12 Months of Nature: July

Marsh Wrens and Wildflowers

August is more than a third over, and here I am posting about July… I promise this trip happened on time, though. July’s outing took me to Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Kent County, MD. Eastern Neck is a gem encompassing an island at the mouth of the Chester River and a bit of land on the peninsula just to the north. It’s a bit out of the way but the payoff is worth the journey.

My trusty seasonal guide recommended this destination for both marsh wrens and wildflowers (specifically orchids and mallows). Before I move on, I have to admit that despite best efforts I neither saw nor heard a single marsh wren, nor did I spot any orchids. I had also hoped I might happen across a rail or two, and alas that was not to be. Yet I was not to be skunked! Mallows and other wildflowers were abundant. Even without the mallows this would have been a pleasurable enough trip, proving some cliché or other… maybe “it’s about the journey,” or some similar pithy sentiment.

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seashore mallow – mission accomplished!

In any event, before I hijack this post to speak of the best part of the trip, I should spend some time talking about the targets of my search. I still can’t add marsh wrens to my life list, although I’m not particularly disappointed by this. The time I spent exploring their habitat, occasionally playing their songs and calls from my phone, was quite rewarding. Amid the marshes and woodlands I picked out 35 bird species, including the yellow-billed cuckoo, which had been a bugaboo for a few months. Marsh wrens are fairly secretive and I anticipate plenty of opportunities to cross them off. I’m sitting at 155 species for 2017 with a goal of 162, and so I remain confident I can hit the target without this cute little bird.

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trumpet creeper

The summer wildflowers at Eastern Neck were quite a spectacle. Seashore mallow made this trip technically not a failure and the variety of other flowers helped make it a rousing success in the practical sense. Isolated common mullein plants rose like towers beside the trails, trumpet creeper blanked the sides of buildings, and joe-pye weed mixed with camphorweed and grasses in vast wavy fields. I spotted my personal favorite butterfly garden plant, partridge pea, as well as black-eyed Susan and Queen Anne’s lace here and there. That of course was just a small sampling of the abundant flowers coloring the landscape.

 

img_4762.jpgWhat was a good day for birding and a great day for wildflowers was an unparalleled day for butterflies. Seconds after I stepped from my car a spicebush swallowtail alit on the ground next to me. Soon thereafter a red admiral fluttered past, and on my first short hike common wood nymphs dotted the bushes. This was a trend that would continue without the day until I had encountered at least fifteen species, four of which were new additions to my life list and nine of which I managed to photograph. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that the refuge is home to the best butterfly garden I’ve ever seen (yes, including the one in spectacular, near-and-dear Brookside Gardens). This one was complete with solar panels, freshwater ponds, lillies, and an abundance of butterflies unlike any I’ve seen outside a conservatory. I can’t say anything else that will get across the beauty of the situation, so I will close with some of those photos.

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common wood nymph
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spicebush swallowtail
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a zebra swallowtail and a silver-spotted skipper atop joe-pye weed

January – Bald Eagles
February – Winter Beaches
March – Tundra Swans
April – Early Spring Wildflowers
May – Breeding Horseshoe Crabs
June – Breeding Bird Habitats

 

12 Months of Nature: June

Breeding Bird Habitats

This month’s entries in Seasonal Guide to the Natural Year were entirely devoted to breeding bird habitats, except for an afterthought section that can accurately be summarized as “well, I guess there’s other stuff in nature besides birds.” Incongruously, my birding really dropped off this month. I was busy early in June, and as my schedule cleared out so did many of the spring migratory birds. Much of this month’s outdoor time was dedicated to my butterfly garden and other landscaping projects.

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See?

All of that said, I did get around to a good sturdy birding trip this past weekend. The beauty of “breeding bird habitats” as a topic to explore is that it is equivalent to “outside somewhere” in this area. There are wrens nesting on my house, starlings nesting on my neighbor’s downspout, sparrows nesting on my office, etc. So, instead of following one of the specific locations outlined in the book I chose my own adventure and headed to a popular MoCo birding spot I hadn’t yet visited: the Blue Mash Nature Trail.

