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Fickle Birds, Steadfast Birdwatchers

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

I really like winter, for all the walking opportunities it affords, free of thorns, sweat, deerflies and choking vegetation, and I like winter birding for the cool birds that come down from the North. The Wilds, a 17,000 acre reclaimed strip mine less than an hour from our home, is our favorite local birding spot. It looks nothing like anything around here. It looks like Mongolia, or Wyoming, or even maybe New Mexico. Well, maybe not. But it's open, and expansive, and quite lovely. We joined about 70 people from the Ohio Ornithological Society and the Columbus Audubon Society on a perfectly horrid day last Saturday, to test our resolve and see what birds we could squeeze out of that acreage, with a soaking rain and no light. Hey, when a date is set in advance and 70 people want you to show them birds, you show them the birds.
Or you try.

I have to say that the mood was somewhat less jovial than might be expected from a large group of like-minded birdwatchers gathered in the morning. I'm sure we were all thinking some version of, "What am I doing here?" It rained pretty steadily until almost 3 pm. when the sky made a grand apology for mistreating us all day. Think about that--9-3 in the cold rain. Phew. But late in the afternoon, as what light there was was failing fast, Somebody up there opened a pillowcase of great birds, and sent us a golden eagle, an immature bald eagle, a skein of snow/blue geese that flew wavily right over our heads!!!, a handful of short-eared owls who tussled and barked and flapped mechanically over the sere grasses, and a whole mess o' northern harriers, most of them silvery males. Of course, not being a bird photographer, and there being no light, I have no evidence of this. You'll have to take my word for it. It was mahvelous.

I was lucky to be leading a caravan of six cars with our friend Jason Larson, who gave an incomparable behind-the-scenes tour of the Wilds, having worked there. I loves me my Jason. I never realized what a fashion statement we were making until I saw this picture. Nice red hands, Zick. Nice hoods, JL. Shila came along, using her mad birdspotting skilz (she saw practically everything good, FIRST), as well as Hugh and Judy Kolo-Rose, so we had a great bunch. Bill of the Birds was otherwise occupied, leading his own group, as were my friends Jim McCormac and Jen "Dahling" Sauter. Bah. I wanted to form a supergroup so we'd all get to hang out, but a caravan of 21 cars would have been a little much. So we wandered around the perimeter of The Wilds, seeing what we could see.

For most of the day, this was mammals, who aren't hampered quite so much by rain as birds. Birds have to keep their feathers dry so they can fly, so they tend to hole up or hunker down in weather like this. I really dug watching the white-tailed deer who aren't supposed to be inside the enormous enclosure, but who can leap the 9' fence and be safe from hunters and well-fed at the same time. I bet they love Rhino Chow. Here's a lovely 9-point buck. Most of the bucks had shed already, but he was carrying a proud crown of points.We enjoyed training our scopes on takin (a weird Asian goat), Przewalski's horses (with a foal!), Bactrian camels (which look fab against an Ohio landscape), and onagers (a wild ass). Only the animals from temperate zones that can take the winter were out that day--the giraffes and rhinos were all locked away in sheds. The Wilds is a breeding and research station for endangered wildlife from around the world. It also happens to have native grassland birds that drew us there. The exotic stuff is a bonus. I like training a scope on a harrier, and having a wild ass in the same field. Don't you?

My absolute favorite moment of the day came at the very end, as the last light was ebbing from the sky and land. These puddles picked up the sky, looking like perforations in a thin skin, stitches of light.
Two short-eared owls locked talons and barked in an aerial scuffle. Shila and I stood transfixed beneath them, rooted, unable to take pictures from darkness and sheer awe. As we watched, a herd of American bison hove slowly up over the hill behind the owls. Perfect. Now, they looked like they belonged there. Isn't that just like nature, to hide the best and save it for last?


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