2017 Birding Goal: Achieved!

This will be a quick (and possibly boring to many of you) post. I am writing today simply to affirm a personal achievement. I decided early that 2017 would be the year I got better at birding. As a part of that ambition, I set the goal of compiling a 2017 year list of at least 162 birds. Why 162? As of 12/31/16, my life list stood at 161 bird species. As I learned more about birds I questioned some of those records enough to reduce that total somewhat but chose to retain the original goal. On a day trip to Assateague Island last Saturday, two new year birds put me over the top.

Pelecanus occidentalis (18)The first of these was a brown pelican spotted from the car as we crossed one of the small bridges on the Eastern Shore. Once we arrived at the beach I saw a couple dozen more. There’s nothing particularly special about this bird, except that I hadn’t seen one yet in 2017. Brown pelicans are large, unmistakable, and common so therefore an extremely easy box to check provided one spends a little time in their habitat.

The second was a least tern. Again, it’s a fairly common bird and marking it off is only a slightly higher bar to clear than the pelican. Still, I have only recently learned how to separate terns (and am as yet not great at it), so this one felt more significant. During strolls up and down the beach I spotted 4 or 5 more of these small birds. The other birds I saw this day were repeats, but I was struck by how much easier they were to identify than when I began this focused effort. More importantly than the list is the seeming success of the method of self-instruction. It seems, at least for me, that intense focus on one subject is a better way to build my knowledge of the natural world than simply studying whatever I find.

I suppose now is the time to get the list itself out of the way before I ramble on too long. If you’re interested in seeing the first 104 entries on my 2017 year list, they are enumerated in three previous posts here, here, and over there. New life birds are in bold.

105. broad-winged hawk
106. Baltimore oriole
Icterus galbula (5)
107. wood thrush
108. green heron
Butorides virescens (9)
109. purple martin
Progne subis (1)

110. ovenbird
111. eastern wood-pewee
112. indigo bunting
113. solitary sandpiper
114. chimney swift
115. cedar waxwing
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116. orchard oriole
117. veery
118. common yellowthroat
119. red-eyed vireo
120. yellow warbler
121. eastern kingbird
122. northern parula
123. Swainson’s thrush
124. American redstart
125. bank swallow
126. blue grosbeak
127. great crested flycatcher
128. boat-tailed grackle
129. ruddy turnstone
130. laughing gull
Leucophaeus atricilla (2)
131. dunlin
132. red knot
133. sanderling
134. semipalmated sandpiper
135. short-billed dowitcher
136. willet
Tringa semipalmata
137. common tern
138. snowy egret
139. American avocet
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140. semipalmated plover
141. black-bellied plover
142. least sandpiper
143. wild turkey
Meleagris gallopavo (2)
144. white-eyed vireo
145. yellow-breasted chat
146. ruby-throated hummingbird
147. scarlet tanager
148. field sparrow
149. prairie warbler
150. acadian flycatcher
151. willow flycatcher
152. cliff swallow
153. spotted sandpiper
154. little blue heron
Egretta caerulea (4)
155. yellow-billed cuckoo
156. pectoral sandpiper
157. lesser yellowlegs
158. horned lark
159. black-and-white warbler
160. least flycatcher
161. brown pelican
162. least tern

Reflecting on the full list, a few things are apparent. First: given how many very common and distinctive birds are new to my life list, I had a pretty pathetic life list going into this year. Second: given the total number of new-to-me birds (55), it would really be better for me to tack on at least a handful of additional species to be really certain I’ve hit the mark. I’m not self-assured enough to believe that all 162 birds are 100% certain. I tried to set a very high bar for counting a bird, but I’m far from perfect and still honing my skills. Third: I never would have gotten close without ebird.org and Cornell’s all about birds website and Merlin Bird ID tool. I know I have plugged these things unrelentingly, but for good reason.

So, what’s next? There is still plenty of time in 2017 to expand this list. I have an upcoming trip to the Rockies which should yield new opportunities, and the bulk of the Fall migration is yet to come. Juveniles and winter-plumage birds are more of a challenge than their adult and spring counterparts, but there’s no reason I can’t pick out at least a few more. Can I reach 200? That seems like a nice round number to aim for now.

Final note: photos above are not necessarily the same individuals identified this year, but all are my own.