Before I go on, a quick aside about that name. Apparently it comes from a local pronunciation of “Marsh” which drops the ‘r. What is this, Boston? Anyway, it turns out that this is a pretty cool place. It’s a nature trail outside of a former landill (which is still private property). I don’t know that I would choose to eat anything foraged along the trail, but it was quite stunning to witness nature’s reclamation of the area.’

I did collect a pretty good checklist of birds on this hike, including two birding milestones. I added four new species to my year and life lists. The second, the field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) was the 200th entry on my life list. This was appropriate – field sparrow seemed to be a top 5 miss for me month after month. My simple mind is always gratified when nice round numbers line up with something significant in some other way. Speaking of which, the final bird of the day, an acadian flycatcher (Empidonax virescens) was my 150th for 2017. It was also the most common June bird for this area I hadn’t nabbed yet. That honor now belongs to the yellow-billed cuckoo. Other notables for the day included a scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea), a prairie warbler (Setophaga discolor), and several blue grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea). Unfortunately I only heard the tanager, but the distinctive call left me quite confident in the ID. The blue grosbeak is rapidly becoming my favorite bird, I think. They are so stunning and the fleeting glimpses so rewarding. All in all I was able to ID dozens of birds representing 33 species, with at least as many more individuals I was unable to pin down.

Alas, I am sans photos of the birds from my trip. This seems fitting, because for me this time of year it’s everything else that’s happening in the breeding bird habitats – the reasons the birds have chosen to breed there – that is really fantastic. Trees are in full foliage. Wildflowers are in bloom and insects are in flight. Reptiles and amphibians are active. Below are photos of just a few of these encountered on my hike. click on the thumbnails to expand (if you want – don’t let me tell you what to do!)

Aside from the Blue Mash hike and the few other birding walks I’ve managed to squeeze in this month I’ve been experiencing birds in their breeding habitats just about every day. They visit my feeders, pick bugs out of my butterfly garden and worms out of my lawn, and splash in my birdbath. Their songs are everywhere. Maybe the birds really are the exciting thing about June after all.

Prior Months of Nature

January – Bald Eagles
February – Winter Beaches
March – Tundra Swans
April – Early Spring Wildflowers
May – Breeding Horseshoe Crabs

 

12 Months of Nature: May

Breeding Horseshoe Crabs

May’s adventure marked a return to the same general location as my February trip, but with a different target in mind. This time I was making my way to the shores of the Delaware Bay to observe breeding horseshoe crabs and the related food web in action. On the surface, that may not sound like something worth a two-hour drive, but I was lured by a mental picture of a thick blanket of horseshoe crabs covering sandy beaches while shorebirds greedily feasted. After all, up until this trip I had almost exclusively seen horseshoe crabs singly or in small groups, and post-mortem. Their otherworldly appearance fascinates me. So, I took an extra vacation day I had in my pocket, rose early, and headed for the DuPont Nature Center and Slaughter Beach.

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scoped view of a black-bellied plover amid some dunlin

“Come for the crabs, stay for the shorebirds,” should be the tagline. I was a little early for the peak activity – my schedule would not permit otherwise – but still there was enough for me to understand why this phenomenon has an accompanying festival and generates quite a bit of naturalist buzz. The basics are that the Delaware Bay provides optimal conditions for horseshoe crabs to breed in late Spring, supporting more of the crabs than anywhere else. Migratory shorebirds, particularly red knots and ruddy turnstones, have in turn learned to exploit the predictability of this cycle, timing their Spring migration to include a stop on the Bay’s beaches on their northward journey. These birds are following a particularly long migratory path and thus arrive often near starvation and always in need of energy. Without this food source most would not be able to complete the trip.

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I obeyed the rules, though admittedly sometimes pushing them as far as these swallows.

