The birds are restless, with 250 species of the land's 660 known breeds migrating over, around and through town, starting now. Hardest to identify are the fall warblers, all nearly the same size and all losing their summer plumage now, with the black-throated blue as dun-colored as the orange-crowned warbler. Really, it's easier to leave the city parks and the small birds behind and go out on the water for a last Indian summer look at the birds.
Canoeing allows for intimate viewing, with the local rivers still warm and tame enough for looking up instead of ahead for white water. You can see owls, though rarely at midday. A family of barred owls gave us a good look as they flew from bough to bough above Virginia's wooded upper Rappahannock. A bonus was a wild turkey on the road back from the take-out near Sperryville.
A single barred owl, prey in talons, was hounded by crows above Goose Creek, also in Virginia just outside Middleburg. This little bywater fairly teems with songbirds, but they're quieter now because they're not defending territory. And there are lots of drab juveniles that make identification more difficult.
Patuxent River Park in Maryland offers a good float and some easier birding. You'll see osprey nests when putting in at Jugs Head Bay. Use the ramp below the park's official entrance and, with luck, you may see one of these elegant white birds flashing its black-tipped finger feathers. Then head out of the open water and paddle toward the marshy Merkle Tract. It's quiet now that the redwing blackbirds are no longer harassing paddlers. There are egrets and little green herons and, at dusk, you might still see a night heron. If you canoe quietly, you're apt to come upon great blue heron at a bend in the river. The wood ducks here have followed us for bits of sandwich.
In the eerie Pocomoke Cypress Swamp, near Cambridge, Maryland, the gnarled red knees of these fabulous trees poke up from the tea-colored water. Here, with luck, you may glimpse a glossy ibis. A naturalist friend, calling it a fluke, saw a flock of bobolinks there last week. There were woodies, too. Prothonotary warblers, which in summer put on a long display not three feet from the bow, were shy, he said. But even without a single sighting, this is a wonderland. The swamp, northernmost of its kind in the United States, lies outside Cambridge. There are put-ins off many back roads. Watch for leeches and no-trespassing signs.
In the same vicinity is the Blackwater Preserve, which you can canoe with permission from authorities, but not during hunting season. Last October, though, it was windy and cold when we made the trip up for the Canada geese. A naturalist traveling with our party turned chilly when someone called the huge buff-and-brown birds Canadian Honkers, a field mark of the beginning birder.
Honkers they were, though. We heard them, sounding like a brass band as big as Kansas, long before we saw them up close, although V-shaped formations were landing in a blitz. On the ground, the view of thousands and thousands of migrating geese is awesome.
On the way to Blackwater, there are herds of cattle egrets foraging in the cornrows. There are also snowy egrets and bald eagles, which you can view at your eye level from a tower in the Blackwater preserve.
The raptors are also moving along with the shorebirds at Chincoteaque and Assateague. The backwaters behind the dunes are navigable and there are plenty of sightings to keep binoculars busy. For the fall season finale, the whistling swans take to the flyway near here. Last year, so many traveled the coast over Cambridge and on to Bombay Hook that visitors driving up from the Carolinas mistook the flocks for a freak snowstorm.
LOOK UP, IT'S A BIRD
HAWK MOUNTAIN SANCTUARY -- For eagles and hawks nothing tops Hawk Mountain on Route 2 in Kempton, Pennsylvania. On a clear day you can see 70 miles and at least a few of the 30,000 hawks, falcons and eagles that visit from September to November. Call 215/756-6961.
WASHINGTON MONUMENT STATE PARK -- It's closer than Hawk Mountain, in Boonesboro, Maryland. Birders gather in a little stone tower to see hawks, though in less profusion than at Kempton. Phone 301/432-8065
C&O CANAL TOWPATH -- Features programs on the first and last Wednesday and Saturday of each month at 10. "Sights and Sounds of Fall" followed by "Sights and Sounds of Winter." A naturalist discusses birds, animals and plants of the season. Phone 299-3614
ROCK CREEK NATURE CENTER -- For information on regular season programs, call 426-6829. A walk is set for 8 to 10 on October 7.
KENILWORTH AQUATIC GARDENS -- For information on birdwalks, call naturalist Mack MacDowny at 426-6905.
POINT LOOKOUT STATE PARK -- Excellent for migrant birds. Depending on the wind, there are lots of hawks; a peregrine falcon was recently sighted there. The general number is 301/872-5688. For bird specifics, call 301/283-6970.
LAUREL RIDGE CENTER -- Monday morning birdwalks at 7:15 in Vienna, Virginia, with naturalist Craig Tufts. (Canceled in case of rain.) Call 790-4434 days and 437-9413 evenings. Regulars are yellow- throated chats, egrets, warblers, mallards, Cooper and red-tailed hawks, king rails and American kestrels.
CLAUDE MOORE CONSERVATION EDUCATION CENTER -- Offers 360 acres with trails and ponds in Sterling, Virginia. Call 790-4434 days and 437-9413 for information on special birding events.
LONG BRANCH NATURE CENTER -- A favorite among local birders. Phone 558-2742 for more information.
NATIONAL COLONIAL FARM -- A birdwalk is scheduled for Sunday, October 17 at 8, with an Audubon Society leader. The farm is located in southern Prince George's County. For reservations, which are required, phone 283-2113.
COVE POINT -- Near Calvert Cliffs State Park, Maryland, offers some good birding but you may have trouble getting in because it's Coast Guard land. The area's restricted, so phone for permission, says the Audubon Society: 301/326-3264.
BLACKWATER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE -- From Cambridge, Maryland, take Routes 16 and 335, or 16 and Egypt Road. Canada geese, swans and more.
SANDY POINT -- East end of Bay Bridge. Migrating land birds, gulls, ducks, hawks.
HUNTLEY MEADOWS -- In Alexandria. Red-shoulder hawk, great blue heron, warblers. Phone 768-2525.
ASSATEAGUE ISLAND NATIONAL SEASHORE AND CHINCOTEAGUE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE -- At the south end. Sea and shorebirds, herons, sparrows, longspurs, egrets, whistling swans and Canada geese, among others.
LILYPONS WATER GARDENS -- It's the peak season for warblers and woodland birds. October's best for hawks, November for ducks and geese. 428-0686.
MYRTLE GROVE WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA -- In Southern Maryland on Route 225 between La Plata and Indian Head. October 9 at 8. Phone Fred Burggras at 301/934-8042 for information. Fall warblers, shore birds, ducks. Woodpeckers aplenty, including the redheaded and pileated.
CALVERT CLIFFS STATE PARK -- A walk is set for November 7 at 8. Phone Walt Williams at 301/535-5851 for more information. Winter birds, chickadees, nuthatches and waterfowl are targeted.