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Friday, March 31, 2006

Return to New Michigan

The Red Crossbill is my arch-nemesis. I devoted more time to looking for this bird than any other species and it has still eluded me. I have looked in places where it is regularly seen. I have talked to people who have "just seen it!" only to find silence when I hustle to the spot. It is my Atlantis, my bigfoot...and I'm sick and tired of it.

The target location for these birds has been the New Michigan State Forest in Pharsalia, NY. This large forest of white pine plantations and scattered spruce stands has been reliable year-round territory for red (and, often, white-winged) crossbills and was also, coincidently enough, one of the forests that I had to cover in my summer job as a wildlife photographer for the NY DEC (Resulting in the The New Michigan link, above). It seemed to be destiny.

But it wasn't. I searched the forest looking for crossbills, with good directions from local crossbill experts, FOR 7 MORNINGS without luck. Once I saw a few birds take off from the top of a spruce, I'm sure they were crossbills, but they left before I could identify. Another time, I came upon another birder who was 'just passing through' on her way to Syracuse and had just had great looks at the birds. Still, they eluded.

This is all a long way of saying that I'm going to be back at New Michigan this Sunday. Back, with a vengeance. I'm visiting Kate at Hamilton and Pharsalia is hardly out of the way. I will not be denied. Wish me luck.
Thursday, March 30, 2006

I and the Bird and I

I and the Bird is a blog carnival for bird enthusiasts. Each week it is hosted by a different blog and this week one of my postings (the Point Pelee trip) has been selected to appear on the Boostrap Analysis edition. Go check it out...there are some great posts.

District Patrol 3/30/06

My Eyes Would Be Red, Too, If I'd Flown Up Here This Early
A month-early Red-Eyed Vireo was reported in Patapsco State Park, Baltimore County, MD (50 minutes from DC).

Waterthrushes. Waterthrush? What's the plural of Waterthrush?
Regardless, individuals of the Louisiana Waterthrush species are being reported with frequency from Virginia. Birds have been seen at Riverbend Park in Great Falls (43 minutes from DC) and Gloucester, VA (3 hours from DC).

Shorebird Sightings
The Glossy Ibis at Kenelworth Aquatic Gardens (like, 5 minutes from my house) has apparently moved on.
But lots of other waders have been sighted in the area, including Pectoral Sandpipers at Dyke Marsh in Virginia (22 minutes), Greater Yellowlegs, Dunlin and Snipe at Swan Harbor Farms in MD (1hr 24min away) and little gulls (ok not waders...) were seen on Maryland's Black River (I think these are the right directions, but the post was unclear...anyway its an hour away).
Wednesday, March 29, 2006

DC Birder Profiles

As you may have noticed, there have been some changes to the site. Another sidebar added means a little less scrolling and a little more room for links and such. Some more edits to come.

Along with the new look is a new feature that I hope to post at least once a week. I haven't been birding long, but I've been at it long enough to realize that although two birds may look the same, every birder is unique. Everyone's got their stories to tell and their boasts to boast. So, in an effort to facilitate a forum for these stories as well as get a little bit more personal with the DC birding community than MDOsprey posts, I've put together a list of questions to ask DC-area birders. The first is Mr. Tom Marko. Tom and I emailed back and forth the other day about DC kestrel sightings and his friendly e-demeanor and obvious birding skills made his a worthwhile first candidate (guinea pig!) for my questions. Tom, thanks for answering.

Birder Profile: Tom Marko

Name: Tom Marko
DC Location: Bureau of Medicine & Surgery, 23rd & E Streets, NW
Profession: Health Program Specialist
Years Birding: 4+
Lists: World-614, ABA-452, Maryland-234, Montgomery County, MD-184, Blue Marsh-145, Backyard-51, Roosevelt Island, DC-99
Field Guide: National Geographic & Sibley
Optics: Swarovski SLC 10x50 & Pentax Spotting Scope PF-80 ED w/20-60x eyepiece
Birding Organizations: American Birding Association (ABA), Montgomery County Bird Club (a chapter of the MD Ornithological Society), Audubon Naturalist Society, American Bird Conservancy

Favorite Bird: Puerto Rican Tody
Least Favorite Bird (c'mon we've all got one): European Starling
Bird You'd Most Like To See But Haven't: Elegant Trogon
Wish You Were Better At Identifying: Sandpipers & Gulls

Favorite DC-area Birding Location: Lunchtime walks on Roosevelt Island
Favorite non-DC Birding Location: Blue Marsh Trail, Montgomery County, MD
Best DC-area Sighting: A Bald Eagle soaring over the Potomac River with the Capital dome in the background
Missed Opportunity: Not seeing a Gray-crowned Yellowthroat at the Sabal Palms Sanctuary (Lower Rio Grande Valley, TX) during a May 05 visit
Fondest Remembered Single Day: 20 Apr 03 - While hiking a hilltop trail on a clear, crisp, sunny morning in the Maricoa State Forest in Puerto Rico, I happened upon a Puerto Rican Emerald perched on a branch. Upon rounding the next bend, a Red-Tailed Hawk soared from its perch down into the valley below enabling me to see the hawk’s red tail from above. This quick contrast between the elegant hummingbird and majestic hawk perfectly illustrated the diversity of birds, perhaps the primary reason I’m attracted to bird watching.

Birder Profile: Nick Lund

Name: Nick Lund
DC Location: Capital Hill, near Lincoln Park
Profession: Intern, Democratic Staff of the House Science Committee
Years Birding: 1
Lists: ABA-202, DC-52
Field Guide: Sorry Roger Tory, I've switched to Sibley.
Optics: Nikon Owl II

Favorite Bird: American Oystercatchers for aesthetics. BC Chickadees for personality.
Least Favorite Bird (c'mon we've all got one): American Robins. I mean, they're cool and all but they're everywhere and always look like something more interesting.
Bird You'd Most Like To See But Haven't: Albatross. Whole life soaring over the open ocean? Badass.
Wish You Were Better At Identifying: Sparrows

Favorite DC-area Birding Location: Occoquan, but Anacostia Park and KAG are close behind.
Favorite non-DC Birding Location: Evergreen Cemetery, Portland ME
Best DC-area Sighting:The Dulles Snowy Owl
Misseopportunityty: Too many already. Painted Buntings, Varied Thrush, Western Tanagers in Maine. Buntings and Longspur in DE. LBB Gulls everywhere.
Fondest Remembered Single Day: 11/6/05 Milford, Conn. Saw Oystercatcher, Bittern and Monk Parakeet in about 20 minutes.
Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Optical Allusions

The most important piece of equipment a birder takes into the field (uh, well, usually the only piece of equipment) is his optics. The math is simple: Birds = small. Birds + Binoculars = Big. Easy enough...just don't forget to carry the one. What the heck am I talking about.

Oh yeah, optics. So, the most common piece of optics are binoculars. The word comes from Latin "bini" meaning 'two' and "oculars" meaning 'eye-related'. The Romans were pretty straightforward people (who were also adept at naming things that hadn't been invented yet - binoculars were invented in 1825 by J.P. Lemiere). There is a whole lot of complicated science behind how binoculars work, but all any birder really needs to know is that you put them to your eyes and see things far away. It's magic for all I care.

There are a few things that a birder does need to know, however, before throwing down some cash. First, magnification. This is simply how much bigger the thing your looking at is going to get when you look through the binoculars. This number usually ranged from 6 to 10 and is the first number when you see the, say, 7x50 designation. Cool? The second number is the aperture. This is the size, in millimeters, of the front (facing out) lens. The theory is that the larger the aperture, the more light it will gather and the more detail and clarity will be provided (for SLR photographers this will ring bells). Read a lot more about binocular tech here.

The other factor is the design. There are two basic styles, the porro prism and the roof prism. As far as I can tell from websites like this, the roof prism is only good for being more waterproof and more expensive. I'm sure there are other details but that's all I've got.

I got my first pair of binoculars for 8 bucks at the Ritz Camera in the Sangertown Square Mall in New Hartford, NY. I think they were Quantaray...nice reverse porro prisms with bright orange lenses and probably 7x25. They were awesome. They fit in my pocket, were light as a feather and gave me a crisp picture. I carried them with me every day during my job in the woods this summer, until they fell out of my pocket in a swamp one day (I didn't realize until I was back at the truck. They were so light!). R.I.P. Little Fellas.

