Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Counting on the Canal

Last weekend I put the "DC" back in "A DC Birding Blog" with a return trip for the Tenth Annual C&O Canal Midwinter Bird Survey. This count is sponsored by the DC Audubon Society with the help of several regional bird clubs and many birders. (About 80 birders participate each year.) For the last two years I have helped to coordinate the count by providing web support and contacting volunteer observers from previous years.

For this year's count, I counted birds with two other coordinators, Mary and Denise, on some segments close to D.C. We spent the morning covering miles 4 and 3, which includes the Chain Bridge and Fletcher's Boathouse. Our party included some special guests, including officials from the Interior Department, National Park Service, and National Audubon Society.

We recorded 37 species in the two miles. The highlight for me was a small flock of American tree sparrows, a species I have seen only twice before in D.C. We were also treated to common mergansers, both kinglets, a yellow-bellied sapsucker, and several flocks of eastern bluebirds. Near the Chain Bridge, we picked up belted kingfisher, ring-necked ducks, and wood ducks. The last birds for the morning were two pileated woodpeckers that visited Fletcher's Boathouse while we stopped for photos and coffee. Our guests seemed to enjoy the morning. I certainly enjoyed being back at one of my old birding spots.

The afternoon session was a (slow) race against time, as Denise, Mary, and I needed to complete a four-mile stretch before the light became too dim to see birds. Starting at Edwards Ferry, we had to backtrack for almost a mile to cover all of mile 30 before heading west towards White's Ferry. Our first mile was full of woodpeckers, including four yellow-bellied sapsuckers. We also saw several red-shouldered hawks, a species I rarely see in New Jersey. As we made our way through subsequent miles, flocks included a hermit thrush and several winter wrens, one of my favorite birds.

The real highlights, though, were the owls. As the afternoon light faded, barred owls became more active. We saw our first when it flushed from close to the towpath and landed in a tree farther back in the woods. It sat and looked directly at us for a long time. The second flew in and landed at close range before flying off again. As I have remarked before, watching a barred owl at close range is one of the true privileges of bird watching. Seeing two is even better. Later, as we trudged along the towpath in the dark, a great horned owl gave its booming call. In the course of walking six miles, the three of us managed to record at least 47 species of birds, not bad for a winter day inland.

Saturday's C&O Canal Count received positive press from several Washington-area newspapers. The most notable was a Metro section article in the Washington Post, which assigned a reporter to follow our group in miles 3 and 4. Reporters from other local papers interviewed count volunteers near Williamsport, MD, in Frederick County, near Cumberland, MD, and at Edwards Ferry.

Data from the count is trickling in; a running tally is available in the right sidebar here. Totals are provisional until the data has been reviewed. We already have some good sightings confirmed, though. The highlights so far are a golden eagle in mile 152 and four chipping sparrows in mile 4. The latter is a first record for the canal count. Photos from the count are being posted here and here.