Birdathon 2020

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.

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.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

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.

Black-and-white Warbler

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.

Barn Swallows

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.

Double-crested Cormorant

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….

Broad-winged Hawk

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.

Lesser Yellowlegs

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.

Semi-palmated Plover

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.

Respectfully submitted                                                  

Cecily Nabors and Diane Ford                                                                       

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


Birdathon 2013


We hoped for a “ducky” day!

Sunday, May 5, was our ANS Birdathon day for Diane Ford and me.  Diane is a birder and a bird artist; she did these sketches. Thanks, Diane!

By the time Diane got to my house at 7:30, I had 17 bird species on my backyard list. She added the ones she’d seen or heard as she was driving through Rock Creek Park, which brought us to 32. The weather forecast was for a partly cloudy day, highs in the mid-60s—a good day for birding, but cool for this time of year.

We knew I’d be doing less walking this year because of my bad knee. We tried to “bird smarter”: we’d make every birding site do its best and then we’d be back in the car.

Our first stop was Aspen Hill Park, whose trail along Rock Creek was popular early—several gaggles of runners passed us. The song of a Common Yellowthroat cheered us with a promise of other warblers. In turn, we cheered a newly arrived Yellow-throated Vireo singing his lazy song in a creek-side sycamore. The sibilant calls of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers attracted our attention, and Diane found their lovely lichen-decorated nest.


Osprey and prey

Diane left the path to investigate an interesting song. When she returned, I pulled out my cell phone with Sibley’s birding app, and she confirmed that it was a Blue-headed Vireo. There are times when technology is really great.

Next stop: Lake Needwood. As I was parking by the Visitor Center, “Ooh!” said Diane and took off as soon as the wheels stopped. Ah, an Osprey! The beautiful big bird perched on a bare branch above the lake, eating a fish and fending off pesky crows.

We wasted some time trying to pull a non-existent Worm-eating Warbler out of a flock of Yellow-rumps, but did get a Chipping Sparrow, Barn Swallow and Eastern Bluebird from the dam area. Then it was time for the pause that refreshes. This was lucky, as near the porta-potty we heard a special bird—a Scarlet Tanager. He was very close. We pursued, and Diane got him in her scope. Oh, my, he was spectacular. “A maraschino cherry,” Diane pronounced.


Scarlet Tanager

The water in the “five finger” end of the lake was too deep for shorebirds this year, but we did find our usual Northern Rough-winged Swallows. A tradition upheld.

Now for Blue Mash. We were met in the lot at 10:50 am by a burst of song from a Common Yellowthroat.  As if they and the Yellow Warblers we found nearby had contrived to challenge the sun, its orb finally broke through the clouds. Tree Swallows were calling, flying, and mating; the first Turkey Vulture was up, and the warming air brought forth the scent of honeysuckle.

The big pond was a washout, so to speak, so Diane went on through the park to the small pond while I returned to the car to rest my knee and keep my ears open. In this “divide and conquer” mode, we texted each other with our discoveries, and had to laugh when simultaneous texts reported White-eyed Vireo on both sides of the park.

We made our usual stop in Olney for drinks, a tick check, and a recount. As we headed out to the western part of the county, our total stood at 63 species, only three less than in 2010, our record-setting year (90 species total).


Five-lined Skink

I pulled into the Riley’s Lock parking lot at 1:30. The day had become lovely and warm; we grabbed our lunches and joined the other people enjoying the outdoors. We spent our first ten minutes watching five-lined skinks and a big black rat snake along with the little boys who were fishing in Seneca Creek.


Prothonotary Warbler

We had barely started on our sandwiches when a loud SWEET SWEET  SWEET rang out from the turning basin—a male Prothonotary Warbler was calling us. Well, not us, exactly, but we ran anyway, and there he was, golden yellow and gorgeous, singing near his nesting box. He was one of our target birds for this part of the canal, so we were thrilled. We crammed in some lunch and started walking the towpath; a bullfrog called his deep notes, turtles were basking, and sweet cicely (no relation) was blooming. Three more Prothonotaries sang—it was a very good year for Prothonotaries!


Mama Wood Duck and family

We walked and walked, but couldn’t find any Wood Ducks, either, though I’d seen some there just a few days before. I was achy and ready to turn back, but some fellow birders rode up on their bikes and said they’d seen Wood Ducks farther along the canal, a female with eleven babies. “Eleven babies!” I said, and the aches diminished right away. Of course we had to find that family, and fast. The scene we found was worth every step. The calm and lovely mama duck swimming amid her eleven (yes!) fluffy little ducklings was such a sweet sight.

And our extra walk was rewarded further by an elusive song that we struggled to identify. Tentatively we decided it was not a Louisiana Waterthrush but a Yellow-throated Warbler, tried the Sibley songs on my cell phone and were confirmed. High fives!

On our way back to my car, we paused to watch a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher pulling out beakfuls of tent caterpillar silk. Another lovely nest must be in progress.


Opportunistic Rock Pigeon

After a short trip out River Road (extended) where we lucked into a Kentucky Warbler singing down-slope, we parked at Sycamore Landing Road. To my astonishment, a Rock Pigeon flew over to land on my car. Feathers were missing on its head and neck, but it was obviously delighted to see its new best friends. Diane cooed to the bird (she has 16 pigeons of her own at home) and we found some bread and cracker crumbs to give it. The pigeon was doubtless very sorry to see us leave.


Wood Thrush

We made one more stop on Sycamore Landing Road, where the scent of blooming autumn olive was strong. But it’s not a good year for Yellow-billed Cuckoo, which we always hope to see here or at Riley’s Lock. Perhaps they are not back yet. I finally heard my first Wood Thrush of the year, Diane found an American Redstart, and we drove off to Hughes Hollow.

The usual vocal Red-winged Blackbirds and zooming Tree Swallows were omnipresent. We got our first Great Blue Heron and tried hard for a Barred Owl we were told had called up-river, but it was just too far for me to walk. Diane planned to walk the dike along the impoundment to check for coots and grebes, but a family of Canada geese blocked the way—the first baby geese we’d seen.

I phoned Lou and told him we were on our way back, but as I was talking to him, I had to report a short delay. Another mama Wood Duck had swum into sight with six irresistible babies. When they vanished into the spatterdock, we called it a day, a lovely day, and headed home, birding all the way.

So here’s the summing up: 85.3 miles driving, 4.9 miles walking, 11.5 hours birding, and 75 species of wonderful birds.  Thanks very much to our sponsors for supporting the conservation and education activities of the Audubon Naturalist Society.



Black-crowned Night-Herons by Diane Ford, Birdathon 2010

Yesterday was a day of “legalized leisure,” if walking for miles to find birds can be called leisure. To benefit the Audubon Naturalist Society, I did a Birdathon with my birder buddy, Diane Ford. We were out all day, trying to see as many species of birds as possible. Today I’m working on the report to our sponsors. It will be illustrated by Diane’s drawings, such as the one here. The report will highlight an appetizing tanager, an over-achieving wood duck, and a down-on-its-luck pigeon. Stay tuned!