Storm catches up while he brakes for birds

Storm catches up while he brakes for birds
John C. Lorson

A northern bobwhite pokes its head warily above the brush alongside the Holmes County Trail, a rare site in most parts of Ohio since a pair of exceptionally cold and stormy winters in the mid-1970s. A flocking bird in the fall and winter, this bobwhite will hopefully gather with friends and family to form a covey for safety and warmth during the cold season.

                        

I’m certain Mother Nature took a look at her social calendar at the beginning of last week and was suddenly reminded the Holmes County Fair was just getting underway. Accordingly, she did what she seems to have always done, and this summer’s reliably hot and dry weather was flipped to “predictably unpredictable” in the space of a day or two.

I’m not begrudging Mother Nature her fun, but it sure seems like she takes special pleasure in mixing things up during fair week. There was little she could do to dampen spirits at this year’s fair, however, and I saw an awful lot of folks smiling through the rain from the sheer joy of getting to do something normal again.

Hot and dry doesn’t typically bother me beyond forcing me to chunk out an extra hour of my day to ferry water from the rain barrel to the garden in an effort to keep things alive. The “fair weather” came just in time for me this year, as my “double-barrel” roof rain collection system had run dry just days before. A single inch of rain fills both 55-gallon drums in my set-up, but my place had been missed again and again all throughout July, taking me right down to the last drop.

More insulting still was the fact that while the little rain we had during the month was missing my home place, the rare afternoon pop-up showers always seemed to find me on my bicycle, and I made a handful of extended stays in the tunnel under Route 83 waiting for an isolated shower to pass.

On a recent trip home, I was barreling along through gusting winds under darkening skies when what seemed like a vision from my past stepped out of the weeds alongside the trail. It took a moment for my brain to process the form, and I nearly rode right off the trail craning my neck to get a second glance as the wind pushed me rapidly along. Circling back, I found the small round bird still poking along the field edge, seemingly oblivious to the approaching storm but all too aware of my own downwind approach. I carefully put a foot down and glided to a stop while the northern bobwhite side-eyed my every move.

Lucky enough to pop off a half-dozen frames before the bird vanished into the thicket, I rode away having captured photos of a creature I’d seen in the wild only once in the past 40 years.

Back when I was a kid, you might hear the call of the bobwhite — a perfect pronunciation of its own name, “bob-white” — in nearly any countryside setting across the state. The shy, ground-dwelling forager spent most of its time scratching for seeds, berries and insects in farm fence rows and field edges that had been left thick and shaggy by the less efficient machinery and practices of the day. It wasn’t unusual to incidentally flush a covey of 10 or more birds from a thicket while in pursuit of cottontails or ring-necked pheasants.

Both pheasant and quail suffered devastating, back-to-back blows in the winters of 1976-77 and 1977-78. A record-shattering blizzard during the latter is still considered one of the worst in American history. What meager numbers of birds that had survived the extended, record-breaking cold the year before were essentially starved off as a result of the blizzard, which covered the ground with an impenetrable layer of crusted snow for weeks.

Isolated birds that did survive were hampered from re-establishing viable populations going forward by habitat loss and the use of pesticides. Removal of fence rows to allow for larger, more efficient farm machinery proved to be a particularly impactful trend. Predation has played a part as well, and with the coyote now firmly established throughout Ohio, ground nesting is a tough row to hoe for any bird — even one that sleeps in an outward-facing circle, its tail overlapping those of its friends for safety.

Where this particular bobwhite came from or whether there were more like it nearby remain a mystery, but one bright spot in my story is the fact that the two times I have spotted quail since my youth have both come in the past year — the first was during the winter when I encountered a covey of eight birds foraging in the underbrush just a few miles north along the Holmes County Trail. Could a converted rail trail make a suitable replacement for vanishing fence rows?

Remember, if you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email jlorson@alonovus.com. You also can follow along on Instagram @railtrailnaturalist.


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