One Hundred Birds!

That is, one hundred species of birds. That’s right, last week in Shenandoah National Park, in addition to spotting all those lovely wildflowers, I reached 100 species in my 2017 bird blitz. Now that it’s been a few days I am actually sitting at 104, but who’s counting? (Me.) Eleven more of those birds are new to my life list, bringing that total to twenty-one – which means there are 20 birds on my pre-existing life list I can miss and still reach my goal (exceed in 2017 the number of birds on my pre-2017 life list). There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 that I don’t stand a great chance of seeing this year, so that target is getting tantalizingly close.

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A double-crested cormorant in the Everglades

Those new-to-me birds finally started branching out from the waterfowl. I’m starting to round out my sparrows (fox, American tree, and swamp) and entering the manic, zippy world of warblers (pine, yellow-rumped, and palm). The black-crowned night heron has been a conspicuous blank spot for me for years, so that was a welcome find.

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A yellow-crowned night heron in Sligo Creek Park last month

So, let’s pause the self-congratulations and talk about the other side. What have I missed? ebird.com has a handy tool called “target species.” If I set it to April and Montgomery County it will spit out a list of birds, in order of abundance (represented by % of checklists containing that bird). This tells me what birds in my area I’ve probably walked right by the most. Here are my top ten whiffs: northern parula (14.2%), common yellowthroat (11.3%), field sparrow (11.3%), green heron (9.1%), Louisiana waterthrush (9.1%), chimney swift (8.6%), white-eyed vireo (6.4%), great crested flycatcher (5.9%), prothonotary warbler (5.7%), and Bonaparte’s gull. Like last time, feel free to troll me with all your beautiful photos of those birds.

Speaking of photos… I don’t exactly have a ton of good ones of this new group of 32 birds. I have pulled some from my archives which are at least the same species. It turns out that birds – especially small ones like warblers and sparrows – are not the easiest things to photograph with an iPhone and/or a mid-range point-and-shoot. I did buy a decent spotter’s scope a month or so ago, and it’s been a great tool, but I haven’t quite mastered the skill of aiming the thing while lining up my camera lens with the eyepiece. I’ll get there.

Lucky bird #100 was a barn swallow in a tree near the back of Big Meadows (and soon after I spotted another in flight nearby). Barn swallows are a common sight in the spring and summer months around here; in my neighborhood they like to nest under the structures in Brookside Gardens which sit out over the ponds. If I had to hazard a guess, bird 105 will be a green heron – they too like to hang out in the park near my home and they’re conspicuous. You never know, though – that great egret was picked up entirely by accident while driving on the highway for a work trip.

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Some barn swallows in Wheaton Regional Park last year

List of birds since the last check-in (new to life list in bold):

73. double-crested cormorant
74. red-tailed hawk
75. fox sparrow
76. eastern phoebe
77. tundra swan
78. American tree sparrow
79. gadwall
80. golden eagle
81. yellow-crowned night heron
82. greater scaup
83. tree swallow
84. black-crowned night heron
85. swamp sparrow
86. blue-winged teal
87. brown-headed cowbird
88. pine warbler
89. golden-crowned kinglet
90. brown creeper
91. chipping sparrow
92. gray catbird
93. ruby-crowned kinglet
94. yellow-rumped warbler
95. Northern rough-winged swallow
96. blue-gray gnatcatcher
97. palm warbler
98. common raven
99. brown thrasher
100. barn swallow
101. house wren
102. osprey
103. Canvasback
104. great egret

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

2017 Bird Blitz Update

Oh, did I not mention I’m calling my birding goal for the year “2017 Bird Blitz”? OK then, I’m telling you now. For added context, you can check out my post from earlier in the year when I set the goal. As expected the pace of forty species in one week has slowed down, but beyond that how am I doing?

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A bald eagle at Lake Bernard Frank. There is a nesting pair calling this spot home.

First I need to do some housekeeping. After my discovery of the ebird site and app, and armed with some added bird knowledge, I decided that a few of my pre-2017 sightings were too specious to count. For example, I had listed a spot-breasted oriole in the Florida Keys in February, but found there were zero recorded sightings of that species in that area at that time of year. It’s astronomically more likely that I made a mistake than that I’m the one person to ever manage such a sighting, so that was a no-brainer. That’s the most extreme example, but four others were similarly scratched, reducing my life total through 2016 to 155. So now the question is whether to move the bar for this exercise to 156 (the spirit of the goal) or leave it at 161 (the originally stated target).

