder identifies the bird, and the word spreads near and far.
Many of these bird watchers are Amish. It’s a hobby embraced by their culture and family structure. To be sure, birding is an exercise in which all family members can participate, and be out and about in the nature that they love and embrace.
It’s no coincidence that Amish folks have discovered many of the rare birds sited in the area. Now, it’s not simply because they are Amish that they find the birds. No, they see the birds because they pay attention to their surroundings.
Take the latest rarity, the juvenile Swainson’s Hawk discovered recently in a newly mown alfalfa field half way between Berlin and Walnut Creek. Workers at Hiland Wood Products noticed particular peculiarities about this bird, its behavior, its flight pattern, its coloration, and its diet.
When the bird was pointed out to skilled birder, Ed Schlabach of Sugarcreek, he easily identified it. Ed works at the company and is a reputable birder.
Ed not only knew what the bird was; he knew that it was a very rare find for Ohio. In fact, the typical range of this buteo is well west of the Mississippi River, and mostly in the southwest, and only in summer.
What the hawk was doing here was a mystery. Ed knew that birders everywhere would want to see this magnificent specimen. The word went out through phone calls, birding lists, emails, texts and social media.
There is always a rush to see a rare bird. Most often such birds do not hang around for very long. This young bird chose to stay for several days, and also picked a spot to easily observe it, whether on the ground or in the air.
For many birders, the young Swainson’s Hawk was a “life” bird. That is, it was the first time they had ever seen this species.
Once again, we can thank the many rare birders who reside and work in our pastoral abode for this latest mega-rare find. Rare birders find rare birds.
When the farmer called me the other morning, I was away from home. He said he had two juvenile Barn Owls sleeping near his barn. My wife and I finally arrived at the Amish farm two miles from our home. The owls were still in the same place. Both were still sound asleep despite being only a few yards from a busy highway.
The owls had recently fledged from their nest box in the farmer’s barn. Rather than be disturbed by their younger siblings, still too young to fly, each owl found a personal, private spot to snooze. This one chose a silver maple tree in the farmer’s yard. The afternoon sun highlighted its breast feathers and some of the tree’s leaves.
Recently, I had a couple of days that were exactly that. I helped out a friend by leading a few birding field trips to a local farm.
The target birds were young Barn Owls, a couple of fuzzy baby American Kestrels, and bubbly Bobolinks. In a rather rare situation, both Barn Owls and Kestrels had hatched their young in nesting boxes the farmer had erected in his old bank barn. The meadow across the road remained uncut so the tinkling Bobolinks could frolic and flourish.
The farmer and his family went out of their way to accommodate both the birds and us. Their farmstead was neat as a pin. Flower beds and gardens were nearly pristine. The three generations that called this place home welcomed us with open arms and hearts.
Both the farm’s setting and the intentional agricultural techniques employed accounted for the diversity of birds and other wildlife. Surrounded by rounded hills dotted with emerald woodlots, the land rolled away from the farm buildings more like waves than fields.
I imagined in a birdseye view a quilted panorama. Broad patches of variegated greens and tans from forested hills, alternating fields of pasture and croplands stitched together by brushy fencerows created a pastoral patterned effect.
Such a landscape also enhanced the desired habitats and food sources needed for the various avian species. It was obvious the farmer, typical of many in our area, understood the balance between conservation and productivity. Sad to say, some deem that approach as inefficient or even old-fashioned.
The days were precious in so many ways. Cottony clouds hung in salient skies over windswept grasses nearly as tall as the weathered wooden fence posts that delineated their boundaries.
The meadow’s high grasses mingled with seedy weeds, and wildflowers danced in the wind beneath while the Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, Song and Savannah Sparrows and Red-winged Blackbirds let loose. The birds’ melodious chorus easily drew the attention and appreciation of each group. All the birders, spanning three generations, thought the birds and their songs beautiful and luxurious.
(Click on the photos to enlarge them.)
Killdeer near nest.
Up the ladder.
Baby Barn Owls.
Though he said he wasn’t a birder, the kind farmer had erected nesting boxes in his ancient barn for the owls. That is what attracted folks from near and far for this special chance to view the birds. It was indeed rare to have both owls and falcons nesting in the same barn.
Participants hailed from cities. Others lived nearby. Their ages ranged from preschoolers to octogenarians. A courageous woman on crutches in the midst of cancer treatments even ventured forth. I drew strength from their enthusiasm.
Atop wobbly ladders, we viewed the baby birds one by one through a pencil-sized peephole drilled in the plywood boxes made by students at a local vocational school. A small, square hole cut into the barn siding permitted the adults to enter and exit to feed their young.
Below, hushed conversations ensued in each group. Sunlight streamed through the intentional spaces between the horizontal clapboards. Still the barn was dark and steamy.
No one complained whatsoever. All realized what a privilege it was to view the birds and enjoy the genial hospitality of this marvelous family who welcomed all of God’s creatures.
These glorious days were definitely for the birds, obviously in a juxtaposed sense. The smiles on the faces of all the birders declared each visit a joyous success. None of us could have asked for more.
Of all the photos I shot this day, I thought this one was the finest. With the help of Ian and his sister, Lydia, I had been leading birding field trips to their grandfather’s bank barn. Birders from near and far wanted a glimpse at some baby Barn Owls and some recently hatched Kestrel chicks.
