Even in death, fauna along the Maumee River fascinates

12/16/2012
BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR
A red-tailed hawk found with a leg band from Laurel, Md., lays in the spot where it was discovered by Dave Knepper along the Maumee River behind his house on Friday.
A red-tailed hawk found with a leg band from Laurel, Md., lays in the spot where it was discovered by Dave Knepper along the Maumee River behind his house on Friday.

As he worked to complete some remodeling and prepared to move in to a home along the Maumee River, Dave Knepper was down at the water’s edge collecting the flat river rock he is using to dress around the fireplace.

This was the same exercise he had undertaken numerous times before, only this trip turned into something akin to an episode of CSI/Wildlife, coming soon on the Animal Planet channel.

While walking the shoreline at the base of a steep hill that cascades down to the water from the patio of his residence along West River Road in Perrysburg, Knepper came across the remains of two creatures — one common, and the other bizarre, as well as rare.

He found the carcass of what appears to be a red-tailed hawk, spread nearly flat, with just bones and feathers remaining. An amateur postmortem examination would indicate the aerial hunter died elsewhere and was moved to the site, where a fox or coyote made it a meal.

Red-tailed hawks, which can often be seen perched on power poles or fence posts, scanning the surroundings for rodents and other small mammals, possibly flew into a wire, was hit in traffic, or shot illegally.

Not enough flesh remained for a productive necropsy, but what made this particular hawk unique was the metal band around its leg. The stamping on the band was in very good shape, complete with the ID No. 659-00762 and the toll-free number to contact the federal bird-banding data base in Maryland.

“I was just real curious when I saw that band on its leg,” Knepper said. “I wanted to know where it came from, and maybe how far this bird had flown since it was banded.”

The background check on the dead hawk hit a wall when that 800-number on the band was contacted, with the explanation it could take “weeks or months” to trace the number and find out where that hawk had been captured and the band attached.

Local experts theorize it might have been a young hawk that was banded earlier this year, since the band is in very good condition.

Knepper would like to keep the talons from the hawk and possibly the band so that his fiancé, a second-grade teacher, can add them to her classroom collection of bones, antlers, skulls, hornets’ nests and skins. Since this is a federally protected bird, however, he will have to wade through a permit process before that is possible.

“There’s a procedure that needs to be followed,” said John Windau of the Ohio Division of Wildlife, “since this appears to be a protected species. But there is a process for teachers to get the necessary paperwork to use them for educational purposes.”

The other portion of a corpse Knepper found along the water he can keep, unencumbered by official protocol, but finding it so close to home has given him second thoughts about wading into those shallow waters of the Maumee.

An exotic fish with long fangs found by Dave Knepper along the Maumee River behind his house lies on the spot it was discovered on Friday. Knepper also found the remains of a red-tail hawk, below. The hawk’s band is from Maryland.
An exotic fish with long fangs found by Dave Knepper along the Maumee River behind his house lies on the spot it was discovered on Friday. Knepper also found the remains of a red-tail hawk, below. The hawk’s band is from Maryland.

“I saw what looked like the head of a fish, but it didn’t look like anything I’ve ever seen come out of the rivers around here,” said Knepper about the toothy remains. “I saw all of those teeth and just wondered what was this thing and where did it come from.”

With just the dried and deteriorated head to examine, the conclusion reached by fisheries biologists is that the nasty looking noggin Knepper found belonged to a wayward salmon, likely Oncorhynchus tshawytscha, the scientific tag for the Chinook or king salmon.

The experts theorize that this Chinook likely originated in Lake Huron and made the trip down the St. Clair River, through Lake St. Clair, and then down the Detroit River into Lake Erie. The fish was likely an adult king making an end-of-life spawning run up the river.

“On these spawning runs, they tend not to eat much at all and they start to deteriorate pretty quickly,” said Mike Wilkerson, fish management supervisor at the Division of Wildlife’s Findlay office. “By the time they get here, they would not be in very good shape. That spawning run is their last hurrah.”

The salmon likely died during its ill-fated run up the Maumee, and then became a meal for an opportunistic raptor, gull or raccoon. Wilkerson said reports of rogue kings in area streams come in sporadically most years, but 2012 has been different.

“We’ve seen a lot of those this fall. They’ve been showing up in the Maumee and Sandusky rivers,” Wilkerson said. “We usually get maybe one report of these, but there’s been many more this year.”

Chinook were first introduced to the Great Lakes late in the 19th century but are not believed to have reproduced successfully. Another introduction took place about 45 years ago when Michigan, New York, Wisconsin and Ontario collaborated to bring the kings back with annual stockings.

The 58-year-old Knepper, who plans to do some fishing once the remodel project is behind him, said he enjoys the array of wildlife that frequents the river corridor.

Squirrels scurry around the canopy of hardwoods on the property, harvesting the robust crop of hickory nuts. Bald eagles nest nearby and hunt from above, while deer graze in the evenings in the open meadows across the river. Knepper saw a group of about a dozen wood ducks recently, and a red fox prowling the area.

“Whenever you go outside, you see something within 15 minutes,” he said. “If you enjoy seeing wildlife, this is the spot. There’s wildlife all around us. I just never expected to find a hawk with a band on it, or a fish with that many teeth. I just couldn’t believe what I saw.”

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.