On January 29th of this year I went out looking for seven rare birds that had been spotted and reported on various websites- eBird, the Ohio Birds Listserv, and Facebook’s Ohio Chase Birds. The locations ranged from Alum Creek State Park up in Delaware County down to the southern end of Franklin County. It was a day-long trip, and it was well worth it!

I live in Clark County now, a couple counties west of my former home, Franklin County. Five of the seven rare birds were in Franklin County, the other two were just to the north of there in Alum Creek State Park. I’d been to all of the locations before, but not in a while, so it was a tour of fond places I know.

All of these birds were rare, though many were rare not for central Ohio, but rare for the winter season. More on that later.

I started off in the morning, just after 9 AM. I’d spend around eight and a half hours driving and birding, clocking up 170 miles of driving from Clark County, up to Delaware County, and back down through the length of Franklin County and back. A full day!

Bird #1

Alum Creek State Park- along the beach. It was a cold morning, though sunny. I had been there for 10 minutes or so and the bird I was looking for flew right in over my and a fellow birder’s heads. Good luck to start the day.

The bird landed on the grass right next to a Killdeer. This bird is a Dunlin, a shorebird that is usually seen during spring and autumn migrations in Ohio, but a rare visitor in winter.

Shorebirds like these can occasionally be found in winter as long as there is a source of food (insects or invertebrates typically). One such food source in my neck of the woods is the northern end of the reservoir at Buck Creek State Park. True to the name of the area- Springfield- there is a spring bubbling up into the reservoir consisting of warmer water in the aquifer close to the surface. This warm water keeps an area of the reservoir from freezing, and hosts living creatures during the winter. A Dunlin and some Killdeer were found there this past winter as well, even in the snow as the following photo shows.

So it is possible to see warm-weather birds (even if rarely) in winter- as long as there is food around somewhere.

This Dunlin is searching in the grass for food, near its Killdeer buddies doing the same thing. It’s certainly finding food somewhere, or he wouldn’t be here!

Bird #2

Just a little ways down the road is the Alum Creek dam spillway. There was a special visitor here as well- and had been seen here for weeks.

One of the Rules of Birding- when you are looking for a bird, notice where other birders are. They can save you a lot of time and effort!

Sitting on the rocky area of the causeway was a Snowy Owl, a visitor from the frigid Canadian north.

This magnificent bird was dozing in the sun.

A bit of grooming would happen here and there. Look at the size of those feet!

The bird didn’t seem to mind getting its picture taken. Look how well it blends in with the rocks. When I saw a Snowy Owl at the Buck Creek reservoir a couple years ago, it took me the better part of an hour to spot it against the rocks there, that looked exactly like this location. The terrain seems to attract them.

Snowys will occasionally come down from the north when looking for food. Maybe there are more Snowys, maybe there is less food. But they do show up here and there in certain years and are a big attraction when they do. Birders come from far away to see them.

So far I was two for two in the rare bird sweepstakes.

Bird #3

Driving south from Alum Creek, I entered my old stomping grounds- Franklin County. I drove by my old apartment complex just to see how things were going. I missed the critters and birds I used to see there every day. The Crow family I used to feed flew overhead, it was good to see them again.

Then I went to Kiwanis Riverway Park, one of the parks I most often visited when I lived nearby. Here’s a post I wrote four years ago about the place- Spring at Kiwanis Park.

I was looking for a particular bird seen there, but I saw some others as well.

Northern Flicker
Carolina Wren
Red-Shouldered Hawk

A Skunk Cabbage, the earliest wildflower to bloom, makes its late winter appearence. They are exothermic, which means they create their own heat! I did a post on them eight years ago, A Unique Early Spring Plant. Kiwanis Park is a great place to see them.

Then I glimpsed the bird I was looking for.

This is a Gray Catbird, and it is common in this very park- in every season but winter. It’s supposed to winter down south. Occasionally, birds out of place are seen like this- perhaps they are a first-year bird that did not have its migration instinct kick in. Perhaps it was sick or injured and couldn’t make the journey south along with the rest of its buddies. The good thing going for this bird was the fact that there were still berries in the area to eat, and it is a berry eater. Hang in there!

Bird #4

Next stop was an apartment complex on the west side of Columbus with a sizable pond.

What I was looking for was a Cackling Goose, which looks very much like a Canada Goose (of which many were present) but is smaller with a smaller bill and rounder heads.

Unfortunately a lot of the geese were sleeping with their heads tucked in their wings, so I couldn’t spot this particular rare bird. I’m three for four so far!

Bird #5

Further south on the west side was a condominium community with a pond popular with waterfowl. Once again I spotted birders at the site which made finding a rare bird much easier.

A group of Ring-Necked Ducks were in an un-frozen area of the pond…

…as was a male Redhead. Both of these species are common winter visitors and migrants, but the duck with them was not.

This duck with the interesting bill was a Surf Scoter. This bird would usually be found along the ocean coasts this season, but here it was! Birds that are way off course sometimes get blown there by big storms; sometimes they are looking through unknown territories as an explorer-type. Somebody as to push the boundaries. This intrepid bird was cool to see.

Birds #6 & #7

The last two birds I was looking for were in the same place- Green Lawn Cemetery in southern Franklin County. This famous cemetery houses historical Ohio figures and is well-known as a birding hotspot. I did a post about it five years ago- Green Lawn Cemetery.

The cemetery has a feeder area next to a pond. This is where one of the rare birds hung out. QUite a few other birds were there too.

Downy Woodpecker
Carolina Chickadee
White-Breasted Nuthatch
Dark-Eyed Junco
House Finch

After a while, the star of the show appeared…

This is a Pine Warbler, one of the earliest Warblers to return northwards in the spring. But this one was wintering over- it never left. It was feeding on the suet at the feeders.

Warblers are among my favorite birds, especially when seeing their bright colors during spring migration. This bird was a promise of good things to come.

A few years ago I saw a Pine Warbler wintering over at this very same spot. It makes you wonder, was it the same bird? Or is this just a good spot for overwintering Warblers, with its steady supply of suet? Perhaps this bird was adapting to staying here in the cold weather for whatever reason.

The last bird I was looking for was seen near famed aviator Eddie Rickenbacker’s grave.

You can see holes drilled in trees where Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers lick up flowing sap. The bird I was looking for was attracted to the sap as well.

Other birders aided in the search.

Here was a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker drilling holes and drinking sap. The bird I was looking for suddenly showed up nearby, almost like it was following the woodpecker.

And here was the final rare bird- a male Black-Throated Blue Warbler. In the above photo it is perching on a flow of sap, which attracted it to feed.

The rest of these birds were wintering over in the Caribbean! This was a real rarity. Nine years ago, I wrote about another Warbler overwintering- An Injured Bird Braves The Cold. This bird looked and acted fine. If only he could talk and tell us why he was there, so far away from the warm tropics. May was a long way off, when we would expect to see these birds.

I had seen six out of seven rare birds in an all-day trip. This was a great birding day! The fact that the internet is such a good source for finding rare birds today is a distinct advantage over those of us who remember the pre-internet era. When I was a kid, there was a phone number hotline called 221-WREN, starring birder Tom Thompson, where you could listen to a recording of where rare birds were seen in Ohio for that week. Times have definitely changed!