Spring migration has arrived in full force at Shawnee State Park!
This Friday, May 1, is supposed to be the kickoff of the Ohio Ornithological Society’s “Warblers & Wildflowers Weekend” at Shawnee State Park. All of us at the OOS worked really hard to get the festival ready to go, and so many of our members (and non-members) were looking forward to the usual killer looks at the incoming migrants and the nesting species in the area. Then, as with so many other activities, it was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Damn.
This past weekend – despite rain in the forecast – I decided to make the trip to Shawnee to try and improve my mental health by enjoying something familiar and “normal.” And to see some birds, of course!
For those that are not familiar with the area, Shawnee is tucked away in the Appalachian foothills in southern Ohio. Shawnee State Park encompasses 1,095 acres of the 63,000-acre Shawnee State Forest. It is HUGE! For my day trip, I only traveled a small section of the forest, along State Forest Rd. 1, “Pond Lick Rd.”
When visiting Shawnee, I like to be there first thing in the morning – before the sun comes up. If the conditions are right, and you are the first car on Rd. 1, you can often find Eastern Whip-poor-wills resting on the paved road to stay warm. Their eyes glow in the headlights and you can (just barely) see them fly off and you can hear their calls all along the road. Unfortunately, on this trip – perhaps due to the recent cold weather – there were no Whips to be found.
Wake Up Call
The next thing to experience is the “Dawn Song”. Even for someone that has difficulty hearing, the number of birds calling makes it easy to tell that everything is waking up and ready to start the day! Of course, the Northern Cardinals, American Robins, and Tufted Titmice were the most prevalent, but there were also Wood Thrushes, White-throated Sparrows, and Hooded Warblers announcing their presence. A surprise American Woodcock was “peenting” near the side of the road!
As the day began to brighten a little, fog was evident all along the road. Bad for birding, but pretty to see.
Once the fog cleared, finding birds was easy. They were everywhere! Photographing them was a different story, though. Maybe because it was still a bit early in the season, it seemed that most of the birds were staying high in the trees. They were not down low defending their territory so much as moving steadily through the canopy. Perhaps just stopping by on their way to somewhere else.
The morning – mostly spent at the intersection of Rd. 1 and Rd. 2 – yielded quite a few species: Blue-winged, Yellow-throated, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Hooded, Black-and-white, Worm-eating, Prairie, and Cerulean Warblers. Also, Louisiana Waterthrush, Northern Parula, American Redstart, and a very cooperative Ovenbird! Eastern Towhees and Eastern Phoebes called regularly from the woods. A very productive morning of birding, but a very slow morning for photography.
Back down by Pond Lick Lake there were many Northern Rough-winged Swallows, Louisiana Waterthrush, and a flyover Broad-winged Hawk, and Yellow-throated Vireos.
After a bite to eat (and the discovery of a road-blocking Gray Ratsnake – cool!), I met back up with Eric Elvert, who was also visiting the forest. He was hoping to find a couple of lifers and both were birds that I had seen in the morning. We were hopeful that we could relocate them.
A spot a little ways up Rd. 2 from the intersection was our first stop. We heard an Ovenbird singing when we got out of our cars, followed by the song of Eric’s first target – Cerulean Warbler. The Cerulean Warblers were staying almost exclusively at the very tops of the trees. Last year at Shawnee, they were down low – even foraging on the ground, at times.
After searching for a few minutes, we finally spotted the little blue gem up in the canopy. Not great looks at it, but enough to confirm the ID and for Eric to log his lifer! Then, just as we were about to get back in our cars, the Cerulean dropped down to a much shorter tree nearby and Eric was able to get a much better view of this amazing species. (And I got up-close looks at this garter snake that I almost stepped on!)
Finally Something to Shoot
Eric’s next target was a bird that I love photographing. Often shy and reclusive, the Worm-eating Warbler can be tough to locate in Ohio. During all of the years that Eric has been birding, he still had yet to see one. He had come to the right place this time! We made our way back down to the Rd. 1/Rd. 2 intersection where I had seen one earlier in the day. Upon arrival, we saw multiple Hooded Warblers chasing each other around and apparently having a singing contest. “Weeta-weeta-weet-tee-o” repeated over and over.
Underneath all of that noise, Eric heard a rapid trilling sound. Was it a Pine Warbler? Another darn Chipping Sparrow?
Nope! It was his second target species – Worm-eating Warbler!* The bird was foraging in a small tree and on the ground at the side of the road. (There was also a Chipping Sparrow, but we ignored him – ha ha) Lifer number 2 for Eric! We hung out and tried to get some photos. Much better luck than I had had in the morning, but still not as good as last year.
It looked as though the predicted rain was about to move into the area, so Eric and I parted ways and I started making my way home. It was a great day to be outside and wonderful to see so many amazing birds!
I may just go again this weekend!
*Sound clip from allaboutbirds.org