Where are my birds this winter?
The outdoors desk has been asked that question throughout this mostly mild spell of post-holidays weather. Many area residents who enjoy and are entertained by feeding songbirds in their backyards are concerned about the absence of feathered flocks.
"I don't have any birds at my feeders, either," said Julie Shieldcastle, executive director of Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Ottawa County.
The Pollick feeders in Muskellunge Creek bottom in western Sandusky County likewise have been depleted at far slower rates than normal as well, the impact of regular hunting forays by a pair of local Cooper's hawks notwithstanding.
So what's the deal?
"The weather hasn't been very conducive to feeding at feeders," Shieldcastle said. "There is still plenty of natural feed out there and with the mild weather the birds don't have to stoke up like they do in frigid weather."
Shieldcastle assures that nothing untoward has appeared on the avian radar. "It's not West Nile Virus or bird flu. [The birds] are dispersed widely and eating from natural food sources is what I'm betting."
Shieldcastle rightly reminds that birds have evolved and survived for thousands of years without depending on backyard feeders. "Their first choice is natural foods."
Heather Norris, a Toledo Metroparks naturalist, agreed with Shieldcastle's view, and assures that the birds have not mysteriously vanished.
"We have seen quite a diversity of birds lately," she said after surveying fellow park naturalists. "It is true that they are not visiting the feeders as often because of the natural foods that are out there."
Naturalists have noted an unusual number of insects, moths, and ladybugs flying about in the mild weather, providing some bird species with dinner on the wing. Too, robins are probing thawed-out leaf duff, which is inaccessible when frozen.
On a related note, there are some concerns that the mild weather might induce such early nesters as bald eagles and possibly red-tailed hawks to begin nesting too early, only to get caught short by late-winter snowstorms and freezing weather. Great horned owls, on the other hand, will begin nesting and incubating eggs soon, but that is normal for them.
Shieldcastle notes that increasing photoperiod - day-length - is the more important trigger in the startup of nesting. But mild weather also can encourage the urge. For better or worse, however, that is up to the birds to decide.
Individuals who maintain backyard songbird-feeding stations simply need to be patient, and keep their feeders clean, snow-free and ice-free, and filled with clean, dry seed. Rain-soaked and thaw-soaked seed is often ignored.
That said, a forecast for a return to more winterlike conditions for the middle of next week and beyond may turn songbirds back to the easy pickings in backyards. Frozen or ice-covered and snow-covered buds and seeds in the wild are no picnic to glean.
The 35th annual Christmas bird count at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge netted a total of 84 individual species and 57,377 birds overall, reports compiler Tom Bartlett in the recent issue of the Ottawa Nationbal Wildlife Refuge Association newsletter.
The event saw about 18 high counts for individual species, including one new species, a gray catbird. The Ottawa count's all-time best was 91 species in 1984, and the recent count ranks second.
Also of note, 35 bald eagles were seen. The refuge count has placed a bald eagle on the list every year since 1971, a claim that likely no other Ohio counts can make, Bartlett said.
Among most numerous species were ring-billed gull, 20,337; Canada goose, 13,965; European starling, 3,539; house sparrow, 2,162; mallard, 2,089; northern pintail, 1,943; canvasback, 1,587; red-winged blackbird, 1,578; various diving ducks, 1,500; mourning dove, 1,134, and common goldeneye, 1,058.
High counts for individual species included northern pintail, 1,943; greater scaup, 37; pied-billed grebe, 3 [tie]; double-crested cormorant, 35; bald eagle, 35; northern harrier, 23; Cooper's hawk, 10; red-tailed hawk, 82; peregrine falcon, 4; rock pigeon, 362; mourning dove, 1,134; red-bellied woodpecker, 28; downy woodpecker, 106; red-breasted nuthatch, 2 [tie]; white-breasted nuthatch, 12; field sparrow, 6; Lapland longspur, 265, and gray catbird, 1.
In other birding news, Tom Kashmer, of Green Creek Wildlife Society in Sandusky County, notes that bluebird nesting numbers were down considerably in 2005, below the 20-year average of 362 at just 241 young produced. Under his tutelage the society has maintained a far-flung network of bluebird trails for years.
"I'm not sure what was the problem this season. The first clutches seemed to be around normal but everything went downhill after that," Kashmer said. He theorized that a lack of summer rain may have impacted nest conditions, in part by forcing raccoons to forage widely and prey more heavily on bluebird boxes.
Tree swallows, also monitored by Kashmer and crew and often residents of bluebird boxes, did comparatively well on the other hand. Kashmer reported 577 tree swallows banded, which is close to normal. Society members also banded 318 young purple martins at three sites.
The 2006 Great Outdoors Show gets under way today for the weekend at Southwyck Mall. Hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. today and tomorrow, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Boating, fishing, and recreational camping dealers and exhibits are featured. Among exhibitors will be the National Bass Angers Association, which is based in Hastings, Mich. The NBAA sponsors bass fishing events on Lake Erie, including from Sterling State Park at Monroe, Mich., and on Sandusky Bay. The contact is Mark Bushroe, an NBAA director, 419-340-3442.