Birds of a feather
Nov 08, 2016 02:48PM ● Published by Richard Gaw
The Cecil County Bird Club is looking out for our feathered friends.
The CCBC was started in 1994 and is a chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society. “That sounds really scientific, but it is just a group of people who like birds and like to go birding,” said Maryanne Dolan, president of the club. The members not only watch birds, but they advocate for them as well. With 55 members, they may not be the largest bird club chapter in Maryland, but their enthusiasm makes up for their size.
The club gathers each month, from September through May, to listen to speakers, go on field trips and enjoy the fellowship of fellow bird admirers. The club also puts on educational programs and information exchanges.
“You don’t have to be a member to attend our meetings, lectures or field trips,” Dolan said.
However, the club is always looking for new members, with a special interest in attracting young bird watchers. It's an ideal hobby for families and participants of any age. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 51.3 million Americans report that they watch birds. Birding is the fastest-growing outdoor activity in America.
The Cecil County Bird Club has improved habitats for pollinators and birds. A few years ago, they wrote to the Maryland DNR and asked them to stop mowing a large grassy area at Turkey Point. Open grasslands are an important habitat for birds, providing cover, nesting sites and insects for food.
“They agreed to let the areas become meadow,” Dolan said, “and it is just wonderful. There are butterflies and dragonflies; the whole area is alive, and that’s good for the birds.”
Many birds eat insects, so the meadows increased their food sources. The area has remained uncut for more than three years, and on a recent breezy day, the meadow was aflutter with yellow butterflies and honeybees.
The meadow project started when a butterfly enthusiast came out to Turkey Point for the first time in several years. He was discouraged by the low count of butterflies he found.
“He was so disappointed because he used to find about 50 species of butterflies, and there were only a few species there,” Dolan said. He said that mowing was destroying the habitat.
“I said, ‘You know, we can write a letter’ and that’s what started it,” she said. “I’m always amazed that there are people out there who are very receptive to doing the right thing if they are given a nudge.”
The club also stepped up to the plate at the Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area to help ground nesters. Birds such as Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlarks and Northern Bobwhites nest in the hay fields at Fair Hill.
“Unfortunately, the common farming practice of cutting hayfields in May and June means that all the nestlings and fledglings are killed,” former club president Sean McCandless said in a press release last year. “That’s a big reason why these species are in such steep decline.”
These birds used to nest on the prairie, but have adapted to hay fields and pastures. The club, along with the MOS, asked Fair Hill and their mowing contractor to alter their haying schedule from spring to mid-July. This gives the nestlings time to fledge. They agreed, and designated approximately 100 acres of grassland as a preserved habitat for the ground-nesting birds.
The club worked with the Maryland Ornithological Society and obtained funding to have signs made for the Fair Hill hay fields to educate the public about the program. Bird club treasurer Pat Valdata explained, “It’s been very cool to see how many birds are nesting. We monitor the space and count the nests. It’s great to see the Bobolinks -- they’re pretty unusual to have around. This is a great nesting habitat for them.”
This time of year, club members spend a lot of time at Turkey Point in the Elk Neck State Park. The Point is a great migratory area for all birds due to the bordering North East and Elk rivers. Valdata coordinates the Hawk Watch. Every day, from Labor Day to Thanksgiving, a club member arrives to count migrating hawks.
“Like all other hawk watches in the country, we count the hawks as they’re heading south,” Valdata explained. “We note the different species and what time we saw them.”
The bird watchers send their data to a central hawk counting organization called Hawk Migration Association of North America, which then compiles all data received from watches all over the country.
“We have about 14 to 15 species of hawks we see on a regular basis,” Valdata said. “We also get turkey vultures, black vultures and eagles going through.”
Sadly, the numbers are going down nationwide. “Every hawk watch across the country showed lower numbers last year and we don’t know why,” Valdata said. That’s a problem ornithologists are working on, and the numbers compiled by groups like the Cecil County Hawk Watch provide real-time data for the scientists.
“Back in the 1990s, we were getting approximately 4,000 hawks going past Turkey Point every season,” Valdata said. Since she took over the hawk watch, the numbers have dropped, and they are seeing around 2,000 migrating through.
According to last year’s data, only 1,251 migrating hawks passed through Turkey Point in 2015.
Kestrels, red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s hawks, and red-shouldered hawks are residents, meaning they will return to Elk Neck State Park in the spring to lay eggs and raise their young. The park’s resident bald eagles relocate to the Conowingo Dam for the winter, where they are assured a plentiful food source. They will also return in the spring to raise their young.
“In November, you can see almost 200 bald eagles at the dam,” Valdata said. Some are resident eagles and some are migrating. They stop to feed at Conowingo and decide to winter over.
In mid-October, the club held a Hawk Watch event at Turkey Point in conjunction of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. For this annual event, park ranger Melanie Rice and Cecil County Bird Club members were on hand to greet the public and talk about birds. Also participating were some feathered friends from Scales and Tales, along with their handlers. Naturalist Allie Bays held a broad wing hawk while a group of excited Girl Scouts called out questions.
Many families participated in the event, and all enjoyed the opportunity to see these birds of prey up close. Brian Feyock, of Scale and Tales, handled a magnificent Great Horned Owl. All of the birds brought to the event were victims of auto accidents, and once rehabilitated, they were deemed unreleasable. Feycock explained that Scales and Tales cares for the birds, and has 17 that they bring out for educational programs and appearances.
On a table, sitting on top of a wooden log, was a tiny screech owl. Her handler, Tabitha Aguirre, said the owl sits so quietly that most people think she is stuffed. “She weighs as much as a hot dog,”Aguirre said, laughing. A beautiful red-tailed hawk also made an appearance. The hawk calmly sat on a fence rail, surveying the crowd. The handlers from Scales and Tales shared anecdotes about the birds on display, as well as general information about bird biology, behavior and habitats.
Throughout the event, people wandered over to the Hawk Watch area and talked about which birds were migrating through. People excitedly compared notes on the birds they were seeing in their backyards, or on hikes through the park. Bird song was a constant soundtrack in the background. It's through these types of outreach programs that the public is educated about birding and caring for the environment, and the impact we have on our wildlife population.
As people headed down the trail towards the lighthouse, Valdata and Dolan continued to scan the sky for migrating hawks. The first was spotted an hour into the watch, at about 9 a.m. A sharp-shinned hawk came soaring over the point.
“It’s almost comical,” Valdata said. “Just about every day, a sharp-shinned shows up at 9 o'clock.” That day, the watch progressed slowly. While there were many other birds migrating, the hawks were not plentiful. It was a slow day for migration due to the wind coming out of the southwest. The hawks don’t like to fight the wind, so they opt to stay put until the wind is more favorable. By noon, only five hawks migrated through. Valdata noted that, on a normal day, they would have spotted at least 20.
“Only birds that are really determined are coming through today,” she said. But the data gathered from slow days is just as important as high migration days. Anything we can learn about the migratory habits of birds is important to ongoing research.
The National Audubon Society describes bird watching in this way: It’s basically a lifelong scavenger hunt played across the entire earth. It’s equal parts science and poetry, hoots of triumph and quiet reflection, adventures to far-flung corners of the world and discoveries in your own back yard.
The Cecil County Bird Club welcomes anyone with an interest in birding, from the beginner to the seasoned enthusiast. For more information, visit www.cecilbirds.org. Information on the Maryland Ornithological Society can be found at www.mdbirds.org. You can view the migration counts on sites such as www.ebird.org (for all birds) and www.hmana.org (for hawks).