OOS Board Member Monthly Spotlight – Melissa Wales

OOS Board Member Monthly Spotlight – Melissa Wales

Melissa with the Long-eared Owl “situation” on the Magee Marsh Boardwalk in 2013.

Unlike many of you, I came into birding later in life. About seven years ago, my best friend from college invited me to meet her at The Biggest Week in American Birding in Northwest Ohio. I was a little amused and a bit confused about her curious new hobby, but Maumee Bay was a convenient halfway meeting point for us between her home in Grand Rapids, MI and mine in Athens, so I said, “Sure! Why not?” What I experienced there – especially on the iconic Magee Marsh boardwalk – was nothing short of life-changing. My eyes and ears were opened to a wondrous natural world I had always intuited was around me but had never paused to pay any significant attention to. Learning that such a thing as a Long-eared Owl shared the planet with me, and getting to see it through the fancy optics of generous birders who wiped tears from their eyes at getting such great looks at their life bird, was life changing. I was hooked and my friend and I continue to joyously meet at the Biggest Week every year since (except, of course, in 2020).

I grew up in Troy on the flat, western side of the state, and moved to Athens in 1998, a Colorado native super excited to finally live in Ohio’s hill country! I have a Bachelor’s degree from Heidelberg College (now University) in Music and Political Science and a Master’s in International Studies and Women’s Studies from Ohio University. I moved to Athens in 1998 where I worked for many years for a progressive, interfaith campus ministry and routinely engaged Ohio University students in service learning and action projects dealing with environmental justice and conservation issues in Appalachia including acid mine drainage in area watersheds, fracking waste injection wells, and the effects of strip mining and illegal dumping in rural areas.

When the university was exploring the possibility of building a housing development on an important green space known as The Ridges (on the campus of the historic Athens Insane Asylum) a few of us created a petition and organized successfully to save this important habitat from development, which is currently the number 3 eBird Hotspot for Athens County.

The Ridges from Radar Hill. Summer Tanagers nest here. And Henslow’s Sparrows have been found recently in the fields further down the road.

I volunteered to help Rural Action, a local nonprofit sustainable development organization, organize the very first Birds in the Hills festival in 2016 at Camp Oty’okwa in the Hocking Hills, which was a family-friendly weekend with a variety of activities for all ages. A highlight for me was a field trip to Baptist Church Road in Zaleski State Forest, Vinton Co – a notable warbler hotspot there. I have also volunteered with Rural Action’s Young Naturalist Program and a Nest Box Watch project where I monitored a grid of Prothonotary Warbler boxes in Athens County.

Melissa’s son Benjamin helping check the PROW boxes.

I’ve been a member of the Steering Committee for Athens Area Birders for several years. In non-Covid times, we hold a weekly Birds and Brews meet-up at the Little Fish Brewing Company beer garden just outside of Athens that overlooks the relatively new wetland, where we’ve had breeding Hooded Mergansers for the last few years! We have held a couple of Northern Saw-whet Owl nights with local banders and actually caught one the first year to the delight of everyone who came out.

Hooded Merganser with babies at Little Fish Wetland.

Selfie with former OOS Board member Bob Scott Placier and a Northern Saw-whet owl at Little Fish.

I have helped Athens Area Birders organize numerous public talks and field trips around Athens County over the years. Of course the pandemic has canceled every in-person event for the foreseeable future. Tuning into zoom talks and presentations has been an interesting experience and I’m hoping to have my first foray into livestreaming a bird-related event in October. I was particularly impressed with the virtual Black Birders Week earlier this summer, as it lifted up and offered important insight into the experiences of Black birders in the aftermath of the Christian Cooper incident in Central Park and the current movement for racial justice. I’m hopeful that we in the birding community do the hard work of making sure everyone who loves birds feels welcome and safe in their pursuit.

The pandemic kept me mostly birding in Athens County this year, but I did learn of an active first year Bald Eagle nest in Zaleski State Forest near Lake Hope State Park in next-door Vinton County. I made weekly pilgrimages to this nest and was thrilled to observe the two eaglets in the nest, branching, and eventually flying with the parents flying in to feed from time to time. Thrilling!

Zaleski State Forest eaglets Melissa named Liberty and Justice. Photo by Melissa.

I joined OOS as the SE Ohio Regional Director and Event Co-chair in November 2019 and hit the ground running to help plan Warblers and Wildflowers, which sadly skid to a halt in March as we realized the pandemic was going to be with us for quite a while. Hopefully it can happen in 2021! And once it’s safe to meet up again, I hope to get to know the birders and birding hotspots all around the SE Ohio region outside of Athens County. Feel free to reach out to me at melissa.wales@ohiobirds.org!

When I’m not birding or organizing bird-related events and activities, I am the mom of two teenage boys and work as the Executive Director of Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville, a nonprofit performing arts venue and provider of arts education programming.

One of Melissa’s favorite birds, the Cerulean Warbler. Taken May 2020 on the Adena Hock-hocking bike path off of Glen Ebon Road near Nelsonville..

