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.
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.
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?
Like children dreaming of Old St. Nick on Christmas Eve, this is the time of year birders have yearned for, longed for, relished.
For hardcore birders, spring migration is a Christmas morning that spans several weeks from mid-March to mid-May. Avid birders are especially on the alert now to find the many species they seek, and some they couldn’t even imagine.
When a rarity shows up like the Rock Wren did last spring, it’s a birding bonanza. The Rock Wren became a rock star. For several days, the bird from America’s southwest was a magnet, attracting folks from far and wide to Holmes County.
Such birds are the exception. The spring migratory norm is to view birds that either return here to nest or to catch a glimpse of those that are just passing through. Depending on the weather, the transients might stay a day or two, or just make a short pit stop to rest and refuel.
The challenge is to be at the right place at the right time to see and hear the birds.
For me, I’m just as happy to note the return of my backyard birds. The Chimney Swifts rattled the fireplace doors as they swooped into our chimney the evening of April 18, the same date as last year.
How do I know? Like most birders, I keep a list of when I see a species for the first time each year. In the birding world, that’s known as the FOY, first of year. For instance, the Red-headed Woodpecker was a day later than last year, arriving April 21.
Today’s birders use social networking sources to track the movement and appearance of the various species. That gives the flocks of birders a heads up on finding and photographing particular birds.
We are fortunate in Ohio to have one of the best locations in the country to observe and hear a wide variety of transitory and returning birds, especially warblers. This time of year both birds and birders pack Magee Marsh Wildlife Area.
A conservation group, the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, located at the entrance to Magee Marsh in northwest Ohio, sponsors “America’s Biggest Week in Birding.” In fact, it’s going on right now.
These folks welcome thousands of birders, amateur to professional, in hosting this attractive annual festival. Magee Marsh, a state park, is billed as “the warbler capital of the world.” Having been there on many occasions, I can attest to that.
Birders from around the world converge on Magee Marsh just to watch the warblers and shorebirds come and go. It’s not unusual to observe 20 or more kinds of warblers in just a few hours. Magee Marsh and the surrounding acreage are protected habitat that ensures safe harbor for migrating and nesting birds of all sizes, colors and species.
My first visit to Magee Marsh years ago was indeed like Christmas. A few steps onto the wooden boardwalk and I spotted a variety of colorful warblers decked out in their impressive breeding plumage. The brightly colored little birds looked like Christmas tree ornaments perched on low-hanging tree branches.
Our backyard looks and sounds a little different than it has in a long time.
We recently bid a fond farewell to our little backyard garden pond. She served us well all these years. It was time to let her go, and allow others to embrace her captivating charm.
I didn’t relish removing the little pond and all its accessories. The artificial pond brought us many genuine joys, far beyond any expectations we could have imagined.
When I retired as elementary principal in 1999, my faithful staff, amiable students and supportive parents presented me with a very special gift. They gave me a hand-hewn birdbath and a gift certificate for a garden pond, something I had wanted for a long time.
I brought the weighty birdbath home and plopped it where the sidewalk curves to the front porch. Surrounded by luscious bubblegum petunias, it enticed many a bird to sip and bathe in the summer sunshine.
I located the pond just steps away from our back porch. It was also easily visible from the windows at the rear of our home.
I’ve had two different ponds over the years. The first was a rubber lining placed in a shallow hole that I had dug out. I added a miniature waterfall constructed out of an assortment of rocks I collected from farm fields and local creeks.
I added goldfish, oxygenating plants, water lilies, snails and non-toxic chemicals to kill the algae and keep the water as clean as possible. Of course, I had to feed the fish and regularly clean the pond pump filters.
Unfortunately, destructive varmints also were drawn to the water feature. Several years ago, I awoke to find that the pond had been nearly drained.
I discovered that some ground moles had created shortcuts to quench their thirst. To prevent a reoccurrence, I switched to a hard plastic pond. In the end, it turned out to be a better option for everybody, pond critters included.
The waterfalls provided practical and esthetic pleasures. The birds loved it, bathing and drinking the refreshing water. The sound of water falling mesmerized anyone who graced our porch.
I enjoyed watching American Goldfinches bringing young to the pond for the first time. I added a heater to keep the falls going in the wintertime. A variety of birds took advantage of the much-needed water when their normal sources froze.
Birds weren’t the only animals attracted to the little pond. Over the years, raccoons, garter snakes, groundhogs, squirrels and even deer came to the pond.
The grandchildren loved the pond, too. They couldn’t wait to feed the fish and count the frogs hiding among the lily pads and their pure white blossoms each time the grandkids visited. My wife and I will always cherish those fine memories.
As much as we loved the pond and its amenities, we needed to give it up. Given our situation, we simply couldn’t maintain the pond properly. A friend’s family is already enjoying its alluring magical sounds. It’s nice to know that another generation will continue the gratification that we received from the little water feature.
To keep a water source for the animals and birds, I relocated the sandstone birdbath from the front to the back and added a couple of others to keep it company. We transplanted hostas and placed several of the rocks leftover from the falls for some natural texture.
The birds have already discovered the water. I only hope the snakes and groundhogs don’t find it as desirable.