The Grange Insurance Audubon Center Is the Perfect “Third Place” for a New Birder Like Me

Grange Insurance Audubon CenterLast November, I wrote about OCLC being my Third Place. Step aside, OCLC! Last weekend, I found a new hangout that’s the perfect place for a new birder like me to spend time. It’s the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, a mile south of downtown Columbus.

Growing up in German Village, I knew the Whittier Street Peninsula on the Scioto River as the city’s impounding lot. Now, motorists travel to this spot, not to get their car out of the slammer, but to revel in wetlands, meadows of native plants, wildlife, and one nifty building.

About 10 years ago, the city of Columbus, Franklin County Metro Parks and Audubon Ohio teamed for an urban redevelopment project of a very different nature. The industrial wasteland — not far from the scene where I spent many memorable hours trying to master the fine art of bike-riding — is now a natural haven.

During their long journeys migrating from Central and South America each year, thousands of birds representing more than 200 species take a breather here. As a result, Audubon and Birdlife International have designated the Scioto Audubon Metro Park, along with Green Lawn Cemetery and Lou Berliner Park, as an Important Bird Area. The scientific, data-driven IBA designation is given to geographic locations that provide essential habitat for one or more species of breeding, wintering and or/migrating birds.

The feather in the nest of the Whittier Street Peninsula is the Grange Insurance Audubon Center. Dedicated in August 2009, the LEED Gold Certified building was built with recycled construction materials and is heated and cooled geothermally. Surrounded by native plant demonstration gardens and habitat areas, the center includes a natural playground area, a nature store, temporary and permanent educational and art exhibits, and four rooms for gatherings.

An outdoor observation deck and terrace with bird feeders and Adirondack chairs provides an inviting place to enjoy nature.Outdoor observation deck and terrace, Grange Insurance Audubon CenterThe library’s expansive windows offer a picturesque view of downtown Columbus.View of downtown Columbus from the Grange Insurance Audubon Center's libraryRain chains and a clever stepped rooftop drainage system water the center’s rain garden.Rooftop drainage system, Grange Insurance Audubon CenterEven the floor is worth checking out.

Floor of the Grange Insurance Audubon CenterDuring my first visit to the center last Friday, I met my third birder: Dublin-based Jim, a volunteer at the center who has spotted 110 species so far this year with the binoculars he totes everywhere he goes. Jim shared several helpful birding hints, such as going to Glacier Ridge Metro Park to see Bobolinks and Glossy Ibis. By providing a generous buffet of peanuts, seeds and fruit in his home feeders, Jim has attracted birds like the gorgeous Scarlet tanager to his patch.

Like me, Jim came to the center for a special program that the National Audubon Society’s chief scientist, Dr. Gary Langham, gave about hummingbirds.

Before we watched the PBS NATURE documentary, Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air, Dr. Langham told us about Hummingbirds at Home, Audubon’s new citizen science program.

He explained that nearly all of the hummingbirds found in the United States and Canada are migrants. Each year, they travel from the tropics of Central America north to breed; then, they return home. Along the way, hummingbirds visit people’s yards, looking for nectar from gardens and feeders to help fuel their journey.

Audubon is interested in understanding how climate change, flowering patterns and feeding by people are impacting hummingbirds. Anyone can help them by participating in this easy and fun project.

Using a free downloadable app for any mobile device, you can report a single sighting or routinely document hummingbird activity in your community. The app offers menus to identify bird species, as well as choices of plants that feed them in the area. The program also features a website by which people can track, report on, and follow hummingbird migration in real time.

Before attending this program, my familiarity with hummingbirds was limited to hummingbird cake and my vintage moving hummingbird pin, which I wore for the occasion.My vintage hummingbird pin

Now, I’m more well-versed on these tiny aerial acrobats with a talent for moving their wings in a figure 8, hovering, and even briefly flying upside down as they flit around. Their long, swordlike bills are perfectly designed for extracting nectar from their favorite flowers. Those same bills make these iridescent beauties aggressive predators, taking out bugs in a single Jaws-like chomp to get their protein.

