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A Fantastic “Big Day” of Birding in Baltimore

 

A note about COVID-19 and visiting parks: Help stop the spread of COVID-19 and follow all current directives from your governor and local health officials about wearing face masks and physical distancing.

Earlier this year, I proposed the idea of doing a Baltimore Big Day to Tim Carney. Tim is an Environmental Specialist with the Maryland Environmental Service (MES), and one of the best birders in Baltimore and Maryland. For those not in the birding world, a “Big Day” is where you try to identify as many bird species as you possibly can in a single day in a specific area. Shockingly, not a single Big Day had been attempted in Baltimore (for list-keeping purposes, Baltimore City and County are combined into one area), and we thought we’d give it a shot. Originally, we had planned to try on May 8th, but decided to postpone based on preceding reports and predicted weather patterns. Luckily, this postponement meant that we could enlist the supremely talented Claire Wayner and Kojo Baidoo, who would be returning home from school for the summer. With this fearsome foursome, we embarked on May 14th on what would inevitably be a record-setting day.

The Team (from left to right): Tim Carney, Nico Sarbanes, Kojo Baidoo, and Claire Wayner

Our Baltimore Big Day was ushered in by a singing field sparrow at 4:30 am at Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area. While we weren’t able to pull out a hoped-for whip-poor-will (a nightjar named for the sound of its call), a great horned owl was obliging at the final pull-off we checked.

Next we headed down to Fort Armistead Park, at the southernmost tip of Baltimore City, in the hopes of a productive dawn stakeout on the water. While we whiffed on lingering waterfowl, each team member pulled out something special. Tim eagle-eyed (or should I say “falcon-eyed”) the resident peregrine falcon (our only one of the day) on the concrete girders of the Key Bridge, Claire’s sharp ears picked out a Wilson’s warbler, Kojo spotted an uncommon little blue heron, and I spotted a laughing gull. Striking out on marsh wren here was unfortunate, but we headed across the Key Bridge to the North Point peninsula with 46 species.

Little blue heron at Fort Armistead

Fort Howard Veterans Park, located just north of Fort Howard Park, doesn’t look like much at first glance – just a mown grassy field with a line of trees at the rear. But a quick cut through the trees provides some great views of open water and a reedy shoreline. This morning, the Veterans Park was an enjoyable stop, with everyone remarking that it was perhaps the most birdy we’d seen it. A Traill’s flycatcher that remained silent was frustrating, but we were entertained by a female rose-breasted grosbeak walking – of all places – on the beach. I was able to pick out three high-flying great egrets (our only GREGs of the day), but the best get here by far was a flyby common loon (our only one) that Claire expertly spotted trailing the egrets after I’d prematurely lowered my binoculars and moved on. Again though, the marsh wrens we expected failed to materialize. We wouldn’t get one the entire day, perhaps our most glaring miss.

“Traill’s” flycatcher. Until the 1970s, willow and alder flycatchers were considered to be the same species. Virtually identical in appearance, willows and alders are only separable by sound, so if they are silent, they go on the list as a “Traill’s.”

We next headed to North Point State Park, with high expectations. Besides boasting absolutely stunning views of the Bay (particularly from the end of the Crystal Pier), North Point also boasts one of the best bird lists in Baltimore County, and has produced some magical migration events.  Tim had 102 species in a single day all within the state park’s borders in May 2020! On this morning, however, with no sign of the resident Virginia rails or the lingering snow geese along the Black Marsh trail, no other marsh birds, and only 15 species of warbler, the general feeling was that the park somewhat underperformed. Still, we did net our only Nashville and Cape May warblers of the day, as well as blue grosbeak, purple martin, and Cooper’s hawk (not at all guaranteed) during a brief hawk watch at the fields along the entrance road. We left North Point at 10:20 am with 94 species.

Patterson Park was a vital stop. Patterson has an exceptional bird list, and this green oasis in the middle of East Baltimore has lured in some legendary avian visitors. We quickly checked the boat lake to tick a lingering gadwall and American black duck, and both waterfowl were then quickly upstaged by a late red-breasted nuthatch that Claire spotted close by. Kojo and I called out a pair of young broad-winged hawks circling above, our only Blackburnian warbler of the day joined a beautiful male Canada warbler in the Audubon wetland garden, and multiple spiffy Lincoln’s sparrows – an uncommon migrant – provided great views. The green herons on the boat lake were numerous, and one so obliging that even I, the group’s scheduler and timekeeper, couldn’t resist taking three minutes to enjoy some great photo-ops. We left Patterson reinvigorated, and with over 100 species on the day.

A quick stop at Masonville Cove in southern Baltimore City produced my (as the team’s avowed shorebird enthusiast) favorite bird of the day, a group of five semipalmated plovers (so named because the webbing on their feet only reaches half the length of their toes) in front of Captain Trash Wheel. Masonville also hosts breeding bald eagles (local celebrities), and a quick scan of the nest found the pair tending to their fledglings, putting us at 107 species as we headed to Southwest Area Park (SWAP).

Semipalmated plover at Masonville Cove. Shorebirds are tough to come by in Baltimore, so they are always a treat!

