Those yellow birds like shards of sunlight in your yard are American goldfinches. Among the smallest members of the finch family, goldfinches are gifts to gardeners. Even if deer ate all your daylilies, these birds will brighten your day.
The U.S. has three goldfinch species, two of which are found only in the western states. American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) are found all across America, and in our area, they are with us all year long.
The birds molt into their breeding plumage in mid-spring. Females don new olive-green feathers, good camouflage for nesting. The canary-yellow plumage on a goldfinch male makes him a garden dandy. Both sexes have black flight feathers and pale wing-bars, but the male tops off his yellow outfit with a sexy black beret.
Goldfinch flocks move around in non-breeding seasons, but they don’t migrate far. The reason they seem to disappear in autumn is that they molt into drab attire. In September, when breeding season is largely over, the yellow males start to look patchy. By mid-November, males and females both have brownish-gray plumage, with the males retaining a bit of yellow on their shoulders.
Goldfinch songs and calls are distinctive. The male’s courtship song is high-pitched and musical, a twittery, tinkling series of notes, like a tiny far-off wind chime. In their undulating flight, both males and females issue flight calls at the low curve of the sine wave, as if urging themselves to achieve that upper curve. That diagnostic call sounds like “perchickoree” or “potato chip.” In addition, they often do plaintive contact calls—the sounds that gave them the name tristis.
Like all birds, goldfinches need food, water, and shelter to survive. Not deep-forest birds, they prefer open woodlands, weedy areas and meadows, and streamsides, with shrubs for cover and nest sites. These little birds are vegetarians: their diet consists almost entirely of seeds. Unlike most seed-eating birds, they seldom feed insects to their nestlings, but stuff those noisy gaping beaks with regurgitated seeds. They especially like thistle seeds, and also use soft thistle and cattail down to line their nests. Thistles flower later in summer, so goldfinches nest later than many other garden birds.
The female makes the nest, usually 4 to 14 feet up in an upright fork of a shrub or tree. She weaves the nest from plant fibers, glues it with webbing from spiders or caterpillars, and lines it with plant down. She does all the incubation; the male brings her food. He also feeds the youngsters until they fledge, while she may go on to make a second nest.
Though I seldom see goldfinches drinking or bathing at my birdbath, an unexpected consequence of hanging hummingbird feeders is the pleasure of watching goldfinches leaning in to drink water from the ant-wells. Another surprising appropriation: catnip grown for our cats provides food for the birds. Stems of catnip start bobbing and there’s a goldfinch or two, climbing around on the plants or head-down deep in succulent catnip seeds. (Catnip is a mint that spreads easily, so I wouldn’t plant it unless you want to delight your cats.)
A cheerful sight at birdfeeders, goldfinches readily eat hulled sunflower seeds, but prefer the tiny black nyjer seeds, an exceptional energy source. (Nyjer is often called “thistle” but it’s actually the seeds from an African daisy.) Pines and spruces in your yard provide great year-round shelter and their winter cones can be mined for seeds.
To lure American goldfinches to your garden, plant native thistles (Cirsium), coneflowers (Echinacea), black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia) and sunflowers (Helianthus). When blooming is finished, don’t be quick to deadhead the plants. Goldfinches eager to take the seeds will come to your garden like flying flowers.
Happily, these beautiful birds are common and widespread; their conservation status is “species of least concern” and their population is stable. That’s good news.
This was a Birdathon like never before, in a springtime like no other. In past years, traveling around the County and counting birds together, Diane and I have usually found about 80 species (one glorious year, we hit 90!). This year, we were still a team but had to bird separately. Most of our counting was in our neighborhoods, which in Diane’s case includes Rock Creek Park. Instead of the regular Birdathon’s 24 consecutive hours, ANS changed the rules this year to allow us to count for a total of 24 hours each.
I kept track separately of the birds seen just in my suburban Strathmore-Bel Pre neighborhood, as defined by the map in our Directory. I wanted to use this stay-at-home time to see how varied our neighborhood bird population is. Could I see or hear at least 40 species? I used an old field checklist with three columns: the left column has a C for birds I saw in SBP, the middle column has a D for Diane’s birds, and the right column has an X for my “non-neighborhood eXotics.” And Diane of course did her wonderful pictures.
Diane and I saw a lot of the same birds, but she saw all the shorebirds and most of the waterbirds. SBP has no mudflats. She had more warblers, too. SBP has no deep woods. The three birds that have a mark in all three columns are Warbling Vireo, Common Yellowthroat, and Scarlet Tanager.
