This weekend we wound up spending a good chunk of Saturday and Sunday birding at Patuxent Research Refuge North Tract. Neither day turned out as we had hoped or expected, but we still saw something to excite us each day. It’s just that kind of place . . .
Saturday was grey and overcast and we weren’t able to get to the refuge until almost noon. Typically, early or late are better times for bird activity, but there are enough birds there that there is always something to see, even in the middle of the day.
Our first stop was the Little Patuxent River Trail which had yielded a slew of interesting warblers last week. This time around we didn’t see a single bird. Not one. It was a bust for warblers this time where it had been so rewarding last time. Birding is like that sometimes.
But we did hear one bird that we could identify. Birders have been seeing various vireos at the refuge lately . . . or more accurately, in many cases they have been hearing them rather than seeing them. These birds are pretty notorious for being hard to see. Unlike warblers, who can draw your eye by their busy motions (even though they may be high in the canopy), the trees were still, despite the continuous song. We could definitely hear a Yellow-Throated Vireo but darn if we could see him.
This was one of those times when having a good birding app on your phone is handy. On the way over to the refuge we used the app to listen to the songs of the four vireos that people had been reporting. Memorizing the song of a bird that you aren’t watching sing is hard, so while we didn’t succeed in memorizing the Yellow-Throated Vireo’s song, we knew that we recognized it as one of the songs we had reviewed. It isn’t considered ethical to play bird song recordings out in the field because it can interrupt the birds from what they need to be doing to survive. So we turned the sound down very, very low so we had to put the phone up to our ear to hear. That way we could match the songs without disturbing the bird. Definitely a Yellow-Throated, although unfortunately, I can’t show you his picture!
We had better luck over on WildLife Loop road with the Eastern Kingbirds who had just arrived in the area. The first three we saw in a little field near one of the ponds. Each one would sit for a few minutes in one of the little saplings scattered in the field, then sally out to grab an insect and then return to that or a different sapling to repeat the process. Sometimes they would stack themselves up so that all of them were sharing the same little tree. (Note: In the photo above, it looks like they have some green underneath but this is just a trick of the light with green reflected onto their pure white undersides.)
Jim and I had actually pulled over next to the field to eat our lunch while listening to a Prairie Warbler who likes that area and so were sitting in our car. The Kingbirds didn’t seem the least bit bothered by us and in fact would come over and sit in saplings right near the car where we could photograph them close up. I must admit that their bold proximity endeared them to me in a way that the elusive vireos did not, which is of course unfair. But these beautiful birds are fun to watch. The white on the tips of their tail feathers is very distinctive.
We saw many of the same birds this weekend that we saw last week, although some in different numbers. I do find it interesting that when a bird has just arrived at the refuge on migration, they can seem to be everywhere. When the Tree Swallows appeared several weeks ago, it seemed that the air around every piece of water was full of large numbers of them. They are still there, and in fact there are more types (currently Tree Swallow, Northern Rough-winged Swallow and Barn Swallow), but they seem to have spread themselves out. Now we are more likely to see a handful at a time rather than dozens at a time.
Last weekend, there seemed to be a busy Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher everywhere we looked. This weekend we just saw a few, but newly arrived Gray Catbirds seemed to be everywhere. I suspect the answer to this is that birds arriving from a long migration tend to be hungry and so more likely to be actively feeding. And I also suspect that some birds that nest around here might be more likely to be seen when they are building their nests but maybe less visible when they are incubating their eggs and then possibly more visible again when the little ones hatch and need to be fed. Seems like a reasonable guess.
We did get to watch an Osprey eat a fish caught in one of the ponds. These are another fun species of bird to watch. They can look a bit goofy but the way they fly is so graceful. In our area Osprey (and Bald Eagle) nests are popular for nest cameras.
Sunday was wet, raining and cold and we didn’t really intend to go birding again. The idea of trudging around on a cold wet day looking straight up into cold rain drops for warblers eluding us in the tree tops dampened our enthusiasm. Then I got the bright idea that I’d like to try going over and settling in at one spot in the refuge and just sit in the (dry) car for an hour or so and see how the bird activity changed over that period of time.
My inspiration was watching birds from my window or my back step at home. I can sit there for a couple hours and see fifteen to thirty species of birds just from that stationary spot. When we go birding, we tend walk or drive through different areas for shorter periods of time, moving on once we’ve seen what is in the area at that particular time. But bird activity in my backyard can vary. It can be completely still and quiet without a bird in sight. Fifteen minutes later, there can be birds busy eating and drinking and flying around everywhere with the air full of bird song.
I’ve seen similar things happen out in the field birding. Once we stopped by the dam at Tridelphia Reservoir. It was in very late winter before the reservoir is open to the public so the only real access point was walking along the road at the top of the dam. When we got there, we saw about three hundred Common Mergansers and a slew of Ring-Billed Gulls spread out over the water near the dam. Fifteen minutes later, the ducks had moved on to another spot further off on the reservoir, around the corner and out of sight and there were only a few sleepy gulls left floating in the water. If we had happened to arrive fifteen minutes later, we would not have known that only minutes before there had been a ton of bird activity. I do wonder how often that happens. Probably quite a lot.
So the plan was to come to the Patuxent today and settle in at one of the wet areas for a little while just to see how the activity varied over time. Wet days can be busy days for bird activity, so it seemed like a good experiment for a rainy day. Unfortunately our plan didn’t work out.
Our planned spot is located several miles down Wildlife Loop and we kept seeing other interesting things along the way to distract us, so we wound up doing our more usual cold rainy day style of birding from the car, stopping when we saw something interesting. Our trip also lasted over four hours instead of the one hour that we had intended. In the process, we heard two more vireos, a White-Eyed Vireo and a Red-Eyed Vireo, but again recognizing their songs coming from the tree tops along the road without actually seeing the birds.
But I did see get eyes on a very wet Indigo Bunting and Jim spotted an Orchard Oriole, both new spring arrivals to the refuge and new birds to us. The Indigo Bunting didn’t hang around long and the Orchard Oriole was so busy moving around in the trees that pictures of either bird eluded us. We did however get a picture of the pair of Pied-Billed Grebes at Lake Allen. We’ve been struggling with getting pictures of these small birds for months as they always seem to be on the other side of whatever body of water we are viewing!
We heard Prairie Warblers in several different spots (and saw one once too.) They’ve been around for the past several weeks. Their distinctive song is hard to miss and makes me smile every time I hear it. They seem to like to hang out in small trees near open areas when they are singing, making them easier to spot than some other warblers who hang out in the taller trees in more wooded areas. While there are fewer White-Throated Sparrows than we were seeing a month ago, we did see quite a lot of Chipping Sparrows scattered through the refuge.
In the end we saw forty bird species on Sunday, so we were happy, even though the original plan didn’t work out. Maybe we’ll try it another time . . . if we can somehow not allow ourselves to get distracted by all the interesting birds we see along the way . . . yeah, right. LOL