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Birding as a military operation?

Posted Wednesday 18th June 2008 at 01:01 by Terry O'Nolley
Updated Wednesday 18th June 2008 at 01:04 by Terry O'Nolley
A question was asked in the Birds and Birding forum about how to handle the post-migration doldrums.

I suggested really zeroing in on a specific lifer species that is breeding in your area and to pull out all the stops to try and find that species.

Switch from "birder" mode to "hunter" mode. Research. Figure out where that elusive species is most likely to be seen. Maybe it will involve a drive of several hours. If so, set your alarm clock for 3:30!

Instead of seeing your upcoming birding outing as a nice chance to walk in the woods and attempt to identify whichever birds happen to lackadaisically meander across your path, think of it in terms of a military operation!

Do some serious Google research (the S2/military intel part of the operation). Check up on breeding bird concentrations. Reference several intel assets and try to glean the most likely spot to encounter your target.

Then use the model of the US Army Ranger 5-paragraph OPORDER:[list][*][size=4][b]Situation[/b][/size][list][*]Enemy forces (the species you are after)[list][*]Disposition, Composition, and Strength (what is its rarity)[*]Capabilities (can it poop on you or attack your hat while making scary sounds?)[*]Most probable course of action (how easily is it spooked)[*]Weather and Terrain (will you need an umbrella? hiking shoes?)[/list][/list][*][size=4][b]Mission[/b][/size][list][*]Who (Yourself)[*]What (get a lifer tick for Cow-headed Jaybird)[*]Where (on top of Old Smoky)[*]When (tomorrow morning at 0330)[*]Why (because it is the summer doldrums and I need a challenge!)[/list][*][size=4][b]Execution[/b][/size][list][*]Concept of Operation (You will enter the southern reaches of the Great Birders Forest 0430 and establish an overwatch position on Doldrum Ridge NLT 0500 with the intention of mercilessly ticking a Cow-headed Jaybird)[*]Maneuver (You will maintain a heading of 135 degrees from the parking lot for 2130 metres and then box-traverse the bog with shortlegs of 180 metres and a long-leg of 340 metres to rejoin your intial heading and then proceed to parallel the treeline for 165 metres to reach your overwatch position)[/list][*][size=4][b]Service Support[/b][/size][list][*]General (external resources you will need to accomplish the mission)[*]Material and Services (gas station, Dunkin Donuts, etc.)[*]Personnel (must interface with the landowner to obtain clearance to enter the objective area)[/list][*][size=4][b]Command and Signal[/b][/size][list][*]Command (define who will take over the mission should you fall :D)[*]Signal (who to call on your cellphone if you get stuck in the mud)[/list][/list]

So shift your thinking from birding in general to very specific mission-oriented outings!
Cow-headed Jaybird
Comments 1 Terry O'Nolley is offline

Late May in the Appalachians

Posted Tuesday 27th May 2008 at 01:37 by Terry O'Nolley
Updated Tuesday 10th June 2008 at 01:39 by Terry O'Nolley
I birded Green Ridge State Forest (western Maryland state forest that is situated on the foothills of the Appalachian mountains - 2,000 foot elevation approximately) and a sight nearby this weekend and it was fantastic!

What was special about this outing was not so much the bird list but, rather, the bird [b]quantity[/b] and the sweet, fresh air quality.

There is something about mountain air...

Getting to one of the birding sites was quite an adventure. My friend found a promising spot and told me that it looked good. I took his word and we headed out. The problem was, he just looked at a topographical map and found a terrain feature called "Bald Knob" on "Mt. Savage" mountain. As we drove towards it we noticed that we were in a populated area. Hmmmmm... what to do.... We asked a local where it was and they told us that the turnoff was "right next to the VFW hall".

OK. So we headed back to the VFW hall and saw a tiny road that was barely wider than a goat path. I pointed my Nissan Sentra at the goat path and let 'er rip!

