A happy ending for a confused waterfowl

The Horned Grebe landed on the wet lane behind the barn on the Amish farm in Wayne Co., Ohio.

By Bruce Stambaugh

My good friend Robert phoned again recently. When Robert calls me, I listen.

Known as the go to bird guy, Robert gets all kinds of calls regarding birds, especially rare species since he hosts the rare bird phone alert for Holmes and surrounding counties in Ohio’s Amish Country. Sometimes he even serves as a conduit for rescuing birds.

That was the nature of this call. A bird had landed on a gleaming, long farm lane, obviously mistaking it for a stream or water-filled ditch. The young mother of the family that found the floundering bird had called Robert out of desperation.

The family had easily captured the bird and, recognizing it as a waterfowl species, placed it in a basement utility tub half filled with water. That’s where it still was when Robert, his son and I arrived the next morning.

redbuttonedeyesbybrucestambaughRobert immediately identified the bird as a Horned Grebe all decked out in its spiffy winter plumage. It’s red eyes looked like bright buttons against its clean, white cheeks and charcoal head.

Not only was this an unusual situation, it was an unusual bird for this area for this time of year. Horned Grebes need long stretches of water to get airborne. The shiny, wet driveway had apparently confused the poor bird.

Fortunately, the grebe appeared to be fine. But with the extreme cold of early January, large, open water spaces were scarce. I called another noted area birder who told us she had seen a good section of the Killbuck Creek free of ice near Holmesville in northern Holmes County.

Robert donned his gloves, and carefully lifted the Horned Grebe out of its watery confinement and wrapped the bird in towels to protect it from any human contaminants. Off we went with the grebe perched patiently on Robert’s lap. We’ll discount the several attempts to drill Robert with its thick, pointed bill.

When we arrived at the creek, we found a couple of good release points. We chose a large ice-free spot 100-yards south of the bridge that crosses the Killbuck. It appeared to be the best place to release the bird back to its proper habitat.

Robert slowly approached the creek bank, and gently tossed the grebe toward the stream. The Horned Grebe flapped its way to the murky water. It swam a short distance, pecked the surface as if in disbelief, and made a quick dive to the bottom. Even though the Amish family had dropped bits of frozen fish into the tub’s water, the Horned Grebe was naturally hungry.

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After a few seconds, the natty bird resurfaced, leaned back, shook its wings and head simultaneously. If birds can express emotions, this fortunate fellow was down right ecstatic.

The Horned Grebe swam and dove, swam and dove. The three of us headed back to the car satisfied that the bird was uninjured and would be just fine.

Once it had gained its strength, the Horned Grebe would likely take its long, running start across the water’s surface and lift into the air. Hopefully, when and wherever it landed, it would pick a real pond or stream this time.

On land, the Horned Grebe was simply helpless, completely out of its element. On water, it was a graceful and stately wonder. As proof, the grebe was placidly floating in the center of the stream as we left.

We took one last glance as we crossed back over the bridge in the car. The grebe was gone. Either it was down for another food forage or it had taken off for another locale.

There is great satisfaction in helping the helpless, confused birds included.

This was the last time we saw the Horned Grebe as we walked back to my vehicle.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Shaking the January blahs

swamp walk by Bruce Stambaugh
Friends walked the frozen marsh of Killbuck Creek in early January. (Photos provided by Dave and Kate Findley)

By Bruce Stambaugh

Normally, January is not one of Ohio’s more colorful months. I suppose residents all across North America could say that.

White and brown tend to be the dominant January color scheme here. It’s white if it snows, and basic brown on the bare ground if it doesn’t. Not exactly stuff of which calendar pictures are made.

With that introduction, I was going to write about how depressing it is to see the naked landscape during the winter months. I had my list of the usual suspects at the ready. The lack of color, the repetitive cloudy, dull days entombed with hard to breathe frigid air and the proverbial cabin fever all contributed to the annual epidemic of post-holiday let-down.

I had no sooner started to write when I received an email from a friend. She had attached several pictures of a swamp walk they had just taken in the backwaters of the Killbuck Creek near Killbuck, Ohio.

Most of the shots included the smiling couples that made the trek. I had a sneaky feeling their joy wasn’t just flashed for the camera. There seemed a deeper reason for their cheerfulness.

Though I did talk with my friend and her husband about their walk, the pictures really said it all. They revealed abundant beauty amid the wintry habitat of the marsh.

Buttonbush berries in varying auburn colors and stages of fermentation decorated the burnished host shrubs. By winter’s end, numerous types of wildlife, deer, turkey, robins and cedar waxwings among them, will have devoured the nutritious fruit.

beaver den
A beaver den in the backwaters of Killbuck Creek, near Killbuck, Ohio.

Behind a stand of some of the bushes, a blackish mound covered in tan sticks rose out of the mostly frozen water. The occupants of the beaver’s den were likely deep into their season’s sleep, unaware of their human visitors.

The pictures showed my friends walking on the marsh’s frozen surface, or posing for candid memories to be shared with friends and family. A rainbow of muted colors helped create their smiles.

