I had heard that flocks of Evening Grosbeaks were in the Rockingham Co., Virginia area. However, I could never discover where they were showing up on a regular basis. Then a friend from Ohio, where we used to live, sent me a text with a photo of Evening Grosbeaks that were regular visitors at her brother’s feeders. He lived a little more than 10 miles from our home.
I called and received persmission to photograph the birds. The home owner, also a birder, said the birds usually fed in the morning between 7 and 9. My wife and I arrived around 8 a.m., and I drove slowly up the farm’s long driveway. As soon as I reached the back of the house where the feeders were, about 30 Evening Grosbeaks flew to trees not far away. I lowered the van windows and waited for them to return.
And return they did! I had both of my cameras along, and I clicked away. I had seen Evening Grosbeaks before, but never this close or this many. Normally, Evening Grosbeaks don’t venture this far south in the winter. But during irruption years, they appear almost randomly at various locations in the east and midwest. It is thought that an irruption occurs when the hatch rate of birds is high, but their usual food supplies can’t match the demand. Other species, like Snow Owls, also appear in irruptions. The Evening Grosbeaks were feeding on black oil sunflower seeds.
When a friend posted on social media audio of Dickcissels singing at dusk, I wanted to see the birds. Dickcissels are rare here, according to birding records and range maps. Dickcissels are listed as scarce for Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley breeding maps.
With my morning and early afternoon tightly scheduled, I knew I had a small window of opportunity to find this beautiful bird with an even more beautiful song. Severe storms were forecast for the area for the early evening. I headed north 10 miles as soon as I could. When I reached the intersection where the birds’ song had been recorded, I immediately heard them upon exiting my vehicle. Finding them was a different story.
I had seen my first Dickcissels in similar habitat in Ohio. Unfortunately, they are drawn to alfalfa fields dotted with weeds like ironweed that grow taller than the legume the farmer planted. Sure enough, using my binoculars, that’s where I spotted the first male Dickcissel. I felt pressured to photograph the birds. Thunder rumbled in the distance near the Allegheny Mountains 20 miles west.
To my surprise, a Dickcissel rose out of the thick foliage and flew directly towards me, landing on a tree branch right above my head. As I raised my camera to capture the bird up close, it took flight and perched on an ironweed plant nearly a football field away. I clicked away anyhow.
I scanned the field in the direction of other Dickcissels that I heard. I found a pair about 50 yards south of my location. Just as I started to walk south, a male and female flew to the woven-wire fence that surrounded the hayfield.
I immediately stopped and found a place to brace myself to steady the camera. Even before I could get off my first shot, the female flew, leaving the male to sit along, singing eloquently. I clicked away hoping for some decent results. A light rain had already started obscuring the sun, which gave me less light to work with.
Finally, when a car approached from the south, the beautiful bird flew in the direction of its mate. I headed for the car, happy to have witnessed both the bird and its enchanting song.
“Beautiful bird, beautiful song” is my Photo of the Week.
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.
I’ve been known to exaggerate. Believe me, there is no exaggeration in this story.
The day dawned bright and cheery. An orange sunrise quickly transitioned into a rare cloudless January day in northeast Ohio.
I was glad for that. I had a wide variety of activities planned. However, I could not begin to imagine how an unforeseen incident would impact not just the day itself, but my life, too.
First and foremost on the agenda was to complete a final draft of yet another newspaper column. Lunch would be early since I had a 1 p.m. appointment in my hometown, Canton, Ohio.
I am fortunate that I married a woman who loves to cook. She rules the kitchen. I help where needed, usually cleaning up afterward. Not this Saturday.
I arrived at my appointment right on time. An hour later I was visiting with my friend and barber, Paul, who was recovering from a severe stroke at a rehab facility near where I had been.
I had a marvelous visit with Paul and his wife. It was great to have him on the road to recovery. Their congeniality energized me.
Next I went in search of a couple of rare birds reported in the area. On the way, a small flock of American Robins flew across the road in front of me and landed in a crabapple tree loaded with fruit as orange as the birds’ breasts. I imagined the birds devoured the aged apples.