The "road" was cobblestone that was probably laid back in the 1790's and the grade was so steep that I was scared to slow down because I thought I would slide back down.

After an [b]incredibly[/b] jolting 10 minutes or so, we reached the top and we still had all of our teeth fillings.

We were initially disappointed when we noticed a school and subdivision development at the top of the hill so we pressed on to the back side of the hill and hit paydirt - a quiet road leading into mostly undisturbed territory with a few houses and a lot of wooded acreage.

I followed the road until it ended at a large farmhouse and got out to ask the owners if it would be OK for us to bird their property for a few hours. They asked a few questions, gave us a few pointers and graciously allowed us the use of their land for the afternoon. During our brief conversation, we learned that their farmhouse was built in [b]1780[/b]! ([b]pic. 1[/b])

They also had a free-roaming Guinea Fowl that followed my car around. I was afraid I would run it over after they gave us permission to bird and I had to back out of their driveway!

The 3 hours of birding that followed was incredibly rich. Just walking around on the side of that hill at the outskirts of the Appalachian range and hearing the constant birdsong was magical. I got my 5th lifer of the year that afternoon. - a Chestnut-sided Warbler. ([b]pic. 2[/b])

I was temporarily stymied by my first sighting of juvenile Baltimore Orioles foraging along the side of an old path only a few yards ahead of me. ([b]pic. 3[/b])

Some highlights included a Scarlet Tanager that put on a great show and an endless amount of warblers that were just flitting about everywhere.

The next morning we hit Green Ridge State Forest and walked along a ridge for several hours. We had a couple close encounters with Yellow-billed Cuckoos [b](pic. 4)[/b] (this is when I learned what Cuckoo calls sounded like because I thought I was listening to the alarm calls of an Accipiter or owl and was really amped up) and were constantly having to decide which of the birds that just showed should be focused on.

My goal for the trip (beyond just having the opportunity to bird in such a beautiful place) was to tick a Cerulean Warbler. I heard three of them:

[url=]Click here for Cerulean Warbler song[/url]

but I never got a sighting I was comfortable with (once the bird that was singing and that I had figured where it must be darted out and flew away from me over the ridge and down into the treetops below. I couldn't make out a single fieldmark and I am not 110% it was the bird that was singing - even though it was - so I still can't tick it).

Some of the birds seen included:[list][*] American Crow[*] American Redstart[*] American Robin[*] Baltimore Oriole[*] Barn Swallow[*] Black-capped Chickadee[*] Blue Grosbeak[*] Blue-gray Gnatcatcher[*] Brown Thrasher[*] Canada Goose[*] Canada Warbler[*] Cedar Waxwing[*] Chestnut-sided Warbler[*] Chipping Sparrow[*] Common Grackle[*] Eastern Bluebird[*] Eastern Kingbird[*] Eastern Phoebe[*] Eastern Towhee[*] European Starling[*] Gray Catbird[*] Great Crested Flycatcher[*] House Finch[*] House Sparrow[*] Indigo Bunting[*] Mallard[*] Magnolia Warbler[*] Mourning Dove[*] Pine Warbler[*] Red-eyed Vireo[*] Red-winged Blackbird[*] Ruby-throated Hummingbird[*] Scarlet Tanager[*] Tree Swallow[*] Turkey Vulture[*] Yellow-billed Cuckoo[/list]
Cow-headed Jaybird
Posted in Field Notes
Comments 1 Terry O'Nolley is offline

I can't believe it - I FINALLY saw an owl!!!

Posted Sunday 11th May 2008 at 17:02 by Terry O'Nolley
Updated Sunday 11th May 2008 at 19:50 by Terry O'Nolley
I've been trying to tick an owl (any owl - I didn't care if it was a Snowy Owl or a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl) since I began birding way, way, [b]way[/b] back in 2005.

