Saturday, December 6, 2008

Dyke Marsh in early December

When you see a raft of a couple thousand or more American Coots a few hundred yards out in the middle of the river, you have to wonder why one lone individual chooses to hang out with a few Mallards just feet from the shore. Is this bird a shunned outcast, a free thinker, or just a loner? Pondering that heavy question while shooting a few frames of the backside of this preening bird tested my multi-tasking skills. Fortunately, it stopped to glance in my direction occasionally.

It's not often that I see a coot head on and relatively close up, so I was struck by the knob called a callus at the base of its bill, a curious feature, indeed.

Ducks were plentiful on the river. More than 1,000 mostly sleeping Ruddies, but also Ring-necked, Lesser Scaup, Northern Shoveler, Canvasback, and yes, even a few Redhead ducks, joined the hundreds of Mallards. Did we miss a few species? Probably. Until the Christmas Bird Count to be conducted here on Dec. 20 requires it, scrutinizing every square yard of watery real estate to record the number of every last bird is just too much work on a relaxing day of birding. At least, for me it is.

A walk down Haul Road and a scan of the river at the Belle Haven picnic area on a pleasant, sunny, December day was made more enjoyable by the presence of three fine friends. We didn’t find the over 400 Horned Grebes that were reported just a few days previously, but we did spot a Tree Sparrow in the middle of the trail. This species, seen only in winter in our area, and then only irregularly, is always a kick to find. As distinctive as this species is, with its clear breast marked by a central spot, chestnut crown, strong white wing bars, and two-toned bill, I admit with appropriate humility that we called the bird a Swamp and then a Chipping Sparrow before settling on the correct ID. Below is an inferior digiscoped photo, a “placeholder” until, hopefully, a better one is produced later in the season.

Nothing is more fun than serendipity on such excursions, and a Common Yellowthroat filled the bill this day by chipping first and then providing a few brief glimpses as we peered from the boardwalk into the dried cattails. Late, but hardly a record-setting date for this species, Common Yellowthroats are usually seen on CBCs in the coastal plain.

Otherwise, it was the usual early winter fare, with this active Ruby-crowned Kinglet entertaining from low branches along the trail on the stretch through the forested area.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Eagle City

At last, I made it to Conowingo Dam at the peak of R & R season for Bald Eagles. I’ve been late to parties, including this one before, but this is one party not to be missed. What a spectacle! From November into January, eagles congregate here in northern Maryland, before the mature birds gradually disperse to breeding grounds where they spend about 5 months rearing another generation of magnificent raptors.

Conowingo Dam is a hydroelectric plant on the Susquehanna River spanning the Cecil and Harford County line. When electricity is generated, fish are sucked through the dam, providing a plentiful buffet for eagles, gulls, cormorants, and great blue herons, all present in impressive numbers. Even though the avian show is supposedly best when water is flowing through the dam, that couldn’t be demonstrated yesterday.

Eagles were everywhere, flying about, perching, squabbling, catching fish, dropping fish, stealing fish, eating fish,

and presumably, digesting fish, long before the dam even began operating at about 2 PM.

Are you wondering about numbers? Surely, November 29 must have been as good as it gets if you are impressed by high numbers of eagles. Although Rick Blom, prominent Maryland birder, died in 2002, an article he wrote on Conowingo still appears on the Harford County Bird Club web site. “It is not unusual to find 20 (eagles) in a single scan from November through February,” he said some six or a few more years ago. Yesterday, a single scan might have picked up three times as many, and a methodical count might have revealed well over 150. There are only eleven in the photo below--trust me, I'm not counting the two Black Vultures-- but this view was repeated many times as one scanned the far side of the river, the near side of the river, the transmission pylons, and the sky overhead.

The Bald Eagle is one of the most studied birds in North America and it also must be one of the most photographed.

Maybe it only seemed like most of the country’s photographers were on hand at the dam yesterday? Lots of families, casual observers, fishermen, and birders were there too, but the serious take-no-prisoner photographers stood out among the crowd in their camouflage jackets which matched the covers on their monster telephoto lenses. I tried to figure out how camo conceals much when the wearer is standing on the shoreline of a river, but no matter. Males outnumbered females in this group by 10-1, by my rough estimate, and that explains a lot. I tried to even out the gender imbalance a bit, by clicking away as fast as I could, even if my camera and I were not dressed for the part.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Carload of Coots

What else can you call it, unless you want to use a cruder phrase? From the shoreline of Occoquan Bay NWR this week I observed and counted 1,700 American Coots far out on the bay. I’ve been birding a mere 15 years, so I’m still learning every day, but I’ve never seen that many before. Yes, I counted 1,700 birds, not 1,699 or 1,701, just like this one I photographed three years ago. Hey, I counted them twice.

