Chasing A Rare Bird – Red Crossbills

fort treeSnow. Lots of snow predicted today. Or, should I say, THEY are threatening us with snow again. I once worked with a young man who had relatives who lived in New York City who always said the weather man was “threatening” them with snow as if the weather channel was command headquarters for the big war against sunny nice weather and it was a constant battle between the people who wanted warm weather and the weathermen who were always predicting another “100 year storm” with lots of snow and ice and treacherous road conditions.  When snow is on the radar I am always reminded of Rick and the never-ending war against the soldiers of snow and bad weather.

But snow is not always such a bad forecast.  Have you ever noticed that of all the types of weather, snow is the quietest and possibly the prettiest? I would certainly agree that a wild and thundering rain storm does reach down to the most tempestuous parts of your soul and can sweep you off on a journey and cleanses the cobwebs out of your head. But snow is silent for the most part and invites you to find a good book, a cup of hot chocolate, a nice bowl of buttered popcorn, and a warm cozy spot to relax, read, and nap and find a little peace and quiet along the way.  People do not talk about snow pelting down or raging through the trees. They talk of snow blanketing the earth and making everything more serene and beautiful.  It surely puts me in mind of a nice bowl of stew and hot biscuits for supper this evening.

Fort BatteryIt also brings a location to mind and chasing a rare bird or two. The location is Fort Smallwood Park here in Anne Arundel County. Fort Smallwood is a gem of a park located on the point where the Patapsco River meets the Chesapeake Bay.  It was once a fort that helped to protect the Port of Baltimore and still has an old battery on the shoreline. On a clear day, unlike today, you can see the Key Bridge from the park. Unfortunately, our luck in birding here has not included too many clear days.  Being on the water, the park has become a birding hotspot in the county for spotting numerous types of waterfowl in winter. I stress ‘in winter’ because most of our visits there have been in the winter and, again, being on the water means that cold winds are almost always blowing in from the Chesapeake Bay.  Very cold.

key bridgeOur first visit to Fort Smallwood was last year about this same time.  The winter of 2013 was apparently not so good for Crossbills further up north and so we had an “irruption” of crossbills in the area. We had read reports of the rare bird (for Maryland) being spotted at various locations in the county. After several reports of a nice sized flock of crossbills at Fort Smallwood Park, we decided the time was right to go out in search of the crossbill.

There were two possibilities for Crossbills – the Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) and the White-Winged Crossbill (Loxia leucoptera).  It didn’t particularly matter which bird I encountered as either would be a nice addition to my life list. Of course, both would be nice but I figured I should not be greedy about it and just go out and see what we could find. As the name implies, the Crossbill has a crossed-bill, all the better for extracting pine nuts from between the layers of pine cones and seeds from round prickly sweet gum tree balls.  Both the Red Crossbill and the White-Winged Crossbill are mostly reddish in color with the Red Crossbill being a bit duller red with some yellow or orangey patches.  The White-Winged Crossbill is red with black wings with white markings (okay, wing bars).  (Yes, there are more identifying marks that are diagnostic but I leave the research in the field guides today to you.) In a winter world of little brown sparrows, a red bird other than the ever-present Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) should stand out, right? Or so I thought.

google mapWe found Fort Smallwood Park with relative ease. Only one problem, on our first visit, the temperature outside at the point was 17 icy degrees.  That’s 17 degrees without factoring in the wind chill of the steady breeze rolling in off the Bay. The Park has a roadway that loops through the park. The top of the loop circles the waterfront. There were actually fishermen fishing off the rip-rap which had a nice layer of ice on the rocks. I have come to know that there are always fishermen at Fort Smallwood or, at least there have always been fishermen when I’ve been there.  We drove slowly around the loop doing a little car-birding and occasionally braving the wind and rolling the windows down to peek out with the binoculars. We searched every pine and American Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) tree on the property looking for Crossbills.  No luck.

towheeWe spotted Eastern Towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), a huge flock of sparrows containing mostly White-Throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) and House Sparrows (Passer domesticus), Canada Geese (Branta canadensis), Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus), and a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)…..but no Crossbills.  I actually tried to get out of the car at the waterfront to check out the rafts of Scaups and Ducks off the point hoping to see something special.  I lasted only about 10 seconds that felt more like 30 minutes.  Did I say it was cold? I darn near froze to death walking the 50 feet from the parking lot to the bulkhead.

sapsuckerSometime later that month we tried again after hearing yet more reports of Crossbills in the Sweetgum trees at the park. It was a balmy winter day. The temperature was somewhere in the 30’s so we were confident that this would be the day when we would have much better luck and I would be able to layer up with sweaters and jackets and gloves and a good hat and I would be able to actually get out of the car, do some time walking around and I would surely be able to spot those Crossbills. I don’t suppose I could be more wrong. Everywhere else in the state of Maryland, the skies were overcast but there was really no forecast (or threat for that matter) of precipitation.

