Any time you visit the Lake Erie Bluffs, you're almost guaranteed to see our majestic national bird, the bald eagle. Naturalists have spotted as many as nine at once in the Lake County Metropark that opened in June 2012.
Andy Avram, interpretive manager of Lake County Metroparks, and biologist John Pogacnik walk along the bluffs with me on a chilly morning, narrating a bird-watch and explaining why the Metroparks and the Western Reserve Land Conservancy worked so hard to save the land from commercial use. The Metroparks started buying the $11 million property in 2007 with the help of local, state and federal grants.
The bluffs, 40 feet tall and topped with bright green grass, overlook the soft blues and browns of the shoreline. The 600-acre park, a mix of wetlands and dry meadows, attracts a variety of species, especially birds.
"They're the first thing to move in or move out," Pogacnik says. Studying the birds helps determine the health of the land. If there are no birds passing through, something may need to be changed, he says.
The park will eventually include 4 or 5 miles of walking trails and a 50-foot observation tower. For now, some trails have unofficially been tracked out.
We stop to see what might be hiding in a brush of crab apple, blueberry and dogwood bushes.
Birds to look for on the Lake Erie Bluffs this summer
You'll have to look carefully, because these medium-sized songbirds are a rare find for Northeast Ohio and good at hiding in the brush.
Take a walk along the water, and you'll see these slender 4- to 5-inch birds with long wings.
Most warblers leave the bluffs in the summer, but this completely yellow bird will stick around.
Then we hear a call: "Drink your teeeeea!" It's the sound of an eastern towhee, a large sparrow. The eastern towhee has two calls, but this one sounds like a little song, Avram and Pogacnik note. I adjust my binoculars to spot the towhee in between branches. It has got a black head and upper body, warm, reddish-brown sides and a white belly.
About 500 feet south of the water, it's a lot warmer. Many more birds tend to hide in the trees that block the wind from the lake.
One is the rusty blackbird, which is on its way to becoming a rare species. Cornell University researchers are studying the bird to discover why it's disappearing, and seeing them in the bluffs will help with that work, says Pogacnik.
Nearing the parking lot, we hear half a dozen crows cawing and see them swarming something. Avram peers into binoculars and notices they're chasing a great horned owl — the most powerful owl in Ohio, with a beak and talons so strong it can prey on heavier skunks.
Crows tend to swarm and chase away birds that are threats, Avram explains. The owl is a lot slower, but smarter in this instance. It flies to and fro, bobbing and weaving through the trees — not to run away from the crows, but to deter them from its babies.
Once we get a closer look with the binoculars, we spot three or four owlets in a nest, little cotton balls moving in one of the higher branches. We put up our binoculars again and see them staring at us.
We linger for a moment to watch them and laugh that we didn't stumble upon the babies any closer to their nest. Great horned owls tend to attack passersby who get too close.