Time to Meander – PA

Susque BridgeThe distance from our home in Maryland to the Outer Banks in North Carolina is roughly three hundred miles as the crow flies or the stagecoach rolls. Driving at about sixty miles per hour (MPH), it should take the average driver just under five hours to reach Kittyhawk on a good day if you make all the lights and don’t stop too long at the Cracker Barrel for lunch. We pride ourselves on being pretty good drivers but I have to admit that, some years back, we made that trip in an unbelievable record breaking time of four and a half days. Amazing! Yep, you read correctly – we took more than four days to get to the Outer Banks from Maryland, the state right next door to North Carolina. And we weren’t even driving a horse and buggy – it was a real car with a speedometer that goes all the way up past a hundred miles an hour. (Yes, I tried to say “miles per hour” but the southern in me just couldn’t keep it up.)  No, to answer your question, we did not have any car trouble or flat tires. We just set our usual road trip pace. While others may speed down the interstate like a bat outta hell, we tend to stick to back roads and just meander along at a snail’s pace….or, more precisely, at a pace more fitting to bird watching and just looking around. And by meander, I don’t just mean we drive slowly, we also drive up and down country roads, stop at every possible scenic overlook and visit any and all parks and gardens we might pass on our way.  It sometimes takes us hours (and maybe days as in the case with the Outer Banks) to get some place so when we go any place, we have to plan ahead because you see, “time is of the essence1 with us.

Let me correct that: our traveling takes scheduling, mostly. It takes planning when we’re going somewhere by plane or train or when we need touring assistance. When we head out in the car, what we need is time. Like Harry Chapin, we keep a “watch on time”2  when we have “work to do2 or a deadline or a train to catch but otherwise, we just go where the car and the GPS takes us. On the other hand, we are not quite in sync with J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous line, “Not all those who wander are lost….”3. Quite often we are, in fact, lost and, we are lost by design.

And so it was that we headed out on the road a few weeks ago. Our “plan” was hatched when my better half volunteered to help out in building a deck at the Global Aid Network (GAiN) warehouse near Mount Joy, Pennsylvania. See, he is the better half since he actually went to work and I had no real intention of helping build that deck. I was just going along for the ride. And, since we need approximately two hours to get from our home in Maryland to the warehouse in Pennsylvania, we gave ourselves one and a half days. It worked out splendidly.

conowingoWe started out heading for Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River at the upper end of the Chesapeake Bay. It is a birding hotspot that every birder in Maryland knows about and visits at least once a year….mostly in winter. The attraction is the Bald Eagles who fish and hunt on the river at the bottom of the dam….again, mainly in the winter. The absolute best place to get information on Conowingo Dam for birding is the blog of an excellent local birding photographer, Emily Carter. I had heard many good things about Conowingo and wanted to scope it out (pun intended, of course) in summer and then maybe go back later in the year. I had heard that there weren’t many Bald Eagles there in summer but there were a goodly amount of herons and gulls that would make the birding interesting so why not? Of course, we couldn’t just get in the car and drive straight there – that would defeat the whole point of giving ourselves all that extra time to meander.

We headed up in that general but, certainly not specific, direction – that is, more or less northeast. It was a beautiful day and we blasted through Baltimore and soon got our first sign to pause. It was one of those brown ones that announce that a state park or historical marker is nearby and couldn’t be more than just a short piece off the main road. The first park-o-the-day was Gunpowder Falls State Park. Nearby was another great find – Marshy Point Nature Center. Two for the price of one – how can you beat that?