Despite my best attempts, I couldn’t locate the wayward warbler near Massillon. It should have been in tropical climes by now. With the sun shining brightly, I found the cold, sharp January air refreshing.
Next up was my third attempt to locate a Snowy Owl in Sugarcreek. Others had seen it only a few minutes after arriving. Not me. This visit was strike three for me.
I arrived at my final destination near dusk. The friendly property owner, who happened to be outside, graciously welcomed me. I asked his assistance in finding another rare bird near his home.
First though, the glowing sunset caught my eye. Even if I missed this bird, the view of the setting sun from this kind man’s backyard was stunning.
With the light growing dim, my new friend suggested we look for a pair of Short-eared Owls that he had seen on the farm just east of his home. Sure enough, there they were, majestically coursing the snow covered pastures for four-legged varmints. When one of the owls caught one, it buzzed by the other one instead of eating the critter. Was it showing off?
Back home, my wife, Neva, and I basked to the crackling of the fireplace while watching college basketball. It had been an eventful day.
Of course, none of these fulfilling proceedings would have happened if it hadn’t been for my wonderful wife. I failed to tell you that at lunch I choked on a piece of chicken.
Fortunately, Neva was nearby, and her instincts kicked in. With three thrusts of the Heimlich maneuver, the chicken dislodged, and I could breathe again.
Neva’s quick action enabled me to fully appreciate every moment of that day, and all that has transpired since then. Clearly, that is the very model of understatement.
Words are too cheap to express my utmost gratitude. Neva definitely saved the day and my life. There is simply no better way to put it.
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.
On a leaf pile.
On the gate.
The Rock Wren earned the title of the “Junkyard Bird” because it often feed and perched among discarded farming materials.
Hard to find.
On the stump.
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.
It happened in a flash, as scary moments often do. I was mere inches from serious injury if not death. My guess is we all have events like this.
I don’t mean to overdramatize this. The split-second incident helped me further appreciate both what had previously occurred that day and what I was about to encounter.
I had already had an illuminating morning. I got to help my Amish neighbors run some timely errands. They had made dozens of glazed donuts for an open house at a nearby greenhouse. My task was to deliver the golden goodies and their makers to the party. It was hardly a chore.
I also got to see the wayward Rock Wren again. Why this cute little creature landed two miles east of my house smack in the middle of the world’s largest Amish population, I have no idea. I just know it did, and the property owners were more than hospitable to any and all who wanted a chance to see this rarity.
Hundreds came to view this bird that belonged in the Rocky Mountains. This was only the second recorded appearance of this species in Ohio. After taking too many photographs of this feathered rock star, I returned home.
I checked to see if the mail had been delivered. With a small hill to the north, I have been especially careful about crossing our busy county highway for 34 years. The vehicles tend to zip along despite the posted speed limit. Just like my mother taught me, I looked both ways, and crossed to the mailbox, which sets well away from the road.
I grasped the handful of letters and turned to retrace my steps. At that exact moment, a car driven by a young man roared by going south in the northbound lane. As he passed two other vehicles, his rearview mirror nearly clipped me.
I don’t think the young driver ever saw me. He was too focused on getting wherever he was going. At first, I stepped back to catch my breath even though the roadway was now clear.
Then I smiled. Rather than be mad or frightened, I immediately became filled with gratitude for many things. Being kept safe topped the list. Others included the fulfilling experiences and interactions I had already had that day.
I determined to be even more grateful for the rest of the day and all the days that followed. I would he thankful for the people I meet along the way, too.
My life continued. I visited friends near Mt. Hope that had a pair of Barred Owlets roosting on a tree near their home. The afternoon sun beautifully highlighted the cute, cuddling pair.
Another friend had given my wife and me our first morel mushrooms of the season. Neva sautéed them with olive oil and a dash of salt, and we downed them with over easy eggs and some locally raised and cured bacon.
It may have been one of the best meals I had ever eaten or was glad to eat, given the close call. For dessert I relished the relationships with friends and family as much as the savory mushrooms and bacon.
My mailbox episode was an important universal lesson. We need to express our gratitude whenever and wherever we can as often as we can. We just never know when we will no longer have that chance.
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.
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.
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.
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.