For Bird Club, Natural History Takes Flight

By Mary Otto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 9, 2006

The sky over Rocky Gorge was marbled with slate-colored light last Saturday morning, before the heavy rain.

The whir of traffic came from Interstate 95, but the pine woods held a chilly thrall. Jo Solem, a small gray-haired woman wearing a baseball cap, cocked her head and listened.

"Another blue jay," she said. "A piece of chickadee song.''

Jane Coskren, in her broad-brimmed hat, scanned the fabric of branches and sky, then trained her telescope on the quilted gray waters of the Rocky Gorge Reservoir in Laurel.

"Thirty mergansers," said Coskren. "And a common goldeneye."

Solem noted each of the birds on a tiny list as the pair tramped along, following the deer paths and fire roads. They have been friends and birding partners for years, the perfect team.

"I have the eyes," said Coskren. "She has the ears."

Throughout the day, Solem and Coskren and dozens of other devoted members of the Howard County Bird Club assumed their stations along roadsides and streams, in parks, fields, lawns, the county landfill. They patrolled the hedgerows and parking lots, with senses honed to the exquisite differences between song sparrows and fox sparrows and swamp sparrows, to the silhouette of the merlin hawk above the shopping mall. They listened and watched and marked every hairy woodpecker and robin, every heron and eagle.

And as always, in the evening, they gathered to compile their findings for this, the 21st annual midwinter bird count. Along with data they have gathered from annual spring and fall counts throughout the years, they are documenting a kind of history of Howard County's birds. For the ebb and flow of the species tell larger stories about the changing land, water, plant life and weather in Howard County and in places thousands of miles away.

The birders look for this moment, and for the future.

"We count everything," said Solem. "Because what is common now may not be common in 50 years."

Some birds, such as the magnolia warbler, that were common when they started counting 21 years ago are now a rare sight in Howard, due to the loss of their forest habitats. Others, including the bald eagle, have reemerged thanks to protection and reduced pesticide use.

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