The Binoculars I rock now have been in my family since I was a wee boy. They are Nikon Owl II (although this page is for 'reconditioned' models...mine are the real deal from the 80s). I like these binoculars, too. 7x50 gives me a lot of space to look at, but I wish they were a little stronger for their size. I like their heft, though, it makes me feel like an explorer or something.

The only binoculars I dont like, and by dont like I mean HATE, are folding roof prisms, like these. Binoculars like these have two independently moving scopes and are SO IMPOSSIBLE AND ANNOYING TO ADJUST AND FOCUS THAT IT MAKES ME CRY. I really can't stand them. Following a flying bird is hard enough without having to adjust 40 different knobs and settings. If you want small binoculars, get porro prisms. Stay away from these.
Sunday, March 26, 2006

Anacostia Park

Well Kate left this morning and I found myself with some time on my hands. Considered an offer to go watch basketball with some friends off the Courthouse Metro, but I figured by the time I got over there the game would be over (although I probably should have gone just to celebrate the GMU victory. DC is popping tonight...while the rest of the country is mourning their destroyed brackets. Including me) and plus I had a lot of bachelor things to do...laundry being the most important.

Anyway, I thought I would take an hour or two and go to the Anacostia Park to look for some new birds, namely the Caspian Terns that have been reported there. There are also Lesser-Blacked Backed gulls and Peregrine Falcons in the area, so I felt that my chances were good of seeing something new. The park itself is pretty cool. Long and thin, it stretches the entire southern shore of the Anacostia as it runs from swampland (Kenilworth [Kenelworth? I've seen it spelled several different ways...] Aquatic Gardens included) down to the Potomac. There are lots of green areas, several fields filled with soccer-playing youngsters and places to fish and relax by the water (which, unfortunately, looks pretty polluted and trashy).

There are also a lot of birds, seagulls mostly. I got a lot of good views of seagulls and cormorants in the river and on the far shore from the road and its many pull-outs. Wasn't seeing much, though, mostly Ring-Bills and Herrings. I went as far up-river as I could go (to the parking lot near the railroad bridge) when I saw a large black-headed gull in the water. I knew right away that I had never seen this species before, as it was much larger than a Bonaparte's, and the dark underwings and glint of a red bill gave it away as a Laughing Gull. Pretty good bird to start things off.

On my way to the other end of the park I saw a large raptor soar just over the trees and immediately saw it an Osprey, another good bird, I thought, this close to the city. Another fly-by, this time in front of the Park HQ, was a red-shouldered hawk.

About ready to leave, I turned out of the large gravel dump (or something, I dont know what it is) at the southern end of the park. The terns were last seen at a "gravel area" and I assumed that this was it, but they weren't around. Just as I was leaving, though, a large bird with a pointed tail flew overhead. I looked at first glance like a gannet, but didn't have the right colors. I stopped quickly and got my binoculars up in time to get a good look at a Caspian Tern, another first for me. I was very surprised at just how big this bird was, bigger than most gulls.

Good times at Anacostia Park, I'll make sure to head back sometime to finally find a Lesser-Black Backed Gull or to look for that Neotropic Cormorant if it ever shows up again. For now, though, I'm happy with two new birds and some clean laundry.
Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Big 2-0-0

I'll get to that in a second.

Kate and I have always sort of competed over the red-headed woodpecker. We both agreed that it was a beautiful bird and, since it was uncommon enough for sightings to be unreliable, we teased each other out loud about who would see it first. It was fun for awhile...but she never really had a chance. One day in January I rolled up on the National Arboretum, took one look through the windshield, and dialed Kate to gloat. Good times. She still wanted to see one, though, and while she was visiting this week I wanted to take her over. 2 seconds out of the car at the parking lot by the Capital Columns and there he was, perched like a champion on the tallest tree on the hill. Best damn bird in the city.

Afterwards, Kate went shopping with some ladies and I went to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens to look for the rusty blackbirds and fox sparrows that had been reported there. I had a good feeling when I got there because there were birds absolutely everywhere. Trees, bushes, ponds, swamps, dirt and, as one would expect, the air. I started down the river trail (I think that's what it's called...the one where you walk for like a mile and expect it to loop around but instead you have to walk all the way back) and after just a few minutes startled a large group of blackbirds into the trees. A look through the binoculars confirmed my ID...Rusty Blackbirds. My 200th bird! There will be wine and spirits all around! A spectacular feast!

(The picture didn't come out so hot...whatcanyado)

It's good to finally get that over with. The rest of the trip was good, I saw a glossy ibis in one of the ponds, an early migrant in these parts. There were also some shorbirds in the middle of the big swamp at the end of the boardwalk that I couldn't identify that definitely weren't snipe or killdeer. Maybe I'll go back tomorrow and try for 201...

[Final note: what does a guy have to do to see a goddamn Fox Sparrow? I've looked everywhere. One day...]
Friday, March 24, 2006

This Just In!

I just checked my email after posting a District Patrol like 2 minutes ago and saw that the woman who wrote the post about the Protonotary Warbler had reconsidered and changed her ID to a Pine Warbler. False alarm.

District Patrol 3/24/06

It's been awhile, lets get up to date on sightings in the DC area.

Out-Foxed Again
Kennelworth Aquatic Gardens (like, .2 miles from DC) hosted my new archnemisis Fox Sparrows. I remember the first time I went to Biddeford Pool in Maine I saw a sparrow that I thought was a fox sparrow but wasn't good enough at IDing sparrows to tell for sure (I still struggle...). I bet it was, though. Since then I haven't seen one even though everyone else on the planet including dead people has seen one. INFERNAL CREATURES! Also at KAG were brown thrashers, black ducks, eastern tohee and the usual suspects.

Early Warbler
There was a report of a Prothonotary Warbler in at a feeder in Reston, VA (about 30-40 minutes from DC...but probably like 232543 minutes in traffic). The reporter was confident with the ID, but another poster wondered if it was a Pine Warbler instead. DRAMA! [Side note: 'Prothonotary' is a wicked sweet word. The bird got its name from certain court officials, Prothonotaries, that wore yellow robes. How cool is that? The best bird names are definetly the ones named after people they look like (i.e. the Cardinal, Africa's secretary bird [named because the feathers sticking out of their head look like pencils in a secretary's hair]) rather than just their plumage (Yellow Warbler, Black-Throated Blue warbler...BOOOOORING). When I become president of the ABA I'm going to take every bird named after it's plumage and rename it something cool. For instance, the Hooded warbler will become Ski-Mask Warbler and the Golden-Winged Warbler will become the Water-Wing Wabler. Doesn't that sound much better?]

Finally Caught his Plane?
The celebrity Snowy Owl (seriously, if 2005-1006 DC area birding was a baseball team, the Dulles Owl would be our cuddly mascot) hasn't been seen since March 16, probably because it finally got a ride on the Washington Flyer and got to West Falls Church (I paid 16 bucks for a round trip WF ticket two weeks ago only to find out that it stops running at 1015. A 30 dollar cab ride to WFC Metro later, I'm stranded because the metro stops at 1130. Good lord. I hate Dulles and I'm never going there again.). Goodbye, young Owl, it's been fun.

Other than that it's been pretty quiet around here. People are very ready for migration, myself included.
Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Bird Question!

A sighting of a rare Townsend's Warbler posted on MDosprey on March 11 got me athinkin'. This bird was seen and identified (and beautifully photographed) one morning at a park in Montgomery Co., MD. After that first viewing, however, subsequent visits to the park could not relocate the bird.
I started thinking about how rare it was for this bird, normally of the west coast, to turn up in Maryland and how rarer still it is for someone to have found it. My question is, then, how many of these rare wanderers are not found? How many Townsend's wablers end up in the yard of a non-birder or someone on vacation instead of someone who watches their feeder? I would venture a guess that only about 10 percent of out-of-place birds are caught. What do you think?
Tuesday, March 21, 2006

#1 - Point Pelee, ON May 16-17, 2005

I almost feel bad that Point Pelee, one of the most famous birding locations in America, was my number one birding experience of the year. Where's the fun in that? Why don't I just root for the Yankees? Well I hate the Yankees. But, for a number of reasons, I loved Point Pelee.

