Birdathon 2018

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.

Wood Thrush argument 2018 (1)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.B-g Gnatcatcher on nest 2018

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.

Magnolia WarblerDiane 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.Green Herons 2018

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!”

Beaver 2018We 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.

R-c Kinglet 2018Blue 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.Great Blue Heron, Riley's (1)

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!

Respectfully submitted,                                                        Illustrations by

Cecily Nabors                                                                        Diane Ford


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