Sunday, March 11, 2018

How A Rare Bird Mix-up Turned My Face Red

With spring nearly upon us, and the weather starting to warm (just a bit), the ducks that have wintered here are about to head north. That means, of course, that the time remaining to see them is dwindling. But it also means birders might luck into a few rarities that drop in for a few days of rest on their northward migration.

With that in mind, and having seen recent alerts from eBird about a Red-necked Grebe near the C&O Canal, Victor and I decided to bird a bit of the C&O this weekend. The weather was gorgeous when we set out—clear and sunny, a bit cool still but great for hiking. The grebe had been reported at both Violette’s Lock and Riley’s Lock, just a mile or so apart. We’ve seen huge gatherings of wood frogs near Violette’s Lock before, so started there, hoping maybe a few frogs would have ventured out of hibernation already. But the creek lacked any indication of mating frogs when we were there, so no luck on the amphibian front. On we went to birding.

I scanned the stretch of the Potomac for any interesting birds. Dozens of gulls studded the water (probably all Ring-billed, although I didn’t examine every single individual), but no interesting waterfowl could be seen. We headed downstream along the trail, stopping any time a break in the trees gave a good look at the river. Still, however, nothing but gulls. We encountered another birder heading upstream; he told us Horned Grebes and a Ruddy Duck were at Riley’s Lock, but he hadn’t been able to find the Red-necked Grebe. We wished him good birding, and kept hiking.

A Ring-billed Gull sits on the Potomac River
One of the many Ring-billed Gulls we saw that day

When we reached Riley’s Lock, we found that four Horned Grebes were indeed present and easily found. They only stayed above water for a few seconds at a time, though, frequently diving after minnows. This made close observation and photography tough, but thankfully Victor got some decent pictures. We left the lock and continued upstream.

Two Horned Grebes, in non-breeding plumage, sit together on the Potomac River
Two Horned Grebes in between dives.

Soon I spotted a few nice songbirds in the trees—several Bluebirds and Yellow-rumped Warblers among them. I didn’t see any early migrating warblers (the Yellow-rumps are here year-round), but they were still nice ticks. We also found a few Gadwall and Mallards enjoying the sunshine in a pond.

A male Eastern Bluebird sits on a twig, with the patchy bark of a Sycamore tree behind it
One of the Eastern Bluebirds sits in front of a Sycamore tree's patchy bark.

A yellow-rumped warbler sitss on a thin branch with blue sky behind it
This Yellow-rumped Warbler seemed to be examining us as much as I observed it!

A male and female Gadwall ducks sit together in a muddy brown pond
A male & a female Gadwall on the muddy pond. The male's black butt is a handy field mark.

On our way back, the horned grebes were still at Riley’s Lock, and had been joined by a much larger bird. This new bird had a longer, heavier bill, and had more white on the front of its neck. Could it be my longed-for Red-necked Grebe? I convinced myself it was, and even logged it in eBird and told another birder we encountered when we were almost back to our car. I was so excited I neglected to check for other possible IDs.

A red-throated loon, in non-breeding plumage, sits on the Potomac River
The way this bird tilts its bill upward is one of the key field marks for the Red-throated Loon in winter. I should have realized that, if I'd bothered to think about other possible IDs.

A red-throated loon, in non-breeding plumage, faces left on the Potomac River
Another view of the loon, still tilting its bill upward. The throat is only red in breeding plumage, seen in the summertime.

It wasn’t until I got home and checked our photos that I realized we had actually spotted a Red-Throated Loon, also listed as rare for our area this time of year. I had to edit my ebird checklist to correct my mistake. It’s correct in their data base now, but I still feel embarrassed about jumping to conclusions. Moral of the story: just because you wanted to find a particular species doesn’t mean you did! 
Always double check your ID and rule out other possibilities, before declaring you’ve spotted a lifer bird. I wish I'd done that before reporting the Red-necked Grebe on eBird!

So I never did spot the Red-necked Grebe that day, but I think the loon was a decent consolation prize. Kind of a funny coincidence that they both had “Red” in their name. It made my 91st bird species for the year, and the Horned Grebes were my 90th. I’m almost half-way to my goal of 200 bird species for the year! I know the more I get, the harder it will be to add a new species. I’m still hoping to make that nice fat number by December 31, though.

Are you seeing any interesting birds in your area as the spring migration gets started? I’d love to hear about them in the comments. Also, please let me know if you have any questions about birdwatching or birding equipment. I’ve been birding for most of my life, so I may have forgotten what it’s like to be a beginning birder. But I’d love to help you all get started or become more advanced birders!

Sunday, February 25, 2018

More Great Backyard Birdcount-- and Beyond!

