A County Big Year During COVID-19

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Lake County, Ohio, 2020 Birding Big Year

By Sarah Preston and Jim Smallwood

This blog was first published on 17 May 2020, with further additions on 22 May, 4, 12, 22, and 29 June, and 6, 13 and 29 July 2020.

 

Part 1 – Introduction (Parts 2 – 10 now added below this, watch this space for further frequent updates!)

 

Sarah

It’s mid-May, and my fourteenth year teaching organic chemistry just ended. It was quite the unusual semester since the COVID-19 pandemic forced all college courses to move to an on-line format. As challenging as these times have been, I now have greater flexibility in my schedule and I’m kept from leaving Lake County for work or travel, which has allowed me to chase and find all kinds of birds near home. It also cemented an idea I’ve had in my head since a spectacular day of birding in January, but more about that day later. The idea of course was to do a Lake County Big Year. I finally have some time to reflect on how it’s gone and hopefully get this blog caught up to the present.

I have appreciated nature and the outdoors for as long as I can remember. My family often went hiking and camping when I was growing up. We had a bird feeder and a circa-1980 copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds. The first time I remember listing and counting is when I was eight and we drove from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Key West, Florida. I tallied all the herons, egrets, ospreys, eagles, and hawks, not always specific species because at that time all white wading birds were simply egrets and a hawk was just a hawk.

Fast forward 30 years to 2014, when I took an ornithology course at the small college where I teach, which is when I became a birder. I borrowed a tiny pair of 8×25 binoculars, which I learned how to use in class by focusing on clumps of leaves or whatever our instructor would tell us to turn around and see how fast we could find. We also learned about eBird, but our professor cautioned us, “It’s not a competition.” And I thought to myself, “Oh, but it is!” This was years before I knew anything about the eBird Top 100 lists. I took those binoculars to Magee Marsh at the end of the semester and used them to see the first warbler I can remember, a female Golden-winged Warbler, which had attracted quite a crowd. This bird I’d never heard of was a big deal! I became hooked on this birding thing that offers intellectual challenge, exciting chases, and views of beautiful and intriguing beings.

I officially met Jim in January 2019 at the dawn gathering to see Ohio’s first Slaty-backed Gull. Shortly after the gull was identified that morning practically the entire flock lifted and took off for the dump. I was dismayed because the look I’d gotten was quite unsatisfactory. What were these strings of pearls everyone was claiming to have seen? Half the time my 17x magnification scope had frost on the lens, so I couldn’t see anything at all. I stayed behind wishfully thinking that the Slaty-backed Gull had also. Jim was there too, and the two of us scrutinized this dark-mantled gull’s legs until we received the disappointing news that the gull had been identified at the dump. Over the past year Jim and I have seen each other at additional rare bird sightings and worked together volunteering for Cleveland Lights Out. Recently Jim mentioned writing about this year’s unique birding situation, so I invited him to write this blog with me.

Jim

As I sit here trying to introduce myself, the other Lake County Big Year birders are out there chasing everything that moves. This does hamper concentration a bit as my Messenger app keeps dinging, indicating a possible new or rare bird. I don’t want to miss a good bird as completion is stiff. The other reason I’m sitting here at home is that my Zeiss binoculars have been hung-up for months at the repair factory in Germany due to the pandemic. I don’t want to go another day without them, and they require a signature and ID and are arriving sometime today. So there is no better time to write than now.

I have lived in Lake County, Ohio, for 31 years. I came here in 1989 when I took a park ranger position with Lake Metroparks. I semi-retired in 2016 and now spend almost all of my spare time chasing birds all over the state. This culminated into an Ohio Big Year in 2019, where I fell two birds shy of the magic 300. This year was supposed to be another Ohio Big Year, and I was well planned out and had picked up 20 difficult species outside of Lake County in preparation for toppling that 300 mark. Then the pandemic hits, and travel is discouraged with stay-at-home orders from the Governor.

I didn’t just start birding when I retired. It all started before my 37 years in park law enforcement. I went to Hocking College for Natural Resources in Nelsonville, Ohio, from 1979 to 1981.  My last quarter before graduation required me to take a field ornithology class. This was truly one of the toughest courses I’ve ever taken, and it dealt solely with identifying birds in the field by sight and sound, and I knew very little about birds. I barely passed that class, but I never forgot my instructor’s amazing abilities to identify a bird on a chip note or at great distance with just a quick glance; it was magic to me. I was so intrigued that I started attending the Clark County Audubon Society bird walks after leaving college and became good friends with hike leader Doug Overacker circa 1982.

That’s the path that I took to get to this epic Lake County Big Year and becoming a Real Lake County Birder. I may also go for that magic 300, but the county competition comes first. There may never be another chance for a Lake County Big Year with all the great locals birding together. This has never happened before, and, like I’ve said, I’ve lived here 31 years.

My Instagram birding pics can be found at @jsskyline17.

 

Lake County, OH

Lake County, where we both reside, is in northeast Ohio and is the smallest county in the state. Lake Erie makes up its entire northern border. We boast a number of rarities, the most recent one being Ohio’s first Tropical Kingbird found by Lake County birding legend, Ray Hannikman. According to eBird our little county is the #3 county in Ohio for all time number of bird species with 337 on record. Below is a table of notable Lake County hotspots and relative distances and driving times from our respective houses.

 

Hotspot Distance from Sarah’s house Driving time from Sarah’s house Distance from Jim’s house Driving time
from Jim’s house
Mentor Headlands 7 miles 12 minutes 15 miles 27 minutes
Mentor Lagoons 4 miles 10 minutes 12 miles 19 minutes
Chagrin River Park 5 miles 8 minutes 5 miles 8 minutes
Wake Robin 7 miles 12 minutes 15 miles 19 minutes

 

According to Lake County birder lore and available eBird records the record for most species seen in our county in a single year is 250 species set by Dave Chase in 2017. Some people believe that a much higher number is possible, and there are folks who don’t keep their records in eBird and have had nearly that many species in a year in the Headlands area alone. Whatever the actual record, 250 is a nice round number to have as a goal, similar to Ohio’s 300 club.

County big year listLake County’s Mentor Marsh, which contains several birding hotspots

 

Part 2 – January 20, 2020

Jim

I learned a lot from analyzing my Ohio Big Year attempt. My main goal for this January was to knock off some of those tough-to-get birds I chased all year as well as shooting for the “Ohio January 100”. I also looked at my record-keeping system, which consisted of a paper checklist with the difficulty rating of seeing each species. This became a nightmare when the list got temporally misplaced. That archaic system had to change, and with the start of 2020 I began eBirding every sighting. I never realized just how powerful a tool eBird could be until I started using it full-time.

By January 20th I had 10 difficult state species behind me, including a lifer Harris’s Sparrow. I met with my birding buddy Jamie that morning, and our goal was to look for Horned Lark, Snow Bunting, Lapland Longspur, and possibly the super-hard-to-find Purple Sandpiper here in Lake County. We checked Fairport Nursery Road and Fairport Harbor Lakefront Park and finally ended up at Headland Dunes State Nature Preserve.

I told Jamie I wanted to check the beach and breakwall for Purple Sandpipers. Jamie humored my request, and off we went to the beach. Let’s be honest, how often have you ever found a Purple Sandpiper on the beach? My answer to myself is “never”. As we get close to the beach near the lighthouse I see a shorebird and tell Jamie it’s a Purple Sandpiper. He sees the bird and looks at me and says, “Do you think it is a Purple?” I shrug, but the bird is too far away to identify. I had a Dunlin in Cleveland the week prior, so the odds are it’s a Dunlin, but I can’t see the bird well enough, so I say nothing. As we get closer I’m dumbfounded to find out that it is indeed a Purple Sandpiper, and on the beach at that! This bird is also a Lake County lifer for me.

Ohio year listPurple Sandpiper at Headland Dunes State Nature Preserve (photo Jim Smallwood)

 

I take dozens of pictures of this bird, which literally walks within ten feet of us going about his business of dining on whatever washes up. I put the sighting out on Messenger to our Lake County group as well as post it on Ohio Chase Birds. Andy, from our Lake County group, texts back, asking if it’s really on the beach and I respond by saying, “of course.”

In the meantime Jamie is getting pictures from Sarah of a Great Horned Owl being seen at Chagrin River Park. Jamie can’t figure why she is sending him pictures of this owl, and I’m too busy taking and uploading pictures of the sandpiper to pay much attention to a Great Horned Owl. He tells me she knows he already has one for the year. We start making our way back to our cars and feel sorry for the sandpiper, as we know folks will be flocking here en masse to see it even before we get out of the parking lot. We meet Sarah on the trail and give her a more detailed location of the bird. That’s also when we find out from Sarah that the pictures she sent Jamie weren’t actually of a Great Horned Owl but of a Long-earned Owl. Holy mackerel! I chased a Long-eared Owl all last year before finding one at Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area in late December; it was my 298th and last bird of 2019. Now we are running to the car to get onto this bird before it’s gone, and Jamie keeps saying, “I was wondering why she was sending me pictures of a Great Horned Owl.”

