When nature nurtures…

Last week I took some much needed time out to connect with a dear friend (observing social distance guidelines) and nature… We were not disappointed. Along our route, we saw nesting Red-shouldered Hawks, Pileated Woodpeckers, and Bald Eagles. We were delighted by a couple of brilliant Azure sp. butterflies fluttering along the path as well as my FOS Orangetip Falcate! Native plants also put on a good show.

It was eerily reminiscent of a walk we took along the same trail almost 20 years ago on 9/11.

Each observation reminded me of one of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson…

Hope is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

 

Be well and stay safe.

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Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Birdathon and Our Big Day 2017

College Basketball has March Madness. Golf has The Master’s, but for birders it’s spring migration and hopes of a Big Day. Since 2004 I have participated in Birdathon – an event where thousands of birders of all ages and experience levels volunteer to count as many bird species as they can find to raise funds and have a friendly competition to support their local Audubon chapter.

Many of you know that I am the only staff for the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia (ASNV) and wear lots hats; from administrator to social media manager to event planner and more. ASNV is the largest independent chapter in North America, serving nearly 5,000 members. It is truly a grassroots organization. I believe in and am committed to the Audubon mission of protecting birds, other wildlife, and their habitats.

My team, Two Drakes, a Hen and a Chick are very competitive. We like to win! This year there were many challenges… The unusually mild winter, extreme temperature fluctuations and late southerly wind patterns fueled a protracted migration. We were also without one of our all stars, Larry Cartwright. We knew that we had to march on and do the best that we could…

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Katherine Wychulis, Greg Fleming, Flat Larry, Laura McDonald

So we did. For 17 hours straight my teammates and I birded in and around Northern Virginia. We worked hard from pre-dawn to sunset and tallied 120 species of birds. During that time we shared stories, laughed and made memories that will last a lifetime – Flat Larry was quite a hit with the local birding crowd.

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Katherine Wychulis, Flat Larry, Kurt Gaskill

ASNV relies on events like this to support sponsoring a teacher to Hog Island, citizen science and habitat conservation in the Lower Potomac River Important Bird Area (LPR-IBA), and support our efforts to promote native plants that support bird populations.

Your donation will ensure the future ability of our organization to advance conservation, education, and advocacy programs, provide positive experiences with the natural world and empower individual involvement in conservation and restoration of natural ecosystems.

Donations from our team in 2015 went towards the purchase of a bench to honor a true living conservation legend, Jim Waggener. (We even received coverage  from a local newspaper!) This fall we will use the bench as an anchor for a Big Sit. I am requesting that my donation be applied to support this event as well as other worthy projects in the LPR-IBA.

Thank you in advance for your support! I couldn’t agree more with Anthropologist, Margaret Mead, “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”

To make a donation, please click here and choose Two Drakes, a Hen and a Chick.

 

 

The Winter That Almost Wasn’t…

 

The vernal equinox occurs in a few days – something that I look forward to every year because it means that for the next few months the days will be longer and temperatures warmer. If you know me, you know that I am cold if it’s below 90°F. I think it’s genetic. My family is from south Florida, I am the only native of Virginia and have always enjoyed a good snow day, but really and truly do not like the cold. I can’t complain too much about this winter – the warmest on record.

It hasn’t been without a few cold snaps and wintry mix – just enough to let us know that we’re not out of the woods yet…  I am a huge fan of The Weather Channel (TWC) -who doesn’t know that if Jim Cantore shows up in your town – it’s going to be a big weather event?! Sadly, Verizon Fios dropped TWC last year, so now I rely on my feathered friends to really tell me what is going on in my neck of the woods.

This week hasn’t let me down, in fact it’s been some of the best backyard feeder watching I’ve experienced all winter. Here are a few of the birds that have visited our yard…

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Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyapicus varius) is about 8.5″ long and unmistakable with its mottled feathers with bold black, white and red markings on its head (see if you can find one in the short video clip from the 2016 blizzard). They only visit our feeders when the temperatures are in the 20’s or below. It appears that this is a young male who is molting into breeding plumage. He was incredibly territorial of the suet when he visited – often chasing off much larger and aggressive birds. They are not vocal in the winter like our resident woodpeckers, so you have to keep your eye out for them. He will leave soon to his summer breeding grounds  in the north reaches of the US and Canada where they can be found in mixed woodlands and coniferous forests. The standardized code or ALPHA code for the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker bird is YBSA.

Another favorite winter visitor is the Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula). This diminutive bird is only 4″ long and constantly on the move. It’s been difficult at best to get a decent photo given its level of activity, the age of my camera and the fact that I am shooting through a double-paned window. Here are a few images that will give you and idea how this bird gots its name.