My first stop was at the DuPont Nature Center, which is a renowned spot for viewing shorebirds. There was a birding group who arrived around the same time I did, and the leader was kind enough to point some birds out for me and include me as a sort of de-facto member. With her help and the aid of my scope, I was able to pick out dozens of dunlin, ruddy turnstones, sanderlings, and short-billed dowitchers. There were also a smattering of willets and semipalmated sandpipers and of course hundreds of “shorebird x” birds. What was a little surprising was an apparent shortage of red knots – the poster child for this whole thing. There were some, but not the numbers I’d expected. The Nature Center staff assured us they were around, though – they reported counting hundreds in a banding project just days before. Of course the shorebirds were not alone. laughing gulls, herring gulls, and common terns shared the beach and skies with them, as did several osprey and a small flock of barn swallows. Seemingly every post supported a double-crested cormorant. I spent about an hour and a half here and could tell this was going to be a successful day.

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A crab I thought was dead waves its appendages frantically to disabuse me of this notion.

Next up was Slaughter Beach. This was the spot where I expected not to be able to move without treading on horseshoe crabs. That would prove to be an unfounded assumption, but the crabs were abundant – living and deceased. Every few yards was a live crab, or a carapace, or a pile of discarded crab guts. Trails in the sand told the story of their journeys after being deposited ashore by the mild surf. The birds were far less plentiful here, and I got the impression that so were the crabs. The action seemed to mostly be taking place on sandbars and sheltered flats, as well as beachheads less accessible to the public. Still, I enjoyed every moment of the stroll and came upon some unexpected bonuses. For example, I was definitely not expecting the large numbers of purple martins swooping and diving over the sand. I also had to do a double-take at several skates swimming in the shallows, and at the eastern diamondback terrapins peering cautiously from the waters. At first I put the two together in my mind, thinking I was spotting sea turtles. I may have nerded out extensively before I figured out the truth… but this was OK, because I was fine with nerding out over the truth anyway.

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This particular terrapin was unlucky.

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Having already checked off the two big purposes for the trip, I still had a few hours to kill. So, recalling a great experience from a few months ago I returned to Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Once again this proved a rewarding choice. This was a second great opportunity to check off some shorebirds on my year and life lists, and included the highlight of the trip: a pair of American avocets. These were a first for me and are among the coolest-looking birds I have ever seen. The thin, upcurved bill, upright posture, and white stripe just makes them look so elegant.

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An American avocet

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Prior Months of Nature

January – Bald Eagles
February – Winter Beaches
March – Tundra Swans
April – Early Spring Wildflowers

12 Months of Nature: April

Early Spring Wildflowers/Blue Ridge In Blossom

As always, this month’s journey was selected from Seasonal Guide to the Natural Year. The advantage to “early spring wildflowers” as a topic is that one can experience them more or less anywhere, without the need to target a specific destination. I chose Shenandoah National Park (specifically Big Meadows and the Mill Prong Trail) because it’s one of my favorite places and because it happened to coincide with another chapter in the book: The Blue Ridge in Blossom, also wildflower-related. Laurel, Frosclin and I hopped in the car on Good Friday and made our way there.

I have to admit, when we arrived at Big Meadows the wildflower prospects did not look quite like I had hoped…

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Yeah. I later learned that this was a “prescribed” burn, meaning it was initiated and controlled by the Park Rangers. This is good for the environment but bad for people hoping to spot some exotic wildflowers in the meadow. Instead the meadow was charred and desolate at first glance. However, it was bursting with song sparrows (somehow still able to hide quite well) and other birds. At the woods’ edge one could almost feel the life poised to spring back out onto the open plain as soon as the time was right. Seeing the place like this was a mixed bag of emotions. We’ve been there in all four seasons and it shows stark differences from one to the next. Now we can add “fire season” to that list. It was fascinating, and I know the fire wasn’t “bad,” but I couldn’t help feeling a little bit wistful standing there among the ashes.

Things immediately returned to normal once Laurel chose the Mill Prong Trail as the locus for the bulk of our trip. At first I thought we’d be looking at a bit of a thin selection of flowers while seeing mostly not-yet-flowering plants. It was a little early and despite the mild winter the mountains of Shenandoah tend to lag a couple weeks behind the DC area in blooming. For the first half-mile or so of our hike that rang mostly true: we found dandelions, purple and downy yellow violets, more bloodroot, cutleaf toothwort, and spring beauties in bloom alongside the greenery of mayapple and false hellebore (and some other green plants I lack the skill to identify without their flowers).

