Saturday morning started chilly but clear. The weather folks promised 66 degrees, so Jim and I bundled up in layers and headed over the Bay Bridge to spend the day at the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center in Horsehead Maryland. We saw some cool stuff (including forty-five bird species!) Here are some highlights in pictures and stories.
This was our third trip to CBEC. When we choose a location for a local trip, we will usually browse through some of our favorite local sites using the BirdsEye app to see where fellow birders have reported interesting birds via eBird. BirdsEye reported eight species at CBEC that we hadn’t seen before (at least since we began listing birds with eBird): Cackling Goose, Northern Gannet, Virginia Rail, Snowy Egret, Dunlin, Pectoral Sandpiper, Orange-Crowned Warbler and Yellow-Throated Warbler. Our trip yielded positive sightings of three of these, a possible view of another and a possible hearing of one more. It was a good birding day.
When you first arrive at CBEC, you drive through a wooded area with lots of fallen leaves on the ground, so we saw quite a few American Robins through this stretch. Once the road opened out to the wet tall grass marsh areas though, we quickly found the Tree Swallows. CBEC has nest boxes all along the road in these areas and just about every box was either occupied or was being fought over by several birds, who were looking for the best nesting site.
We got there very early – about 8am – and the swallows were not yet swooping and circling over the water areas to find tasty bugs. Instead, those that were not angling for nest box space were sitting in mass on the gravel road. If you drove slowly towards them, they would at first ignore you and then fly up, do a quick circle and settle back down again.
I’m speculating that the road may have been a warm spot to settle early in the day. If we hadn’t happened to have come so early, we probably wouldn’t have seen this activity, as the birds usually are out hunting insects throughout the day.
Also along the road, we heard the unmistakable song of the Eastern Towhee. While these birds do their foraging on the ground, the males like to go up high to sing their “Drink You Tea . . . ” song.
The CBEC parking lot and the area right around the buildings is always a busy area for the kinds of birds you commonly might see around your backyard or in local parks: Northern Cardinals, Dark-Eyed Juncos, White-Throated Sparrows, Song Sparrows, American Robins, etc. While I was waiting for Jim to get his camera gear and scope together, I kept hearing a bird singing up in a tree next to the parking area.
While the rusty red coloring was a bit like a Fox Sparrow, the shape and the beak wasn’t right, but couldn’t get a good enough look at it to figure it out. When I got home I was able to use the pictures I took to confirm that he was in fact a Brown Thrasher. (This is an advantage to bringing a camera with a long lens birding with you. Even if you can’t figure it out in the field, zooming into a digital picture on a big screen at home can often do the trick in figuring out the ID.)
In the center of the property is Lake Knapp, a small body of water that attracts wintering ducks and although spring has arrived, there were still quite a few hanging out on the water. We took an early peek at the lake from a barn-like pavilion that isn’t far from the parking lot. From that vantage point, we saw lots of Ruddy Ducks, over thirty Northern Shovelers, a pair of Gadwalls, and a pair of Mallards with an American Black Duck/Mallard hybrid hanging with them.
We then headed back across the parking lot to the “Marshy Creek Trail” that takes you through a wooded area toward a high observation platform near the water and then a small dock on Marshy Creek. Almost immediately when you take this path, there is a side path called “Hummock Loop” that we had not tried on past trips. It crosses a narrow wet tall grass marshy area via a short boardwalk over to an open area of tall trees that is surrounded by on all sides by the grass area.
This open wooded area didn’t look all that promising at first, but we decided to sit on a fallen log and eat a snack and see what turned up. This was a good choice because once we were settled, we started seeing activity, mostly up in the tops of the trees. There was a pair of Brown-Headed Nuthatches, a Yellow-Throated Warbler (a first for us) and a whole slew of Yellow-Rumped Warblers. I got a couple of fuzzy pictures of the butter-butts but the other birds were too fast and too high up to pin down with a picture. (We got a few pictures of the nuthatches last time we were here though.) We also saw Osprey and Eagles passing along and over the trees as well. We will definitely be sure to spend time in this area again on future trips.