Our Birdathon started on April 26, the birthday of John James Audubon, and ended when we each used up our hours, which for both was May 24. With much less travel, we thought we were likely to tally fewer species this year, and this chilly damp spring wasn’t too encouraging. However, readers, we surprised ourselves!
Audubon’s birthday was chilly, and partly cloudy with a breeze. Diane’s first Birdathon foray into Rock Creek Park brought her many of “the usual suspects”: Northern Cardinals, American Robins, Common Grackles. New arrivals in migration included Gray Catbirds, Eastern Towhees, a Northern Parula, and that charming bird, a Northern Waterthrush. Recent rain had filled the vernal pools: good news for frogs, insects, and birds alike.
The first bird of my Birdathon was a White-throated Sparrow, whose plaintive whistle followed me down the driveway as I fetched the newspaper. I ended up with 16 species for my first 1.5 hours of counting in our yard and at our feeders. At one point, a Gray Catbird was amicably sharing the suet feeder with a Downy Woodpecker. In other good news, a male Northern Cardinal fed a female a safflower seed; things were looking good for baby cardinals.
Spring is a time of change, as the world stirs from the sleeps of even a winter as mild as ours was. Birds that winter with us, like my white-throat, head north to breed. For many species who are just passing through, our woods and fields provide temporary harbor and sustenance. Other migrant species come to our area to stay for a season, feast on insects, and raise their young before heading south again. In this sorrowful year, many of us found solace in these “repeated refrains of nature” as Rachel Carson described the beauty and assurance of nature’s cycles.
Woods along our local Henson Trail and in Rock Creek Park welcomed warblers and flycatchers as they returned. The Yellow-rumped Warblers that Diane and I saw frequently at the beginning of this year’s extended Birdathon time-span were up north by the end. Great Crested Flycatchers, which arrived in mid-April, began singing in our local woods earlier than Acadian Flycatchers. Both species raise their families here.
As the days went on, I kept my eyes on the feeders, watched the spring unfold, checked out the Henson Trail, and walked the neighborhood. I took Lou with me most of the time, and we walked on streets in our own neighborhood that we’d never seen before. On Deckman Lane, a Warbling Vireo was our reward. Our first time checking out Turkey Branch near Beret Lane, a Black Vulture flew overhead, followed by a busy Black-and-White Warbler hunting bugs along a tree trunk. Diane had seen many more warblers than I so this one was a special treat. Both of us were finding flycatchers, and the phoebes nesting near the bridge on the Henson Trail were always fun to see. Every few days, I checked on the Red-shouldered Hawks’ nest there by the bridge, rejoicing at the appearance of two downy white heads.
Diane’s local area provided her with lots of opportunities for birding, resulting in three swallow species and a rare-to-see hen Wild Turkey. I couldn’t find a Barn Swallow until I crossed the Henson Trail and surveyed the fields and barns of the Barrie School. I was hunting for a bunting: An Indigo Bunting. Or maybe an Eastern Kingbird sitting on one of the fences. Instead, darting arrows of birds met my eyes: Barn Swallows! Such a pleasure to watch these agile flyers, as they reminded me of the other meaning of zoom.
Sometimes we only hear birds, but that’s enough. Red-eyed Vireos seemed to arrive in hordes this spring, with their “Here I am, Where are you” songs ringing in any yard or patch of trees. The lovely flute-like notes of a Wood Thrush, my favorite birdsong of all, would cheer any Birdathon heart. Diane wrote that she’d “heard only” a Rose-Breasted Grosbeak, but I was lucky enough to see this gorgeous bird at our feeders. I hoped I too would hear his song, which Peterson described as “a robin who’s had voice lessons,” but he stayed silent. We both heard Baltimore orioles singing; hers was in Bethesda, mine sang from one of our black walnut trees.
In mid-May, on a rare foray out of our neighborhood, Lou and I took a picnic lunch to Lake Needwood. Many people were enjoying the outdoors, staying a careful distance apart. A Belted Kingfisher rattled and flew. Winging down the lake came a Great Blue Heron and flew right over a Double-Crested Cormorant. Diane had seen cormorants already and provided a picture of her jaunty trio. She also found a Spotted Sandpiper and a Solitary Sandpiper, uncommon birds for us to see.