I was having that exact conversation with Laurel after spotting some trilliums that were just not quite ready to blossom when suddenly these kinds of plants began to give way to large-flowered trillium and trout lilies. scattered among them were a few wild geraniums and a smattering of star chickweed. Then we happened across a small patch of golden ragwort. Clearly spring had truly come to Shenandoah, and clearly Franklin had some sort of ragwort-related apprehensions.

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trout lily
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large-flowered trillium
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golden ragwort, one needlessly wary dog, and one regular dog

Rounding out the blossoms as we approached the Rapidan Camp (more on that in a minute) were buttercups, mock strawberries, wood anemone, chickweed (of the non-astral variety this time), garlic mustard (boo), phlox, red maple, redbud, and one bush with tiny yellow flowers which I couldn’t quite identify.

The Rapidan Camp, which I had either never heard of or at least not known its significance, is a collection of cabins on lovely grounds just a few miles south of Big Meadows. This was apparently Herbert Hoover’s retreat during his Presidency and it is now largely as it was then. Apparently one of our worst Presidents at least had good taste! We happened upon an archaeology class there and chatted for a few moments about their project and our dogs. It was all just a wonderfully pleasant pause before we commenced our return hike.

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redbud in bloom on the Camp grounds

Prior months of nature:

January – Bald Eagles
February – Winter Beaches
March – Tundra Swans

12 Months of Nature: March

Tundra Swans

This month’s candidates included three different birding adventures, all of which required a trip to central Pennsylvania. After careful consideration, looking for migrating tundra swans at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area seemed like the most likely to pay off, and also a good choice to mark off a handful of new birds on both my year and life lists. Since other migratory waterfowl were likely to be found in the same area, this seemed like a two-for-one deal, as well.

For a number of reasons, this one was a Ben solo adventure (the lower-case ‘s’ here is key). I missed my normal companions but there is also something great about being alone in nature. Somehow it makes one feel more connected to the wildlife one is observing, and more capable of appreciating the beauty of the environment for its own sake. That said, there were a number of other birders at and around the refuge that day, and one in particular who was very excited to show me what he’d found with his scope. I had picked out most of what he had to show me, but I have to admit the view through the scope was superior.

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Tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) are remarkably similar to trumpeter swans but smaller and with subtle differences in the bill and neck. Middle Creek has become an important stopover for them in their Spring migration back to their breeding grounds on – big surprise, here – the tundra. What may be actually surprising is that many of the birds who winter along the Atlantic coast breed in eastern Alaska, adding a huge East-West component to their migratory pattern. That’s just not something my brain is wired to consider as part of the picture, given the ceaseless repetition of the phrase “fly south for the winter.”

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View of the lake from atop the Millstone Trail

The photo above can give you a good idea of the number of swans present last Saturday. This was taken from atop the Millstone Trail looking North across the lake. In the middle distance, along the north bank, each of those white dots is a swan. The second group of airborne white dots farther in the distance is a medium-sized flock of snow geese. I arrived a bit late to see the peak migration; thanks to our early spring this happened in late February this year. At that time the snow geese numbered around 70,000 and the tundra swans about 2,500 birds. By the time I visited the numbers had dropped to a still-impressive few thousand geese and few hundred swans. For those interested in catching the full spectacle in future years, you can check the WMA’s official migration update page.

I mentioned this was also a great opportunity to see other migrating waterfowl (another March activity in the book I’m following) and this too was a wild success. In addition to the ducks and geese, I got good looks at dozens of American coots, about 30 common mergansers and 20 green-winged teals, a half-dozen elegant northern pintails, plus a handful of American black ducks, gadwalls, ring-necked ducks, and American wigeons. I guess I’ve skipped over the Canada geese, but there were plenty of those too. I also caught a glimpse of a golden eagle that has been a continuing rarity, and watched some American tree sparrows (new to my life list) for a bit. Side note: we really like to name birds “American” whatever, don’t we? On this day I also saw the less noteworthy American crow, American robin, and American goldfinch.

