There are hundreds of different birds to see in the Shaker parklands each year.
By Diana Simeon
Every spring, it’s show time in the Shaker parklands. Scores of warblers arrive, en route from their winter homes in Central and South America to their summer grounds in the boreal forests of Canada. These charming songbirds have names like Yellowrumped, Cerulean, Orange-crowned, and Magnolia, and their colorful plumage is a delight to Northeast Ohio bird watchers who have waited all winter to see them.
Here is one of Shaker Heights’ best-kept secrets: The Shaker parklands, including The Nature Center at Shaker Lakes, are among Northeast Ohio’s great bird-watching spots.
In the spring, thousands of birds arrive from points south. Some, like the warblers, stop for just a few days, resting up for the last leg of their thousands-of-miles migration. Others will stay for the summer and raise their young. Over the years, more than 150 bird species have been seen here.
“As birds are migrating, they are looking for places where they can rest, where there is shelter, where there is food, and to some extent where there is water. And this is just a perfect place,” says Julie West, who has studied birds at The Nature Center for more than a decade.
In fact, the Shaker area is so important for birds that in 2002 the National Audubon Society designated the corridor along the Doan Brook – from Shaker Lakes on the north to Dike 14 (now called the Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve) on the south – as an Important Bird Area or IBA, an area deemed an “essential” habitat for birds and deserving of conservation. Altogether, the Dike 14-Doan Brook IBA encompasses almost 3,000 acres.
“The Doan Brook is unique,” says David Wright, a naturalist who also oversees outreach for The Nature Center. “Most urban streams are culverted, but the Doan is one of the last open urban streams in the country. It’s a ribbon of green space that includes the Shaker parklands, the Rockefeller
Park corridor, and Dike 14.” Dike 14 is an old disposal facility on the shore of Lake Erie, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dumped the muck it dredged from the Cuyahoga River. It was closed in the late 1970s and since then nature has made a roaring comeback. More than 280 species of birds have been spotted at Dike 14, including many considered endangered in Ohio like the Bald Eagle, Barn Owl, and Osprey.
Habitats to Make Birds Happy
What makes the Shaker parklands attractive to so many different kinds of birds is its variety of habitats. There are lakes, mature forest (for example, around The Nature Center, Horseshoe Lake and Southerly Park), verdant areas along the Doan Brook, fields, a marsh, and even ravines.
“We have several distinct habitats that birds rely on for food, shelter, and breeding,” says Kay Carlson, executive director of The Nature Center.
So, for example, hiking around Lower Lake, you might find a kingfisher or heron in the water, while from The Nature Center’s All People’s Trail you are more likely to see vireos, redwings, or catbirds, and at Southerly Park, you might catch a glimpse of a sparrow or woodpecker.
Conserving these varied habitats is what keeps the birds returning to the parklands year after year. And thanks in large part to The Nature Center (which was founded in 1966 with the mandate to protect the area’s natural habitats), the Shaker parklands have continued to enjoy a healthy population of birds. But there is always room for improvement and, last summer, the Center began a multi-year project designed to restore the marsh, which is accessible to the public via the All People’s Trail.
Over the past several decades, narrow-leaved cattails, purple loosestrife, field bindweed, and other invasive plants have gradually taken over the marsh, pushing out natives such as swamp rose mallow and broadleaf arrowhead, and dramatically decreasing the biodiversity of these three acres. Water quality has also suffered, as many native plants helped cleanse the marsh.
As a result, says The Nature Center’s Wright, the marsh is no longer hospitable to certain types of birds. “We do not get the variety of birds we should get, given the fact that we do have this water,” he notes. For starters, the water quality discourages certain birds, such as grebes and mergansers, from fishing. And the lack of plant variety leaves others little to eat. “Some birds need seeds and some
need insects. The ones who need seeds are not going to stay here for long,” Wright explains.
Last fall, the Center began removing the cattails, and, this spring, will replant the marsh with 45 species of native grass, sedge, and wildflowers. It will also begin restoring the marsh’s perimeter, taking out the invasive crack willow and planting ten varieties of native trees, including red maple, river birch, and black willow.
“Everything is a system, so the more diverse the plant life, the more diverse the insect life, the more there is for birds to eat. A wider variety of plants will give us a wider variety of birds,” says Wright.
Four Seasons of Birds
To be sure, spring brings the biggest show to the Shaker parklands. But if you know what to look for, there is plenty to see all year.
“We get a lot of different types of birds,” explains West. “We have the resident species, which are here year-round. Then we have birds that come
here to breed during the summer. Then there are the birds that pass through during migration in spring and fall, and then we have a small group of birds that come here to winter.”