marshy pointWe headed for the Nature Center first and, as is the way with these things sometimes, the road signs led us first one way and then the other until we found ourselves very close to where we had actually turned off the main highway. It felt sort of like a Dr. Seuss story or was it The Hobbit who went “There and Back Again4? (Yep, I’m back with Tolkien). The Nature Center was lovely but we pulled in behind a school bus filled with children (pre-teens maybe). Now, there is nothing I like more than knowing young’uns are getting out into nature and learning all that they can about birds and bugs and wildflowers but, on the other hand, there is nothing I like less than trying to bird in a park filled with noisy yakking kids running around with butterfly nets and clipboards. Well……nothing except people walking their dogs and letting them off the leash to run free. Don’t get me started on this one. So, we looked around a bit and left the nature center to the kids and moved on to the state park – which was lovely and big and relatively kid-less.

gunpowder fallsThere is a small cost for entry ($3) but well worth it to visit the park and enjoy all the amenities. It is big enough (maybe 18,000 acres) to handle several busloads of kids without noticeable impact. There is a beach for swimming, meadows for playing, a boat launch for cruising and fishing, rails-to-trails hiking, and a few good habitats (waterfront, streams, marshlands, woods, meadows, etc.) for birding. But there weren’t many birds to be seen this day. We did find an area that was relatively birdy on Graces Quarters Road over by the marina and boat launch – at least it sounded that way because we heard lots of birds singing but didn’t see too many willing to show themselves to us. (DNR Guide to Gunpowder Falls State Park)

Whatever – on to the next place – lunch! I discovered that the upper parts of Maryland and lower parts of Pennsylvania are filled with silver diners. Oh, the names are different but these restaurants are all the same – big silver metal sided buildings with lots of parking and lots of menu selections inside. Lunch is good.

fishingThen it was on to Conowingo. The Dam is off the main road a bit but easy to find and easy to access. Although birders go there often, I had wondered how easy it would be to get there and if you would have to walk a good distance to get to the best spot for seeing the eagles. While it is true that you cannot get too close to the Dam itself – way too dangerous, there is a small park open to the public called the Fishing Pier with paved parking and several options for viewing the river and the birds and fishing, of course. Emily’s blog had advised that one should park by the porta potties to see the eagles fishing near an island in the river and possibly landing in the trees to eat their catch. Emily’s advice was to move up closer to the Dam to see eagles fighting and scuffling away from the trees. Her advice was good. I think the biggest problem in the winter might be standing around in the cold weather not to mention competing with the number of birders and photographers who come and take up the choice viewing spots and parking spaces…and using porta potties. In the summer, you do not have these problems except for the porta potties part. We found a few photographers set up near the “island view” but there were plenty of vacant parking spaces and several available picnic tables. We also headed up near the dam (easy walking and a short distance so we could have walked) and parked near the ramp going down to the area that seemed to be preferred by the fishermen of which there were plenty. And they seemed to be catching quite a few fish.

juvvieThere were tons of gulls and cormorants near the dam. They were easily viewed with binoculars but a more powerful scope would have been better for making precise identifications or looking for the rare ones. There were quite a few Great Blue Herons – I stopped counting at twenty-five (25). And the island was completely swamped with Black and Turkey Vultures. But there were not so many bald eagles….as expected. We did see about five (5), maybe ten (10)…..most were juveniles who didn’t have full adult plumage. But they were all beauties and put on a pretty good show – a little fishing and a little fighting.  Alas, the distances were too much for my small camera. I think that on future visits, I will take Emily’s advice and rent a camera with a big ole long lens that can spot a flea on a skunk’s back from over half a mile.

eagles adultWe stayed at Conowingo for a couple hours and then headed into Pennsylvania and up towards Lancaster. You know, I have been to Lancaster many times in the past and I thought I knew it relatively well. But it turns out; I had only passed near Lancaster visiting the Amish markets out in the country and had never gone into the city at all. Our trustworthy GPS remedied that situation right away. Everywhere we tried to go, the GPS directed us right back through Lancaster….but not the same part of Lancaster every time. I did not know there could be so many one way streets within a two block radius of a city…. outside of Washington, DC, that is. But we managed to find them all, every single one of them, along with a couple streets that were closed for construction that our dear “Road Witch” did not seem to know about. It’s a pretty neat city though with lots of row houses that reminded me very much of Baltimore and Philadelphia.