While SWAP didn’t give us everything we’d hoped for (we dipped on a lingering drake blue-winged teal), we did get our main target: common gallinule. Kojo spotted the awesome chicken-like bird as it emerged from the reeds, and it showed well, seemingly oblivious to numerous fishermen. We also added least sandpiper and cleaned up a “dirty bird” (a bird identified earlier in the day, but NOT by all team members) with a chestnut-sided warbler just south of the boat ramp. As a bonus, just after leaving SWAP and pulling onto Annapolis Avenue, I spotted a bird flying erratically. I knew what it was, but at 2:00 in the afternoon? Yup, a common nighthawk! Tim deftly pulled our car over, leapt out, and signaled to Claire and Kojo (luckily right behind us). We watched five dancing CONIs (common nighthawks), a great and unexpected midday “road” bird (also from the nightjar family, nighthawks become more active around dusk), and the first of the year for all of us.

Common nighthawk. These nightjars are usually active in the hour just before dusk, so to see one in the middle of the day was surprising!

We next headed to a spot along the Gwynns Falls for yellow-crowned night-heron (YCNH). When we arrived, we found nothing. To add a little salt in the wound, a local garage owner approached us and told us he had seen our target herons just a couple of hours earlier, and that they were “always around.” Not wanting to whiff on this must-have species, we decided to check one more pull off a little farther up the stream, and . . . BAM! A beautiful YCNH right off the road. Fist-pumps all around, then it was off to the Liberty Reservoir, on Baltimore’s western border with Carroll County.

Yellow-crowned night-heron along the Gwynns Falls in West Baltimore

Some GREAT and essential pre-Big Day scouting by Kojo of local breeders made Liberty a productive stop. While we missed prothonotary warbler, we added our only cliff swallows, hooded warblers, and Louisiana waterthrush of the day, with a gorgeous yellow-throated vireo as a bonus. Popping over to Soldiers Delight for our second shift of the day, we got great views of the summer tanager that has become almost automatic in recent summers, and added our only pine warblers of the day. With its unique habitat of serpentine pine barrens, Soldiers Delight is always a cool stop, and on any other day we would have stayed longer to enjoy this visually striking spot. But time was marching on, and we still needed to pick up a bunch of birds. We headed east at 4:30pm, with 122 species and eyes on additional migrants at Lake Roland in north Baltimore City.

Needless to say, Lake Roland was a disappointment. Just three days earlier, I had tallied 22 warbler species in a single visit! But on this day, in just under an hour spent at two different access points, we turned up only four warbler species. Four. A calling northern flicker cured a glaring omission on our list, but otherwise the park was as quiet as any of us had seen it, even in the dead of winter. This was particularly painful for me, as one of the park’s most consistent birders and most outspoken advocates of its elite status as a migrant mecca. But that’s just the nature of birding.

After Lake Roland had underwhelmed, and with just a couple of hours of daylight remaining, we were in need of a bit of a boost. And that boost came from some Tim Carney magic at his favorite Loch Raven Reservoir spot: Peerce’s Cove. Not only did Peerce’s deliver some needed “easy” birds like Eastern phoebe and song sparrow(!), but we also added brown thrasher and (the star of the show), a singing yellow-throated warbler, a much-desired target bird. We headed to the Baltimore County Agricultural Center with 130 species.

The Ag Center, one of the most gorgeous spots in the county, provided a great backdrop to the conclusion of our Big Day. While we couldn’t turn up a grasshopper sparrow (a painful miss), we did have a bobolink belt out a quick stanza from somewhere hidden in the grasses. A flyby killdeer called from the southeast, adding another new species. And, while I was embarrassingly straining to turn a distant yellowish female red-winged blackbird into an Eastern meadowlark, Tim thankfully spotted the real thing perched on a far fence.

A distant Eastern meadowlark in waning light at the Ag Center was our final species of the day.

After 17 hours of birding, and about 10 miles and 26,000 steps walked (according to my count), our team finished with a new Baltimore record of 133 species recorded in a single day. There were certainly some tough misses, including marsh wren, grasshopper sparrow, common raven, warblers, and waterfowl. The number we got is certainly beatable, and we intend to beat it next year. But all things considered, an amazing day of Baltimore birding, with some amazing birders!

Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area

Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area (NEA) is comprised of 1,900 acres of serpentine barren. The area has over 39 rare, threatened, or endangered plant species as well as rare insects, rocks and minerals.

Fort Howard Park

Fort Howard Park, located at the end of North Point Road, served as a landing for thousands of British troops during the War of 1812.

North Point State Park

North Point State Park is a 1,310-acre Bay-front park with more than six miles of shoreline along the Chesapeake Bay, Back River, and Shallow Creek. The park offers public access, a wading beach, and crabbing and fishing opportunities.

Patterson Park

Patterson Park is a public park in Baltimore featuring paths, ball fields, swimming, and a mix of historic and natural delights.

Masonville Cove

Masonville Cove is 70 acres of water and 54 acres of cleaned-up wetlands, nature trails, and a protected bird sanctuary, all soon-to-be protected by a conservation easement and part of the Shores of Baltimore Land Trust.

Gwynns Falls Trail and Greenway

Explore a hiking and biking trail through a Baltimore stream valley making its way to the Chesapeake Bay.

Nico

Nico Sarbanes is a Baltimore native and a lifelong birder. He has channeled his love of nature and birds into his work as an environmental educator, and now into his study of environmental law. When he is not birding, he enjoys playing jazz in the Baltimore area, painting, and cheering on the Orioles.

August 1, 2021

Main image: A striking green heron hunting at the Patterson Park Boat Lake. All photos by Nico Sarbanes.
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