When I first got into birding and was told that people conducted surveys and counted all the birds they saw, I was astounded. I couldn’t imagine how it was possible. I had watched mixed flocks of birds fly by overhead, out of view in seconds. Along a trail, birds would fly past me and reappear a minute or two later up the road, or were they different individuals? In winter, I would peer through my spotting scope at large mixed rafts of waterfowl on rivers and bays, watching the personnel in constant motion, newcomers arriving, others leaving, sun glare blinding my view of many. I was certain that someone was pulling my leg. Surely, no one could ever get an accurate count of all these birds under such challenging conditions. But, before I knew it, I was involved in surveys myself and attempting this impossible task of counting birds, thinking, “How do I possibly do this?” Yet, I saw others doing it and assumed there was something I wasn't getting.

Fortunately, there are techniques to be learned along with the pitfalls to be avoided. eBird has a pretty good primer called Bird Counting 101 and 102 at (You have to register to access this site.) Yes, providing a rough estimate is often the best that you can do, but this still can be valuable information. Even if I was off by 200-300 in my coot count, the total number of considerably over 1,000 birds is more significant than only a couple hundred.

Christmas Bird Count season begins in a couple of weeks. A crash course or review in counting techniques might be might be good preparation.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Monticello Park, How Some of Us See It

Monticello Park, a stream valley with steep, wooded slopes, sits in the middle of a residential neighborhood in the heart of Alexandria. It is tiny, not much of a park, really. Oak, tulip poplar, ash, and maple predominate, but many of these trees are unhealthy and succumb with increasing frequency to drought, stress and, in some cases, the weight of ivy ascending their trunks. As they fall to earth, they often damage or destroy smaller, younger trees, which are losses the park can not afford.

Overrun with exotic, invasive plant species of many varieties, English ivy is the worst. It has escaped from adjoining backyards and blankets the forest floor on the park’s west slope. The stream is choked with pieces of scrap concrete, thrown in years ago by less-than-enlighted city engineers to slow the speed of the water during storms, but it only resulted in an acceleration of bank erosion. Urban runoff, flowing through a conduit pipe, regularly includes sudsy foam floating on the water’s surface, undoubtedly from the washing of cars nearby.

Yet, this park is, to the many of us who get it, a treasured place. We’re able to see much natural beauty still there. Perhaps the park’s struggle to cope with modern, urban life mirrors our own?

Many wildflowers still rise through the bed of ivy in the spring. Wild azalea and mountain laurel hang on as understory on the eastern ridge. This is our piece of wilderness, close to home, where we can make a connection to what is real and timeless.

We birders come here to see untamed life, wild birds in migration, and we’re faithful to these creatures who care not a whit about us. Migrant birds have an agenda, set for them eons ago. It is life or death for them every day. Our fascination with their beauty and their survival strategies never diminishes.

We are in their thrall, these tiny creatures, most weighing less than an ounce, yet capable of flying on their own power all the way to the tropics at night over vast expanses of land and water. They return to us in the spring and fall, nonchalant, or so it seems, as if this mind-boggling feat was nothing at all. They appear none the worse for the wear, always beautiful. We’re awestruck anew.

So, once again, we begin our speculation about the weather patterns that facilitated their journey, we try to fathom their habits in the park, their time schedules for visiting the stream to drink and bathe, how much they move about within the park, where they are when absent, how long they stay with us, what causes them to move on. But these are only human diversions, ways to pass the time as we scour the trees for a flash of vibrant color. The birds keep their secrets and our devotion.

Fall migration ended a few weeks ago, although the hardcore faithful kept a vigil until Nov. 14. A Winter Wren or two and a few White-throated Sparrows have populated he last pages of the books on fall migration, 2008.

Monday, November 17, 2008

My Barred Owl Photo

I received some happy news today. This photo of a Barred Owl that I digiscoped back in April of 2007 won first place in a photo contest at Prince William Forest Park. The image will be featured on this national park's 2009 annual pass.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Peregrine Falcon at Dyke Marsh

Peregrine Falcons are not uncommon in Northern Virginia. A pair successfully raised two young earlier this year on the American Legion Bridge, and in 2006, another pair produced young on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Sadly, the latter nesting ended in failure before the eyas could fledge. There are regular reports of a Peregrine in the Bailey's Crossroads area and only today, one was seen in the Ballston area of Arlington.