After 15 years of doing Birdathons together, Diane and I can still be surprised by common birds we don’t find (like Rock Pigeons, which frequently skunk us), and delighted by nice birds we find unexpectedly. One of the things we look forward to every year is a new bird for us, a Birdathon First. We had five of those this year. We usually get a Red-shouldered Hawk, and sometimes a Red-tailed Hawk, but this year, a Birdathon First was a Broad-winged Hawk! Diane saw one in late April, and I saw one in mid-May. Usually we see them as they migrate through, but there are breeding records for them in this county, so maybe, just maybe….
Diane was able to wander farther as she incorporated birding into her errand-running. Her own local part of Rock Creek Park always provides goodies, but her long trip out past Potomac allowed her some legal stop-offs that produced even more. We both also went to Blue Mash Nature Trail this year. Lou was with me, and we walked the driveway up to the landfill berm. I was hoping for Tree Swallows but apparently the area is too overgrown for them now. A Field Sparrow did sing for us, which was a new bird for the combined list, and a Yellow-breasted Chat provided warbler glory. We did see Tree Swallows flying along farm fields on a later trip up-county.
Back in my neighborhood, I finished up the SBP count with a Veery singing in our woods and a Chimney Swift (they finally got here!) calling while flying up my street. My total for the suburbs: an amazing 62 species in about 20 hours.
When Diane was down to her last hour to count, she went out to Blue Mash, and made it all the way around the loop to both of the ponds. And what treasures she found! Not one but four Birdathon Firsts! (I wish I’d been there!) You never know what you’ll find at Blue Mash, so it was lovely for her to see a Blue Grosbeak in the field and a Least Sandpiper on the mudflats. A handsome Lesser Yellowlegs was probing the mud beneath the shallow water of the big pond. And the one I would most like to have seen, my candidate for sweetest-looking shorebird: a little Semipalmated Plover, with its big eyes and tidy dark breastband.
And our total? A record-breaking 107 species, the most ever for us.
I did my first ANS Birdathon in 1992. Every year, it was a treat to take a day off from work and count birds for a good cause. Diane and I joined forces in 2005, becoming the May Day Birders, and have been Birdathoning together ever since. This year, we missed being together, sharing the excitement with every new bird added to the list. But we kept in touch with emails and texts, and managed to enjoy this new form, while looking forward to birding together again next spring.
Thanks very much to our sponsors for supporting the conservation and education activities of the Audubon Naturalist Society. Your tax-deductible donation is a special blessing this year.
My hummingbirds vanished weeks ago. I miss them. The chipping sparrows that sang from tall pines near the pool parking lot all summer are gone. Most warblers left in September. As day length and temperatures change, leaves change color, and fall migration gets underway.
We think of the birds that nest here as “our birds,” but whose birds are they? Most migrants are here for less than half the year. Baltimore orioles spend more time in Costa Rica than they do in Maryland. The best looks I ever had at yellow-throated warblers were in Jamaica in January.
Many bird species migrate thousands of miles twice a year. Why do they do that? Because they can. It’s mostly about food, of course. They move north to find expanded breeding territories and plenty of insects to feed to babies. They return to southern climes for insects that prosper in those warmer winters. But how do birds know? How do they find their way?
Testing has shown that birds have many navigational tools. A biological GPS, a map sense, helps them navigate. Their inner compass helps them distinguish north from south. They can use the positions of stars and sun, the earth’s magnetic field, local scents, low-frequency sound detection, and even ocean wave patterns.
Flight plans vary. Some species, like robins, travel in flocks, stopping to rest and feed for a few days before moving on. In fact, robins may not even move very far south, if they find enough fruits and berries. Some species, like many shorebirds, do long non-stop flights. Weather affects the flights: cold fronts may hold up migration; winds may blow birds off-course.
But once they get as far south as they want to go, how do they know whether their favorite place is east or west of where they are? Perhaps it’s their own memory of places and routes. Not all questions are answered; scientists are still learning how birds do what they do so well.
With cold weather on its way, I’m feeling grateful for the birds that winter here with us. We have wonderful backyard birds who reside here year-round: cardinals, titmice, doves, and woodpeckers, to name a few stalwarts. House wrens migrate but Carolina wrens stay. Woodpeckers stay because they can pry insects from under winter bark; cardinals and other seed-eaters stay to hunt for crunchy seeds and freeload at our feeders. They are joined by a few species like white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos that nest in the north but have moved south to share our milder winter. They’re familiar annual visitors who help us through the dark times.
