The flock gathered early on New Year’s Day at Woodstock’s Mount Pleasant, just 34 minutes after sunrise. A Blue-Jacketed Conservationist was spotted near a stand of sedge grass. At the edge of a mowed path, a Gray-Hatted Spisher made her distinctive call. Around the bend, passersby caught a glimpse of a Backpack-toting Graduate Student.
They were among the members of the Howard County Bird Club who went to bed early Monday on New Year’s Eve so they’d wake in time to gather in the Howard County Conservancy nature center’s parking lot at 8 a.m. on New Year’s Day.
For passionate birders, New Year’s Eve’s midnight fireworks over the Inner Harbor can’t compare to the color, excitement and commotion of the New Year’s Day dawn chorus, when thrushes, nuthatches, chickadees and the rest burst into song at the start of another morning.
“It’s an ever-changing kaleidoscope,” said tour leader Kurt Schwarz, 61, of Ellicott City (aka the Blue-Jacketed Conservationist). “From one day to the next, you see and hear different things. You never know what’s going to pop.”
About 15 nature lovers gathered at the former farm for the traditional beginning of the bird-watching season. Armed with notepads and binoculars, the volunteers keep annual counts of the total avian species they spot in the state, county and in some cases, individual neighborhoods. It’s partly a treasure hunt, partly a friendly competition between hobbyists and partly a way to monitor environmental conditions for wildlife.
“Birds are indicators,” Schwarz said. “They provide insight into what’s going on in a particular habitat. You can tell how good or depleted it is by the number of birds and the species you find.”
The northern bobwhite and ring-necked pheasant have all but disappeared from Mount Pleasant, he said, but ravens and eagles have returned and are proliferating.
As if on cue, four crows and a raven winged by far overhead. Ravens are a predatory species, and the smaller crows ganged up to drive the marauder from their territory. For several minutes, the crows took turns dive-bombing the raven from different directions in a manner reminiscent of a World War I dogfight.
Christians Rivas, 22, of Glen Burnie watched the battle transfixed until eventually, the raven flew off.
When Rivas (the Backpack-Toting Graduate Student) was a child, his family kept pet parrots in their El Salvador home. Those birds were smart; the 8-year-old Cristians even taught a few to say his name. But some of the parrots fell prey to cats and Rivas now prefers to observe and learn about his feathered friends from the relative safety (for them) of a woodland trail.
“I had no idea how many kind of birds there were,” he said. “I had no idea how different they are from each other.”
Rivas is applying to veterinary school and hopes to specialize in treating exotic birds.
Though some birdwatchers like Rivas turn pro, it’s one of the rare fields in which amateurs can make significant contributions, said Bonnie Ott, 56, of Ellicott City, who picked up her first pair of binoculars when she was 12.
“We call ourselves citizen scientists,” she said. “Hobbyists can make a huge contribution to what we know about the diversity of species.”
Ott (the Gray-Hatted Spisher) began making the spshsh-spshsh-spshsh sound that on the East Coast often rousts birds from hiding and entices them to draw closer to human bystanders.
“Ninety-nine percent of birding is done by the ear,” she said. “You hear the birds first and see them second. Those chirps that sound like a little barking dog — that’s a song sparrow. The red-breasted nuthatch’s call is low and throaty. A swamp sparrow’s chirp will have a metallic, buzzy note.”
Like fishing or gardening, birding focuses the mind, she said, and can teach people how to see and how to listen.
“Birding is a way of paying attention,” she said. “Most people walk through life and never see what’s all around them.”
Of necessity, those on the nature walk directed a certain amount of attention to remaining upright. Between the temperature (nearly 60 degrees) and Monday’s rains, the ground was so boggy it made a sucking noise with each step.
Then, unexpectedly, the wind began to blow hard. That hinders birding; flying into a gale takes so much energy that members of the lightest species often abandon the skies to hunker down on a hospitable branch. Schwarz thought perhaps it was time to call it a day.
But just as the group was about to head for the parking lot, someone who’d lagged behind ran up excitedly to report a possible sighting of the highly-sought after American winter wren near the Hodgepodge Lodge.
Club members wheeled around as one and flew back up the path, binoculars extended.