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North America’s Rarest Warbler.

October 6, 2018

Kirtland’s Warbler

This is a blog post I am extremely happy to be able to post!  I- along with many other birders in the central Ohio area- have seen the rarest warbler in North America a week ago, thanks to a sharp-eyed child and the Internet.

Here’s the story I got from a birder friend.  A birder was walking with his young son at Battelle Darby Metro Park (an old favorite park of mine) at the western edge of Franklin County.  The young son pointed to a pretty bird on the fence along the trail they were walking.  The birder dad took a closer look, and realized what he saw.

The news went out online, on various Facebook groups, eBird, and the Ohio Birds Listserv.  People flocked to see the bird…including me.  I dropped everything and drove out there, not wasting any time.

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Battelle-Darby is a large park- over 7,000 acres.  The particular area where the bird was hanging out was near the Nature Center, near the Bison fields.  I’ll talk about these features of this great park one day, but right now, there are more pressing things to discuss…

Yes, news travels fast in the Internet Age.  A crowd of excited birders are staking out the area where the bird had been seen since that morning- a treeline with a wooden fence in front of it.

Autumn wildflowers- Goldenrod and Asters- grace the area.  It’s a great time of year.  It’s also autumn migration, with September seeing neotropical birds heading south to a warmer place to spend the winter.

And back in the treeline- there is the bird!

It worked its way among the bushes.

And then it perched on the fence, looking for things to eat in the nearby foliage.  This bird wasn’t scared of the crowd, 20 feet away, gazing in appreciation at her, and taking many pictures.

Large warbler, yellow breast, white eye right, fine black streaking, gray rump, white undertail coverts, brownish-gray back, a constantly pumping tail.  Classic signs of a Kirtland’s Warbler.

This bird caught small caterpillars as we watched.  This is a rare treat indeed.  I called my best friend, also a birder, and he drove like a maniac out to see and photograph the bird.  You owe me, buddy!

Kirtland’s Warblers are an endangered species.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service tells us that it has kept track of the numbers found- traditionally, nesting only in the jack pine forests of a certain age in Michigan- and there were as few as 400 of them in 1971.  In 2011, over 1,800 singing males were recorded, so they are making somewhat of a comeback.  This puts into perspective how few of these birds there are, and seeing one out of its small nesting grounds is rare.

Primarily insect eaters, Kirtland’s warblers forage for insects and larvae near the ground and in lower parts of pines and oaks. They also eat blueberries.

Kirtland’s warblers nest only on the ground near the lower branches and in large stands of young jack pines that are 5 to 20 feet tall and 6 to 22 years old. The tree’s age is crucial, although biologists are not sure why. It is possible that the birds need low branches near the ground to help conceal their nests. Before the trees are six years old, the lower branches are not large enough to hide the nest. After 15 years, these lower branches begin to die.

Kirtland’s warblers require large stands of young, dense jack pine forest at least 80 acres in size, but they prefer stands of 300 to 400 acres, or larger. Their exacting requirements for nesting, as well as cowbird parasitism, caused a drastic decline in numbers and led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Kirtland’s warbler as an endangered species in 1967.

Until 1995 Kirtland’s warblers had only been known to nest in the northern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Today, they also nest in the Upper Peninsula, and since 2007, have nested in Wisconsin and Canada. They migrate from their nesting grounds to the southeastern coast of the United States on their way to wintering grounds in the Bahamas.

Once it was believed that forest fires harmed the environment. However, we now know that fires play an important role in forest ecosystems. For example, without fire, jack pine cones do not completely release their seeds. Suppressing forest fires prevented the natural establishment of new jack pine stands. Since Kirtland’s warblers will only nest in stands of young jack pines, the population dwindled dramatically before scientists realized that there is a role for fire in forest ecology — and in the Kirtland’s warbler life history.

