On the Lookout for the Birds of Winter
Friday, January 20, 2006
Brilliant blue sky. Temperatures hovering in the 30s. Tall trees with few leaves. Perfect conditions, in other words, for a winter bird walk.
On a recent Saturday morning, about 15 bundled-up adults in their thirties to seventies met at Riley's Lock along the C&O Canal trail in Seneca in upper Montgomery County for a free two-hour bird walk. It was the first of several such walks sponsored by the Audubon Naturalist Society in conjunction with "Audubon's Dream Realized: Selections From 'The Birds of America,' " an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art (through March 26) featuring John James Audubon's hand-colored etchings.
Fortunately for people who don't like to get up at the crack of dawn -- the best time to see birds during much of the year -- these walks don't begin until 9, in part because peak bird activity in the winter tends to be later than in other seasons.
With binoculars around each person's neck and a few participants carrying a monocular spotting scope and tripod, we began walking along the dirt path and into the woods, led by Audubon volunteer Lydia Schindler.
Expectations for the day among the experienced birders in the group were moderate. Besides ducks, they expected to see cardinals, crows, sea gulls, a turkey vulture, a great blue heron, possibly chickadees and a red- or white-breasted nuthatch, wrens, woodpeckers and perhaps even an eagle or owl. "There's a chance of seeing an owl, but that's iffy," said Barbara Gordon, a retiree and serious birder who lives in Frederick. "It's pure luck if you ever see one."
The first bird sighting in the canal off in the distance halted casual conversation. It was a female hooded merganser, a gray duck with a long, thin bill and rusty, flared crest. "It's over there, back to the right of the mallards," Gordon said as she quickly set up her spotting scope on a tripod. "The spotting scopes work well for things that move slowly, such as shore birds and ducks," she explained. "They are not for things that go flitting through trees."
As we strolled deeper into the woods, all eyes were on the trees. Suddenly, Schindler said, "I can hear a nuthatch!" Immediately everyone brought their binoculars to their eyes and tilted them toward the trees. Most of the group saw the nuthatch and then a brown creeper. Then someone announced, "Oh, a chickadee just came out," and another voice said, "There he is, about halfway up the tree. . . . There are two now." Then Schindler saw it. "It's at three o'clock in that tulip tree," referring to its location within the tree. Then McLean resident Janet Stotsky spotted a pileated woodpecker. "Did you see it?" she asked aloud, to no one in particular. "There it is, on the center tree," Schindler said.
And so it went for more than two hours. People walked and talked in pairs, but there was a sense that this was a group effort. Each sighting brought new excitement to us all, as though we were working together on a difficult jigsaw puzzle and periodically finding the place for missing pieces.
Some first-time birders among us, myself included, missed seeing several birds because our reaction time was too slow. "It takes a lot of practice," said Gordon, noticing my frustration. "You have to look for movement. . . . You learn through repetition." Using binoculars takes skill, too, she said, even when you know a bird's location. "Find the bird with your bare eyes, then keep looking at it and bring the binoculars up to your eyes."
Even if I didn't catch the actual bird, I could see a picture of the species during the walk. A majority of walkers carried a field guide to birds in their pockets and pulled it out frequently. The most popular choice was "The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America," by David Allen Sibley (Knopf, 2003). The guides were useful to confirm each bird's identity and learn more about its characteristics and habits.
Still, on this walk, most of the information about birds came from the serious birders among us. Schindler said that's the ideal way to study these creatures. "The best way to learn is to go out with people who know what they are seeing and hearing," she said, adding, "It's like a walking tutorial." Her words proved true, as various participants spoke of the habits of kinglets, goldfinches, hawks, sparrows and nearly every other bird we saw.
Gradually, I found myself becoming more interested in watching birds, a pastime that entertains the 18 million Americans who take part in birding outings away from their home, according to the 2001 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation.