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 field trip yesterday. The local lakes have been mostly frozen over for weeks so most recent visits have resulted in seeing Canada Geese and Ring-Billed Gulls walking around on ice, but on Saturday the temperatures went up to around 60 so we had to get outside.  I did some research on eBird to look at recent sightings to try and figure out where to go and we headed to Black Hill Regional Park in Montgomery County Maryland to see if we could find some interesting water birds.

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 to this park 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 that non-powered boating on the waters of the lake is a big deal in the warmer months. Now, at the end of February, there were still large areas frozen over over, particularly in the narrower branches and coves, but there was a big area of open water in the widest part of the lake, making it a good spot for seeing water birds.

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

We had good luck in the boat dock area near the visitor’s center where 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 and 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, where many 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

We struggled over ID-ing the Common Mergansers for quite a while, which from out binoculars view looked simply like dark-headed or red-headed ducks with white bodies, until a young guy with a scope showed up and 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 very appealing to us at this point. Without a scope, our strategy in these cases is to use our bridge camera, a Nikon Coolpix 900, to take pictures of birds in the distance. These pictures taken at the very edge of the camera’s reach, like the one above that Jim took, might not be frame worthy, but can be helpful for confirming an ID when you get them home and put them on a larger screen monitor.

We later tried to go around to the other side of the lake in hopes of getting a better view, but 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, so 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 in the winter) because they didn’t seem to link up well or go to the areas that interested us. I did read on their website just this morning that the park will be expanding their natural trail system on the far side of the lake for just this reason.

But despite all 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 the Canada Geese on the grass earlier in the day and apparently 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. 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 of the birds, hanging around the dock area on our side of the lake even when a little boy was throwing rocks into the water fairly 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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