For the birds

Five Rivers MetroParks’ Bird Brigade

By Kristen Wicker

Photo: Members of the Five Rivers MetroParks Bird Brigade monitor migrating bird species at the Great Miami River Wetland Mitigation Bank

Bullying is for the birds.

Take, for example, a recent early-morning scene at the Great Miami River Wetland Mitigation Bank: A juvenile red-tailed hawk swoops out of a tree, coasting into the prairie below in search of prey — then quickly retreats and flies back into the top-of-the-tree perch.

“The red-winged blackbirds scared the hawk and protected their territory,” explains Yvonne Dunphe, volunteer coordinator for conservation with Five Rivers MetroParks. “That young hawk was just like a little kid, trying to figure things out. It didn’t realize how big and imposing it can be, so the other birds were like, ‘That’s one of the new guys — let’s get away with bullying him while we can.’”

This is just one of many wildlife dramas witnessed by members of an elite volunteer squad known as the Bird Brigade. And now is a great time to join them.

“We monitor bird populations year round, and it’s important we get good counts,” Dunphe says. “Birds are a good indicator species. Their presence tells how well you’re doing with land management and creating habitats, as each habitat is attractive to certain species. When you see lots of birds, it means a good food source is available, there’s adequate shelter and nesting spots are available.”

Bird Brigade volunteers are currently on the lookout for migrating birds and will again be at the Great Miami River Wetland Mitigation Bank the mornings of Sunday, April 19 and Thursday, April 30. From late May to early July, they’ll conduct breeding bird surveys. Currently, about 15 volunteers comprise the group — but there is a need for more.

“You always learn something and see things up close you wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see otherwise because someone else on the team is like, ‘Hey, look at the Savannah Sparrow,’ and then they show you the distinguishing features,” Dunphe explains. “If you’re by yourself or less experienced, it can be overwhelming to get your lenses up and get out your bird identification book.

“To see your knowledge base increase is exciting,” she adds. “To advance from all sparrows being little brown birds to being able to distinguish the different species of sparrows is fun.”

Walking through the mitigation bank on that recent morning, Bird Brigade volunteers listen for distinctive calls, binoculars at the ready. One volunteer notes the species spotted, data that will allow Five Rivers MetroParks’ conservation staff to look for patterns and consistency in various locations.

“This is more fun with a group because you get to share with people who may not have seen these birds up close before,” says longtime Five Rivers MetroParks volunteer and avid birdwatcher Mike Shade, focusing his spotting scope on a meadowlark perched in a tree.

Chelsea Wallace, who recently graduated from Ohio University with a degree in biology, has been volunteering with the Bird Brigade for about four months.

“I’m learning more about MetroParks and the birds in this area,” she says. “I enjoy volunteering and have made a lot of good connections. You see some pretty interesting things, like a squirrel and hawk fight.”

Indeed, Bird Brigade volunteers have seen 15 rare bird species at the Great Miami River Wetland Mitigation Bank, 8401 Little Richmond Rd. near Trotwood. Such Ohio endangered species as American bittern and sandhill cranes have been spotted, along with state species of concern, including sora rails, bobolinks, grasshopper sparrows and sedge wrens.

As part of its conservation efforts, Five Rivers MetroParks is restoring to its natural state the 555-acre mitigation bank, previously farmland and once slated for a landfill. The land is still a developing habitat but already includes a wetland and prairie, and hundreds of tree seedlings have been planted.

“We went from seeing one short-eared owl, a state special interest species, to three,” Dunphe says. “That means they’re telling their friends this is a good place to be.”

It’s also part of what makes volunteering with the Bird Brigade a special experience.

“You don’t usually get to see a juvenile hawk up close and sitting still,” Dunphe says. “You will definitely be able to see some species that won’t visit your backyard bird feeder.”

Places to Bird Watch

Five Rivers MetroParks manages land that’s home to an amazing diversity of birds. Below are some of the best parks for observing these beautiful winged creatures:

Carriage Hill MetroPark hosts a variety of waterfowl at Cedar Lake and North Woods Pond.

Cox Arboretum MetroPark offers a bird blind near a pond, providing an opportunity for bird and wildlife viewing in this area that includes two wetlands and 13 acres of prairie.

Englewood MetroPark has a variety of habitats including woodlands, meadows, wetlands, lakes and ponds.

Germantown MetroPark is designated as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society and a Watchable Wildlife viewing site by Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Huffman MetroPark is an excellent place to view migrating ducks. Huffman Lake, the Mad River and natural vegetation provide a welcoming home to birds.

Possum Creek MetroPark is home to tall grass prairies, Argonne Lake and ponds that provide habitat for a variety of birds.

Twin Creek MetroPark hosts 70 species of nesting birds.

For more information or to volunteer with the Bird Brigade, contact Yvonne Dunphe at 937.275.PARK or via email at yvonne.dunphe@metroparks.org. You don’t have to be a birding expert to participate, as more experienced birders help with identification.

Reach DCP freelance writer Kristen Wicker at KristenWicker@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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