Flicker V2At Fort Smallwood, we found freezing rain and snow falling – okay, not falling exactly – horizontally. Not a Crossbill to be found and absolutely no getting out of the car. And yes, there were a couple cars – fishermen – waiting for the micro-storm to abate so they could get back to standing on the shore and doing a little fishing. I am not really sure which group – birders or fishermen – is more persistent at their craft.

I was able to amuse myself by watching Gulls flying directly into the headwind.  Well, I say “flying” but the gulls were making very little progress and, in fact, seemed to standing (flying) still. Now, I had always wanted to capture a bird in flight in what I just knew would be an award winning photograph. But in the past, I have never been lucky enough or had a camera that was fast enough to get a good picture of a bird in flight. Here was my chance. There would be little motion on the bird’s part to blur up the photograph.  So I braved the cold and the wind and rolled down the window and started clicking away. The birds appeared to be motionless in their effort to fight the wind so I figured getting a shot would be a cinch. Unfortunately, the camera captures the reality and not the illusion of the scene and, in reality, there was plenty of movement by the birds and by the wind and the snow to make the shot a difficult one.  A better photographer would have, no doubt, nailed it but, once again, I was left with some more blurry bird pictures.  I am getting quite a collection of slightly blurry bird pictures and am thinking about pretending that I take these shots deliberately and it is some special and rare form of art photography.  If it catches on, I will be the Leonardo da Vinci of the “blurry art bird photography” genre, hands down.

gull in the windBut back to rare things and rare birds. We never did find the Crossbills at Fort Smallwood although we have found good birds there and there many good reasons that it is a birding hotspot in the county.  We have only been to Fort Smallwood once, in the height of summer, when it wasn’t freezing and damp and cold. In summer, the park is delightful and filled with children playing and walkers and bikers and waders and, oh yes, fishermen.  But unless you get a good day, it is not so great for birding in the summer since all the activity, especially the kids running and playing and the dogs being walked, seems to discourage the birds.  There is a wonderful marshy pond on the property that attracts herons and wading birds so you can usually find birds there though not as many as in winter.   It has become one of our favorite spots to go to when we do not have lots of time for birding and a slow drive around the park loop to see what birds there are is very appealing.

Now about those Crossbills – last year was the year for Crossbills. There have been no reports of Crossbills this year and the word is that there is plenty of pine nuts and sweet gum seeds up north for the Crossbills to eat. So, there was no need for the Crossbills to venture further south this winter.  But do not despair, all is not lost. Just as we had decided we were not going to get lucky enough to find the Crossbills although we had tried several different locations, a birding friend reported that he had Crossbills feeding at the bird feeders in his yard. Seriously, I thought.


In the yard at the feeders?


I have been braving winter winds and horizontal snow and this lucky guy has Crossbills right there in his yard.  He was gracious enough to invite fellow birders over to see.  With his blessings and permission, we drove over to his house (no icy Bay winds or snow here), hung out a bit drinking coffee and chatting with a few other birders, and leisurely watched the Red Crossbills flit in and out of the feeders enjoying their breakfast.  Now, that is a good birding morning – a life bird for the list – good long looks – doing the “life bird dance” – more blurry photographs for the collection – good company – hot coffee – and absolutely no icy winds or snow.

crossbillsMission Accomplished.

First Day Birding

On the trailIt is the New Year and I am reminded of an old conversation I once had with my mama. Mama was born and raised in the south and was always coming out with wise old southern sayings and quotes, some of which were very well-known and some not so much quoted outside the family circle. But the conversation I usually remember this time of year had to do with traditions for New Year’s Day. Everybody knows you are supposed to eat black-eyed peas, greens and cornbread on the first day of the New Year to ensure prosperity all year round. The greens bring “greenbacks” and the peas bring the coins – silver and gold.  I think the cornbread just goes so well with the peas & greens; I am sure biscuits would work just as well and not cut into your future supply of legal tender.  But mama always added the advice that you ought to do on New Year’s Day what you want to be repeated throughout the year. For mama, I think that meant I should do some work like clean my room and help with the dishes without complaining. It also meant that I should remember the reverse corollary to the advice – “Don’t do anything you do not want repeated every day of the year ” like arguing with your sisters or fussing at your little brother or being ornery and stubborn along the way.

I have always tried to remember that advice and I was reminded of it recently when I was reading some announcements on the Virginia State Parks blog. Their advice was to do a First Day Hike in one of Virginia’s many state parks. Sounded like good advice so I tweaked it a bit for me and decided the thing to do would be to start a tradition to go birding on New Year’s Day. Being in Maryland, I decided to pick a park close by – no use driving all day and cutting into the actual time we would be in the park birding. So the plan evolved quite nicely. We would enjoy a nice leisurely breakfast and then head out to do a little birding at a park just up the road a piece we’ve been meaning to check out further and then we would head on over to Cracker Barrel to get some traditional southern food.  Good plan, right?

No, there’s no punch line. It all worked out pretty well except for the Cracker Barrel part. We decided to stop in at Kinder Farm Park and check out the pond there for a bit on our way over to Downs Park in Pasadena.  Kinder Farm was on the way and the little pond there is known to have a few ducks or two most of the year; but most of the year, the pond cannot be seen clearly because the grounds keepers do not clear the shrubs and trees from the pond’s perimeter. But in winter, you can see the pond from the road as you drive by and determine if there are any ducks to see before you get to the parking lot to park and walk all the way back to the pond.