Following is a round-up of what to see by season:
SPRING: Spring is the best time to bird watch in the Shaker parklands. The trees haven’t fully leafed out, making the birds easier to spot. The migrants tend to arrive en masse, in a hurry to get north to reproduce, so there are many birds at once. A lot of birds, in particular
the warblers, are more colorful in the spring, decked out in bright feathers to attract mates. And they are out and about, hunting for seeds, berries, and insects, in order to build up fat (i.e. energy) for the rest of their journey.
Typical early migrants, which begin to arrive in April, include Wood Ducks, Golden and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, the Hermit Thrush, a variety of sparrows, the Eastern Phoebe Flycatcher, the Redwinged Blackbird, and a handful of warblers. But at the height of migration, in mid-May, there are many dozens more.
“On a really good day, we might see 20 species of warblers, three or four types of thrushes, veery, four or five types of sparrows. You could have four or five types of flycatchers,” West says.
The warblers are a particular favorite. “They are just fascinating birds. They mostly migrate through, but a few nest here. They are smaller, so they are harder to see. Sometimes they are up in the canopy or down in the vegetation. And they have beautiful color patterns. It’s just a whole other world,” says West.
SUMMER: By June, most of the migration is over, and birders can settle in to contemplate Shaker’s summer residents. These include several kinds of woodpeckers (Northern Flickers, the Downy, the Hairy, and the Red-bellied), the Phoebe, the Redwing, Warbling Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, the House Wren, Yellowrumped Warblers, Baltimore Orioles, and Eastern Wood-Pewee.
“I’ve heard Acadian Flycatchers, maybe Least Flycatchers, Great-crested Flycatchers. Song Sparrows for sure,” says West. “Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Northern Rough-winged Swallows, Barn Swallows and Wood Thrushes.”
In the summer, it can be harder to find birds among the leaves, but in some ways there is more to see. “You can see the breeding behavior, you can see courtship, which is not so easy. You can watch birds collecting nesting material and some birdsbuilding nests,” says West. And once the
chicks are born, birders can observe parents feeding their young. “For example, woodpeckers will go in and out of their holes to feed. As one mate is coming out for a break, the other is going in.”
FALL: By August, the fall migration is underway and over the coming months, many of the birds that traveled through the Shaker parklands in the spring will return for another visit. However, the fall migration is less dramatic. The birds are not in a rush, having mated for the year, and so they travel in less-concentrated flocks. And they are often more drab in appearance, after molting their breeding plumage over the summer.
But there are some highlights. “There are some birds that we tend to see more of in the fall than in the spring, so they must take a different migratory route,” says West. These include Yellow-rumped Warblers. Of course, the area’s summer residents also begin to head south and those that winter here, such as the Whitethroated Sparrow and the American Tree Sparrow, start to arrive.
Occasionally, the fall brings birds not usually seen in Shaker, providing a rare treat for the area’s birders. “Sometimes the youngsters, the fledglings, get a little off course and end up here by mistake,” says West. Last September, a Summer Tanager, a lovely red bird that lives further south, spent a few days around The Nature Center. Some years ago, a White Pelican was hanging around Lower Lake.
WINTER: Once again, the trees are bare, so while there are many fewer birds, those that remain are easy to see. These include
Blue Jays and Cardinals, but also the Darkeyed Junco, White-breasted Nuthatch, and some hawks. “Winter is also when we most often have an irruptive species,” adds West. This is when a large number of birds that winter further north come south looking for food. For example, a few winters ago, there was an irruption of Pine Siskin, White-winged Crossbill, and Red Crossbill.
Getting started with bird watching in the Shaker parklands couldn’t be simpler: Grab a pair of binoculars and head out for a spring bird walk at The Nature Center. (These typically start mid-April; check the calendar at shakerlakes.org).
“You’ll find that birders are extremely generous with their time,” says resident Linda Johnson, who grew up in Shaker and began birding after she returned to the area with her husband in the 1980s. “They love to help other people with birds. On our walks at The Nature Center,
we can have up to 50 people and many are expert birders.”
Johnson notes that Shaker residents are often surprised to find how many birds are in this area. “They are usually absolutely flabbergasted by the number of birds they can see,” she says. It’s easy to get hooked. “There’s just so much variety and each year you can learn more and more. Once you get the site identifications down, you can go for the calls, which are the little chip notes and the songs,” says West, who started birding after taking a class with her husband and fellow birder Gary Neuman.
“It’s sort of an obsession,” jokes Shaker resident Nancy Renkert, who has been an avid birder for many years. “I am never not birding. I am always looking around.”