silver mineBut we did manage to find a couple parks to explore – Longs Park which was more of a family oriented recreational park with a few domestic ducks but no birds otherwise – and a great little park called the Silver Mine Park near Conestoga outside of Lancaster. This last park was big, included several different habitats that would be great for birding, walking trails, and natural water sources – creeks and ponds. But best of all, the park had benches along the walking trail. I am big on benches in parks. They allow you to rest when you get tired and to sit and let the birds find you which they are apt to do once everyone settles down and stops making so much noise. We did meet one gentleman walking there who told us that, yes, there was an old silver mine on the property and they (the parks service?) used to give tours of the mine until it got too dangerous. Now you can hike near the mine but cannot go in to explore. What with the price of silver these days, I wonder that no one has decided to sneak in and find out if any silver remains down deep in the mine and ready to be appropriated.

chickies overlookWe managed to find several other great parks that would be good for birding but we did not see too many birds. Maybe the heat had forced the birds deep into the woods but we saw very few along the areas we explored. We did take a relatively long and difficult (rocky) hike up to Chickie’s Overlook near Colombia where we were treated to great views of the Susquehanna River and a couple of little birds I think were Pine Warblers. The markings seemed good for Pine Warblers and they were certainly feeding in a couple pine trees but they just wouldn’t cooperate by being still long enough for me to get a good picture that I could check against the guides later when I got home. They did match the info in my mobile apps so I’m going with the call. These two birds were about the best sighting of the trip….okay, except for the Bald Eagles…and the Herons…and the Cormorants. Yep, they are all the “best” for me……even the Vultures.

deck buildingBut, all in all, what with all the meandering and looking around, the “best” birding I did was at the GAiN site. While the men worked on building the deck, I listened to an audio book and did a little casual birding of the fields of corn and the farmer’s house nearby. I saw mostly yard birds – nothing rare or unusual – but the birds I saw were entertaining and beautiful as always.  And, that’s enough for me on any given day. The Blue Jays and Cardinals and Chickadees reminded me of the birds at home – waiting patiently for us to return from our meandering and head on back down the road to home and the important stuff – like keeping those feeders full of good black oil sunflower seeds, millet, and safflower.

mallard hybrid

The full quote from J.R.R. Tolkien:

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring;

Renewed shall be blade that was broken,

The crownless again shall be king.”3


  1. Anonymous phrase. [I looked it up but no clear person or source could be identified for this commonly used phrase.]
  2. “Let Time Go Lightly” (Lyrics); Greatest Stories Live (Album); Harry Chapin; 1976; Elektra. [Youtube Audio/Video Link – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Gvhkr3v8iU ]
  3. The Fellowship of the Ring; J.R.R. Tolkien; United Kingdom; George Allen & Unwin (publisher); UK; July 29, 1954.
  4. The Hobbit There and Back Again; J.R.R. Tolkien; United Kingdom; George Allen & Unwin (publisher); UK; September 21, 1937


Bombs, Birds, and Beyond

Panam fortIn my last blog, ”Redcoats and Farmers and Birds”, I explored North Point State Park near Baltimore, MD. My original intent was to check out a local birding hotspot but it seems one cannot explore North Point without getting a little involved in the War of 1812 and, that is especially true this year because September 2014 is the 200th anniversary of the Battles of North Point and Baltimore and the writing of The Star Spangled Banner1 by Frances Scott Key.  Well, if you’re gonna talk about Mr. Key and the poem (Defence of Fort McHenry) he wrote “by the dawn’s early light1, then you might as well get right to it and visit Fort McHenry. So we did.  And why not write all about it? So I am…and I am dividing my thoughts into three parts.

