Thursday, January 29, 2009

Birding Along the C&O Canal

Last weekend, I took the train to Washington, DC, to participate in the DC Audubon Society's annual C&O Canal Midwinter Bird Survey. This is an event that I have participated in since 2004 and have helped to coordinate since 2006. Each year volunteers for the survey count birds within their assigned sections along the entire* 184.5-mile length of the C&O Canal National Historical Park. One of the attractive aspects of this count is that it crosses through multiple habitats, from the edge of the coastal plain in Georgetown, through Maryland's Piedmont, and into the Ridge and Valley region.

Of the areas covered by the count, my favorite to survey is western Maryland. The bird life is different from what one finds on the Mid-Atlantic coastal plain and the landscape is beautiful. The canal there is bordered by steep hills crowned with pines and other conifers. Moreover, the park is quiet; stand still on the towpath, and the only sounds you will hear are the wind, wild animals, and perhaps a passing train.

Western Maryland is where I headed with Jed, another former DC Audubon board member, on Saturday. Our plan called for us to cover an eight-mile section along with another volunteer. We started a mile upstream from the Paw Paw Tunnel and then worked our way downstream, alternating sections. At the south (upstream) side of the tunnel we found an active foraging flock that included at least a dozen Purple Finches. When we emerged from the downstream end of the tunnel, we were greeted by a passing Cooper's Hawk. A Barred Owl hooted softly from somewhere on the ridge above the tunnel, and several Common Ravens appeared overhead and accompanied us downstream.

A mile downstream from the tunnel, Jed and I saw a Golden Eagle! A large flock of Common Mergansers had flown past us in a hurry. As we turned to count them, I heard a audible WHOOSH as the eagle stooped in hot pursuit of one of the mergansers. It almost caught it, but when it missed, it wheeled around and started pumping towards us head-on at eye-level. It checked us out and then turned and continued upstream. Unfortunately, it was gone by the time the third member of our party caught up with us.

For the rest of the morning we counted small flocks of songbirds as we worked our way downstream. Much to my delight, each mile we covered featured at least one Winter Wren, though none were singing. We had our best results in mile 150 when we encountered one flock of sparrows after another – mostly White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos, with a few Song Sparrows and Swamp Sparrows mixed in. With that we finished a day of good birding. Results from other sections are trickling in here.

* Or at least as close to "entire" as we can manage. 80-90% coverage is typical.