The second greatest threat to Kirtland’s warbler survival is the brown-headed cowbird. Cowbirds lay eggs in other bird’s nests, leaving the unsuspecting hosts to incubate and care for the young cowbirds. This is called nest parasitism…

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in cooperation with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service and the Michigan Audubon Society, initiated an aggressive cowbird removal program in 1972 that has continued to this day. As a result, Kirtland’s warblers now have very good nesting success and enough young are being produced to increase the population.

This young female is one of an estimated 3,600 Kirtland’s Warblers in the wild today, a number slowly increasing due to habitat management and Cowbird control in their area.

I always planned to go up to Michigan to see them on their breeding territory, but never expected to see one migrating through one of my favorite parks!

This bird was seen in the same area for 4 days, and then it was off to the Bahamas.  Good place to spend the winter if you ask me.

To date, this has been the most exciting life list bird I’ve seen.  I’ve seen 279 bird species in the state of Ohio now.


A Park that used to be a Quarry.

September 1, 2018

Oakes Quarry Park

Lark Sparrow

I read about a rare (for Ohio) sparrow this summer on the Ohio Birds Listserv.  It was seen in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio, not terribly far away from me.  And the park it was seen in sounded interesting as well.

So I decided to go look!

Oakes Quarry Park is located in Fairborn, Ohio, right outside of Dayton’s freeway outerbelt.  It is part of the Fairborn Parks system and is one of several locations under the stewardship of the Beaver Creek Wetlands Association of Greene County.

One of the first things I noticed hiking around Oakes Quarry Park is that it is more of a quarry-turned-park than a park.  There are remnants of stone quarry activity everywhere, along with a central wetlands area and some restored prairie.

There’s a 30-foot overlook from a quarried stone wall around much of the park, with scattered stonework over much of the area.  The park is essentially a big bowl with a stony rim around it.  Narrow hiking trails and a horse bridle trail encircle the area.

This site was originally surface mined in 1929 for limestone to make cement by Southwestern Portland Cement Company and Southdown Inc., before being sold to the Oakes family in the 1990’s. The family donated the land to the City of Fairborn in 2003.

Oakes Quarry Park is the second largest park in Fairborn. The park includes foot trails and horseback trails that cross ancient limestone fossils exposed by the mining activity that formed the quarry. Conservation work here is developing prairies and wetlands once common in the area and the northern edge is nice woodland.

Clean Ohio Conservation Fund assisted with the development of the park including invasive species removal and reforestation of 8,000 trees.

The hiking trail takes you back in time 440 million years, when all of this was a coral reef in a shallow sea. Researchers from the Ohio State University say these Silurian Age crinoid fossils are the best in the U.S. and represent an exceptional site worldwide. More recently, glaciers left grooves, slides and polishings in the rock before the last ice age ended 14,000 years ago.

Glacial striation marks can be seen upon this rocky area- a layer of ice over a kilometer in height once covered over half of Ohio many thousands of years ago, and left its marks by advancing and retreating.

Sand was also common in the park, and plentiful bird tracks showed that sand baths are popular here.

Close proximity to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base meant lots of airplanes in the sky, including some vintage planes.

There were all sorts of interesting dry-soil wildflowers to be seen, like this Thistle.


St. John’s Wort

Butterflies were common visitors to the wildflowers. A Silver-Spotted Skipper sips upon an interesting wildflower I haven’t identified yet- I’ve only seen it in this park!

A Monarch Butterfly upon Blue Vervain

An Orange Sulfur upon Common Teasel

A Widow Skimmer Dragonfly- a common summer sight in Ohio’s natural areas

Birds of course were in the park- including Mourning Doves…

A male Eastern Towhee called from the shade

A Killdeer- Ohio’s most common shorebird- was in the water of a shallow pond

A male House Finch

A male Indigo Bunting, a familiar Ohio summer bird singing from a perch

One of the many Field Sparrows inhabiting the park that scolded me

There was another sparrow I was looking for in this brushy area of the park- one that is rarely seen breeding  in Ohio.