I was beginning to think that maybe owls didn't exist. That everyone in the world except me was in on some sort of cosmic-scale private joke. Maybe the "WHOOO WHOOO WHO COOOKS FOR YOOOUUAAaaaahhh" I heard in the woods from time to time was being generated by a snickering trickster in a deer stand with an MP3 player.
[url=][i]click here for Barred Owl "song"[/i][/url]

But then today..... today the world changed for me.

I was exploring a new birding site - Hugg-Thomas Wildlife Management Area. A nice tract of land in NW Howard county, Maryland (about 27 miles from where I live). It is managed for hunting and has a great mixture of habitats. Everything from open fields to rivers to hills.

I spent about 30 minutes skirting a large open area but not much was happening (I arrived there at 7:00 AM) so I headed into the woods and began following the trail.

It was a fantastic day for Wood Thrushes! You could hear them everywhere. The sounds of multiple Wood Thrushes singing has to be one of nature's most sublime of symphonies. And they were quite bold - they gave me showings that I normally associate with American Robins. They saw me, they ignored me. It was a really special feeling watching a Wood Thrush sing on an exposed branch right over the trail less than 20 yards away.
[url=][i]click here for Wood Thrush song[/i][/url]

Following the trail further led me down alongside a tributary of the Patuxent River. I kept hearing this unfamiliar birdsong. It was very clear and sounded a bit strident. I thought I was listening to an Empidonax flycatcher of unknown species (which for me is anything other than an Acadian). The call had that sort of explosive quality to it. I kept looking and finally the singer made himself visible. Turns out it was a Hooded Warbler! A great find and it really made my day (up to that point).
[url=][i]click for Hooded Warbler song[/i][/url]

Eastern Wood Peewees were singing everywhere and after about 90 minutes of walking I was finally able to see one. Nice - that's 2 year ticks so far today. For an overcast day this was going very well.
[url=][i]click for Eastern Wood Peewee song[/i][/url]

And then [b]it[/b] happened.

I saw a large bird through 100 feet of trees rise up from the ground and perch near the top of a tall tree. I could sort of see him from where I was and I brought my bins up and expected to be trying to figure out if it was a Red-shouldered Hawk or a Red-tailed Hawk. Imagine my surprise and joy when I found myself staring eye to eye with a Barred Owl (first photo shows the view of the owl when I first found it in my bins after landing in the tree - I use a 300mm lens so I couldn't tell what it was without glass). It was such an eerie feeling! The eyes were so large and so dark and were so obviously staring right at me. With a hawk, they look at you sideways. Remember - this was my first owl and the momentary shock of realizing what I was looking at was almost electric.

I moved around the tree I was standing behind to get a better view and he flew to a nearby tree. I walked a little further down the trail and was able to get closer and get some better shots.

What a day! 2 year ticks plus a lifer. Life is good......

Oh, take a look at the last picture....
That is the sign guarding the entrance to the place. Since when do trespassers need trespassing permits? And where would one go to obtain a trespassing permit???

Links for this birding site:[list][*][url=,-76.973069&spn=0.01236,0.027037&t=h&z=16][i]Google map view (map centered on parking area)[/i][/url][*][url=][i]Hugg-Thomas WMA website (with trail maps)[/i][/url][/list]
Cow-headed Jaybird
Posted in Field Notes
Comments 3 Terry O'Nolley is offline

The Magic of Hughes Hollow

Posted Monday 5th May 2008 at 02:23 by Terry O'Nolley
Updated Wednesday 18th June 2008 at 01:43 by Terry O'Nolley
Hughes Hollow is a place that doesn't officially exist. There are no state, county or city maps with "Hughes Hollow" on them. But birders all over Maryland know what it means when someone says "Hughes Hollow".

Hughes Hollow is a location within the McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area which lies just outside of the city of Poolesville, Maryland. It is a tract of land owned by the state of Maryland and publicly available 365 days year.

And it offers some of the best birding in the state.

Another good selling point for Hughes Hollow is that it borders the C&O Canal and a birding walk through Hughes Hollow could easily run together with a birding walk along the historic C&O canal and Potomac River.