Let me set the scene for you. Young man. College senior. Had just recently begun seriously IDing birds and had already been taken by the excitement of it to the point that most all his free time was dedicated to birding (to the chagrin of his girlfriend, friend and grades). While researching good American birding locations, he keeps coming across Point Pelee, a spit of land jutting into Lake Erie that, during migration ('right now!' he tells himself), is overrun by migrating birds exhausted from the non-stop flight across the lake. His eyes light up and his mind tumbles over the possibilities. He must go.

So there I was. It was a mission. I somehow managed to talk Kate into going with me and not only that, but in her SUV (so we could sleep in it. How could she refuse such a romantic offer?). So one weekend we got into the car, told the roommates we were going camping* and headed west.

[*Funny Story: At this early point in my birding I was reluctant to tell my friends of my new passion because they would consider me, with justification, a dork. So when I set off to Pelee, I said we were camping, and all was well...for a while. The day we left happened to be the same day the State of NY introduced raised toll rates on I-90. While Kate and I were eating lunch at a Burger King reststop less than an hour away from school, we noticed a young reporter interviewing patrons about the toll hikes and writing down their responses. The gears of my keen English major mind began cranking, and I waited for her to come to our table, which she did. She asked us a few questions; our names, where we were on route to, and then I dropped my witticism...to which there were several strained chuckles. Fast forward to Monday morning, back on campus, when my roommate shows me an article on the front page of the Sunday paper. The last paragraph read:"Nick ___, who was on his way to Ontario for a birdwatching trip, said about the price increases: 'it's only a few cents, but over time it really begins to take its toll.'" "So," said my roommate, "When did you become a dork and start birdwatching?"]

Anyway, Kate and I pulled in late to a campground near Point Pelee, had a terrible nights sleep in the back of the car, and made our way to the National Park early the next morning. Not early enough, though, as there were only a couple parking spaces left when we arrived. There were birders, and birds, everywhere. Scopes and binoculars and cameras and people. For some, all this commotion would have detracted from the experience. I've since read things about how Point Pelee is in danger from too much human activity. For an amateur birder like me, however (I was studying warblers in the car like I had a final exam), it was perfect. Thousands of birds were in the trees and everyone was there to help with identification. What's that you say? An orange-crowned warbler? Never heard of it! Thanks for the help!

Birders, I quickly learned, relished being the first to correctly ID a tough bird, and when they did they were sure to let people know about it. You could hear them shouting through the trees. Bay-Breasted! Black-Throated Green! It was the same at the actual Point, a tiny sliver of sand that was covered in shorebirds. One guy was in complete control, leaning back with his arms folding and spotting birds before anyone else. Ruddy Turnstones! Black Tern! All I had to do was sit there and soak it up. (A personal highlight was IDing an orchard oriole and having a herd of scopes and cameras fall in behind me. Great times.)

Kate and I covered the park from end to end. So many birds of so many species in such a small area was amazing. Firsts for me in the woods included: Bay-breasted, orange-crowned, black-throated green, black-throated blue and yellow-rumped warblers, yellow-throated vireo, white-crowned, white-throated, song and tree sparrows, blue-grey gnatcatcher and more. At the point I saw ruddy turnstone, sanderling, dunlin, common and black tern, bonaparte's gull, GBB gull, SemiPalm sandpiper and plover. Later, at the fields outside the park there were american golden and black-bellied plover. Nearby were sandhill crane, white pelican, horned lark and short-billed dowitcher. In all Kate and I tallied over 100 species, over 50 of them new. It was the most exciting two days of birding I've ever had, without question.


It's been a great first year of birding. I've looked for birds every single time I've been outside, whether I was in Maine or Ontario or Delaware or Nevada or Indiana or New York or DC. It will sure as hell be a tough year to top, but I'll love trying.

Last Minute Attempts

Today is the one year anniversary of my first official bird identification, a Northern Shoveler in Fort Wayne, IN. Today, 365 days and 199 species later, I have one last chance to get to the 200 milestone...but I'm at work.

But there is still hope! During an hour-long evacuation exercise (I love Capitol Hill) I got the chance to walk around the pond in front of the Capitol Building and the Botanical Garden. I kept my eyes peeled. Likely species were: Lesser Black-Backed Gull, Peregrine Falcon, Fox Sparrow...uh...Rusty Blackbirds...um...and maybe a stray warbler? I was prepared for anything.

Checked the pond. Just ring-billed gulls and mallards. Those birds feeding in the grass? Starlings and robins. That flash in the sky, a Peregrine? Nope, mourning doves and rock pigeons. What's that streaky breasted sparrow? Songs. That flash of red in the trees in front of the Botanical Garden? House Finches. Granted 11 species (including the ubiquitous House Sparrows, Northern Mockingbirds and 2 Canada Geese) in a downtown block in 10 minutes is pretty good, but none of these were new.

Last last last ditch effort is an after-work hustle to the Tidal Basin to catch some LBB Gulls in the sunset. Wish me luck.
Monday, March 20, 2006

#2 Montezuma NWR

As soon as I began to ID birds, the search for a good birding spot near Hamilton College was on. The Glen was good, but only offered northern woodland birds. The Rome Sand Plains were intriguing (I saw my first ruffed grouse and rose-breasted grosbeak there) but not substantial. The Utica Marsh was nice...but it was in Utica.

I soon stumbled across the Montezuma NWR, a wetlands complex about an hours drive west on I-90. It wasn't until May 9th when I was able to go...and I was completely unprepared for what I saw. As such a novice birder I was unfamiliar with exactly how many birds are involved in migration in May. Montezuma's position on the northern end of Cayuga Lake, one of the Finger Lakes, makes it a perfect last-stop for birds, especially waterfowl, about to head further north. During the spring, geese, ducks and waders gather in huge numbers.

When I first got to the park (you can see the main pool from I-90...but then you have to drive 10 more excruciating minutes before you actually get off the exit and to the entrance) I saw this waterfowl migration in full effect. Canvasbacks. Thousands of them. All facing the same direction, into the wind, like boats in a harbor. I had never seen a canvasback before (if I had ever even heard of one) but suddenly here were thousands. And red-heads (Peterson said 'uncommon!'), and wood ducks, and black ducks, and ruddys, and scaup, and teal, and merganser, and ring-necked and pintail and mallard. Unbelievable. Close to shore paddled coot and moorhen and pied-billed grebe. Canada Geese covered the road, while purple martin and barn swallows swooped all around.

Off the main pool, just a ways down the road, was a completely different habitat. Along nicely mowed paths were wooded fields where I saw my first warbler (a Yellow), song and savannah sparrows, bobolink, kingfisher, bluebird, baltimore oriole, kingbird, phoebe and red winged blackbird. I felt like some actor from The Sound of Music, running around the fields with my arms spread wide. That's what finding a good birding spot can do for you, and I visited Montezuma probably 6 times over the course of the summer. BUT none of those times, not even the first, matched the best birding experience of the year. That'll have to wait til tomorrow...
Sunday, March 19, 2006

#3 Evergreen Cemetery, Portland, Maine

Ok I know what you're saying: "Isn't this a DC blog? Can you please stop talking about Maine?" Yeah well look, I've only been living in DC a little while and when I get more things to say about birding here, I'll let you know. Until then, just bear with me, word? Alright. Well read this post and you'll get the inside track on probably the best birding site in Southern Maine, Evergreen Cemetery in Portland. It's not far from the city, isn't particularly natural or outdoorsy, but has given me better looks at warblers that anywhere else, including Point Pelee.

The first time I remember going to Evergreen, I was probably 14 and running in a race on Halloween. The race was only 2 miles long, but my breathing was seriously obstructed by the tiny mouth-hole on my 'hilarious' plastic wonder woman mask I insisted on wearing. It was not a good time, except I met Red Sox player Phil Plantier right afterwards [note: I wanted to say "Red Sox star Phil Plantier or Red Sox great Phil Plantier...but let's be honest. Even 'player' is a stretch...]. Well, all of this is a long way of saying that my second visit to the graveyard was much better. After finally winding my way to the very back of the cemetery and parking near the ponds, I was immediately rewarded with great looks at warblers feeding on the ground just a few feet from me.

