Outer Banks 2018: Birds

My wife and I have just returned from a much anticipated trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The trip was filled with beach time, fishing, family, seafood, and exploring. I’ll cover some of that (and some other nature) in a future post. Every trip is an opportunity for birding, though, so I will toss off a few keystrokes on that topic first. The Outer Banks, lying on the coast and a few hours south of home, hosts bird life a great deal different from what I’m used to. A trip there is always a good opportunity for a neophyte birder like me to expand life and year lists, and to get a little more practice identifying birds outside my usual range of experience. This year’s trip was no exception – I upped my life list by six and my year list by 39, notching 64 birds for the week.

Gulls

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A herring gull scolding a fish cleaner for not giving all the guts directly to its mouth.

I always think when planning a beach trip that I will have an opportunity to see a plethora of gull species. In all reality, during June only three species of gulls are particularly common on the Outer Banks – the laughing gull, the herring gull, and the great black-backed gull. I did see all of these (repeatedly) but didn’t spot any others. The ring-billed gull is reported on just over five percent of Dare County* checklists in June, and the lesser black-backed gull on about two percent, but all other gull species would be quite rare.

Terns

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Royal terns in the Florida Keys, Feb. 2014

By contrast, quite a few tern species are common on the Outer Banks in late spring and early summer. Ten species (lumping in the black skimmer – technically not a tern but closely related) are in the top 100 Dare County birds for June, according to ebird. Of those I saw eight on this trip – unsurprisingly the top eight: royal tern, least tern, black skimmer, common tern, Forster’s tern, Sandwich tern, gull-billed tern, and Caspian tern. Of those, the gull-billed tern was a life bird for me. The two I missed – bridled tern and black tern – would also have been lifers, but as the 91st and 99th most reported birds for the area I’m not feeling too frustrated over those misses.

Shorebirds

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Reusing an old photo of a shorebird I missed this time.

Shorebirds are another diverse group on the Outer Banks. Most of these I could nab on a closer trip to the Delmarva Peninsula, but the Outer Banks with its miles of uninterrupted beaches and Sound-side mudflats is an exceptional place to view these birds. This is probably the category where I was most disappointed in my results for this trip. I didn’t spend much time looking in the ideal spots, and when I did there were several groups I couldn’t get close enough to ID even through my scope. I did tally eight species but left a lot on the table. There are a total of 19 shorebirds at least as common as the “rarest” I tallied. Those I saw: willet, killdeer, American oystercatcher, semipalmated sandpiper, ruddy turnstone, sanderling, least sandpiper, and red knot. I suspect that some of those fuzzy groups at the edge of my sight included semipalmated plovers, short-billed dowitchers, black-bellied plovers, and dunlins but I just wasn’t quite able to say for sure.

Pelicans and Cormorants

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Pelicans from a previous OBX trip

This is quite simple: brown pelicans and double-crested cormorants are very common on Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands in June, and I saw many of both.

Pelagic birds

This is where I made some real progress on this trip, notching four species of pelagic birds on one fishing trip aboard the Miss Hatteras. Previously I had only seen one: the magnificent frigatebird. Other than the few species which can commonly be observed from land, I just haven’t had many opportunities to view these birds – and this was my first chance since I started “seriously” birding around the end of 2016. First I spotted a few Wilson’s storm-petrels on our way out to sea, and soon after I saw a couple of Cory’s shearwaters. While at sea the captain noticed my interest and pointed out a great shearwater, and on the return trip I got a good look at a sooty shearwater. Of course I also missed several fairly common species, including petrels, shearwaters, storm petrels, skuas, and jaegers, but for one trip (and that not really a birding expedition at all) I was quite satisfied.

Herons and allies

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Another cheat photo – snowy egret, Florida Keys Feb. 2014

On one moderate hike at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge I recorded seven species of herons, egrets, and ibis. None was a life bird, but all seven were year birds, and the two most common I missed (great blue and green herons) are abundant near my home and therefore not huge losses. It would have been nice to finally check off the glossy ibis as well, and I am certain there were some in my general vicinity. Still, one particular spot held a mixed flock of well over 50 great egrets as well as perhaps a dozen snowy egrets and as many white ibis, plus several tricolored herons. As a side note, I thought I spotted a pair of sandhill cranes flying from the sound side to the ocean side while driving home, just south of Oregon Inlet. The birds appeared too huge to be anything else, but we were cruising along pretty fast and I can’t even reliably report if they were the right shape. I haven’t found any recent reports of these birds in that area, so they were probably just some great blue herons or brown pelicans that looked oddly huge from my vantage point.

Other notable (to me) birds

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A juvenile barn swallow on Ocracoke

I didn’t see anything rare on my trip, but I was treated to one nice surprise. In our campground on Ocracoke, when night fell, I began to hear songs from several Chuck-will’s widows scattered among the marsh bushes. This was technically a life bird for me (because I had previously only heard them before I was recording sightings) and was something I was absolutely not expecting, although it turns out they are locally common in a few spots on the Outer Banks. Other year ticks for the trip included: boat-tailed grackle, purple martin, American black duck, brown thrasher, yellow-billed cuckoo, prairie warbler, and Eurasian collared-dove. While not “notable” in any real sense, I am always surprised by the preponderance of swallows at or near the beach. I shouldn’t be – they’re quite common – but there is always something incongruous to me about their appearance with the sand and waves.