Suddenly, I spotted a large sparrow with white on its tail flying by, landing in a Sycamore Tree.  It was the bird I sought!

The bird sang its complex song- that along with its elaborate mask identified it as a Lark Sparrow.

This large sparrow may be brown, but its harlequin facial pattern and white tail spots make it a standout among sparrows. Males sing a melodious jumble of churrs, buzzes, and trills reminiscent of an Old World lark. Their courtship is also unusual, involving a hopping and crouching display unlike other sparrows. Lark Sparrows occur in the West and the Great Plains in prairies, grasslands, and pastures with scattered shrubs. In winter, look for them in small flocks in brushy areas.

I’m always happy to see a new life-list bird species, and it was a bonus to get a few very good photos as it sang.

Oakes Quarry Park was a very interesting place to visit- I’ll definitely be back, looking for some examples of its famed Crinoid fossils!


Ohio History – Simon Kenton’s Grave.

August 4, 2018

One recent spring I went on a road trip that included a stop in Urbana, Ohio to indulge in some state history.

I enjoy the journey as much as the destination- driving Ohio’s backroads.

Eventually, I reached Urbana.

Urbana is a city in and the county seat of Champaign County, Ohio, United States, 47 miles west of Columbus. Urbana was laid out in 1805, and for a time in 1812 was the headquarters of the Northwestern army during the War of 1812. It is the burial place of the explorer and Indian fighter Simon Kenton. The population was 11,793 at the 2010 census. It is the home of Urbana University.

As usual, I enjoyed sightseeing the old homes.

The main reason I was in Urbana was to see a particular memorial in Oakdale Cemetery.

On the way to the memorial, I saw this interesting sculpture.  It was done by the grandfather of the founder of Urbana, both of whom were buried here.

John Quincy Adams Ward (June 29, 1830 – May 1, 1910) was an American sculptor, who may be most familiar for his larger than lifesize standing statue of George Washington on the steps of Federal Hall National Memorial in New York City…He died at his home in New York City in 1910. A copy of his Indian Hunter stands at his gravesite in Urbana, and his Urbana home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

I always like running into an unexpected piece of history!

Onward to the main event.

And then, what I had been looking for- the grave of Simon Kenton, ‘Ohio’s Daniel Boone’.

Simon Kenton was a legendary frontiersman in Ohio and the Midwest. He was born on April 3, 1755, in Fauquier County, Virginia. He grew up helping his father on the family farm and therefore had little opportunity to go to school. At the age of sixteen, Kenton became involved in a fight involving a woman. Believing he had killed a man, he fled to the Ohio Country where he changed his name to Simon Butler…In 1782, he discovered that the man that he thought he had killed had actually lived. Therefore, he was able to resume his own name once again.

Kenton spent the next two years hunting along the Ohio River. In 1774, he served as a scout during Lord Dunmore’s War. By 1775, Kenton had moved to Boonesborough, Kentucky. For the next few years, he worked as a scout for the settlement, often coming in contact with the local American Indians. At one point, Kenton is said to have saved the life of Daniel Boone.

During the American Revolution, Kenton participated in a number of military engagements against the British and their American Indian allies. In 1778, he joined George Rogers Clark on a difficult but successful expedition into the Illinois Country to attack British outposts as well as American Indian settlements. Returning home, he accompanied Daniel Boone in an attack on the Shawnees’s settlement of Chillicothe near what is now Oldtown, Ohio. That same year, Kenton was captured by American Indians, who tortured him and attempted to burn him at the stake. Simon Girty rescued him and instead of his being killed, Kenton was sent to Fort Detroit as part of a prisoner trade with the British. By mid-1779, Kenton was free and had returned to service under George Rogers Clark.

