Birding Behind the Wheel

DO NOT, under any circumstances, look at birds while driving.  (The title just had nice alliteration.)

Concentrate on the road, for heaven’s sake!

Trust me on this.  Please – do as I say, not as I do.

However, if you should happen to be riding shotgun down our state’s highways and byways and want to identify some of the most common of our fine feathered friends with just a glimpse from the moving car, here’s how I do it:

Observation 1:  Wow, that’s a big bird.

Observation 1a:  It’s black.  If it’s mostly black, you’re likely looking at a vulture.

Turkey_Vulture_(7172188840)

A soaring turkey vulture (Coragyps atratus) shows those long, white feathers I think of like the pale insides of my arms. Photo courtesy of Roy W. Lowe via Wikimedia Commons.

 

America_Black_Vulture-Turkey_Vulture-silhouettes

Note the white “arms” on the turkey vulture and the white “hands” on the black vulture.  Photo provided by Jim Conrad via Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

 

 

  • If it’s not really that big and it flaps when it flies (rather than soaring), its a 
    Crow_silhouette

    Sihlouette of a crow, photo provided by Naama ym via Wikimedia Commons.

    Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) or Raven (Corvus corax).  There’s practically no wayto tell the difference between the two at a distance, so call it whichever you like.  On the Chesapeake, Ravens are more often sighted around Baltimore.  (Maybe there are too many Washington Redhawks fans in southern Maryland for the ravens’ taste?)

 

 

Observation 1b:  It’s almost black. . . No, wait, it’s dark brown. . . with a white head and tail. . . and huuuge.  This bird is our big, beautiful, Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)!  Don’t worry if the head and tail are still brown or mottled brown and white, that just means it’s a young’un – bald eagles don’t get their adult plumage until they’re about four years old.

 

Observation 1c:  It’s got a dark back and a light tummy, it’s perched on a pole or wire, and it’s judging me.  Congratulations, friend, you’ve caught the wary eye of a hawk!  Hawks don’t usually soar (vultures do), they usually park it on a perch and watch an open area (e.g. highway medians, crop fields, meadows) for rodents running around – when they spy their four-legged food, they swoop down and snatch it up in their talons.  The hawk was only judging you (your car really) as not food, but something which might run over and animal and, therefore, be a source of free food.  Since you noticed it first as a big bird, it’s likely you’ve spotted one of these two hawks:

 

 

 

 

Red-shouldered_Hawk,_juvenile_(7653584216)

Look at the tail stripes on this juvenile red-shouldered hawk.  Photo provided by cuatrok77 via Wikimedia Commons.  

  • If its fan-shaped tail is black with slim white horizontal stripes, it’s the Red-Shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus).  It does, of course, also have a brick red patch on its shoulders, but this is hard to spot from the car.  (Which you are ABSOLUTELY not driving, right?!)

 

 

 

Observation 1d:  This bird is trying to screw me up – it looks like a cross between a hawk and an eagle!  Soaring above the water (like an eagle or vulture), but distinctly hawkish in appearance, the Osprey is a thrill to watch as it surveys the water’s surface, then suddenly drops into the drink like a stone, only to come up with a huge fish in its talons.

1024px-Pandion_haliaetus_2355

Ospreys soar, then dive.  Photo provided by Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Observation 2:  Wow, that bird is shaped just like the seagulls I’ve seen in so many paintings of the shore!  Yes, you’ve got yourself a gull, but not a “seagull” – there is no single bird with the moniker “seagull”; they’re just called gulls.  (Say it five times fast and you’ll make a funny sound.)  Maryland boasts several species of gulls, depending on the season:

 

Observation 3:  Holy moly, that must be a gazillion little black birds in that flock!  Whoa – look at the shapes the flock makes as it flies!  Here it is crucial that you not be driving.  Seriously!  Watch the road, not the bird show!  Or, better yet, pull over to a safe spot and take a few minutes to watch the bird show, because you’ve found a murmuration of European starlings (Sturmnus vulgaris)!  These birds are native to Europe, introduced to North America by a well-meaning human who had no idea the havoc that invasive species create in an ecosystem.  Despite the starlings’ total takeover of the lower 48 states and the obnoxiously noisy chatter that their huge flocks inflict wherever they roost, you’ll be hard pressed to find a person who will complains about them while watching a flock’s evening aerobatics.  If you were a good driver and didn’t stop to watch, check out these great murmuration videos on NPR and YouTube.

1024px-Sort_sol_pdfnet

Murmuration.  Photo provided by Tommy Hansen via Wikimedia Commons.

