Winter Rarities

I’ve had a good run of winter birding since December, with a couple of new birds for my life list and several more that I did not expect to see this time of the year. Here are some of the highlights.

Chipping Sparrow, Cannonball Prairie Metropark, December 26, 2020

The day after Christmas, I was sitting around bored and decided to take a drive over to one of my new favorite local birding spots. Cannonball Prairie is a new metropark that we only discovered this past spring. We kept driving past it on the way to Oak Openings and saying, “We really should stop there sometime.”

One day in June, we finally did stop by, and the place is great! It’s not a big park, but it has a pretty wide variety of habitats including a pond with a nice trail, a tree-lined field, and a patch of woods. Over the course of the year I racked up almost 50 species there including Green Herons (a staple all summer), Indigo Buntings, crows, hawks, and one Pileated Woodpecker.

The highlight of my after-Christmas visit was definitely the huge flock of Cedar Waxwings feasting at the back corner of the pond, but when I got home and started looking at photos, one of the American Tree Sparrows didn’t look quite right. The face and eyeline were the wrong color, as were the legs. I tossed the photo up on the whatsthisbird Reddit and the crowd agreed with me, I had a late-season Chipping Sparrow. Score!

Savannah Sparrow, Howard Marsh Metropark, January 2, 2021

We stopped by Howard Marsh Metropark on January 2nd, the last Saturday before the end of Christmas break. At the kayak launch just north of the parking lot, I heard two little birds making unfamiliar calls in the grass. I snapped a few pictures of what I thought were very unusual-looking Song Sparrows and went on my way. The highlight of this visit was a flock of Snow Buntings flitting all over the place, occasionally landing just long enough for me to get them in the scope and snap a bad photo or two.

Later on I got home and noticed the unusually bold streaks on my sparrows, and the yellow patch over the eye. I had only seen Savannah Sparrows once, in the spring at Headland Dunes near Cleveland, but according to Merlin and my guidebook, there shouldn’t be any hanging around this far north in January.

Back to Reddit, and this time I got a very different reception. I posted the picture and asked if anyone had ever seen a Song Sparrow with a yellow eye spot like that. I’ve observed them to pretty variable from bird to bird, so it didn’t seem out of the question, and with so little birding experience (in the grand scheme of things) I will always fall back on a “safe” ID. I hate to say it, but I got some real snark for even suggesting that this was a Song Sparrow. They told me in so many words that Song Sparrows never have a yellow spot and made me feel like a moron for not immediately concluding Savannah. I was happy to have found the bird (which has stuck around – people are still reporting it at Howard Marsh as of early February) but disappointed to have run into my first jerkass bird people.

Northern Wheatear, Upper Sandusky Reservoir, January 17, 2021

I definitely can’t take any credit for this bird. I’m pretty sure every birder in Northern Ohio came to the parking lot of Upper Sandusky Reservoir this month to see this guy. I’m not normally a chaser – the thought of crowds of people hassling a bird grosses me out, but 1) this guy was so far out of range that I might not ever see one again unless I go to Europe or Africa and 2) it was a boring weekend in January during a pandemic, so we made the drive.

I’m glad we did, there was a small crowd when we got there that gradually got larger, and the normal people coming to the reservoir to walk their dogs must’ve thought we were nuts, standing out in the cold with binoculars and cameras pointed at a nondescript pile of rocks. The bird was out when we got there, and then it was gone for a long time. Eventually it popped back out and the cameras started clicking like paparazzi.

People were mostly well-behaved, wearing masks and keeping their distance. From that far back, it was pretty tough to see the bird well with just binoculars. I brought my scope and after a while I started approaching groups of people and asking if they wanted to have a closer look at the bird. They would step up, look for a minute, and then step away with a huge smile. So that felt pretty good! Good trip, good bird.

Green Heron, Magee Marsh, January 23, 2021

This last bird was a pleasant and unexpected surprise. We got up on a Saturday and drove over to Magee, which is more of a spring/summer place (famous for warblers!) but we hadn’t been there in a while. Everyone was there to see a Northern Shrike, which we did see for a minute, but I had just seen and photographed one up in Michigan so I didn’t stick around waiting for it.

We were on the boardwalk, not really seeing much of anything, when all of the sudden I saw a big bird jump from a tree and glide down towards the water. I got a little closer and saw it there, perched on a branch. Thanks to all my time at Cannonball Prairie, I didn’t need to post on Reddit for this ID. It was obviously a Green Heron, probably wishing it was anyplace warmer than Northwest Ohio on a frigid January morning. It was total luck that I even saw it, let alone get close enough to take a good photo, but it made the whole day worth it.

What’s Coming Up

February looks to be a quiet month, work is busy and it’s freezing cold, so there are fewer birds around and fewer opportunities to see them. March should be better, we’re planning on taking a road trip down to the North Carolina coast to see what we can see on the Outer Banks. I’m hoping to see Brown Nuthatches there and Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers, plus lots and lots of shorebirds. Later this year, assuming we’re vaccinated, we hope to go to Belize and spend a week in a jungle lodge, to see some really colorful birds. I bought the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Northern Central America and if nothing else, it’s full of pretty pictures to get me through these cold, boring winter months.

Comments are closed.