March and April is early spring in Ohio, often feeling more like winter, and that was true on April 21st this year when I went out in the middle of farm country looking for my 300th Ohio life list bird.
The internet is a wonderful thing for birders. When I first dabbled in birding in my childhood in the late 1970s, you were usually on your own. A bit later on, there was a recording at a phone number- 221-WREN- where Tom Thompson would read off where the latest rare birds had been seen in Ohio. Not a lot of details, but better than nothing.
Now, online resources- like Facebook’s Ohio Chase Birds website- gives you up-to-the-minute details about rares. This helps immeasurably with finding rare birds.
Bird chasers are birders that drive many miles to see a bird they haven’t seen before. Sometimes they’ve seen the species before and are working on a year list or a month list. Sometimes they just want to see a rare bird again. And the internet- and cell phones- are their friend. They call each other sharing information. They get instant alerts when posts like the one above pop up.
Rich Luehrs is a nice guy and a bird photographer. I met him looking for a Piping Plover at Buck Creek State Park’s beach a while back. He did some research on when a certain rare species has been seen at a certain area of farm fields near the border of Madison and Clark counties (eBird is a great resource for this kind of thing- I love eBird). Rick went there looking, and eventually found the species. He posted about it, and bird chasers went there looking- including me. I wanted to get my 300th Ohio bird species. I chase birds sometimes, and I definitely wanted to hit number 300. So off I went- it was less than an hour’s drive for me.
Off I drove. Flowering trees were blooming, at the same time there was a dusting of snow on the ground. That’s early spring in Ohio for you.
The drive was prime Ohio backroads, which I greatly enjoy driving.
The small village of South Solon is in the southwest corner of Madison County. It was the nearest inhabited area to my destination.
Here’s the corn stubble fields often frequented by a small number of bird species. It is quite hard to find birds in this terrain. It can drive you to distraction!
Agricultural fields take up a good amount of space in Ohio, particularly the western half of the state. Corn and soybeans are grown in large amounts. From a birder’s standpoint, agricultural fields aren’t very birdy. A small amount of bird species frequent them compared to meadows, forests and wood edges. But the birds that are there are interesting indeed.
Probably the most common bird seen in agricultural fields in Ohio is the Horned Lark. It is a year-round resident and has a pleasant tinkling song. The best time to see them is in the winter when they are foraging in corn stubble fields for stray corn. Six years ago (has it been that long?) I wrote a blog post about them entitled Off On A Lark. It can be tough to get good looks at them, they blend in well.
Other birds that can be seen in the corn stubble include Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings.
A few common species can also be found in lonely farm fields, such as this Brown-Headed Cowbird. Red-Winged Blackbirds can be found here too.
Killdeer can also be found picking through the stubble.
In the distance were groups of Pectoral Sandpipers swirling around in the air and foraging on the ground. Pectorals are among the earliest migrating shorebirds in my neck of the woods, and can be seen in damp fields and skypools.
I wasn’t alone in my search for Rick’s rare species. Other bird chasers were there, some with familiar faces. We tend to know each other and chat about our luck with this or that rare bird, or where we’ve been lately. It is a growing but at the same time fairly cozy fraternity of birders.
Many birders use scopes to look for birds in the distance, which can be a big aid in spotting things. I’m not the biggest scope fan myself…my motto being, ‘pictures, or it didn’t happen’. Stubborn, I know.
A one-armed farmer stopped his pickup truck and talked to us on the road. He was concerned that we were visible to local traffic, not parking in dips in the road where we might be the cause of an accident with other drivers. “Make sure you can see 500 feet in front of you and behind you,” he said. I thanked him and told him we would.
There were a lot of Horned Larks out there that day, but there were also a lot of American Pipits. These birds can be seen migrating through the state, and they love lonely fields. They blend right in and are hard to spot unless they move. Seven years ago I wrote a blog post about searching for them called Secretive Birds on a Burnt Prairie. Time flies.
This is a Vesper Sparrow, and these birds are just as at home here as the Larks and Pipits. These birds like fields, and they have adapted well to open agricultural fields.
Notice the finely streaked breast, the pointed pink bill and the narrow white eye-ring. They are ground-nesters and eat both seeds and insects- a very versatile diet. They enjoy dust baths and can be seen scratching the ground with both feet.
Bird chasers dotted the remote road here and there, looking for a rarer bird.
South Solon village could be seen in the distance.
Conditions were windy and cold with occasional snow squalls. I knew I should have brought gloves!
The rare birds- four of them in this case- were seen by some chasers. I joined them to look around the area. We got glimpses of flying birds in the distance, and the occasional movement in faraway corn stubble. Most people eventually left. A younger birder named Travis- we had run into each other looking for a Nelson’s Sparrow last year near Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park- and I were the last ones there for a good look.
And then Travis saw a bird fly in close to us as we stood on the open road. Sure enough, it was a male Smith’s Longspur– the subject of today’s long search, and my 300th Ohio life list bird. Victory!
This was a gorgeous bird, the orange-ish breast and the black and white head pattern were striking and unmistakable. Ohio is not in this bird’s official range, but the occasional flock strays here during migration. There are four species of Longspurs in North America, the name referring to their long hind toe.
Unlike Sparrows who hops and scratch for food, this bird searches for edibles by turning over objects with its beak.
Unlike the monogamous Vesper Sparrow, Smith’s Longspurs- both males and females- typically mate with many partners. Scientists call this behavior “polygynandrous.”
Who is the ‘Smith’ in the name of this species? He was Gideon B. Smith of Baltimore, a friend of legendary birder John James Audubon. Audubon named the bird species after him, a nice tribute.
This was a blustery but productive road trip, showing that not all birds are found in a tree or a meadow- some you have to work to find in remote places, even in Ohio.