The Ruby-crowned Kinglets are making their way through our area, likely somewhat stalled by the nasty cold rain we had most of last week. On my way back from the mailbox this morning I passed several little chatterers flitting around in the bushes near the public library. Even better, yesterday I had a kinglet hover at the back window and flash its crown at me. No doubt it thought it was flashing its crown at another kinglet—who was also disappointingly male—but it reminded me of the time a couple of years ago when a kinglet near the Tidal Basin tried to mate with me by flying out from a tree and flashing its crown. I guess I can add kinglets to my dogs-and-preschoolers list of beings who are typically unduly excited to see me.
During our week in Acadia, we saw (or heard) about fifty birds. I had this idea that we would be finding warblers everywhere we turned, however, they seem to have mostly migrated by now. We did see a number of new species of warblers and other birds, enabling me to add about a dozen new birds to my lifelist (the electronic version of which I plan to update this weekend). This is meant to simply be a tally, as I’ll write at greater length about the efforts we undertook to find them on each day we were there.
Without further ado, the birds we saw in and around Acadia are: Common Loon, Double-Crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, American Black Duck, Mallard, Common Eider, Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper, White-Rumped Sandpiper, Herring Gull, Great Black-Backed Gull, Black Guillemot, Turkey Vulture, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Sharp-Shinned Hawk, Broad-Winged Hawk, Red-Tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Rock Dove, Mourning Dove, Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, Belted Kingfisher, Eastern Wood-Peewee, Blue Jay, American Crow, Black-Capped Chickadee, Red-Breasted Nuthatch, Golden-Crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush, American Robin, Gray Catbird, Cedar Waxwing, Northern Parula, Magnolia Warbler, Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Black-Throated Green Warbler, Bay-Breasted Warbler, Black-and-White Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Canada Warbler, Song Sparrow, White-Throated Sparrow, Dark-Eyed Junco, White-Winged Crossbill, Pine Siskin, and American Goldfinch.
In addition to these, we also heard a Ruffed Grouse and a Common Raven, and saw on the drive home European Starlings and Wild Turkeys. Also, I am not totally sure about the Bay-Breasted Warbler, as I identified them in fall plumage.
It’s been a long time since I’ve hiked around Patuxent NWR, and I took advantage of yesterday’s beautiful clear afternoon to suggest a trip up there. The full Cash Lake trail was open, not yet closed for the season to protect the waterfowl that winter at the park. In addition to getting some fresh air after days of being stuck inside avoiding first humidity and then thunderstorms, we were also testing out my partner’s new hiking boots in advance of our trip up to Acadia National Park next month.
The hike itself was really more of a nature stroll than a hike that anyone who owns those pants that zip off into shorts would recognize as such. Patuxent is usually good for birds, but we saw hardly any: some goldfinches in by the Redington Lake bridge, a red-tailed hawk being chased by some crows above the beaver dam, some chickadees and nuthatches in the woods, a noisy red-bellied woodpecker, and a lone male kingfisher flying up the shore of Cash Lake. The highlight of the walk was definitely the amphibians: the previous two days of rain had created the ideal summer environment for frogs. We saw green frogs in the learning garden pond by the visitors’ center, a veritable mob of leopard frogs in a puddle at the base of the trail, and a lone cricket frog doing exactly what the guidebook said it would, which was attempting to evade us by a series of erratic hops. (I still caught it, but only to examine the teeniest frog I’d ever seen for identification purposes and then move it to the grass from the path of the trolley.) We also saw a skink, climbing a tree near where we’d stopped to locate the woodpecker; it was only the second time I’d seen one, so that was exciting.
In addition to frogs, the meadows were alive with butterflies. We saw Monarchs, Eastern and Black Swallowtails, Red-spotted Purples, a Great Spangled Fritillary, and a Common Buckeye. It’s possible that I also saw Spicebush and/or Pipevine Swallowtails, a Common Wood Nymph, and Least or Delaware Skippers (I didn’t have the book with me, so all identifications were from made at home from memory). We also saw a couple of something that looked like a cross between a cicada and a hummingbird, that we named Mini Mothra. There were dozens of dragonflies, including several distinct types I’d never seen before, but I didn’t have that book with me, either. All the dragonflies and frogs, in combination with a nice breeze off the lakes, meant that we weren’t bothered by mosquitoes at all.
There have always been a lot of birds around our yard, but this year we seem to have hit a sweet spot in terms of cover and food because we’ve seen a greater variety of fledgling birds than ever before. It’s possible that these birds have been here every year and I just haven’t noticed because I haven’t been as active in the yard after April. It’s also possible that I was finally sufficiently threatening with regard to the neighbors’ cats being in the yard every other day for three years, as I haven’t seen them around in months. We’ve also sprayed the cherry trees for Eastern Tent Caterpillars for two years now, which has enabled them to fully foliate and have enough energy to actually produce cherries. Most likely the proliferation is a combination of all of those factors plus the near-constant rain keeping fresh water in the birdbath.
At any rate, I’ve seen rumpled no-tail-feathers wobbly-flying young of 13 species in our yard (or on the street in front of the house): American Crow, Blue Jay, Catbird, Eastern Phoebe, Hairy Woodpecker, House Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Grackle, European Starling, Brown Thrasher, Mourning Dove, American Robin, and (just this morning) Carolina Wren. Of all of these, I was most pleased by the ones I hadn’t seen before. The phoebe was a wonderful surprise, as I’d read they were shy nesters; in addition to being a pretty little bird (I have a northerner’s affinity for the gray species) they eat mosquitoes almost exclusively. I was excited about the crow, too, mostly because it’s one of those large birds about which you joke of never seeing a juvenile. And, truly, the young one would have been indistinguishable from an adult were it not making such plaintive cries for attention and had I not witnessed its parent actually feeding it. Finally, the woodpecker was a treat just because it was so cute. Without tail feathers, it was the quintessential Weeble ™ fluffball as it tried to peck for bugs up and down the limbs of the red maple.