On to some analysis. Today my list for the year stands at 72, a pace which would bring me clear of the 156 mark by May 2nd. 10 of those are new to my life list (all of them waterfowl, which I find interesting). That’s also an important number, because I will need plenty of new species to balance for those I am extremely unlikely to find in 2017 (here’s looking at you, 2012 Costa Rica trip). I count somewhere between 22 and 25 such birds, so 10 in two months puts me on a similar pace. I need to be cautious in my optimism, though, because again the most common birds have been crossed off already.

Speaking of common… ebird has given me all kinds of data to play with, including the most commonly seen birds in my area which I haven’t yet recorded. For February in Montgomery County the #1 bird I’ve yet to nab is the red-tailed hawk, reported on 8.8% of checklists. The extremely frustrating part of this? As I was typing this paragraph, I caught a glimpse out my window of what may have been a red-tailed hawk. I grabbed my binocs and dashed to the door, but only saw enough to say for sure that it was a hawk and not a vulture. Not good enough. The rest of my top ten misses (fist shake): yellow-rumped warbler (7.3%), brown creeper (6.9%), canvasback (5.2%), golden-crowned kinglet (5.2%), gadwall (5.1%), brown-headed cowbird (4.5%), lesser scaup (3.5%), field sparrow (3.5%), and hermit thrush (3.4%). This is your opportunity to troll me with your gorgeous photos of these birds.

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I will diverge a bit to share and discuss this fortuitously-timed article about feral cats. I have to say that in a general sense I agree with the hunter, and as painful as it is culling feral cats is probably not a categorically wrong move. His methods are too extreme, and I have trouble fully supporting cat-killing (after all, however serious the problem it’s one we humans created). I also wonder how Mr. Wood distinguishes between a feral cat and an indoor pet who escaped for a few days… certainly one shouldn’t wantonly eliminate any cat one sees. Feral cats are hell on native birds, though, much the way the explosive deer population is hell on native plants. Rather than advocate for the mass killing of cats I’d like to say: please don’t have outdoor cats, and please spay or neuter your cats if you are not a breeder. Feral cats and outdoor pet cats aren’t good for anyone, including the cats.

Another consideration is that we should not apply methods of culling too broadly or too hastily. Non-native and invasive are not the same thing, and not every non-native species poses the same threat to the ecosystem. Mr. Wood’s systematic killing of European starlings and house sparrows, for example, seems unnecessary. Both are abundant, non-native species but I am not aware of any studies showing they have a particular negative impact on the environment in North America. It’s possible they do in a way that hasn’t been measured but that’s a tenuous basis for extreme action.

Last but not least, the 32 birds added since my last post are as follows (new additions to my life list in bold).

41. black vulture
42. pileated woodpecker
43. winter wren
44. turkey vulture
45. American coot
46. ruddy duck
47. ring-necked duck
48. great blue heron
49. belted kingfisher
50. Cooper’s hawk
51. ring-necked pheasant
52. bald eagle
53. pied-billed grebe
54. red-winged blackbird
55. common grackle
56. fish crow
57. eastern bluebird
58. red-shouldered hawk
59. snow goose
60. brown-headed nuthatch
61. herring gull
62. horned grebe
63. green-winged teal
64. red-throated loon
65. northern pintail
66. yellow-bellied sapsucker
67. wood duck
68. common goldeneye
69. barred owl
70. killdeer
71. trumpeter swan
72. common merganser

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.

New Year, (Mostly) Old Birds

As I enter my age-33 naturalism season,* I find myself seeking new challenges to keep me on my toes. One of those is to continue the improvement and expansion of my butterfly garden. Another is to keep the momentum going on this blog. Most of the rest are general, like “continue to learn about nature” and “ride my bike more.” So far there is only one challenge for the coming year that I’ve put a number on, and that is birding.

