Our previous visits to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge have all been action-packed, from meeting a multitude of Chucks to almost being arrested. So I had high hopes for the afternoon’s birding that was stretching out in front of us two days ago, especially since we had more time than usual. Alas, it was not Chuck himself who greeted us at the refuge’s welcome desk, nor was it his colleague, Chuck. But since the fellow on duty wasn’t wearing a name badge, he may well have been Chuck III. And that, along with the more than usually numerous eagle sightings on the drive in, seemed like good omens.
Another swiftly followed. On our first visit to Blackwater in May of 2011, the first shallow pool to the right of the road was festooned with gleaming-white great egrets, but very little else. In December of that year and also last autumn it was almost entirely empty. By contrast, on Wednesday it was beautifully bird-rich, liberally decorated with ducks, and we found ourselves pulling off Wildlife Drive for a first birding stop before we’d even lost sight of the visitor’s centre. Rebecca ‘popped the trunk’ – as we say in America – and I set up my scope in the howling wind, eyes watering at the cold. So far, so much like birding back in England.
With an initial scan of the wildfowl selection the familiar feeling continued: a handful of mallards, a few Canada geese, a big raft of shovelers, a couple of female goldeneyes. Nice, but nothing that can’t be seen in Reading, England. Things swiftly turned more region-specific as I noticed ring-necked ducks scattered amongst them, a male lesser scaup with his distinguishing grey back and peaked head, a few redheads, ruddy ducks, and lastly one female and one first winter male bufflehead – a duck so cutely diminutive that on Tuesday we’d mistaken a captive adult female bufflehead at Salisbury Zoo for a chick.
Moving on at last, we headed out to a viewpoint over the breadth of the Blackwater River. Here, at last, a hint of spring – tree swallows zipped over the marshes, their iridescent green plumage jumping to life whenever one turned into the sun. Two Forster’s terns steered in and began to dive into the shallows for small fish, dodging swallows as they dipped and rose again. All the while a group of green-winged teals was peeping gently, a fine addition to the duck haul, and two lesser yellowlegs picked around them, searching for small morsels of food in the mud. And I can promise they were lesser, not greater, since we studied the guide carefully over lunch and later saw indisputable examples of both species, identifiable even when not seen together for size comparison. Maybe that will come in handy sometime back in the UK…
Seeing or hearing passerines in the forested parts of the marshes was tricky, given the wind, but some persistence yielded a charming flock of myrtle warblers, at least one coming into something approaching breeding plumage, and a lone brown-headed nuthatch, seen but not heard (which is unusual in my experience of a species which is usually gregarious and squeaks away like a rubber duck from a hidden spot in the upper reaches of a pine tree). After a far from satisfying smuggled-from-hotel-breakfast-buffet lunch, and a brief pause to argue about squirrel identification, a confiding-ish and well marked swamp sparrow continued the small bird action, opening itself up to easy comparison with the song sparrows feeding out on a stretch of exposed mud.
Not far from the sparrows, we drove past a better sized flock of waders. I crept out of the car, keeping my scope low in ‘stealth’ mode, as is frequently my wont, and got superb, not to mention educational views of about 20 more lesser yellowlegs and 3 or 4 greater, between which a trio of dunlins looked almost embarrassed at their ordinariness. The refuge had shaken off the few van-loads of children that passed through ahead of us, aircraft noise dropped back to nothing, and for a moment the wind relented too. I began to feel the serenity and sheer scale of the place wash over me, the same feeling which endeared me to Blackwater on our first visit and keeps us coming back.
I looked up from my wader revelries just as a hoped-for blue-winged teal flew around in an arc, tracing the shape of the white crescent on his face whilst showing off broad, pale wing patches that perfectly matched the open parts of the sky. Gazing beyond the mud and onto the river proper, as always we couldn’t locate any of the American white pelicans which are apparently a regular visitor to Blackwater, but we did resolve a big disturbance some way out on the water into a flock of some 500 snow geese. Another long, long overdue life bird; it would have been a fantastic way to end the afternoon, especially when their honking calls became audible upon a change in wind direction. But more duck delights were on the way before departing the refuge, with another hoped-for species in the form of American wigeon, a slightly closer view of a blue-winged teal, and three pintails.
Yet that still wasn’t all! A speculative stop on the way back not only confirmed that I had seen a raft of greater scaup from a bridge over the mouth of the Choptank River the previous day, but also revealed the presence of canvasbacks, surf scoters (possibly the bird of the day – so very funky looking!) and a male bufflehead. Which altogether made for 18 ducks in one day! – of which 10 were new to me in the United States and five new entirely. The hope of a day like that is one reason I go birding, and after eight years or so they don’t come around very often.
In fairness, a seasoned Maryland birder probably wouldn’t have thought our day list so extraordinary. I saw nothing remarkable in terms of it being out of range or out of season. Something other than a duckstravaganza* was therefore required to carry the day out of the mundane, the Crapo, if you will, and into the realms of the truly remarkable. Something to rival our brush with the law the winter before last. On that front all I can offer is a minor run-in with the press. Whilst I had been valiantly fighting against the wind in order to scour a pine-studded swamp, Rebecca had taken the car ahead to park up in a lay-by. By chance a reporter, wielding camera and microphone, pulled in at the same time and wondered if it would be OK to ‘ask a few questions’. Assuming she was seeking birders to interview about the natural delights on offer at Blackwater, Rebecca directed the press enquiries in my direction.
For the sake of dignity, I pulled off my hat – the blue beanie my loving wife describes as my ‘Smurf hat’** – and attempted to tame the tufty hair lurking beneath. Looking into the camera, which apparently I wasn’t supposed to have done, I took a breath and prepared for my TV debut. At which point the reporter started asking me about the new ‘Harriet Tubman National Monument’, how often I visited the area, and if such monuments would provide extra impetus to visit a park. As it happens, I did have the vaguest notion of who Harriet Tubman was, having previously seen the plaque memorializing her birthplace a couple of miles up the road from Blackwater. But I’ve got a funny feeling that bird geeks from Reading, England were not the local media’s target interviewees on the subject of African American heroes.
I’ve searched for local news items about the day’s events, but alas none that I can find feature even the briefest snippet of interview with an English-accented, bumbling and windswept birder. I’m afraid my 15 seconds of fame were left on the cutting room floor to make way for insignificant people like Ken Salazar (the Interior Secretary) and a descendent of the notable woman in question (see here – WMDT is Delmarva’s choice!), both of whom had apparently been at the refuge that morning. But never mind. I’ll always remember Wednesday as Duck Wednesday, and consider that all in all it was another highly successful expedition at Blackwater. Or, as I’ll be calling it from now on, Tubman country.
*Ducktacular / aduckalypse / insert duck into random words here
**In my defense, I’m pretty sure that the Smurfs’ hats are actually white. It’s the rest of them that’s blue!