July 26, 2014

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Sandy Ridge Reservation offers a bird-watcher’s delight

NORTH RIDGEVILLE — Ever hear tale of the “butcher bird?” It may be more than just a tale on Sunday — when winter wanderers might catch a glimpse or see tell-tale signs of its presence.

An occasional migrant from the north during winter, the northern shrike, or butcher bird as it is affectionately called, is an aviary siren.

“It’s a songbird that eats like a hawk,” said Tim Fairweather, the senior naturalist at Sandy Ridge Reservation, one of the Lorain County Metro Parks.

Though only the size of a robin or blue jay, the shrike’s diet includes rodents and smaller birds. Since it is not equipped with hawk-like talons, the little bluish-brown bird will impale its prey on brambles or thorns to kill it, often leaving behind the gruesome remains of its dinner.

Catching a glimpse of the butcher bird is just one of many possibilities at Sandy Ridge Reservation’s Winter Birding Hike. While most birds head south for the winter, the season can be a serene (minus butcher bird carnage) time to see winged creatures, especially more elusive birds of prey.

Over the course of a 2-mile hike that meanders through woods, marsh and meadowlands, bird enthusiasts might see two nesting bald eagles, seven-year residents of the reservation. Binoculars (park staff keep loaners on hand for those without their own) bring folks up close and personal with roosting great horned owls, several of which claim the 310-acre reservation as home.

According to Fairweather, great horned owls have a keen sense of timing. They start laying eggs in late January, early for birds. By the time spring comes and the woods are filled with young critters freshly emerged from the den, the owl’s parents teach their young to hunt by targeting the less-than-experienced broods.

Blue jays, red-tailed hawks, geese, ducks, chickadees, woodpeckers and Ohio’s state bird, the cardinal, also make regular appearances during the winter.

“On a good winter day you’ll see 30-some species of birds, maybe 40,” Fairweather said.

Meanwhile, the winter weather offers a scenic backdrop for birdwatchers.

“The snow makes everything pop,” Fairweather said. “The eagles sitting up in the dead trees when it’s snowing are really pretty.”

The park also makes efforts to dispel the persistent rumor that bird-watching is only for the tweed-clad bifocal set. With the Young Birder’s Club, Fairweather hopes to spark teenagers’ interest in the hobby.

“We show them that birding can be a competitive sport,” he said.

High school teachers will occasionally send students on the birding hikes to earn extra credit.

“Some of them come back because they like it so much,” said Fairweather. “That makes me feel good.”

WANT TO GO?
The Winter Birding Hike will take place at 10 a.m. Sunday at the Sandy Ridge Reservation in North Ridgeville. The event is free and open to the public. For more details, go to www.loraincountymetroparks/sandyridge.html or call (440) 327-3626.

Contact Kaitlin Bushinski at 329-7155 or ctnews@chroniclet.com.