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A northern cardinal at my in-laws’ feeder

I was at my in-laws’ home to celebrate the New Year, and I couldn’t help but sit and watch their feeders for big chunks of each day. The common feeder birds there aren’t all that different from those here, but they had this chair in the window and I didn’t have any pressing tasks to accomplish, so I indulged. I was also able to work in some nature walks and talk the family into joining me for some of them. I suppose in winter on Cape Cod it is all about the birds. In addition to the backyard birds I saw an abundance of interesting waterfowl at the Cape Cod Canal. The abundance and diversity inspired me to formulate a personal challenge; in 2017 I want to document more species of birds than I have confirmed in my life prior to 2017.

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An enormous flock of common eiders at one end of the Cape Cod Canal. This was the largest of four or five flocks we saw.

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Even Franklin and Oscar were in on the birding.

That probably sounds like a lofty goal, but it’s no Big Year. I am still learning to distinguish many types of birds, so it’s certain that I don’t have confirmed sightings of many of the birds I have actually seen. As of 12/31/16 my lifetime list stood at 160 species, setting my challenge bar at 161. By contrast, North American birders’ Big Years go well over 500 species (and the top ten are all over 700). So my goal is a Modest Year by expert standards which just happens to be a big one for me.

I think the target is attainable. I reached 33 species over the first five days of the year, and I really only had free daylight hours in which to look on two of those days. More significantly, three of those species were new to my lifetime list. The real challenge is going to be finding enough new-to-me species to make up for those I’ve recorded before but have virtually no chance of finding this year. There are another 30-50 no-doubters which I will see just by virtue of spending time outside in Eastern North America, and frankly the vast majority of the 160 pre-2017 species are relatively common birds. After logging only duplicates yesterday, this morning before even leaving my home I saw 18 total species, checking off 5 more for the year. A short walk in late afternoon added 4 more for the day, two of which were new for the year. That puts me at 25% of my goal with 2% of time expended. The redhead I saw in Wheaton Regional Park’s Pine Lake was another addition to my lifetime list.

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An eastern towhee, mourning dove, and a pair of white-throated sparrows beneath one of my feeders this morning.
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The best shot I could get of the redhead, spotted keeping to the outskirts of a small flock of Canada geese.

Me from a few years ago would find it odd that birding is such a focus for me in 2017; as recently as 2011 or so I’d say that birds (especially the everyday birds of suburbia) were of little interest to me in comparison to other wildlife. That’s not to say I didn’t like birds, but they were a lower priority to me for some reason. I think it was partly a surrender after struggling to ID them in the field. Then I got the Sibley Guide to Birds, discovered the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website (and later, their app) and got a good pair of binoculars. Trips to the Everglades and Costa Rica didn’t hurt, either.

Now that I’ve spent a few years studying the birds I see with a careful eye (and ear) some things which seemed hopelessly murky are much clearer to me. Small, drab birds used to all look alike to me, but now it only takes a couple of seconds to pick out a house sparrow, white-throated sparrow, song sparrow, dark-eyed junco, house finch, or winter-plumage American goldfinch. Birdsong also once sounded to me like a complicated mishmash of high-pitched squeals, but I can reliably identify many common species by ear these days.

I’ll wrap this up with my 2017 list so far (in order of first sighting).First-time sightings in bold.

  1. white-breasted nuthatch
  2. black-capped chickadee
  3. northern cardinal
  4. house sparrow
  5. dark-eyed junco
  6. tufted titmouse
  7. American goldfinch
  8. downy woodpecker
  9. white-throated sparrow
  10. song sparrow
  11. red-bellied woodpecker
  12. Carolina wren
  13. American crow
  14. mallard
  15. Canada goose
  16. hooded merganser
  17. hairy woodpecker
  18. common eider
  19. ring-billed gull
  20. bufflehead
  21. red-breasted merganser
  22. lesser black-backed gull
  23. American black duck
  24. great black-backed gull
  25. common loon
  26. surf scoter
  27. white-winged scoter
  28. mute swan
  29. American wigeon
  30. Carolina chickadee
  31. European starling
  32. rock dove
  33. American robin
  34. mourning dove
  35. Eastern towhee
  36. northern flicker
  37. blue jay
  38. northern mockingbird
  39. redhead
  40. house finch
*shout-out to all my sports nerd readers who get that joke, by which I am pretty sure I mean one dude.