 

Sarah

The year began very rough for me. I spent New Year’s Eve and most of January on the couch with a respiratory illness that left me with a terrible cough and no energy. I only went birding nine days during the entire month, my focus being Lake County and actual lifers. I had an exciting day in Wood County with my friend Deb, where we chased and found Prairie Falcon and found Eurasian Collared Dove and Greater White-fronted Goose as well. I was also able to easily pick up Harlequin Duck and Snowy Owl for the year in Cuyahoga County.

My friend Kari and I had been lamenting about how we’d never seen a Long-eared Owl and how unlikely it would be, since they are a sensitive species and their locations are usually kept secret. We made an owl pact, promising to tell each other if we ever found one.

Not long after that I was enjoying a quiet Martin Luther King Day in my pajamas when I got a text from Kari, “Let owl at Chagrin now.” I thought I knew what she meant but couldn’t believe it, “What kind of owl? Chagrin River?” She responded, “L.E.” to which I texted, “Omg!” I put my warm clothes on in a rush and sped down Ohio State Route 2. This was the day I made my first Big Year rule, “always be dressed.”

I got to the park, but there was nowhere to park because everyone was there sledding. Kari was leaving and let me have her spot. Our friend Josh took me to the owl location, which wasn’t in dense conifer as expected. The owl was right out in the open and didn’t seem bothered at all by the small group of people gawking at it. I took a few pictures and texted one to my dad and a few friends, including my friend Jamie (for which I guess I should have included an ID. I am not the only person this year who should have followed the rule “Don’t just send a picture.”) Jamie responded with the news that he and Jim had found a Purple Sandpiper on the beach at Headlands. I was still not feeling well and probably shouldn’t have been out, but I figured I was already out, so I might as well try for the sandpiper, which I did get. Little did I know I would be diagnosed with walking pneumonia the next day and wouldn’t leave my house for over a week. Good thing I got these birds when I did, although this day isn’t the only time these species made appearances in Lake County in 2020!

Ohio year listLong-eared Owl at Chagrin River Park (photo Sarah Preston)

 

January Lake County totals:

Jim: 68

Sarah: 43

 

Part 3 – Early February, 2020

Jim

The first eleven days of February 2020 had been slow for Big Year birds. January brought me Lesser Black-backed Gull, Iceland Gull, Red-necked Grebe, Snow Bunting, Northern (Common) Raven, Great Cormorant, Merlin, and Cackling Goose. On February 12th my buddy Tim Jasinski (Tim runs the entire ground game for Cleveland Lights Out) texted me an Ohio Chase Birds post about a Pacific Loon being seen from Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve. The loon had been found a couple of days earlier by a Cleveland birding buddy of mine, Doug Deppen. Doug never posts, so our mutual friend Lori Brumbaugh photographed this bird after she found it that day and posted it to Ohio Chase Birds.

The Pacific Loon was a nemesis bird in my 2019 Big Year. It was late November and then again early December that I chased a Pacific Loon at East Fork State Park just east of Cincinnati, Ohio. Let me just say that from the Cleveland area to this bird it was a nine-hour and 556-miles round trip. You do the math and then add in that I dipped both times, and it’s ugly. I never got a Pacific Loon last year, and now one is 20 minutes from my house and I’m in CPR class. We finished class early, and I was out the door and arrived at CLNP at 1:19 p.m. It took me a half hour to re-find the bird, but there it was, poor pics and all.

County big yearPacific Loon (photo Jim Smallwood) at Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve

 

It was then that I saw a message to our birding group from Sarah asking if anyone was going for that bird. I messaged her that I was on it, and in no time she arrived a little out of breath and found it in my scope. Life birds are worth a beer up here on the North Coast. My heritage is mostly British, followed by Irish and then Scottish, so you might say birds and beer are in my blood… just no accent. As Richard Crossley told me a couple of years ago at The Biggest Week in American Birding, “There is nothing better at the end of a long day of birding than discussing birds over a pint.”

 

Sarah

There was a lull in the Lake County birding action, so I made a few forays into Cuyahoga County in February. Our only Snowy Owl was a one-day wonder, so I went to the famed 100th Bomb Group Restaurant second-floor patio to look for one being seen at Cleveland Hopkins Airport across the street. I knew the lay of the land since this had been the location of the first Cleveland Birds & Beers gathering in January. I scanned all over with my little, ancient scope, checking the runway signs the bird is apt to perch on without luck. I checked the snow piles, and an owl-shaped lump caught my eye. Did I see its head turn? Just then a couple from central Ohio arrived with a better scope. I pointed out the snow pile, and as we were looking the lump flapped and began preening. Score!

On February 12th I planned to visit Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve in search of a would-be-lifer Pacific Loon. I wrote a quick message to the Lake county group chat, “Anyone want to chase the Pacific Loon at CNLP or the California Gull at Wendy this afternoon? I’ll drive, you bring scope,” but didn’t receive a response. An hour later as I arrived at the preserve Jim answered that he was there and had found the loon. I hurriedly walked the half mile as fast as my recovering lungs would allow (another rule of Big Year birding: cardio). Jim was still on the loon and let me look at it in his scope. I told him that loon was a lifer, so I owed him a beer. We looked for the California Gull also, but it was nowhere to be found.

After getting a Horned Lark as the third county lifer of the year and adding Snow Buntings to my year list on Friday I made good on my promise that Saturday at Spuddy’s Tavern when I, my husband, Adam, Jim, and Jamie had a fun dinner chatting about birds and birders. Little did we know this would be the last time the four of us would be able to get together at the beloved dive bar for quite some time.

County big yearHorned Lark (back) and Snow Buntings (foreground) along Route 535 (photo Sarah Preston)

 

Part 4 – February continued

Sarah

On Wednesday, February 19th I was working from home (before it became the norm) and got word around lunchtime that the second-ever Slaty-backed Gull for Ohio was only 20 minutes away. I sped down the highway to Wendy Park, where a group of birders were observing it. Several of my birding friends were there and offered me great views in their scopes. I can’t believe I got another chance to see this species so soon after my crummy first experience, after which I wrote this poem:

“The Slaty-backed Gull”

Here I’m standing, looking for a gull.
Don’t you want to see it too?
It won’t be as long as the last bird.
Just another hour or two.

Oh gull, this horrible weather.
Oh gull, why are we here?
I swear, I can’t feel my fingers.
What’s up with this weather?
Hand me my field guide.

I almost thought that I saw it.
Don’t you think you saw it too?
Anyway, what does it look like?
The legs are pink, the back is dark.

Oh gull, the horrible weather.
Oh gull, where can it be?!
I swear, I’m leaving this minute,
If we don’t see it.
Where are my car keys?

Oh gull, this horrible weather.
Oh gull, it’s finally here!
Look there! I think I can see it!
Didn’t you just see it?
Look in the scope.

Big year birdingSlaty-backed Gull (photo Sarah Preston), the dark gull on the left

I wasn’t planning to bird on February 29th, but Kari had reported both Glaucous and Iceland Gulls, so we had to check it out. Glad we did! We started at Headlands, where hundreds of gulls were flying around and sitting in the water. I told my observant, non-birder husband, Adam, “We’re looking for a tannish-white gull without black wingtips.” After a brief search, he pointed out a gull fitting the description. It was a Glaucous Gull! I took tons of pictures because I’d never seen one in flight before. What a gorgeous bird!

Big year birdingGlaucous Gull (photo Sarah Preston) at Headland Dunes State Nature Preserve

Adam and I changed location to the boat ramp on the opposite side of Fairport Harbor and ran into Erin and Andy Avram. Erin needed Glaucous Gull for her year list, and I needed Iceland Gull for my life list. I relocated the Glaucous and pointed it out to Erin, then she found the Iceland in her scope, and Andy confirmed the identifications. At one point we had both white gull species in the same scope view! It’s fitting that the Avram’s helped me finally get my lifer Iceland Gull, because it wasn’t long before this that Andy had been leading a Lake Metroparks bird walk and he and Erin had noticed an Iceland Gull but couldn’t get me on it and felt bad. This sharing of sightings and helping each other find birds will continue as the year goes on, even though this strategic birding couple will become two of the top competitors in the Lake County 2020 Big Year race.

Jim

The weather on Lake Erie can be at its most brutal during the last half of February, but great birds can also turn up. I patrol every Sunday for the Metroparks and was on patrol February 16th when I was flagged down by a citizen to help a Cooper’s Hawk standing on its prey in the busy roadway. That bird had to be starving to be sitting in traffic trying to pluck and eat the Ring-billed Gull that was too heavy for it to carry far.  I intervened, took some pics, got him out of traffic, and reunited him with his prey, and his life went on. Sometimes you see the difference you make.

Big year birdingCooper’s Hawk with Ring-billed Gull (photo Jim Smallwood)

I saw an Ohio Chase Birds post of a Varied Thrush on the evening of February 15th but was unable to go and look for it until Monday, February 17th, due to work. I arrived at Horseshoe Lake in Shaker Heights that morning to find only one other birder, who told me he had been there since sunrise and the bird was nowhere to be found. He wished me luck, and well, it worked. I walked to the place it was last seen the afternoon before, and it flies right in. I look around to see if anyone else just witnessed what I had. Nope, that show was just for me.

