Rare Birders Find Rare Birds

It happens nearly everywhere I go birding. When I’m with a group of birders and people find out that I’m from Holmes County, Ohio, the inevitable question arises. The form of the query varies, but the point is always the same:  “Why do you have so many rare birds there?”

I usually smile, pause, look them in the eye, and casually reply, “It’s not that we have any more rare birds than other locales. It’s just that we have so many rare birders.”

This response often evokes a puzzled look and begs further explanation. So I clarify, “So many rare birds are seen in the Holmes County area because we have the world’s largest Amish population.”

Though fewer than 10 percent of the Amish now farm, all are still rooted to the land, mostly through the fact that they continue to use the horse and buggy as their chief means of local transportation. Traveling country roads at a much slower pace than the rest of society allows the Amish to see and hear things those of us in speeding motorized vehicles would likely miss.

They notice what is planted in a neighbor’s garden. They notice flowers blooming. They notice changes in window blind colors. And they notice birds.

For the Amish, birding is an accepted leisure-time endeavor—another way of connecting with nature. Many Amish, beginning at an early age, enjoy birding. Studying, observing, and recording bird sightings and activities is a hobby embraced and approved by the Amish culture, and it is one in which the entire family can and does participate.

In general, the Amish appreciate the natural world, especially the avian element. They relish the opportunity to enjoy birds, whether in their backyard or following spring migration at Magee Marsh in northwestern Ohio. They feed birds. They watch birds, and they record what they see.

More than that, birding also creates jobs for the Amish. They build birdhouses and bird feeders that are sold at roadside stands, local cottage industries, and even large retail stores. They also sell birdseed, binoculars, scopes, and accessories.

All of this is only part of the answer as to why the greater Holmes County, Ohio, area records so many rare bird species. The answer is simply that with all these trained eyes and ears alert during daily activities, unusual birds and bird calls seldom go unnoticed.

The discovery of a black rail on an Amish farm in neighboring Coshocton County, Ohio, in early June 2014 perfectly proves the point. The unusually wet spring delayed even horse-drawn equipment from getting into fields, including for haymaking, one of the first harvesting activities of the growing season.

By the time one Amish farmer was able to enter the hay field for the first cutting, the hay was both thicker and higher than normal. While he was mowing the crop, the long stems of the mixed legumes became entangled in the mowing machine. To remedy the problem, the farmer had to turn off the machine’s gasoline engine.

Then he heard an unusual birdcall. A farmer who was cutting hay in an air-conditioned tractor cab likely wouldn’t have heard the bird. The Amish man suspected the call was that of a rail, but he didn’t know which one. He stopped what he was doing, hurried down the hill to his house, and looked up rails in his bird guide.

When he realized that it might be a black rail, even though the habitat wasn’t normal for this species, he notified an advanced birder in the area, who verified the find. It was a distinctive black rail call.

Word soon spread. The farmer halted his haying efforts and prepared to host the hundreds of birders who were sure to descend on his property. He knew birders would want to add this rarity to their life list, and that is exactly what happened as the bird stuck around long enough for most birders to hear the distinctive calls. A few were able to actually view and photograph it. As it turned out, it was not one but a pair of black rails, and they nested there, producing a brood of seven chicks.

Earlier that spring, a rock wren appeared at an Amish-owned and operated business in Holmes County near Mt. Hope. The company happened to employ one of the area’s top birders, who is also Amish. He knew the bird was a rock wren, and he also knew that it was far out of its normal range.

A second opinion was obtained to verify the find before the report of the rock wren was broadcast. Again, hundreds of birders descended on the area to try to see the second rock wren ever recorded in Ohio. Many were successful in catching a glimpse of the bird; a few even got to hear it sing.

Only a few miles away, an Anna’s hummingbird, a rufous hummingbird, a northern wheatear, a spotted towhee, a vermilion flycatcher, a green violet-ear, wood storks, and a western meadowlark have all been spotted at different locales at different times over the years. Amish people first noticed all of them and quickly reported their finds so others could see and hear the birds.

The Amish are always quick to point out that it’s not just their keen awareness of birds that is responsible for the frequent sightings of rarities. They also rightly credit the rich variety of habitat in the area. Dense woodlots, brushy fencerows, croplands, streams, ponds, and the state-operated Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area, an important migratory waterway, all create a variety of habitats conducive to attracting an equally wide range of bird species. Now and then, some of them are rare.

Birding has become such a popular pastime among the Amish that ever since a young birders’ club was formed in Ohio, many young (and adult) Amish birders have been quite involved in participating in and supporting it. Though not prone to forming or joining social organizations, the Amish see this as a positive way for youngsters to spend quality time learning about and enjoying nature and focusing on birds.

Developing expert young bird enthusiasts will also help to ensure that any future birds that happen to arrive in the enticing habitats of the largest Amish population in the world will more than likely not go undetected—even by those who are not Amish. Rare birders tend to find rare birds.

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