As we watched the documentary, we learned how hummingbirds fill up on nectar by visiting more than 1,000 flowers between dawn and dusk. To save energy, they go into torpor, a nighttime hibernation-like state, during which their body temperature and heart rate drops and their breathing slows. At dawn, their vital signs return to normal.

We let out a collective gasp when we were introduced to the Marvellous Spatuletail, an endangered hummingbird from Peru. With two long racquet-shaped outer tails that cross each other and end in large violet-blue paddle-like discs, this dandy resembles a cowboy doing rope tricks.

Before we left, Dr. Langham told us about the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Ohio’s only nesting species, so named because the male sports flashy ruby-red throat feathers. He also suggested how we could attract hummingbirds to our yards by offering them a safe place to perch and something tasty to eat. Although native plants are best, a hummingbird feeder will also do the job, he said.

The center was such a great place that I went back the next morning for its International Migratory Bird Day celebration. Scioto Gardens sold native, bird-friendly plants, while local artisans offered a selection of handmade pottery, jewelry, and other artistic creations. I picked out a tiny birdhouse pin and a birdhouse from my fairy garden, both crafted by an Asbury University student and her grandmother.

The highlight of the morning was watching bird-banding in action.

High concentrations of migrant birds rest and refuel at urban stopover sites during spring and fall, so the center is trying to become a better host to them. In addition to removing invasive plants and replanting native plants, it is also monitoring birds to evaluate the long-term effects of its habitat management. Data collected through banding wild birds increases understanding of migration species and breeding bird productivity and survivorship.

I’ve inventoried hundreds of McGuffey Readers, recording marginalia, flowers pressed between pages, and pencil drawings on their endpapers. And I’ve cataloged Civil War surgical amputation kits while sprawled out in the hallways of Glendower, the Greek Revival mansion in Lebanon, Ohio. But bird banding takes object-cataloging to a very different level.

After being captured in fine mist nets positioned in the meadows surrounding the center, the birds were brought back in little muslin drawstring bags and hung on a portable laundry-drying rack.  One by one, Anne, a staff member at the center, and her husband weighed each bag before carefully opening it, sticking their hand inside to get a secure hold on the bird. After pulling the bird out, they attached a tiny ring with a unique number on it to its leg, and told my volunteer friend Jim the number of the band. Banding a Gray Catbird, Grange Insurance Audubon CenterAs the bird patiently endured a physical examination, they called out details such as its weight, age, molt, fat content and sex.  They used a tiny ruler and a caliper to measure the bird’s wing, tail and tarsus. Measuring a Gray Catbird's tarsus, Grange Insurance Audubon CenterWhen they were finished, they invited interested onlookers to release the bird back into the wild. You can see what a hit this was for everyone who watched.

Getting ready to release a bird back into the wild, Grange Insurance Audubon CenterSome birds already had bands on their legs. The unique number on the band helps to track the bird’s movements, so finding these recaptures provides helpful migration information.

Gray Catbirds were the most prevalent bird; 16 of these somber, mewing little friends with rust-colored feathers under the tail were banded that morning. House Wrens and an American Goldfinch were also banded. A Common Yellowthroat Warbler was too cold to participate in data collection, so Anne tucked it into her fleece jacket to keep warm. A gangly Brown Thrasher was not happy at all about being subjected to such behavior. Likewise, the Goldfinch chirped plenty of bird expletives as it was released.

Bird banding will continue at the center until the end of May. Other bird monitoring research and restoration activities will take place this summer. Bird banding at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center

A Tough Little Hummer,” Jim McCormac’s engaging account of a Selasphorus hummingbird that visited a feeding station in Mansfield in December 2007, is what prompted me to attend last weekend’s programs. You’ll enjoy reading how data such as wing length, body fat, molt and coloration patterns, bill corrugations and weight were recorded, as Jim wrote, for a whopping champ who tipped the scales at 3.73 grams, about the same weight as a new penny.

If you’ve watched any bird banding, or have hummingbirds visiting your yard, I’d love to hear about it.

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