Part One: The Bombs:

So in that last blog, the British were anchored off Baltimore and unloading troops at North Point and were heading up North Point Road while their ships bombarded Fort McHenry and the Baltimore Harbor. The British has just finished burning Washington and were heading in to do the same to Baltimore. One of the comments I received from that blog advised that the port city of Alexandria, Virginia on the Potomac just south of Washington, DC had elected to surrender to the British thereby preventing that lovely city from being burned. I suppose in a war you have those same two options – fight or flee – or, in the case of Alexandria, give up and live to fight another day. On the other hand, I found myself wondering about Annapolis – how did this city survive? The British ships would have passed right by on their way up the Chesapeake to Baltimore. It seems the British had bigger fish to fry and Annapolis just wasn’t on the radar (okay, considering radar hadn’t been invented yet). Baltimore was a much bigger prize if your intent is to give those dastardly Americans a good butt-kicking.

key bridge closeBut on to Fort McHenry – You are just going to have to check some of the links and read up on the war all by yourself. I am only giving you the quick and dirty version herein. Fort McHenry is located at a strategic point where the Patapsco River flows into the Chesapeake Bay. The city of Baltimore and its Inner Harbor are on a bit of a cove – the northwest branch – right at the conflux.  Fort McHenry sits on a point looking out onto the Chesapeake. The entrance to the port is relatively narrow so the Fort with its big guns was very adequate to protect the inner harbor. Fort McHenry was defended using cannons firing 18, 24, and 36 pound cannonballs with a range of about one and a half miles. The British ships fired rockets and mortar rounds with a range of about two miles.  So, of course, the British were anchored just about two miles away off Sparrows Point (about where the Key Bridge crosses today). It is easy to understand why Mr. Key was a bit concerned about the ability of the troops at Fort McHenry to successfully defend the harbor and why he kept watch through the night hoping to see the flag raised at dawn. At dawn the flag was raised and he wrote his famous poem.  Here’s the quick and dirty part – the British were repelled and Baltimore survived the bombardment and are planning a big ole party called the Star Spangled Spectacular on September 10-16, 2014 to commemorate the battle and the victory.

cannon fireJust a few last thoughts on Fort McHenry and war.  The original fort called Fort Whetstone was built in the Revolutionary War because the citizens feared an attack that never came.  Fort McHenry was completed in 1803 just a hand full of years prior to the War of 1812. The fort was used for training for the most part during its active history but it is noteworthy that during the Civil War, the big guns were sometimes aimed at the city rather than away from it. I suppose some folks in Maryland didn’t want to remain a part of the union, had loyalties to the south and caused some problems in the city. I got this bit of info at the museum at the Fort but haven’t been able to confirm it on-line so take it with a grain of salt either way. I’m sticking with the museum info – it makes sense since, even today, I have found that the good people of Maryland cannot seem to figure out if they are southern or not. The 141st Coastal Artillery Company departed Fort McHenry in 1912 after 110 years of service there so technically, it was not an active fort anymore but during WWI, it was used as a hospital and, during WWII and a bit afterwards, it was leased by the Coast Guard for port security work.  Now it’s a National Monument and open year round to tourists and, well, birders.

  1. The Star Spangled Banner: Lyrics – Frances Scott Key, “Defence of Fort McHenry”, 1814, Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Music – John Stafford Smith, “To Anacreon in Heaven”, 1775, England.

baltimore flag

 Part Two – The Birds:

I started this latest quest to explore parks in and around Baltimore for the birding opportunities. Last May, we attended the Maryland Ornithological Society (MOS) Conference at Solomons Island, MD. During dinner one night, we were seated at a table with a couple of lovely ladies who were avid birders and members of the Baltimore Bird Club. I asked about birding in Baltimore and mentioned a couple places I had heard of like Robert E. Lee Park (yep, back to war again) near Jones Falls. I was surprised when one of the ladies mentioned Fort McHenry. Now, I had never been there but had this overall impression that it was a park with the remains of an old fort sitting up on a hill just outside the Inner Harbor at Baltimore. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the thought that someone would do some serious birding there. But I was informed that there was good birding there and I should go to the “back side” over in the wetlands. Wetlands at Fort McHenry? I just couldn’t figure that one out. So, there was nothing to do but go and see for myself.  I heard about North Point State Park at the same conference although from a different source and that had turned out to be a great park for birding so why not Fort McHenry?

