Birding In The National Parks: A Spring Visit To Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Birder and Cuyahoga Valley NP Volunteer "Mac" McQueen assisted park biologist Meg Plona with retrieval of a young Peregrine Falcon that had difficulty on its first flight. NPS photo.

What a wonderful time it is to be in Ohio! As a resident of Michigan, I don’t believe I’m permitted to congratulate the Ohio State Buckeyes for making it to college basketball’s Final Four, but I have no qualms about celebrating Ohio’s propensity for attracting migrating birds.

Birding legend Kenn Kaufman has called northwest Ohio the "Warbler Capital of the World," with good reason, but eastern Ohio and the whole southern expanse of the Great Lakes region is a hotbed of warbler migration. Park travelers looking to avoid the binocular-wielding crowds at spots like Crane Creek State Park on the Lake Erie shore, might consider heading to Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

This would also be a great time to bring along some Junior Rangers with a hankering to watch some birds. Every month, Cuyahoga Valley National Park offers a free Junior Ranger Bird Watching program for kids aged seven and up. The junior rangers can join a park ranger, volunteer, or naturalist at one of the park’s numerous birding hotspots to learn about the avian wildlife that has led to Cuyahoga Valley being named an important bird area (IBA) by the Ohio Audubon Society.

Over the course of a whole year a junior ranger could build a life list of as many as 250 species just in the national park. April and May are two of the most active months for birds in this region, and the excitement of an influx of colorful, singing songbirds isn’t lost on kids.

What better way to reconnect kids with nature than an excursion to spot some creatures that look like they popped right out of a video game? On April 14 the junior rangers will meet at the Kendall Lake Shelter, and on May 12 they’ll be watching and listening for migrants at the Station Road Bridge Trailhead. Junior Ranger Bird Watching programs run from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.

There’s plenty of birding for adults at Cuyahoga Valley as well.

Alfred Lord Tennyson told us that “in the spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” He could have just as easily been talking about birds. Courting and mating are high priorities this time of year in the avian world.

One of North America’s oddest and most fascinating courtship rituals is that of the American Woodcock. On April 7 at 7:15 p.m., Park Ranger Paul Motts will guide a trip from park headquarters to witness the woodcock courting and mating behavior.

At dusk, male woodcocks arrive in open areas and begin calling with a distinct nasal “peent.” After several minutes of this somewhat comical “peenting” a male will lift off and begin flying in large sweeping circles, going higher and higher in a continually tightening spiral. Three-hundred feet in the air, he “stalls,” and then drops like a falling leaf, apparently under no control whatsoever, all the while emitting an eerie whistle from wind rushing through his feathers.

Just before crashing to the earth, he recovers, lands gracefully and struts about with his tail and wings fanned out. Any females that found this odd display pleasing enough will immediately approach and mate with the male. The first and last parts of the ritual are difficult to observe, taking place mostly in the cover of grass and brush, but the aerial display is a treat to watch and easy to see, providing you don’t take your eyes off the bird.

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American woodcock, photo by Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Once you lose sight of a small woodcock at 300 feet in a dusky grey sky, you don’t find it again!

On April 21st, Park Volunteer Dwight Chaser will lead participants on a warbler search on the Towpath trail along the Cuyahoga River. Yellow-throated warblers are one of the highlights of this trip.

The yellow-throated is one of the more southern warblers that we don’t see often in the upper Great Lakes region. There was one hanging out on Michigan State University’s campus last summer, but the Buckeye State definitely has us beat when it comes to this magnificent bird. (First basketball, now warblers. What’s next?)

Songbird walks will also be held on May 5th and on International Migratory Bird Day, which falls on May 12th this year. IMBD will also be celebrated with games and crafts at the Hunt Farm Visitor Center from 1 to 3 pm. Cuyahoga Valley sure knows how to celebrate migration!

The highlight of migration season will be Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s Spring Bird Census. Birders of all experience levels are invited to join in this annual event. Participants will be sent out in teams to count individual birds. The data are then compiled and used in natural resource studies. It’s another great opportunity to engage in citizen science. It’s like the Christmas Bird Count, but without the snow!

If you happen to be passing south of Cleveland this coming weekend, you can even stop in for the Emerging Eagles program on Saturday, March 31st at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Participants can enjoy hands-on activities followed by a hike along the Towpath Trail to find nesting Bald Eagles. While looking for raptors, lucky birders may spot one of the two pairs of Peregrine Falcons that nest in the park.

Have I mentioned how many organized birding activities Cuyahoga Valley National Park offers? The list is virtually endless, and they’re all waiting for you just down the Ohio Turnpike.

Comments

I grew up in North Olmsted and loved the ready access the Emerald Necklace used to afford us as children to nature,hiking,fishing and birdwatching. These sound like some excellent programs and I'm proud to be from this area.
Keep up the good work! Adults and children need this more than ever today!

I am seeing Eastern Meadowlark this week for the first time in what seems to be decades-am I just aloof or in the midst of a phenomenon?

That depends on where you are, Anonymous. The meadowlarks returned earlier than usual to southern Michigan, but I haven't heard of them showing up in places they aren't supposed to be.