I was honored to have been asked by co-organizer and good friend Cheryl Harner to be a trip leader and van driver this year. I don't think many participants expected to see a college guy in his mid-twenties as one of their co-leaders but Flora-Quest is known to be full of surprises and this year was hardly short on those. What was even more exciting and humbling was being paired with one of North America's best and most accomplished birders, Greg Miller! His story of traveling all over the continent seeing every bird species he possibly could during his 'Big Year' was recently chronicled in film form with personal favorite and long admired actor Jack Black portraying Greg. I can proudly say that I have now shaken Jack's hand with only one degree of separation; probably the closest I'll ever get to that man's greatness. I wrote a review and personal narrative for the Big Year movie last fall and for those interested it can be read right here.
I arrived early Friday afternoon at the Shawnee lodge to meet and catch up with other trip leaders and share ideas and locations for various plants in bloom before jumping in the car to spend the remaining hours of daylight out on the dirt roads of Shawnee to do some last minute scouting and investigating. The incredibly early start to spring in March has yet to let up, causing for some interesting flowering times for many of our native plants. Many of the typical flowers and crowd-favorites normally a guaranteed see were all but finished and done for the year but luckily that was smoothed over with an array of brand new plants never before seen during this incredible weekend in Shawnee state forest.
Saturday dawned grey and rainy as a series of overnight storms were slow to move out of the area. This ended up being more of a blessing than a curse as the skies dried by the time our vans headed out and the overcast conditions kept the temperature cool for most of the day. Once my coffee was mug full, camera equipment packed and the van full of excited and anxious adventurers our excursion out into Shawnee and nearby Edge of Appalachia began!
|eyes and binoculars focused on several Cerulean warblers|
With Greg at our disposal and one of the most species-diverse areas for breeding birds in Ohio laid out before us it wasn't long before we found a suitable spot to stop and explore. Shawnee's tens of thousands of acres of contiguous forest provides the well over 100 species of birds plenty of localities and niches to fill. For someone who's attention is almost always pointed at the ground and the photosynthesizing beings that inhabit it, it was a very refreshing change to look up with my binoculars and admire those who own the sky. Above you can see the group's attention high above their heads in the oaks above. Several cerulean warblers put on quite the show both with their songs and colors. One of the best moments of the day occurred moments later when a male Kentucky warbler came into view at eye level and belted out some choice tunes. I'd never seen one before and was marveled by its black-masked face against a lemony-yellow body.
Just to throw it out there, none of these photographs of birds were actually taken on the day of our field trip. I spent most of my time sharing botanical ID's, bird sightings and conversation with my group instead of focusing on my camera. These images are originals shot by me but at previous times and were species seen on our quest; I just wanted to add some feathered flair and bling to this post so to speak. The black-and-white warblers were out in force with their 'squeaky wheel' songs resonating through the trees.
|Hooded Warbler hanging out in the underbrush|
Another black and yellow warbler commonly heard throughout the trip was the striking hooded warbler. I wish I had better photo's of this salient little being. The warblers truly are the orchids of the sky with their bright colors and the "ooh's" and "ahh's" they instantly produce on sight. By the end of the weekend I had 17 species of warblers seen or heard. Now that's a good warbler weekend if you ask me!
|Eulett Center of the Edge of Appalachia preserve in Adams Co.|
After several awesome and fulfilling hours of birding in the rolling, forested hills of Shawnee our group headed west to Adams county and the open spaces and prairies on the Edge of Appalachia. You wouldn't think the spot we chose to have lunch would end up as my (and I think a lot of group's) favorite spot of the day but the Edge's offices and base of operations at the Eulett Center was just that.
The air was filled with different male species singing their songs with high hopes a lady friend would hear and find their looks and voice worthy of copulation. The occasional bee-buzz of a blue-winged warbler was joined by several zee zee zee zee zee's of the prairie warbler as we ate lunch and enjoyed the view across the Ohio Brush Creek river valley and the rolling hills stretched along its sides.
|Grassy meadows and fields in the Ohio Brush Creek valley|
A few people had reported that blue grosbeaks had been seen hanging out around the Eulett Center and our group had high hopes of seeing one. We weren't disappointed as both a male and female made quick appearances before disappearing into the brush and weeds below. I had only seen a blue grosbeak once before when riding down the bike path back near Troy, Ohio a few summers ago so it was quite the pleasure to see one again.
|Avid birders give their attention to a yellow-breasted chat|
Finished with our meals it was back to the spotting scopes and binoculars as we added black vulture, field sparrow, song sparrow, yellow-breasted chat, great blue heron and indigo bunting to our lists before adding the absolute best bird of the weekend, hands down. Almost like it heard us talking about it not even five minutes earlier, someone suddenly called out "red-headed woodpecker!". Out in the open meadow in a dead snag was one of the most amazing and attractive of Ohio's birds scaling the decaying tree looking for an insect meal or perhaps checking out a potential home site. You know you've seen something exciting when no one makes a peep as their every ounce of attention and concentration was spent on that magnificent woodpecker.
|Prairie Warbler perched in a dead limb|
Piling back into the van once again it was on to one of our last stops for the day to find a bird I'd long wanted to check off my life list, the Henslow's sparrow. This largely inconspicuous and uncommon bird resides in Ohio's open grasslands and meadows where it makes out a living staying low to the ground perched in small shrubs in the large expanse of grass. The Henslow's sparrow has become increasingly rare throughout its range and especially in Ohio due to extensive habitat loss and natural succession. An interesting fact about these shy birds is their preference to flee from threats by running on the ground through the grass rather than take to the air. Unfortunately we were never able to see one, despite Greg even attempting to coax one out with a recorded call. They did give us assurances they were there amongst the weeds and grass with their short and sweet see-lick calls. You can listen to one here from the Cornell lab of ornthithology.
|A clear and forest stream; prime habitat for Louisiana waterthrush|
With the sun starting to shift to the west and the clock ever nearing our closing time of four, we stopped at one last spot before returning to the lodge to get one of my all-time favorite birds. In the cool, shaded hollows and valleys of Shawnee run many clear and forested streams that play home to the melodious Louisiana Waterthrush. Despite looking more along the lines of a thrush or sparrow, they actually belong to the warblers.
Having Greg at our side all day was an incredible experience as his knowledge and mental library of bird songs, calls and facts was astounding. You don't get to be one of the best birders in the world by not knowing your stuff and boy did he ever. His talents and abilities were only topped by his warm and exceedingly friendly personality and demeanor. You couldn't help but smile and laugh at the stories he told of his encounters and travels all over the country chasing birds. As someone who does and will continue to do the same in the botanical realm I could really see the drive and passion in his eyes. Even after doing this for years and years his spark and flame was still going strong and the love for it unblemished. I think I speak for myself and the entire group that having Greg along for the ride was one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had.
With a few sighs and pleas to stay out and continue the field trip, we all drove back to the lodge to meet up with everyone else to share our discoveries and stories of the day's undertakings. It was one of the most fun days of birding I'm likely to ever experience and I can't wait to experience some field time with Greg again the future!
While Saturday was dedicated to our avian feathered friends in the sky, Sunday belonged to the flora and my chance to really get excited and share some orchids, rare plants and other fascinating flora with my group. Look for a post on Sunday's botanical outing tomorrow. It's a can't miss!