Back on the main path, we continued on toward the observation platform. The early part of this path is an area where we’ve seen lots of bird activity every time we’ve visited, including Ruby-Crowned Kinglets twice. The kinglets will come fairly low here so that, even though they are fast, if you are persistent enough and/or have a fast enough camera, you can get a picture. This particular kinglet was showing off at times just a bit of his beautiful red crown. (Only the males have the red crown on the top of their head and they don’t always show it.)
Further on at the observation platform, we could look out over Marshy Creek. There is an Osprey nesting platform where a pair of Ospreys were sitting. Their nest is looking a bit sparse, so I think they are still in the building phase. Out in the water, we could see a couple of Double-Crested Cormorants and a whole lot of Ruddy Ducks (hundreds.) All of these were too far out for my camera to get a good shot. This is also a good spot to see Bald Eagles soaring and gulls flying around. It seems like a likely spot to see a Northern Gannet as well, although the glimpse that Jim thinks he may have gotten of one flying was actually back near the wooded area where we were earlier.
Back on the path, we continued around the lake. There are a couple of tires mounted horizontally high up in the tall trees there not far from the water. There is a Great Horned Owl in at least one of the two tires. Peering up at it, you can often see the very tips of the owl’s feathered “ears” peeking over the top of the tire. The owl seemed interested in us as we walked by, lifting his head up just a little bit to peer over the edge of the tire down at us. You aren’t supposed to stare at owls because it disturbs them. But this one was staring down at us voluntarily when it could have easily stayed out of sight. Still, we didn’t stay long to bother it.
Looking across the lake, we got a look at the two Snowy Egrets that have been hanging around at the lake. They were on a little island near the picnic pavilion on the other side, a bit far for a decent picture even with my zoom lens. The wind was gusty and blowing their feathers around. They weren’t doing that much, mostly just preening. But they are beautiful birds.
On the shore right in front of the picnic pavilion were three geese. Two were the typical Canada Goose species that we see everywhere. The third was much smaller, kind of a midget Canada Goose. This one is actually a Cackling Goose. As you can see, they look very much like a Canada Goose and if you saw one by itself, you might be fooled. But this one was right next to the two larger birds, so you could really see the size difference. The proportions of the head and beak are also different.
I’ve been hoping to see a Cackling Goose for months but even where one had been sighted by others and showed up on eBird, I’d never laid eyes on one before. I don’t know if that was just bad luck in the timing or whether some of the previous sightings were really just small a Canada Goose reported in error. You can have a smaller subspecies of Canada Goose or a larger Cackling Goose, so making an ID can be tricky. Here though, I felt confident.
I was paying so much attention to the Cackling Goose that I didn’t realize until I looked more closely at the pictures at home that the feathers on one of the geese were pretty mangled and the other one had some pretty ratty looking feathers as well. I’m not sure what happened to it. Predator? Got tangled in something? Not sure.
After a quick picnic at the picnic pavilion, where we watched the geese and a whole lot of American Robins hopping around in the grass, we walked out to another observation platform nearby that looks out over the water of Hog Bay in Kent Narrows on the other side of the property and then down a boardwalk to a small beach area. It was pretty quiet and other than a Bald Eagle, an Osprey and a couple of Turkey Vultures soaring overhead, there wasn’t a lot happening there. Still no shore birds to be seen.
We wandered back from the lake toward the buildings and the parking lot. A Hermit Thrush was singing in a bushy area and I got a quick picture of him.
Leaving CBEC and driving slowly down the entrance road, we found that most of the Tree Swallows were out and about, still hunting insects. (We had seen them spread out all across the water areas of the property all through our day.) But there were still pairs in and on the nest boxes and still some fighting over boxes going on.
As we were watching the swallows, an Osprey zipped down into the water nearby, pulled out a bright orange fish and landed on a branch in a tree not far from the road to eat his sushi meal.
By this time, we were all birded-out and headed home to download our pictures for the day onto the computer. A good day.
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