As I mentioned in my last post, I had a lot of fun on this year's Great Backyard Bird Count. Since I first wrote about it from the road, without the ability to include pictures, I thought I'd follow up with  photos of a few favorite sightings.

One of our first stops was at Disney World, where we spotted this Palm Warbler searching the waterline for tasty bugs.

We spotted this Snowy Egret at our next stop, St. Petersburg. I love the bird's yellow feet, or "golden slippers" as my field guide calls them!

St. Petersburg turned out to be very good for birding, with lots of small parks and canals. Crescent Lake held a lot of domestic-type ducks that were clearly well-fed by locals, but also this American Coot, White Ibis, and Wood Stork (left to right).

St. Pete also has a colony of Eurasian Collared-doves, not native to the U.S. but still fun to see. We also spotted another non-native, the Monk Parakeet I mentioned last post, but couldn't get good photos of it. Cool to see, though!

As we continued to explore the city, we stumbled onto a park whose mudflats held several kinds of gulls and sandpipers, but most excitingly, hundreds of Black Skimmers! Their weird-looking beaks let them skim food right from the water as they glide just above the surface. I think they were my favorite sighting from the trip.

The GBBC is over for this year, but you can still log your project data at through March 1, if you haven't gotten around to it yet! Non-GBBC sightings are important to enter too, to help scientists understand long-term patterns or changes. How will birds' migration paths and timing change as our climate changes? Those are just a few of the issues ornithologists are studying with the help of eBirders. 

Ebirders can help document shifts as they happen by logging bird sightings all year round. That's what I'm trying to do by entering at least one checklist every day. Bonus: I've already added several new species to my life list, including the above-mentioned Monk Parakeet, Black Skimmer, and this fussy little Orange-Crowned Warbler we saw in Jackson Square in New Orleans!

The warbler was very active and rarely stayed still for very long. Eventually I got good enough looks at it for identification, and for Victor to get this adorable photo.

If you want to join eBird too, it's super easy to get started. Go to and create a free account. Next, identify birds you see in your yard, from your office, or wherever you like, and report them. That's it! If you don't have a bird field guide already, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology even created a great app to help you identify birds, called Merlin. As I mentioned above, I used it this trip to help me identify that Orange-Crowned Warbler! I highly recommend checking it out.

Happy birding! I'd love to hear in the comments what you all are seeing in your area.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Two Days Left in 2018's Great Backyard Bird Count-- Still Time to Join In!

This weekend is one of my favorite Citizen Science projects: the Great Backyard Bird Count, or GBBC for short. This is a four-day event that takes place on President’s Day weekend every year (or the second full weekend in February, for those of you not in the United States). If you haven’t already joined in, you should! I’ve included basic instructions at the end of this post.

[I should note, I'm posting this from the road (literally-- as we drive through Georgia), so will post a second part with photos in a few days when I have a better internet connection.]

Anyway, the GBBC began in 1998 and is run by the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. To participate, you count birds for at least 15 minutes on at least one of the four days (February 16 to 19 in 2018). Then you enter your data at or directly at You’ll need to set up a free eBird account if you don’t already have one, since the eBird tool and app are what make the online count possible..

The great part about GBBC is that it’s a global snapshot of the birds, and takes place everywhere at the same time. I like knowing that all over the world tons of other birders and bird watchers are counting along with me!

Although the count refers to backyards, you don’t need a yard or garden to participate. Count anywhere you like. This year, the GBBC coincided with the weekend after we planned to go to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. So we made a trip out of it.

Mardi Gras itself was February 13. After we finished up in New Orleans, we swung through central Florida for a few days. We did this the last time Mardi Gras coincided with the GBBC too.

However, because we were in tropical Florida this year, I definitely got more species than I did for last year’s GBBC. My favorite sightings so far have been:
·      My first-ever Monk Parakeet, in St. Petersburg
·      Tons of Black Skimmers, also in St. Petersburg
·      An American Kestrel spotted by my husband as we drove back north on Sunday (no photo of that one, of course)
·      Palm Warblers at Disney World, constantly bobbing their tails as they hunted for gnats and other tasty insects.
·      Yellow-rumped Warblers, which were nearly ubiquitous in some of the resort areas of Disney World
·      Roseate Spoonbills along the road as we drove north, as well as flying overhead in St. Petersburg
·      Sandhill Cranes by the side of the road in Florida as we headed north
·      A non-bird sighting, but still exciting nonetheless: a manatee in a bayou in St. Petersburg! That was definitely unexpected since we didn’t go specifically looking for manatees. This one found us, though.