 

So those are the birding-from-the-car basics.  And here’s the bonus:

When writing the section on hawks, I couldn’t decide whether to include the Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) or not.  It’s not as big as the red-tailed and -shouldered hawks, it tends to stick to the forest (and backyard bird feeders) more. . . but I have seen one or two at the side of the road, so . . .  Well, as you can see, I decided not to include it.  Then I had to interrupt my writing to run out and get errands done before picking up my daughter from basketball practice, and who should I spy sitting on a wire right next to my little post office?

unnamed

Forgive the lack of zoom on my smart phone.  This Cooper’s Hawk looked much bigger in person!

unnamed-1

This phone close-up doesn’t help much, but you can at least see the mottled breast.

Trail Shots: Calvert Cliffs Red Trail in the Snow

Today, the thermometer passed 40 and we’re quickly saying goodbye to the snow that has covered the area for the last five days.  I was lucky (determined) enough to get out to Calvert Cliffs State Park for a quick hike on the red trail before the white stuff waved goodbye.  Here are my shots from the snowy trail:

unnamed 5.56.43 PM

Plenty of folks had gotten out to hike the trail before me; I only met two other hikers while I was out, but there were plenty of footprints and pawprints – and even one bicycle track! – in the snow.

unnamed-2 5.56.44 PM

The fishing pond was frozen solid . . . except where footprints lead out into the snow and onto the thin ice, where the end of the track was punctuated by a giant hole.  

unnamed-7 5.56.44 PM

One of the great things about snow is that it outlines the shape of the land.  Where in summer I might not even notice the hill beyond the trees, now it’s impossible to miss and has got me thinking about this trail as more of a stream-side hike.  

unnamed-6 5.56.44 PM

Itty bitty hidey hole.  The single digit temperatures we’ve had over the last week have got me thinking about how the wild animals survive the cold.  They all must find places to crawl into to be safe and warm.  Thank goodness for rotting logs and shallows made by the upturned roots of fallen trees.  

unnamed-4 5.56.44 PM

A frozen stream emerges beneath the trail, heading down to join the main stream in the bottomlands between the hill I’m on and the one pictured above.

The red trail follows this stream closely for 100 yards or so as the water splashes down over a few mini-falls.  The covering of ice over the moving water created the most wonderful gurgling sound.  Check it out in this short video I took:

Gurgling

 

unnamed-5 5.56.44 PM

Just after the mini-falls, the stream becomes only partially iced, but what beautiful ice it is!  Blow up the photo on your screen and see the beautiful wavy patterns.

unnamed-8 5.56.44 PM

The even horizontal lines of quarter-inch holes drilled in this pine tree are likely the work of a woodpecker called the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius).  Unlike most woodpeckers, which feed on insects and larvae found beneath the surface bark of a tree, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (say it five times fast and you’ll get the giggles) is drilling holes to tap the tree for sap, which it then licks up with its brush-like tongue.

unnamed-10 5.56.44 PM

The bottomland, with stream running on the far and near sides of the middle, has widened out in a classic floodplain pattern, the contour of the land revealed by snow and bare branches where for three seasons of the year it would be masked by leaves.

unnamed-11

Gum ball polka dots.  The sweetgum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua) above my head has dropped a good portion of its mature fruits, making a nice polka-dotted pattern in the snow.  I’ve always called the fruit “gum balls”  (while simultaneously warning children not to chew them if they want their mouths uninjured) but, according to Wikipedia, the fruit are also called by a number of nicknames, including “burr balls”, “space bugs”, “monkey balls”, “bommyknockers”, and “goblin bombs”.

unnamed-9

I am sending out cosmic thanks to whomever cleared off one butt’s-worth of space on this trailside bench.  It gave me a chance to sit and listen to the forest for a minute.  I’ve just started an excellent book, What the Robin Knows by Jon Young, and used this opportunity to further my studies in “deep bird language”.

unnamed-12

The stream gets wider and wider until . . .

unnamed-13

Wetland!  This view is between mile markers 1.1 and 1.2.  I had planned only to walk half way down the trail (0.9 miles), but I couldn’t bear the thought of turning back without seeing the frozen marsh.  I was rewarded for my perseverance by a mixed flock of birds foraging in the grass tufts that break through the ice.  I saw several white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) and at least two other types of LBB (Little Brown Bird).

Opportunity Taken: The Bloodroot Trail

No question about it, it had to be today.

It’s been windy and in the teens for two weeks, we’re expecting snow tonight and tomorrow, and then even more frigid temperatures to follow.

This afternoon, however, was a balmy 33 degrees with gentle breezes that kept the “feels like” temp in the upper 20s.  For a gal still learning to be “weatherproof” today was the day to get out for a hike.

unnamed-1

The trailhead sign for the Bloodroot Trail, which winds around the ridge inside and above the Stream Loop I hiked a few weeks ago.

