Jim McGuire: Regular astonishment

Decades ago, an elderly hill-country stream fisherman named Raleigh Cantrell shared something which has proven more insightful with each passing year.

Raleigh and his wife, Lucinda, lived on a few acres of mostly flat land in the head of a southeastern-Ohio holler. Their small but comfortable home was the last house at the end of a generally passable gravel road which paralleled a seasonal creek called Hesper’s Run.

One fine May morning we were sitting on their wide porch, drinking coffee and thinking about driving to nearby Swan Creek to check out the local bronzebacks. There was no hurry.

Showy orchis, sweet cicely and baneberry bloomed in the nearby woods. Blackberries bordered the edge of the recently-tilled garden, while orange daylilies brightened the rocky edge of the shallow brook.

On the slope across from the house, ivory-white racemes of flower clusters drooped from a half-dozen huge black locust. The soft spring air was filled with honey-sweet perfume.

Tiny north-bound warblers flitted amongst the branches of maples near the porch.

“Bet you see a lot of birds and critters hereabouts,” I said, reaching for another killer cinnamon roll which, minutes before, Lucinda had pulled from her oven.

Raleigh snagged a roll from his side of the tray and took a swig of coffee before replying.

“Yup,” he said, nodding. Between bites and sips he recounted various observations. These included everything from bears to bobcats, timber rattlers to copperheads. And his bird list would have impressed even hardcore Audubon members.

I told my host I envied his opportunities to view wildlife.

He snorted. “Shoot, that’s just a matter of paying attention. Stay in one place long enough, watch close, and you’ll be amazed what passes your way.”

I really didn’t understand how true that statement was until my wife and I moved to our home beside the Stillwater.

Most of our windows overlook a long stretch of river, a portion of the yard — its sycamores, hackberries, walnuts, box elders and dying ash trees, plus the jungly wooded island across the channel from the cottage.

Watching things outside is easy…often too easy. I watch a lot—and over the years, I’ve realized Raleigh Cantrell’s statement was both accurate and prophetic.

While my dooryard wildlife sighting list doesn’t yet include a bear, bobcat, timber rattler or copperhead, I swear their lack may only be a matter of time!

It’s a daily passing parade out there — a real menagerie! You truly never know what you’ll see. Just the other morning I looked out and saw a hooded merganser floating downstream.

Hooded mergansers are found throughout Ohio. Over the years, I’ve spotted a few on larger lakes. But never one here.

Common mergansers are more, uh, common, and I have chalked up a couple of those here on my hundred-yard stretch of the Stillwater.

At first I actually mistook this recent waterfowl for a bufflehead. I see a few of these gorgeous little ducks on the river every year—though typically only during the winter months.

Both male buffleheads and male hooded mergansers do sport similar distinctive white head/cheek patches. However, this bird seemed too low-floating for a duck — more loon-like.

When he fully flared that white crest, there was no mistaking the identity.

That hooded merganser brought my “yard birds” list to an astonishing 81 species! I would have never imagined such a total was even remotely possible when we moved here 15 years ago.

Mind you, most of these birds aren’t rare; just uncommon visitors here, to this bit of riverbank habitat. Like the woodcock I watched probing for worms under the apple tree a year ago. Or an indigo bunting who spent the afternoon investigating my handful of purple coneflowers several summers back.

Not rare Ohio birds, merely rare visitors here. But their rarity status can change.

When we first moved in, I never saw a blue jay — not a single one bullying others at the feeders or raising a ruckus from a nearby tree. Neighbors a hundred yards up the road had scads of bluejays; so did those across the street. But during our first decade, I recorded only six blue jay sightings — fewer than one per year! Nowadays, we have blue jays galore.

How do you explain that?

Bald eagles? Well, the first one showed up here maybe a decade ago. I was thrilled to the core! I’d never seen an eagle in Ohio. Now I see them in my front yard river stretch every week, if not every day.

Eagles are no longer uncommon. Ospreys still are. I only see an osprey a time or two per year.

Recently, a pair of rosebreasted grosbeaks began regularly working the feeder. They’re only the third rosebreasted grosbeak sighting I’ve recorded since moving here.

However, I’ve had beaver in the yard. A mink on my window ledge. And a jet black melanistic groundhog who spent a year living under my front deck before moving up the hill to a neighbor’s backyard.

Unexpected variety! Watching in one place over a long time period. Moreover, Raleigh Cantrell was absolutely right — I am regularly astonished by what I see!