Amish are noted for being conservationists. This family was no different. Besides the boxes for the owls and kestrels, they had several bird feeders filled with seeds for backyard birds. In addition, Ian and Lydia pointed out a Ruby-throated Hummingbird’s nest and a nest just now being constructed by Cedar Waxwings. The nests were only feet apart in the same tree in their front yard.
Across the road Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, Savannah Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown Thrashers and other birds of the field sang. They put on a great show for the folks on the birding tours. Some even posed for photos, which I took advantage of.
The Barn Owls and Kestrels were “lifer” birds for several of the folks on the tours. But for me, it was this shot of Ian and Lydia during a lull between groups that I cherished the most. Since they were youngsters, I was permitted to take their photo. The relaxed poses of Ian and Lydia, and the bright colors of the shirt and dress contrasting with the barn’s white-washed siding and the darkness of the barn’s opening made “Blue and pink” my Photo of the Week.
I am fortunate to have several species of Ohio’s woodpeckers come to my feeders on a regular basis. Most prefer the peanut butter suet feeder that hangs from a branch of the large maple tree in our backyard. A few will venture up to the hopper feeder hanging right outside our kitchen window. They can’t resist the chipped sunflower seeds that many other birds also enjoy.
I’m glad I had my camera in hand when this juvenile male Downy Woodpecker, soaked from the day’s rain, arrived at the feeder. The young bird didn’t seem deterred either by my presence or its rather damp feathers.
Even in my semi-retirement, I’m a busy person. Keeping active and involved in the community has been a priority and passion my entire life.
That lifestyle takes a personal toll, however. From time to time, I need to recharge my body, mind, and spirit. I step away from my daily routine and spend some time just enjoying life.
I have found that immersing myself into nature is the salve that soothes the soul. I love the outdoors and all the beauty that she offers.
A Big Day does that for me. In the birding world, a Big Day is an entire day devoted to nothing more than counting all the species of birds that you can identify by sight or sound.
Folks do Big Days in groups that cover a given territory. Or they are done by simply staying put in one spot and counting all creatures avian seen or heard. That is appropriately called a Big Sit.
My Big Day, however, wasn’t either one of those. Instead, with the warbler migration in full swing, I knew the various locations I wanted to visit in northwest Ohio to view the returning and transient birds.
Traveling alone to different birding hot spots allowed me to go at my own pace, and to absorb fully all that I experienced.
Spring birding near Lake Erie means dressing for all seasons. I was glad I had.
The steady, stiff northeast wind off of the lake brought out the winter duds in most birders on the boardwalk at Magee Marsh, my first destination. Being bundled up didn’t deter either the active bird observations or the usual universal geniality of most birders.
The boardwalk was packed with birders young, old and in between from around the world. Warblers and other birds flitted everywhere.
Even though I had gone by myself, I clearly wasn’t alone. Among the hundreds of birders at Magee, I only knew one, my friend and expert birder, Greg Miller, of ‘The Big Year” fame. The rest weren’t strangers though, helping me to locate and identify 23 warbler species. Their kindness meant more than the day’s species numbers.
Later, when I drove the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge road and then hurried to see some other rare birds, I found the same excited congeniality. Sullen grumpiness isn’t part of birding ethics. Beautiful birds and friendly birders cohabited.
With the day quickly waning, I headed east to the Marblehead Peninsula. I wanted to enhance my day with a brief visit to the Lakeside Daisy Nature Preserve to view the flowers in their prime. Though the day was mostly cloudy and cool, the little buttery daisies warmed my soul with their lusciousness.
After a quick supper, I hustled to my favorite spot in Ohio, Marblehead Lighthouse. The setting sun cast long shadows of trees onto the historic white lighthouse. Its red top, where the beacon blinked for sailors, was bathed in creamy, warm light.
A handful of other photographers celebrated with me. I can’t speak for them. But with each click of the camera’s shutter, my soul felt lighter, cleansed, fulfilled.
I hurried to nearby Lakeside to watch the sunset’s golden evolution. The day was complete.
Such are the positive consequences of observing, listening, contemplating, reflecting and sharing with humankind amid the earthly creation for which we all are charged to preserve. My Big Day finished bigger than I could have ever imagined.
Joy abounded all around in regeneration. Isn’t that the real reason for spring?
Magee Marsh has a well-maintained boardwalk for birders to observe up close the many beautiful birds that flit around. The boardwalk meanders through the various favorable habitats, woods, marsh, water. At times, the walkway is packed. People clump up to get a view of a showy or rare species, with birders helping birders to find the bird. That’s just how birders are. Well, most of them at least.
When I came upon this photographer aiming his huge camera at something, I had to take his photo. He was the only person I saw all day that totally blocked the boardwalk. This individual wore all the right clothes and used the best photography equipment.
He clearly only had one thing in mind, and courtesy wasn’t one of them. His camouflage outfit and camera said it all. He was there to shoot photos of birds. He seemed totally oblivious to the fact that thousands of others wanted to do the same and were unable to pass the way he was set up. Also, the boardwalk rules, both written and understood, clearly state, “No tripods.”
I’m glad this photographer was the exception, not the rule at Magee Marsh. “Camouflaged” is my Photo of the Week.