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Sunday, August 06, 2006

Finally, Some Birds

On Saturday Kate and I decided we needed a break from this sweltering city and decided to take a spur-of-the-moment trip to Delaware. We threw some stuff in a backpack, rushed out the door and in no time at all were...stuck in traffic on the way to the bay bridge.

I guess we should have expected that on the first bearable Saturday in the summer that every single vehicle in the DC area would be headed to the beach, but we left in such a skipping rush that the thought hadn't crossed our minds until we were crawling along Route 50 and playing the Beatles-Zeppelin Game until our fingers hurt (Kate and I have a bet about which band gets played on the radio - all stations, not just classic rock - more often, the Beatles or Led Zeppelin. I say the Beatles based on the size of their catalogue and the fact that they can be played on more stations. Kate says Zep because, well, they're always a reliable bet on classic rock stations. Overall the race is neck and neck, but on this trip the Beatles completely triumphed: 5 songs, 2 covers (which don't count, but still) and one NPR story about the 40th anniversary of Revolver. Zeppelin: 0).

Anyway, after lots of traffic and several outbursts of rage from me (I hate traffic), we finally found ourselves on the lovely coast of Delaware. We were looking for Bombay Hook NWR, where the shorebird migration was apparently in full swing and there had been recent sightings of a curlew sandpiper and reeve, among other sweet birds. But we were lost (in our rush to leave we didn't bother with directions)...and while driving around aimlessly we happened upon a spot I had birded earlier this year: Port Mahon Road.

Port Mahon Road was obviously good in spring (check out my post from the 2006 Horseshoe Crab migration), but I had no idea whether there would be anyone there in August. Well, there was, albeit in much lesser numbers. Ruddy Turnstones gathered in groups at the shoreline and a few peeps could be seen darting along the sand. Most interesting to me, though, were all the terns. I haven't had a whole lot of tern experience in my birding life (let's see: black, common, Foresters, Caspian in Anacostia earlier this year and a least tern in Maine a month ago...) and I was excited to take a look at some up close.

Every pile-on at the waterside had a tern on it. Most of the birds were already in their non-breeding plumage, but tern identification is relatively easy thanks to different bill and feet color combinations. I got good looks at common terns, Foresters terns and...whatdya know...lifer sandwich and royal terns. Here's a shot of a sandwich, the ID here being the black bill with a light tip, black feet and the lack of a dark carpal bar on the shoulder:

So, two life birds right off the bat, and unexpectedly. Let's head off to Bombay Hook.

I love the place. Beautiful, spacious and, most importantly for a city guy, absolutely quiet. One of my top 3 birding locations, easily, and a place I enjoy in the winter as well.

And always with great birds. As I rolled up to the entrance I was greeted with a telephone-wire full of barn and bank swallows, the latter of which I hadn't seen since Point Pelee over a year ago. Before I left I would see enough bank swallows to last be well into next year...
immature Foresters tern

The ponds were dry and filled (filled!) with shorebirds. I don't own a scope and the backlight made IDs on distant birds nearly impossible (and very frustrating), but I could see both yellowlegs, semipalm sandpipers, semipalm plovers, willet, both dowitchers, great and snowy egrets, great blue herons and more terns. Kate and I motored through to Bear Swamp, where the best of the day's birds had been reported (gull-billed tern, tricolored heron, little blue heron and black terns). Thankfully, a group of birders allowed me to use their scope and they helped point out several lifers for me.

I had never had the patience to ID least sandpipers and long-billed dowitchers before, but now I saw them. I also saw a beautiful (and surprisingly small) tricolored heron out in the marsh alongside a great egret. Finally, my year immature black tern was swooping and diving right off the road.

Despite several fake-outs, I never saw the gull-billed tern, a Delaware specialty. I took a few pictures, though, and I can still talk myself into thinking that this guy is the gull-billed (damn you red feet!):

It's a Foresters tern.

So: 5 life birds bringing my 1.5 year total to 234. 7 year birds bringing that total to 194, just 5 away from my year total last year. A whole bunch of DE birds and 4 traffic jams. A great break from the city, some crabs on the eastern shore on the way back, and Kate along for the ride added up to a wonderful day.

Next weekend I'll be headed up to central NY to visit some friends and maybe to take a crack at that red crossbill in the New Michigan SF...
Nice Sandwich Tern! I am hoping to get out there myself soon.
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