In the first 5 minutes I saw Magnolias, Redstarts, Blackpolls and Black and Whites. In subsequent visits I saw Wilson's Warblers (several times), Canada Warblers (several times), Northern Waterthrush, my only Maine Northern Mockingbird, Red-Eyed Vireo, Great Crested Flycatcher and Black Crowned Night Heron. Also, nearly every time a rare passerine turns up in southern Maine, it is at Evergreen. A quick scan of last springs RBAs reveals Golden-Winged, Cape May, Blue-Winged, Prairie, Hooded and Mourning Warblers, Summer Tanagers, Evening Grosbeaks, and Louisiana Waterthrush. All this in about 5 acres. Even though it wasn't the top birding spot of the year for me, I would probably go back there before any other spot. If you're in the area in spring, you can't miss. [Note: I was there last weekend...and literally saw 1 bird the whole time. Strictly a spring/summer spot.]

Last Look for 200

Over the last couple weeks I've chronicled my search for 200 year birds from March 21, 2005 to March 21, 2006. So far I've seen 194 eastern birds and 5 western birds, for a total of 199. 199! So close! I had to pick up Kate at the airport yesterday, so today was pretty much my last shot at getting to the milestone. We took a morning trip down to Occoquan NWR, where at least 5 would-be life birds have been recently reported: peregrine Falcon (I can't believe I haven't seen one either), Fox Sparrows, Northern Rough-Winged Swallows, Vesper Sparrows and Rusty Blackbirds. It was a beautiful day, and I was feeling lucky.

Unfortunately, the weather at Occoquan was less than ideal. As has been the case the last 3 times I've been there, it was very windy. The sparrows that I hoped would be calling and flitting about in the fields were instead tucked away against the wind. There was a lot of activity, though. Tree swallows made themselves apparent by struggling mightily to fly against the wind. Ospreys, at least 8 individuals, were actively collecting nesting material and hunting over the river. An adult and a juvenile Bald Eagle were also spotted by the riverside. The wind, though, was proving too much. I got many looks at sparrows, but they were difficult to identify through the grass.

Kate went back to the car while I went up to the pond to see if I could find what I thought was a flock of rusty blackbirds that had flown overhead soon after we arrived. In the woods on the other side of the pond I thought I had found my birds. Feeding in a flock of about 10 were short-tailed rusty colored birds that I didn't recall seeing before. I took several pictures for later identification, patted myself on the back for reaching 200 and headed for the car.

It wasn't til 95 on the way home that I realized I may have been mistaken. There was another rusty colored bird around: a female red-winged blackbird. I looked in the Peterson and realized right away that it was these that I saw. Too streaked, too dark, buffy throat...no question. 199. Oh well. As a lifelong redsox fan, I'm used to telling myself 'We'll get them next year." On the other hand, maybe I'll see a peregrine on my way to work tomorrow...you never know.
Saturday, March 18, 2006

#4 Upstate New York, Summer 05

I have had a lot of good jobs over the course of my working life. When I was 15 I worked as a Narc for Maine's Attorney General's office. Accompanied by an off-duty police officer, a driver and another kid, I would drive all over southern Maine and stop at stores and try to buy cigarettes. If they asked for ID, I would say I didn't have any and leave. If they sold to me we would fine them. We weren't exactly on the SWAT team or anything, but, to a 15 year old, pulling up to a store and getting out of the car with our game-faces on made me feel like Baretta.
There were others, too. I worked for a couple summers at Mother's Mountain, a small company in Maine that made mustard, jam and hot sauce. I worked at a legendary Maine country store, Town Landing Market. I spent a summer as one of the few male staff members at an all-girls summer camp. The best job by far, though, was this past summer when I worked as a wildlife photographer for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
I learned about the job from an all-campus email and was so excited that I showed up a day early for the interview. Somehow I managed to smooth over that fact and charmed them into giving me the job. This is what I did every day: got in a sweet old pickup truck, drove to a state forest in one of three counties in central New York (Broome, Chenango and Madison), walked around the forest all day long taking pictures of whatever animals and plants I find and, back at the station, edit the pictures and write about the forest for use on informational kiosks.
For someone just getting into birding, this was an amazing opportunity. It was essentially paid-birdwatching. The forests were teeming with ovenbirds, common yellowthroats, chickadees, hawks, tanagers, owls, harriers, and sparrows, as well as turtles, snakes, porcupine, deer and black bear. I felt like Marty Stouffer from Wild America every single day.

The only disappointments of the summer, bird-wise, was that I missed out on red crossbills in New Michigan state forest (Pharsalia, NY) and Goshawks. I went to a certain place in New Michigan every day for 7 days after crossbills had been reported there, and only once caught a fleeing glance of what were probably crossbills. Goshawks, on the other hand, should have been a sure bet. They bred in many of the forests I went to and were legendary for vigorously defending their nests, swooping down and actually drawing blood from some of the foresters at my station. I brought a hard hat when I went to areas where Goshawks nested, but, alas, never saw one.
Highlights included my first tanagers at Cat Hollow SF, mourning warblers in Sherburne, blue-winged and blackburnian warblers in Otselic and a noontime barred own in Madison. If you're ever birding in one of these counties, look for my kiosks, they'll be up sometime this spring.
Friday, March 17, 2006

#5 Milford, Conn 11/6/05

Birding is hard. You can get a report of a bird being in a specific place and everyone has seen it but you go and it's gone (Nashville warbler in Baltimore). Or you go and see something flying away that could have been what you were looking for but you don't get a good enough look (goddamn Pharsalia crossbills...). Or you're just not smart enough to know what to look for or to know what bird sings that way and you miss out. It happens all the time. Once in awhile, though, things go right.
I don't know why I was in Maine or what I was doing but I was in Maine and driving back to DC. Of course, I wanted to do some birding along the Atlantic coast. I had read some RBA's that reported American Oystercatchers, a bird that for one reason or another I really wanted to see, at the Audubon center in Milford, Conn. So off I went, with Kate on the phone giving me directions.
Buuut there were some complications. We weren't sure where exactly Milford was or what was the best way to get there. Long story short, I ended up getting off exits and pulling uturns in annoying Connecticut towns and almost missed my window of daylight. I also got a nice burrito.
Finally, though, I pulled into the Audubon. A short walk from the parking lot too me to a beautiful beach with old guys fishing quietly and pointlessly (seriously go to Shaws please) in the surf and kids flying kites. The rising tide was filling a small pool and left a sandy peninsula (reminiscent of Point Pelee) jutting out into the water. Waders were all over, the most striking were the Oystercatchers. Easily the most beautiful bird I've seen. Sharp black and white with a bright red beak and eyes...I would have been happy had I seen nothing else.
But I wasn't done. Walking back toward the parking lot I noticed some brightly colored birds landing in a nearby tree. I took a closer look. What the hell is that? PARROTS? PARROTS?! No doubt, monk parakeets in Connecticut. In November. I couldn't believe it. I had read about escaped pet birds establishing populations but that was always in like Miami or something...I never expected to actually see them...and without even looking!
I walked over to a couple of birders at the wetland on the other side of the parking lot to verify that I was not on drugs and that there were Parrots in Connecticut. He was unimpressed, apparently tropical birds in New England in the winter were old hat, and we stood chatting for a minute by the swamp...until a brown weird looking bird took off from the reeds and flew to a spot about 10 feet in front of us. "American Bittern!" He shouted and then gave me the MOST awkward high-five of my life (birders...I tell you. We are not a cool bunch. More on this in the future). I had been to Montezuma, a famous place for bitterns, probably 10 times and not seen a bittern...and now one flew right in front of my while I was just chatting. Unreal. What if I hadn't stopped for that burrito? What if I hadn't been lost? I never would have seen these birds!
I arrived in Milford for a quick stop to see one bird, but left with three rarities in about 20 minutes. Now only if I had seen those friggin' crossbills...
Thursday, March 16, 2006

#6 Fort Williams, Maine in March

You'll see that a bunch of my top 10 days were at the very start of my year. I've only been at this listing thing a short time (I would say that my knowledge of birds was fairly good before I started going seriously; I knew what cormorants were, but I didn't know what a double-crested cormorant was). About 350 days ago, I didn't know a bufflehead from a duffel bag. I thought goldeneye was a Bond movie, orioles played baseball in Baltimore and longspurs were things worn by short cowboys. [I've progressed quickly in the past year. I swear]. Anyway, what was so fun about those first days of identification was that suddenly EVERYTHING was possible. Before I knew (had memorized) the details of where birds are likely to be found and when, I figured anything could be anywhere. Every single bird my binoculars hit on was new. It was incredible fun.