 

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

 

Global Big Day 2017

Yesterday, May 13th, was Global Big Day. Global Big Day is an annual event sponsored by a whole host of birding groups across the globe with the intent to get as much data as possible into eBird. This was my first year participating (and frankly, my first year aware of its existence) and I had a blast! Along with 14,000 people I’ve never met as far as I know, I helped gather and report sightings of thousands of birds. Data is still coming in but as of this writing 5,884 total bird species have been logged. I was able to nab 61 myself, which in comparison is not very many but is a huge day for me. Among those 61 species were 11 more for my year list, of which 8 were new additions to my life list. I began the day with a goal of 50 species and hopefully three or four new ones, so I am overall quite pleased with the day. Yet there are groups who managed to log nearly twice as many birds as I have on my life list in a single day… perspective.

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Canada geese may be among the most boring and irritating birds, but their young sure are adorable.

It was raining pretty steadily when I woke up, but I had steeled myself for this eventuality during the preceding week and was not about to let that stop me. So, at 6:15 AM I tromped off into Wheaton Regional Park. I focused my first efforts of the day in the area around Pine Lake and the miniature train. It began humbly enough, as most birding checklists seem to, with robins, cardinals, and mourning doves. It wasn’t long, though, before I had added several of the most common May birds I was missing for the year: first a common yellowthroat, then a pair of enthusiastically singing red-eyed vireos. Three yellow warblers and a pair of northern parulas soon followed. There are some large pines near the train station that always seem to have some kind of interesting bird activity. I paused there for a long time, straining for a good look at several warblers that were darting about. I wasn’t able to ID any of them – the flashes of black, white, and yellow I saw weren’t nearly enough nor did I recognize their songs. Before moving on, however, I did pick up a surprising veery. That was a new one for me, and it took me a lot of staring and phone-pokery, and then finding someone else’s corroborating report, for me to accept my conclusion.

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A red-winged blackbird sat still just barely long enough for a quick phone snap

My next checklist began still within Wheaton Regional Park, but this time focusing on Brookside Gardens and the Nature Center. I didn’t add any new life or year-list birds here, but I did add several of the more common birds I didn’t find around Pine Lake, including the first pileated woodpecker of the day. I also spent some time watching and listening to some Baltimore orioles and following the graceful dives and turns of several barn swallows. For boring semantic reasons I started a separate checklist when leaving the park around 10 AM to return home. Here again I mostly fleshed out the everyday birds I was almost certain to see at some point, with one notable exception. I spied what I assumed was a wood thrush, but something just didn’t seem quite right. It sang and then I knew it was a different bird, but what kind? I turned to the Merlin bird ID tool and found the most likely culprits, noting the key features. I tracked the bird back down (it fortunately had not moved far) and centered it in my binoculars. Between the smudgy white eyering and chest pattern I had it – a Swainson’s thrush, and another first for me.

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I told you goslings were cute.

I returned home for lunch and to plan out my next trip, which turned out to include the highlight of the day. It certainly helped that it had stopped raining by then and I had thrown on some fresh clothes. At about 1:15 I arrived at my next spot: Meadowside Nature Center in Rock Creek Regional Park. In general this was a surprising gem with a lot to offer – I will need to return for more than just a birding trip to explore further. I arrived to find another pileated woodpecker on the ground poking at a stump not ten feet from where I’d parked and immediately knew I had chosen well. I paused to check out their raptor cages: a red-shouldered hawk, barred owl, and bald eagle (no, I didn’t count those). I meandered through some short trails at first, where I happened upon a small group of American redstarts emphatically either welcoming me or telling me to go away. After a while of wandering I came to the Study Pond, and here was a bird-nerd’s delight. I first noticed a number of swallows (tree and bank) zipping above the surface. Then I found that what I thought were more swallows executing acrobatic U-turns were in fact cedar waxwings – fifteen or more of them. When I passed around to the far bank for a closer look, a flash of blue caught my eye. It turned out to be a blue grosbeak – another first for me. I was rewarded with two great views of this stunning and unmistakable bird. I stayed to observe all this activity through my scope for half an hour or so.