The ice itself varied both in texture and color, ranging from off-white to clay gray. Nature’s arsenal of elements, wind, temperature, snow, and water flow all play a role in the seemingly dormant, yet ever-changing marshy environment.

swamp walk killbuck oh
My friends were amazed at the colors they found on their frozen wetlands walk.

Behind the low lying swamp, the rounded western foothills of the Appalachian Mountains jutted up like giant loaves of fresh baked bread. Clusters of pines served as a brief but green piedmont between the two.

At that point, a familiar fragrance distracted me from the pictures. I followed my nose into the kitchen to find pan after pan of fresh out of the oven cinnamon rolls cooling on the counter tops. Beside them, tins of golden-topped potato rolls also stood patiently cooling.

In addition, rows of jelly jars filled with cobalt colored blueberry topping for homemade pancakes and waffles sparkled from the light that filtered through the kitchen window. Smaller jars of crimson apple jelly added to the colorful collection next to the stove.

While I had sat sulking listlessly at the computer, bemoaning the dull days and confined activities, my energetic wife and thoughtful friends infused me with unexpected splashes of color. My smile nearly matched those of my friends in the swamp walk photos.

Inspired by digital pictures, picture perfect baked goods and showy glass jars, I realized that the blahs of January were self-induced. If I desired color in my life during the cabin fever time of year, all I really needed to do was to open my eyes.

Birding Ohio’s Amish Country

By Bruce Stambaugh

Horses and buggies. Pastoral, broad valleys amid rolling hills frescoed with quilt-like patterns of crops. Fine, handcrafted furniture. Delicious, bountiful meals at reasonable prices.

All of the above are reasons scores of people from far and wide annually travel to Ohio’s Amish country. There is yet one more unassuming category to add to the list: birding.

With its diverse topography, greenery and abundant waterways, Ohio’s Amish country is a birder’s paradise. The area offers both a wonderful spectrum of bird species and excellent birding locales.

Ohio’s Amish country offers something for the novice, casual or serious birder. Birders can find migrating birds, native residents and the occasional rare visitor. The area affords numerous birding spots easily accessible for persons of all ages. A good pair of binoculars will help enhance any aviary quest in Amish country.

A good place to start the birding expedition and get a little exercise as well is the Holmes County Rails to Trails that cuts an easy diagonal through the county. The main starting point and parking lot is at the old railroad depot just north of West Jackson St. in Millersburg, the county seat. This 15-mile paved trail runs from Fredericksburg in Wayne County to Killbuck in southwestern Holmes County.

Following this trail provides a sampling of the birding habitats found throughout the area. However, its dominant geographic feature is the Killbuck Creek valley, a major north-south flyway for migrating birds and a wonderfully dense habitat for year-round bird residents. Woodlots, marshland, open water and cropland are in close proximity all along the trail’s length.

Birders should be aware that horse and buggies, horseback riders, bicyclists, runners and walkers use the trail, too. Birding etiquette and safety dictate setting up spotting scopes or viewing with binoculars on the side of the trail. All types of waterfowl can be found among the reeds and rushes in the marsh areas. Even a rookery of Great Blue Herons can be seen.

Not far from the north end of the Holmes County Trail is another outstanding birding area, the Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area. An excellent observation spot is at the east end of Force Road, which is accessed from Valley Road east of Shreve.

From this vantage point, if one is patient, birders can view an array of species. American Bitterns, a wide variety of ducks, rails and even Bald Eagles may be seen. The Killbuck Marsh is a state run wildlife management area.

Two other state-owned areas in Ohio’s Amish country also offer excellent birding opportunities. The Funk Bottoms Wildlife Area is located in Wayne and Ashland counties, and Mohican State Park in southern Ashland County.

With its moist soil and shallow water habitat, the Funk Bottoms is a natural wetland area consisting of about 1,500 acres, mostly along State Route 95 near Blachleyville. The Ohio Division of Wildlife said birds that frequent the area include 23 species of migrating waterfowl, including Tundra Swans and Sandhill Cranes, and 28 species of shorebirds. A variety of raptors also winter over and are seen during migration.

Mohican State Park is a spectacular location for many activities, especially hiking and birding. With its dense forests and large open body of water, Bald Eagles and Ospreys have been spotted. The park is located just west of Loudonville between State Routes 95 and 97.

In the eastern end of Amish country sits another ideal birding spot, The Wilderness Center. It provides excitement for even the most novice birder. The Wilderness Center is located on Alabama Ave. off of U.S. 62 near Wilmot in Stark County.

With marked trails, an informative and hands-on interpretive building, it is the perfect place for families. From restored Ohio prairies to old growth forest, The Wilderness Center is host to a wide range of birds, especially songbirds.

With its checkered, rolling farm fields, spring-fed streams and treasured woodlands, many species of birds can be observed merely by driving around the back roads of Amish country. If you happen to see a farmer spreading manure in the winter, look for Horned Larks and Snow Buntings. If hay is being mowed in the summer, watch for Barn, Tree, Bank and Cliff Swallows circling for insects.

The area also boasts high numbers of Bobolinks, Eastern Bluebirds and Barn Owls. Since many avid birders live in the area, visitors can find good advice on where to bird and what might be found simply by asking.

A pair of juvenile green herons perched on a TV antenna.

This article appeared in the March 2010 edition of Ohio’s Amish Country.

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