narrow inletSo we went. And we learned a little bit (a very little bit) about the War of 1812 as evidenced by my summary above. (The information was available – I just didn’t learn it.) But we did find the wetlands. But that is where the good part ends. The small marsh on the back (southwest?) side of the peninsula was easily found at the end of the Sea Wall Trail but I could not find any way to actually access the wetlands. I have to admit summer is not the ideal time to bird in and around waterways so was not surprised that we didn’t see many birds at all in the park. The park is mostly mowed lawn with some trees but not many so it was not exactly prime habitat for birds from my perspective. I can imagine that there would be plenty of waterfowl in the winter in the harbor and the river so I would recommend that anyone going birding at Fort McHenry focus on wintertime birding. I think perhaps one could sit in the park overlooking the wetlands and do some birding with a good high powered scope but there do not appear to be any obvious trails through the marshy area although a ramshackle bridge can be seen near the rocky riprap about midway through the wetlands. There were a couple of gourd house stands set up for Purple Martins but I didn’t see nary a bird when I scanned the area. I did find a page for birding on the Fort McHenry website (Birds) that gives information about birding at the site and includes links to bird lists for the area.

wetlandsSo maybe my best bet is to head back in the winter and see what we find there. But if you’re going in August, go for the war, the fort, and the history — grab a good spot on a bench along the seawall and just enjoy a beautiful summer day.  Oh, if you get lucky, it’ll be one of the days when they fire the cannons – now that part was way cool although I missed it when they fired off the big 25 inch cannonball ones.

Finally, Part Three – Beyond:

If you want to stick with the sane parts, stop reading now and call it a day. Otherwise, continue on with me for some serious speculation on the far side with my tongue stuck firmly in my cheek.

As of late and over the past six weeks or so while I have been healing from an injury to my right shoulder, I find that I am watching quite a bit of television as one is apt to do when one is recovering from something or another. And it turns out that one of my favorite shows (lately) is Ancient Aliens on the History Channel.  If you are familiar with the show, you will know that it explores the possibility that the earth was visited by extraterrestrials in ancient times (pre-history) who influenced (sometimes good and sometimes bad – mostly just meddling in) the development and history of mankind. So, as I strolled around the park at Fort McHenry I couldn’t help but be struck by the star-shape of the design of the fort and I began to wonder about things celestial as I wandered about the place.

star fortSo let’s talk about the shape of things at Fort McHenry.  Here we have a perfectly shaped 5-pointed star that can really only be appreciated or fully viewed from above. So, it stands to reason that it was built by someone or something (maybe terrestrial or, then again, maybe celestial) who could see the whole site from the air or maybe even from space.  Right – just like the Nazca Lines in Peru. After all, there were barely even balloons in 1789 when Fort McHenry was built let alone flying vehicles that could have properly surveyed the site from the air. (Although I will note that one Benjamin Franklin was somewhat into flying kites or so we have been told but I wonder where exactly he got his ideas about electricity! Do you think he might have been an alien?)

star chartSo we have a five-pointed star but looking at the maps and charts in the museum on site, I discovered that the shape was actually a five-pointed star built on what looked like another partially obscured or busted up star with some sort of arrow right through the middle of it.  You guessed it – the original buildings on the site must have represented the home universe for the extraterrestrials who visited Baltimore in ancient times before it was called Baltimore and had some sort of native name like “place of the blue crabs that are steamed with Old Bay but not boiled”. If you study star charts, you will no doubt find a solar system with an earth-like planet in a binary star system with one fully active vibrant sun and a second sun that is a dying. The extraterrestrials who visited this site have thus left clues to their original home so that we could find our way to them in a future when our technology was advanced enough to recognize that particular constellation. Of course, the arrow through the middle of the fort points to the rising sun on the summer solstice in alternate leap years when the moon is in retrograde and Mars is in its perihelion. Yes, the home of our extraterrestrial ancestors is out there somewhere – perhaps in Alpha Centauri or Andromeda.