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Ruby-crowned Kinglet (anterior)

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Ruby-crowned Kinglet (posterior)

 

 

 

 

 

 

It seems as if we have RUKI and Golden-crowned Kinglets visiting in alternate years… Will definitely have to do some research on that observation!

Quite possibly my favorite winter sparrow is the Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca). No disrespect to the lovely White-throated Sparrow, but the FOSP is just so impressive. During the winter of 2012 we had up to SIX of them in the yard at any given time. Foxy, as we have affectionatley named him, only comes around when it’s cold, very much like the YBSA. He’s been present every day for the past week. Luckily, I will be able to see these winter residents again when I visit the North Country of New York state in June for the Great Adirondak Birding Festival.

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Fox Sparrow

Most certainly the bird of the week has been the Eastern Phoebe. I thought I heard one vocalize a few weeks ago and then had second thoughts… There was no way they would be back this early! We have weeks of cold weather left – they rely heavily on insects to make up their diet. How could it survive through this cold snap?!

I’ve been enjoying a brief break from work – an unexpected staycation. Trying to make the most of it I have lounged in my pj’s late into the morning and even indulged in afternoon naps. After just waking up from a coveted nap and wandering down stairs I looked out the kitchen window and could not believe my eyes! Thankfully I had my camera there on the counter and was able to take this shot before the bird flew off. It came back numerous times in the afternoon, perching, wagging its tail in that Phoebe kind of way. It gave me hope that Spring is really right around the corner!

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Eastern Phoebe

 

Now, I must start studying my warbler vocalizations… Some of them I only hear once a year. To brush up on my skills I’ve signed up for an online course offered by The Cornell Lab and master birder Dr. Kevin McGowan – can’t wait!

 

 

Gone birding!

On President’s Day I set off on an adventure with two of the best friends a girl could have in search of a possible Code 5 Accidental bird. What’s a Code 5 Accidental bird?

According to the American Birding Association:

Code 5: Accidental.
Species that are recorded five or fewer times in the ABA Checklist Area, or fewer than three records in the past 30 years.

This could quite possibly be the bird of the year to see in the lower 48. A striking bird, the Black-backed Oriole (Icterus abeillei) has been making a suburban neighborhood in Sinking Springs, PA, his home, possibly since last year according to home owners.

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Photo: Greg Fleming

What’s the big deal, you ask? Why would you drive three hours to see a bird? Because this bird is an endemic species to Mexico. It does not migrate north to south like our Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, but latitudinally up and down a mountainside during breeding season. There is no way this bird should be here.

How it made its way to Pennsylvania will be a hotly debated topic in the birding community. Some claim that it must have been an escaped “pet” or a refugee from the exotic pet trade. Although one comment on Nate Swick’s ABA Blog noted that this bird is not a highly collected species, the debate will most certainly continue.

There is a procedure that this bird will have to go through before being accepted as an ABA record. For those that keep life lists it’s a big deal to check off one more species. My birding companions have extensive lists, each has observed well over 700 of the 993 species of birds that the ABA acknowledges in accordance with the American Ornithologists Union Committee on Classification and Nomenclature of North and Middle American Birds (NACC) – say that three times fast! Birding is serious business.

By now, your head is probably spinning from all the hyperlinks and acronyms, but there is a bit more to our story. I have a life list, not nearly as extensive as my friends, but we all bird for different reasons. I am just as fascinated by birds as they are, but more important than checking off another species, it’s the time I get to spend with them creating memories that will last a life time.

There are a lot of odd ducks in the bird world and I happily consider myself a “bird nerd.” I’ve often wondered why some birders are not as social as others and have come to the conclusion that it’s because it’s something that can be done solo – you don’t have to have a team to bird. You do however have to practice, practice, practice and study. One thing I am consistently amazed at is the sense of community that I feel each time I go into the field or on an adventure like this.

Have you ever seen the movie, “The Big Year“? It’s the one with Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black  based on the book by Mark Obmascik. It’s a pretty accurate representation of our community (although Hollywood definitely took liberty with the characters involved). The folks that discovered the Black-backed Oriole, as well as their neighbors, are avid nature enthusiasts. They knew that once the word got out about this bird, folks would flock by the hundreds to see it. They could have kept it secret and off eBird, but worked out a plan and set down some rules so that they could share this moment with the rest of us.