At the tail end of a fantastic road trip undertaken my Kate and I (the same trip where I began ID'ing birds), we made our way back to my homestate of Maine for my birthday (March 31...it's coming up!). Although I had only been looking for birds for about a week, I was incredibly excited about doing some birding in Maine. The first place we went was Fort Williams, the gorgeous oceanfront home of Portland Head Light. Crunching over snow and slipping in the mud, Kate and I trained our binoculars on everything that fluttered. As one would expect from a winter coast in Maine, it was a seabird bonanza. Eiders, scoters, goldeneye, loons, buffleheads long-tailed ducks and millions of confusing, confusing gulls (we saw a pair of gulls we were certain were California gulls...I still believe). New birds everywhere, on the beautiful Maine coast with Kate...one of the best days I can imagine.
Peterson in the back pocket?  Ballin'

#7 Cobbosseecontee Lake, Maine 9/5/05

Bald Eagles were chosen to be America's bird for good reasons. Grace, power, beauty...all things we would like associated with our country, whether we deserve it or not. [And, interestingly, the bald eagles I've seen in the wild have never exhibited the screeching and swooping that you see on FOX news title sequences.] I had seen Bald Eagles before, on trips to Montana and Alaska, but had not seen one during my birding year. Once, while driving back from Sugarloaf near the town of Belgrade, I was certain I saw an eagle soar over the tree and directly over my car, but when I stopped and got out, the bird was nowhere to be seen. Hey, I thought, it's a bald eagle, it's probably magical.

It wasn't until September that I finally got a good look. My grandfather, a very well-respected Maine outdoorsman, owns an island on Cobbosseecontee Lake in Manchester, Maine, that is only accessible by boat. My entire family goes up there for special occasions, including labor day weekend. We fish and swim and eat and play music and have a great old time. This labor day, I was fishing in the middle of the lake with my dad, uncle and brother when I saw a pair of Ospreys take off from the pines on the mainland edge of the lake and fly, calling loudly, out into the middle. I looked up to see what the fuss was about and there, outstretched and still in the ski, was a bald eagle. Gorgeous. The Opspreys (dwarfed in comparison) harassed the eagle relentlessly, but the bird, true to all its superlatives, remained steadfast and unflinching in the sky, hardly seeming to notice the other birds.

[Note: I've seen bald eagles several times since this encounter and it's always been interesting to view them as symbols of the USA. This lake bird was flying proudly, not listening to or acknowledging the presence of the other birds, who's nest was on the edge of the lake and who's claim to the lake's fish had probably been long established. Ring any bells? Also, when I visited the Prince William County landfill in December, Bald Eagles were a constant presence. They harassed the gulls and starlings even though these smaller birds were not taking any food or space away from the eagles. Bald Eagles: Ruling with an iron fist over a pile of trash."]

Seriously, though, seeing that bird spread wide against the sky, motionless but fully aware what was happening below, it made me proud that the bald eagle was the official symbol of the USA and glad that at least at some point the leaders of this country could make a frigging good decision. [Except Ben Franklin; he wanted the turkey. What an idiot.]

#8 Hamilton College Glen

Ah yes, the early days.
A mere 200 yards from the door of my senior year fac-ap (which, by second semester, was just me and my roommate Mudie living in a 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom + common room and kitchen on-campus mansion and partyspot) was the Hamilton College Glen. A glen, for those of you not versed in Romantic poetry (versed, get it?) is a "a long, U-shaped valley with a waterway running through." Such a valley, when covered with woods, is a perfect place for birds.

Between late March and early May I must have taken 100 walks through the glen looking for birds. This was back when I was just beginning to learn about different species, and therefore I would stop and stare with wonder at every single flutter in the bush. Unlike now, when I've become quickly jaded to the more common birds, in the glen I would take 10 minutes to identify a chipping sparrow and then congratulate myself when I concluded. Less than a year later, I already look back on this blissfully-ignorant period with fondness and wish I could feel that excitement of discovery again. I suspect that most all birders feel nostalgia for these early days.

The best time in the Glen was one of the first. It was still cold and there were no leaves on the trees. I went for a late-afternoon walk with my girlfriend, Kate, and said to her, without any evidence, "I bet today would be a good day to see an owl." After about five minutes, a beautiful large grey owl flushed unseen from a treebranch and landed again up ahead. Needless to say, we were amazed. An owl! The most mythical birds! It was beautiful, so large and silent through the forest. We followed it until it finally lost us, about 20 minutes, and by then had identified it as a Barred Owl, a species, though common, that I had never heard of until then. I was on the frontier of discovery! Incredible!

There is a list, mostly complete, of birds I identified for the first time in the Hamilton College Glen: Red-Tailed Hawk, both northern Nuthatches, Brown Creeper, Brown-Headed Cowbird, Chipping Sparrow, Tree Swallow, Chimney Swift, Pileated, Red-Breasted, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers and Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, Killdeer, House Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, DE Junco, Tufted Titmouse, American Kestrel.
Tuesday, March 14, 2006

#9 Bombay Hook NWR 11/11/05

Having seen very few winter waterfowl to this point, and having never been to Delaware, I got myself up early on a Saturday and trekked across the Chesapeake into Delmarva. I had never before been to Delaware and knew little about it (see #10), but was delighted by the countryside. I stopped for gas in Sudlerville, MD and was greeted by a statue of hometown hero Jimmie Foxx. I drove among farms and fields and swamps teeming with birds, especially vultures.

The deeper I got into Delaware, the more I realized that I was just driving into the middle of a swamp. The countryside is so flat that cattails (cat-o-nine-tails?) are often the highest objects on the horizon. Arriving at Bombay Hook, and the entire coast of Delaware (as I would later see from the air) is a maze of tributaries and swampland...perfect for birds.

I entered the park and drove hurriedly to the first parking lot. There was a pond through the trees and I walked to the lookout tower. Tons of birds. Tons. Long-Tailed Ducks, Ruddys, Swans (my first Tundras), Teal, Wigeon you name it. Fantastic. At the swamp boardwalk I saw swamp sparrows and kingfishers. A the largest pond I saw my first snow geese (though not the Ross' Goose that people were talking about) and my first American Avocets (not as impressive as I had been led to believe...). Later, on a backside pond, I saw my first Green-Winged Teal (somehow I had never seen one at Montezuma).

The excitement wore off quickly, though. I had driven the ponds, seen the birds that presented themselves, and was tired. I stopped to chat up a woman at a scope to see if she had a bead on anything really special. "Not really," she said, "But you should stick around until the geese come back." I inquired. She told me that soon, at dusk, there would be large numbers of geese coming back from wherever to land in one of the ponds on the ocean side of the road. Hell, I said, I got nowhere to be. I jumped up on the top of my car and waited for the sun to set.

But I was the only one. Even the woman hadn't stuck around. The only other people on the road was a big van whose occupants were smoking weed (good thinking...no cops at Bombay). I was beginning to think that this lady was full of it when, through my binoculars, I saw a thin black line appear on the horizon. It was far away, at the very limits of my 10x binoculars on a clear day, but, I could tell, it was coming closer. And there were more behind it. Soon the evening sky, already a gorgeous wash of neon pinks and purples, was filled with black lines of flying geese like they were lines written on a page. Hundreds and thousands of geese emerged on the horizon (from where? New Jersey? The ocean? I had no idea) and pointed their formations directly at my car.

