The Chucks were nowhere to be seen on our return to the Blackwater refuge: probably taking a well-earned festive break. But their replacement, the cheerful Franny, kept us for nearly as long exclaiming about how much she’d love to live in England. She was one of those charming American ladies of advancing years whose affection for their own country is exceeded only by that for an idealised, floral-patterned, pomp and circumstance royal-wedding Britain. She’d gotten up at 5am for Will & Kate’s nuptials. I didn’t want to burst her bubble by mentioning the rain, cost of living, griminess of our towns, cities, and roadsides, public sector strikes, Eric Pickles, or the Daily Mail, so I played up to the image as best I could. Who am I to crush sweet old ladies’ dreams? “Anything in particular to look for today?” I enquired, hopefully, in my politest Queen’s English, when she’d finished. “Oh yes,” she replied, “have a look in the sightings book here!” Not exactly what I was hoping for (Chuck had been most knowledgable), but the book’s contents were pretty enticing.
Alas, things were initially much quieter than I’d hoped on the waterfowl front as we set out on the wildlife drive, and promised pelicans lurked offshore at the first viewpoint – though I did pick up a few terns, Forster’s by process of elimination. At the next stop by a stand of ‘loblolly’ pines, golden-crowned kinglets were busy feeding by the car park (very much like firecrests to look at), and nearby I chanced upon a mixed feeding flock that included brown-headed nuthatches. They sound like squeaking rubber ducks; I kid you not!
We hadn’t quite made it back to more marshy parts when we saw our first northern harrier, close American relative of the hen harrier and formerly known as marsh hawk. A rufous-tinted juvenile bird emerged from over the treetops and swooped over the road above our heads. Round the corner we had great views of it hunting over open country, and I was elated: harriers were easy here! I believe we saw at least four or five individuals over the rest of the afternoon. Following the harrier, waterfowl picked up with large groups of pintail, shoveler (I was pointlessly peeved that these were not global year list ticks, despite them being new USA birds – no pleasing some birders), and a group of tundra swans, American cousins of the Bewick’s (very much a theme of the day), calling wildly as they flew out onto the river. Last but never, ever least, many a magnificent bald eagle.
Of which more to come soon in another post, but for the purposes of this tale, we left the tame, visitor-friendly part of the reserve to strike out for the wildness of the marsh proper. We hoped to strike lucky and find a rough-legged hawk, golden eagle, or short-eared owl, and headed for a road recommended by no less a figure than Audubon’s head of bird conservation for the state. He is, of course, an Englishman, but there’s nothing English about the sort of birding he was recommending: a proper American road trip, cruising in our boat of a car (by my usual Micra standards), windows down, binoculars ready, cup-holders deployed and snacks to hand.
It started off pretty well. A red-shouldered hawk lurked on a roadside branch, and caused an identification headache for a while since I’d never seen one that close before. I just had time to register the hermit thrush rustling in the ditch beneath before we sped on to avoid being rear-ended by a hasty local in a pick-up.
A few corners later and safely overtaken, we saw a large group of American robins feeding on a ‘front yard’, and slowed up to have a look. Not hawks, but cute, I’d say, so always worth a look. Flocking in the winter, they remind me of our winter thrushes – also part of the turdus family – somewhere between blackbirds and redwings in call and song, and much like a fieldfare in flight.
A police car passed in the other direction as we watched, which I thought nothing of – until it reappeared a few minutes later, following us. Now proceeding dutifully at precisely the speed limit, we continued on the road to our destination as if we’d never slowed down. What kind of local sheriff follows somebody for perhaps 5 or 10 minutes and then flashes his lights? A very bored one who patrols the margins of Crapo, MD, that’s who. Dazzling bursts of blue filled our mirrors.
“Well, the reason I’ve pulled you over is that you must have been going about 10 miles an hour when I first passed you back there.” he drawled. “At first I thought you must be a little old lady, then I saw you were young and thought I’d better check you out.” This was thrilling, so very rock and roll – pulled over for birding! We raised our binoculars sheepishly. “We’re looking for hawks.” “Well that just about explains it – you have a good day now!” He prepared to depart, but still looked somewhat uncomprehending. By way of further explanation, we told him we’d missed a turning; most normal people only drive that slowly because they don’t know where they are, so we thought it might help our case.
We had in fact genuinely missed our turning as what had been promised as a road appeared to be an inconsequential dirt track turning into the mire and we’d passed right by, distracted by our law-enforcing tail. Who advised us politely that the road was indeed back there a-ways, so once he was safely out of sight, we made a complicated several-point turn to avoid sinking into the swamp that crowded us on all sides, and sought it out. Not so much a ‘little’ road as a forsaken pathway to doom. Still, we bravely turned, hoping it would be the narrow way that leads to bird-life, rather than destruction.
So I added a North American rough-legged hawk to add to spring’s UK rough-legged buzzard? We finally found the adult golden eagle said to be wintering in the area? Well, no. Only abandoned hunting stands, distant gunfire, barking dogs, and a few forgotten 19th-century graves being gradually reclaimed by the forest awaited us along the way. Clearly the neighbourhood of Crapo is naught but a lawless, frontier-style redneck infested swamp. I don’t blame the eagles for steering clear – at least you know that since I’m writing this, we made it back alive. Just.