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.


The Buzzards are Coming! The Buzzards are Coming!

Ready for Buzzard Day? Got your pile of varmint innards ready to welcome the return of the buzzards? Well, no, me neither. In our area, the “buzzards,” aka turkey vultures, stay year-round. However, they do leave Ohio’s colder winters and travel to warmer climes. Hinckley, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, celebrates the vultures’ return with an annual festival on the Sunday closest to March 15, the traditional return date.IMG_1630

In 1989, Lou and I drove to Hinckley and participated in the Buzzard Festival. Lou called it “the biggest bird-walk in the country.” We scanned the state park system’s sandstone ledges, favored by the vultures as breeding sites. We rejoiced to see a few vultures gliding in teetering dihedrals across the spring sky. We enjoyed the pancake breakfast at the local elementary school, bought buzzard memorabilia, and laughed at kids’ drawings of traveling birds (one buzzard had a little suitcase labeled “Hinckley or Bust”). A special treat was meeting Geek, a turkey vulture from the Cleveland Zoo. He stretched his big black wings and allowed us a close-up look at his wrinkled and featherless red head. I wrote a travel article, “Buzzard Daze,” that was published in The Washington Post.

After that article was published, Lou and I enjoyed a short period of being considered vulture experts. We were delighted, as we do appreciate what vultures, nature’s clean-up crew, do for all of us. Shortly after that, on my fiftieth birthday, our friend Mary gave me a stuffed buzzard as a sign I’d become an S.O.B. (Sweet Old Buzzard). I named him Geek in honor of the real Geek. My Geek, a replica of an African vulture, is a charmer who lives on one of our bookcases.

IMG_1631I sold quite a few travel articles to The Post, and often was able to resell a published piece to another newspaper. The “Buzzard Daze” piece was a hard sell, though. No one wanted to reprint it. The editor at the Chicago Tribune even sent me a hand-written rejection. It said, “The Washington Post?? You’re putting me on, surely. Oh well. I’m not one for bird stories whether in San Juan Capistrano or Hinckley, Ohio. When do the bats return to Dracula’s cave?”

Undaunted by snickers or sarcasm, the Hinckley Buzzard Festival continues. This year, it’s on Sunday, March 15. The Hinckley Chamber of Commerce features the festival on their website, If you decide to go check it out, give the buzzards a special welcome for Lou and me.

A Fair Day

On Friday, August 16, we went to the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair and had a great time. We arrived a little late for the Birds of Prey show.

The raptor guy, Jason Caldwell, was talking about a hawk he held, I think a mixed breed. But at the back of the crowd as we approached was another man holding a hawk. It was dark brown with chestnut shoulder patches. Its white-tipped tail had a broad black stripe but was a bit ratty-looking from molt or agitation.  “That’s not a Harris’s hawk, is it?” I whispered to him. He turned and smiled. “Yes, it is a Harris’s hawk.” I felt pretty good, considering the last one I saw was in 1996 in Tucson with Lou.  The man, Howard Caldwell (Jason’s father) and his Harris’s hawk, whose name was Magic, were next on the stage.

Jason Caldwell holds a Barn Owl.

Jason Caldwell holds a Barn Owl.

Then followed a series of owls, as the two Caldwells explained plumages, behavior, and attributes. First was a lovely barn owl named Twilight, the only one I photographed as they were talking.

 The barred owl, Anastasia, was just growing back some molted head feathers. I wished she would call–she has my favorite owl voice. “Who cooks for you?” she would ask.

Anastasia the Barred Owl

Anastasia the Barred Owl

 Smallest was Gabriel, a little male red-phase screech owl. Biggest was a powerful great horned owl, Artie, who sports a talon-closure pressure of 500 pounds per square inch.

 The last bird they discussed was a red-tailed hawk, a grande dame of 22 years named Majesty.

Majesty, the Red-tailed Hawk

Majesty, the Red-tailed Hawk

Later, we went by their booth and I tried to talk them into teaching Birds of Prey in the Natural History Field Studies program. Because they live in West Virginia and are already very busy with presentations like this one and in avian abatement programs, Jason had to say it was very unlikely.

Look out, starlings!

Look out, starlings!

What’s avian abatement? For example, if you are having a problem with a huge flock of starlings that are eating all the supplementary feed you put out for your flock of sheep, you call the Caldwells.  They come out with a hunting hawk, the bird flies around a bit, and the starlings go elsewhere. Pretty neat.

Funnel cake has no calories.

Funnel cake has no calories, right?

We had beef BBQ for lunch (pretty good!) and then went and watched a beekeeper for a while. Wandered around among animal barns and then shared a funnel cake–yum! First one in a couple of years.

 After that, we strolled through some more barns, with pigs and piglets and sheep and sheeplets—oops, I mean lambs. That was fun.

Baby pigs snoozing with their siblings

Baby pigs snoozing with their siblings

Loved the pile of baby pigs all sound asleep with their mother snorting and grunting nearby.

Loved the teenaged Wilbur-pink pigs with their curly tails.

 At the Arena, we watched some young equestrians put on a show of precision riding, and then their older cohorts in a real “drill team” presentation. That was fun, too.

Young equestrians

Young equestrians

 On our way back from that, I said, “I want to see those longhorns up close,” so we went into the barn for the Texas longhorns. Wow. Majorly impressive. A very new little calf was being nuzzled and licked by her mama, and watched by the family’s teenaged owner. The calf was born that morning and was only about six hours old.