January 1st was working out well.  There were some ducks to see although not many.  And there wasn’t any traffic on this winter morning so we actually didn’t have to go park and walk back. We were able to pull off the road and scope out the birds and grab a couple photos in no time flat.

tipping mallardsAs usual, there turned out to be a pair of Mallards (Anas platyrhyncos) tipping and diving in one corner of the pond.

hoodiehoodie maleBut there was also a pair of Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) swimming on the far side of the pond.  The male was easy to see but the female was staying close to the edge of the pond and was mostly hidden by the twigs and vines hanging over the water.  If you look closely, you can see her in the background of the first picture above.

ring neck duckFinally, there were a couple Scaups.  At least I thought they were but when I got home and checked the photos to try to figure out if they were Lesser (Aythya affinis) or Greater (Aythya marila) Scaups, I found that I didn’t have Scaups at all. The bill was all wrong being edged in white and the body colors just weren’t right and the shape of the head was not quite round enough.  So it was back to the guide book to take a look.  Turns out the little duck appeared to be a Ring-Necked Duck (Aythya collaris) and that turned out to be an awesome find this birding day.

Downs WaterfrontThen it was on to Downs Park. We had cruised through the place once before in summer but the park had been filled with cars and people so we had looked around and moved on to another park that was less crowded and more amenable to finding some birds. Today was our chance to check out the park again. We assumed that the cold weather would discourage most people and we might get lucky and have the park to ourselves.  There were some cars in the parking lot but not many.  We piled on jackets and gloves and warm hats and then unpacked the scope and binoculars and camera and headed over to the waterfront. I thought maybe our best bet for seeing large quantities of birds would be to check out the Bay for waterfowl wintering over in Maryland.  It was cold….and I mean frigid and blustery. The wind off the Chesapeake Bay was blowing and cut through my jacket like it was made of linen rather than thick fleece.

canvasbacksWe headed to the overlook and noticed right away there was a good sized raft of ducks floating off the shore that turned out to be Canvasbacks (Aythya valisimeria).  We set up the scope and took a look but it wasn’t easy to see anything. The cold wind was hitting me in the face making my eyes water and making it extremely difficult to focus.  We were able to confirm that the ducks were Canvasbacks and that there were some Ruddy Ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis) here and there mixed into the larger flock.  I got a couple half way decent photos of the Canvasbacks but was never able to capture the little Ruddy Ducks at all.  We didn’t stay there long; it was just too darned cold.

Barred OwlWe headed back towards the parking lot thinking maybe we could find a more sheltered walking path when we noticed that there was an Aviary over to the left of the Visitor Center.  The Aviary had a Barred Owl (Strix varia), a Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), and a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus).  It is always a bit sad to see wild birds in a cage but these birds had been injured, rehabilitated, and could not be released back into the wild.  I was able to get a relatively good photo of the Barred Owl through the fencing but had no luck with the other two birds. We roamed down a trail or two but only turned up a single White Throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) so we headed back to the car. Did I mention it was cold out there?

statueAs we headed back to the car, we found a garden near the Aviary. It was apparently a part of the original farm that was later to form the basis for the Park and had originally been built for the estate owner’s mother. The small garden had been restored by the park management and I decided that we would have to come back in spring and see the garden in bloom, or at least in “green”.   There were several statues in the garden but one caught my attention. It was a lady holding a bird’s nest…it seemed appropriate to find this statute while we were out birding.  Guess I’m not the first person who realized that gardens and birds go together like biscuits and honey.  We stopped for a bit to sit on a bench and enjoy the garden, and while there, we spotted a couple Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) and a few Carolina Chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) but nothing more.

Back in the car and thawing out with the heater turned up to high, we elected to cruise through other areas of the park in the car rather than walking.  We did not have any further luck finding birds; I suspect they were all hunkered down in some brush pile or pine tree somewhere waiting for a little more sun to come peeking through the clouds. So it was off to Cracker Barrel for those black eyed peas and greens and cornbread I mentioned earlier.  But that was not to be. The wait at the restaurant was more than an hour and a half. Everyone in the county must have had my same idea for lunch (or early dinner considering the time).  Waiting anywhere for more than an hour just doesn’t work for me so we headed up the road and found a Ruby Tuesday’s where there was absolutely no wait at all. The food was good and filling and, most importantly, warming.

We headed home with some idea about maybe later in the evening, we would pop open a can of peas and thaw some greens and take care of things the easy way.  But, once we got home, we found some hot chocolate and a warm soft spot on the couch and soon found that taking a nap might be the thing to do after all that birding and walking. And when later came, we weren’t very hungry so never quite got to the peas and greens.  But we did fill our day with things we wanted to repeat throughout the year – birding and walking and gardens and eating and, oh yeah, napping.  Turns out following mama’s advice has never been easier.

Good birding