Still, seeing a Peregrine is always a thrill, if for no other reason than realizing that only 40 years ago the species had disappeared as a breeder from most of the eastern U.S. and parts of Europe. Its reproduction was harmed by the persistence in the environment of DDT and other chemical pesticides. The species made a strong recovery after the chemicals were banned and wildlife managers worked to restore the birds throughout their earlier range.

Yesterday, a Peregrine was seen from the boardwalk at Dyke Marsh by participants in the weekly Sunday morning walk. The Dyke Marsh wildlife preserve is located along the George Washington Parkway, just south of Alexandria. I thought the chances were slim that the bird would still be around today, but I don't need much motivation to take a stroll down Haul Road into the marsh. The bird was still there on a leafless tree on an island east of the boardwalk and remained there as long as I did, about 10 minutes. It was out of range of the 400 mm lens of my DSLR, but I had my digiscoping camera along and I popped it on my spotting scope and took a few shots. It didn't appear that the bird had been sitting right there ever since yesterday, as its very full crop indicated it had left to grab a bite to eat not long before I arrived.

In the middle of my shooting session, a jogger came bounding along, lost in his own thoughts and totally unconcerned about the excessive vibration he was producing. Vibration is magnified through the legs of a tripod and anyone observing nature with a spotting scope or using a camera on a tripod must stop and wait to accommodate a jogger. This particular jogger passed me and my digiscoping rig as if I was part of the scenery. Jogging on the boardwalk at nearby Huntley Meadows Park is prohibited and good signage makes that clear. What a shame that Dyke Marsh, a fragile wetland habitat, has no such regulation. Only a few yards to the west is the Mt. Vernon trail, ideal for jogging. The requirement that dogs be kept on leashes is regularly ignored and not enforced, so any ban on jogging would be similarly ineffective, I would think. A person with an unleashed dog soon followed the jogger onto the boardwalk. What else is new?

A view to the south from the boardwalk evoked the winter, soon to come, with geese, Green-winged Teal, and a couple of Pied-billed Grebes feeding.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Gravelly Point

Gravelly Point is a popular spot along the George Washington Parkway for watching planes take off from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Birders appreciate it as a spot that can be good for gulls, waterfowl, hawks, sparrows, and surprises. Last May, 20-30 Bobolinks stopped there for a few days.

Yesterday, a top local birder reported that he saw a Vesper Sparrow there. Birders are used to "one day wonders," but when another report came in this morning, I headed over there with high hopes that I might get lucky. I have no good photo of this species and have seen very few of them in my life.

The birding gods didn't smile on me, however. The Vesper Sparrow was said to be in the company of a Savannah Sparrow yesterday. I did see a Savannah today (photo above), just one, and it had no Vesper buddy. The only other interesting bird I saw was a Cooper's Hawk sitting atop some runway lights. You don't suppose.....

Friday, November 7, 2008

Occoquan Bay NWR

Occoquan Bay NWR has it all in the fall. Sparrows rule in October, of course, and while the sparrow show continues in November, late migrants and arriving winter residents can also be fun to find.

Where did I hear that fall color might not be too good this season? The yellows and reds were brilliant today, with sweet gum, red oaks, and maples showing off in bright sunlight.

Driving past the entrance a little before 8 AM, a small flock of Dark-eyed Juncos, the first I’ve seen this season at the refuge, caught my eye. They were actively foraging in the meadow grasses on both sides of the road. An immature Red-shouldered Hawk, present on almost every trip I've made this fall, was again perched on a limb of the big snag, to your left as you drive from the entrance to the parking lot. This is one spot where early morning light is superb for photography.

Near the parking lot a House Wren was vigorously chipping. As I caught a view, I wondered if it wasn’t departing our area a bit late, but apparently this species can generally be seen here in the Coastal Plain as late as Nov. 25.

I've been aware of reports of King Rails that were seen where Catamont Creek passes under Charlie Road, but until today, no reports were generated from me. Yes, today was my day. A rail in the creek! All I had was a two-minute back-lit view, but I relished all 120 seconds. The bird was mute this morning, although others have reported hearing it but not seeing it. I tried to salvage a back-lit photo, and my efforts are reflected below.