Mama Longhorn and her new calf

Mama Longhorn and her new calf

Farther down the barn, another teenaged boy was grooming a big brindled longhorn bull, who seemed to be enjoying it immensely. The boy would stop and hug the huge animal from time to time. To the boy’s mother, who was watching fondly, I commented, “He seems pretty proud of that big guy—he’s getting every hair to line up just so.” “Yes,” she said, “I wish he’d put some of that energy into cleaning his room.”

 More desultory looking around. Admired the award-winning photos, drawings, and crafts; mourned the flower arrangements, now sadly disheveled and droopy, not to say dead; and bought some alfalfa honey to take home.

The Montgomery County Agricultural Fair at sunset.

The Montgomery County Agricultural Fair at sunset.

We had another snack while we waited for the bluegrass concert, but when the time came, we found it had been canceled, so “Let’s go home,” said Lou. So we walked down the hill through the bustling, noisy, colorful carnival area to the exit gate and said goodbye to the Fair for this year.

Hurray for a great annual tradition, and hurray for no longer feeling obligated to ride on any carnival rides more stomach-churning than a merry-go-round!

Rejoicing in Publication

Few pleasures are more enjoyable for a writer than seeing one’s words in paid-for print. My article, “The Way to See a Life Bird,” came out this month in my favorite birding magazine, Bird Watcher’s Digest. It’s so lovely to look at the magazine rack at Barnes & Noble or at my local library and see the magazine there with my article in it!BWD

 My article discusses the decisions one makes about whether a bird seen for the first time qualifies to go onto the Life List, a topic that birders can debate hotly. A birder’s list is a personal thing, however. I wrote about my own rules, how I broke one once with a barely seen Varied Thrush, and how I redeemed myself with a glorious sighting of a Varied Thrush in full sun, singing his heart out.That’s the way to sVaried Thrushee a life bird!

 This is the fourth piece of mine BWD has published and each time it’s been a treat. They choose good photos to accompany the article and seldom make changes to my writing, so I have a lot to be thankful for. The magazine is still published by the family that founded it, all birders themselves, so over the years I’ve enjoyed reading about growing kids and family successes. Now I just have to come up with a topic for article five….

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!

What Makes It Really Spring?

Scientifically speaking, the first day of spring is the vernal equinox, when day and night are of equal length. However, a naturalist may have a more personal definition.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA For some, spring officially starts when the streaky red hoods of skunk cabbage poke out of a bog. For others, it’s when catkins of bloom dangle from birches, or when chimes of spring peepers ring out, or when bluebells adorn moist woodlands. I’ve sometimes declared it to be spring when I found my first Jack-in-the-pulpits, or a jaunty display of Dutchmen’s breeches, or the pristine white petals of bloodroot.

For many birders, though, Official Spring is marked by the return of an eagerly awaited avian migrant. When a special bird reappears, we feel that the great cycle of life is continuing as it should. And if the birds fulfill their promise to come back, surely we have an added chance at life, too.

Some people claim that the essential requirement for spring is hearing the high-pitched twitters of a woodcock’s wings in courtship flight. That doesn’t work for me; woodcocks are too hard to find these days. I want my spring guaranteed.

My friend Diane declares that it’s not spring until she hears or sees a Louisiana waterthrush. One April day when I was at Paint Branch, I heard the sharp call notes of that very bird. The waterthrush song always makes me smile, with its three slurred “now hear this” introductory notes followed by a mix of conversational phrases. The bird was investigating a boggy area near the creek. He lifted to a tree near me, threw back his stripy head, and sang and sang. Okay, I conceded, who could doubt that it was spring?

Naturally, we all celebrate the return of Eastern phoebes with their bobbing tails and quirky voices; yellow-breasted chats whose eccentric vocalizations issue invisibly from thickets; and Baltimore orioles, fiery bright, tossing melodies from the treetops. Their renewed presence, their music and beauty mean so much after a cold dark winter.

One April when I was at Great Falls, my heart knew it was spring when I saw that the eagle’s nest on Conn Island seemed safe from failure. A majestic parent eagle stood on the huge nest feeding a small dark downy fledgling. The youngster gobbled the parent’s offerings, then struggled over to the high rim of the nest, rested its head as if on a pillow, and went to sleep. The parent, with white head up and yellow eyes watchful, stood guard, while the little one napped in the warm spring sun.

In some years, I’m likely to say spring has arrived with the first sibilant song of a blue-gray gnatcatcher. I love to watch these little bright-eyed charmers as they flit about, flashing their long white-edged tails. They further endear themselves to me by using the orange bud-scales of beeches, my favorite trees, when they build their small round nests.

On an April day when I head for Rock Creek, a day when it’s warm and not windy, bright with sun and a descant of bird song, it’s hard to say which first-of-season bird embodies the true beginning of spring. I can’t choose among delightful options: a northern parula with those over-the-top buzzy notes coming from his brilliant yellow throat, a white-eyed vireo caroling a series of “Chick bury-o chick” songs atop a multiflora rose tangle, and a silent palm warbler with that constantly pumping tail.

As you can see, the bird that “makes it spring” for me is a variable consequence of mood and serendipity. There’s no rule. Rightness is all.

imagesSometimes spring clicks into place for me in an unexpected but thoroughly satisfying way. One early April day while I was in our woods engaged in the ongoing battle with garlic mustard and honeysuckle, I heard a familiar, lively song. I laughed with pleasure. It was our first spring catbird! I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed him. Dapper in his gray suit and black cap, he sang cheerful encouragement while I pulled up invasive plants.

Then a downy woodpecker complained about our empty suet feeder, so I lugged my bagful of weeds to the garage and brought out some suet. The little downy hung back. The first bird to enjoy the feast was my blithe companion, the catbird.

“Welcome home,” I told him. “Now, it’s Officially Spring.”