There was more to appreciate than birds. It was still a wintry scene, but in the wooded areas was a gorgeous carpet of princess pine. There were quite a few stands of evergreens amid a light layer of snow, and in some of the low-lying wet areas near the lake shore were pockets of skunk cabbage. Finally, the water of the lake itself created some beautiful attractions. As small waves washed over low-hanging tree branches and roots in the twenty-degree air, lovely patterns of icicles formed. I admit that at two-and-a-quarter hours each way from Silver Spring, this is a bit of a hike for a day trip, but I found the experience well worth the effort.

 

Prior months of nature:

January – Bald Eagles
February – Winter Beaches

12 Months of Nature: February

Winter Beaches

Say the word “beach” and you conjure images of summer: swimming, surfing, beach volleyball, sunbathing – all enjoyed despite how uncomfortably hot it is. We’ve built a sort of cultural mysticism around beaches as a land of eternal summer. Of course this isn’t how reality works, but here’s the thing we seem to forget: In the winter, beaches don’t stop being beaches any more than mountains cease being mountains or forests cease having trees.

021-2I pitched this to Laurel as the best February option from Seasonal Guide to the Natural Year, and was met with skepticism. She gave me a certain look, grunted, and said something to the effect of “but beaches are so BORING in the winter.” She’s from Cape Cod, so this is perhaps an understandable line of thinking, but I was flummoxed. All I could think was, “What?! Not for a naturalist! All the same stuff is there but there aren’t as many people screwing with it!” Meanwhile I’m sure she was thinking, “what the heck is wrong with him? You can’t SWIM in the OCEAN in FEBRUARY.” Both of us were right. I had assumed defeat until a warm spell and a warmer forecast prompted Laurel to say on a Thursday evening “maybe we should do your beach thing this weekend.” YES!

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A horseshoe crab with slipper-shell jockeys and a “regular” crab companion.

We chose as our destination Delaware’s Cape Henlopen State Park, with a short side trip to Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Both were new to us and each rewarded us immensely for the choice. It’s about a 2.5 hour drive for those of us in the Maryland suburbs of DC, so doable as a day trip. Dogs aren’t allowed on the beaches during the spring and summer months for ecological concerns, but they are from November to April (just one more reason to go in the winter). We arrived and after getting our bearings at the nature center we immediately hit the trails. The Seaside Nature Trail was nice but a little tough to follow, offering the opportunity for a quick side trip to the fishing pier. The Walking Dunes Trail/Saltmarsh Spur was excellent and just the right length to occupy a relaxing afternoon.

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The dogs were SO ready for this.

The 70-degree weather was certainly pleasant, but it did throw a slight monkey wrench into my winter beach plans in the form of lots of other people. Not that I’m an unrepentant misanthrope, but generally speaking the more people present the less happy the naturalists among them. I promise I didn’t begrudge anyone else their good time. Anyway, all that to say that the beaches were pretty well picked over in terms of interesting shells. That certainly didn’t stop us from finding some nature here and there. Horseshoe crabs littered the beach alongside razor clams and softshell crabs. The birding was quite good as well, as I will get to momentarily.

Along with mid-Atlantic beaches come their ecological companion, salt marshes. These, too, can be fun to explore in winter. Waterfowl who spend their springs and summers on the tundra or otherwise north of this area can often be found here, as can a number of raptors. There is always a certain serenity to the salt marsh which can be especially pleasing in winter. Cape Henlopen has acres of this habitat to explore.

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On top of all of this, we discovered the entramce to the Dharma Initiative…

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They were studying us the WHOLE TIME!

Anyway, back to nature. As I mentioned, the birding was superb. From the fishing pier I was able to pick out a horned grebe, a red-throated loon, and some buffleheads amid the gulls. In the salt marsh we spotted a couple of hawks we couldn’t quite identify in addition to a dozen or so turkey vultures, and I got to observe a flock of about 30 green-winged teals as well. At Prime Hook the bird of the day was the northern pintail, with some American black ducks and great blue herons thrown in for good measure. The pintails in particular were gorgeous birds, and a new one for me. The real treat, however, was the enormous flock of snow geese congregating by the entrance to the refuge and spotted on our way out. The flock was easily a thousand strong, and was the second one we saw on the day (the first we passed on the way out and only glimpsed briefly from the highway).

