It’s springtime at the Falls of the Ohio and life is less shy about revealing itself. Wasn’t too long ago that finding even the most common bird could be a challenge due to the harshness and length of our winter. Now the spring migrants are winging their way northward and even the indigenous species are easier to locate. This is the time of year when the pair bonds are strongest. The resident Canada Goose population appears to have overwintered in fine fashion and it won’t be too long before the first goslings are in the water. As you may have ascertained, this post will be about one of my favorite Falls subjects…birds.
This is a composite image of three different Osprey that were simultaneously circling my position at the river recently. The trio were flying in ever-widening circles and taking advantage of the wind currents and thermals. It’s a thrilling site to observe these fish hawks diving into the water and being rewarded for their efforts with a freshly caught fish in their talons. I’ve heard about, but not yet seen, the Bald Eagle nest that is just west of the Falls area. On occasion, I have seen eagles, but considering how near they are to this area I would have thought that sightings would be more common. I’ve recently seen other birds of prey including Peregrine Falcons, Cooper’s Hawks, and our next featured bird, the Black Vulture is beginning to return to the Falls of the Ohio in numbers.
To my eye, it appears that the Black Vulture population has been increasing while our other vulture…the Turkey Vulture presents itself less frequently. The Black Vultures are more gregarious and aggressive which probably keeps the Turkey Vulture from showing its featherless, naked, red-head more? Recently, I came across this individual Black Vulture feeding upon a dead fish. It let me get quite close, but there was also a minimum distance that it would tolerate me. Whenever I would get closer to its comfort zone, the vulture would grab the fish with its sharp beak and drag it to where that minimum distance was re-established before it resumed feeding. We did this dance for a few minutes before the vulture decided it had enough and flew away. My next bird is one that I have never observed in the park before. Some of my most memorable sightings have come from species seen just once and maybe for a few seconds at that. Hardcore birders (they wear black leather jackets with chains hanging off them) are familiar with this phenomenon. Friends have asked me why I don’t indulge my avian passion in a more organized fashion, but frankly I don’t like the sense of competition that can exist in some of these groups and clubs. I appreciate that birds are fellow life forms that are inhabiting the same time and space with me and are more than feathered abstractions to cross off on some list. If you pay attention, birds can tell you much about the state of nature and this planet.
The new bird I recently came across is the Orange-collared Piper. It’s a shorebird that undertakes a tremendous journey starting at the tip of South America and it won’t stop moving northwards until it reaches its breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle. Landing at the Falls, it is a little more than half way to where it needs to be. This piper is a rather small bird and easily overlooked in this particular environment. Its white body and head look remarkably like the polystyrene that litters these shores.
The bird is so named because it sports an orange ring around its neck. Other field marks include diminutive size, brown wings, and a sharp yellow bill it uses to probe sand and mud for the tiny invertebrates it eats. Also true to its name, this bird makes a high-pitched “piping” call it uses while it feeds. To he honest, I did not hear this call with this particular individual.
Both the male and female Orange-collared Piper look about the same. At its breeding grounds, the pair incubates about five or six tiny, black speckled eggs in a rather shallow gravel depression. No fancy nest for this bird…it lays its eggs directly on the ground where cryptic coloration helps protect them from the numerous Arctic predators. This bird is considered threatened due in large measure to habitat loss and other environmental degradation. Its amazingly long migration probably also puts this bird at risk since so many things can go wrong on such a long trip. I watched this particular individual for about forty minutes or so. It moved among the driftwood in very careful fashion stopping here and there to probe the sand with its sharp yellow bill. When the bird decided to move on…there was a flash of wings too quick to see and it was gone. I hope that it reaches its destination and resurfaces at this park again. I have one final “bird” that I recorded the same day I saw the Orange-collared Piper. Perhaps you will recognize this one? It’s most distinctive field mark is the sunglasses it wears while floating on the river. Happy birding!!