The rules in this instance are pretty simple:

• Visiting hours 7:30 am to 4 pm only.
• Park on Indiana Street.
• Be courteous, don’t block driveways or mail boxes.
• Please sign the Logbook so the homeowners know who comes to see the bird and where they come from.
• Please don’t stand right in front of the house to keep from scaring the bird away from the feeder by the front window! The bird is shy!
• Please stay on the sidewalks and don’t enter people’s yards.
• Respect the neighborhood’s privacy and property.

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Signing the guest book.

Reputation is everything in this brotherhood. Break the Birding Code of Ethics and you will be shunned. So far, it seems, almost all the visitors have cooperated.

The homeowners who have agreed to allow folks to set up in their driveway are beyond nice. They have refreshments set out for visitors and are happy to share the habits of the bird. Neighbors come out to chat, ask where you’re from and about your optics. They even have a collection box to help pay for all the fruit and seed that is put out for the bird. The remainder of the money will be donated to a local conservation organization.

Folks have traveled from as far away as California, Florida and Canada! To date, they’ve had over 1,500 visitors. You can even order a super cool t-shirt from Code5 Graphics – can’t wait to get mine in the mail!!!

Even if the bird is not accepted as a record by the ABA (it happens), I’m glad that my friends and I went to see it. We’ll have wonderful memories and stories to recall as we wait for our next adventure.

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Duck, duck, goose!

Do you remember playing that game in kindergarten?  Sitting in a circle with all your classmates wondering if you’re going to get tapped on the head and chosen to be “it”?

I’m still catching up on work and my Cinderella Chores after a wonderful weekend counting Waterfowl for the annual ASNV Rally for a Tally. Our team (pictured below) enjoyed lovely weather and great company!

I had hoped to set aside some time today to write about our adventures and what we learned, but it just isn’t going to happen!

So, Lauren Elizabeth, you’re “it”! Enjoy her wonderful blog, the Friendly Neighborhood Naturalist. I ❤️ big trees!

Winter Waterfowl

This past weekend I participated in a field workshop on how to identify Winter Waterfowl. Living in a densely populated area (about 1.1 million residents in the county – according to the 2015 United State Census Bureau) we are fortunate to have a wonderful system of local, state and federally managed park lands. Combined, three of these parks make up the Potomac River Refuge Complex.

 A favorite to visit is the Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck Refuge, where the largest concentration of overwintering Tundra Swans in our area can be found. Even though we arrived at the observation deck at the end of the Woodmarsh Trail at low tide,  we were greeted by 400+ Tundra Swans, Canada GeeseNorthern Pintail,  American Black Duck, Mallard and even a pair of Green-winged Teal!

So, what exactly are waterfowl? There are  four basic categories of birds that can be called waterfowl, they are swans, geese, ducks and non-ducks. Swans, geese and ducks have webbed feet. There are only two swans native to North America:Tundra Swan and the  Trumpeter Swan. Ducks can be further divided into the following categories: whistling-ducks, dabbling ducks and diving ducks. Non-ducks are birds like loons, grebes and coots. Overwhelmed? Don’t be! With some patience and a little practice it becomes easy to identify what you’re looking at. Even though I’ve been birding for almost 20 years, I amtaking a fantastic online course through Cornell University, supplemented with the field workshop and a “practical exam” from the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia.

As our  leader explained, start by focusing on the size and shape of the bird. Always remember to think about your habitat too! In Northern Virginia it’s unlikely that you’d see a Common Eider  if you’re in a fresh water marsh. Another question to ask is, “where’s the white?” It certainly is easier to identify the drake (male duck) and then pair it with the hen (female) who are usually dull, drab and less striking than the males.

Traveling to Mason Neck State Park, a short drive from the refuge, did not disappoint! There we saw:  a large flock of Red-winged Blackbirds and a raft of waterfowl including: American Coot, Ruddy Duck, Hooded Merganser, Bufflehead, Lesser Scaup, American Wigeon, Gadwall, and the ever present Mallard & Canada Goose.

A quick trip along the Bayview Trail did not produce Wood Duck or any more Green-winged Teal, but we were thrilled to see 15 Bald Eagles, Red-bellied and Red-headed Woodpeckers, Northern Flicker, Blue Jay, a very curious Great Blue Heron, vocal Ring-billed Gulls, a pair of Great Black-backed Gulls, Belted Kingfisher, both Turkey and Black Vultures, the usuals suspects like: White-breasted Nuthatch, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Song Sparrow, Northern Cardinal and a Brown Creeper!

If you want to learn more about waterfowl reach out to your local Audubon chapter or bird club. Be sure to check out and support these organizations who have helped tremendously  with the conservation and education for waterfowl: Ducks Unlimited and Friends of the Duck Stamp.