Nerd alert! It is common practice for experienced birders to scan a flock of snow geese looking for that odd-man-out, a Ross’s goose. They’re very similar to snow geese but much less common in the mid-Atlantic (though I believe there have been a few spotted in Maryland this year). Descriptions of how to distinguish the two say things like “smaller, with a more rounded head” and to look for some blue on the beak. So, were there any Ross’s geese in this flock? I have no earthly idea.

Prior months of nature:

January – Bald Eagles

12 Months of Nature: January

Bald Eagles at Conowingo Dam

Some time ago at a used bookstore in Silver Spring I discovered Seasonal Guide to the Natural Year. It’s a month-by-month guide to seasonal events in nature offering tips on how, when, and where to observe some breathtaking scenes. I’ve relied on it to point me toward new and exciting experiences a number of times, and this year I’m going to choose one event per month to talk about here.

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One of the very first eagles I saw at Conowingo Dam, in 2012.

It wasn’t long after I bought the book that I put it to good use. Its first entry for January is about viewing bald eagles at Conowingo Dam (where US Route 1 crosses the Susquehanna River). At the time I’d only seen a handful in my life, and the opportunity to see several at once was too good to pass up. I thought maybe we’d get the chance to see four or five, a treat well worth the ninety minute drive. We arrived and saw a promising number of folks with fancy cameras, binoculars, and spotter’s scopes, but at first all I saw was a few black vultures and a ton of gulls. Given a few minutes to adjust to the landscape, though, we started seeing them. At first we saw one in a tree right in front of us, and then a couple more soaring overhead, and gradually more and more until we realized there were dozens all around. One dove into the river and returned to a tree right next to where we were standing to devour its prize.

This congregation of eagles happens predictably at Conowingo Dam every winter. As ponds, lakes, and streams in the region freeze the Susquehanna remains one of a few ready food sources in the region. As a bonus for the eagles (and gulls, cormorants, ducks, and vultures) the dam stuns fish every time its flood gates are opened. The birds have learned that the sluice alarm is a dinner bell for them. Even in relatively warm winters they appear in great numbers knowing that a feast awaits.

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Speaking of feasts… vultures hang out to bus the tables, so to speak.

Laurel and I have made this an annual pilgrimage since that first time, and only once have we come home disappointed. That year we were forced by weather to wait until February, by which time the activity had tapered off. The area around the dam is almost always decent for birding in general, but the eagles thin out between February and October. I was inspired to go early (December instead of January) this year because I had heard there was an “official” count of over 250 bald eagles in a single day earlier that month. I’m not an experienced bird counter, but when we visited on 12/23 I came up with a conservative count of 67 bald eagles, not to mention at least 150 black vultures, hundreds of gulls, a dozen or so geese, a pair of cormorants, and a small flock of mallards. In past trips we have seen golden eagles as well as many species of “backyard birds” in the woods downstream of the dam. The highlight of those was a pair of pileated woodpeckers a couple years ago; always a treat unto themselves.

Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned about bald eagles is what they sound like. We’re enculturated to believe they possess a primal scream, unleashed with fury as they dive upon their prey. The Colbert Report, for example, uses the call of a red-tailed hawk for its snarkily patriotic intro. However, in reality they sound more like some kind of gull or blackbird with a sort of high-pitched chortle. I lack adequate onomatopoeic skills to describe it, so I’ll just recommend you listen.

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This one seemed to have a wound in its right eye – probably from a fight with another eagle.

Another thing that can be confusing at first is that bald eagles don’t develop the distinctive white heads until their fourth or fifth year, and that males and females share the feature. Juvenile bald eagles can be difficult to distinguish from golden eagles for this reason, but after a few trips to Conowingo it’s become much easier for me.

I don’t think I have quite the patriotic reverence for bald eagles that some of my countrymen seem to, but I am awestruck by the site of even one. To see them in the kind of numbers one might expect of robins or starlings and watch them fish is an unforgettable experience. I can’t recommend a winter trip to the Conowingo Dam highly enough. I’ll refer you to another WordPress blog I came across for a great write-up of how best to enjoy a great day of eagle watching.