Speed Birding

Monday December 16th

There exists in American birding lingo a condition known as ‘binocular neck’, which is the result of  spending too long in the car with – as the name suggests – binoculars weighing heavily around one’s neck. This being a vast country criss-crossed by often near abandoned highways, American birders are masters at birding from a moving car and it seems they’re prepared to risk even their spinal health to get that drive-by tick.

On Britain’s twisty roads packed with traffic, I wouldn’t dare attempt to drive with binoculars so close at hand, and prefer to keep them on the passenger seat (or perhaps tucked under the driver’s seat if I’m not alone) ready to grab once the car is safely stationary. Though I still must confess to having been called out on occasion for watching the birds, not the road. But what if one day it actually is a honey buzzard, identified even as I veer all over the carriageway? All that risk-taking might just pay off.*

Anyhow, for the last few years our trips to the USA have included a jaunt across to Maryland’s Eastern Shore – that portion of the state which lies on the Delmarva Peninsula, sandwiched between the Chesapeake Bay to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. The reason we go is to visit good friends who live out there, but as luck would have it the birding in this relatively sparsely populated, rural part of the state is pretty great too.

IMG_1466This seems to extend to from-the-car birding. It usually starts on the Bay Bridge (this is no route for gephyrophobiacs), where a few great black backed gulls are normally soaring impressively close to the bridge span, playing chicken – or should that be playing gull? – with the traffic. The 186-foot highpoint of the bridge makes a good vantage point for espying fishing ospreys out over the water, or perhaps even a bald eagle, and a potential added attraction this time round was the snowy owl seen perched on a girder above the roadway the previous afternoon. I kept an eagle eye out. Saw an eagle, as it happens, but no big white owls. It seemed an odd place for one to stick around, so I wasn’t surprised. ** What exactly would it be eating up there on the bridge? Pigeons?

Birding highlights of the drive this time were a diminutive little American kestrel, a flock of tundra swans feeding on a farm field, and a raft of surf scoters, a very smart sea duck that we’ve now pulled over to have a better look at on our last two drives through (at Windsail Park, on the edge of Cambridge). Previous sightings on the same route have included much closer bald eagles, greater scaup, and usually plenty of red-tailed hawks.

Pretty satisfying speed-birding all round, and just remember, birding at speed is the only kind the Crapo police will tolerate from a moving car. Go carefully!

*Before you call the police, remember that exaggeration for comic effect is one of my very favourite literary devices

**But it did stay! Through until today. Astonishing, and also very irritatingly one day too late for us to have another chance to go and see it.

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