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A tree swallow with the study pond in the background

I concluded the day’s birding by making a circuit of the nearby Lake Bernard Frank. Most of the birds here were repeat sightings, and none were brand new to me, but I did manage to add a few good ones to the day’s list, notably some double-crested cormorants and a bald eagle. There were a few moments where I was nearly certain I had heard a red-headed woodpecker’s distinctive screaming “Tchurr” call but I was unable to confirm it. The eagle would be the last species tallied for the day, which was somehow fitting.

 

Favorite Bird of the Day: Blue Grosbeak
Most Surprising Bird of the Day: Veery
Most Disappointing Miss: Scarlet Tanager
Most Surprising Miss: Chimney Swift
Most Abundant Bird: American Robin
Birds Appearing on All Five Lists: Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, American Robin, Chipping Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Baltimore Oriole

Final Tally

Canada Goose (35)
Wood Duck (5)
Mallard (3)
Double-Crested Cormorant (8)
Great Blue Heron (3)
Green Heron (2)
Black Vulture (1)
Turkey Vulture (1)
Osprey (4)
Bald Eagle (1)
Solitary Sandpiper (1)
Mourning Dove (32)
Red-Bellied Woodpecker (23)
Downy Woodpecker (6)
Hairy Woodpecker (2)
Northern Flicker (5)
Pileated Woodpecker (3)
Eastern Phoebe (1)
Great Crested Flycatcher (2)
Eastern Kingbird (3)
Red-Eyed Vireo (2)
Blue Jay (13)
American Crow (17)
Fish Crow (7)
Northern Rough-Winged Swallow (7)
Tree Swallow (4)
Bank Swallow (3)
Barn Swallow (4)
Carolina Chickadee (21)
Tufted Titmouse (5)
White-Breasted Nuthatch (9)
House Wren (1)
Carolina Wren (8)
Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (18)
Eastern Bluebird (6)
Veery (1)
Swainson’s Thrush (1)
Wood Thrush (16)
American Robin (58)
Gray Catbird (13)
Northern Mockingbird (2)
European Starling (7)
Cedar Waxwing (15)
Ovenbird (6)
Common Yellowthroat (1)
American Redstart (4)
Northern Parula (2)
Yellow Warbler (3)
Yellow-Rumped Warbler (3)
Chipping Sparrow (21)
White-Throated Sparrow (1)
Eastern Towhee (8)
Northern Cardinal (55)
Blue Grosbeak (1)
Red-Winged Blackbird (19)
Common Grackle (17)
Brown-Headed Cowbird (2)
Baltimore Oriole (9)
House Finch (3)
American Goldfinch (17)
House Sparrow (27)

Total Identified Birds – 561

April for a Maryland Naturalist

April is a busy month for a dedicated naturalist in Maryland (and I suppose probably the rest of the Northern Hemisphere). It’s when one can expect to start seeing early spring wildflowers and trees in bloom. It’s amphibian breeding season, so it is an excellent time to find frogs, toads, and salamanders and observe the various stages in their life cycles. Snakes and turtles rouse themselves and begin their ritual basking. Butterflies can be found on the wing with increasing frequency. It’s peak migration for a lot of migratory birds and begins the return of summer residents. For gardeners it’s time to start thinking about prepping beds, pruning, taking those seedlings outside, sowing, weeding… the list goes on. It rains a lot – and often unexpectedly – but it’s otherwise the perfect time to be outside.

Early Spring Wildflowers & Trees

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Virginia spring beauties
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wood anemone
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golden ragwort
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star chickweed

Amphibians

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salamander, species TBD
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another salamander, species also TBD (this species appear to possess a strange camouflaging property that causes it to appear blurry in photographs.)

Snakes & Turtles

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an eastern black ratsnake just hangin’ out
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A northern red-bellied turtle saying hello.
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a grizzled old snapping turtle who decided the grass was greener (or the water was wetter, I guess?) in the other pond.
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a northern water snake that did NOT like that I was all up in his business. In fairness I didn’t see it until after it fled.
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what I think is a spotted turtle (but may be a painted turtle) perched atop what I am quite confident is a red-eared slider.

Butterflies

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first tiger swallowtail of the season
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pearl crescents mating

Returning Birds

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a Baltimore Oriole
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some purple martins
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a green heron

Gardening

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flats of seedlings under a grow lamp
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a stump planter for some annuals
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some veggies – to be planted tomorrow
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accenting returning perennials with some brightly colored annuals
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I told everyone the rock pile would eventually serve a purpose…