Bird watching season doesn't end in Ohio when the last warbler shows its tail feathers and heads south in late fall. In fact, birding opportunities really heat up in winter as a wide range of visiting birds wing their way into Buckeye country and make our state their temporary home.
At backyard feeders, an assortment of out-of-state visitors is always sure to cause a stir – especially in years when food sources are sparse in the northern forests of Canada. During those times, a greater influx of northern finches – such as evening grosbeaks, pine siskins, red and white-winged crossbills and common redpolls – make a showing at feeding stations around our homes.
However, in Ohio's wide-open spaces, where grasslands meet woodlands, snowbirds such as eagles, hawks and owls swoop in from as far away as the Arctic tundra to captivate our winter-weary eyes.
While not common, it is no longer unheard of to see a golden eagle navigating Ohio’s skies. Each winter a steady number of golden eagles are drawn to the large tracts of reclaimed mined lands found throughout much of eastern and southeastern Ohio. As North America’s largest predatory bird, it averages 30 inches in length, features a 6.5-foot wingspan and weighs in at a whopping 10 pounds. Its dark brown plumage and intense dark eyes are offset by a black bill and claws, giving it a fierce appearance. Golden brown feathers on the head and nape of the neck give this awesome bird of prey its signature name.
A more familiar winter visitor to Ohio is the northern harrier. When in search of a meal, this hawk – with its 42-inch wingspan – puts on quite a show gliding slowly over open fields. Using a series of heavy wing beats, the northern harrier can hover just a few feet above its prey, providing birders excellent opportunities for observation.
A well-known resident of the West, the northern harrier favors marsh, field and prairie habitats, such as those at Caesar Creek State Park in Warren County. Near the park’s day lodge, birders can watch these low-altitude flying raptors from a platform overlooking an 80-acre prairie and wetland. With gray plumage and an owl-like facial disk, the northern harrier is an easy bird to identify. Keep your eyes peeled as well for red-tailed hawks, one of Ohio’s most common raptors.
Owls are another perennial favorite among avian enthusiasts. And every winter, Ohio’s owl population temporarily expands from four species to seven as short-eared, long-eared and northern saw-whet owls join their saucer-eyed Buckeye brethren for the winter. One of the best places to spot these three wintertime guests is at Killdeer Plains State Wildlife Area in Wyandot County.
The short-eared owl is the easiest to catch sight of because it is both diurnal and nocturnal, active from late afternoon through the morning hours. These owls roost almost exclusively on the ground in overgrown fields and along hedgerows, though it’s not unusual to see them perched on roadside fence posts.
It takes a hardy birder to catch a glimpse of the long-eared owl in flight. This after-hours owl is active only from late dusk to just before dawn, flying silently through darkened woodlands and fields in search of a meal. During the day, it roosts in heavy forest cover, often among conifers. To avoid detection, the long-eared owl will stretch its body to camouflage itself as a tree branch.
The northern saw-whet is a diminutive owl, averaging just eight inches in length. It is most active at dawn and dusk, hunting in wooded and heavy brush areas for insects, mice and other small rodents. Sound sleepers when roosting, birders can occasionally get within inches of a saw-whet. However, never disturb this or any owl as you might reveal its roosting location and make it vulnerable to attack by other birds.