Big year birdingVaried Thrush (photo Jim Smallwood) at Horseshoe Lake

Well, things didn’t slow down. On February 19th Tim Jasinski texted me that a Slaty-backed Gull was at Wendy Park in Cleveland and to “get down here now.”  I flew there, almost literally. Not a life bird but a key Big Year state bird. I arrived and saw Sarah there, and she had already scored the bird. Jen Brumfield let me look thru her scope (pre-COVID-19). Bingo! I was there for the first- and second-ever sightings of a Slaty-backed Gull in Ohio; then the bird abruptly flew off.  I returned the following day and observed the Slaty-backed Gull again. While there I got some poor long-distance shots comparing the size and back colors of the Slaty-backed, Lesser Black-backed, and Great Black-backed Gulls. I also had great looks at Iceland Gulls including the Thayer’s subspecies.

Big year birdingIceland Gulls (photo Jim Smallwood)

On February 29th I’m out birding Lake County with Jamie and run into Sarah and others at the Fairport Harbor boat ramps, all looking at gulls. While there I see my first-ever Lake County Iceland Gull and another anomaly, a Purple Sandpiper that almost landed on Jamie’s head as he yells out, “Purple Sandpiper!” That’s one heck of a way to end February. Little did we know at the time that the birding life was going to abruptly change in the month of March.

February totals:

Jim: 88

Sarah: 82

 

Part 5 – March

Jim

Sunday morning, March 1st, started like a regular Sunday for me on patrol for the Metroparks. This was my last day of patrol before flying out early the next day to Sarasota, Florida, for a week of birding with a buddy. I was so done with snow and ice and looking forward to sun and good weather. I was stoked. My only concern was missing out on good birds here and falling behind the other birders. At this point I’m still chasing the “300”.

At 11:34 a.m. I received a text from Tim Jasinski, “PAINTED BUNTING Stark County.” This bird was only an hour and thirty minutes away, so I texted my birding-friendly sergeant, Chris.  I actually trained Chris as he came from a local PD after he retired. I also photographed an albino Ruby-throated Hummingbird in his yard last fall. It may be the only albino Ruby-throated Hummingbird to ever be photographed in Ohio. My photograph made the Ohio Ornithological Societies, Ohio Cardinal, Fall 2019 edition. Chris tells me, “We’re good. Go chase it. We have enough folks to cover things. Just let me know if you get it.”

County big yearAlbino Ruby-throated Hummingbird (photo Jim Smallwood) in Chris’s yard

I signed out of service at noon and headed south to find this Painted Bunting female being seen at a bird feeder at an Amish residence. While en route Jamie calls me and is excited to tell me that he and Caitlin just found a Harlequin Duck at the boat ramps in Fairport Harbor. The Harlequin Duck was one of the first state birds I saw in January in Cleveland. At that point in time doing a county Big Year was not even a real thought. It would be a county life bird, but that was not enough to turn me around. The Painted Bunting was a lifer and a great Big Year bird for Ohio. I arrived at the residence well off the main road and was invited inside. The Amish are the kindest birders I know.  I was among a half dozen birders already there. Within 20 minutes the bird made an appearance, along with a Carolina Chickadee. Up on Lake Erie we only have Black-capped Chickadees, so that was a bonus state bird that I wouldn’t have to chase later. I took numerous photographs, chatted with all the birders, signed the visitor log, and thanked our hosts for their kindness.

County big yearPainted Bunting (photo Jim Smallwood) at an Amish residence in Stark County

I texted Jamie that I was headed back to Fairport Beach with an ETA of 4:15 p.m. Jamie said the Harlequin was still being seen and he would meet me there. I arrived at the ramps, and there it was, swimming right off the rocks. I took a ton of pics at close range. No time for celebratory beers as I still had to pack for my flight the next morning.

I flew out the next day and back home March 8th. I had a great week of backpacking and birding in perfect weather. Another buddy of mine, Joe is a respiratory therapist working in south Florida, and he told me he had been treating COVID-19 patients and one had already died. We knew something was up and that danger was at our doorstep. The rest of the month was eventful, but not in a birding way. Stay-at-home orders for Ohio were issued on March 23rd, and everyone was adjusting to social distancing and The Biggest Week in American Birding was canceled. Suddenly birding is not as important as it was. It’s during this time period that a county Big Year comes to light for me as we all adjust. Being a birder became a lifesaver in these trying times.

 

Sarah

March 1st is my dad’s birthday. I had planned to spend that weekend visiting my parents but instead decided to spend all of spring break with them a week later. So I was fortunately in town when my friends, Jamie and Caitlin, who I’d soon meet for the first time, found a female Harlequin Duck at Fairport Harbor. On our way there I excitedly texted news of the finding to Ray Hannikman, but, mortifyingly, my flying fingers fumbled the word “duck” into a much more offensive one. We arrived and I couldn’t believe how close to us she swam! This was my 5th Lake County life bird of the year.

County big yearHarlequin Duck (photo Sarah Preston) at the boat ramp in Fairport Harbor

The rest of the week was uneventful, even though Jamie and I joked about having to find a good bird while Jim was out of town.

I spent March 7th to 13th at my parents’ house in Loveland, OH. Being farther south they get the spring migration birds 2-3 weeks earlier. We had a great time birding their favorite hotspots and adding to our year lists. My mom started using eBird in January, so she was building her official life list as well. The evening before the time change we enjoyed a first-of-the-year American Woodcock display at the Cincinnati Nature Center’s Longbranch Farm. My dad and I went to see them again the next night, but we got kicked out before they began because, with time springing forward, the park closed before dusk. We got a great woodcock show with a bonus FOY Barred Owl at another night at Caesar Creek State Park.

County big yearMy parents, birding at East Fork State Park during my spring break (photo Sarah Preston)

While away I kept an eye on Lake County bird sightings and my top 100 eBird ranking for Lake 2020 but didn’t miss much or fell too far behind. I started watching another set of statistics –coronavirus cases in Ohio. The first 3 positive test results in Ohio were announced that week. The American Chemical Society National Meeting I was supposed to attend in Philadelphia later in March was canceled.

My dad wanted me to stay a couple extra days, but I didn’t want to miss a Pi Day party or church that weekend. I wish I had stayed longer because I didn’t see my parents again for 11 weeks, and of course I haven’t been to a party or church since.

When I returned to Lake County Adam and I picked up a pair of Purple Finches at Holden Arboretum, which was fortuitous timing because they closed to the public for two months a few days after that. On Sunday, March 22nd, Adam and I did a day of birding in Trumbull County to see Trumpeter Swans and other waterfowl at Grand River Wildlife Area. After that we wouldn’t leave Lake County for two months.

March Lake County totals:

Jim: 105

Sarah: 104

 

Part 6 – April

Jim

 April started out slow, but as everyone knows the month wouldn’t end that way. Terns, herons, bitterns, rails, shorebirds, flycatchers, warblers, and sparrows start arriving along the north coast. The more time in the field in the month of April, the more prepared one will be for the onslaught of migration that comes in May. Everyone is out there looking for that first-seen bird of the year.

On April 3rd I was birding along Fairport Nursery Road, which is open grassland on both sides for over two miles with Lake Erie on its northern border. I was looking for the first Savannah Sparrow of the year, and there it was, several actually. I pulled off the side of the road and shot numerous photos. Kind of cool, I thought. At the end of the day I was going through my photos and realized several of the sparrows were not Savannah Sparrows at all. It wasn’t until I started to crop my pics that I realized that among those Savannah Sparrows were several first-of-the-year Vesper Sparrows and a darn good county bird. Sometimes we don’t look closely enough at what we are seeing and just assume what’s expected, and that’s when rare birds are overlooked or misidentified. Just something I need to keep reminding myself as migration picks up.

Even if you are in the field every day there are a few birds that can still be missed, and I call them pivotal birds. These include Snow Goose, Long-tailed Duck, Sandhill Crane, American White Pelican, Merlin, Fish Crow and Black Vulture, to name a few. It will be these types of birds along with a freak rarity that doesn’t stay that will ultimately be the difference between the top five big year contenders. These are usually fly-over birds that you must be in the right place at the right time with a smidgen of luck to see.

Lake county big yearSandhill Cranes (photo Jim Smallwood) fly by the Zimmerman Trail.

Sandhill Crane flyovers started happening. I finally got lucky and observed a flyover while on the Zimmerman Trail along the Mentor Marsh. The Sandhill Crane appearances became so frequent that everyone got a chance to see them. The next two birds that were much sought-after were the Fish Crow and the Black Vulture. The Black Vulture is easy to identify in flight, but I’ve lived in Lake County for over 30 years and have yet to see one here. The Fish Crow has to be heard to be counted, and I didn’t get one last year within the county. These became nemesis birds for me, as one birder after another was able get them. Except for finding the Vesper Sparrows and an American Bittern in the first half of April I became a chaser of other people’s birds. This is not a position of command.

