Advertisement
Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: Birding as cool as jazz — Nico Sarbanes and the 200-species challenge of 2022 | COMMENTARY

Nico Sarbanes, jazz trumpeter and law student, aims his camera at a rare Heerman's Gull (dark brown) that visited Baltimore's Inner Harbor in 2022.

First, the sad, disturbing and depressing facts: A comprehensive study published in the journal Science in 2020 estimated that the bird population in North America had fallen by 3 billion, or roughly 30%, during the previous 50 years. This year, the North American Bird Conservation Initiative reported that 70 species had lost half or more of their breeding populations and could lose half again in the next 50 years.

Why is this happening? There are several reasons, I’ll list three: loss of habitat to suburban and exurban development; widespread use of insecticides, particularly in agriculture; and millions of fatal bird collisions with reflective glass on houses, apartments and office buildings. The human epoch — indeed, just a tiny, half-century slice of it — has not been kind to birds.

Advertisement

What can be done? Plenty. We could demand more aggressive conservation efforts from lawmakers, and we could support organizations that work toward that end. We could stop taking land and trees for new houses and shopping centers and, instead, redevelop (in some cases, repopulate) what we’ve already taken in cities and older suburbs. We could foster a new ethic, where the annual warbler count is at least as important as the annual count of housing permits.

But none of that happens without the recognition that bird loss is a serious matter, representing significant damage from the march of modern life. And you can’t get there unless you become more conscious of birds as fragile animals that adorn our lives with beauty and song.

Advertisement

That does not mean becoming a bird nerd with binoculars. But it means paying attention, that every decision we make — where to live, how to live — affects what is left of the natural world around us, and more than ever.

So we come now to Nico Sarbanes, a young man who brings good news about birds in the Baltimore region. He had a big year in sighting them, despite the gloom, and anyone who lives anywhere near the upper Chesapeake Bay should be excited by what Sarbanes found and inspired to preserve it.

When last I checked, about five years ago, Nico Sarbanes, the son of Rep. John Sarbanes, was a serious jazz musician, a nattily attired trumpet player and singer who had just released his first recording. Since then, he became a student at the University of Maryland School of Law, with a concentration on environmental law. All along, he had been a serious birder. This I did not know, this I did not expect to know. But I kinda like the idea that a young guy considers birding as cool as jazz.

“When I started as a kid, I was probably the youngest member of the local bird club by about 30 years,” Sarbanes says. “In the years since, I’ve had the opportunity to learn from some fantastic birders, members of the Baltimore Bird Club, the Chesapeake Audubon Society and the Maryland birding community in general. [They] nurtured my love of nature and made me a better birder.”

In 2022, Sarbanes gave himself a challenge: He wanted to see if he could record 200 different birds at five Baltimore city and county parks, places that, he says, have been underappreciated by fellow birders in recent years. He limited himself to Leakin Park, Fort McHenry and Middle Branch Park in the city and to Rocky Point Park and the Halethorpe Ponds section of Patapsco Valley State Park in the county.

He met and surpassed the challenge, recording 217 birds at those five locations. Some of the highlights:

At Leakin Park, with some of the tallest trees within the city limits, Sarbanes recorded 28 of the 35 species of warblers that are usually seen each year in Maryland. One morning at dawn in Leakin, he spotted a rare Kentucky warbler, a green-and-yellow bird he says he might have missed had he taken his glasses and camera to more popular birding spots outside the city.

At Fort McHenry, Sarbanes had his biggest tally of the year, 174 species. That included waterfowl, gulls, terns, herons, flycatchers, thrushes, sparrows, warblers and even two owls — a barn owl and the tiny Northern saw-whet. He also recorded a clay-colored sparrow, a bird from the Great Plains rarely seen in the East and a species in declining numbers, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Advertisement

In Baltimore County, at Rocky Point, looking out on both Back River and Hawk Cove, Sarbanes observed 166 species, including 30 types of waterfowl and 25 different warblers. And, surprisingly, the only barred owl — the one that asks, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?” — that Sarbanes recorded was at Rocky Point.

At the Halethorpe ponds, Sarbanes found what he suspected he would see there — shorebirds. In fact, he observed 12 species, including a Western sandpiper, a bird that Sarbanes says had never been recorded at the park.

In September, on his 29th birthday, Sarbanes observed 80 species of birds at Halethorpe, including a hard-to-spot Connecticut warbler. “Skulkers that usually walk on the ground in dense understory, they have tormented many a birder,” Sarbanes says. “To find a single one is a feat, so when my birthday visit to Halethorpe produced three different Connecticut warblers, it was the best present I could ever have asked for.” Another day, during migration season, he discovered “an absolutely stunning male cerulean warbler,” a rare gift for any birder of the Baltimore region — and a great treasure, sight unseen, for the rest of us.


Advertisement