A stalwart Carolina Wren
Now that twigs are rattling in our mostly leafless trees, I remind myself: our summer birds may have left town, but we still have avian bright spirits to bolster our courage against impending winter. The birds and the seasons are moving as they should.
One spring morning, a red fox chased a squirrel around the chairs on our patio. The squirrel was there because birds drop seeds from our feeders; the fox was there to catch the squirrel. The squirrel fled with the fox right behind. The chase ended with the squirrel chattering angrily from the safety of our big red maple. Stymied, the fox trotted back across our patio. He was a handsome fellow: his reddish fur thick and glossy, his black legs trim and springy, and his fluffy white-tipped tail a thing of beauty floating behind him.
At the edge of the lawn, he lifted his leg on a clump of daffodils, leaving a pungent memory of his presence before vanishing into our little woods. “Better luck next time,” I told him. He might have been hunting for food to take to his kits. I’ve watched young foxes nurse and romp near their den; I’d sacrifice a squirrel or two for them.
Foxes live beside us. They are secretive and wary of humans. Though both red and gray foxes live in Maryland, red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) are the only ones I’ve seen in Strathmore-Bel Pre. (Elliot Dash took these foxy photos near Bel Pre Creek.) Red foxes are small mammals, weighing just 8 to 15 pounds. (For comparison, both of our cats weigh more than the average fox.) Our suburban habitat, with its mixed woods and open areas, suits their adaptable nature. Their diet is adaptable, too. As a friend says, “Foxes eat seasonal and local.” Though they’re in the Order Carnivora, they eat anything from fruit to insects to smaller mammals like mice. This means they’re often out in daylight; prey is active then.
One winter morning I saw a fox emerge from our woods. His head was up, his neck arched, and from his pointed jaws dangled a good-sized rabbit. Along the side of our house he carried his victim, then crossed the street and headed up our neighbor’s slope to a remnant patch of snow under shrubs. He cached his rabbit in the snow, a natural refrigerator. Smart.
Foxes are not dangerous to humans unless they have rabies, which is very rare. They can have mange, caused by mites. Mange can result in the loss of fur and a damaged immune system, often leading to starvation. In winter, a fox with a bad case of mange may die of hypothermia.
A healthy fox’s fur coat is so thick that the animals don’t need to den except for birthing and raising their young. Winter is the time of courting and mating; it’s a good time to see foxes or at least notice signs of their presence. I often find fox tracks on our snowy driveway or in the winter woods near Bel Pre Creek. Their small paw-prints have fuzzy edges because red foxes have fur around their toes, which seems a fine idea.
In late winter or spring, the barking of a fox occasionally wakes me in the night. Whether it’s a mated pair conversing or a vixen calling to her youngsters, that voice is unmistakable. It sounds like a dog trying to mimic a cat: a raspy high-pitched bark with eerie overtones. It’s an audible reminder that we humans live with many companions in a wild and fascinating world.
Tuesday, May 8, was our ANS Birdathon day. The weather was predicted to be warm and sunny, a lovely spring day. It was about 55° when I left home at 7:45, with 22 birds on my backyard list (our resident Hairy Woodpecker and an Indigo Bunting were the stars). Diane added her home area birds to the list, bringing our number to 28, a good start. As usual, we hoped to total “at least one more” than the 80 species we saw last year, but secretly I was hoping to match our previous best, which was 90.
Diane’s bad news was that she’d need to be home by 6:00. That would diminish our usual Birdathon time, but oh well. We’d accommodated to my infirmities in the past. Getting 90 species could wait until next year.
Our first stop was Rock Creek Park near Diane’s house, where the woods were full of birdsong and bikers on a sunny morning. Migration has been a little late this year, but we did hear a Northern Parula, a Swainson’s Thrush, and a couple of flycatchers. An animated conversation between two Barred Owls made us smile—what wonderful voices! Two Wood Thrushes were wasting their time fighting when they could have been caroling.
Next, we headed for the portion of Rock Creek Park in Aspen Hill. WSSC has finally finished installing a new sewer line so walking was much easier than it’s been for many months. New trees and shrubs have been planted over the scars. The Park Service even carved out some vernal pools, which will be fun to visit next year.
A rousing song from an Eastern Towhee greeted us, augmented by a Baltimore Oriole with a whispery descant from a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. “Remember the Birdathon when we found the gnatcatcher’s nest?” I said.
“There’s a nest over your head!” said Diane. We watched as the little gnatcatcher mama settled back into her nest. Sometimes history’s repeats are sweet.
