Gray Kingbird

Northern Wheatear

It’s been a good autumn for rare birds here in Ohio.  Kirtland’s Warbler was a signal highlight.  Two others that I managed to see in October stand out.

Jim McCormac, a prominent Ohio naturalist who I’ve run into at a few rare bird stakeouts, wrote about seeing both of these birds.  Jim has a nature column he writes for the Columbus Dispatch, and deserves a shout-out for sharing his significant knowledge of natural Ohio and nature photography.

One bird showed up in Clark County, at Spangler Nature Preserve, located between Springfield and Dayton.    Jeff Peters gets full credit for identifying this bird- the first of its species identified in Ohio.  That’s a big deal!

The very day this bird was seen, I saw the report on the Ohio Birds Listserv and jumped in my car to drive out there as soon as I could.  I normally take scenic backroads when traveling across Ohio, but this bird sighting made me get on the freeway and drive as fast as I legally could to its location.  Luckily, Spangler Nature Preserve is perhaps half a mile from Route 70 at the Spangler Road exit.

I got there late in the afternoon and walked the paths through prairie grass.

Goldfinches flew about.

Late-blooming autumn flowers such as this White Aster dotted the preserve.

The path took me back to a treeline on the northern border of the park.

Overhead, military cargo planes made frequent practice takeoffs and landings to and from nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

In the treeline at northeast corner of the park, I saw a group of Eastern Bluebirds.  Suddenly, another bird flew into a nearby tree…

I could tell immediately that this was a Kingbird, a larger Flycatcher, distinguished by its larger size, thick bill and overall flycatcher looks and behavior (perching on a branch, occasionally flying out to catch an insect on the wing).

This is a Gray Kingbird, the first of its species to be confirmed visiting the state of Ohio.  It looks somewhat similar to the common Eastern Kingbird, but its most notable distinguishing mark is its black mask which reminds me of a Shrike.

This bird typically lives in the Caribbean islands, and visits the Florida coast in the summer.  In the autumn, rare individuals roam north of this range.  Ohio and Florida are quite different states and far apart, but this particular bird made it clear up here, and stayed a week.  An amazing feat which may have been assisted by Hurricane Michael (hurricanes often bring unusual birds with them, and birders are on the alert).  I was quite happy to stumble upon it mere hours after it was reported seen for the first time.  Not all rare bird sightings are so easily duplicated, I can assure you!

The other rare October bird I saw appeared in Richland County, a farming region north of Mansfield.  The area has many Mennonite family farms.  One of these families saw the rare bird and graciously allowed birders onto their farm to see it.  In my experience, Mennonites (a Christian Anabaptist religious group somewhat similar to the Amish) often enjoy birding and nature and are nice people.

From Columbus, the farm was three-quarters of the way to Lake Erie.  I took a backroads Ohio road trip, one of my favorite things to do.

I’ve often seen three tall blue and yellow crosses along roadways- and there is a story behind them.  There are always interesting things to see and learn on the road!

And then, I arrived at my destination.

The long driveway onto the farm property.  As you can see, birders had ‘flocked’ to the location.

I arrived near noon, but the bird wasn’t in its usual area.  Hours passed, birders spending the time looking around or chatting.  On these rare bird stakeouts, you often see the same people.  Stories are swapped.

Here’s the woodpile that the bird often perched upon.  The small gray structure behind the woodpile is an outdoor furnace- wood is burned and the hot water is circulated via pipe to the farmhouse and back, heating the home.

Turkey Vultures occasionally passed overhead, migrating south.

And suddenly, after hours of waiting, the bird appeared.  This is Bruce Simpson, Metro Parks naturalist and avid birder, posting via smartphone to the Ohio Birds Listserv that the bird had finally showed up while others frantically took pictures.

Here is the star of the show- a Northern Wheatear.

This bird was not shy- it came within 20-30 feet of the group of birders admiring it, seeming to pose for the cameras.

The Wheatear flew to the ground, finding a caterpillar for supper.

What’s so special about a Northern Wheatear?  This Old World Thrush moves back and forth from the northern tundras of Alaska and northern Canada to and from its wintering grounds in Africa!

I’ll quote from the All About Birds article, Migrating Northern Wheatears Go the Distance—and Pack Accordingly.

From the eastern arctic of Canada, Wheatears traveled through Greenland to northwestern Europe before flying south to western Africa. Their western arctic compatriots went the other way around the globe: they flew westward to Siberia and then diagonally across Asia to wind up in eastern Africa. The migration distances are astonishing, particularly the Alaskan birds’ journeys, which added up to roughly 15,000 km. Wheatears from the eastern Canadian arctic traveled a mere 7,500 km, although the first leg of their journey was a 3,500 km trans-Atlantic crossing to Europe with only one possible resting point, Greenland, en route.

The time that wheatears spend on these migrations was what I found most surprising: birds traveling across Asia took roughly 3 months to reach Africa and two and a half months to return to North America. That’s comparable to the roughly 3 months that North America’s wheatears spend on their nesting grounds, and is only marginally less than they spend on their wintering grounds (4 or 5 months for western and eastern American arctic, respectively). These birds were spending so little time in any one location that, if they were humans, they possibly would not be considered legal residents of any nation on earth!

This bird gets huge respect from me, traveling for a living.  They’ve only been recorded in Ohio six times.

I made it home just as the crisp autumn sky turned dark.  A very worthwhile trip- who knows when the next will happen?