A Very Special Moment in Summit County

A Very Special Moment in Summit County

On Tuesday, August 25th, a report came in on Ohio Chase Birds about a Brown Booby at Nimisila Reservoir in Summit County, Ohio. The bird was found by Henry Trimpe and hundreds of birders have since gone to see this bird over the past few days. Chris Collins, of the Rogue Birders and OOS Board Member, was curious about Henry’s story of finding the bird so he reached out to Henry to see if he would be willing to share his story here. Reprinted here from the Rogue Birders blog. Enjoy!

A Very Special Moment in Summit County

by Henry Trimpe

Arguably my favorite part of being a birder is that every time you walk outside your door, you never know what you will find. Often times, you can put yourself in a good position to find certain birds by knowing where to look, when to look, and most importantly, what to look for. However, there is also at least some element of chance to every birding adventure. For many of us, just that chance of seeing something new, something uncommon, or even something that doesn’t belong within a thousand miles is what excites us every time we pick up our binoculars.

On Tuesday August 25th, I was thrilled to be heading down to Nimisila Reservoir to watch the evening congregation of 30,000+ Purple Martins. Despite the fact that the Martins have used Nimisila as a staging ground for years on their way south, I had never witnessed the spectacle. I fully expected to be blown away by the mass gathering of Martins, but had no idea that what seemed like an innocent late summer evening would turn into one of the most memorable birding days of my life.

As soon as we arrived near the water in parking lot C6 at Nimisila, the first birds we saw were a pair of Ospreys on a nearby snag. At 7 PM, there was not yet a single Purple Martin in sight. As many reading this would, the only logical action was to scan the lake to see what I could find.

The very first bird I got my binoculars on in flight immediately struck me as out of the ordinary. It appeared dark in color, but I was looking almost directly into the sun and the lighting was far from ideal. At first glance, going by only size and shape alone, my first thought was Caspian Tern. After watching the bird for about 20-30 seconds, it moved to better light and I realized that this was an overall brown bird – definitely not a Caspian or any other local Tern. Next, it barreled toward the water on an angled dive. The bird surfaced, and at that point I lost it in the sun and could not relocate. I vividly remember then saying to my fiancé Sarah “there is something out there that doesn’t belong here”.

Is it a tern? Or something completely unexpected?

It took about 15 minutes to relocate the bird. At that point we were joined by Dwight and Ann Chasar, as well as my dad, Jim. After relocating, we got much better views of the bird in flight, on the water, and perched on its favorite snag. As someone who follows national rare bird alerts, I was very aware of Brown Boobies being found in Arkansas, Missouri, and other far-from-home locations as a result of recent storms. We had a hunch, and after photographing and studying the bird for some time we came to a conclusion. All the while, massive numbers of Purple Martins were flocking together in every direction. After looping around in flight many times, the Booby flew out of sight with dusk approaching. We shifted our focus to the Martins – an amazing spectacle that I would recommend to anyone. When we got back to the car, I posted the sighting in the Ohio Chase Birds group, and the madness then ensued. I knew we had found an amazing bird, but had no clue at the time that this was a first state record.

Finding a tropical seabird in a Midwestern lake is not an everyday occurrence, so there was certainly a major element of “right place, right time” that allowed me to find Ohio’s first Brown Booby. However for me, there is much more to the story than that. As early as I can remember, I was intently watching and identifying every bird in my backyard. Before age 10, I was a regular on the local spring bird walks under the Station Road Bridge in Brecksville. By the time I graduated high school, I had an extensive knowledge of all North American birdlife, mostly due to my passion for reading and learning everything I possibly could. It was the countless hours of studying field guides that allowed me to be prepared to ID a bird whose regular range barely comes in contact with any part of the United States. If this article inspires anyone in any way, I hope the message is that the more we study and learn about birds, the more we will be able to identify them, enjoy them, and protect them. This holds true whether we are talking about a Brown Booby that showed up where it had no business being, or the Chimney Swifts circling above your front yard.

For me personally, possibly the best part of all of this has been the fact that the bird has been so cooperative, and has stayed around for the better part of a week. I have been glued to eBird and Facebook over the past four days and have been in awe at the number of birders who have come to Nimisila to see the Booby. Ohio has so many amazing birders (many of whom I don’t know at all personally), and I am glad that so many people have been able to get a new state bird, and in probably the majority of cases, a new life bird. As I am writing this on Saturday, eBird reports are still pouring in, with birders traveling all the way to Summit County from multiple other Midwestern states. Those who have seen the Booby thus far are birders of many different experience levels, with many different motivations. Some are most interested in adding a new tally to their list. Some are most interested in getting the best possible photo. Some are interested in studying a species that they very reasonably may never see again. All have been brought to the same place by one single bird, and to me that is an incredible thing.

