Monday, April 28, 2014

Ohio Ornithological Sociey Invades Shawnee State Forest

Phenomenal!  That is the one word your blogger would use to describe this past weekend in Shawnee State Forest with the Ohio Ornithological Society.  Three long but incredibly fun days down in the hills and hollers of southern Ohio full of birds, botany, and camaraderie has left me mentally and physically exhausted but sore joints and a frazzled mind full of memories has never felt so good!  I may be a "weed picker" (an affectionate name birders call us botanists) but I felt right at home and as close to my adopted birding family as I do with my typical plant people. The event itself was a whirlwind of activity and action I won't soon forget.

Being a guide and wanting to dedicate my time, energy, and focus on the needs and wants of my group, I decided to leave my camera in its bag over the weekend and was so preoccupied and engaged with my binoculars and educational moments, I didn't even utilize my phone's camera much at all either.  So very few photos of mine are in this post but I'd still love to fill you in on the details as well as share photos of some choice birds we all got to "ooh" and "ahh" over.

A very special thanks to the immensely talented and well-known Ohioan avian photographer Brian Zwiebel for allowing me to use his spectacular photos to properly illustrate just how breathtaking some of the feathered finds we made were.  You can find out and view more of Brian's work at his website Sabrewing Nature Tours and I most certainly recommend that you do.

View across the rolling hills of southern Ohio from a dolomite limestone bluff on a rainy morning

I awoke early Friday morning to the soft pitter-patter of rain on the roof of my cabin and hoped it wasn't a sign of things to come for the weekend.  As luck would have it, the rain pushed out by the afternoon and there was hardly a cloud in the sky for the rest of the weekend.  With field trips taking place on Saturday and Sunday, I wanted to get out and see what flora I could find in halfway decent shape to share with my group.  Unfortunately, things have been slow to awaken this spring with wildflowers about a week and a half or so behind.  None of the typical orchids and very few wildflowers normally exhibiting their striking colors and patterns were in bloom which made for a moment of disappointment initially.  In a way this ended up being all for the best as it allowed myself to really get lost in my binoculars and focus on my avian friends for a welcome change.  And boy did that end up being worth it!

Five in the morning on Saturday came all too soon but greeted the conference with a crystal clear sky filled with a seemingly infinite parade of stars twinkling in the predawn darkness.  A thin waning crescent moon slowly sank on the western horizon as the intriguing whip-poor-wills gave off their last calls of the night.  The sun was just beginning to pierce the highest ridges as my group piled into our van for a day full of exploration and adventure in the depths of Shawnee and nearby Edge of Appalachia.  I was fortunate to have the very knowledgeable and accomplished Andy Jones from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History as my co-leader and vital bird expert.  I'm not too shabby when it comes to my birds but Andy's understanding of not only identification but life history and biology as well was a crucial and much needed addition to the group.

Speaking of my group, I've had the pleasure of leading fantastic groups in the past and Andy and I's for the O.O.S. conference was no different.  Their passion for the natural world was as palpable as their hunger and drive to delve into what Shawnee had to offer.  I rarely get to be surrounded by so many people who share a like-minded approach and appreciation for nature and I wouldn't hesitate to say we all fed off one another's energy and good vibes.

The cool, misty morning took a while to warm up but once it did, it was like someone flicked a switch and the birds came out in full force.  The songs and calls of dozens of different species of returning tropical migrants saturated the air and was music to everyone's ears after suffering through such a trying and burdening winter.

Black-and-White Warbler (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

Our group slowly made our way from the moist, steep-sloped valleys to the oak dominated dry ridgetops with the birds changing as much as the plants as we ascended.  The moist, cold air hung heavy and had covered the blooms of redbuds, flowering dogwoods, and wild plums in dew but that quickly burned off as the sun rose higher into the sky.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

As I previously mentioned, the lack of my camera's presence was one of the best decisions of the weekend as it left my hands free to hold my binoculars up to my eyes and take in the early morning light's beauty, especially when it framed the bright colors of a passing warbler or scarlet tanager.

American Redstart (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

I'm always pleasantly surprised come spring when I find out I managed to retain more bird characteristics and song patterns than I thought would survive the winter.  Shaking off the rust is a must but I've long figured if I can recall and identify well over 1,000 species of vascular plants then a couple hundred birds should't be too hateful, right?  I think this speaks volumes for my ornithology professor Bob Scott Placier at Hocking College, as his tutelage and teaching methods really helped me grasp and understand the subject.

Black-throated Green Warbler (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

One of my favorite Shawnee forest denizens is the charming black-throated green warbler.  Its high-pitched, relatively short song echoes from the hemlocks and valley slopes with a unmistakable zee zee zee za-zee.  It's absolutely incredible to think this tiny little bird flew thousands upon thousands of miles all the way down to Central and South America only to fly back some months later for another chance at perpetuating its species.

Blue-headed Vireo (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

It wasn't just warblers, even though there are plenty more to come.  Some interesting and often unnoticed songsters of the spring like this blue-headed vireo were a welcome addition to our species list for the weekend that topped out at nearly 70 different birds.  The conference as a whole when pooled together saw well over 120 species!  Not too shabby for a couple days in more or less one area.

Cerulean Warbler (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

Easily one of, if not the most requested bird by the conference's attendees was the increasingly more and more rare cerulean warbler.  This small, iridescent blue bird is the official mascot of the O.O.S. and one of the fastest disappearing and declining species of wood warbler in North America.  This is due in large part to both logging activites and forest fragmentation in its breeding grounds here in Eastern North America as well as its tropical over-wintering grounds being deforested and turned into sun coffee plantations.  It's of the utmost importance we protect both its breeding and over-wintering grounds if we want to slow the free fall this beautiful little bird is in.  However, walking through the upper slopes of mixed oak canopy in Shawnee, you'd never guess this bird is disappearing at such an alarming rate as this area of southern Ohio is arguably one of the best remaining regions on the entire continent to still see this charmer in good numbers.

