The Beauty of Spring Beeches

FullSizeRenderHow 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 tippedBeech leaf budswith 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.

Baby beech leavesBy 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 tBeech rootshe 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!


Dragonfly Days

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.

Acadian nest 2016Our 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.IMG_0218

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.

Last Year’s Birdathon (2016)

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.Bird-A-Thon 2016 239

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.mocker vs owl 001 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. Bird-A-Thon 2016 233.JPGTo 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.

Bird-A-Thon 2016 231

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!

Bird-A-Thon 2016 235

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-yOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAolk-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!


Project FeederWatch

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. Everythingdowny-woodpecker 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 whiteOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA-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 for more information.


October Days

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.

Mid-Summer Report

Saturday morning, with the temperature on its way to sweltering, I headed for the shady Henson Trail. At the big pond, bullfrogs barely bothered to produce a bark or two. Common whitetail dragonflies zipped and zoomed above the water and invading grass. The trees rang with cicada song, the sound of summer.Bluet damselfly

No snakes were visible on the creek banks near the bridge. No snapping turtle lurked in the deep pool downstream. The creek flowed in slow silence, awaiting the crash of the next thunderstorm. Damselflies darted and hovered; one landed on the railing near me. Damselflies fold their wings together at rest, unlike dragonflies. This was one of the delicate little bluets; I can’t tell you the species.

Many local nesting birds are done for the year or are feeding their second brood of babies. American goldOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAfinches, though, are just getting started. They wait for thistles to bloom, because they use the thistledown to provide soft linings for their nests. So the goldfinches were quite busy, calling and singing in the open woods near the creek. If you listen to the rhythm of their call notes, they seem to say “Potato chip!” during their scalloped flight. (At our house, goldfinches are also harvesting catnip seeds and soon will be feasting on the seeds of their look-alike flower, black-eyed Susans.)

Alerted by a fellow walker to “two Bambis,” I scanned the meadow and found two spotted fawns lying in the grass near the bluebird box. They were so cute I paused to watch them.


Like a lot of people, I carry two simultaneous and opposing views about white-tailed deer. As individual animals, they’re beautiful, graceful, and a treat to see. As a species, there are way too many for the land’s carrying capacity—and that’s our fault.

So much in the relationship between people and nature is complex, conflicted, and difficult. I’m grateful to simply enjoy a morning’s walk in our small and semi-wild park.


Flycatcher Friends

June is drawing to a close. Our hawks have fledged, but for most smaller birds, nesting season will go on for another few weeks. Example: In the woods near Bel Pre School, I found an active nest last week. An Acadian Flycatcher was flitting from branch to branch of a young beech tree, making the soft call that they usually do near the nest. This call sounds like phew! phew! rather than their usual explosive Pizza!

Acadian nest 2016I searched for and found the nest in that young beech. The nest was disguised as a blob of wind-blown detritus caught on a twiggy fork about ten feet off the ground. Old brown oak bloom dangled from the blob. This is typical of Acadian nests—they’ll often have a long piece of dried grass or flower parts hanging below the supporting twigs. Perhaps that misleads nest predators like jays and crows into thinking this is only a piece of trash caught in the tree.

Acadian Flycatchers (Empidonax virescens) are small greenish birds with a pale eye ring and two pale wing bars. They like woods near water; our park fills the bill! No youngsters were visible in the nest’s shallow basket. Not wanting to spook the parent bird, I left the area but marked the spot. Yesterday I checked it again. An adult Acadian hung around and looked a bit anxious about my presence, but no heads popped up from the nest upon hearing the sweet phew call. Looks like the youngsters haven’t hatched yet.


A few years ago, I lucked into finding an Acadian nest visible from the Henson Trail boardwalk. When I found it, the female was still incubating the eggs, a job that’s boring but restful, I suppose.


When the babies hatched, I managed to get a few pictures of parents bringing food. As the babies got larger, the nest seemed as crowded as Metro at rush hour.


