The RedGate Golf Course in Rockville, Md., is closed, but last week I got a birdie on the first hole. The second hole, too. In fact, I eagled before I’d even started playing: I spied a bald eagle sitting in a tree on the edge of a fairway.

Golfers may have lost when RedGate went out of business a year ago, but birders are delighted. On a wet and misty weekday morning, birder Vickie Baily was eager to show off the place.

“There’s a Carolina wren in those dead river birches,” she said as we walked the course.

The fairways were ragged. The once-groomed greens had gone to seed. The sand traps were sandless.

The birds didn’t seem to mind. A mockingbird on the cart path fixed us with a penetrating stare, plucked a worm off the asphalt and then flew away. Crows wheeled in the sky, harassing a hawk. A soundtrack of chirrups suggested plenty more birds were off in the bushes, unseen.

“You’re in the middle of Rockville,” Baily said, marveling at the ornithological profusion. “Yet here we are, alone.”

We had the place to ourselves. No one was going to play through.

RedGate, on Avery Road off Norbeck, is owned by the city of Rockville, which is deciding what to do with its 131 acres. In the meantime, birders have embraced the property. It’s been designated a birding hot spot by eBird, a website managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. At last count, 129 species had been observed.

Baily, 66, has seen 113. She lives in Garrett Park, Md., and first visited RedGate last summer when news spread that a blue grosbeak had been spotted there.

“I’d never seen one before,” she said. She has now.

Baily got into birding through photography, and she carried a camera with a telephoto lens as long as her arm. Many of her photos adorn the eBird listings for RedGate.

“There’s a red-bellied woodpecker,” she said, pointing out a bird that seemed to wear a black-and-white-patterned waistcoat. “I always say he’s in a herringbone jacket.”

Woodpeckers are common at RedGate. So are bluebirds. Sparrows, too. Not the nasty invasive English kind, but more than a half-dozen native species, including the chipping sparrow.

“See that natural amphitheater?” Baily said, pointing to a bowl-like depression that was once a hazard of some sort on the 13th hole. “It’s a great place for sparrows.”

As real nature reclaims the artificial nature of the golf course, RedGate has gotten a bit of a post-apocalyptic vibe. The netting that once enclosed the driving range has been taken down, but the poles that held it are still in place. What were once water hazards are now just . . . water.

And that means water birds.

“That cattail swamp is a great blue-heron place,” Baily said.

In another pond was a quartet of little ducks sporting mohawk haircuts: hooded mergansers.

The current stars of RedGate are a pair of great horned owls. The male was spotted first. Baily spent three days in search of his mate before finding her atop a nest in the crook of a tall tree. The owl will stay there a month incubating the eggs.

We stopped at the tree and I raised my binoculars. The top half of the owl’s head stuck up above the nest of sticks.

To encourage people to visit RedGate, Baily developed a birdwatching game. She calls it “A Birdie on Every Hole.” Copies hang from the door of the locked clubhouse: laminated 4-by-6-inch index cards, each with a different bird on it. The idea is to walk the course and look for the birds, starting with Canada geese on Hole 1 and then through such species as Eastern towhees, American robins, belted kingfishers and mallards.

“I just have a driving passion to let people know we have many more birds around than they think,” she said.

Rockville’s mayor and City Council must figure out what to do with the property. Among the options is to use some portion for veterans housing. The plan is to hire a consultant by July to examine the possibilities. It will then be a 12-to-18-month process before the council considers the options and decides.

Baily and her birding friends are lobbying to keep most of RedGate undeveloped. (Information can be found at

As I left RedGate, I stopped for one last look. The bald eagle that had been up in a tree was now down on the 14th fairway, picking at the carcass of a dead deer.

I startled him, and as he flew off, his blinding white tail looked like a golf ball driven far and high into the distance.

Twitter: @johnkelly

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