The nearest birding spot to the house in Maryland is the WB&A trail, a recreational path constructed on the route of a disused railway. Despite heading through suburban Bowie, it is lined mostly with second-growth forest, and crosses several small creeks and streams – on which in the past we’ve seen belted kingfishers, a green heron, and evidence of beavers. Where major roads through the town are lined with ever-growing housing developments and strip malls, the trail, by way of cocking a snook at the all-conquering motorcar, presents a different view of Bowie’s neighbourhoods. Viewed from the trail, wild America yet lingers on amongst the busyness of the densely populated eastern seaboard, a network of forest, scrub, stream and swamp that is fragmented, but persists.
What I didn’t know was that the ‘end’ of the trail where we usually start is not really the end at all. Heading north from the carpark, one can reach a small overlook on the Patuxent River – which at this stage of its course is wide, but not dominating the landscape, still overgrown by trees.
I was put on to this by a local birder, who had kindly tipped me off that red-headed woodpeckers would sometimes winter in trees by the river. It was a little early in the year, but perhaps worth a try: so I did. I even managed, at last, to get out early. Inevitably, red-headed woodpeckers were nowhere to be seen, but a very nice alternative trio were out and about: the diminutive and ubiquitous downy woodpecker, garrulous red-bellied woodpeckers, and the sizeable, smartly spotted eastern flicker. A scattering of kinglets, both ruby and golden-crowned, was animating the trailside trees with little skips and flutters of wings, and bending the top-most branches was the somewhat larger blue-headed vireo, a very neatly marked bird and the first of that species I’ve ever seen.
The following day I tried again, but late in the afternoon. We saw little to speak of on a relatively quiet walk, but it was enjoyable, and I year-ticked a solitary white-throated sparrow, newly arrived and skulking in the undergrowth. Leaving the trail, we passed a man out walking his dog. “Seen anything good?” he asked, on seeing my binoculars (I believe that is the US equivalent to ‘much about?’. On balance I prefer it). “Wood ducks,” I said, “down on the river,” for we had seen wood ducks, three resplendent males which took flight at our movement. He didn’t seem to think these counted as good, but motioning to an undistinguished, unpaved turn-off from the trail, he repeated the tip about red-headed woodpeckers. Only I’d been heading along the wrong track, it seemed.
I’d seen this side trail earlier, and had wondered where it could lead. I’m nervous about traipsing off into unexplored, un-signposted territory in America, mostly because of the stereotype that its less built-up reaches are populated entirely by angry, bigoted, shotgun-toting rednecks who will be less than keen to welcome me onto ‘their’ land. (For the English stereotype, simply switch ‘redneck’ with ‘Tory’…) Now I’m sure this isn’t really true (lest my American readers be offended), or at least I hope it isn’t, but it does make me nervous about wandering, whether or not my nerves are justified. Which is kind of ironic, given the nation’s history of frontier-bursting pioneers.
Anyway, I digress. The following day I woke up early again – this was turning into a less sleep-filled trip than I might have anticipated – and dared try the unpaved trail. And the results were stupendous. How had I not known that a mere minute or two on foot separated the safe, linear walking of the WB&A from an open, snag-studded swamp, and a relatively winding track heading off to who knows where? Here was beautiful, undeveloped land. And it jumped, crawled, exploded with birds. Clearly the first frost of the season had hastened many migrants south overnight, and brought many of them down to ground to refuel. Yesterday’s white-throated sparrow had been joined by throngs more, bursting out of the woodland floor in clouds of sparrow-shrapnel. Song sparrows moved similarly through the brushy swamp-edges, whilst a handful of swamp sparrows appeared from time to time on a reed-top. Occasionally one of the white-throated’s would sing, as they do all through the winter, sweetly whistling “Old Sam Peabody” or “Oh Sweet Canada”, depending which side of the border you hail from in North America.It’s a magically evocative sound.
In the low trees on either side of the path, golden-crowned kinglets were a blur of activity, the branches almost literally dripping with them in a way I hadn’t seen since Norfolk in October 2010, where their cousins the goldcrests had put on a similarly abundant showing. Amongst the hordes lurked a couple more new species, too: a palm warbler, tail a-flicking in a low bush, and a rusty blackbird, his bright yellow eye roving about as he sat out on a branch over the swamp. Birds of watery haunts were evident in the swamp too: a great blue heron feeding very close to the path, and a pair of kingfishers noisily chasing round in circles and rattling at each other. I didn’t see any red-headed woodpeckers, but some of the dead trees looked like very likely spots, and I did catch a few seconds’ glimpse of a pileated woodpecker, looking impossibly huge in flight, flapping powerfully over the swamp between forest stands. One of my all-time favourite birds. What made all this even better was that it was close enough to walk to from the house – no mean feat in the United States of the Automobile. I’m sure it won’t be as lively on future visits, when (bird) fallout is not all over the place, but it was a fine place and an exciting find.
To sum up, at last, this is one of the many reasons why I love birding in America: there’s just so much of it. And with on average maybe just 6% of my year being spent there, there will always be something new to discover. New species to see, new habitats to explore, new hot-spots to discover, new experiences to have. To paraphrase a particularly amusing Americanism: sock ‘em to me!