With temperatures rising to the 70s, butterflies and dragonflies responded, flying about like it was September. Even one spring peeper chirped along Easy Road. I saw at last 20 Eastern Buckeye butterflies, a handful of Orange Sulphurs, and a Pearl Crescent or two. A small red dragonfly wouldn't yield to identification and I watched two dragonflies of some other mystery species fly about the parking lot in the “wheel” position.

Orange Sulphur

Pearl Crescent, open and folded wings

Common Buckeye

Eastern Comma

Since waterfowl will soon be front and center when the wintering flocks build to great numbers on the bay, I stuck to birds of the meadows and marsh today, like this immature White-crowned Sparrow.

A few other birds that brought a smile to my face were Bald Eagle, Belted Kingfisher, Eastern Phoebe, Brown Creeper, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Cedar Waxwing, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Rusty Blackbird. I hope the Northern Harrier that I saw a few times during early October visits has not decided to move on to winter at another location.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Fall Day at Sky Meadows State Park

In 1991, Paul Mellon of Upperville, VA donated 462 acres, designated the Lost Mountain Bridle Trail Area, adding to two earlier donations he had made to the Commonwealth of Virginia for the development of Sky Meadows State Park near Paris, VA. On Sunday I stood in the middle of a rolling meadow which was once his farm, and took in the sweeping views of the mountains. Fall color was nearing its peak on a day with near perfect October weather. I had to wonder how it could be that I was the only person there?

Fog was dense when I arrived and didn’t lift until 9 AM or so. The landscape was blurred, muted, and stunningly beautiful.

Making my way along the Sherman’s Mill loop trail beginning behind the barn, I was on a search for sparrows. I was delighted to find the bridge crossing Gap Run rebuilt after a wash out out some while back. At last, the trail can accurately be called a loop again. An invisible coating of frost on the bridge ramps made using them impossible, so I had to resort to Plan B and climb up to the bridge by a judicious use of some of the bridge underpinnings.

The stream was gorgeous as shafts of sun broke through the fog.

Sparrows were plentiful, although the diversity was less than I had hoped for. Watching Savannah, Field, and Song Spparrows playing “king of the haystack” was amusing and gave me some opportunities to photograph them as I snuck around the haystacks unseen by my subjects.

Probably the most abundant sparrow that morning was the White-throated, particularly in the dense undergrowth near the stream. Its whistled song provided the background music for much of my walk. This tan-striped morph could be a male or a female. If it was the one singing, it would have to have been a male however, since only white-striped females sing. These sparrows form stable dominance hierarchies in winter flocks.

Eastern Towhees are delightful, colorful birds also favoring dense, scrubby growth. This one was willing to perch for a few moments and expose itself, revealing its eye color. This light or reddish brown color probably indicates that it is a first fall bird. The color should change to red in winter.

Crushing a seed with its bill, this Song Sparrow kept an eye on me. Certainly the most numerous of the sparrows that day, it’s a year-round singer, particularly in mild weather.

This pretty Swamp Sparrow wears the colors of fall year round. This species was quite easy to find by its loud, sharp chip note. Found commonly throughout the winter in Northern Virginia, they persist until fairly late in the spring when we are briefly treated to their reedy trill, as they prepare for departure to their breeding grounds.

Savannah Sparrows, particularly, seemed to love the haystacks, hopping around, challenging each other for desirable spots, or so it seemed. I love the way this species sometimes seems to assume a slightly erect posture, looking eager and curious. Savannahs are seen most often in small flocks in open habitats like this farm meadow.

I watched a Red-shouldered Hawk as it called from a solitary tree far out in the meadow. I regretted not bringing my digiscoping gear because I knew this bird was far out of the reach of my 400 mm lens. No sooner had that thought passed when it was flying directly toward me. With no time to check my camera settings, I just shot away and came up with this not-too-sharp photo.

Now leafless persimmon trees were hanging heavy with fruit. Judging from the seeds in fox scat at this time of the year, these mammals and probably others, relish these seasonal treats. The fruit looked lush and ripe and I knew/thought they were edible, so I stole a low-hanging one and took it home to eat. Although wonderfully fragrant as it entered my mouth, the fruit soon produced an unpleasant, scratchy sensation and no sweetness. It was a major, but thankfully not fatal, disappointment. I need to research when, how, and if to eat this native fruit.

When I returned to the parking area near the manager’s residence and barn at the end of the morning, only one person was preparing to ride their horse along the bridle trail. I had the 462 acres almost to myself that lovely morning. No Northern Virginia birder or hiker or horseback rider should miss this heavenly place in the fall. Thank you, Mr. Mellon!