During the next several years, Kenton lived a relatively quiet life. He settled near Maysville, Kentucky, married Martha Dowden and purchased some large tracts of land. This life continued until 1794, when Kenton served in the militia under General Anthony Wayne and fought at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. After the death of his wife, Kenton remarried in 1798 and the same year moved to Ohio. He first lived near present-day Springfield but a few years later settled in Urbana. By 1805, Kenton had become a brigadier general in the Ohio militia. During the War of 1812, he participated in the Battle of the Thames in Canada.

Kenton moved to the Zanesfield, Ohio, area around 1820. During the last years of his life, Kenton lived in poverty because of land ownership disputes and mismanagement of his money. He survived on a government pension of twenty dollars a month. In 1836, Kenton died in Logan County near Zanesfield and was buried there. In 1865, his remains were moved to Urbana. The state of Ohio constructed a monument to mark his grave in 1884.

It’s hard to imagine today the hardships that frontiersmen like Kenton went through.

A big man in stature and strength, his stamina was often tested as he endured the worst that was known to the frontier. During the late winter of 1773, Simon’s first winter on the frontier, Simon and two companions were attacked around the campfire as they were drying their wet clothes near present day Charleston, WV. One companion was killed, while Simon and the other man barely escaped without food, clothing, or rifles. After a week of wandering down the Great Kanawha River, they finally reached the Ohio. Here they met some mountain men on the banks of the Ohio River after a week of hunger and extreme exposure to the weather.

The Indians also knew him as “The man who’s gun is never empty” for his skill of running and reloading his faithful flintlock at the same time.

Near Kenton’s monument is his original tombstone from 1836.  Suffering the ravages of time, it is difficult to see in this photograph, but the last line is: ‘He was an honest man’.  This is high praise from that era.

In April 1777, during an Indian attack on Fort Boonesborough in Kentucky, a bullet struck Daniel Boone’s leg and he found himself staring up at a Shawnee’s tomahawk. Kenton charged, shot the scalper and clubbed another attacker, then lifted Boone up in his arms and carried him, dodging and darting, to safety.

“Well, Simon, you have behaved like a man to-day,” Boone told him; “indeed you are a fine fellow.” Effusive praise for frontiersmen.

Although he was an Indian fighter, Kenton dealt fairly with the Shawnee Indians, who respected his skill and stamina, and he knew Techumseh, their great chief.

In September of 1778, Simon was captured by the Shawnee. He was forced to run the infamous quarter mile “gauntlet”, which killed many prisoners, nine times. After the sixth, while attempting escape, had a hole hammered in his skull and was unconscious for two days. With a war club and axe, his arm and collarbone were broken. While recovering from these wounds, Simon was saved by his long time friend Simon Girty who convinced the Shawnee to adopt Simon as one of their own. Finally in June 1779 Simon was sent to Fort Detroit as part of a prisoner trade with the British. Simon escaped and after a 30 day march he made it back to the American settlements in newly formed “Kentucky.”

Perhaps the most poignant moment of his life came during the War of 1812.

During the War of 1812, he participated in the Battle of the Thames. It was in this battle that the mighty leader of the Shawnee, Tecumseh, was killed. Simon was asked to identify the body so the pathetic whites could scalp and ravage every part of his body for souvenirs. Knowing this ahead of time, Simon falsely identified Tecumseh so his body would remain for his people to find and honor his life and people with a proper burial.

Local people have not forgotten Simon Kenton.

I learned about Simon Kenton by reading local author Allan W. Eckert‘s fantastic book, The Frontiersmen.  If you are at all interested in the colonial frontier era, I highly recommend this book.  It is history that reads like a novel.


Summer’s Flowering Vines.

July 7, 2018

Field & Hedge Bindweed

Wild Potato Vine

Virgin’s Bower

Morning Glories

I haven’t talked about plants for a while, so this post is overdue.  In the summer, Ohio has some showy flowering vines- some of them abundant and easy to spot, either in your garden as a commercial variety or sometimes persistently invading your garden.

First of all- what is a vine?

