Downtown Cleveland from the Summit of Gildersleeve Mountain

July 10, 2010 - Solitude

I have always enjoyed being alone in the woods. I grew up on Gildersleeve Mountain. Back then it was 800 acres of forest and orchard, with a quarry plopped smack dab in the middle of it all. The quarry shut down in 1968 because it encroached on state land. I cannot forget how the ground shook and the house rattled every time they would blast. At some point the blasting caused state land to crumble, and that was the end of that.

Much of the forest on Gildersleeve Mountain, was, and still is old growth. Meaning it has good numbers of trees over 200 years old. In the 1960’s it was a state forest. At 370 acres the state forest was the smallest in Ohio, but significant because it was old growth.

By the time I was 5 or 6 the rule was: just be home by dinner time. Not hard, as my stomach lead me home. So I roamed the woods, sometimes with my neighbor and friend Keith, but often alone. I am embarrassed, yet proud, to now see the big beech along the side of what was a trail and is now a road with HAANS crudely scrawled 3 feet from the base of the trunk. I got my first pocket knife on a trip to to New Haven Connecticut to visit my sister and the first thing I did when I got home was carve up a tree! I was just a young boy, so that sin is long forgiven.

As I grew up my time by myself in the woods diminished. In part because we become more social as we get older and because Chapin State Forest became Chapin Forest Lake County Metropolitan Park. Fire lanes became paved roads, paths became trails and eventually it seems like the Park district is determined to pave over the whole 370 acres to make it more accessible.

So while once, the encounters with people on Gildersleeve Mountain were rare, they are now hard to avoid from dawn to dusk. While there are places off the trails where you will not see anyone, the signs of human presence. The noise, the litter, have become very hard to avoid in that once small but still wild place.

More than one circumstance conspired to deprive me of my solitude, to a point where I could not remember being by myself in the woods anymore. I was always with someone else, or guiding a a hike, or encountering other people. I was never truly alone.

Saturday, I found myself in an odd situation. My friend Frank was on vacation and my friend Tom had to work. They have helped me with survey work for the past 3 years. So every walk through the remote woods has been with either Tom or Frank or both. This day provided an opportunity. I could either succumb to the fear of solitude I have not had for so long, or find the joy of it. I chose the latter.

My walk was a wonder. I chose a part of the Holden Arboretum that is 1200 acres of unbroken woods. Although I got a bit of a late start, the birds welcome me with an extended chorus. It is hard to believe they are singing this late in the morning in numbers I cannot fathom. It is as if I have arrived at dawn. The Wood Thrush, the Juncos, the Winter Wren, Hooded, Black-throated Green and Black-throated Blue Warblers.

I realized it is impossible to be truly alone in the woods. There are few places on Earth so teaming with life as a healthy the forest. There is life everywhere, and it is concentrated and diverse. From the bacteria in the soil to the insects, plants, trees, and birds, there is not a square centimeter in the forest that is lifeless. You will find life wherever you look. It is astonishing. So in the forest you never lack for company. If your intent and attitude are right you merge with the forest, become a part of it. It is not a foreign, or hostile place. It is home. In this state of mind you find both solitude and companionship.

June 30, 2010 A Special Guest

As it says on the side bar, I am fortunate to live in a beautiful place. However, I am often concerned my fellow Clevelanders have no clue about the beauty that surrounds them. So it is gratifying to have someone who is unfamiliar with our area recognize the unique beauty we have in our own backyard.

We have been attempting to confirm that Black-throated Blue Warblers are nesting in a remote part of the Holden Arboretum. For 3 years we have been finding multiple individuals of this species on the same site. This is the final year of the Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas 2 project and it would be great if we could confirm nesting before the project ends. So during June we have spent hours in this area watching these birds and monitoring their behavior. In early June it was males singing on territory. By mid June we spotted females moving in tandem with males. This is consistent with the male guarding the female during nest building. Then in the past week, the males singing intermittently and then diving back into the possible nesting areas. This behavior is consistent with incubation of eggs.

Everything we observe has been reported to Paul Rodewald, Director of the OBBA2 project. He has a few graduate students who work on the project and there was a hope one of them could come to the site and have a look.

Coordination and logistics are difficult. This is not like going to a metropark or even the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. You can’t just drive in, park, walk a bit down a trail and be there. As I have described earlier, this is more of and expedition requiring planning and a knowledge of the area.

On Monday and Tuesday a flurry of emails and phone tag. Dave Slager of the OBBA2 project is going to be in the area and he has experience finding Black-Throated Blue Warbler nests on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He knows this species, its’ habitat, and behavior. We work out meeting late Wednesday afternoon.