Or, rather, a walk in the woods.  Hiking, to me, carries a connotation of physical exercise.  This makes me feel obligated to move quickly along the trails, keeping up my pace and heart rate.  Walking quickly on the trails is also a great way to miss everything going on in the woods that I came out to see in the first place.  So, my “resolution” for this year is to quit hiking and just walk (slowly, pausing often) in the woods.

(Exercise will have to be accomplished at home on my NordicTrac elliptical machine.  I call it “Hellga” for obvious reasons.)

So today, despite a hip-deep mound of unfolded laundry and before the urgent grocery run, I hit the Bloodroot Trail in the American Chestnut Land Trust’s (ACLT) Parker’s Creek Preserve.

It was a good choice.  Nature never disappoints.

I started the trail walking way too fast.  Three weeks of holiday preparation and family visits, the last two of which I was basically stuck indoors, had me in my head.  And my head up my backside.  (I could tell because my thoughts were all crappy.)

All I heard was the crunch of leaves and the rustling of my many layers against the extra blubber I’d built up over the holidays (warm, but bad for my self-esteem) as I barged down the trail.

Luckily, I ran into another woods-walker, an ACLT volunteer who was out to bow hunt the evening hours in order to check the local white-tailed deer population.  He didn’t know me.  He didn’t care about my holidays.  He was just glad to be in the woods, and glad for me that I was there, too.  We chatted for a minute about the beautiful lacy leaves still decorating the beech trees, about how Parker’s Creek had frozen solid and so the raft crossing is closed, about how some unwise soul would probably try to cross it on foot anyway and be sorry for it.

I thanked him for his good trailwork – the ACLT trails impress me more on every visit – and wished him luck in his hunting, eager to move on now that our chat had stopped my inner monologue and successfully removed my head from my rump.  (I kept that last part to myself.)

That’s maybe the best part of the woods; once you wake up and tune in, the sights and sounds overtake the tempest-in-a-teapot of human thought and push it aside.  The questions the woods ask are so much more interesting that anything I already know.

Still, as long as I was moving, the forest remained silent.  Strange.  Or not.  If I were a critter in the winter woods and a nosy human was clomping through, I’d save my warm breath and enjoy my hiding space until the clumsy clomper had passed.

It is counter-intuitive to pause in the wilderness when the weather is cold.  There’s some mammalian drive that wants your feet to keep moving until you reach warm cabin or safe car.  Today I fought that urge, and nature rewarded me.

Just as I rounded a corner, I saw on the bridge over the valley stream a cat-sized bit of furry, rusty-red motion.  As the creature in question trotted away I caught sight of four black paws and snow-white tipped tail.  A red fox (Vulpes vulpes)!  My first trail-sighting!

I’ve seen many furry friends from the driver’s seat of car as they dashed away from the road (and a few that didn’t make it across), plenty of orange-red eyes glowing in the night at the edge of the field, but I’d never seen one on a trail until today.  Though the normally nocturnal fox was likely out hunting early to avoid the coldest hours of night, its appearance was full-on magical to me.  Worth the whole trip.  But the walk wasn’t even half over yet, and the pictures below reveal some of the questions and answers the woods gave me.

unnamed-2

I paused to admire and photograph the two trees at center before I came upon the fox.  It was probably the fact that I had quit making so much noise that encouraged the fox to stay long enough for me to catch a glimpse when I rounded the corner.

unnamed-3

I really am developing a thing for beech trees.  Look at this giant!  Too wide to wrap my arms around, but still showing off that “muscles under skin” appearance.  To me, this looks like the inside of a bent elbow.  I wonder what caused the bend.

unnamed-11

This is the standing snag of a dead giant.  Though I didn’t examine the bark at the base closely enough to know what kind of tree this was, I love how easy it is to see the tree’s natural twisting-as-it-grows pattern.  Why do trees twist as they grow?

unnamed-4

The fox’s view.  A frozen streamlet taken with a hand still slightly shaky from the excitement of seeing a fox.  If the streams are frozen, where will the fox find water to drink?

unnamed-5

Who will this shelter tonight?  How do the feathered ones and furry ones survive these arctic blasts?  

unnamed-6

How gorgeous is this split cherry trunk?!  What makes it so red?

unnamed-8

Is this American Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) offering its bright red fruit to the birds, or is it its invasive cousin Oriental Bittersweet (C. orbiculatus) getting a toehold in these woods?  Is there enough water in these shriveled berries to help keep the animals hydrated while the stream is frozen?

unnamed-10

Why do the birds wait all winter to eat the holly berries?  Do they taste so bad that they’re the kale of bird cuisine (only eaten as a last resort) or do repeated freezes somehow make them more palatable or nutritious come March?

Tomorrow I’ll snuggle in under the blanket of snow and research more answers. . .and more questions to ask on my next walk.