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Ohio Prepares for Birding Season

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The start of spring means big things for Ohio which becomes a hot spot attraction for bird watchers around the country. Statehouse correspondent Andy Chow talked to some of the state’s top bird experts about the coming migration season.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 5:21 pm

While the temperatures may be deceiving, the building sound of birds chirping is definitely a sign that spring is upon us.

Ohio plays an important role for bird enthusiasts, also known as birders. The state sits in between some of the largest migrational pathways in North America. This means thousands of birders will be visiting different communities in Ohio to catch a peek at some rare birds heading north.

Jim McCormac is a bird expert with the state’s division of wildlife. He says this is a time when both beginners and experienced birders are fine-tuning their skills for bird calls in order to best identify different species that could physically look alike.

“Pragmatically it’s an important way to find birds and identify them, because they all call," McCormac said. "And that’s really obvious when the days get longer. The males really tune up because they’re using those calls to defend and announce their territory and more importantly attract females.”

Bill Thompson is president of the Ohio Ornithological Society which has more than 800 members. He says the introduction of new smartphone apps, like digital field guides and bird call libraries, have helped bring more people to the world of birding.

LarkWire is one of the more popular apps in the Apple Store. The app has a large collection of bird calls so, for example, if you want to know what a House Finch sounds like you can find it on the program and play it.

There are also corresponding pictures and games to help someone spot the species.

“You can use these a couple of different ways," Thompson said. "You can use them to sort of train your ears to learn the bird songs by listening to them...But you can also, when you’re out in the field sometimes, play a song and that will attract a territorial bird of that same species.”

To be the president of the Ohio Ornithological Society, you have to have some birding game, so I played three clips of bird calls that I recorded at a park in downtown Columbus and had Thompson show off his skills.

First call.

“That’s the Northern Cardinal, of course that’s our state bird here in Ohio," he said. “Of course it’s a brilliant cardinal red bird with a black face and kind of a pinky-orange bill.”

Second call.

“That’s an American robin," Thompson said. “Giving sort of its contact call really it’s not really its song. The song of the robin is a rich warbling melody.”

Third call.

“OK. I can hear three or four different robins in there," Thompson said. "One of which is singing in the distance and the other two -- which are calling -- there’s also some high-pitched whistling notes there from an American goldfinch. And I believe there’s a cardinal in there and maybe some distant house sparrows too.”

According to McCormac, Thompson nailed all three challenges.

So what’s the fascination behind bird watching? And what important role can it play? Thompson, who is also editor of Bird Watchers Digest, believes birding is about finding a connection with the environment.

“I just think that birds are the most vivid expression of the natural world for us," Thompson said. "They do all these things that we admire. They sing all these songs, in many cases they have stunning plumages, they court their mate, they take care of their young and they can do something that we humans only figured out about 100 years ago, which is fly.”

McCormac says sometimes it takes just one bird watching experience to hook-in new enthusiasts. His number one tip for new birders?

“Get around people who are really into it and go out a lot," McCormac said, "Birders as a group that tends to be really welcoming and eager to share their information.”

And for the Buckeye State there's a lot of information to take in. The total bird listing in Ohio reaches about 425 species, according to McCormac, that’s about half of all the birds that have ever been seen north of Mexico.

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