It took about 10 minutes from the time the birds inked onto the horizon until they were splashing clumsily into the pond. I had never seen this many of the same bird in one place. Hundreds of thousands of geese, bright orange in the sunset, flying in different directions, from different distances toward me. Thousands in the water, dozens flying in groups low over the pond, dipping and circling until they found a suitable landing spot. It was, simply, the loudest, most beautiful natural spectacle that I have ever seen, and made me teary with love of nature and Delaware and swamps and birds and ladies with scopes.


Top 10 Birding Days of the Year

I do not have a good memory. I can hang out with a person and talk to them all night, but chances are I won't remember their name or what we talked about once they come back from the bathroom. It's just the way it is.
Birding, though, has been different. Of the 199 species I've seen this past year (again, my birding year started 3/21/05...and NOTE: I've seen 194 eastern species and 5 western species, so I'm gonna cheat a little and say 199 total so that I can maybe get to 200 this weekend. That's ok right?), I have a crystal clear picture in my mind of where I saw each, regardless of how brief the encounter. First Brandt? Alone on the rocks at the backside of Biddeford Pool. Yellow Warbler? Darting among bushes on the edge of a field at Montezuma NWR. Hooded Merganser? In a small pond off Route 27 near New Portland, Maine. I can't remember the names of half the people I work with, but I can remember my first Merlin or Wilson's Warbler in precise detail.

So now, in honor of a year of these little memories, let me begin counting down my top 10 birding experiences.

#10 - Indian River Inlet, Delaware. 12/4/2005

I had made the drive from DC to Delaware a month earlier to look for Snow Geese and other waterfowl at Bombay Hook and had fallen in love with the state. Previously, I had known Delaware only because a) my ex-girlfriend's parents went to college there and b) the "Hi. I'm in Delaware" joke from Wayne's World. Driving through, however (and I guess I'm talking about Delmarva in general), was incredibly pleasant. The country is very flat, but lush and busy. The small towns were unpretentious...free of the burden of tourism that has forced many coastal towns in my homestate of Maine to fight each other for "Most antique shops and lobster shacks per square mile" (even though the average Mainer eats about lobster probably once a year...and only when friends from out of town are there).

So, anyway, I slipped into Delaware like a soft shirt and took Route 1 (my favorite road, my mom lives on it in Falmouth, Maine) along the coast south to the Indian River. After Dewey Beach the road rides out on a strip of land you could throw a stick across, separating the Atlantic from Rehoboth Bay. About a half-hour down and you've hit the bridge over the Indian River. Birds, which I didn't with great frequency along the drive, were suddenly everywhere. Gulls following fishing boats, geese, sea ducks crowded at the mouth. I got all excited, as birders do when they find a wealth of birds, and franticly looked for a way to get off the road (which was no easy task because of extensive construction work on the bridge). I made it to the southern side of the bridge and took my first left into what looked like an abandoned flea market. The gates were chained, so I drove cautiously to the end of the point where a cluster of houses sat. It's not usually advisable to park among houses, but I could see hundreds of gulls in the bay and needed to stop. I was surprised to see Boat-Tailed grackles resting of the roof of a house, and indeed they are very common around the inlet. The gulls were too far away to identify, so I drove back across the bridge to a parking lot for fishermen.

Once on the other side, I walked along the sidewalk and under the bridge to the Atlantic side. There were over a hundred Brandt in a fenced off area, the most I had seen in one place to that point (and apparently there was a black Brandt among them...too bad I didn't even know what a black Brandt was!). There was a steady stream of birds flying under the bridge to and from the ocean, including my first Forester's Terns. Walking cautiously out on the jetty, there were ruddy turnstones and my first purple sandpipers, all of which were unafraid and allowed for great pictures.

Looking out at the Atlantic from the tip of the jetty I saw my greatest surprise: gannets. Probably a hundred of them, all doing their classic knifing dive-bombs into the surf. Amazing. I watched them for probably a half-hour, and even showed their picture and lent my binoculars to a Korean man (who spoke no English) fishing near me on the jetty. It was such a great feeling, freezing cold, wet and windy yet triumphant in finding birds that I had never seen, that I needed to share it with someone, whether he understood me or not.
Monday, March 13, 2006

Back and Birdless

Back from Maine. Great times were had, few birds were seen. As you might remember, I have 9 days left until my birding year runs out (I started keeping track on March 21, 2005) and, with 9 species left to get to 200, things aren't looking good.

I did get to do some birding, though. On Friday before my flight from Dulles I took a look for the Snowy Owl and any other Owls that might have been in the area (Short-Eared Owls had also been reported). No luck. Once one the plane I had great looks at the sections of the airfield where I saw the owl back in February, but he wasn't around. By the way, the first person to spot this owl must have been while sitting on a plane, right? Or did someone just happen to take a scope out to the parking garage? If you're out there, let me know.

I got to some of my favorite Maine birding spots on Saturday, but again was unable to find anything new. The Evergreen cemetery in Portland is, during the spring, THE best warbler location I've been to. I saw more warblers (with better looks) at Evergreen this past summer than I did at Point Pelee in May. Well apparently March is a different story...besides mallards and two black ducks I saw NO OTHER BIRDS. Not gulls or starlings or chickadees. Not even a birdsong or a leaf that kinda looked like a bird or a grave of a guy named "Bird" or anything. Lame.

Onto Fort Williams State Park in Cape Elizabeth, the location of the famous Portland Headlight and generally gorgeous, classically Maine place. Lots of lingering winter seabirds: Common Eiders, both Loons, Long-Tailed Ducks, Surf Scoters and Herring Gulls were plentiful. That's about it, though. Ah...the year, I'm afraid, is slipping away. On the brightside, though, I got to hang out two of my favorite spots in my favorite state. Plus, I'll have to get back there to redeem myself. Stay tuned.

Also, more on these places in my Top 10 Birding Days of the Year posts coming shortly.
Thursday, March 09, 2006

Final Jeopardy

One of the hardest parts of my day is 7:30pm. My run is over (if I get around to going), dinner is cooked and it's time for a little TV. Relaxing? Hardly. Time for the toughest decision: Jeopardy or Seinfeld? Damn. They tantalize by being on consecutive channels, yet it's impossible to watch both. CURSES! Ah well tonight I chose Seinfeld, as they were showing one of my favorite episodes, the one where Jerry and everyone are at the Saab dealership. Classic. My personal favorite George show, where he spends the whole time looking for revenge against the mechanic that stole his Twix. ("Yeah, like I'm gonna get my car fixed at a dealership. Why don't I just flush my money down the toilet!" and "All I want is my 75 cents back, an apology, and FOR HIM TO BE FIRED.")
Anyway, Seinfeld ended and I had time to catch Final Jeopardy. The question was interesting, and bird related. I paraphrase: Penguins nest on these islands even though they are covered with land mines. Answer: The Falklands. (I got it. So did everyone on the show, except the women who was in the lead, who wrote 'the Falklan Islands' and Trebek that tightwad didn't give it to her and she ended up dead last.) Apparently, de-mustachioed Trebek went on, the birds are too light to set off the mines. Here's a story from Planet Ark.

I'm flying off to Maine for the weekend for a funeral and will be at Dulles...I'm gonna look hard for the Snowy Owl from the plane, that should be cool.

District Patrol
DC Sightings
I saw three killdeer flying, for some reason, over Rayburn house office building and the highway interchange. Then, I emailed the sighting to MDosprey and misspelled "Capitol" (captiol) and gave an incorrect link to my blog. Nice. Great.
There were also reports of a Lesser Black Backed Gull (never seen one, myself), Tree Swallows, Hooded Mergansers and, shockingly, Canada Geese and Mallards along the Anacostia (0 hrs from DC and about 4 blocks from my 'partment).

Hanger Owl?
A BWI worker reported seeing a Barn Owl near the airport last night. I'd love to see it.
Wednesday, March 08, 2006

District Patrol, March 8

Chase City Shrike

I'd love to see a shrike (either local species) but I'm afraid I don't have enough gas money to drive down to Chase City, VA (3.5 hrs from DC), where the bird was reported today. Maybe it'll come up for some sightseeing...

