American Coots at Black Hill Regional Park

American Coots Neart the Dock at Black Hill Regional Park in Maryland
American Coots Near the Dock at Black Hill Regional Park in Maryland

My husband Jim and I went on a birding day trip yesterday. The local lakes have been mostly frozen over for weeks. So most recent trips have resulted in seeing Canada Geese and Ring-Billed Gulls walking on ice. But on Saturday temperatures went up to around 60. We had to get outside.  I researched recent sightings on eBird to decide where to go. Then we headed to Black Hill Regional Park in Montgomery County Maryland to look for interesting water birds.

Black Hill Regional Park

Black Hill is a very nice regional park with amenities in a heavily populated suburban area. About an hour from where we live, our last trip here was more than twenty years ago when our children were young.

The park centers on Little Seneca Lake, a man-made lake with several branches. I believe non-powered boating is a big deal in the warmer months. Now, at the end of February, there were still large areas frozen over, particularly in narrower branches and coves. But there was a big area of open water in the widest part of the lake. This made it a good spot for seeing water birds.

Canada Geese on Little Seneca Lake
Canada Geese on Little Seneca Lake

Watching Birds From the Dock Area

We had good luck in the boat dock area near the visitor’s center. Here we saw American Coots, three Tundra Swans, a slew of Canada Geese, Ruddy Ducks and Buffleheads as well as a Peregrine Falcon soaring overhead, checking the ducks out.

Our binoculars are 8 x 42s. Frankly, while they are very good for many birding situations, we struggled to get a good look at birds on the far side of the water. Of course that is where many of them were hanging out. Over there were Ring-Necked Ducks and Common Mergansers and some odds and ends of other small waterbirds too far away for us to identify.

Common Mergansers Beyond our Binocular Range on the Far Side of Little Seneca Lake
Common Mergansers Beyond our Binocular Range on the Far Side of Little Seneca Lake

A Birding Scope Helps With Water Birds

We struggled over ID-ing the Common Mergansers for quite a while. In our binoculars we could only make out dark-headed or red-headed ducks with white bodies. When a young guy with a scope showed up, he was able to confirm what we were seeing.

It really underscored how useful a scope can be on birding trips, although lugging one around isn’t appealing to us at this point. Without a scope, our strategy is to use our bridge camera, a Nikon Coolpix 900, to take pictures of distant birds. These pictures, taken at the very edge of the camera’s reach, like the one above that Jim took, are not always frame worthy. But they can be helpful for confirming an ID when you get home and view them on a larger screen.

Trying to Walk Around the Lake

We later tried to go around to the other side of the lake in hopes of getting a better view, but did not succeed. The natural surface paths on that side were a combination of slippery mud and hard-packed melting snow. They were navigable if you were wearing hiking boots and knew where the path was supposed to be, but tricky footing for someone in tennis shoes who was new to the path. The snow was also crunchy, making walking loud. Getting closer to the birds without spooking them wasn’t really going to work.

We have gotten spoiled with the paths in nearby Howard County, where you typically find hard-topped paths all the way around the various lakes, usually always within view of the water. Black Hill’s paths were more challenging to navigate (at least during winter.) They didn’t seem to link up well or go to the areas that interested us. I read on their website this morning that the park will be expanding their natural trail system on the far side of the lake for this reason.

American Coots on the Water

But despite this, we still enjoyed the day. No, we didn’t see the lone Trumpeter Swan that has been attracting birders to the lake recently. There was a report that it was among Canada Geese on the grass earlier in the day. And apparently it showed up in the water a bit after we left. But we were happy with the birds we were able to see, especially the American Coots.

American Coot Near the Docks at Little Seneca Lake
American Coot Near the Docks at Little Seneca Lake

The coots were on the shore to the right of the docks when we arrived about 9:30am. These gawky birds on land looked a bit like a bunch of black chickens and have incredibly cool looking feet. They soon entered the water and started swimming around.

As well as being new birds for us, I must admit that part of their appeal was that they don’t seem to be as people shy as some birds. They hung around the dock area on our side of the lake even when a little boy was throwing rocks into the water nearby. I got quite a few pictures of them which made the day for me.

You can learn more about American Coots on Cornell Labs’ All About Birds American Coot page.

Leaving the park later, Jim spotted two Eastern Bluebirds sitting on a wire across from the park entrance, pretty as can be. Altogether, a very nice day of birding.


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