After a couple of weeks in the nest, the youngsters started “branching.” They were well on their way to getting ready for that long migration to the tropics in the fall.

May all this year’s flycatcher nests be as successful as that one was. Flycatchers, which eat mostly insects and other arthropods, are more than welcome. I hope this year they’ll be especially fond of mosquitoes.

Red-shouldered Hawks Leave the Nest!

Last weekend when I went to look at the Red-shouldered Hawks’ nest near Bel Pre Elementary School, I saw only one youngster standing in the nest. IMG_1365The second one could have been hunkered down, or dead, or (nicest answer) fledged already. The young hawk I saw then was almost ready to fledge. It looked strong and fully decked out in juvenile plumage.IMG_1366



I apologize for the quality of the photos, as my camera was at full zoom and I had to crop a bit. But as you can see, the young hawk’s chest feathers feature dark streaks on a creamy background. In fact, they’re pretty streaky everywhere. Adult Red-shouldereds have the shoulder patch that gives them their common name, plus a finely barred and streaked reddish chest.


This weekend, the nest was empty, but there was lots of hawk activity . I never saw more than a hurtling body, but the birds were calling almost constantly. My guess is that the young hawks are branching–flying from branch to branch as they learn to navigate that slippery element we call air. Big birds like hawks and owls need a lot of food to keep them flying, so their parents will still be feeding these inexperienced hunters long after they’ve flown the nest. Keep watching the skies—there could be a hawk in your backyard soon! Here’s a young one that graced our yard a few years ago.


Breeding Birds

If you have a House Wren or Gray Catbird singing in your yard, or hear a Wood Thrush caroling while you walk the Henson Trail, it’s a good bet there’s a nest nearby! First Fotos and Early Birds 042Avian migrants have passed through Montgomery County, so the birds who wake us up with their sunrise songs are species that breed here. This is the season of the Breeding Bird Survey. The BBS is a roadside bird count, an annual trek with stops every half-mile (totaling 50 stops) to listen, look, and note all birds seen and heard in exactly three minutes.

I participated in the survey as a volunteer counter for 20 years. Every spring, I spent a June morning recording birds at all my stops. My route, which crossed Montgomery County from east to west, was one of the original ones laid out in Maryland by the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in 1966. Scientists analyze the collected data to establish trends in bird status and develop conservation priorities.

Many changes were obvious over the years. The major one was development, of course. I grumbled, “I used to get Eastern Meadowlarks and Field Sparrows at this stop and now the fields hold town houses.” Traffic got worse, its noise masking birdsong. Lou, who was driving for me, now was tasked by the scientists to count all the vehicles that passed us.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe good news, though, is that people are noticing. More of us participate in citizen science with bird, butterfly, and amphibian counts, or monitor water quality, and we set aside land to be protected habitat. Even small neighborhood parks are benefiting. Long may American Goldfinches harvest seeds in our back yard and Wood Thrushes sing beside the Henson Trail!

Red Fox


This morning while we were eating breakfast, a squirrel came racing across our patio. In hot pursuit was a handsome red fox. The squirrel was there to harvest seeds dropped from our bird-feeders; the fox was there to seize his own breakfast opportunity. He might have been hunting for himself or he might have a mate and pups nearby.


Red Fox sketch by Diane Ford

The squirrel fled across the yard with the fox close behind. The chase ended at the foot of our big red maple. Stymied, the fox trotted back across our patio. He looked very healthy: his reddish fur was thick and glossy, his black legs were trim and springy, and his fluffy white-tipped tail was a thing of beauty floating behind him.

At the edge of the lawn, he lifted his leg on a clump of daffodils, rounded the blackberry bushes (no doubt planning to return when they hold ripe berries), and vanished into our small patch of woods. I hope this beautiful animal found some mice or voles or even a bunny for breakfast. If only there were such a thing as Purina Fox Chow!