If you want to take a look at what it looks like, here is the Google Maps link:

OK. So why do I call it "magic"? Because every time I get in a conversation with another birder there and they mention a bird they have seen at Hughes Hollow and I say something like "Good sighting! I have not seen a (fill in the blank) yet this year.", within a half hour or so, [b]I see that species[/b]. Seriously! It has happened over and over and over again. Species I have ticked right after having such a conversation include Palm Warbler, Indigo Bunting, Orchard Oriole, Baltimore Oriole, Common Yellowthroat, American Bittern and on and on. It is very strange...

I can't recommend a visit to Hughes Hollow highly enough! If you live in the DC metro region then you may want to consider making a day of birding Hughes Hollow.

I was there for 5 hours today (from 7:00 - 12:00) and saw over 40 species.

I can't recommend this place highly enough. If you live close enough to be considering birding the area, send me a PM and ask about whatever you are interested in. I can hopefully make your outing more productive.
Cow-headed Jaybird
Comments 2 Terry O'Nolley is offline

Second-guessing yourself in the field

Posted Sunday 27th April 2008 at 20:33 by Terry O'Nolley
Updated Sunday 27th April 2008 at 20:37 by Terry O'Nolley
I had a couple of very similar identification second-guessing incidents happen to me within about a week.

The first incident was last weekend when I saw a Green Heron (first of the year). I didn't get too good a look at it, but it was the right size, I noticed the shorter legs which rule out other herons and egrets except for night herons, bitterns and cattle egret. It certainly wasn't all white, it is too early for juvie birds and I saw the greenish back and dark neck. Easy ID. So then a few minutes later I round a bend and see an American Bittern (first of the year). Because the Green Heron flew towards where I am now seeing a bittern, I began second-guessing myself. Maybe it was an American Bittern and not a Green Heron... Maybe it was a shadow that made his neck look so dark..... darn - now I am going to have to remove the year tick for the Green Heron (but so what - I'm getting an amazing showing from this bittern - less than 50 feet and he is standing out in the open!). Anyways, I later saw 3 Green Heron's and I got to add them back to my year list.

The second incident was this morning. I was in a meadow that is always good for warblers and quickly spotted a mostly yellow warbler in a treetop. The day was quite overcast so field marks were not easily visible. Anyways I got to watch him long enough to spot what I thought were the black cheek/eye crescents and breast streaking to identify him as a Prairie Warbler (and I was hearing Prairie Warblers). Cool - my first Prairie Warbler of the year. He then flies off and I continue walking in the direction he flew. When I reached the tree line that followed a small creek I saw another yellow-colored warbler in a tree. I assumed it was the Prairie Warbler again, but when I looked at him I saw it was a Yellow Warbler! You guessed it - so now I am mentally taking the Prairie Warbler off my year list. I spent the next half-hour trying to find another Prairie Warbler to no avail.

I got tired of that because it wasn't the enjoyable feeling of why I like to bird so I just made myself relax and continue on with enjoying the morning (I'm glad I did because I got year ticks for Gray Catbird and Wood Thrush).

OK, so I get back home and download the photos I took today and was very pleased to see that I did, indeed spot both a Prairie Warbler and a Yellow Warbler.

But that got me to thinking - what if I didn't take photos? I would have "lost" a perfectly good year tick. I then began remembering previous IDs where I may have made the same mistake.

So I came up with a firm rule: I asked myself "If you never saw the American Bittern or Yellow Warbler, would you have felt good in ticking Green Heron or Prairie Warbler?" the answer should always be "Yes". I realized that I never consciously list a species that I am not 100% sure of (as wrong as I might actually be - I need to be sure in what I [b]believe[/b] the species to be).

So I will never let the pleasant surprise of seeing another species sow doubt about any previous ID I have made.
Cow-headed Jaybird
Posted in Field Notes
Comments 0 Terry O'Nolley is offline

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