When all else fails, try the Magic McDonald’s, also known as the Texas Portal. It’s right off Cedar Point Drive in Sandusky, and it’s a spot known for sightings of rare migratory birds coming up from Texas. Really.
Cold air hovering over Ohio Saturday kept the portal closed, slowing the arrival of migratory species, but that didn’t deter a group of bird watchers guided by Jen Brumfield, a Cleveland Metroparks naturalist, from pressing ahead in an all-out, daylong search for as many bird species as possible.
“Guided” doesn’t begin to capture the experience. Brumfield, who has spent nearly a decade at the Metroparks and in 2012 set the record for the number of species sighted in Cuyahoga County in one year (270), is relentlessly enthusiastic, sharp-eyed and highly knowledgeable.
Let’s put it this way, in five stops, our group of a dozen or so birders identified 89 species, not a bad day.
McDonald’s was actually just a pit stop on our bus trip, but the binoculars and spotting scopes came out, anyway. Just a few blocks away was Brumfield’s goal, the Pipe Creek Wildlife Area, a 97-acre state preserve overlooking Sandusky Bay. On our hike, we heard the sora, a secretive member of the rail family. Once out on the dykes, while in blustery weather, we spotted a black-crowned night heron and great egrets, among other finds.
The Cleveland Metroparks excursion started at the Rocky River Nature Center, Brumfield’s base of operations, where we boarded. Our first stop was the Lorain Impoundment, a site for dumping dredging waste from the Black River. A hiking trail provides great views of the impoundment, which was full of geese, ducks and grebes. My favorite was the horned grebe, striking with its golden ear tufts and chestnut neck.
Other stops were the Sheldon Marsh Nature State Nature Preserve near Huron, the Edison Woods Preserve in Erie County and the Sandy Ridge Reservation in Lorain County. The latter two areas are run by their respective county parks systems.
Sandy Ridge is a spectacular, 310-acre restored wetlands area. From its trails, my wife, Mary Jo, and I were able to watch a bald eagle nest long enough to see the adults ripping something to shreds and feeding it to their eaglet.
Bird watchers are a little like surfers, it turns out. In other words, you’ll often hear: “Dude, you should have been here yesterday.” On our Saturday trip, the cold weather did slow the progress of migratory birds.
Brumfield, using a government website that shows Doppler radar images, was able to spot blue swarms of thousands of birds circling around in Texas, ready to head north. But the day also had a hidden advantage: Because of the cold, species that will soon be on their way north from Ohio were sticking around.
We saw plenty of woodpeckers, swept the entire swallow category on our tally sheets and had a pretty fair representation of blackbirds and orioles, including a Baltimore oriole, with iridescent orange plumage.
In other words, a combination of perseverance and patience brought success to our small group, which included novices and experts.
An estimated 60 million Americans are bird watchers, making it one of the most popular outdoor recreational activities in the county. That helps drive eco-tourism, create pressure to preserve wildlife areas, especially wetlands, and increase awareness of the effects of global warming. In the past few years, it has been especially gratifying to see the continuing comeback of the bald eagle.
A full day of birding, at least the Jen Brumfield variety, is also pretty good exercise. We hiked around six miles in the various areas we visited.
Closer to home, birding opportunities abound this time of year in the Summit Metro Parks and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Among the lessons of the day, three stand out: When in doubt, take an extra layer of clothing. Unless you are an experienced birder (my wife and I are beginners), going on a hike with a naturalist is invaluable. Finally, be alert, wherever you are, even if it’s a McDonald’s parking lot. While you are getting a cheeseburger, the Texas Portal might fly open.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at email@example.com.