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One of nature's dramas occurs in Cuyahoga Valley National Park during winter. It is courtship and nest-building season for bald eagles. You have a chance to witness their aerial display: bald eagle pairs lock talons and plunge into a free fall, breaking apart just before it looks as though it will crash to the ground.
Birds provide a window to the beauty and diversity of nature in every season. However, bird watching becomes easier in winter. With leaves gone from trees, birds have fewer places to hide, and their colors stand out against drab winter vegetation. The drama of eagle courtship is just one reward of winter bird watching.
If you miss eagle courtship, you may still be able to observe their nest. Since 2006, a pair of eagles has nested along the Cuyahoga River near Station Road Bridge Trailhead (13513 Riverview Road, just south of Route 82 in Brecksville). You can view the nest from the Towpath Trail about a half mile north of the trailhead. Look across the river from the spot where a horse trail first diverges from the Towpath Trail. If courtship is successful, the eagles will again lay eggs by mid-February.
Great horned owls also lay eggs in winter. When you visit woodlands between dusk and midnight or just before dawn, listen for males and females hooting to each other.
Another winter drama is led by a much smaller bird, the black-capped chickadee. This tiny bird is identified by its black cap, black chin, and distinctive chick-a-dee-dee-dee call. In winter, other types of birds flock around chickadees. Scientists believe this provides for safety in numbers and/or feeding efficiency by increasing the chance of finding a location rich with food.
Encounters with mixed flocks are common along woodland trails. With just a little effort you can learn to identify some of the common birds in the flocks. Tufted titmice are predominately gray with a crest and blackish marking just above their bill. Nuthatches forage on tree trunks, seeking insects and larvae. The more common white-breasted nuthatch has a black cap and white face and breast. You might be also rewarded with a rarer find. Brown creepers, like nuthatches, forage for insects and larvae hiding in tree bark. However, they move around the trunk in a distinctive pattern, starting low and spiraling up until flying to a low spot on the next tree. They are mottled brown and have a stiff tail that props them against the tree.
The birds described so far are year-round residents. Others arrive from Canada, treating the valley as a southern destination. Dark-eyed juncos are common winter visitors. They are small gray-black birds with a white belly and outer tail feathers. Less common is the northern shrike. This black-masked bird hunts from perches, swooping down to stun or kill insects, rodents, and small birds with its powerful, hooked bill. Northern shrikes lack talons, but may impale their prey on thorns to eat or store for later.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park offers bird-watching activities at least monthly during the winter. The next is the Annual Christmas Bird Count, held from 7:30 a.m. to noon on Dec. 18. Participants will count birds for the Greater Akron Audubon Society. Meet at Kendall Lake Shelter, 1000 Truxell Road, 2 miles west of Akron Cleveland Road in Peninsula.
Other bird-watching programs reveal the changes in nature that occur as winter progresses, including the early start to spring migration when diverse ducks pass through the valley. Programs are listed in the quarterly Schedule of Events, available online at www.nps.gov/cuva or at Boston Store Visitor Center. For more information, call 330-657-2752.
Editor's note: Vasarhelyi is Chief of Interpretation, Education & Visitor Services for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.