As we walked the trail, we heard a Northern Waterthrush, followed shortly by a Louisiana Waterthrush, a rare duo-event.
Diane heard a Magnolia Warbler singing by the creek and we found him, a yellow-and-black marvel. The long phrases of a Warbling Vireo (a bird I first found on a long-ago Birdathon) caused him to be added to our list.
When a dry chipping sounded from the woods, we bushwhacked in tall grass and downed branches to find a frustrating small bird that finally allowed us to see him: a Worm-eating Warbler, another rarity for our count. This Aspen Hill trail had given us many treasures.
Lovely white panicles of black locust flowers perfumed the roadsides as we sped toward Lake Needwood. The water was disappointingly high; no shorebirds were in evidence at the upper end. We parked at Needwood Mansion and walked down to the small pool. “Green Heron!” I rejoiced, as one flew in, and then was thrilled to see another Green Heron arrive, plumes erect, to sit beside the first one at the edge of the pool. In breeding plumage, the pair was spectacular, and they seemed to have more than fishing on their minds.
We made our way down to the road and scanned the lake, looking for herons or cormorants. A beaver’s bank lodge was piled up on the edge of the lake near the bridge. Across from the lodge, a dark object lay in shadow beside the bridge’s concrete wall. I thought it was a log, but when I focused my binoculars on it, I gasped, “Diane! There’s a dead beaver!”
We stared sadly at the big inert animal. Then the “dead” beaver moved a paw and we exclaimed in relief. The beaver hauled itself upright, turned its back on us interlopers, and lay down again to snooze in the shade.
After parking at the visitor center, we tried to find a Northern Rough-winged Swallow amid a ceaseless bustle of Barn Swallows but didn’t succeed. No Cormorants. No Eastern Phoebe. “And where’s our Osprey?” Diane asked, frustrated. On cue, the big raptor flew up the lake. High fives! As we walked back toward the car, Diane spotted a Spotted Sandpiper, our only shorebird of the day.
Blue Mash was the next stop. Right away a Prairie Warbler asked to be counted, and a Field Sparrow chimed in. We walked the grassy trail toward the small pond, picking up a White-eyed Vireo and a surprise straggler: a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. The pond provided nothing new, so we backtracked to the car, where we heard the slow two-noted song of a Yellow-throated Vireo, our fourth vireo species.
We ate a quick 3:00 snack at our traditional oasis, the McDonald’s in Olney, with 73 species on our list. We were doing well, but time was now our enemy. Hoping for birds that like wide-open spaces, we drove out River Road to Hughes Road, where an Eastern Meadowlark sang for us right away. His was a solo performance, unfortunately, so we went on to the impoundments in Hughes Hollow, where we hoped (in vain) for a Sora. Diane’s excellent ears picked up a couple more birds amid the spatterdock, but the place was disappointingly dead.
We had high hopes for Riley’s Lock, which had to be our last stop, but again, bird activity was low, perhaps because of loud motor boats in the creek and on the river. We were missing so many “common” birds that the Northern Rough-winged Swallow (finally!) and Great Blue Heron that showed up here were a real delight. But we had only 78 birds on our list; it was a good number, a respectable number, but not the 80 of last year, let alone the “one more” we always want.
After dropping Diane off at her house at about 6:45 (oops, sorry, a bit late), I decided to check out my little Bel Pre Neighborhood Park before heading home. The day before, I’d seen a Solitary Sandpiper there in the wetland pond, but now, it wasn’t there. Rats.
I headed down the boardwalk toward the bridge over Bel Pre Creek but was brought to a sudden halt. In a clearing above the creek, a broken tree-trunk held a motionless and majestic Red-Shouldered Hawk. I stared, rapt. The species was already on our list, but this regal bird was more than a list item. It was a charm, a bronze fetish, a noble Lord of the Wetlands. As I gazed, my inner priorities shifted and crystallized. Mere numbers were not important. This beauty was what the ANS Birdathon was celebrating.
After that magic, what could possibly happen but that I heard an Eastern Phoebe near the bridge, (#79), and then a Pileated Woodpecker (#80) calling from downstream. So we tied our last year’s score of 80 species. But it was the Red-shouldered Hawk that made me smile all the way home.
It’s not about the numbers; it’s about the birds.
Here’s the summary: 96 miles driving, 7.3 miles walking, 12 hours birding, and 80 species of wonderful birds.
Thanks very much for supporting the conservation and education activities of the Audubon Naturalist Society. Your tax-deductible donation really helps!