Lake county big yearThe American Bittern (photo Jim Smallwood) that, when flushed, startled birders on a few occasions at Lake Erie Bluffs

The most exciting in early April was a Neotropic Cormorant found by Andy and Erin Avrum at Headland Dunes State Nature Preserve. I chased this bird last year several times as one was being seen frequently at Battelle Darby Metropark in Columbus. This was a county lifer for me and easily identified at a distance as it is 20% smaller than a Double-crested Cormorant. My pics weren’t great but definitive, and that’s all that mattered. I’m pretty sure it was a county lifer for everyone that day, as I don’t recall it ever being seen in Lake County before.

Lake county big year Neotropic Cormorant (photo Jim Smallwood) at Headland Dunes State Nature Preserve

 

Sarah

For me the beginning of April was spectacular as I managed to snag four Lake County lifers plus a bird that had previously been heard only. On April 2nd I was glad to add Trumpeter Swan to my Lake County list after unsuccessfully chasing one after work in February. The next day Jim reported the Vesper Sparrows, one of which I was able to see and photograph for the first time ever that Saturday. I would see them on several more occasions that month.

Lake county big yearVesper Sparrow (photo Sarah Preston) along Fairport Nursery Road

On Monday morning, April 6th, I went to Headlands. I was standing next to my car, listening and listing the birds I heard, when one of the Common Ravens flew through the picnic area and croaked. Not five minutes later a Fish Crow flew by high over the cottonwoods, giving several nasal “ah ah” calls. Boom, another Lake County lifer! An American Crow promptly followed. Corvid trifecta!

On April 9th my husband Adam and I were driving home from North Chagrin Reservation and decided to go to downtown Willoughby so we could spin the numerous PokéStops, resupplying our depleted Pokéball supply (both of us are avid Pokémon Go players).  While we were driving along the aptly named Ridge Road overlooking the Chagrin River valley, I was enjoying eye-level views of a Bald Eagle. I noticed a flock of Turkey Vultures when suddenly I saw a distinct flash of silver wingtips. “Black Vulture!” I shouted. I made Adam turn the car around and he drove to a park in the valley below. I jumped out with my camera and started firing off shots of the flying vulture. None were spectacular, but several were sufficient for identification. I had sent a message to the Lake County birders, but shortly after the large black bird soared off over the highway and out of sight. Mine was only the sixth Black Vulture sighting in Lake County this year, and there were only two sightings in 2019. It’s now mid-June, and no one has seen one since, although Jim is determined to get one. I feel fortunate to have seen that bird, a new Lake County bird for me, and the experience cemented another big year rule in my brain: Always be birding!

On April 12th, Easter Sunday, Adam and I decided to do a Lake County big day. Our friends Cole and Chia were also on board with the big day idea, becoming our competition. Adam and I started close to home at Veterans Park at 7:15 a.m., hoping for a Eastern Screech Owl that seemingly everyone had seen but striking out as had been the case. It was pouring rain, so we moved to Mentor Lagoons and bagged 24 species from our car. Next, after the rain let up, was Wake Robin Trail, which yielded an American Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon, and Virginia Rail, but no Sora. Continuing to work our way east we hit the Shipman Pond area of Headlands Beach State Park, obtaining 55 species, the biggest checklist of the day. Notable species there included a surprise Wilson’s Snipe, a Merlin (falcon trifecta for the day!), and two Black-crowned Night Herons. At the nature preserve section of Headlands we had backlit looks at a first-of-the-year Pine Warbler and then headed home for an obligatory bathroom break (since none were available) and lunch.

After lunch we were hiking the Zimmerman Trail, hoping for Red-headed Woodpecker usually seen just under a mile from the trailhead, when the message about the Neotropic Cormorant popped up. I had broken my “never get too far from the car” big year rule, so it was a long, stressful hustle to get out of there. When we arrived all our Lake County birder friends were there, practicing social distancing as best they could. We enjoyed great looks at the small cormorant through my new scope I bought in March as a reward to myself for being promoted to full professor.

Lake county big yearThe Neotropic Cormorant crew (photo Jim Smallwood) at Headlands

Then it was back to the business of our big day. We hiked the other end of the Zimmerman Trail, hearing a Barred Owl, seeing the Peregrine Falcon again and six woodpecker species, but missing Pileated Woodpecker. Black-capped Chickadee was the biggest miss of the day. We swung by Mentor Lagoons on our way home for Easter dinner with my family via Zoom and picked up Purple Martin for our final and 85th species of the day. Cole and Chia had 95 species for the day and, according to Ray’s records, April 12th was now the earliest date the birders of Lake County had collectively seen over 100 species in a day.

 

Part 7 – April continued

 

Jim

In April many Lake County birders were looking for Yellow-headed Blackbirds and fly-over American White Pelicans. Adding these to your list involves sorting through flights of blackbirds looking for gold and keeping an eye on the sky for pelican silhouettes. On April 14th Josh Davidson was the first to report pelicans when a flock of twenty flew over the north end of Mentor Marsh. Only a few people saw that flock, but everyone else got their chance on April 17th, when Caitlin saw a Birding Ohio post from Nan Patrick of an American White Pelican on the water at the Mentor Lagoons. Everyone raced there, and no one was disappointed. It hung out a couple of days.

On April 21st I had just found my first Bobolinks of the year at Indian Point Park, when Tim Jasinski texted that there was a Barn Owl at Erie Street Cemetery in downtown Cleveland and to “Get It!” Downtown is less than 20 minutes from my house, so I considered that a chasable area, even under current travel restrictions. I posted my Bobolink find to the group and advised them of the Barn Owl and that I was heading there. I arrived 40 minutes later and the owl was in plain view for all to see. That’s when the Cleveland Police arrived, as they had heard that a rare bird was drawing a large crowd. Due to the pandemic, CPD’s two-person police cars were now single-person units, and two cars were being dispatched to every call. It was quite a sight to see all these police cars rolling in, eight in total. I spent a half hour discussing birds and birding with a couple of the cops.

County big yearCounty big yearBarn Owl and Cleveland Police Department (photos Jim Smallwood) at Erie Street Cemetery.

 While at the cemetery I ran into Josh Davidson and his dad trying to locate a sparrow moving through the grass like a mouse. Its behavior was odd, but Josh thought it would be a Chipping Sparrow. It took concentration, but we were finally able to see it. I grabbed a quick shot as Josh says, “Henslow’s Sparrow. You good with that ID?” “OMG, yes!” was my reply. Josh is 17 or 18 and already one hell of a birder. Last year I found Henslow’s Sparrows at Batelle Darby Metropark in Columbus but never got a decent glimpse, let alone a photograph. This was a good Ohio bird I’d have never seen if Josh had not been chasing it around.

On April 25th the group gets a kick in the pants from Sarah as she relays a report of a Glossy or White-faced Ibis seen from the parking lot at Mentor Lagoons. The next message I see is from Caitlin, who says she is on site, has eyes on the bird, and believes it’s a Glossy Ibis. The race is on. I couldn’t find a Glossy Ibis anywhere in Ohio last year, and I chased one several times. I didn’t want to miss this bird as it would be a Lake County lifer for me. Jamie and I were about the last to arrive, but most of the Lake County crew were still there scoping the bird. The bird is an Ibis, but it’s too far out to distinguish Glossy vs. White-faced. Jamie and I headed to Becker Road for a closer look and photographs. It looked like a Glossy Ibis to me.  Jamie and I get some better photographs to attach to our checklist and to update Ohio Chase Birds. Numerous folks submitted eBird reports with their descriptions and photographs of the ibis.  The sightings were accepted even before a better diagnostic photograph was taken a couple of days later from the kayak of a local photographer. Kayak!  A light goes on in my head about using mine to get better views of shorebirds when they come back through, starting in July. I needed to renew my kayak registration before I can put it on the water. Sarah and Adam mentioned plans of obtaining kayaks themselves. It’s like having a spotting scope in your arsenal, you may not use it every day, but when you do, it’s going to give you a leg up on the competition, especially in the marsh.

County big yearGlossy Ibis (photo Jim Smallwood) at Mentor Marsh Nature Preserve

 April 28th, I’d just visited the magic dumpsters (more on this later) near the Headlands maintenance area looking for a reported Northern Waterthrush and Blue-winged Warbler. I struck out at the “not-so-magic“ dumpsters and walked up the road toward Zimmerman Trail. In the parking lot by the trailhead I observed a FOY Orange-crowned Warbler. I texted Sarah and posted the sighting on messenger. Birders flocked to see this hard-to-find spring migrant. Unfortunately I lost sight of the bird when sending out messages and could not relocate it. Of all the folks that showed up, only Tony Gazso was able to relocate the warbler for a brief look. There is nothing worse on a notable find than the finder being the only person to see the bird. In the next couple of days most everyone will refind the Orange-crowned Warbler, but its significance diminishes with the craziest day of spring coming the next day.

The bird migration forecast for overnight on the 28th-29th looked amazing, and we were not disappointed the morning of April 29th. Before I could get out of my truck at Zimmerman Trail I was advised of a Least Bittern, a great bird anywhere in Ohio, showing at Headlands Dunes State Nature Preserve, so I went there first. Within five minutes the bittern and I were looking at each other face to face. I got some great shots just before it flew into the wet area of the dunes.