spaceportBut, of course, you might tell me some gobbledygoop about military forts and strategies and that the 5-pointed star design was somehow superior from a military standpoint for the best defense of a given point of land. Or, that any idiot can climb up a tree and see the shape of the fort without ever having to step foot in a spaceship. Or, that the Pentagon is also a five-sided stronghold and no one ever said it was built by extraterrestrials. Hold on – now wait a minute. The Pentagon is five-sided just like a five-pointed star….well, sort of….maybe a stylized star – if you squint your eyes, you can see that right off. And I seem to recall visiting other historical forts over the years like Fort Pulaski near Savannah, Georgia that had five sides too. I’m seeing a trend here. Obviously, these were all sites that had significance to humans throughout the ages even before the US decided to use the sites for military strongholds and built on top of the older prehistoric artifacts and monuments. (Did you like that leap in logic? We’re on a roll now. I just have to figure out how to work Stonehenge into the whole thing.)

snake moundsSo, we have Fort McHenry sitting on a point that was clearly a sacred site to the Native Americans and clearly the perfect site for a fort to be built to protect the good people of Baltimore. As I walked on the ramparts circling the fort, I could actually sense the sacredness of the site – a faint tingling going up and down my spine. (Okay, it could have been that I’d been in the sun too long or that my ears were ringing from the cannon firing demonstration but there was a tingling, I swear.) And then, it occurred to me that the flag was in exactly the right position just to the center front of the star to be protected and it is no wonder that Frances Scott Key was able to see it in the early hours that fateful morning. It was obviously in a mysterious vortex of some sort of magnetic phenomenon and no cannonballs from any primitive wooden ships would be able to harm it….ever…as long as it was centered in that vortex.

I think it would be just a matter of time before archaeologists discovered the original foundations and remnants of buildings that were built long before the Fort was ever conceived of or built. If there were some big old rocks in Baltimore, I’m sure they would have petroglyphs on them and historians would spend years trying to figure out what they meant and how the stones got there in the beginning. It is absolutely plausible that this was the site of a landing spot for spaceships and vehicles used by extraterrestrials in ancient times. It makes sense in that location right at the top of the Chesapeake Bay. And there are several of these “forts” up and down the east coast that could have been used by the ancient aliens. It is just so clear if you think about it for a moment or two.

And what’s up with that park up the street from Fort McHenry called Federal Hill Park? Right in the middle of this part of the city, there’s a big hill sticking up above the row houses like a green knob. According to one lady that I talked to, this is one of the oldest parks in the US and has been there as long as anyone can remember. It was there long before the colonists arrived and is still there today looking like an Indian mound right there close to downtown Baltimore. It makes sense that there would be a smaller complex near a giant space port like Fort McHenry, now doesn’t it? Do you think there might be tombs inside the hill or maybe a ring of stones at the summit – maybe Baltimore Henge? (See, I got it in there after all.)

Again, no doubt the ancient history could be revealed with further study of the site and more archaeological digs. But, alas, we shall never know because the United States Government has declared these sites to be national monuments that are protected from further study into their origins. What do you suppose they are hiding? And so the mystery will ever remain just that – a mystery….or maybe a Government conspiracy. How shall we ever know?

inner harborNote/Disclaimer: For all you believers out there, you need to know – I just made this last part up – all of it. Okay, the part about the Fort being in the shape of a five-pointed star is true and the Pentagon is five-sided and there is a Federal Hill Park in Baltimore. The part about the alien site at the Fort all originated in my television-saturated mind.