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.

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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.

 

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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 
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    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:

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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?

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

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

Flushing

No, not that kind of flushing!

What kind of nature writer do you think I am?

Sicko.

I’m talking about flushing birds out of their hiding places among the leafy branches and briar tangles.  Apparently, I’m great at it.  I found this out a few nights ago while taking an evening walk in Heritage Park.

Heritage Park is a former dairy farm, with wide meadows covering its hills, complete with old silos and broken down wooden outbuildings turning silver with age.  There’s a farm pond in the forested upland and the hills,roll down to a wetland floodplain on the side of Tom’s Creek.  In short, every bird habitat you could hope for, all with mown, traveled, or paved trails.

The park is a regular haunt for the local birding club, whose expert members can pick out migrating warblers (tiny, flitting sirens who tease with sweet songs and bright feathers and then disappear behind a single leaf among millions) across a valley, sometimes only by call.  Unfortunately, the birders tend to hit the park to look for birds by 8:00 a.m. on Saturday mornings, a time I have permanently reserved each week to spend looking at the backs of my eyelids.

So there I was, on my own (truly – in over an hour, I only saw three other people in the park) and with camera in hand, ready to capture the parks’ natural wonders in the golden hour before dusk.

I failed utterly.

Otherwise, this post would be titled “Fantastic Photos of Heritage Park Birds” and would be filled with said pictures.

Instead, I hope to do the birds I saw a modicum of justice by describing them and finding pictures on line.

Turkey Vulture

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.

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

Vultures often ride the updrafts rising off of the hills in Heritage Park.  I love to visit this park with kids because it gives me an opportunity to teach them e difference between vultures and hawks (hawks rarely soar outside of migration season; they hunt by swooping or diving from a high perch or chasing smaller birds through the forest with stunningly acrobatic flight) and between turkey and black vultures:

Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) are slightly larger, have red heads like turkeys, and the entire length of their underwings is divided by color, white toward the tail and black toward the head.

Black vultures (Coragyps atratus) are smaller, have black heads, underwings that are black to the wrist, but with white “hands” at the wingtip.  Black vultures also fly with their wings held flat, whereas turkey vultures’ wings are held at an upward angle.

What I saw on that evening was a turkey vulture, but not alone.  The vulture was being chased and harassed by two red-winged blackbirds protecting their nest from the giant soaring intruder.  The vulture seemed more annoyed than concerned, as if the blackbirds were mosquitos buzzing around its ears rather than a real a problem.  A vulture would rather have a nice, stinky carcass for dinner than a plain meal of eggs.

The whole group flew in by me not fifteen feet away, but quickly, and directly in front of the sun.  Had I been quick enough to stop watching and aim the camera, I would have caught a dark blur in a blinding white frame of evening sun.

Every beautiful blue in the whole wide world, it seems, lives in the feathers of the male indigo bunting, captured here by Kevin Bolton and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

Every beautiful blue in the whole wide world, it seems, lives in the feathers of the male indigo bunting, captured here by Kevin Bolton and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

Indigo Bunting

I had forgotten how blue, and how many blues, the male indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea) can be.  They look like a tropical artist used their feathers to paint the ombré of the Caribbean Sea:  turquoise, electric blue, teal, royal, and, yes, indigo.  The birds spend their winters in the islands, Cuba, and Mexico and I can’t help but imagine a scene where the birds paint their own plumage, turning and dipping as they fly low above the warm sea waves, catching color on their wings and tails that spreads like summer tie dye.

The bunting was perched on a tall stalk of grass, and froze as I came around the corner.  I stopped moving immediately and stood to gaze for a few seconds, holding my breath.  I brought my camera up slowly in my right hand, and moved only my eyes to check my hand placement, and when I rolled my eyes back to the subject, the bird was gone.

A brown thrasher holding still.  My respect for this Carolina bird photographer, Dick Daniels, knows no bounds.  Photo provided via Wikimedia Commons.

A brown thrasher (Taxostoma rufum) holding still. My respect for this Carolina bird photographer, Dick Daniels, knows no bounds. Photo provided via Wikimedia Commons.

Brown Thrasher

I still remember the first time I saw a brown thrasher (Taxostoma rufum), nearly ten years ago now.  I was teaching an environmental summer camp in the Florida panhandle, driving a 15 passenger van full of kids, and the thrasher swooped out from the edge of the forest and back in through a tangle of vines.  I was so excited – a new bird!  (FYI, I kept the van on the road despite the excellent distraction – the campers survived.)

Brown thrashers are so wonderfully not some of the more common birds.  They are the size of a robin, but where the robin’s back is black, the thrasher’s is a rich, milk-chocolate-with-a-hint-of-red-chili-pepper (like a Mexican hot chocolate) brown.  Its tail is long and slender like the mockingbird’s, but curves downward ever so slightly, like a sardonically raised eyebrow.  Its beak is likewise slightly curved downward, like a Carolina wren’s.  As I write, I can’t help thinking that if these three birds were evolutionarily smashed together just right, the resulting Frankenbird would be our beloved brown thrasher.

On this particular evening in Heritage Park, the brown thrasher flew from one tree to another and I caught it out of the corner of my eye – a swoosh of that warm brown, the right size, a glimpse of streaked breast.  Not even a chance of a shot with the camera, but still that sweet, delighted feeling of “I saw my new bird again!”

The northern flicker will give you a "flicker", a glimpse, of a white patch just above its tail as well as yellow underwings as it flies up from its spot feeding on the ground.  Photo courtesy of Cornellier via Wikimedia Commons.

The northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) will give you a “flicker”, a glimpse, of a white patch just above its tail as well as yellow underwings as it flies up from its spot feeding on the ground. Photo courtesy of Cornellier via Wikimedia Commons.

Northern Flicker

Spotting woodpeckers has never been easy for me.  Well, actually, I can spot them, but the little wiseacres always spot me right back and promptly hop around to the far side of whatever tree they’re on so I can’t get a good look at them.  Even the downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) – or it could be a hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus), or maybe I get both – that visits my suet feeder in the winter doesn’t stay long enough for positive identification.

But northern flickers (Colaptes auratus) are different.  First of all, they’re big – 12 inches from top of the head to tip of the tail (compared to the downy’s diminutive eight inches).  Second, and even better, they feed on the ground a lot, using their beaks to dig for ants and beetles.

The flicker I flushed (ooh, that’s fun to say) had been feeding at the edge of the mown path on the hilltop meadow.  It flapped up to a tree on the other side of the path and, even in the low light of gathering dust, I saw the white patch just above its tail between wing beats.  It’s that white patch flashing that gave the bird it’s name “flicker”.

One of these days I’ll carry my best camera (I call her “Big Girl”) out to the park with me.  I’ll lug the tripod and the telephoto lens, too.  I’ll bring a chair and sit and be patient.

And, even then, I’ll still be distracted in all different directions by flits and flaps and flutters and flushes and photo opportunities missed.  Fortunately, I’m totally okay with that.