A vine displays a growth form based on long stems. This has two purposes. A vine may use rock exposures, other plants, or other supports for growth rather than investing energy in a lot of supportive tissue, enabling the plant to reach sunlight with a minimum investment of energy. This has been a highly successful growth form for plants such as kudzu and Japanese honeysuckle, both of which are invasive exotics in parts of North America. There are some tropical vines that develop skototropism, and grow away from the light, a type of negative phototropism. Growth away from light allows the vine to reach a tree trunk, which it can then climb to brighter regions.

The vine growth form may also enable plants to colonize large areas quickly, even without climbing high. This is the case with periwinkle and ground ivy. It is also an adaptation to life in areas where small patches of fertile soil are adjacent to exposed areas with more sunlight but little or no soil. A vine can root in the soil but have most of its leaves in the brighter, exposed area, getting the best of both environments.

The evolution of a climbing habit has been implicated as a key innovation associated with the evolutionary success and diversification of a number of taxonomic groups of plants.

I’ve discussed a couple of other vines before; Wild Grape and Poison Ivy, neither of which has spectacular flowers…unlike the vines I’ll point out today.

Now, back to our Ohio summer focus.

Bindweed can be found both out in the country and in the city.  It is quite hardy and very numerous.

Bindweed comes in two basic varieties- Field and Hedge.  It gets started in May, and is abundant throughout the summer months.

Field Bindweed grows in waste areas, especially dry soil.  It is a short vine with small white flowers, often seen along paths or roads.

Hedge Bindweed is a longer vine that typically grows in thickets and upon fences and other plants, and produces a larger white flower.  It can be mistaken for Morning Glory.

The easiest way to identify Bindweed is to look at the leaves- they are narrow and arrowhead-shaped:

These vines are very persistent and are often seen as a pest (though a pretty one).

This is an adaptable vine, preferring full to partial sun and moist to mesic conditions. It tolerates poor soil, often flourishing in areas that are gravelly or sandy. Hedge Bindweed readily climbs a trellis, fences, and neighboring plants, while in open areas it sprawls haphazardly across the ground. The climbing ability is the result of the stems twining tightly about slender objects. This vine can spread aggressively and become a nuisance in some locations. It is known to produce allelopathic chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants.

Occasionally you will run across pink and white Bindweed flowers, such as the one pictured above.  Otherwise, it is mostly a white flower.

Speaking of white flowers, there is another less-common vine seen in the summer that fits that description.

This is Wild Potato Vine, also known as Wild Sweet Potato.  I usually see it along wood edges.  Its vine is very long.

Two ways to identify this vine are evident in the above picture.  It has heart-shaped leaves, and its white flower always has a purple throat.  The name of this plant comes from its tuber-like roots, which Native Americans ate.  Many varieties of insects pollinate its flowers.

Another vine that I don’t see much of is Virgin’s Bower.  It has distinctive small white flowers.  I’ve seen it in woody areas.  I’d like to see it more often.

Lastly, Morning Glories are both abundant and well-known.  They bloom in the last half of summer, and they are hard to miss out in the country.

Common Morning Glory was introduced into North America from South America as an ornamental plant. Plants with purple flowers appear to naturalize most often. Habitats include fields, roadsides, gravelly areas along railroads, fence rows, and waste areas. Relatively open areas with a history of disturbance are preferred. This plant is still widely cultivated in gardens and around yards. Depending on the habitat, a population of naturalized plants can be either fairly persistent or ephemeral.

Perhaps the best-known feature of Morning Glories are their beautiful vibrant colors.  Sure, they come in white like the other vines we’ve seen, but they also have varying shades and combinations of violet, blue, red and pink.

Notice too that the leaves are more rounded.

One of my favorite things to do in late summer is to drive along agricultural fields and see all of the Morning Glories climbing through the corn.  It is an impressive color show.



Two Life List Birds Seen Near an Airfield.