How lucky we are to have so many beautiful beech trees nearby! Beeches (Fagus grandifolia), my favorite trees, are common on the slopes above Bel Pre Creek. Many are tall and venerable elders, with canopy too dense to allow much undergrowth. Where several beeches are close, they create a splendid open look of dappled glades and thick silvery trunks; spaces are pillared and vaulted like cathedral cloisters.
Scientific studies have proven that spending time in nature can reduce your stress hormones, lower your pulse rate, and improve your blood pressure. Even a small neighborhood park like ours beside the Henson Trail provides restful places to be apart from busy daily life.
Walking under beeches in early spring is just such a blessing. The air is mild, and scudding clouds drop short slanting showers that barely dampen the ground. Straight gray beech boles, streaked with moisture, make me feel I am impossibly small and walking among stationary elephants. The trees’ pewter‑colored branches are all tippedwith dark new growth that ends in pointed amber flames of tightly furled leaf buds. I walk across netted roots on an amber carpet of the last generation of leaves. Amber to green to amber again. A beautiful progression.
By late April, the beeches’ upper branches are golden-green crowns, while the lower leaves are still tightly held by the furled amber calyxes. Soon the leaves all burst forth, and the hill above the creek is a glory of tender soft green. The new leaves, fully out, are edged with fine pale hairs and creased like a partly folded fan. Beneath the trees lies a litter of cast‑off amber hulls.
Beeches are an essential part of our park’s small forest. Gray rivulets of roots cascade down the slope, merging with and melting into the earth, holding fast lest earth and tree slide together into the creek. Branches and roots capture rainfall, slowing its progress to the ground and retarding its loss. Old leaves and fallen branches contribute to uneven, spongy soil surfaces that divert and slow runoff on its way down to the creek. Boughs shade the water and keep its temperature cooler on warm days.
On some warm day soon, do take a little time to sit on a beechroot bench by the creek and just relax. Breathe deeply, listen to the birds, and feel the strength of the trees. It’s good for your health!
On Tuesday, Lou and I walked on the Henson Trail for the first time in about six weeks. A lot has changed in that time! Bird song was much subdued, though I did hear an Eastern Wood Pewee and of course our local loudmouth, a Carolina Wren. Many American Robins were foraging in the woods, kicking up last year’s leaves in their hunt for delicacies and seeming to have a great old time. I’m glad it’s been a good year for robins.
Our Red-shouldered Hawks’ nest was empty, naturally, but the sharp “Pizza!” song of an Acadian Flycatcher led me to discover another nest. Acadian nests always look messy, with their typical long strands of dangling vegetation, but this one was clearly the worse for wear after our recent heavy downpours and strong winds. I hope all the babies had fledged successfully before the storms.
The dark waters of the wetland pool hosted several frogs, mostly bullfrogs making brief one-bark comments, not the long rich jug-a-rum sound we love to hear. Bullfrogs always look so calm and confident, like prosperous old Victorian gentlemen.
Dragonflies zoomed over the water, and I wished I had my dragonfly field guide with me. Two I’m confident about were a Common Whitetail male with his white abdomen and spotted wings, and a big powdery-blue Eastern Pondhawk (both photos).
I’m always happy to see dragonflies, first for their beauty, then for their aerial abilities, but also because they eat so many biting insects! Let’s hear it for these pond predators, whose ancestors go back 325 million years. In their flashing flight, dragonflies (and smaller damselflies) not only illumine our summer days, they help keep our trails comfortable for summer strolls.
As Diane Ford and I get ready to do another Birdathon for the Audubon Naturalist Society, we thought people might like to see our report from last year, so newcomers to Birdathons can get the idea. We would love your support this year!
Monday, May 9, was our ANS Birdathon day for 2016. The weather was predicted to be cool and cloudy, with mid-day rain. It was about 50° when I left home at 7:45, with 19 birds on my backyard list, including the Scarlet Tanager singing in our woods. On the way to Diane’s house a flying pair of Mallards brought the number to 20. When she added hers (including six warblers–she lives across from Rock Creek Park), our number stood at 41! We were off to a great start. As usual, we hoped to get “at least one more” than we did last year, when a late migration reduced us to 75 species.
Our first foray took us into Rock Creek Park on a trail from Saul Road. Recent floods had both scoured the area and deposited a lot of crap. That, plus the foresters’ cutting of dead ash trees (killed by the emerald ash borer), gave the woods a sad appearance. A busy flock of Cedar Waxwings cheered us, and we had to laugh as we watched two Red-eyed Vireos squabbling over a desirable territory.