What I missed

The single most abundant bird I did not see was fitting, as it is probably also the most common eastern North American bird missing from my life list: the eastern meadowlark. It’s a point of irritation for this East-coaster that I’ve ticked the western meadowlark but not the eastern. I also didn’t see any Carolina chickadees, which was odd but not that odd given the environments I frequented. Other than the shorebirds mentioned above the only other big miss is probably the prothonotary warbler, another bugaboo for me that always seems like it should be an easy add.

 

*Note: I am using a Dare County list as a proxy, but some of this vacation was on Ocracoke Island, which is in Hyde County (whose list is similar but different).

Denver Trip: Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR & Florissant Fossil Beds

It’s hard to choose a favorite site from last September’s trip to Colorado. As amazing as Rocky Mountain National Park was, I perhaps equally enjoyed our time at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. This is a place with engaging natural history and fascinating human history. Once a biological weapons facility that dealt untold damage to the local ecosystem, the site is now a refuge and a shining example of conservation. There is an excellent wildlife drive and plenty of available hiking trails. It also has one of the better visitors’ centers I have seen at similar facilities.

After the mountains, there was a different but equally real sense of immensity to this place. In this habitat, one can see the whole place opening before you on approach. Despite the openness, the wildlife can be hard to spot at first. This visit was just one more time I was struck at how adept animals can be at not being seen.

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I think the first critter we spotted (and definitely the one we saw the most of) was a black-tailed prarie dog. I realize these adorable guys rate somewhere between “background presence” and “irritating pest” to the locals, but I couldn’t help but enjoy every one that scurried away or fixed me with a wary gaze. They’re so easy to anthropomorphize, with their social behavior appearing so comically playful. One imagines they are the true inspiration for the game “whack-a-mole.”

Other than the prairie dogs, the drive was largely uneventful for the first twenty minutes or so. We crawled through mostly open plains, scaring up the occasional vesper sparrow (identified by a flash of white outer tail feathers). Eventually we spotted a red-tailed hawk posing atop a telephone pole and paused for a photo.

Soon after, we began to see them: small, black dots on the horizon, yet unmistakable through my binoculars. American bison! Perhaps, like the prairie dogs, these creatures are not very exciting to anyone from the Great Plains region. I admit I would give some side-eye to anyone similarly amazed by a herd of cattle. Something about the buffalo (not this oddity of grammar) just strikes all the right chords of natural wonder. Especially once you see them up close. Clearly these beasts were the stars of the refuge.

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With the wildlife drive completed, it was time to slow things down for a closer look. We chose the Lake Ladora loop trail for our hike, and were well-rewarded for this choice. We took our lunch at a picnic table near the trail’s namesake, watching cormorants dive and California gulls circle. Then we strolled through a naturalist’s paradise. Avifauna was a theme, but the flora was stunning as well and butterflies were omnipresent. The variety of bird life really spoke to the overall productivity of the environment here. I only counted 23 species of birds on our 2-hour hike, but the varied niches they occupied were the real story. I notched three species of raptor (red-tailed hawks, a Swainson’s hawk, and an American kestrel). Great blue herons, snowy egrets, and belted kingfishers shared the lake with ducks, geese, grebes, and American coots. The fields were interspersed with vesper sparrows, song sparrows, red-winged blackbirds and western meadowlarks. I even found one rock wren along the dam. All too soon it was time for us to be going.

Our next destination was Florissant Fossil Beds. I have to admit, this place somewhat disappointed me. It just felt like their public face was dedicated to all the wrong things. There was a brief video, which did a fine job of presenting the context of the site and building anticipation. Ancient fossils of fish, insects, leaves and more! Wonders of natural science unmatched anywhere! After the video, we joined a ranger-led tour group, anticipating all manner of scientific nuggets would be revealed to us. What we got instead was mostly stale repetition of the video, plus tales of Walt Disney purchasing a petrified stump and thieves stealing pieces of petrified wood. There was a good ten minutes on why metal bands were looped around the largest stumps (an early, ill-advised effort to excavate with dynamite).

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I mean, the petrified wood was pretty cool on its own, but…

These stories of course have their place, but they were related at the expense of learning much about the actual fossils or the window into ancient life they gave us. Eventually we slipped quietly away from the group to explore several of the short hiking trails on our own. This improved the experience somewhat, allowing us to see more of the grounds and picture the modern natural landscape in juxtaposition with the ancient one.

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This mormon cricket seemed an echo of the giant insects represented in the site’s fossil record.

I think the biggest disappointment was the limited array of fossils available for viewing. Apart from the stumps there was a small room with perhaps fifty specimens on (confusingly presented) display, but absent was the staggering variety described in their video. I’m sure some of that is due for the need of research and study, but very little information seemed available about said research, except as it related to petrified wood.

The value and importance of Florissant Fossil Beds to the natural sciences is immense and unambiguous, and usually I try to write positively about such places. Here, though, something vital was missing in the presentation. Even with those shortcomings, the landscape was beautiful, and taken together with the refuge this made for a couple of great days exploring nature.

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

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

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: 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.