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


Breeding Birds

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! First Fotos and Early Birds 042Avian 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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe 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!

Field Guides Forever!

Red-tail closeIt’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.

Black-crowned Night-Herons at the National Zoo

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. 2015-06-11 11.15.17

In contrast, brown-striped juveniles took short flapping flights among the branches. Kids always have more energy!2015-06-11 11.24.15

The zoo even feeds these wild birds. Some of the adults were hanging around the sign that advertised the daily demonstration of this generosity.

2015-06-11 11.33.39 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.2015-06-11 11.34.26

Our Exotic Visitor

Image 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. ImageA 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.ImageThe 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.

Image Peacock Train (1)

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.Image 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!