Next stop: Ken-Gar Park. Lovely songs from Baltimore Orioles and a Yellow Warbler greeted us, but the real treat was an American Black Duck, a Birdathon First for Diane and me! He was plucking the wet grass roots with a couple of male Mallards. The foresters were here, too, cutting dead ash trees, so we didn’t linger.
By the time we got to Lake Needwood, it was raining lightly. I pulled up my hood and gave Diane my umbrella. We watched insect-hunting Northern Rough-winged Swallows and Barn Swallows dancing an aerial ballet above the lake. Near the boat dock, we watched a pair of Chipping Sparrows in an amorous encounter. Oh yes, they were not going to let a little rain spoil their fun. That was good advice for us, too. I tried to take to heart what a hardy passerby told us about the rain: “It has a certain charm.”
No Osprey or Kingfisher graced the upper area of the lake, but on one muddy bank I spotted a pensive Solitary Sandpiper, which became bird 59 for our list.
Next, we drove out to Blue Mash, where my car was the only one in the lot. A Northern Mockingbird’s angry notes caused Diane look for the bird’s target. She found a Barred Owl perched high above us. The owl wearied of mockingbird curses and flew away, leaving the mocker victorious. An Indigo Bunting serenaded our rainy muddy slog to the small pond, where the nicely timed arrival of a Great Blue Heron made it worth the trip.
We walked toward the large pond, and were charmed to see a beautiful but silent Brown Thrasher. No warbler song brightened the rain; no swallows were flying about. We were quite damp and hungry by then, so our old oasis, the McDonald’s in Olney, beckoned.
It turned out those warm-air hand-dryers in the ladies’ room work well on wet jackets, too. For the first time on a Birdathon day, we augmented our lunches with hot drinks. The good news was that we had no ticks, and our bird count now stood at a decent 66 species.
Rain was still the story as we headed west on the ICC out to River Road, so we decided to do some ear-birding from the car. Diane suggested trying the Hughes Road polo field, a new spot for our Birdathon. To our great delight, as soon as we got there and lowered the windows, we struck gold! On Diane’s side, a White-eyed Vireo was singing. From the field on my side came an Eastern Meadowlark’s liquid notes. Hallelujah! We hadn’t heard a meadowlark in years, and in our relief at non-extirpation, we joyfully high-fived.
The grass was quite tall there, so we moved on to where it had been mown at least once. There we had three handsome Eastern Kingbirds sitting on fences. It had stopped raining, so Diane walked on down the road. Suddenly a new bird hopped up on the fence next to a kingbird. “Diane!” I whisper-yelled, “Come back! Bobolink!” By the time she made it back, the bird had dropped out of sight, but it soon hopped up again. While we were admiring the Bobolink, the tinkling song of a Horned Lark gave us another Birdathon First. “I’d say we are rocking it!” said Diane.
We drove out River Road extended, where Diane found a female Hooded Merganser in a little creek, and we enjoyed the energetic songs of a Louisiana Waterthrush and a Canada Warbler. Sycamore Landing Road was a bust; the much desired Red-headed Woodpecker was neither visible nor audible, and the dead ash trees in the hedgerows were real downers.
It was 4:15 when we got to Hughes Hollow with 78 species on our list, happily already four ahead of last year. Two Canada Goose families were in possession of the dike, one with four youngsters, the other with two tiny yellow babies. We hoped for a bittern amid the spatterdock, but the water was too high. The impoundments were full and a Green Heron guarded the drain between them. Tree Swallows obliged with flyovers and became Bird 79. Bird 80 was an Orchard Oriole singing an aria above the bullfrogs’ bass notes.
Bird 81 was a plaintive Eastern Wood Pewee. In all this richness, I began to hope we might reach 85 species. That would be ten more than last year!
As we advanced along the path, a musical trill caught us. It was a Pine Warbler, feeding in and singing from a (wait for it) long-needled pine tree. Mr. Pine Warbler was Bird 82, and another Birdathon First!
Toad and frog songs drew us farther along the path. In a big vernal pool in one of the fields, seven Solitary Sandpipers were probing for goodies. We already had that species, but it was lovely to see so many in one small area.
In fading light, we hurried to Riley’s Lock. Common Nighthawks “peented” from the river’s edge; now we had 83 species. As soon as we started walking the towpath we heard what we go to Riley’s for: the Prothonotary Warbler. The beautiful egg-yolk-yellow bird was number 84, our 15th warbler, and also our last new species.