Things got crazier after that when I met up with Sarah and Domenic Rocco. Sarah was notified by a birder leaving that she thought she saw a Long-eared Owl but wasn’t sure because it was very light-colored. Sarah believes it wasn’t a Long-eared Owl at all but a Barn Owl. I’m skeptical but agree to look. We split up to cover more ground and I walk around a brushy dune and there it is! Boom! It takes flight heading south. Damn, Sarah was right!

I don’t know what to do but give chase to grab a pic or see where it goes. These dunes are very brushy with little to no visibility, so I immediately lose it. Within 100 feet I run into Roger and Ray, and they tell me they just saw a Long-eared Owl flying north. This makes no sense to me and I tell them about the Barn Owl I kicked up that flew south. I tag along with them and go back south only to run into Sarah and Domenic, who tell me they had a Barn Owl flying. I tell them I just kicked one up about the time they saw it and that Roger and Ray are currently looking for a Long-eared Owl they saw in flight.

We separate again and go looking for the Barn Owl. I’m back in the brushy dunes and hear Blue Jays screaming within this thick bush. So I get on my hands and knees and crawl in looking for the Barn Owl when I come face to face with a Long-eared Owl perched almost on the ground. The owl immediately takes flight. I yell out and someone else says they have a Long-eared Owl that just landed in a tree not 200 feet from where I had discovered one in the bushes. While I’m standing there looking at the perched owl another Long-eared Owl flies into the same tree as the first one. This owl is light-colored. I get pics of both owls in the tree together.

County big yearLong-eared Owls (photo Jim Smallwood) at Headlands Dunes State Nature Preserve.

You are probably asking, “Are you sure you saw a Barn Owl to begin with?” I’ve seen several Barn Owls in the last few years including finding one last winter at Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve and had just seen another the week before. There is no doubt about that first owl being a Barn Owl, and it was also seen by Sarah and Domenic in a separate location after I flushed it.

We have three owls of two different species, but the day gets even better. While I am trying to relocate the Barn Owl and get some pics, Sarah, Ray, and Roger kick up two Eastern Whip-poor-wills which I hear call. Talk about being physically drained from a full day of birding before 2:00 p.m., but the day still wasn’t over.

I’m thinking about taking a well-deserved lunch break when Domenic messages the group from Mentor Lagoons with pics of two Little Blue Herons he has a half mile in on the Marsh Rim Trail. There is no time for a break now. Little Blue Heron in Lake County is another anomaly and a great Ohio bird. Someone else finds a singing Prairie Warbler back at Headlands, and we get several good photographs. By now I’m thinking I should have done most of my big year in Lake County last year and I would have saved a ton of gas and wear and tear on my truck.

April 30th is another great day of birding the Headlands with warblers, vireos, and flycatchers still arriving. Roger finds a roosting Whip-poor-will that stays there for twelve hours, so even Jamie gets to see it after work. All this excitement, and May doesn’t arrive until tomorrow.

County big yearPrairie Warbler (photo Jim Smallwood) at Headlands Dunes State Nature Preserve

 

Sarah

Besides the American White Pelican and the Glossy Ibis, the birding in mid-April was slow and only yielded a handful of year birds. The last week, especially the last three days, however, was off the hook. In those three days I gained 29 Lake County year birds, five of which were Lake County lifers.

One of the biggest sightings occurred on April 26th when Andy and Erin had eleven Marbled Godwits fly around Mentor Marsh and briefly touch down. Adam and I arrived within 10 minutes, but they were gone. I couldn’t believe I missed such an awesome bird. There were only a handful of sighting in the county ever.

The end of April was when the magic dumpsters began to produce. There is this area between the Headlands Beach parking lot, which was super flooded, and Mentor Marsh that was just a little strip of woodland. Next to that was a maintenance area with dumpsters, and behind those dumpsters was nothing more than a puddle, but all kinds of FOY birds appeared in or around the vicinity of that puddle: Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Northern Waterthrush, Blue-winged Warbler, Ovenbird, Cerulean Warbler, Yellow-throated Vireo, and Prothonotary Warbler, to name a few. Some people were checking the puddle every morning at dawn.

Just after dawn on April 29th Caitlin reported a Blue-winged Warbler in the maintenance area. Domenic and I ran into each other there and began earnestly searching for the bird that would be a lifer for him and a Lake County lifer for me. While there we ran into Ray, who told us Roger found a Least Bittern in the Headlands Dunes area. It was almost a mile, but we decided to walk and look for birds on the way.

We arrived, and I was struck by how tiny the Least Bittern looked way up in a tree out in the open, like a leaf with the bill being the stem. Roger has a knack for finding hard-to-see birds and says that he “looks for something that doesn’t belong.”

County big yearLeast Bittern (photo Sarah Preston) found by Roger Beuck

 Right after this we ran into Jim, got the tip from Kathy about the owl, and chaos ensued. After we split up in the bushes, Domenic and I ended up in an open area with Jim still searching within. I kind of thought Jim might inadvertently flush something, so we had a good vantage point. Suddenly a pale, heart-shaped face came flying out of the bushes right at us! I was torn between camera and binoculars, but I heard Domenic’s camera clicking away, so I kept watching through binoculars. In the moment, I was thinking, “Ears or no ears? No ears!” The bird swerved past us to the left, away from the lake, and I got a good look at the tawny-speckled body and said, “Holy shit! It IS a Barn Owl!” It was at this point I began to think maybe I was able to conjure up birds by thinking or talking about them.

As quickly as the owl disappeared, it reappeared (or so I thought at the time) like a tennis ball being returned, flying back in the opposite direction, apparently right over Ray and Roger’s heads, but I didn’t get my binoculars on it. They emerged from the bushes claiming to have seen a Long-eared Owl flying overhead toward the lake just then. It was then that we told them about the Barn Owl, and Jim came out of the bushes, corroborating our sighting. But there couldn’t be two owls, could there?

Rumors about owls had begun to circulate among the birders in the vicinity. I sent this message, “Barn owl coast guard gravel road headlands. It flew past and trying to relocate.” Right after that I texted Adam, who was working from home, that exciting things were happening and he might want to come here for lunch.

After flushing the Whip-poor-wills I headed toward the parking lot to meet Adam. On the way I looked back down the trail to see Nan gaze intently up into a tree and pick up her camera. I walked quickly back to see what it was, and it was a Long-eared Owl! It was immediately flushed by jays, though. Caitlin sent a group message, “Long-eared Owl Headlands” to which I replied, “This is insane!” Cole, who was trying to make sense of the situation from college messages, “So different bird from barn?”

Adam arrived and as we walked into the dunes area we could see birders gathered by the same tree. We walked up to see not one, but TWO Long-eared Owls perched there. They stayed long enough for me to get a picture of one. Adam said he saw one of them and I was so glad, it was a lifer for him. After lunch, Adam helped me find the Blue-winged Warbler, which, along with the Barn Owl and the Whip-poor-will, was my third Lake County lifer that day.

Unfortunately I had to teach my organic chemistry class via Zoom that afternoon and hold office hours. While I was teaching a pair of Little Blue Herons and a Prairie Warbler turned up. Adam and I found the herons at dusk in the rain, but the Prairie Warbler will end up being my biggest miss of the spring.

The next morning I was at Headlands early, hoping the Prairie Warbler would still be around. My friends Nick and Mary were looking with me when I heard a strange noise. I looked toward the sound and saw a large flock flying west along the shore. I pointed and shouted, “Shorebirds!” and took pictures, only two of which managed to focus on the far-away flock. I looked with my binoculars and could see the distinct black-and-white wing pattern of Willets on most of the birds.

I was hoping they would land, so I messaged the group and ran toward my car. In the parking lot I ran into a group of birders and Jim, who had just arrived after having a nice big breakfast. We drove down to the west end of the beach but didn’t find any shorebirds.

Other highlights for April 30th include the perched Whip-poor-will and a Cerulean Warbler that Adam spotted during the evening when we went looking for it again after seemingly everyone had seen it earlier.

County big yearEastern Whip-poor-will (photo Sarah Preston) at Headlands Dunes Nature Preserve

 Late that night I was putting my pictures on eBird and was cropping the pictures of the shorebird flock when I noticed the birds in one of the pictures didn’t have any white on their wings and had long straight bills. I blew up the picture more, I was shocked and then I laughed and laughed… Oh my godwits!!

County big yearMarbled Godwits (photo Sarah Preston) fly by Headlands Beach State Park.

 

April Totals:

Sarah: 177

Jim: 168

 

Part 8 – May

 

Jim

May 1st, I added a Cerulean Warbler, once a common nester at Indian Point Park but now only an uncommon migrant. A great find for May 1st; unfortunately it will be the only Cerulean Warbler I see this spring. The day got better when I see a group message from Caitlin saying she had eyes on a Yellow-throated Warbler on the Lower Marsh Rim Trail near the parking lot at the Lagoons. This bird is even more uncommon in Lake County than a Cerulean Warbler, so off I went.