Spyin' Pines
Man what a lame title. I thought I'd be good at making up witty little headlines like you see on Sportscenter all the time. [note: while I'm on the subject, these headlines have gotten way out of control. For instance, why did ESPN.com editors find it necessary to title the article about the passing of baseball legend Kirby Puckett, "Puck Everlasting"? OK, I know there is a book about people who live forever called Tuck Everlasting. I know there was a man named Kirby Puckett. I also know that these two things have absolutely no relation other than the slanted rhyme. Why muddy the man's memorial story with an allusion to an unrelated children's book? How is this a good idea? Is there anyone out there who was not interested in Puckett's death, but had their eyes caught by the catchy title and decided 'Hey maybe I will read this...'? I NEED THESE QUESTIONS ANSWERED] Anyway, my lame title refers to the Pine Warblers that have been seen with frequency in the DC area. John from A DC Birding Blog saw one at the National Arboretum the other day. Also, I had been thinking all day that I had never seen a pine warbler and was very excited to go out to the Arboretum and look for one until I remembered that I have seen a Pine Warbler and that it was a Palm Warbler I am thinking of. Stupid trees.

...which is located, ironically, at the edge of the water.
A lunchtime stroll around the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, MD (.5 hrs from DC) picked up a nice raft of ruddy ducks, both swans, lesser scaups, black ducks, buffleheads, northern shovelers, an early osprey, red-tailed and cooper's hawks and bald eagles.

Stay tuned next week when I start the countdown of the top 10 birding days of my year (3/21/05 to 3/21/06). It should be TONS OF FUN.
Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Rare Sightings on the Hill

By far the best perk of being an intern on Capitol Hill is the receptions. No doubt. Free gourmet food, free booze (!), free stuff, and C-list celebrities. Tonight I attended probably the best reception since I've been here (and dude there's been some tough competition...Seeing the crappy band Lifehouse? Meeting the cat from Meet the Parents? Beer Wholesalers?) and by far the best reception for a birder: the American Zoo and Aquarium Association party. I mean, nothing calms you down after a day of the rat race like a few mini roast beef sandwiches, 4 free bud heavies, crazy wild animals and a run-in with a legendary veteran of the talk show junket and owner of a George-Hamilton-perma-tan, Jack Hanna.

The best part, though, was all the animals trucked in from area zoos. Lets do the list: Red-Tailed Hawk, Great Horned Owl (the first time I've seen one...damnit), a toucan sp, a Spectacled Owl, an African Penguin, a Cheetah (!), a Dingo (which much legally be surrounded at all times by 'the dingo ate your baby' jokes...), 2 crazy gigantic snakes, an ocelot, a bearcat (a crazy half-badger-half-cat), a snake lizard and some huge millipedes. So awesome. Up close, the toucan was my favorite. Beautiful, smooth feathers and brighter colors than anything in the US (painted bunting? dunno). I asked the woman why the bird had such a huge beak and she said nobody knew...I volunteer my services to investigate. Close second was the giant python that had to be shut in a big Igloo cooler once the speeches started.

I want to take a quick minute to talk about zoos. A lot of people whine about how zoo animals are denied their freedom, or are bored or mistreated or generally unlucky. I think that's crap. What are an animals basic needs? The things they wake up and spend all day looking for? Food, shelter and safety. Getting to a zoo gives them all of these things for their entire life. They get free food delivered by doting, 24 hour caregivers, better health care than I have, PLUS a guaranteed poacher-free existence. I'd call that an animal jackpot.

Oh. My. Goose.

Thanks to Christopher Starling (birding stage name perhaps? crafty!) for sending me this life-altering picture of a mutant goose taken by Brian K. Schmidt. What the hell is that! I think it may be a descendant of King Tut's pet goose. You think the other geese tease him about it? You think it gets in the way when he's flying? All I know is, whatever that thing is, it'll haunt my dreams for years to come.
Monday, March 06, 2006

Calm After the Storm(s)

Alright well it's Monday and I'm back at work and feeling much better.

A note of thanks to John from the excellent A DC Birding Blog for including a link to my site over the weekend. I wrote him a note before I started this site and apologized for cramping his style with another DC bird blog, which he took in stride. Good guy, great blog.

Some pictures from the weekend in Jersey/Deleware:
Bonaparte's Gull at the tip of Cape May. The bright red feet made me think I was looking at a bunch of black-headed gulls...then I realized I was crazy. Plus, black beaks.
A Dunlin in Avalon, NJ.
Red-Throated Loon in the frigid Atlantic off Avalon, NJ.
A Common Loon very close to the sides of the Indian River Inlet.
The famous Eagle's Nest Golf Course Eurasian Wigeon among American Wigeon.

note: upon inspection, the photograph I took of what I thought was a golden eagle was in fact a juvi bald eagle. I've found that having a camera with me (my beloved Canon Digital Rebel EOS with a 75-300mm zoom and a polarizing filter) has helped out many times with identifications. There are a lot of birds that look the same, especially when you only have a minute to see them or when it's too damn cold to get out the sibley to scrounge for details. Taking a picture and then identifying later has helped me with savannah sparrows, dunlin and this weekend's red-throated loon.

Another note: I was in no way blaming Paulagics for the trips being cancelled...I was simply disapointed that, for the second straight week, the weather was bad. I have talked to Paul and Anita several times and they are extremely friendly and knowledgable and enthusiastic about what they do and I will most definetly book my next trip with them. No worries. It's just annoying when you work all week through beautiful, windless days, only to have the weather turn crappy as soon as you open your eyes on Saterday.
Sunday, March 05, 2006

Weak-end in the East

I don't know man I know I started this blog so I could write about all the sweet trips I took and the birds I've found...and this past weekend's trip to Cape May for a pelagic seabirding cruise should have been quite a post. I would have shared lists of seabirds. I would have told an anecdote about my inability to hold down my McGriddle. Perhaps I would have even seen a whale or two and told you about that. That would have been nice.

But, instead, and for the second consecutive week, high winds prevented the trip from proceeding. So, instead, I spent the weekend alone in the EconoLodge in Marmora, New Jersey.

I mean I don't want to sound too much like a complainer but I figure it's better to use this space for honesty rather than bullshit. I did a lot of birding. I saw downtown Atlantic City, Cape May, the 'beanery', Henlopen, Indian River Inlet, Baltimore and rural DelMarVa. I saw three new species (maybe four, I took a picture of what I think is a golden eagle...), pushing my yearlist to either 193 or 194.

But, overall I felt like I wasted my time and, for the first time in a year, was damn sick of birdwatching. I woke up this morning with excitement, thinking that in spite of the cancellation I would tear-ass through Delaware and Maryland and get to 200 anyway. Fired up by a late Delaware RBA, I wrote a list of get-able birds that I had yet to see...fox sparrows at the henlopen feeders, black scoters, red-throated loons, a eurasian wigeon in Ocean City, Eurasian Collared Doves in the middle of Selbyville, snow bunting and longspurs off Cartanza Road...I even booked a spot on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry in hopes at a stray Razorbill or Dovkie.

For the most part all I got was a big big fat 0. I saw long-overdue redthroated loons and black scoters after I got off the ferry in Lewes (I saw almost no birds except surf scoters on the boat). After stopping and getting blanked at Indian River Inlet, I eventually found my way to the Eagle's Nest Golf Course in Ocean City to look for the well-documented Eurasian Wigeon. After a frustrating, cold (there really was a lot of wind) search that involved chasing groups of ducks between water traps, I found my bird (very pretty) and did some fist-pumps.

That was about as good as it got, though. The rest of the day included no eurasian collared doves in downtown Selbyville, no bunting or longspurs in the fields off Cartanza Road (although I did get a strict no-trespassing warning...hey they should have put some signs up...), and no nashville warbler in Carroll Park, Baltimore.

And...that's it. Sorry for the tone. The bright spot of the day was my girlfriend on the other end of the phone giving me directions. Thanks, sorry I was so pissed. I still have an outside shot at getting 200, and I'll keep at it.

[I don't know, it probably has to do more with my slowly getting acquainted with the working world. A man works all week and gets two days to himself, and damned if he doesn't have a lot of things to cram in there. Well I put this trip at the top of everything else and then it gets cancelled because it's too breezy. As far as I'm concerned, the worst fate is disappointment.]