Throughout the day my group continued to have good luck with sightings like male and female scarlet tanager, yellow-throated vireo, Louisiana water thrush, wood thrush, ovenbird, prairie warbler, and indigo bunting to name but a few, however one particular bird at the end of the day was the cherry on top.

Henslow's Sparrow (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

The Henslow's sparrow is another Ohio resident bird who's numbers are declining throughout the region due to habitat maturation/loss and human activity.  These shy, seldom seen birds need large, unfragmented tracts of grassland with just the right amount of woody vegetation present.  Early haying activities leads to nest/chick mortality and natural succession can quickly turn an unmanaged and suitable open habitat into an unusable thicket and young forest.   As luck would have it, we timed our arrival to one of their few known sites just right and managed to catch a rare and unforgettable uninhibited look at one.  It's not very often they leave the safety of the ground and its camouflaging brush.  This was a life species for many in the group and seeing their beaming faces behind their binoculars was as much as a leader could hope to see.

A rescued/rehabbed female American Kestrel

A real treat for me was the chance at an up close and personal viewing of one of my all-time favorite birds in this American kestrel.  The Shawnee state park naturalist was kind enough to display this rescued/rehabbed female for those interested and I couldn't resist taking such a gorgeous animal's photo.  Originating from western Ohio's land of agriculture, you were hard pressed to not see these aerobatic birds of prey perched on a fence row or power line out on the country roads.

Sunday dawned as clear and beautiful as Saturday and found myself and another esteemed and knowledgeable birder in Bird Watcher Digest's assistant editor, Kyle Carlsen camped out in a particular spot in Shawnee to help guide passing solo birders and vans to what exciting species we were hearing and/or seeing in our area.

Worm-eating Warbler  (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

Once again the morning started off a bit slow until the air temperatures had warmed from the sun and the insects began moving which in turn caused the birds to move and feed as well.  One of the better highlights of the day was viewing two male worm-eating warblers in an intense battle over potential territory rights.  Don't let their name fool you though, they don't actually utilize worms as a food source but are rather voracious hunters of caterpillars and insects instead.

Red-breasted Nuthatch  (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

A rather surprising find for the morning was a red-breasted nuthatch still hanging around southern Ohio.  These little curiosities typically over-winter at our latitude before returning to their breeding grounds further north.  I guess this one decided to stick around and get a late start on its annual journey.

Yellow-rumped Warbler  (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

Another over-wintering bird still hanging around Shawnee in decent numbers was the quaint yellow-rumped warbler.  Most people associate warblers as migratory birds that would be fools to spend their winters in Ohio, battling the cold, harsh conditions but these little birds do just fine and move on further north once the weather makes a turn for the better.

Kentucky Warbler  (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

Of the 18 or so species of warbler I personally saw and/or heard over the weekend, the Kentucky warbler was one of my favorites.  This species is more often heard than seen as it prefers to stay hidden among the thickets and brush of the forest floor where it builds its nest.  Its song is excruciatingly similar to the more common Carolina wren and is something I have yet to learn to adequately differentiate.  Getting your binoculars on one leaves no doubts!

Chestnut-sided Warbler  (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

Another warbler?  You betcha!  Warblers are hands down one of the most popular and anticipated of spring's returning migrants for their diversity in numbers, colors, and patterns.  This particular species was one of the most exciting finds of the weekend and a species I'd never seen before in my life!  The chestnut-sided warbler is accurately named for the rich brown markings along its side and is capped with a crown of gold.  Kyle's sharp eyes certainly paid off in spotting this bird but this last one was definitely THE find of the weekend, at least in my opinion.

Blackburnian Warbler  (photo credit: Brian Zwiebel

Right at the same time and in the same tree as the chestnut-sided warbler was another remarkable species that makes just about any other warbler I saw this weekend look tame.  This is the gorgeous Blackburnian warbler, a species that only breeds in a select few spots in northern Ohio and was passing through this area on its way north. The fact we happened to catch one of these in their fleeting moments in southern Ohio was unreal and kept my eyes glued to the binoculars with an unwavering attention span.  If this little fellow doesn't get you excited about birds and just how spectacular they can be, I really don't know what would...

In the end my weekend spent with well over 100 birders and fellow outdoors enthusiasts in one of the most diverse and mesmerizing natural areas in the entire state was a time I won't soon forget.  It was the perfect way to welcome in spring even if it is lagging behind a bit in the plant department.  More new birds are arriving each and every day and before too long the woods will be at full strength with the next generation of our winged friends well on their way.  I can't thank the Ohio Ornithological Society enough for asking me to help out and be a contributing member to such an important and memorable event.  I could never thank everyone that deserves a shout out but special mention to Jason Larson and Bill Thompson for their support, company, and guidance over the weekend.  Additional thanks to Andy Jones and Kyle Carlsen for their expertise and sharp eyes out in the field as well.  I look forward to being a part of more O.O.S. events in the future and must say this spring and summer will find me with my binoculars around my neck much more often than I typically would.  These guys will make a serious birder out of this botanist yet!  Special thanks again to Brian Zwiebel for graciously letting me use his phenomenal bird photographs that I could never begin to imagine producing on my own.  Hope everyone had an amazing time and look forward to seeing you all again!


  1. WOW! What a spectacular collection of sightings for one weekend! It's hard to believe you saw all those, including some notable Rareties. And your friend Brian's photos are beyond spectacular too! You're inspiring me to get out there bird-watching.

  2. I would call that bird overload! I'm much better with the plants, but the birds are certainly beautiful!