My father rightly observes that all of these birds are ‘the loud ones,’ which is likely related to being the large ones, which is definitely related to being the voracious insect-eating ones. After years of effort, I seem to be finally developing ecological balance. We have numerous predator bugs in the yard, most noticeably fireflies, and just this week I discovered a beautiful spider—I bet you never expected me to use those two words together—camped out in the daylilies and another of the same in the climbing rose in the backyard.
Now, if only the slugs would attract some toads, I’d be set.
When we planned our trip to Hilton Head, I researched the refuges in the area and decided to stick with Pinckney Island NWR. It is close to the island, just over the bridge on the way to the mainland, and it promised miles of walking trails. Once we arrived in the area, I have to admit that the alligators put a bit of a damper on my enthusiasm for going hiking around in the marshes. I was nearly content to have spotted a Yellow-throated Warbler for the first time just across the street from our rental, in addition to Brown Thrasher, House Finch, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, Common Grackle, Boat-tailed Grackle, Northern Mockingbird, Eastern Bluebird, Tufted Titmouse, Green Heron, Great Blue Heron, Downy Woodpecker, Mourning Dove, Rock Dove, and Carolina Chickadee just in the residential area where we were staying. In the end I manned up, and we went ahead with the plan and spent a productive Wednesday afternoon at the refuge, spotting several new life birds and revisiting some old favorites.
Just inside the refuge, there was a flock of migrating Whimbrels, with a Black-bellied Plover, a couple of Dunlins, and some Semi-Palmated Plovers mixed in. There was also a larger gray bird that was either a Willet or a Red Knot in winter plumage; having seen both of these birds before we chose not to spend all day squinting through our under-powered binoculars to make a firm identification. Shorebirds are the most frustrating to identify with the binoculars we have; they’re typically farther away with less distinctive coloring than woodland birds, so we’ve learned to do our best and then move on. Once inside on the paths we saw old friends—Northern Cardinal, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Carolina Wren, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher—but none of the tanagers that were rumored to be around. On the mudflats we saw our next new bird, a flock of White Ibis with brown-backed young. Further along, at the aptly named Ibis Pond, we found herons of all shapes and sizes, those we’d seen before (Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron) and two lovely new additions: Little Blue Heron, Tri-colored Heron, and an adult male Anhinga (we later saw a female near our house). The Little Blue Heron wasn’t exactly the first sighting; we’d seen a young one the day before along the lagoons where we were staying, and I probably saw one during our trip to Chincoteague five years ago. Nonetheless, this was the first up close and confirmed sighting of an adult bird for me, and it was fun to watch it fly back and forth bringing bits of grass and twigs for a nest.
After hanging out at Ibis Pond for a while, we hiked a loop around what was advertised as Osprey Pond and Wood Stork Island, highly motivated to get a sight of the uncommon and elusive Wood Stork. We never did. What we did catch sight of, though, were gazillions of mosquitoes and a few alligators; the latter sighting led us to conclude that Pied-billed Grebes must not be very tasty, because on two occasions they were the only bird in the water near the enormous prehistoric reptile. During this trek we saw more Eastern Bluebirds, several Great-crested Flycatchers, an Eastern Phoebe, Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, the aforementioned Grebes, and a pair of Common Moorhens, but nary a stork. Nor an Osprey for that matter, but we had the excessive good fortune to have an Osprey nest in a palm tree behind the house next door, complete with young that plaintively cried out each morning as its parents harried it from the nest and into the air. Having booked it out the woods at the refuge and left the grass paths behind, we made another circuit of Ibis Pond in the hopes of finding a Wood Stork but only saw a couple more alligators, which apparently aid the nesting birds by eating predators like raccoons should they attempt to go for the nest. Or so the sign near the bench where we collapsed in a haze of citronella spray informed us. On the way out of the refuge, we did manage to see a male Painted Bunting at close range, which cheered our spirits greatly; they nest on the refuge and we’d been unable to flush one on the way in. I consider six new life birds to be a successful excursion, and I left happy; having to bark at some mating raccoons to get them off the path was just icing on the cake.
Overall, Hilton Head was a great place for wildlife sightings. In the lagoons around our housing development we saw several kinds of very large turtles, one of which we had to rescue from the middle of a road—Carolina Diamondback Terrapins, Eastern Mud Turtles, probably Chicken Turtles, and possibly Common Musk Turtles (I believe I saw the distinctive two lines on the head, but they dislike brackish water). We had Green Anoles around the house, and my partner startled a Five-lined Skink out of the bathroom when we visited Daufuskie Island on Thursday. During the boat ride over, we also spotted a couple of new birds—Royal Tern and what we are pretty sure was a White Pelican—and some familiar ones (Brown Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, Least Tern, Forster’s Tern, Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Barn Swallow and Tree Swallow) in addition to several groups of Bottlenose Dolphins. We saw a whole flock of Black Vultures along the side of a road, with their white hands. Add to these the starfish, crabs, clams, and keyhole urchins we saw on the beach, plus the dead armadillos on the side of I-95 and the mystery snake we saw the heron eating behind our house, and it was quite the wildlife-filled vacation.