My friend Frank Buck and I, meet Dave at the Holden Visitor Center and then we drive the 15 minutes down into the valley of the East Branch of the Chagrin and then along the river to the parking area where we will begin our hike to the deep woods site.

Dave is amazed to be in “Cleveland” and in such a pristine forest. He wonders how these large tracts of land were preserved. We explain some of the history of land conservancy in the region which lead to the Emerald Necklace, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Holden Arboretum natural areas, and county metroparks systems. There is nothing like this in his home state of Michigan, nor in other parts of Ohio.

We spend roughly 3 hours on the Black-throated Blue site. We observe males foraging and singing intermittently. Again behavior consistent with incubation. The site is physically challenging. A hogback with steep slopes and 260 feet of elevation change. Dave feels there is a lot of appropriate habitat and that we just need to spend more time on site and get lucky.. He tells us the Black-throated Blues are a year bird for him. Serious birders keep a year list , a list of all the birds they see in a calendar year. This is the first time in 2010 Dave has seen this species.

We decide to take a loop along the south rim of Stebbins Gulch so Dave can see that spectacular feature. He is impressed by the Black-throated Green Warblers, Winter Wrens, and Dark-eyed Juncos. When we look the 200 feet down into the narrow gulch he is astonished. He had seen the feature on the maps, but maps do not convey the grandeur of a place.

Our walk is slower than usual. Dave is constantly falling behind listening to the birds. Species Frank and I take for granted. Dave wonders if he heard a Broad-winged Hawk? We explain the most common raptors in these woods are Sharp-shinned Hawks and Barred Owls. .We also describe the decline of Red-Shouldered Hawks.

As the evening wanes and we walk back along the seldom used trails, we hear a strange call high in the trees. Frank and I sometimes hear calls we don’t recognize. Sometimes you just don’t know. But Dave has an advantage. He has the complete Stokes’ Bird Songs, of North America, all 3 CDs, on his iPod. He plays Sharp-shinned Hawk. Yes! Sharp-shinned Hawk is what we just heard. Dave is thrilled, and so are we.

Farther along and near the end of our hike, we look over the valley of the East Branch at the southern end of Little Mountain. There is beauty here and the young graduate student sees it. He tries to take a picture. Digital photography allows us to see the picture does not come out. There is too much contrast for the camera to capture both the bright sky and the darkness of the forest. The picture is less important than the memory he will have of this beautiful place.

June 27, 2010 Oh Dark Thirty

People interested in birds are generally early risers with good reason. The birds are more active in the morning. Or at least this is the conventional wisdom. In the forests around Kirtland, I can attest this is absolutely the case. 20 to 30 minutes before sunrise the birds begin to sing. A few individuals at first, but this choirs builds and rises as the day breaks, peaking just before sunrise, then slowly fades in the next hour or so.

Saturday, we decided to be on the Black-throated Blue territory before sunrise. This meant getting up extra early and traveling the deserted roads in the dark. The newspaper delivery people are startled to see another car and must swerve back to the right side of the road.
It is so dark we need flashlights for some of our preparations to head back into the remote woods. The thick canopy of leaves makes it darker. We do not use flashlights as we hike. Our night vision is fine and we can see the trail, although the muddy parts are less obvious.

What is astounding is the choir of birds. During daylight we are lucky to hear 1 or 2 Wood Thrush singing in the same area. Now we have 5 to 7 in constant ear shot. Tweedle dee... Twedle zeeeeeee. The Cardinal is especially emphatic. Thoo-tut thoo-tut thoo-tut tu tu tu tu tu tu tu tu.The erratic Redstart, and the soft: sooo oh oh laaa zee of the Black-throated Green Warbler. The tinker bell of the Dark-eyed Junco, and the symphony of the Winter Wren. The Red-eyed and Yellow throated Vireos, the Tanagers, Hooded Warblers and Ovenbird All going at once. It is still very dark.

To me it is as if the birds sing to greet the new day.

It is glorious!

We arrive at the Black-throated Blue site, and the males are joining in too. Staying in one place and alternating songs. Adding as much variety as they can manage.

By 9 it is eerily quiet. Once in a while a bird will sing, but we hear more of the wind than birds songs. The day seems half over. Having gotten up at 4 am, for us, it is.

The schedules of our lives make it difficult to be up and in the deep woods at dawn every day. I live in the woods and hear lesser version of this every mid summers morning. I don’t know if I would want to put up with the swarming mosquitoes either. Still, when you can muster oh dark thirty, it really is glorious.

June 24, 2010 What is Different about Titmice?