I’m met by a Lake County birder all the locals know. I asked her if she got the bird and she says yes and that she got some great photographs. I ask where the bird was currently located, and she asks me if I knew where the Little Blue Herons were found a couple of days prior, and I say, “Yes, just past the wooden bridge.” She tells me the bird is way past the wooden bridge. I know that location is more than half a mile away, so I take the flat main trail rather than the hilly Lower Marsh Rim Trail. Saving time is often the difference between getting the bird or not, so off I went, doing double time and carrying my camera gear as well.

I’m huffing and puffing trying not to miss this bird, and now I’m well past the bridge but still no birders in sight. That’s when I get a call from Caitlin asking me where I’m at and I tell her. Caitlin says, “I told you we are on the Lower Rim Trail right next to the parking lot.” I tell Caitlin that I just ran into “that birder” and she told me the bird is well past the bridge. Caitlin says “that birder” was with her on the Lower Rim Trail and they saw it together. Damn! Now off I go in the opposite direction, and finally I meet up with Caitlin. Caitlin tells me they lost track of the bird and were trying to re-find it. I see Sarah and think my luck will change now because she will find it, she has that kind of luck. I ask her if she got it and she tells me she has already seen it. Damn, so much for the luck! Sarah goes on to tell me that she was on the bird when she saw me hustle by on the main trail and she asked Caitlin where I was going. It then hits me that I was misdirected on purpose. I can’t believe that nice older lady did that to me. I guess the competition really is stiff in this County Big Year, and I just start to laugh; it was awful, but it was also damn funny. We never re-locate the Yellow-throated Warbler that day, and I know this may be my biggest miss this spring. It was unbelievable, but it was still damn funny. I thought I took birding seriously. The next day the bird is re-found, and not only do I get a glimpse, but I also take a couple of good photographs.

The first five days in May numerous new birds are added every day. On May 5th I get a message from Sarah about a Yellow Rail sighting at Wake Robin Trail and that Roger had found it and got some good photographs. I was home at the time taking a break. I just told my roommate that I wasn’t going back out unless somebody found a rare bird. Now I’m grabbing gear and running out the door, and my roommate just shakes his head. I haven’t seen a Yellow Rail since the fall of 1986 or 1987 as I birded the east coast with Doug Overaker. We flushed that bird at Cape Hatteras, and it’s the only Yellow Rail I’ve ever seen.

I arrive to find the Wake Robin Trail parking lot full and must park along the roadway. I hustle down the trail, message Sarah, and she advises that she’s at the end of the boardwalk and they have yet to re-find the rail. There is a lot of bird activity at the beginning of the boardwalk, and I can’t walk past without looking. The first bird I glass is a Clay-colored Sparrow. It’s singing, and I take pics. I message Sarah, and she hustles down the boardwalk as this bird is a Lake County Lifer for her and she’s only seen one before. Sarah doesn’t get it right off but does within a half hour. After this excitement we refocus our efforts on finding the Yellow Rail. I was somewhat prepared and brought my birding stool with me as this wait could be long.

County big yearClay-colored Sparrow (photo Jim Smallwood) at Wake Robin Trail

As I’m sitting there my hands start getting cold, and I realize that I’ve left my gloves in the car. I will just have to get by as I’m not leaving until that bird is re-found. All these birders are on a very narrow boardwalk, so everyone is wearing masks, neck gaiters, and a couple of oldtimers are wearing stocking masks. One of these birders is talking to Ray and Jerry, but I’m not sure who it is even after chatting with him a bit. This guy then leaves and returns a few minutes later and brings me a pair of gloves from his car. I can’t believe this guy. I later learn that he was none other than Cleveland birding legend Larry Rosche, the author of Birds of the Cleveland Region. Larry was one of the first birders I met upon moving to Lake County 31 years ago. I had not seen him in years, and that’s how uncommon a Yellow Rail is in Lake County, it brought Larry out. I stayed for several hours but couldn’t take the cold any longer and left the wait to Sarah and the Avrams. The Clay-colored Sparrow remained for several days and was seen by almost all the top 10 Lake County birders.

It’s May 10th, and all the top birders have been birding non-stop every day. The only new year bird I added was a Lincoln’s Sparrow. I received a text from Tim Jasinski about a Red-necked Phalarope at Rocky River Reservation’s Little Met Wetland in Cleveland. This bird was 40 minutes from my house, a bit of a stretch under current travel restrictions. Things were slow and it was early afternoon, so I could possibly chase it. Sarah and Jamie had also quit birding for the day, so I wasn’t too concerned that something would pop up.  What were the odds of anyone coming up with a rare bird this late in the day? So off I went driving to Cleveland’s west side, when I get a message from Sarah asking if Jamie or I were interested in looking for a Sedge Wren at Lake Erie Bluffs. I decline and let her know I’m chasing the phalarope.

Just before I arrived at the wetlands Sarah messages everyone that she and Adam had found the Sedge Wren previously reported at the Bluffs. I’m committed now and over an hour from the Bluffs. I continue to Little Met Wetland and immediately see a group of birders and pull off the road. I get out and there it is. Red-necked Phalarope is a lifer for me, and I can’t believe how tiny this bird is in real life. I can’t stop watching or photographing it, but I realize if I want to try to get the Sedge Wren I better head back.

County big yearRed-necked Phalarope (photo Jim Smallwood) Rocky River Reservation, Cuyahoga

An hour and twenty minutes later I arrive at Lake Erie Bluffs with no birders in sight. Sarah gives me good directions, and I start walking a drainage ditch and flush the wren 50 feet from the parking lot. I can’t recall the last time I saw a Sedge Wren but bet it’s been over 30 years. The wren flies in close, and I get a great look as it is sounding off like a toy machinegun. I watch it for a while flying in and out of cover. I continue to walk around the field and find another Sedge Wren a hundred feet from the first. As hard as I try, I can’t get it to sit still long enough to get a photograph. As I get ready to leave Andy and Erin arrive. Erin had found the bird earlier and was bringing Andy to find it after he got off work. The Avrams find it easily. I will have to be more careful from now on when I consider chasing out of county birds, especially in the month of May. If I had missed this bird the other top four birders would have moved up the list without me.

The first 10 days of May were amazing. I added 27 new birds for the year, and there is not enough time to write about all of them here. The month of May is young, and there are more good birds to come.

 

Sarah

The first day of May offered up a Yellow-throated Warbler, the first of five Lake County lifers I got in the first ten days of May, which also included 20 Lake county year birds. The other county lifers were Clay-colored Sparrow, Prothonotary Warbler, Sedge Wren, and one more you’ll have to read about below. Throughout May Jim, Erin and Andy Avram, Josh Hargrave, and I leap-frogged each other in various places within the top five positions in the Lake County Big Year competition. With so many birds to be had the daily standings were meaningless, and it would all come down to who was on top June 1 when things slowed down.

County big yearYellow-throated Warbler (photo Sarah Preston) Mentor Lagoons Nature Preserve

May 5th started out like a normal spring birding day. My friend Deb and her husband Mark came over from Cuyahoga County to see the Little Blue Herons that continued to show well at Mentor Lagoons. We saw them immediately and birded the entire area the rest of the morning. I went home for lunch and a bathroom break as had become my custom.

While I was birding Lagoons my friend Roger was alone at Wake Robin Trail, just a couple of miles farther east in the Mentor Marsh. He observed a rail at point-blank range completely out in the open for 11 minutes and took about 20 pictures of it. He thought it was a funny-looking Sora, so he emailed a picture to Ray. When Ray awoke from his afternoon nap he was shocked to find a picture of a Yellow Rail in his inbox.

I got word and arrived on the scene around 2:30 p.m. to find Roger and Jerry looking for the rail. Roger told me the story, pointed out the location where he saw it, and proudly showed me his awesome photos. It was unbelievable! According to eBird, there are only three other sightings of this secretive species in Lake County, and none include photos. The eBird description of Yellow Rail includes: “Almost never seen in the open” and “If you’re looking at a rail in the open, it’s almost certainly not a Yellow Rail.”

Because it would cause quite a stir, only a few local birders got the news. I messaged Jim, who immediately headed there. I said, “Act like you’re just coming here like normal.” He hadn’t seen one in over 30 years. Local birders began to arrive until there were about a dozen of us spread out along the quarter-mile-long boardwalk. The Avram family had postponed the dinner they had been preparing and shoved everything back in the fridge.

So began the longest bird vigil I’ve ever held. After work Adam bought my parka that I put on over my light down jacket. He opted not to stay. I should have had him also bring food. We were all standing there staring into the marsh, hoping to hear its rhythmic tapping call over the icy wind, except Jim and five-year-old Ophelia Avram, who had little chairs to sit on. I was afraid to sit on the boardwalk for fear I’d be too slow getting up and miss a brief glimpse.

The Avrams had wisely decided to go back home and eat their dinner. Several of us were taking a break from the wind in a sheltered area at the beginning of the boardwalk when suddenly the entire Avram family rushes down the hill, coming in hot, obviously panicked. Andy shouted, “What are you guys doing? Did you see it?” I had become pessimistic and replied calmly, “Nobody’s gonna see that bird.” “Jerry’s on it right now!” was Andy’s response. “What?” The group rushed a bewildered Jerry who was not, in fact, on the bird. The Avram family’s dinner had been interrupted again for nothing.

