by Peter Tango
February 24, 2011
Our resident birder Peter Tango is back with his experience counting birds during last weekend's Great Backyard Bird Count. Read on to hear about some of the 58 different species of birds he counted around his hometown of Deale, Maryland. If you missed his two-part series on birding in the Chesapeake Bay region, check it out here: part one and part two.
The count started 12:01 a.m. last Friday. In years past I have stayed awake on Thursday nights to listen for owls. This winter however I have not seen or heard any owls, so I slept in until predawn.
Friday was a work day, and the coffee was hot just before daybreak. I was up and waiting with my wife at our windows watching the feeders, the yard, the creek and the sky for anything with feathers. Recall that Friday was a nearly 80-degree day with no wind – a fine day for any spring or summer month, but it was February after a long, cold winter.
On the water, we saw mallards (23), black ducks (3), ring-billed gulls (25), tundra swans (86), Canada geese (2) and belted kingfishers (2). At the feeders, birds flit in and out. There we saw Carolina wrens (2), starlings (2), Carolina chickadees (2) and blue jays (2). Within earshot we heard the calls of a robin (1), a downy woodpecker (1), American crows (2), a fish crow (1), a house finch (1), juncos (5) and goldfinches (2).
Day 2 – The Big Blow. The weatherman claimed we would experience 60 mile-per-hour winds. Little birds seemed to be hiding. The Great Backyard Bird Count allows you to do some roadside birding, office birding and farm birding. I consider Deale pretty much all mine, so I do some roadside birding to get some extra lists and represent our town for the other 800 or so folks that look at the birds but don’t participate in the count. On the search for ducks on Rockhold Creek, the water looked empty. Oh – there they were, ducks and geese resting on docks, out of the wind. The surprise today was a green-winged teal, the last bird on a dock full of mallards.
Day 3. The winds were over. We did our coffee, breakfast and window birding to start the day. The Great Backyard Bird Count also allows you to do a little hiking. I usually spend one day walking for hours through the diverse habitats of my community – deciduous woodlands, conifer stands, creekside, Bayside, wetlands, beach, mudflats, yards with feeders, yards without. With binoculars and a spotting scope, I stretch the boundaries of Deale offshore a bit. The count continued…tundra swans (116), buffleheads (30), a surf scoter (1), great black-backed gulls (5), long-tailed ducks (7), mallards (4) and swamp sparrows (3).
A tiny, overgrown cemetery up the street had become home to an uncommon winter bird in Maryland: the brown thrasher. However, a group of people cleared all the wonderfully scrubby brush that my brown thrasher hid in. Still, I went there and tried my counting luck. I ‘pished’ at the cemetery, a common technique to attract the attention of birds hiding in the brush. For my effort, I counted a yellow-rumped warbler (1), white-throated sparrows (2) and Carolina wrens (2). It didn’t look hopeful for the brown thrasher. But across the street, the scrubby growth had thickened in the last couple of years. I saw movement in the brush and brought my binoculars up. There was my bird…a brown thrasher (1). Ahhh, the counting is good. I follow calls of chickadees, tufted titmice and house sparrows nearby. On a lawn I count robins (7) and spot something else – much to my surprise, they were fox sparrows (2)! Way cool! Day 3 was excellent.
Final Day – Monday. Washington’s birthday celebration means a day off from work. During a mile-long walk, I finally find the elusive mockingbird (1) I knew was in the neighborhood. Another pleasant surprise was cedar waxwings (25), then bluebirds (2), both excellent finds among the more common cardinals (6), cowbirds (13), mallards (34), tundra swans (52) and a few mute swans (3). Red-breasted mergansers (12) show up on the creek by our home; their displays are remarkable, with males’ heads whipping about and males chasing other males at amazing speeds across the water as they attempt to impress the females. The calls, the displays – birding can be so much more than just counting. Watching their behaviors can also be amazing.
I spent Monday afternoon entering my lists into the phenomenal Great Backyard Bird Count database. I reported 57 total species. Since 2006 I’ve counted approximately 54 to 64 species each year. Deale usually ranks as one of the top 10 of some 300 towns in Maryland for species richness. I feel that reflects well on the quality and diversity of habitats here.
At dusk on Monday, I was putting laundry away and happened to glance out the window at the feeders one more time. Birds scattered and there was a puff of feathers floating in the air like dandelion seeds. I got closer to the window and there on the ground was a sharp-shinned hawk dining on a female cardinal! Sharp-shinned hawk (1), species number 58 for Deale in 2011. The final and unexpected bird of the 2011 Great Backyard Bird Count.
These counts contributed to the nearly 10 million birds and more than 580 species reported in North America this weekend. I encourage you to go to the GBBC website to explore bird counts in your area!