February 28, 2014

Looking Back at Some Spectacular Winter Scenery

As faint signs of spring are starting to appear, I thought I'd take a look back at a wonderful mid-February day that convinced me that I love winter hiking. That is a real revelation since we have never done much of it before and I always figured that winter was the off season for such activity. Not so! Despite frigid temperatures and lots of snow we've had a great time this winter exploring Ohio roads and trails. I've concluded that the best way to deal with a tough winter like this one is to get out into it.

So on a sunny day and with clear roads we headed with a group of friends to Conkle's Hollow State Nature Preserve in the Hocking Hills south of Columbus. In spring this valley, rimmed on both sides by high cliffs, is blanketed with a variety of wildflowers and is livened by the songs of warblers newly arrived from the south. At first glance, the winter scene appears lifeless, but closer inspection reveals all sorts of animal activity. Here a coyote ambled across a frozen stream:

A mouse emerged from its hiding place to run across the snow:

Here a small bird, a sparrow perhaps, left a wingprint:

One of our winter visitors, a northern junco, filled up on poison ivy berries:

Here is a hermit thrush, with its cinnamon-colored tail. These birds are among the first spring songbirds to reach Ohio.

The hermit thrush seems to be questioning the wisdom of a bath in the frigid stream:

A deer graced the hillside:

Sandstone cliffs line the sides of the hollow and this scene might be mistaken for Colorado:

Each turn in the trail revealed frozen waterfalls:

At the end of the hollow the ice formations were quite impressive:

After these breathtaking sights we had lunch and headed over to the short walk to Ash Cave. The "cave" is not a typical limestone formation but instead is a huge overhanging sandstone ledge. Curtains of ice lined the adjacent cliffs:

At the cave, a waterfall pours over a cliff. Still flowing, it has formed a truly spectacular ice formation. Our friend Jan, just over 5 feet tall, stood by the huge ice tower and provided some perspective: 

Here is a view from another angle:

And a close-up of the ice:

I absolutely loved this outing and was sorry when it ended. The next day we headed south for a road trip to Florida--what a contrast!

February 25, 2014

Visiting Some Winter Visitors

While many familiar birds leave Ohio in the fall and head south, for other birds this IS the south! For example, many of our winter robins breed north of here, and most local backyard feeders host white-throated sparrows and northern juncos from the north during the winter. Other winter visitors rarely appear at suburban feeders, but instead stay out in the open fields that closely resemble their summer homes in the tundra. A farm north of Delaware, Ohio has fed and hosted such field birds for the last 20 winters, and this year the flocks are truly remarkable. Recently we checked it out with a group of friends.

This is the sight that greeted us when we arrived:

Looks a lot like the tundra! The birds that you see in the picture are a very small fraction of the thousands of birds that were taking advantage of the 50 pounds of cracked corn that the property owner distributes every day. Most of them were snow buntings, with substantial numbers of lapland longspurs and horned larks mixed in:

On the left on this picture is a snow bunting, and on the right is a lapland longspur:

Below is a horned lark, staring at the camera. There isn't much doubt as to how it got its name! Horned larks comb Ohio fields for seeds and other food all year, but snow buntings and longspurs breed far to the north.

Here is a sight that not many folks have seen--snow buntings high in a tree! These field birds simply don't often leave the ground to look for food, but these snow buntings appeared to be eating silver maple flower buds:

Here are a few more pictures from this icy morning:

For excellent pictures and more information about this remarkable flock, head on over to Ohio Birds and Biodiversity.

February 7, 2014

A Cold, Snowy, Rainy, Fun Weekend in Northeast Ohio

We haven't done much exploring in northeastern Ohio, so when friends suggested that we join them for the weekend at an inn near Chardon we readily agreed. They were hoping to spend time cross-country skiing, while we planned to do some hiking in area parks and preserves. Steady rain on Saturday meant that we ended up with a great group of 10 hikers and despite the weather all had a good time.

