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The Big Year in our own Backyard: Bird Watching in Maryland

Oct 12, 2012 05:26PM ● By Anonymous

 McConnell credits her husband with introducing her eyes and her ears to the subtle differences between various closely related species of birds. “My husband is a goose and duck hunter. When we first moved to the Eastern Shore, we used to stand in the backyard and look at the canvasbacks.

“Gradually, I began to pay more attention and started to realize when I saw a duck, it wasn’t just a duck. Watching geese in the fall just captures your attention with their beauty. With practice you learn to recognize birds by ear, by sight, by location, and how they fly,” explains McConnell. “Yes, bird breeds fly in distinctive ways.”

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University, to start identifying birds, initially observe them and look at their distinctive size and shape, color pattern, behavior, habitat, field markings (distinctive stripes, patterns, colors and markings that enable birds to recognize one another), and, lastly, listen to the sounds they make—songs and calls. Birdwatching is a recreational hobby that can be enjoyed by all ages from pre-school children to senior citizens. It mostly depends on patience and keen observation. So in observing the way birds fly, take a look at the way small birds take to flight.

There are two tools that are very helpful to bird watchers:

1. Identification guide to birds known as a field guide
2. Pair of binoculars

A good field guide will include a map of the bird’s range and physical description, as well as illustrations that focus on distinctive features, posture, markings, and sounds. Binoculars with a magnification level of 7, 8, and 10 are the most popular with birders. It is important to practice using a set of binoculars so that you are able to quickly focus and adjust your binoculars to study a bird as it moves in flight.

Binoculars can help you see the details of the way a bird moves. Watch closely, explains the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on its website, “As soon as a sitting bird starts to move, it gives you a new set of clues about what it is. You’ll see not only different parts of the bird and new postures, but you’ll also sense more of the bird’s attitude through the rhythm of its movements. There’s a huge difference between the bold way a robin bounces up to a perch, a mockingbird’s showy, fluttering arrival, and the meekness of a towhee skulking around.”

“Many small birds, particularly finches, have bouncy, roller-coaster trajectories caused by fluttering their wings and then actually folding them shut for a split second,” “explains the Lab’s website. “Other little birds, including wrens, warblers, and many sparrows, fly in a straight path with a blur of little wings.”

“I love wrens, the American goldfinch, and chickadees,” says McConnell. “And I’m fascinated by the resident hummingbirds— parents and baby—that buzz around us at about 11 a.m. when we are out on the patio drinking coffee. I love them all.”

There are more than 800 species of birds in North America, according to the National Audubon Society, and each season can bring a different set of bird species to a geographical area. According to the Maryland Ornithological Society, there are approximately 312 species of birds that appear annually in Maryland. Of particular note are some of the migrating birds that herald the start of a season such as the ospreys, which are also known as sea hawks and are considered one of the first signs of spring on the Chesapeake Bay. Wintering in Central America and the Caribbean, they migrate north to the Chesapeake Bay in March to feed on the abundant sea life and stay until the fall.

The Chesapeake’s winter residents include Canada geese, while other birds such as the semipalmated sandpiper use the Bay as a resting spot in spring and fall, as it travels from the tundra of Alaska and Canada down to South America.

“Birding is one of our last opportunities to enter into the wild around us,” explains McConnell. “I bird wherever I go.”

Favorite places to watch birds
include the many local, regional, and national parks, but of particular note are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuges located right here in Maryland that are open to the public.

Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge

Located at the confluence of the Chester River and the Chesapeake Bay on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, this 2,285- acre island refuge with nearly nine miles of trails and roads is a major feeding and resting place for migrating and wintering waterfowl. More than 100,000 ducks, geese, and swans seek sanctuary here each year, as do migrating and breeding songbirds and shorebirds, and bald eagles that thrive here year-round.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Established in 1933 as a waterfowl sanctuary for birds migrating along the critical migration highway called the Atlantic Flyway, it is located just 12 miles south of Cambridge, and consists of more than 25,000 acres of freshwater impoundments, brackish tidal wetlands, open fields, and mixed evergreen and deciduous forests. Blackwater has been designated as an Internationally Important Bird Area, and is home to the largest breeding population of American bald eagles on the East Coast, north of Florida.

The Patuxent Research Refuge

Established in 1936 by executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, this is the nation’s only National Wildlife Refuge established to support wildlife research. With land surrounding the Patuxent and Little Patuxent Rivers between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, the refuge has grown from the original 2,670 acres to its present size of 12,841 acres, and encompasses land formerly managed by the Departments of Agriculture and Defense. The National Wildlife Visitor Center and trails in designated areas are open to the public.