12 Months of Nature: March

Tundra Swans

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

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

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

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View of the lake from atop the Millstone Trail

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

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

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

 

Prior months of nature:

January – Bald Eagles
February – Winter Beaches

12 Months of Nature: February

Winter Beaches

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

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

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

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

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The dogs were SO ready for this.

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

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

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

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They were studying us the WHOLE TIME!

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

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

Prior months of nature:

January – Bald Eagles