We’ll get home to Maryland tonight, and collapse into our beds. Tomorrow I hope to bulk up my list if I can squeeze a decent birding trip in between unpacking and laundry. I hope you try your hand at the Great Backyard Bird Count this year too. Let me know in the comments what you think!

If you want to participate, here’s what to do:
  • Go to and set up an account if you don’t already have one.
  •  Count birds anywhere you like. Out your office window is fine, out your kitchen window, anywhere is fine. The most urban city neighborhood to the most remote wilderness, or anywhere in between—all locations can help scientists see how birds are doing right now.
  •  If you want to use the eBird app, you can tally your birds instantly without having to do an extra step of logging into the main website. Download the free eBird Mobile app, then start a new checklist each time you do a count. Recent updates to the mobile app even track your path and calculate your distance for you, so you won’t have to guess when eBird asks you how far you traveled. Pretty cool!
  • If you prefer to keep track of your checklists on paper, you can still enter them through the eBird website.
  • If you don’t feel confident about your bird identifications, another free app can help, called Merlin, also from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It will ask you questions about the bird’s size, what colors it has, and show you photos of birds that match your description. Then you select which photo matches your bird, and voila! You have your identification. I used Merlin frequently in Florida this trip, and usually it helped me figure out the right bird pretty much immediately.
  • Complete as many checklists as you want, from as many different locations as you want, from the 16th through the 19th. All of the checklists will be gathered to make this year’s snapshot.
  • Since 2018 has been declared the Year of the Bird, why not make this the year you try birding in a different way than you have before? Enter your sightings online at eBird if you never have, or include photographs or even sound recordings. The GBBC weekend is a great time to practice your skills, and maybe bring some non-birding friends along.
  •  There’s also an annual photograph contest for GBBC, so don’t forget your camera! Have fun birding, and let me know what you find, in the comments below.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Valentines for Wildlife: Five Ways to Give Nature Some Love

A belated happy Valentine’s Day to you all! I hope you had a good time showing some love to your human sweetheart, if you have one. Perhaps you gave each other chocolates or flowers, or maybe shared a romantic candlelight dinner. But did you think to show affection to the backyard wildlife that give you so much enjoyment? Never fear, it’s not too late! Here are five easy ways you can help the wild creatures large and small that live right in your own neighborhood.

1.     If you don't already have bird feeders, you can easily make your own! Tie some string to the top of a pine cone. Then smear the cone with peanut butter and roll it in birdseed. You can add some dried fruit too if you like, such as raisins. Use the string to tie the pine cone treat to a branch and enjoy watching the birds devour this tasty treat. In my area, February is often the coldest part of the winter, and much of the natural sources of food may be used up by now. This means the birds will be especially appreciative of your generosity. Make sure to identify and report all the birds you see this weekend for the Great Backyard Bird Count! See my next post LINK for more information on the GBBC as well.

Female House Finch and male Cardinal enjoying my sunflower seed feeder

2.     Build a brush shelter for wildlife to hide in and perch on. If you haven’t gotten around to discarding your Christmas tree or wreath yet, these are excellent starts for a brush pile. If you want to go big, see LINK for my description of building a brush pile. You  can also just start with a smaller one. Lean sticks up against your discarded Christmas tree or against a fallen log to create a little lean-to, add some pine branches or fallen leaves inside and on top, and there you go. If you put this near your bird feeder you may see birds perching on or in the shelter while they eat. Chipmunks, mice, and other small mammals may shelter there as well. 

I built a pile of logs, brush, and leaves to provide winter shelter in my yard.

3.     Since birds and other animals get thirsty too, try putting out pans of water for your wildlife. If you live in a cold area, a fresh pan of hot water each morning will provide much-needed drinks and bathing opportunities. If you already own a birdbath, you may think it’s useless in the wintertime since it freezes over. Not so! You can buy a specially-made birdbath heater to keep the water from freeing completely, thus preventing you having to go out into the cold every morning to refresh it. This is a great way to attract unusual birds to your yard, or birds who don’t normally come to seed or suet feeders.

Robin splashing happily in my concrete birdbath last summer.

4.     If you have room to garden, you have many choices for creating valentines for your favorite wildlife. Now would be a great time to consider adding some native plants to your yard in order to support local bees and butterflies. If the plants also have tasty berries or seeds for birds and small mammals later, so much the better. I’ll be posting some helpful tips next week for starting a wildlife garden, so stay tuned!

A Monarch butterfly used my New York asters to fuel up for last fall's migration.
5.     Finally, even if you don’t have a yard or garden of your own, you can do other kind things for wildlife. Take the family to a nearby park or stream and spend some time picking up litter. Not only the wildlife will appreciate it, but other people who enjoy the park will too! 