Drivng home from Baltimore I was just tired and cold and frustrated and sick of birds and sick of wasting time. People have been talking about how weak of a winter this was, but I'm finding out how much this season drains a birder. It's painful! It's barren! Wastelands! Many of the birds I saw this weekend were hunkered down behind a breakwater or hidden in the dense stuff or just plain missing, secure in some secret location out of the wind and cold. Whatever, spring is coming. All will be right with the world.
Friday, March 03, 2006


Well I finally got fed up with the HTML of the template I was using, so I ditched it in favor of this one. Much easier to edit, simpler, I'll take it.

That's about all that's gone well for me today, however. I look out in the horizon of this weekend, and I see clouds a-gatherin'. The forcast for Cape May, where I am scheduled to go on a pelagic trip sunday, has worsened to 'Windy"...the same forcase that forced the Lewes trip to be cancelled a week ago. The problem is that this time if the trip is cancelled I'll miss a fun weekend, lose the chance at 200 eastern birds and be stuck with a non-refundable room at the EconoLodge in scenic Marmora, New Jersey.

I emailed with Anita, who works at Paulagics, and she told me that as of now the trip was still on. As of now. Of course I can't fault Paulagics for the weather being bad, and I understand that since they're a business it's in their best interest to set sail in crummy weather...but I'll still be mighty dissappointed if I get all the way up there and the trip gets cancelled. Ah well enough about me, let's do a

District Report

I Don't Know If You've Heard, But...
Apparently there is a snowy owl at the Dulles Airport. Ah a little humor! Yes the Dulles Owl, aka the biggest birding story of the winter, is still kickin' it at that peaceful getaway of the international runway area. Get it while its hot!

2nd Fiddle
Just as, if not more, rare than a snowy owl in these parts is an ash-throated flycatcher. Well there's been one of these birds down in Richmond, hanging out in the same general area for the past couple of months. One of these days I'll get down to the floodwall area of the James River Park and check it out.

Yep they're here already. There was one at the Little Hunting Creek this morning...and there will be more shortly.

Almost as Rabid as the IBWO Debates
...Is the recent debate on the MDosprey site about a singing Common Yellowthroat in Columbia on March 1. Most have agreed that it was most likely a misidentification, but with warm winters like these you never know what you can get.
Thursday, March 02, 2006

How I Got Here

Well it's Thursday and there aint much birdin' to report. The weather for Cape May is still looking good, but after I got blown out of Lewes last week I'm not celebrating yet. Although if this trip doesn't go off I'm out 60 bones on a hotel room in Marmora, NJ. Fingers crossed, por favor.

Since I've got nothing much to say (and nothing really to District Report) I'll spin the yarn of how I got into birding. Briefly. I grew up in Falmouth, Maine in a house on the ocean. It was beautiful. My grandfather was (is) a famous Maine outdoorsman, the state's Attorney General and head of the Fish and Wildlife Dept. He took me fishing, hunting, canoeing all the time and I got a great love and respect for the outdoors from him (and he passed it down to my Dad, who also took me and my brother fishing and hunting etc...). [note: I don't want to get into a nature/nurture thing here, but my little brother, Alex, also got the family naturalist treatment, 'cept he turned out about as woodsy as a skyscraper. Well not really, but you get the gist.] Anyway so I loved the outdoors and spend a lot of time there, alright?

BUT I never really paid much attention to birds. I remember one winter in my teens when I started watching sea ducks from my house and wondering why I had never noticed them before. I remember looking up buffleheads, goldeneyes and oldsquaws (sorry, long-tailed ducks...the ones with the great call) in a little Peterson we had lying around. I remember being so enamored with these birds that I planned to write a novel about a romance between a boy and a girl who comes to the coast of Maine just for the winter for some reason. I got as far as the title: "Winter Ducks." It sounded nice and sappy in my head where, thankfully, it also died.

SO the next step to birding came on my return flight from studying abroad in Durban, South Africa. I happened upon a book called The Big Year by Bob Obmiscik. I bought it, read it, was interested in this subculture...but didn't really do anything about it. And that was that, for about a year.

OK so zoom ahead to spring break of my senior year of college (Hamilton). My lovely girlfriend Kate and I have nearly completed a round trip road excursion from Utica, NY to New Orleans (r.i.p) and up to her hometown of Ft. Wayne, IN. We are in a book store (shit I cant remember the name) and I happen across a used Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds. See, one of the reasons I didn't pick up birding right after reading The Big Year (and believe me, I'm no stranger to fads: golf in '98, indoor rock gyms, snap bracelets, livestrongs. Show me a bandwagon and I'll jump right on. I won't even ask where it's going) was the fact that I didn't understand the logistics of birding. It seemed to complicated, with its lists and guides and maps and shit. Then, as if touched by a magic avian cupid, I opened that used Peterson and saw, scratched in the hand of some withered old lady, WERE THE NAMES AND DATES OF BIRDS SHE HAD SEEN RIGHT NEXT TO THE PICTURE! It was like the rubik's cube got accidentally knocked off the table and landed with all sides matching. You could keep it all in that little book! Genius!

Well I'll be damned if I didn't buy that book, cross off the chicken scratchings of it's previous, and most likely deceased, owner (...who else would sell used bird book except an estate sale liquidation? Wherever you are, Madam, rest in peace. You're legacy has lived on in the soul of youth!) and begun counting birds with my first step out that shop door. From that day foreward (March 21, 2005) I've haven't stopped looking. [For the record, my first official entry was a Northern Shoveler in a swampy field in Fort Wayne.]
Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Cape May and Ivory-Billed Drama

Ah well I'm struggling mightily with the HTML of this goddamn blog. Blogspot has provided a great site, but the code couldn't be more confusing and difficult to edit. Ah well what can ya do. I'll keep working on it.

Update on what I'm up to. I booked a hotel for Saturday night in Marmora, NJ which I think is near Atlantic City. Awesome. My plan now is to get up early on Saturday, cruise up to Cape May and do as much birding as I can during the day and then go hit up the casinos at night. So sweet.

More importantly, the goal is to end the weekend with 200 eastern species for the year. I didn't start recording my species until 3/21/05, so I have about 3 weeks left. I've got 190. I'm thinking my pelagic will give me some easy ones at least (red-throated loon, lesser black-backed gull) and I'm hoping I'll get off the water with at least 5 new species. That means I need 5 more in 3 weeks, no small feat...but I'll just love trying.

Check out this website: fishcrow.com. This guy may or may not be hot on the trail of Ivory Billed Woodpeckers in Louisiana (all the recent hubub was over the bird in Arkansas...). The poster of the site is very convinced that he's seen IBWs, but his only 'proof' is a couple awful video clips and audio kents. So juicy. There are also a lot of people following along and either doing their best to conjure evidence where there isnt any or be skeptics and risk looking like a jerk when this dude gets some hard evidence. Drama!

District Patrol!

It's the most wonderful time of the year...
Ah yes you can almost taste it...migration time. Numerous reports of early arrivals include robins, grackles, ospreys, semipalm plovers, snipes, dunlin and red-winged blackbirds in Portsmouth, Va (3.5 hrs from DC). Good times ahead.

My nemesis
This summer when I worked as a wildlife photographer for the NY DEC I tried at least 7 times to look for Red Crossbills at the New Michigan State Forest in Pharsalia, where they were supposedly a reliable spot. Damned if the birds eluded me every time. I've resented them ever since. Well if I had a day and a couple tanks of gas I could cruise down to Highland, VA (5 solid hours from DC) and apparently see Red Crossbills with no problem on the horseshoe curve on US 250 on Shenandoah Mtn. Someday.

Unlike Fishcrow, someone has some backup...
In response to my posting to MDosprey yesterday, Mr. Wickline from DC wrote me to say that he had recently seen 2 Cooper's Hawks cavorting over 411 D Street NW. Thanks for getting my back dude. Mr. Wickline also reported seeing a woodcock after leaving a downtown metro station, a crazy sighting but one that has been common recently. I am new to the DC area but there have been more woodcock sightings that I would have expected for this time of year.

Location: Portland, ME

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