We did go on to Pennyfield Lock, but it was unproductive, so we ended our Birdathon Day. I took Diane home, and arrived home myself at about 8:45 pm.
Here’s the summary: 88 miles driving, about 7.7 miles walking, 13.5 hours birding, and 84 species of wonderful birds.
Text by Cecily Nabors, Illustrations by Diane Ford. Please pledge and support us in 2017!
We’ve had some gorgeous fall days, as even I, the winter-hater, have to agree. But one thing that makes winter more bearable is Project FeederWatch. This program is celebrating its 30th year as part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “citizen science” initiatives. I’ve been doing FeederWatch since the autumn of 1991, and only missed a year or two, so I currently have 23 years of data in their database.
It feels good to sit at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and binoculars at hand (and perhaps a cat in my lap) and watch activity at our small backyard bird banquet. We have only six feeders and a birdbath. Everything but one feeder is visible from my kitchen chair. A large sunflower seed feeder stands in a barrel on the patio. Sunflower seed is gobbled up by most of the backyard birds. Beyond it, a tall pole holds three dangling tube feeders (one each for safflower seeds, peanuts, and nyger) and one mounted suet feeder. Woodpeckers and blue jays love the suet and the peanuts, chickadees and finches eat the safflower, while goldfinches and house finches eat the tiny black nyger (thistle) seeds. All scatter when a Cooper’s hawk flies in!
I have to cross the kitchen to see our saucer magnolia in the front yard with its hanging platform feeder. That one holds safflower seeds also. Though the tree is a playground for squirrels, they mostly disdain safflower. Doves and chickadees are its best customers.
Water can be hard for birds to find in winter. Our birdbath is popular with most species, who stop by for a drink or a quick splash. But it’s also a lure for birds that usually don’t come to feeders, like robins and mockingbirds. A heater keeps the water from freezing.
When I’m recording data for Project FeederWatch, I keep track of how many individuals of one species I can see at a time. On a typical winter day when the feeders are busy, there might be three chickadees taking turns flying to the sunflower feeder to carry away a seed. A titmouse stands at the same feeder, holding down a seed with one foot while it hammers away the shell. Ten doves stroll around beneath the feeder, looking for crumbs, while a song sparrow and two white-throated sparrows scuffle through the nearby garden. A red-bellied woodpecker clings to the suet feeder, repelling other boarders, while a red-breasted nuthatch hangs upside-down on the peanut feeder. They all become part of avian history.
Volunteer feeder-watchers across the country provide far more data than Cornell’s ornithologists could collect on their own. There is a $18 annual participation fee for U.S. residents ($15 for Cornell Lab members). The participation fee covers materials, staff support, web design, data analysis, and the year-end report (Winter Bird Highlights). The Lab notes changes in bird numbers, tracks invasions of irruptive species, and documents the way food choices, habitat, and weather can affect the numbers of birds at feeders.
Winter is still my least favorite season, but FeederWatch helps. This year’s FeederWatch season is from November 12 to early April. If you’d like to become one of the annual flock of FeederWatchers, check out the website at www.feederwatch.org for more information.
Monarch butterfly caterpillars are still chowing down on my backyard milkweed; one more generation of monarchs will soon be heading southwest to Mexico. I hope they fly fast and the cold doesn’t catch them.
The cold is coming, though, whether we want it or not. Many of our summer-time birds (e.g., warblers, flycatchers) have already departed for warmer climes where insects flourish year-round. Nuts and seeds are plentiful here now, and our stalwart resident birds (e.g., chickadees, titmice, cardinals, woodpeckers) are eating as heartily as the migrants do. They’re all preparing for winter.
Winter is my least-favorite season, and fall is its harbinger. I try to adjust my attitude by focusing on birds that shorter days bring south from their northern nesting areas. When will the first dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows scuffle through autumn leaves under our shrubs? When will the first red-breasted nuthatch appear on the suet feeder, joining its white-breasted cousins that stay here all year? And where are the kinglets? They’ve all been reported in our area, but I haven’t seen them yet.
Meanwhile, hawks are sailing down fall-hued mountain ridges. Flocks of grackles jostle and clamor in the woods, flocks of robins and waxwings work on late berries, flocks of starlings fling themselves across the sky. These blue-and-gold days of October are like the wings of some exotic butterfly that flits past, urging the always-changing beauty of every season in nature.