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Field Notes What I saw, where I saw it, when I saw it and anything related to that day's birding.

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

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

Shenandoah: The quiet majesty of fall migration

Posted Monday 8th October 2007 at 01:44 by Terry O'Nolley
Updated Wednesday 28th May 2008 at 00:15 by Terry O'Nolley
I got up this morning at around 8:30. I woke up at around 5:30 and that is when I should have dragged my tired carcass out of bed.

But no matter. I quickly gathered my bins, camera, bottled water and Camel Lights and headed out to my car.

The initial plan today was to go to Hughes Hollow and, hopefully, photograph some peeps and woodpeckers.

This fell apart while driving on the Capitol Beltway and realizing I had just passed the River Road exit.

What to do? I could have just went to the next exit and back-pedalled, but that just didn't "feel" like the thing to do. So I said to myself "Why not just drive an extra 80 miles and go to Shenandoah National Park?". So that is what I did.

I entered the park at the HWY 211 entrance and headed north. I stopped off at a couple of overlooks and then parked near mile-marker 25 - Thornton River Trail. The Thornton River trail leads down from Skyline Drive to the valley below.

As soon as I hit the first switch-back and the traffic was inaudible I knew that the Bird Gods had smiled on me. There was movement everywhere - even at the embarassingly late hour of 11:00.

I walked down the trail for about a kilometer and found the perfect place to settle in and watch (I am the type of birder that likes to find a promising spot and wait for the birds rather than walk a route looking for birds along the way).

I was sitting on a soft, mossy log just off the trail that was under the branches of a short tree and had ferns and weeds grown up on its sides. It was almost as good as sitting in a blind.

Almost immediately I noticed movement.

There was a steady stream of birds (only 1 or 2 at a time) flitting from tree to tree but always headed in a southerly direction.

I must have seen 20-30 thrushes (mostly Swainson's but with some Gray-cheeked/Bicknell's thrown in), 10-15 Scarlet Tanagers and dozens of unidentified warblers (I was able to get pictures of a Swainson's Thrush, a Scarlet Tanager and Blackpoll Warbler).

Sitting there without any other people around just watching the quick movement of migrating songbirds above me and listening to the sweet sounds of Autumn leaves falling was magical.

It made me think of the book [i]Songbird Journeys[/i] by Miyoko Chu. That book makes one realize just how amazing these tiny creatures are.
Cow-headed Jaybird
Posted in Field Notes
Comments 0 Terry O'Nolley is offline

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