Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Western Maryland and the C&O Canal Count

As I have mentioned previously on this blog, this past Saturday was the C&O Canal Count. This count, in its ninth year, aims to survey bird life along the length of the C&O Canal, which runs parallel to the Potomac River for 184.5 miles from Georgetown in Washington, DC, to Cumberland, Maryland. I was one of several birders who traveled from the DC area to cover a stretch in Allegany County. Since the distance from Washington is so far, our group stayed in the Little Orleans Lodge both Friday and Saturday nights.

At dawn on Saturday there was a fresh coat of snow on the ground. This quickly disappeared as the day warmed. Predicted heavy winds never materialized on this stretch of the canal, though they did further downstream. The canal in the 130s through 150s is generally protected by high ridges and deep bends in the Potomac River. The Little Orleans team spread out to cover 3-6 mile sectors between mileposts 136 and 153. I paired with another birder to cover the area between mileposts 140 and 144.

The two of us encountered a typical winter birding phenomenon: long stretches with few birds and concentrated patches of mixed-species flocks. We saw six woodpecker species, brown creeper, winter wren, my first black-capped chickadees of the year, tufted titmice, dark-eyed juncos, eastern bluebirds, and a few large flocks of cedar waxwings. Eastern phoebe and belted kingfisher were two lingering warm weather species. Near the end of the count we spotted a subadult bald eagle seeking thermals; once it found one, it soared high into the air over the river valley. Oddly enough, the four miles we covered had few sparrows and no cardinals. For an urban birder like me, it was even more disconcerting to see only two rock pigeons and no starlings at all. An evening walk - not part of the official count - turned up a barred owl barking from across the Potomac.

On Sunday, our team from DC took a side trip to do some birding in the Green Ridge State Forest. Those spots turned out not to be very birdy, possibly because the morning was so raw. Three of us pushed on along the canal to see the Paw Paw Tunnel in mile 155. The 3,118-foot-long tunnel is impressive work, especially considering the technology available at the time. After its completion, the tunnel allowed canal boats to bypass some of the many deep bends in the Potomac River. The cut on the eastern end of the tunnel is itself worth seeing; on Sunday the sheer rock was lined with cascades of icicles, as well as overhanging ferns and conifers. A winter wren popped in and out along the rocky slope.

The three of us walked through the tunnel; when we emerged from the western end of the tunnel, snow was falling. Snow continued falling as we backed over the tunnel hill trail and along the canal. Despite the snow, we encountered some active flocks of birds, including more phoebes, creepers, chickadees, titmice, juncos, and a kingfisher. With few people out on the towpath, and no sound except for flowing water and our own footsteps, the walk was very peaceful. Snow made the canal all the more beautiful.

The weekend offered some great birding, but not so much in the numbers of species or individuals. Great birding can also consist of close-up looks at birds, looking for birds in a spectacular setting, or birding with skilled companions. All three were certainly the case this weekend.


A growing list of reported species and individuals is here. If you visit that page, keep in mind that we are still in the process of collecting data from observers and not all reports have been verified. Until we release the final report, the totals listed there should be regarded as tentative. We have set up a gallery with images from the count here.

SPECIES OBSERVED (over two days): 33

Canada Goose
American Black Duck
Common Merganser
Bald Eagle
Red-tailed Hawk
Rock Pigeon
Barred Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Cedar Waxwing
Carolina Wren
Winter Wren
Northern Mockingbird
Eastern Bluebird
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Blue Jay
American Crow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
American Goldfinch