This time of year, in my yard, there are lots of fledgling birds. They are easy to recognize, slightly smaller, less vibrant in plumage, tentative in their actions, They visit my feeders for an easy meal. Juncos, Chickadees, Carolina Wrens, and Downy Woodpeckers. Bluebirds come too, but it is usually momma or papa coming in for a something they don’t have to give to the brood. The House Finches are very orderly. The male leads the young to the feeders. As time progresses he stops short and directs them. Pointing the way and egging on with chirp notes. Once at the feeders the battles over pecking order begin. More time is spent sorting out the order than actually eating.

But Tufted Titmice are different. First they are noisy. When they come into the area they are so noisy, you cannot help but notice. You hear the choirs of buzzy “sweet sweet sweet...sweet”. You soon realize it is only about half the individuals who are making this noise. The other Titmice are silent. The fledglings are the noisy ones. The babies look different too. More like the western Plain Titmouse. They have no chestnut patch on their flanks, and lack the darker feathers at the base of their crest or tuft.

They begin staging at feeders. in pairs. One bird feeds, eating sunflower seed after sunflower seed while the other hangs back. “bee bipp, bee ip, bi bip bip” Fluttering its wings in the universal bird signal to beg to be feed. Eventually the bird feeding relents and takes a seed to the begging bird. After eating, it immediately resumes begging but the feeding bird is gone. The begging birds are opportunistic, Sometimes they will leave and pursue a more enticing prospect at another feeder,or if they are not given a seed, will chase the object bird through the trees as they leave the feeders. But the key thing is the pairs. The one to one. Is this parent fledgling? Perhaps older younger sibling? Do the fledglings take turns following the parent around, or is there a community of Titmice that collectively feed the fledgling young? So many questions.

After about 2 weeks things quiet down and this behavior for the most part stops.
The thing I wonder about is why are Tufted Titmice the only species I see doing this? What about their cousins the chickadees. Most passerines fledglings beg food for a while, but none for so long or as dramatically nor vociferously as these Tufted Titmice. Why are they different?

June 12,2010, Black-throated Blues

Our ongoing quest to confirm breeding of Black-throated Blue Warbler, in Ohio, continued Saturday. After witnessing the astounding changes in Stebbin’s Gulch we hiked to the location where we have been finding these birds for the past 3 years. We needed something more than male birds singing on territory. The history of this species in Ohio has been of bachelors in June. Never a female.

We arrived in the target area and prepared to spend several hours on site. It was not long before we heard it:

zurr zurr zreeee

By now, after 3 years, exciting, but not unusual. Then we heard Winter Wrens in duet. There is nothing like it in the natural world. To hear a Winter Wren singing is special by itself. A song that is a concert in 15 seconds. So rich in notes and tempo. But when one picks up where the other leaves off, there is an extended song which is more beautiful than any human composition.

The Black-throated Blues were not going out of their way to be obvious. Sometimes it was 15 to 20 minutes between times we would hear or see one. My friend Frank managed to get a few pictures of a male. But he has forgotten to put in a fresh battery, and his camera is giving him trouble with auto focus. The images are diagnostic but not all that great. My friend Tom has found another male in a location about 80 meters away. He informs us via mobile phone.

We are spread out. Waiting, watching, listening. Frank and I are in the middle of a grape vine/raspberry tangle. Typical nesting habitat for Black-throated Blues. Tom is down the slope looking over a similar tangle.

I have the dangerous habit of calling birds naked eye. People who spend a lot of time in the field with me, are often amazed at my abiltiy. Not to be flip, but I even amaze myself sometimes. I don’t know what I see that leads me to the call, but I somehow get it right. But I have spent thousands of hours in the field and a lifetime in the woods. So I guess I have learned things I don’t know. A paradox but there is no other way to describe it.

So when I saw a bird moving through the tangle and determined it was a female Black-throated Blue, I was pretty skeptical of myself. I don’t know what I saw about that fast moving bird. I have a near photographic short term memory. In my mind’s eye I can still see it. Was it shape and movement and nothing else? But I knew. Then it was gone.

“I just saw a female” I whisper shouted to Frank about 20 meters away. “Where?” “Here, moving through the tangle.”

Frank came over and we stood together watching as only intent observers can. Talking in the barest whispers. Frank has his camera ready. Waiting...

Then suddenly, an almost invisible flash of movement down into the vegetation, 5 meters to our left. Popping just off the ground. We move in silent unison to get closer. “Frank!” I whisper, “ A male is on the ground right here!” I am pointing less than a meter away, looking at a male as he moves along the ground. “I’m looking at a female!” Frank replies.

I look over. He has his camera up and I see movement just in front of him.

Then they are gone, as only birds can disappear.

