Friday, April 15, 2016

Spring Part 1 - USA

For two years running I’ve been lucky in numerous ways. With respect to birding, the luck I’m referring to on this occasion is with travel, and specifically with Spring work visits to the US.

Last year I was, arguably, luckier than this, with a visit that took place when the warbler migration was well in train, and which included work visits to both Washington, D.C. and New York, as well as a sneaky weekend with my brother in Florida. This year the visit was shorter, earlier and more melancholic, punctuated, as it was, by the terrorist attacks in my current home town of Brussels.

I came at the end of March, arriving in Washington to snow flurries, which quickly gave way to glorious sunshine, heat into the low 20s Celsius and a spectacular display of cherry blossom, of which I completely failed to take any photos. I had only four days in the city, but this included one free morning, and one day entirely free prior to my return to Europe in the evening. I was not about to waste an opportunity like that at this time of year.

The question was, what to do with this time? Having birded in the DC area in both winter and Spring, I had low expectations of my ability to find anything I hadn’t seen before, so the priority was to maximize diversity and see as much as I could in the time available.

For the free morning, I had some places in mind. I knew that I was too early for most of the passerine migrants, and therefore that last year’s hotspot of Rock Creek Park was no likely to be the most productive of locations. So for my free morning I gave that a miss and defaulted instead to Huntley Meadows in Virginia. I had visited this place twice, with Dad, in the late 1990s and had the astonishing luck to see not one, but two species of rail – a King Rail (Rallus elegans) and a Sora Rail  (Porzana carolina)– on the same day and within minutes of each other (to my Dad’s eternal jealousy, he having seen the former but missed the latter). With this sixteen-year-old memory in mind, I headed out full of expectation

It’ was, I have to say, an awful lot smaller than I remember it. Nonetheless, with a good mix of habitats covering woodland, reedbeds and open water, it rose to the occasion. The warm weather put birds in a singing mood and old friends popped up everywhere, including a particular favourite, Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus). I was also, not for the first time, struck by the abundance of Woodpeckers here, in comparison to Europe, seeing six species in the course of the morning, including several adult Red-headed Woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), with their smart crimson hoods, which, it later turned out, though I didn’t realize it at the time, were LIFERs for me. So much for not seeing new species. There was a lovely Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) on the ground, as well, and Blue-winged Teal (Spatula discors) on the water.

With a few more good birds around the marsh, and with my first ever glimpse of a Beaver (Castor canadensis) to top it off, this was altogether a good start. But I coulnd’t help but be struck by how much this site has shrunk in comparison to my memory, and started searching for somewhere with more space. I had, as ever, printed out the relevant pages of Paul Milne’s Where to Watch Birds: World Citites, a book that’s now pushing 20 years old and is increasingly not much use in places like Dubai that have changed immeasurably since it was written. For those like Washington, though, whose geography and ornithology have changed much less, this is still a gold mine, and it was on the basis of my study of this book that on the day of my departure I pulled up in my Uber car on my first visit to Jug Bay, on the banks of the Patuxent River in Maryland.

The view across the wide Patuxent River at Jug Bay
The charming Liana at the visitor center made me welcome, proposed a good route for me to walk, expressed amazement at my having reached here with a cab, and gently posited the possibility that it might not be quite so straightforward to get back to Washington. She was right

For me the best surprises of this place were in the forest. I saw most of the six woodpecker species I'd already seen at Huntley Meadows, including the Red-headed, which seems to have had something of an invasion year this year. In addition to these, though, I also managed to bag my first ever Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius), perhaps the last of the woodpecker species I could reasonably expect to see in this part of America. But I had great views too of a bird I’d only every glimpsed before – Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus), which seemed to be two-a-penny here . And despite the wind and a chill breeze there were more signs of migration than I’d seen at Huntley Meadows, with a few soon-to-be-ubiquitous Yellow-rumped Warblers (Dendroica coronata) in the trees.  

Walking along the waterfront came another surprise, and another LIFER – a female Black Scoter (Melanitta americana) riding the waves on the river. There were signs of migration here too, with a few Bonaparte's Gulls (Larus philadelphia) among the Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) and American Herring Gulls (Larus smithsonianus). There were American Black Ducks (Anas rubripes) too, which had eluded me at Huntley Meadows, and a single identifiable wader – a Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca), seen from one of the hides (blinds) near the water.

The small area of farmland was a hive of activity as well, with Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) flitting around and small flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and Eastern Towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus). I missed the Barn Owls (Tyto alba) though, which apparently nest in boxes on the barns here.

One of the inlets, leading to a Beaver dam, at Jug Bay.
This is a five star destination, as far as I’m concerned, and it’s one I’ll definitely be back to on future visits. For a start, it’s big, and it has big habitats; large reedbeds, long stretches of open water, a modicum of farmland, and significant, contiguous stands of variable forest. Oh, and if you’ve never seen an Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) or a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), this is the place to be. They are countless here, and it’s not often you can say that.

Coming again I’d give this place a full day, to do it justice, and I’d bring a ‘scope too, because the lines of sight, particularly across the marsh, can be long. I missed a few waders as a result of not having mine with me. Above all, though, this is a friendly, well-maintained place, with well-informed and enthusiastic staff who maintain the site with maximal consideration for the sometimes competing demands of conservation and accessibility.

It is, though, not that easy to get to or from without your own transport. Thank God Liana was there to help me get a taxi or I might still be there, and would have missed the Spring migration in Montenegro. Many, many thanks, Liana. And more on Spring in Montenegro in a day or two.

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