Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Early Spring in John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge

When I have an hour so that is free and want to walk around, I often take a short trip over to Tyler Arboretum. It is a nice place and has programs that my kids are involved in, but I think I have exhausted much of the birds from it. Sure, there will be more in the spring, but it isn't quite wild enough where I can get a handful of birds every time. Taylor Arboretum is a little more wild, but it is smaller and I just don't get that many birds there (though me and my oldest son saw another red fox there the other day). I still like Tyler and Taylor and I still go to both regularly, but I think I have my new go to spot when I want to go birding nearby.

I knew about it for awhile and had planned to eventually get there, but what really spurred me to go to the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge was notices on eBird that there was a consistent spotting of a Saw Whet Owl there, as well as Great Horned Owl and other things. Owls! I can't let Paul have all the owl fun, I must get involved in the owl spotting too (though not exactly like Paul did). So I took a trip to Heinz Wildlife Refuge.

Actually I took two trips, one for only about an hour to scout the place out and one the next day that was much longer. Both were productive as I got three new birds in the hour and a half of the scouting trip and also got directions and instructions on how to see the owls the next day. All was set.

So, on Saturday I got up around 6:45, ate some breakfast, got in the car and put in my newest CD: Honkey Tonk by Son Volt. Ahhh, it was a good to drive to my new birding spot while listening to two fiddles intertwine with a pedal steel and an accordion on the first song. The CD did not disappoint and neither would the birding.

All pictures were taken from my phone, but they are serviceable for now (later you'll see the limitations). I arrived before the nature center was open, but since I was there the day before I knew my way enough around. Coming in I could hear and even see Carolina Wrens calling all around me while the Red Winged Blackbirds were more in the distance (though I would hear those all morning).

Inside the nature center they have a few education-type things, but also a viewing area with feeders outside. Nothing hugely special there, just the normal assemblage of mourning doves and chickadees coming to eat. Oh, the first day there I saw a couple wild turkeys poking around the feeders too, which is cool.

So I took a long walk around until lunch time. I could just write paragraph after paragraph of what I did and saw, but I like what Paul did yesterday with his annotated map, so I am going to steal the idea!

Un-annotated via Heinz Wildlife Refuge

Ok, it isn't as clean and pretty as Paul's, but it'll work. Follow along with the inconsistently capitalized and colored letters!

a) This was the nature center. They have a bird check box where you can add what birds you saw for the week there. I added a few when I was done, but they were all that others just probably forgot to add (though Black Duck wasn't an every week sighting!). There were Carolina Chickadees every week this month, and one week someone put that they saw a Black Capped Chickadee. Bullshit. There is no way they could tell even if they saw one, which they did not.

B) The lake/impoundment was full of Northern Shovelers; I swear I must have seen a few hundred. There were also very commonly spotted Green Winged Teal, though not quite as many as the shovelers. I also saw a juvenile Common Merganser here and a Great Blue Heron. Nothing new for my list, but pretty good diversity for the first few minutes of my trip.

C) Here the path left the lakeside somewhat and had a little bridge over an inlet. I heard a woodpecker working (sorry, no, not like Paul so no pileateds) and saw what looked like a downy up in the tree. Wait, no, that is way too big to be a downy! Hairy Woodpecker it is! Luckily there was a bird nearby to gauge the size, wait, a shiny green/blue bird with white on the bottom? A Tree Swallow, my first of the year! That would be two new birds right there

The trail continued into more wooded area.

And I saw something small move, something small and warbler-y. Oh no, not a warbler! I AM NOT READY FOR WARBLERS YET! Ok Damon, take a deep breath and look for identifying marks. Yellow, dammit I see yellow, but only on its head. Wait, no not a warbler (sort of ), but Golden Crowned Kinglet! At that point I wondered if I was lucky to see this because it flew off quick. The answer was 'no', because (as is always the case) once you spot a new bird once you will see it many times again. So after identifying the kinglet, I immediately saw three of them and then some more on the other side of the lake.