Our adventure began on Friday afternoon with a hike at The West Woods, a 900 acre park managed by the Geauga County Park District. We were quite impressed with their park system--many nice and varied nature preserves, a wonderful pocket-sized brochure for each park with an excellent trail map, and lovely nature centers. West Woods features hemlock groves and many large ledges of Sharon Conglomerate

that in one area make a formation called Ansel's Cave, which purportedly was used during the Civil War for munitions storage and to shelter runaway slaves.

Note that the icicles here go both up from the ground and down from the ceiling of the cave--icy stalgmites and stalactites! 

According to park signage, Sharon Conglomerate was deposited about 320 million years ago, but the sand and pebbles in it are 1.1 billion years old and their nearest source is in Canada. Some people call the rounded pebbles "lucky stones":

After our hike we warmed up in the nature center, which featured windows looking out onto a very active bird feeding area. Tree sparrows, mourning doves, white-throated sparrows, white-breasted nuthatches, downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers and many more were feasting on the seeds and suet. Pretty soon along came a Virginia opossum to get in on the action, eating the seeds that had been dropped by the birds:

In addition to their cuteness, 'possums are interesting mammals that we don't see very often except as roadkill. They are mainly nocturnal but obviously can also be active during the day, and they are the only native North American marsupial. They don't hibernate so even in a cold winter they have to find food whenever and wherever they can. Their coats are relatively thin, and their feet, nose and ears are bare, making them quite vulnerable to frostbite. Although they don't live much longer than two years, they are able to make it through the winter by storing fat in their tail and under their skin. Love those pink feet!

Saturday was pretty much all about hiking in the rain (and having a really good lunch and dinner). We visited two preserves, Big Creek and Penetentiary Glen. We loved the hemlock groves and a tiny frozen waterfall

and had a laugh at this sign:

While we didn't see many animals, evidence of wildlife was all around us including tracks in the snow and these pileated woodpecker holes:

These huge birds drill into tree trunks to get to carpenter ants, among other insects. 

Sunday we woke up to steady snow and falling temperatures. Our friends headed for some skiing while we drove west to Cleveland to meet Jen Brumfield, one of Ohio's most experienced, fun, and informative birders, who was scheduled to lead a walk along the lakefront. We hadn't been to this area in many years so we were pleased to have the opportunity to check it out; it is typically one of the most productive and exciting winter birding areas in the state. Extremely uncomfortable weather typically adds to the "excitement", with snow, ice, and wind creating pretty miserable conditions. Fortunately, this time we just had 2 out of 3 since the wind was pretty quiet.

This is the scene that greeted us at our first stop, a park at the end of East 72nd Street:

Wherever there is open water along the Lake Erie shore, ducks from the north tend to congregate in large numbers. Often they are accompanied by huge number of gulls, and sometimes very rare ones can be found among the ring-billed and herring gulls. In a cold winter like this one, open water near the shore is hard to find, except where a power plant discharges the warm water that has cooled its turbines. This is the power plant that provides the discharge at this spot; an added benefit of it was that it is a favored perch of peregrine falcons and we were fortunate to see one!

While we didn't see any rare gulls, we did see a lot of ducks, including all three North American merganser species. Here is the male hooded merganser with a female red-breasted merganser,

the spiffy male red-breasted merganser

and the elegant common merganser with a female of the same species.

Notice how their bills are hooked, and if you could see the bill close up you'd see that it has tiny teeth or serrations, characteristics that are quite helpful for catching fish. They were joined by mallards, both lesser and greater scaup, and these redheads that are in the foreground:

At another spot along the lake, but beyond photography range, were huge numbers of canvasbacks and some common goldeneyes. As we were scoping these ducks a gorgeous adult bald eagle flew by. 

With dropping temperatures and increasing ice formation we were ready after a couple of hours to head south to central Ohio. Although the weekend weather was uncomfortable at times and we never saw the sun (obvious from these pictures!), we were well-prepared and able to enjoy beautiful winter scenes like this: