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

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: 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.

Year-End Recap (Obligatory)

I don’t really like those year-end recaps that everyone does. I am doing one of those year-end recaps that everyone does. Enjoy my year-end recap that everyone does.

2016 sucked, right? That seems to be a pretty widely-held opinion. I don’t disagree, but this trend didn’t really apply to me in direct and personal ways, for which I am grateful. I hope that 2017 is friendlier to a lot more people the world over, but for now I’m going to focus on the good in my own life in 2016 by sharing some nature stories and photos.

I’ll begin, appropriately enough, in January. We in the DC area had quite the snowstorm early this year. We’ve been seeing more of these in recent years to a degree that the area’s snow removal infrastructure is simply not prepared for. Of course it would be fallacious to attribute any one storm to climate change (that’s weather), but the increase in frequency and severity is exactly what the models project.

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Wheaton under a couple feet of snow

My nature story of the year is definitely the progress of my butterfly garden, including the bench I built in February. I was able to use natural wood and just one long 2 x 6 board. We’d been forced to cut down a dead maple in our backyard in November, so I had an ample supply of logs.

March was a time for more garden prep, but it also yielded my first photos of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), found on the Rachel Carson Trail amid the vernal pools and wood frog eggs. I was also pleased to find some beautiful narrowleaf blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) in Wheaton Regional Park.

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Skunk cabbage is a very cool – if a little bit gross – flower, and one of the area’s earliest bloomers.
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Some of that blue-eyed grass I mentioned, found near the parking lot for the Brookside Nature Center.

The early planting, weeding, and digging continued into April and May, interspersed with short hikes around the neighborhood and to other local destinations. One pleasant walk in late April brought me sightings of much of the common local fauna and flora at its springtime finest.

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A cheeky little eastern chipmunk
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some lovely azaleas

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A family of Canada geese
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A redback salamander
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A red-eared slider

The late spring and early summer was mostly marked by studying visitors to my butterfly garden, most of which were not yet butterflies or moths.

 

Above are a handful of the flowers these bugs were visiting; below is a surprise garter snake (not found in my butterfly garden).

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An eastern garter snake seen on a branch of the Rock Creek Trail in Rockville

I think my favorite new-to-me species in 2016 was the hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe). I saw several of these on a few different trips to Brookside Gardens and they really were spectacular. They look like hummingbirds, sound like bees, and dazzle like orchids but they’re really large moths.

Narrowing down which landscapes and wildlife photos to share from our August trip to Vermont’s Green Mountains was a real challenge. I’m not confident that I’ve picked the best or the most interesting, so maybe I’ll come back to it in a later post. It really was a fantastic trip.

The rest of the summer and into the fall, I began to really see the payoff of my butterfly garden. Butterflies and moths, birds and squirrels, some surprise visitors, and the flowers themselves were all quite rewarding sights.

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Caterpillars! These are more or less the point of all the work. (These in particular are monarchs.)

 

I’ve hardly included everything that I could have (I’m saving a few things from this winter for a future post or two, for example). We took a late fall trip to Shenandoah National Park and I generally try not to let my interest in nature take a total nosedive through the winter. Regardless, I hope you enjoyed my year-end recap that everyone does.

More Year-End Recaps That Everyone Does