Sunday, November 22, 2015

Lake Erie Birding Trip

During the weekend of November 6-8, the Ohio University ornithology class that I'm currently in took a field trip to the Lake Erie coastline to do some birding. This post is yet another of the class-related blog assignments the class has to do. You can read about my past labs and field trips at this link. This post is a summary of our Lake Erie birding trip. This will also be the last ornithology class related post!

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One of my most-anticipated trips of this semester was the ornithology class's annual trip to the Lake Erie coast. Every year they go in mid to late November, just in time for the migrating ducks, gulls, and other waterfowl to show up. I had heard how exciting this trip was from previous students, and I couldn't wait to take it! 

Old Woman Creek
Sunrise from the beach at Old Woman Creek. Taken this May.
The trip actually began a day early for me. Due to certain circumstances, the class was scheduled to go up Saturday morning, bird that afternoon, bird all Sunday, and then head back Monday. I wanted to squeeze in a few more hours of birding, so I and the undergraduate TA Alayna Tokash decided to head up Friday night to we could go birding all Saturday morning while the others were making the 3 hour trip north. We stayed at Old Woman Creek National Estuarine Research Reserve just outside of Huron, Ohio. You might have heard me mention Old Woman Creek before; I spent half of my summer living in the dormitories there while helping Maggie Hantak (an OU graduate student) with her Red-Backed Salamander research. Maggie was up at OWC for the weekend, still in the midst of her fall field season, so we all had a nice catch-up Friday night.

I do want to point out that there will be a serious lack of photos in this post. If you've ever seriously birded, you probably know it's hard to take photos at the same time. Switching between binoculars and a camera when birds are constantly coming in and out is a hard task, and people generally chooses to do one or the other at any given instance. I chose my binoculars and took essentially zero photos. I will be pulling some photos from my library though, so there will at least be some!

Two male Redheads with two male Ring-Necked Ducks in the background. Photo taken at A.W. Marion State Park in 2014.
Alayna and I woke up early on Saturday morning. We left Huron at 7:30 AM and headed straight to the famous Lorain Impoundment. The Lorain Impoundment contains a complex of docks, breakwalls, marshes, river water, open lake water, and more. This location, where a heavily-altered Black River flows into Lake Erie, has attracted a crazy array of rare species throughout the years, and has a great showing of expected species every year too. When Alayna and I went, there were hundreds of Ring-Billed Gulls, with fewer numbers of Herring and Bonaparte's Gulls mixed in. A Common Tern and four Great Black-Backed Gulls were a highlight along the breakwalls out in the lake. The freshwater marsh held a good assortment of waterfowl, including Ring-Necked Ducks, Redheads, Gadwalls, Mallards, Green-Winged Teals, Buffleheads, American Coots, and others. Three Dunlins, a species I've been wanting to see for years, were the highlight in the marsh. My complete list from this location can be seen here: Lorain Impoundment, Nov. 7

Sheldon Marsh State Nature Preserve
The barrier beach at Sheldon Marsh SNP during the summer. In winter, the bay shown harbors decent gull concentrations.
We left Lorain around 10 AM and headed back to Huron. The class was nearly there, so we ate some lunch and waited to meet up with them. Once the class came and got settled into Old Woman Creek, we all headed toward the nearby Sheldon Marsh Nature Preserve. Sheldon Marsh is an interesting preserve; there's some old fields, deciduous forest, marshes, and a very nice barrier beach next to a small bay. With this wide range of habitat available, Sheldon Marsh attracts a wide range of birds. We had the typical winter forest residents, including Golden-Crowned Kinglets, Dark-Eyed Juncos, American Tree Sparrows, and Yellow-Rumped Warblers. The marshes along the main trail were pretty unproductive, with only a few Mallards present. The barrier beach and bay held many Bonaparte's Gulls, Ring-Billed Gulls, and Herring Gulls. A large raft of Ruddy Ducks were floating way out, but their stiff tails and white cheeks made for an easy ID. We walked a bit down the barrier beach and decided to look on the other side of the island which protects a large marsh. This marsh was productive, holding hundreds and hundreds of ducks. Sadly our group scared most of them and they flushed. We did get to see a few Northern Pintails during the chaos, yet another species I've been wanting to see for years! To see my complete list of species from Sheldon Marsh, see this link: Sheldon Marsh SNP, Nov. 7

We stayed at Sheldon Marsh for a few hours, and that brought about the end of the first day. Well, at least the day time portion was over. The professor for the class, Dr. Kelly Williams, is also heavily involved in Project Owlnet. She use to run a Northern Saw-Whet Owl banding station in Ross County, which you can read about here in a post by blogger Jim McCormac. Since right now is migration time for the diminutive owl, Dr. Williams wanted to try and band any saw-whets which might be moving through Old Woman Creek. We set up nets Saturday night, but several hours brought no birds. We took the nets down and decided to try again the next night. 