D) Ok, here it is, the place where I was told to see the Saw Whet Owl. I may not have the exact spot on the map right, but multiple people told me where, and there I was near the second "do not enter" signs looking through the trees around the honeysuckle. Hey, I have a job for you: go look up the Saw Whet Owl right now. Wait, don't, I'll describe it for you: small and brown and streaky. The exact type of thing that is impossible to actually see.

I did not see it.

I looked there for 20 minutes and did not see it. I looked everywhere around it and did not see it. I also did not see the Great Horned Owl that was allegedly nearby despite looking where people said it was.

Damn owls.

E) I finally get back to close to the lake, and while I still can see lots of shovelers in the distance, a new duck appear in relative abundance here: gadwalls! Yeah, I have them, but it is neat to see a different duck every now and then. At first they seem boring and indistinct, but after look at the other ducks for so long they sort of stick out.

F) I want you now to look at the map and see where "E" is. Now look over to where "L" is. That is the nearest bathroom area. I also have a life lesson for you: when you are about to go birding and hiking for most of the morning, don't ever think "oh, I'll just finish this iced tea instead of letting it sit in the car all morning."

Also, it was cold that morning, especially with the breeze off the lake.

G) One thing about the Heinz Refuge is that it is one of the best spots in the nation to see Rusty Blackbirds. Now, rusties aren't too hard to spot if you know what you are doing, but you will have to check every...single...red wing just to make sure. So after a couple miles of hiking and being fooled by every red wing and grackle, I finally saw a pair of Rusty Blackbirds! It was easy though, because there was a male and a female there and I got to see them fly. What is odd is that I could tell they were different just by the way they moved, though I am sure that isn't that odd for birders to say.

Also along this stretch the path is between the lake and a little stream which had Mallards (which, surprisingly, were the first ones I saw that day), Canada Geese and Hooded Mergansers. I know I already had the Hooded Mergs on my list, and Paul is already jaded with seeing them, but they are always a nice contrast to the other duck shapes.

H) There are many smaller ponds that are interconnected with each other and a lot of swampy area. In the more foresty part I saw some downies and a few more Golden Crowned Kinglets and Fox Sparrows, both recently on my list. There were a bunch of Mallards on the ponds, but I also saw a group of American Black Ducks, a new 'species'. Note my skepticism because Black Ducks are just a form of mallard and do not form a good species by any non-typological definition, but birders don't want their list numbers to drop so it stays. It is the same issue as the quagga.

I) Look swans! I was excited to see swans, hoping that I could have the same luck and adventure that Paul had with his native swans. Of course they were just Mute Swans. Damn.

J) Right off the edge of the pond there were a bunch of swallow boxes, and the Tree Swallows must have just returned.

K) I was surprised to find all the ducks on the pond (hundreds) take off all at once; something spooked them. Yes, raptor time! Right?!?! I scanned the skies and the horizon and all over the lake, hoping for something awesome and new. I knew there was a nesting Bald Eagle nearby and, while I have seen them many time this year, I always try to appreciate them, so at least I would see one.

Nope, it was a group of douchebags going running with their dog who was off his leash.


The ducks eventually came back.

L) OH THANK GOD A PORT-O-POTTY! Wow, imagine if I..uhhh...well...I did have a full bladder by the time I got there.

M) On the trail between the spot "L" and the bridge, there is a canal that runs parallel. This is where you see Mallards and occasional Wood Ducks.

While walking back around this spot near a partially wooded bank area, I saw some movement and pulled my binoculars out and saw a wren on the ground. No, not a Carolina Wren and not a House Wren either, much too stripey/barred on its belly. Winter Wren, yay!

Now, I swear it is a Winter Wren, even if the picture is crappy. Listen, that was my phone, so it isn't great to begin with (imagine if I hadn't upgraded from my old phone recently!), and the bird looks a lot redder in this photo than in real life. But I saw all the markings around its eye and the "barred flanks" as is described in Sibley.

I then took the bridge over the lake and headed back to the nature center.

I probably hiked between 4-6 miles (my trail on the map was just approximate) and between that and the previous day I added 9 new species. I am totally going back to try to get those owls.

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