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Braving grassland's heat pays off in sparrows Thursday, July 20, 2006James F. McCartyPlain Dealer Reporter The satisfaction of seeing a particularly desirable bird is often related to the level of difficulty required to find it. Several extreme examples come to mind: The 12-mile trek in Big Bend National Park, Texas, to see the Colima warbler. The wild ride in a float plane to see the brown noddys and sooty terns at the Dry Tortugas in Florida. The marathon drive on snowy highways to view any of the arctic owls, such as great gray, hawk or boreal. The hunt is half the fun, which is why we found such exhilaration last weekend in our quest for the Henslow's sparrow. With the loss of prairie habitat over the past century, grassland bird populations have plummeted. No two birds have been decimated more than the Henslow's and grasshopper sparrows, with bobolinks and Eastern meadowlarks also experiencing severe declines. I joined my friend Jeff and my son Bret for a Sunday morning walk at the Coliseum grasslands in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, at the intersection of Ohio 303 and Interstate 271 in Summit County. Although the grassland birding at the site is thrilling, I wouldn't recommend the hike for the faint of heart. The temperature was already pushing 90 degrees, and the sun felt Sahara-hot when we embarked into the knee-high, dew-soaked grass. (Tip: Wear tall rubber boots). And that is the last complaint you will hear from me. We had hardly traveled 20 yards when we encountered several Savannah sparrows, which are common nesters in Northeast Ohio, but declining in their native grassland habitats. These were clearly exhibiting defensive nesting behavior, scolding us and acting warily. Working our way through the marshy turf, we stepped over a garter snake and a small toad, and walked through matted grass that had been a deer's bed the night before. Bret's sharp ears picked out the first innocuous cricketlike hiccup of a Henslow's sparrow. A notoriously secretive species that prefers to walk or run through the grass than fly above it, this particular Henslow's chose to pose on a stalk of mullein and sing -- no matter how unimpressive the song. After a few minutes of admiring the dark-plumaged male with the large, flat head, we watched its mate hop up beside it to check out all of the excitement. Delving deeper into the field, we found nearly a dozen bobolinks, with several males still wearing their breeding plumage, and others slipping into their drab brown traveling feathers. Eastern meadowlarks called from atop blooming clover. On the way out, we found another Henslow's couple. This male was even more cooperative, perching on a fence and projecting its song surprisingly long distances for such a puny sound. Before escaping the oppressive heat, we stopped by Wolf Creek Park near Wadsworth in Medina County, another large grassland where sedge wrens nested this summer. We didn't find the wrens, but we did locate two grasshopper sparrows, plus abundant song and field sparrows, bobolinks, a family of Eastern kingbirds, indigo buntings, Eastern bluebirds and several raptors, including Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks. Other sightings and events Medina County provided some early shorebirding highlights for Ken and Helen Ostermiller, who discovered a mud flat on Friendsville Road with solitary, spotted, semipalmated and least sandpipers. A male magnolia warbler carrying food at Whipps Ledges over the weekend was a nice surprise for Terri Martincic. The Ohio Young Birders Club continues to impress with its second successful field trip of the summer, this one to Holmes County led by Robert Hershberger, Kenn and Kim Kaufman. About 25 young birders had the opportunity to peek inside a barn owl nest with an adult and juvenile present, see a Western meadowlark in a pasture, and observe several Virginia rails at arm's length. Also seen on the tour: least bittern, common moorhen, marsh wren, bobolink and dickcissel. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources reported a banner year for sandhill crane reproduction in the state with 15 young cranes fledged -- the most in Ohio since 1900. Most of the 15 nests were in Northeast Ohio, with nine in Wayne and two in Holmes counties, and single nests in Geauga and Lorain counties. The cranes failed to nest in Ohio from 1926 to 1987, but have been on the rebound ever since. McCarty is a reporter with The Plain Dealer. Questions or comments on this column may be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org © 2006 The Plain Dealer© 2006 cleveland.com All Rights Reserved.
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