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.