County big yearYellow Rail (photo Roger Beuck) at Wake Robin Trail

The confusion had been caused by a series of texts. Jerry, who had been keeping Cleveland Metroparks naturalist Jen Brumfield apprised of the situation, sent her one of Roger’s pictures in a text without explanation. Thinking it was Jerry’s picture, Jen texted Andy saying, “Jerry’s got point blank views. Get there now!” The Avrams’ dinner had been interrupted twice by the same bird.

As the evening wore on it reminded me of the Survivor challenge where contestants stand on top of poles to outlast competitors and win a million dollars, except the stakes here were a once-in-a-lifetime bird sighting and, if the competition left too early, a bird ahead of the rest in the county big year race. A few of us, including me and the Avrams didn’t give up until around 9:00 p.m., when we finally agreed to leave.

The next morning I slept in and enjoyed a nice breakfast. About 9:30 a.m. Chia reported a possible Laughing Gull at Lagoons. Franklin’s Gull was still a possibility at the time, but either bird would be a Lake County lifer for me. By 10:00 a.m. it was confirmed as Laughing Gull, and Jim had gotten good pictures. I had just enough time to get out there, search for the bird, and be back home by 11:15 a.m. to wrangle my cat, Woodward, for his noon vet appointment.

When I arrived Erin was watching a flock of gulls in flight well back in the marsh after having scanned everything close. The pressure was mounting as we focused on the flying birds. I spotted one that was obviously darker mantled. With intense concentration we tracked the gull as it flew all around and finally circled in close and flew in front us. We both got decent flight shots, and Woodward and I made it to his appointment on time. Unfortunately the Laughing Gull didn’t stay long, and Andy wasn’t able to get it after work, dropping him down to two “good birds” below his wife.

 

Part 9 – May continued

 

Jim

Shorebirds in Lake County are hard to find as habitat is limited. We have Headlands Beach State Park with its mile-long beach on Lake Erie, which yields some shorebirds but usually only single birds, Fairport Harbor Lakefront Park, another beach on Lake Erie that’s a quarter the size of Headlands, and a few locations in Mentor Marsh. Access to the marsh is limited by private property, so this too reduces chances of finding shorebirds. I already missed Sarah’s godwits by having breakfast before heading out that morning, arriving one minute late.

It’s May 11th, and I hit the Lagoons side of Mentor Marsh scoping for shorebirds. Lake Erie has been high the past few years, so there are no mudflats, only little islands of sparse vegetation. I see a shorebird working a foot away from an island. I see its down-curved bill well and that it’s feeding with its butt tilted up.  There’s no doubt in my mind it’s a Stilt Sandpiper, even at great distance. I also find Dunlin, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers, and a Pectoral Sandpiper. I put out a message to the Lake County birders advising that a Stilt Sandpiper is here. Stilt Sandpipers are rarely seen in spring, so this is a prized find and I don’t have to chase it. Sarah messages back “I’ve actually never knowingly seen a Stilt Sandpiper ever.” That right there is a free beer for a lifer. My day is looking up.

After sending out the message, I can’t re-locate the Stilt Sandpiper. Andy and Erin show up first and then Sarah. For the next hour no one can find it. I stay to help, but it isn’t re-located. I’ve said before that there’s nothing worse than finding a good bird that no one else can see. The only consolation was that everyone got views of the other shorebirds. The next morning most of us meet up at Shipman’s Pond, as two Black Terns were found there by Ray. It was here I learned Josh Hargrave found the Stilt Sandpiper that morning before coming to get the terns. I feel vindicated. The Avrams help Sarah find the Stilt Sandpiper later that day, finding two Stilt Sandpipers, and someone else gets that beer.

County big yearBlack Tern (photo Jim Smallwood) at Shipman’s Pond

The morning of the Black Terns was a busy one. First Erin reports a Ruddy Turnstone on the beach near the nature preserve, then the report of two Black Terns at Shipman’s. Now it’s break time…nope, Cole DiFabio reports a Kirtland’s Warbler found by Stephanie Secic at Headwaters Park. This is Geauga County, but I can’t resist chasing it, being only 30 minutes from home. Domenic and Caitlin also chase. I arrive around 2:30 p.m. and Domenic arrives shortly thereafter. When I arrive they are trying to re-locate the bird. I see movement, and I think I have it. Within a few seconds three of us are on the Kirtland’s Warbler. Domenic finds the Kirtland’s shortly after I did, but Caitlin arrives two minutes too late. This was my third year in a row to see a Kirtland’s Warbler in Ohio. During those same years I never saw a single Golden-winged Warbler. It’s amazing how things change, and a lot of that change has not been for the better.

County big yearKirtland’s Warbler (photo Jim Smallwood) in Geauga County

It’s late May and Mourning Warblers are just making an appearance. We find Mourning Warblers at the Lagoons, Headlands and Lake Erie Bluffs. Most of these birds are found by song. What no one has seen is the elusive Connecticut Warbler. Jamie and I birded together on May 24th and 25th and both had exciting days. On the 25th Jamie and I decided to go to Lakeshore Reservation because of its past history of Connecticut Warblers being found there and its lack of birding pressure this year. Jamie and I don’t get more than 200 yards from the car when I see a Gray-hooded Warbler. I get eyes on it briefly, and there are no black chest markings and it may have an eye-ring. The bird flies and disappear,s but both Jamie and I saw where it landed in the thick plants and brush. I tell Jamie this could be a Connecticut but I need to see it again before I post it, as I needed to be absolutely sure. The bird flies up on a branch two feet off the ground. It stays only a second, but I get a great view and see a nice eye-ring. Jamie only sees it flying away. I put out a message to the group of the bird’s location. Sarah and her friend Matt are the first to arrive, having come from the other side of the park. It takes an hour, but Sarah and Jamie finally get good looks at the bird. I post again that the Connecticut now has been seen by four. When I am leaving I see the Avrams arriving, and within five minutes they have the bird. I’ve had a lot of good finds this year, but this Connecticut was the only one found in Lake County this year, and all the Lake County contenders found it more easily than I did. It has been an amazing spring.

It’s now May 27th, and this day turns out to be extra special. Sarah and I are birding together, so I have the best witness as she is currently the Big Year leader. We check the Headlands Beach area and are walking to the Headlands Dunes Nature Preserve when we hear a crow call. Sarah and I look at each other and at the same time say, “Fish Crow!” All the top county birders have this bird but me, so this is an awesome late-season find. Sarah and I both look up but can’t find the bird anywhere. I ask Sarah, “Can I count that?” While discussing the merits of the situation we find the crow hidden in the tree above us. Bingo! This Fish Crow hangs out for several hours, and I take a short video of it. This was a critical find for me and keeps me in the top four of the Big Year birders, all separated by only three birds. This contest is a long way from being over. I end the month of May with 231 bird species for Lake County and 252 species for the state of Ohio.

 

Sarah

Every May Adam and I spend a night camping at Lake Erie Bluffs. I love to sleep to the sounds of the waves and wake up to warblers. On May 24th I was awakened around 5:30 a.m. I slipped out of the tent and birded the campsite and nearby trails until Adam got up. At 7:30 a.m. we met Jim and Jamie in the parking lot, where we had a dozen donuts stashed in our car for the four of us.

Fueled up we began the search. We scoured the entire park, looking for any warbler species we had not seen this year, which at that point was Connecticut, Golden-winged, and Kentucky. Jim was especially keen on locating a Kentucky Warbler since he found one last year in Lake County. We heard a particularly loud call that sounded promising, but it turned out to be a Carolina Wren. False alarm.

A Yellow-breasted Chat was reported at Headlands, and I began to stress. Everyone else was there. A few people, including Jim, had already seen one at Lagoons in early May, but I had missed it. I didn’t want to miss this one. Jim convinced me that continuing to bird the bluffs was better. I can chase that one later, or maybe one will appear at the bluffs in summer.

After birding half the park we heard a loud tur-dle tur-dle tur-dle tur-dle song from deep in the brush. It was loud like the wren, but distinctly two syllables. We were all thinking the same thing. Jim asked if I thought it was just a Mourning Warbler. “It’s pretty loud,” I replied. He thought for a second and then practically dove into the bushes. I charged in after him. Adam and Jamie, somewhat skeptical, stayed on the path. The brush was so thick that I thought there was no way we’d see this bird, so I recorded the song with my phone. I thought I only recorded 30 seconds and put my phone in my pocket. What I didn’t realize was I recorded the most exciting 6 minutes of the day, which began like this:

Me: “It’s walking on the ground, unless that’s a Common Yellowthroat.”

Jim: “What’s that?”

Me: Oh my gosh, it is, I see it! I have eyes on it! It is a Kentucky.

Me: (softly) Holy s**t.

Me to Adam and Jamie: You guys, it’s real!!….It’s real, the Kentucky!

The rest of the recording is me laughing, lots of loud pants, shuffling noise, and the four of us directing each other to views of the bird, which we all get plus diagnostic pictures. It ends with me saying, “Oh” when I realize I recorded the whole incident.