Frank did not get a picture. The dying battery on his camera caused his auto focus to malfunction, or his 600 mm lens was incapable of focusing at 2 meters. Still for the first time in Ohio history, we have female Black-throated Blue Warblers, during nesting season, in appropriate habitat.

One step closer...

June 12, 2010: When 2 Inches of Rain Becomes more than 6 feet of Water

Stebbin’s Gulch is, in spite of its’ funny name, one of my favorite places. It is northeast Ohio’s slot canyon. Almost untouched by humans for over 100 years it is also as pristine a place as one can find. Here the water has cut through the 4 major formations of rock. As you move up stream you pass from Chagrin Shale, to Cleveland Shale, to Bedford Shale, to Berea Sandstone. The Berea Sandstone, is the most spectacular with vertical walls more than 100 feet high in places. But what makes Stebbin’s a gulch, is the narrow width. At times it is less than 30 feet from wall to wall.

I have been visiting Stebbin’s most of my life. I think the first time was when I was about 11. In my teens I volunteered to carry the first aid kit on the monthly guided hikes. After that my visits were infrequent until I started doing bird surveys for the Holden Arboretum, which owns the property.

This institutional ownership of Stebbin’s and the fact that access is restricted has kept it in pristine condition. If you want proof go to some of the similar features (although none is an actual gulch) in the Lake and Cleveland Metroparks.

For the past 6 years I have been privileged to have unrestricted access to all of Holden’s thousands of acres of natural areas, including Stebbin’s Gulch. I am currently conducting a stream water quality monitoring project which uses Louisiana Waterthrush as the indicator species. About every 3 weeks we make a run up Stebbin’s and mark the location of every Louisiana Waterthrush we find using GPS.

My last trip up the gulch was May 22. We had had a lot of rain in the previous week, and it was evident some logs had been pushed around by the water. There was some erosion on the banks too, where the water had come out of the rocky stream bed. But none of this is unusual. Stebbin's changes a little every time you visit. It is a dynamic place,where you can actually see geologic forces in action.

On June 12 we visited Stebbin’s again. The previous Sunday, thunderstorms had dumped more than 2 inches of rain in 6 hours on Holden. Not a huge amount by any standard, but in Stebbin’s Gulch this created a cataclysm.

From moment we entered the gulch is was evident things had changed dramatically. The fallen trees we had been going under or climbing over for years were gone. No where to be found. The gulch had been scoured by the torrent of rushing water and rock. These log jams were not trivial either. Sometimes consisting of several trees 3 feet in diameter and accumulated debris. It would have taken high explosives for us to clear these jams, but the water seemed to have just swept them away.

The stream bed itself was drastically changed as well. The course of the water, new shallows, and pools where there were once shallows. A place where the stream now runs under the rock for about 10 meters. Rocks which had been covered with Liverwort, and moss scoured clean. Tumbles of rocks along the banks and massive slides. Vegetation washed away.

In places we could see how high the water had been. At least 6 feet. But these are the wide spots with banks along the run. In the places where the gulch narrows and the sides are solid rock there was no evidence of the high water mark. We could only imagine.

Breeding Black-throated Blue Warblers in Ohio?

Left turn on an obscure road in Kirtland. Past the horse farm nestled against the river. Across the bridge and along the river. The East branch of the Chagrin river is more a mountain stream than a river. Except during heavy rain or snow met it runs clear. Possibly the reason this river system was named "Sha-ga-rin" or clear water by first Americans. Here it is wild and scenic, nearly 2000 acres of forest surround us when we reach the end of the road.

Up an obscure track and a mile deep in pristine, old growth forest where the world is 1000 shades of green. Always climbing, up, up, almost 400 feet above the river. Past wild geraniums and blue cohosh. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Wood Thrush, Scarlet Tanager, and Dark-eyed Juncos call from the trees and forest floor. Hooded-warblers, pop through the under-story flashing their tail spots. The last 150 feet of climb is along a hogback that slopes away steeply on either side. Once on top. Stop, listen, wait...


Then again, from a different direction:


They're here! For the 3rd year running we have found Black-throated Blue Warblers in this location during the breeding season.

While finding Black-throated Blues in June is not unprecedented in the state of Ohio. Singing males have been found before, this is extraordinary. The fidelity to this location, and multiple individuals. Last year we established them as probable nesters based upon finding multiple birds singing on territory for 4 weeks in a row. We photographed males, but that was it. We never saw a female, let alone a nest. Given the thick foliage and steep terrain it is not the easiest place to track down tiny, fast moving bird among the leaves.

This year the birds are back again, and so are we. We will spend more time listening and looking. If we are successful Ohio will have a new breeding species.