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.
Cecily Nabors and Diane Ford