County big yearKentucky Warbler (photo Sarah Preston) at Lake Erie Bluffs

We got the word out once we had photographic evidence (Kentucky Warbler is rare in Lake County). One by one seemingly everyone was able to at least hear it, and some even saw it, although we posted the only photos. Even Andy was, amazingly, able to get it as well as the Yellow-breasted Chat later that evening after work. After he mentioned seeing the chat, I went out for it again after dipping on it in the afternoon. I was able to get great views, but only a couple of crummy photos because I had to run back to my car to switch out a dead battery.

The next day Adam and I were fixing dinner when Andy messaged that a pair of Dickcissels were found by Jeffrey and Stephenie Bojc at a newer section of Mentor Park called Springbrook Gardens. Since there are only a handful of records for it in the county, this bird wasn’t really on my radar as a possibility, even though one had visited someone’s feeder in April. The park is less than ten minutes from our house, so I zipped over there immediately. I could hear the dick-dick-dick ciss-ciss-ciss song through my open car windows. I said hello to the birders that had gathered for the occasion, took a few pictures, and then headed back home to eat. The Dickcissel was my twelfth Lake County lifer in May.

County big yearDickcissel (photo Sarah Preston) at Springbrook Gardens Park

The standings at the end of May are significant because by June 1st spring migration is over. By May 31st I had managed to work my way up to the top spot in the Lake County 2020 Big Year competition, but Erin was only one bird behind, and her husband Andy and Jim were tied for third place and only three birds behind me.  Fall migration might give folks a chance or two to catch up by getting a bird they missed in spring, like the LeConte’s Sparrow on May 14th that was only seen by the Avrams, but some birds are gone for good. Or are they?

Totals at the end of May:

Sarah 234

Jim 231

 

Part 10 – June

 

Jim

I added my 231st county bird on May 27th and knew spring migration was basically over. I had 33 species of warblers and all the expected flycatchers including Olive-sided. I basically cleaned-house with numerous unexpected rarities as well. The last new bird I added was a late season pick-up of a Fish Crow, which tied me with Andy for 3rd place.

Sarah had gone to Toledo to bird with her parents for the last two days of May. Every year I would go to the Maumee Bay State Park to camp and bird the Toledo area. That got me thinking about how much I missed chasing. I also knew Sarah would be upping her state list and I didn’t want to be left behind. This late in migration also meant that the odds of a new Lake County bird showing up were unlikely until the shorebirds started returning in July. My plan was hatched and I would head to Toledo on Monday June 1st. Sarah kept me apprised of the birds she found and their locations down to specific parking lots and trails.

My trip was just a day trip to get as many new species as possible. I was shooting for six species and none of them were a given, even with great directions. I was looking for Lark Sparrow, Blue Grosbeak, Summer Tanager, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Black-necked Stilt and Snowy Egret. All of the same birds Sarah landed on her trip. It took me from sunrise to sunset but I was able to get five out of six birds only dipping on Snowy Egret.

On June 4th I headed to Ross County in southern Ohio and added Mississippi Kite, Black Vulture, and Worm-eating Warbler. On June 8th I went to Columbus to get the Upland Sandpiper and Bell’s Vireo. I had looked for the Upland Sandpiper a couple of days earlier but had dipped. I enlisted the help of my friend Donna Kuhn. Donna met me at the OSU Livestock Facilities and within ten minutes she had me on the Upland Sandpiper.

County big yearMississippi Kite (Jim Smallwood) in Ross County

I met up with Donna again on June 16th as we looked for and found two adult Yellow-crowned Night Herons and a recently fledged juvenile near Cincinnati. From there it was off to Hillsboro to look for wild Northern Bobwhite.  I had not seen or heard a bobwhite since the days of my youth, prior to the harsh winters of 1976 and 1977.  Again, Donna located several bobwhite as soon as I arrived at that location. The best part was hearing the birds call out, “bobwhite.” I hadn’t heard the call of a bobwhite in more than 44 years, what a remarkable day!

County big year

County big yearYellow-crowned Night Herons (Jim Smallwood) at Gilmore Ponds Preserve, Butler County

My last day trip for June was with Sarah as we chased a reported Brown Pelican in Port Clinton and then Metzger Marsh in the hopes of finding a Western Cattle Egret that Donna Kuhn had found two days earlier. We drove up to the last known location of the pelican and Sarah said ‘there is something out there on the lake’. I pulled off the road hopped out and glassed the bird. Sarah’s gear was in my back seat and she didn’t have quick access. I simply said ‘Brown Pelican, got it, let’s go’. Sarah thought I was joking but scrambled to get her binoculars. That may have been the easiest rarity we got this year. The Brown Pelican was gone by the afternoon and we were almost the last to see it. We dipped on the Western Cattle Egret but I was able to add that Snowy Egret I missed on June 1st. I finished the month of June with 268 species of birds for Ohio which is twenty birds ahead of my 2019 Big Year total for the same time last year. Remember, I ended 2019 with 298 species for the state so reaching 300 species for this year is an even greater possibility.

 

Sarah

June was uneventful as far as the Lake County competition goes as no year birds were added overall. I didn’t miss any birds the last weekend in May while I was birding with my parents in Toledo and the Ohio governor relaxed the stay-at-home orders so it was a good time to go on some out-of-county birding adventures.

On my way home from Toledo on June 1st, I stopped in a neighborhood in Euclid to look for the pair of White-winged Doves that had been reported. I walked and drove around several blocks before finally hearing the distinct ‘who-cooks-for-you’ cooing. By then it was almost dinner time, so that had to be good enough.

On June 13th, Adam, Jim, and I went to Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area to try for the King Rail which had been showing well all week. After we crossed the bridge, we heard it calling nearby. Adam spotted it moving at the edge of some water and soon it was out in the open. It ran along the water’s edge and right across the gravel path. Afterwards, it stayed just inside the vegetation, but visible enough for me to get a video of it calling. We couldn’t have asked for better views and I was super happy because this had previously been a heard-only bird for me.

County big yearKing Rail (Sarah Preston) at Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area, Wayne County

Red-breasted Nuthatches are scarce this year, so on June 16th I was looking for one in neighboring Geauga County when I saw a report of Franklin’s and Laughing Gulls at the beach at Mosquito Lake State Park. I was 45 minutes away, so off I went. I’d never been there before, so I was following directions to the pinned location for the eBird hotspot. When I arrived at the park, my phone said to go left, but the sign said the beach was to the right. I went right and arrived in a large parking lot next to a narrow strip of sand that I guess was the beach. I was about to leave and go where my phone directed me when I noticed a man in a minivan looking at the water’s edge. Among a small flock of gulls were the Franklin’s and Laughing Gulls! The Franklin’s was a lifer and to see the two side by side was a great learning and photo opportunity.

County big yearLaughing (left) and Franklin’s (right) Gulls (Sarah Preston) at Mosquito Lake State Park, Trumbull County

That week Adam and I discussed visiting family near Cincinnati for the weekend but postponed until 4th of July weekend. After Jim had great birds in southern Ohio, I drove down there on Thursday to bird with my parents for a couple days. The plan was to meet them at Gilmore, but several things delayed me, including not being able to find the entrance closest to the area where the Yellow-crowned Night Herons were seen. I missed them by 10 minutes! My mom showed me the awesome picture she took of the two adults. My dad and I waited for them to return while my mom picked up Skyline for lunch. We didn’t see them until dusk when my dad and I returned after dinner and caught a brief glimpse of three adult Yellow-crowned Night Herons flying over the rookery area. In between visits to Gilmore, we went to nearby Voice of America Park to get the heard-but-rarely-seen Bell’s Vireo, an Ohio lifer for me.

My dad hatched an ambitious plan for Friday, to go for the Northern Bobwhites and Upland Sandpiper in Highland County and from there to go look for the nesting Mississippi Kites in Chillicothe. I’d never been to either place, but Jim had wonderful advice. Shortly after we arrived at the Old Highland Stone Gravel Pits, we heard several quail calling, but we also ran into some trouble. The landowner did not appreciate birders coming and said they were trespassing. He softened when I said we were from out of town and allowed us to park in a pull-off, but we didn’t stay long after photographing a couple distant quail from the road and being followed by a state trooper who told another birder to ‘move along’. We dipped on the Upland Sandpiper.

The kites were a different story. We had the rest of the day to wait and look for them and it took that whole time. I’d seen Jim’s fantastic photos of them and pictured them flying close overhead or perched in the dead part of their favorite tree. Except for a brief trip to Junction Earthworks and Wendy’s, we camped out at the church the entire afternoon without seeing either one. Frustrated, I knew the nest was nearby, so I looked at pictures on eBird and deduced it was in a cottonwood. One eBirder pinned the nest location, so I mapped it with my phone and walked there finding a large cottonwood at those co-ordinates. I scoured the top of the tree and finally saw a stick nest with a black tail jutting out to the left. I showed the nest to my parents, took a couple documentation photos, and we headed back to their house.

On my way home from southern Ohio, I tried to stop for the Upland Sandpipers in Columbus, but the gates were locked.

The Mississippi Kite was 256 and the Brown Pelican was 257 for my Ohio 2020 list, which isn’t bad for someone who’s not supposed to be trying to reach 300 this year. At this point I might as well go for it as long as it doesn’t jeopardize my county big year.

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