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.
- If it’s soaring, check what its underwing colors are. White along the entire back edge of the wings = Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) White only at the ends of the wings = Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)
- If it’s perched or on the ground, look for head color. Red head = Turkey Vulture, Black head = Black Vulture
- If it’s not really that big and it flaps when it flies (rather than soaring), its a
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:
- 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.
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:
- If it looks big, it’s probably a:
- Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) is both common and classic – it is the gull from most seashore paintings, with a white head, bright yellow beak, soft gray wings and pink (pink!) legs and feet.
- Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) similar to the herring gull, but a little bit smaller and with yellow legs a black band around its beak – often seen in parking lots or near trash bins in winter, foraging for french fries.
- Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus) the largest gull in the world, with a wingspan of up to 5 1/2 feet, is a common winter sight along Maryland shorelines.
- Laughing Gulls (Leucophaeus atricilla) only hang out around the Chesapeake Bay in the summer, and they’re easily identified by their bold, black heads and bright orange beaks.
- If it looks regular or “little,” it’s probably a:
- Little Gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus), the smallest gull in the world, is a rare winter visitor to the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Coast.
- Bonaparte’s Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) may stop to rest in our area during spring and autumn migrations between the Arctic and the Caribbean.
- Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) the smaller cousin of the Great Black-backed Gull, it’s an occasional winter visitor in this region.
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.
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?