Thousands of Purple Martins staging at Nimisila Reservoir

I have seen a great deal of discussion surrounding the Booby’s chances of survival with colder weather eventually approaching. If the bird does not find its way back south, there is certainly a good chance it will not make it, as we often see with these types of vagrants. This is not the first seabird to be blown off course by a hurricane and definitely will not be the last. While we all hope the ending will be positive for the bird, it has given us all a chance to admire the sheer unpredictability of nature in a unique way, close to home.

I was honored to have spent this memorable evening with a few very important people to my birding journey. Dwight and Ann Chasar have been teaching me about birds and birding in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park for nearly 20 years – since I first started going on bird walks as a kid. It was a complete coincidence that they showed up at Nimisila to watch the Martins on the same evening as I did. They undoubtedly played a huge role in helping to identify this bird. Knowing how much time they have dedicated to birding in Summit County over the years, I am so glad they were able to be a part of this moment. Summit County as a whole has an awesome birding community, and I’m very happy that this bird decided to pick Nimisila over any of the countless other bodies of water across the state. Had it picked somewhere else, I would have been right there among the masses parading to see it. My dad, Jim, was also present as he has been for the vast majority of birding experiences in my life. He can be credited for fueling my passion for birds from a young age. Finally and most importantly, my fiancé Sarah got to witness this as one of her very first birding moments (and in the meantime snapped some pretty darn good pictures of the bird in the water, before we even had the ID confirmed).

When it comes to vagrants, I always wonder how many others are out there that have not been found. In this case, with the number of birders coming to Nimisila each evening, I am confident someone else would have found it later in the week had we not on Tuesday. But at some other lake, or in some other backyard, there are certainly many more oddities that are never detected. Fall migration is upon us here in Ohio, and there are many birds out there to be found. Best of luck to all in this wonderful season, and thanks to everyone who has reached out in the past couple of days!

Life as a Traveling Field Biologist

Life as a Traveling Field Biologist

In May 2019, I graduated from The Ohio State University with a B.Sc. degree in Wildlife Science, and immediately began working for Black Swamp Bird Observatory as their spring bird banding apprentice. After that I moved to Wisconsin for a few months to work with Kirtland’s Warblers… and then to New Jersey to work as a banding technician… and then to Brazil to help with some Semipalmated Sandpiper research… and then to Texas to work as a bander on a Golden-cheeked Warbler research study… and now I live in New Mexico, working as a technician on a Gray Vireo study… and in another month I’ll be moving to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to work as a seasonal owl bander! I’ve been turning the drives to the next job into a long road trip and try to see as many new birds and new places as possible!

Silas, Sal, and Kandace with a Gray Vireo

Each seasonal field job is different, and I gain new experiences and knowledge from each one. If you think about a basic full annual cycle of a bird (breeding season, fall migration, non-breeding season, spring migration), that’s a general idea of how most field data collection seasons are broken up. As in, some research focuses on the breeding season and looks to see when, where, and how a species may nest, how successful they are, etc. Often, this breeding season work involves a lot of nest searching, and if looking at nesting success, can involve the VHF radio-telemetry of fledglings after they leave the nest. Field data collection during migration seasons often involves bird banding in order to determine when and what type of birds move through a particular area. If migration banding is continued in one location for many years, researchers come to see population-level trends for each species they band. Though the breeding season is focused on more often in field research, birds may spend upwards of 9 months in their non-breeding range and thus, that habitat is just as essential to conserve as breeding habitat.

A Challenging Way of Life

This lifestyle sure isn’t easy! For one, I have no sense of stability in my life. I move every couple of months to live in a new house with strangers I’ve just met for the first time, with only field clothing, bedding, books and other items I can fit in my small car. I get to see my family and friends in between jobs, and I do a lot of calling and facetiming friends from all over and sending postcards, but it isn’t the same as getting to constantly see everyone in person and relationships suffer because of it. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to settle back down in Columbus and remain close to friends and family!

A Golden-cheeked Warbler in a “photographer’s grip”

Traveling and working these various seasonal jobs is fundamentally for the purpose of gaining as much field experience as I can. By doing so, I’m learning a lot about field data collection methods, which will hopefully get me into graduate school so I can earn a Master’s degree in Wildlife Biology or a similar field. These days, to have a career in Wildlife Biology you’re essentially required to have at least a Master’s degree, unless you want to work seasonal technician jobs your entire life (which I know of at least a few people who have done the seasonal gigs for 10-15 years and are still doing them!). At the moment, I love the travel and the sense of adventure, but I assume in a few years I’ll be tired of it and will eventually want to settle down. I’ll find a professor whose research interests me, contact them, and hopefully be able to do a Master’s program at their university.

One day, I’ll perhaps be employed as a biologist for the Ohio Division of Wildlife or the ODNR, or I could work for a non-profit like Black Swamp Bird Observatory on the research/conservation side of things, or I could work for a consulting firm as a biologist. The possibilities are endless, and I haven’t yet figured out what I would like to do as a full-time job one day in the future. I’ll keep working these seasonal jobs, and they will hopefully give me a better idea of what I want to do permanently. Either way, I hope to dedicate my life to the conservation of birds and the environment.

Kandace holding a Golden-cheeked Warbler

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