I really enjoy showing some love to the wildlife all around me, and I hope you do too. Let me know in the comments what birds and other animals you see in your yard!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

2017's eBird Challenge

It's not too late for a 2017 wrapup post, is it? I hope not, because I'm still reviewing all I did and learned over the last year.

One of my projects was to participate in the eBird 365 challenge from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology-- that is, to submit at least one checklist per day. I'll admit, sometimes i didn't send in my sightings on the actual day, but I entered my data as soon as I could the next day. Usually, though, I used the app on my phone to send in data right from the field. It was a lot of fun trying to find a few minutes every day to count birds wherever I happened to be.

I don't know my final total number of checklists; the app only saves about a month worth of data at a time and I didn't think to email myself each month. But I do know my total number of bird species: 127. Since I also finished my Master's degree this year, I'm pretty pleased with my total.

A few of my favorite birds from this past year:
The Red-headed Woodpecker showed up in my yard very briefly

At Boyd Hill Nature Preserve in St. Petersburg, FL, this Great Horned Owl had taken over an active Osprey nest! The park staff told us all about it when we got to the visitor center and asked them about the nesting owls.

My lifer Clapper Rail, spotted in Ocean City, MD

And the 'Oregon' subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco that I excitedly tallied, but neglected to photograph, while I was in Spokane, WA for the NAI national conference. 

I had so much fun doing the challenge, I've already started tallying birds for 2018 as well. I'm aiming for 200 species, but will be satisfied if I can at least make it to 150. I'm definitely targeting my birding excursions more this year, and already have 43 species.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Autumn's Arrival

It's finally fall! It's officially been fall for a couple weeks now, but for me the season doesn't really start until I start seeing migrating birds in my yard.

Today I glanced out my front door and was overjoyed to see a plump White-throated Sparrow scarfing up sunflower seeds. Yay! This is only the first of several, I am sure. I've been trying to log some birds on eBird every day this year, so I look forward to spotting many more of these winter birds and their cohorts.

My first White-throated Sparrow of 2017.

The weather couldn't feel more autumnal today, either. Last night was full of moody rain, which I love to listen to as I fall asleep. Today the rain has mostly stopped, but the clouds are still full and gloomy. I love the cool, dim light, it makes me want to cuddle up inside with a good book, some cider, and a fire in the fireplace. This kind of weather usually makes my cats more cuddly, too!

I hope you are enjoying the season's change wherever you are. Are new birds arriving in your yard too? Let me know in the comments what you're seeing.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Butterfly Update-- Eggs and Eclosures!

My garden's first Black Swallowtail egg of 2017

As I mentioned several months ago, I had a LOT of Black Swallowtail caterpillars at the end of the summer. I think I ended up with 26 (!) chrysalises to babysit over the winter. Sadly, three of them eclosed too soon. The first one was when the sun's seasonal shift sent a beam of light into their cage and warmed one chrysalis up way too early: in January/February. I handfed the butterfly (sugar water, in a 4:1 water to sugar ratio) from a cottonball for several days, and eventually set it free during one of the weird early thaws we had this winter. I knew it was unlikely the butterfly would live very long, let alone find many flowers for food, but I wanted a more natural life for the butterfly than constant captivity. Since that butterfly eclosed during a snowstorm, we named it Snowflake.

Then while we were away from the house for about a week a second butterfly eclosed. Unfortunately since it never got any food it died before we returned. Sorry, little one.

The last early eclosure happened during the storm Stella, in mid March. It was a male but I couldn't resist naming the butterfly after a blizzard, so Stella he was. Again I fed him by hand. Something interesting about both of these butterflies: they didn't seem to recognize when I put them on the moistened puff that it was food. I had to gently unroll the proboscis with a straightened paper clip and place the tip on the surface of the cotton ball to get both of them to eat. But as soon as they tasted the sugar water they were happy to suck it up. The second butterfly we also set free a few weeks after eclosure. It was still pretty early but I know Stella survived for at least 24 hours because I saw him soar back through my yard the next afternoon.

A few weeks later, once temperatures at night were reliably in the 40s, I put the cage of remaining chrysalises outside to start their natural end of diapause. Last week several butterflies eclosed: three females. Then two males this weekend, and finally another female two days ago. Today while bringing my tomato and basil seedlings outside for some sunshine I spotted a female Black Swallowtail in my garden laying eggs in my carrot greens. I followed her around and managed to find two eggs. I'm pretty sure she laid more than that, but they're really hard to spot.

So the cycle begins again! I hope I get more eggs soon, I have plenty of carrots and dill sprouting in the garden.
The second egg this year. I'm so excited for little tiny caterpillars to hatch!

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