Fall birding brings excitement and frustration

This furtive Nelson's sparrow appeared on the Wake Robin Trail, Mentor Marsh/Jerry Talkington

Northeast Ohio's lakefront habitats provide best Fall birding opportunities

Two alliterative words best describe the theme for Fall birding in Northeast Ohio: Furtive and Frustrating.

Orange-crowned warbler in goldenrod/Chuck Slusarczyk Jr.
Fall birders quickly recognize the furtiveness of migrants as they arrive along the lakefront in the cool morning hours following an arduous flight across Lake Erie from Canada. They are hungry and desperate to reach their neotropical destinations in Central and South America, fueled by a feast of bugs, fruit and seed.

As many as 40 percent won’t survive the roundtrip journey. Thousands are killed every year by collisions with windows at downtown buildings. Fortunately, several hundred stunned birds are rescued by the amazing volunteers of the Lights Out Cleveland group.

The best birding in the area can be found in the vicinity of Lake Erie such as the Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve, Headlands Beach State Park, Mentor Marsh Preserve, Wendy Park, the Lorain Impoundment, and the Sandy Ridge Reservation in North Ridgeville.

Lincoln's sparrow/Chuck Slusarczyk Jr.
As a recent retiree from The Plain Dealer, I’ve had more opportunities than ever for fall birding – and more opportunities for frustration.

So many birds flitting about, providing a constant whirl of motion in our peripheral vision, but many escaping detection. Multitudes of songbirds move through the foliage, feeding, chasing each other, and hiding to avoid detection from predators. They produce a blur of activity that I find frustrating in my attempts to focus, identify and admire every bird – an almost impossible pursuit.

Don’t get me wrong, I love fall birding. It provides excitement second only to that of the spring migration. But in contrast to the spring birds, sporting their bright and colorful breeding plumages, many of the fall migrants are duller and look-alikes, dressed in various shades of green, brown or gray, further contributing to the difficulty of identification.

Yellow-rumped warbler, fall plumage/Joan Scharf
The species most readily available for viewing change as the season progresses. Early in the fall, for instance, orioles, grosbeaks, tanagers, and yellow warblers are common. Dozens of common nighthawks and American robins pass overhead in the evening, and shorebirds arrive on mudflats.

Gradually, thrush appear, primarily Swainson’s and gray-cheeked. Warblers fill the trees: bay-breasted, Tennessee, black-and-white, black-throated green, Blackburnian, Cape May, blackpoll, magnolia, pine, Wilson’s, and American redstart, plus red-eyed, warbling and Philadelphia vireos.

Recently, the warblers have been joined by multitudes of yellow-rumps, and lesser numbers of Nashville, Northern parula, chestnut-sided, black-throated blue, palms and, especially in the goldenrod at the Lakefront Nature Preserve, orange-crowned.

Swamp sparrow/Jerry Talkington
Brown creepers, ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets often accompany the warblers, and the majority of Swainson’s thrush have departed, replaced by hermit thrush.

Waves of blue jays and white-throated sparrows have begun to arrive, with lesser numbers of white-crowned, Lincoln’s and swamp sparrows. Lucky birders will spot a Nelson’s or LeConte’s sparrow at the Mentor Marsh, Lorain Impoundment or the Lakefront Nature Preserve. Soon, most of these species will be supplanted by dark-eyed juncoes, fox and American tree sparrows.

Beginning next month, the lakefront and nearby inland lakes will be inundated by waterfowl: ducks, geese, grebes, and loons. Reports of jaegers on Lake Erie will spark excited birders to lug their spotting scopes to beach overlooks for the opportunity to witness these pelagic marauders as they harass gulls.

The telltale calls of migrating flocks of tundra swans passing overhead on their journey to the East Coast is a thrilling sound not easily forgotten.

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