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! Avian 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.
The 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!
It’s the longest day of the year, the first day of summer, and a great time to be outdoors. With books. As a curious naturalist, I have field guides in my kitchen, on my desk, in my car and on my phone. Books on birds, dragonflies, grasses, butterflies, birds, trees, mammals, spiders, birds, ferns, flowering plants, non-flowering plants, insects, reptiles, and did I say birds? I love my field guides for their history (I still have some books that belonged to my parents) and for their up-to-date info and detailed pictures and keys that give me a chance to figure out what the heck I’m looking at. Here’s a link to a lovely essay on the joy of field guides by Helen Macdonald, the author of H is for Hawk.
On a recent hot June day, Lou and I went to the National Zoo. Besides visiting the usual suspects, we had a good time watching the wild Black-crowned Night Heron colony that roosts in the trees near the Bird House.
Only a few big sloppy nests were still being tended. Many adult birds, handsome in their formal black tail coats and snowy shirt fronts, stood around in heat-induced indolence.
In contrast, brown-striped juveniles took short flapping flights among the branches. Kids always have more energy!
The zoo even feeds these wild birds. Some of the adults were hanging around the sign that advertised the daily demonstration of this generosity.
The Black-crowned Night-Herons come back year after year to nest at the National Zoo. Their return is as welcome as that of the buzzards to Hinckley or the swallows to Capistrano, though not as well well-known. May all their flights continue.
This morning we had an exotic guest on our patio. A beautiful peacock (who roamed the neighborhood last year) paid his first visit since our long cold winter. He was an eye-catching sight amid the spring greenery and blooming narcissus. A barrel on our patio holds a bird feeder. The peacock stepped about the barrel, gleaning dropped seeds, trailing his long train behind him. Hunting for breakfast, he even investigated in the barrel itself. The little backyard birds fed at the feeder above him or flew past to other feeders. I wondered whether they felt any kinship with this super-sized intruder.The peacock had an aristocratic profile, with his large dark eye highlighted by a creamy stripe and a crescent-shaped patch of bare skin. His crest feathers had lost some of their tips but even so, they looked like a regal crown. The base of his glorious blue neck was bright green, the intricate designs of his wing coverts formed a black-and-white tapestry over his back, and when he stretched out his wing, we saw rich chestnut primary feathers.
The eye-spots on the feathers of his train surrounded each dark “pupil” with those colors and more. I wished for a peahen whose presence would cause him to truly strut his stuff on those large scaly feet, raising his train into a stiff and dazzling fan. But alas, his audience consisted only of two humans and three cats.
We were all crowded around the sliding glass door in the kitchen; the cats were half-scared and growling but as wholly fascinated as Lou and I. Lou stepped outside to scatter more seed. The peacock retreated through the patio garden to the lawn, but soon came back. By the time he finally wandered away, his crop was so full I wondered how he could turn his head.
Some mornings have a bit of magic about them….
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!