June 2, 2018

Western Kingbird

Upland Sandpiper

During the third week of May, spring migration was on the down side.  Trees were fully leafed out, making it hard to see such spring favorites as Wood Warblers.  But not all migrants are in the forests.

Two notable species of birds were seen near a Columbus airfield- one a very rare visitor, the other a secretive migrant.  I went out to see if I could spot them.

Don Scott Airfield is the property of Ohio State University, and surprisingly is the 3rd busiest airport in the state.  Surrounding it is OSU’s Livestock Facility.  Nature-wise, this means a lot of fields and grassland with a bit of woods off to the side.

Cows are plentiful and wonder what all of this birdwatching fuss is all about.

Unsure of the etiquette involved in being on the property, I wound my way along dirt roads until I finally saw a collection of cars in the middle of nowhere.  Jackpot!

Rule number one when looking for a rare bird- find the other birders at the site.  Chances are they are where the bird is (or has been recently).  They tend to be folks who know what they are doing (OK, there are exceptions but rarely).

I met some familiar faces- local birders tend to turn up a lot at these kinds of things- and sure enough, they were right where I wanted to be.  Michelle, Ed and Sheila were a few birders whom I know, and we all talk shop.  I can imagine novice birders thinking we are talking too much.  But hey, birding is often a solitary hobby and it’s always good to blow off the dust and swap tales of events since we all last met.  I can imagine frontiersmen at their annual gatherings knowing just what I’m talking about 🙂

The cows are interested too.  In perhaps getting a treat…

Along this stretch of fencing (where the birders gathered) was the main bird I came to see.  It was fairly close to us and didn’t seem to worry.

This is a Western Kingbird, fairly common west of the Mississippi River, but rare in Ohio.  This bird is a Flycatcher, and likes perching on fences or trees in grasslands from which it sallies out to catch and eat insects on the wing.  Our bird here was associating with Eastern Kingbirds- fairly common east of the Mississippi River.

This is a handsome bird with its yellow-tinted belly, olive brown wings and gray head.  They aggressively defend their nests from predators and other Flycatchers, but can be found nesting near other birds that are no threat to them.  A nice thing to note is that these birds have apparently flourished due to human activity such as planting trees on the Great Plains, clearing woodlands, and erecting fences and telephone poles which they like to perch on.

Our rare bird fluttered out to catch insects on the wing, returning to the fence afterwards.  After lookinjg for Warblers in the woods it was noce to see a bird out in the open!

This grassland habitat hosted other birds-

One of a pair of Northern Mockingbirds that were building a nest in a patch of bushes

A pair of Barn Swallows resting for a bit from their constant flying

An Eastern Meadowlark, a common grassland bird

A Savannah Sparrow (another grassland dweller)  that was singing on territory

A male Bobolink, always fun to see and hear in fields in the summertime

Many of us birders decided to walk around and down along the airfield fence, having heard another grassland bird singing…

…and sure enough, there it was upon the fence surrounded by Eastern Kingbirds…

Notice the bird facing the opposite way

This is a Dickcissel, and they sing like their name- ‘dick-dick-sisisis’

Where would we be without fences for birds to perch upon?  This had been a good day, with sightings of all sorts of grassland birds, including the Western Kingbird.  But it wasn’t over yet.  One of the birders heard a bird that is rather hard to see.  Then, even better, this bird flew directly overhead and he shouted out to the rest of us to look up-

This is an uncommon look at an Upland Sandpiper, a bird that was migrating to Canada to breed in the summer.  Unlike most Sandpipers, it prefers a grassland habitat- often being found at airports.  This bird was considered a delicacy and used to be hunted until the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty.  It’s not as common as it once was, but it is holding its own numbers-wise now.

This sighting capped off a grand birding day indeed.  There are different sets of birds in different habitats, so you’ll often see different birds in the fields than you do in the woods.  I’m so used to concentrating upon woods and wood edges that it was refreshing to get out into a more wide-open setting, with good birders and birds both in abundance.