I wasn’t sure what to expect of early spring birding in America. I had hoped for a repeat of October’s passerine migrant-fest, but was disavowed of that illusion by browsing species occurrence frequencies on the excellent E-Bird database.* From that, wildfowl seemed to be where I should be concentrating, and a focus on ducks certainly did pay off early in the trip. Following that aquatic flurry, the species accrued so steadily that I barely noticed it was happening until I was pretty close to autumn’s total of 95.
This would be a good time to mention I have a bit of a thing for round numbers. Been for a short walk around our local park, and seen 18 species? I’ll try a few known spots for two more (after all, every birder needs to be sure to meet their RBA). Day list hovering in the mid-40s, or 50s, or 60s, and I’m already heading home? I’ll rack my brains for anything I had seen and then promptly forgotten, and then maybe hope for an extra species or two close to the house, something suburban like collared dove, to make it up to 50, 60 or 70. Most months my secret aim will be 100 species. And I make no secret of 200 being the UK year list Holy Grail. I have further ambitions of a global-year 300: theoretically 200 UK + 100 USA, but those pesky crossover species do make it difficult!
Back to this spring, and you’ll now see that I was sniffing not only a record US trip total, but the chance at a beautifully satisfying centenary of birds. Especially when those patriotic grebes over in DC provided bird number 95. Expecting further new things I was excited to make a first visit to the oddly named ‘Soldiers Delight Natural Area’ two days later. It’s an area of ‘serpentine barren’, which is open grassland with scattered oak savannah, and a few attendant pinewoods. A landscape quite unlike most of eastern Maryland, although it used to cover 100,000 acres of the state – of which only one acre in a hundred remains. Pretending we were out west on the Great Plains, we strode forth in search of grassland birds and were rewarded by a nice sighting of an American kestrel, not a bird I often see, and a handful of field sparrows.
On the Sunday morning a chipping sparrow on the back porch – looking rather dapper in full breeding plumage – brought me up to 96. Finally, a beautiful walk along the WB&A trail early on the morning of our flight home turned up three more species: a female hooded merganser in flight over the swamp, belted kingfisher, and most pleasingly, three palm warblers, the first one flitting actively within a few yards of the bush in which I’d first seen this species last year. That made 99. So close! I kept my nose pressed up against the car window on the way to the airport, hoping against hope for a chance hundredth bird. I thought I saw the ghost of a bittern in a tiny line of roadside reeds, but that would be impossible. Or at least far too good to be true. We passed an osprey nest teetering up on a communications tower just as one of the pair flapped lazily into land. Then, pulling up to departures at Baltimore Washington International, I saw the last birds of the trip: starlings, narrowly beating a flock of grackles to the honour. Darn. 100 would have to wait until Christmas.
Or so I thought until two days ago, when I was browsing back through the final spreadsheet and noticed I had neglected to actually tick the kestrel. Palm warbler had been bird number 100! I almost felt it was a shame. Reaching 100 by accident was deeply unsatisfying, as I wished I had known to fully appreciate the sweetness of the moment when it happened. Although the moment was sweet enough already, when you consider that I was watching a charming little bird that had been to South America and back under its own steam in the same time that I’d been to England and back again with the aid of two jet engines offering a combined 120,000lb of thrust. This little guy was clearly a much more intrepid traveller than I.
As it happens, right after adding the kestrel’s tally I noticed another oddity: I hadn’t seen a single mute swan during the trip. But I had seen – or at least I thought I had – a trio of tundra swans, gliding serenely on a small pond next to route 50 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I saw them for all of five seconds, and thought I’d seen enough of their smaller size, dark beak, and straight necks to identify the species. Now I wasn’t so sure. I’d neglected to count a great egret seen just as briefly half an hour later, just in case it had been a heron seen in very odd light. Why change my own rules for the swans? I try, as far as is practical, to only count a species once I’ve identified it beyond reasonable doubt. So partly due to birder’s honour, and partly because I want to really savour my first US birding century, I’ll be content with an innings of 99 for now. With any luck I’ll be back across the pond before the year is out.
Photos by the author. From top: turkey vultures eyeing us at Soldiers Delight, serpentine barren, swamp and snags by the WB&A trail, palm warbler.
* The US equivalent to Birdtrack, although E-Bird is actually designed to work the world over.