My Toast to 2006
Here’s Hoping All the Birds Score
by Mark McCaig
Two eastern screech owls called from the scrubby trees at the last road in my neighborhood as dawn broke. Their ethereal whinnies evoked gloved high-fives in my bundled companions and me as Sue Ricciardi recorded their presence in her little notebook, right below the four great horned owls she’d noted earlier.
Owling before dawn in sub-freezing Chesapeake Country? It’s Christmas bird count season, when I join thousands of naturalists nationwide to inventory everything avian in my proscribed area as part of the nation’s longest-running database of animal population surveys. This year’s count offered new glimpses into local avifauna and a few prospects for the New Year.
After owling, we began to hear the chips and songs of birds waking from their roosts. Saucy Carolina wrens blared teakettle, teakettle, teakettle as if boiling over. Cardinals chipped, then called. Distant crows joined the din. We had to focus more to hear the secretive winter wrens and hermit thrushes. White-breasted nuthatches and brown creepers called from tree trunks as they scaled them in search of food. Sue’s notebook page darkened as the morning brightened.
Our foursome split up for part of the morning. Two comrades Chris Swarth of Jug Bay Wetlands Preserve and Mike Braun of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center followed my neighbor’s ATV trail to Piney Point, my favorite local spot. A ridge of loblolly pines crest the point, shading rhododendrons. This mature forest is the setting for the stories of magic and little people, starring a hungry owl, I tell my daughters in bed. It also surrounds our local pond, protecting her several freshwater sources. I have joined with neighbors to begin researching ways to preserve the woods for future generations.
Chris and Mike returned, impressed by the forest. They’d spooked a barred owl from one of the stately loblollies, raising our owl species total to three. I hatched a plan to bring my daughters here when the owl starts calling in late January. Mike reported to Sue, our leader and a dedicated birder who’s coordinating the data for Anne Arundel County’s contribution to Maryland’s Breeding Bird Atlas. He said there’s a good chance swampies will be breeding down there this spring. Swampies are swamp sparrows, a species that’s been declining due to habitat loss.
We continued throughout the morning, counting every bird we saw. We found a furtive swampie among the more common song sparrows in the marsh grass. Golden-crowned kinglets and cedar waxwings occupied the high branches of a sycamore. We also noted horned grebes, loons and longtails among the other ducks on the Bay. An adult bald eagle watched a raft of canvasbacks. Spotting scopes clarified double-crested cormorants perched beside greater black-backed gulls on distant poles in the deep water.
In the afternoon we checked a local fencerow that enclosed the prime habitat of an overgrown field. The sunlight brightened the luminous sapphire of a dozen bluebirds as they flitted back and forth from fence to ground, feeding on anonymous bugs. My companions, who’d seen birds on several continents, oohed and aahed as our local bluebirds came ever closer in a dazzling display.
When May arrives, I’ll join Mike in the ravines and marshes encircling the pond. I hope to add to my ongoing inventory of my home’s wildlife. One neighbor says he’s heard mink barking in springs past. Perhaps we’ll find the barred owl nesting in the pines. So while my beloved Nationals are hunting Blue Jays, Cardinals, even Orioles next year, I’ll be hunting a more local squad, the Swampies. Here’s hoping we both score.
Mark McCaig, who reflects from Fairhaven, come summer seeks to polish his craft at Vermont’s Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College.