The next day started early with another trip to the Lorain Impoundment. The goal was to show the class the species that Alayna and I had seen the previous day. Luckily the majority of the species were still present. We missed out on a few species, such as the Dunlin, but added a Northern Shoveler. You can check out the complete list of species here: Lorain Impoundment, Nov. 8

Scanning the lake for jaegars and Little Gulls. The class professor, Dr. Kelly Williams, is on the far left. I am the one in gray looking through spotting scope. Photo by Michelle Ward.
We finished up at Lorain and packed the vans to head to the Huron Pier. The Huron Pier is essentially just a man-made jetty of boulders that extends a bit into Lake Erie. It has a great view of open water, and also a great history of rarities. As soon as we left the van, we noticed a gull hanging out that had a black back. That meant it could either be a Great or a Lesser Black-Backed Gull. The Great is more common, but Lessers are regularly found on Lake Erie. I put a scope on it and noticed that it had nice yellow legs, the telltale sign of a Lesser Black-Backed Gull. That made it a very exciting lifer. The Lesser Black-Backed Gull is actually a species from Eurasia which overwinters in Africa, which is pretty far from Ohio. Over the past century, the Lesser Black-Backed Gull has been slowly moving westward. They began breeding in Iceland in the early 1900's, and then in Greenland in 1990. 1934 brought the first record of one in the United States. 1977 brought the first record of one in Ohio. Since then, more and more have been found overwintering along Lake Erie. Today they are regular in Ohio, just in small numbers. There's a good chance that they might begin nesting in Canada in the near future too (but I've also heard conjectures of a possible undiscovered breeding colony already in existence).

As we walked farther out, we met two birders who told us we had just missed an unidentified jaeger that flew by. Jaegars are an ocean-going type of bird that occasionally show up on the Great Lakes. There are three species which can show up on Lake Erie, and identification can be difficult. It doesn't help that most of the ones that show up are juveniles, which tend to look even more similar to each other. We scanned the lake for awhile, but sadly the jaegar didn't reappear. 

After the Huron Pier, we packed the vans and headed off to East Harbor State Park. East Harbor State Park lies on a small peninsula between Lake Erie and the Sandusky Bay. It consists of marshes, protected coves, open lake, a barrier beach, and a little bit of young woods. We came to scan the protected water behind the barrier beach, as well as the beach itself. The protected cove held a few rafts of ducks, mainly Mallards and Gadwalls. The beach, however, was filled with gulls. The highlight was a Great Black-Backed Gull. It was a monster. In fact, this is the largest gull species alive. The individual we saw stuck out like a sore thumb; it towered over every other gull, and its black back was hard to miss. Here's the complete list of birds for this location: East Harbor SP, Nov. 8

East Harbor was the last location we went to for the day, and we headed back to Old Woman Creek to prepare for another night of owl banding. As soon as the sun set, we opened the nets and waited. And waited. And waited some more.

Northern Saw-Whet Owl
And then the waiting paid off. We caught a Northern Saw-Whet Owl! These truly magnificent owls are very tiny, and very cute. The Northern Saw-Whet Owl is one of the smallest owls in North America, being similar in size to an American Robin. They feed primarily on mice, but they also have to watch out for themselves; Barred, Great Horned, and various other larger owl species will actually catch and feed on saw-whets. Since they face the threat of predation, these owls have become masters at hiding. They like to roost in very dense conifer stands and can be nearly impossible to find. If you've spent time in a patch of forest with a lot of scruffy pines or grapevines in late fall and through winter, chances are you've probably passed one of these tiny owls without even knowing.

Old Woman Creek Education Coordinator Jennifer Bucheit with the Northern Saw-Whet Owl and her personal banding number. This photo gives you a better idea of just how small these owls are.
Since these owls are so hard to find, the details of their range have been mysterious for quite some time. They breed primarily in the coniferous forests of Canada along with higher elevation mixed or coniferous forests of the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains. Their breeding range was easily worked out as the males will sing a very loud and incessant call during their breeding season. Outside of the breeding season, these owls are essentially silent. Couple that with their diminutive size and concealment skills and you have a species that is very hard to detect during winter. This made for the mistaken assumption that they didn't migrate much and were quite rare in certain parts of their range. Then some bird banders began to change that idea. Starting in the 1960's, a few people tried mist netting at night for these owls. They were successful and showed that this was a possible feat. More and more banding stations began to try and replicate this. In 1994, Project Owlnet was created in order to start a network between saw-whet banding stations across the nation and to facilitate the creation of more stations. By having a wide range of stations at different locations around the US and Canada, the banders hoped to gain an accurate idea of saw-whet migration. Due to the efforts of these banding stations, we now know that saw-whets do indeed migrate, and they migrate in large numbers. We also know that they are much, much more common than previously thought. Hundreds, if not thousands, of these owls move through Ohio every year, typically October through November. Dr. Kelly Williams, my professor for the class, was responsible for demonstrating that saw-whets migrated through Ohio, an idea that was previously disregarded by most. The occasional individual had been found in Ohio now and again before her work, but those could have easily just been a "lost" bird. Then, back in the early 2000's, Dr. Williams began a banding station in Ross County, and quickly caught saw-whets. And just like that, she proved that they do indeed migrate through Ohio, and in great numbers. 

Northern Saw-Whet Owl
So what happens when you capture one of these wild owls? Do they try to constantly bite or claw you while trying to escape? Surprisingly, not really; in fact, they kind of just sit there relaxed while staring at you. Even more surprisingly, they enjoy being pet. And I mean they really, really like it. If you stroke the back of one's head, they will close their eyes and lean into your hand; they basically act like a flying owl-cat, and it's one of the most adorable things to witness. You can see the pure joy and content on our owl's face as Dr. Williams pets her.

And on that note, the end is finally here! Thanks for reading!

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