Tuesday, December 7, 2010

DC: A capital place for birds - Part II

My last day of exploring the wildlife of DC was spent leisurely wandering around Theodore Roosevelt Island. A national monument and delightful natural area literally packed with birds and wildlife. Almost as soon as I crossed the bridge onto the island I started hearing birds in the surrounding trees. I quickly found myself in the middle of a mixed flock of birds, dizzily trying to spot, identify and photograph as many as I could. Walking through a wood can be akin to traversing an avian desert with sightings few and far between, when you hit the oasis of a mixed flock, it is a moment to be savoured. My first bird of the day was a ruby-crowned kinglet, although you'd be hard pressed to tell from the this arse-shot, a photographic style in which I consider myself a master.

Next up was a Carolina Chickadee, a life bird for me and a somewhat challenging one to be sure I had really seen for the first time. The reason being that the carolina chickadee looks almost identical to the Black-capped Chickadee more frequently seen back home in Michigan. The Carolina has a "neater" looking black throat bib on average and more uniformly shaded underparts, while the Black-capped has white fringes to many of its wing feathers, particularly the greater coverts (although these will fade as the feathers wear between molts). Perhaps these things are apparent to a more experienced observer than I, but on my first viewing I would have been lying if I said I was confident based on visual observation only. Thankfully, they have quite distinct vocalisations, the onomatopoeic "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" call associated with the Black-capped is repeated similarly but faster and with a higher pitch by the Carolina. Even more informative is the song; I could distinctly hear a 4-note song "fee-bee-fee-bay" which is readily distinguished from the "fee-beee" of the Black-capped. A couple of shots of this enjoyable study:

There were plenty more of the regular woodland birds I was used to seeing: Northern Cardinals, Tufted titmice, Downy woodpeckers, White-breasted nuthatches, etc. As I continued round to the north of the island I was startled by the eruption of feathers as a Great Blue Heron took off in fright close to my feet. As I watched the huge bird lazily flap its way out of sight my attention was arrested by a flock of ring-billed gulls and I continued my study of their different plumage stages and watched their feeding squabbles with amusement. 

Further on around the island the deciduous woodland gave way to a significant area of mixed marshland and scrubby bushes and smaller trees. As I scanned the area looking for any number of birds I was hoping for, most especially a red-shouldered hawk, I came across a most bizarre sight. Birds are forever giving us reason to ponder their grace and skill with their mastery of arial propulsion, but occasionally the risks of defying gravity are also made apparent. Finding a Canada goose hanging by its neck from a tree fork stuck me at first disturbingly like a suicide attempt. Inappropriate anthropomorphisms aside, it's surely more likely this unfortunate goose was startled by a noise, or predator, at night and in the confused collided with a tree, falling into this unlikely position. I suppose it may also have simply amused somebody to place the goose like this, but it was not in a particularly obvious location for a practical joke.  

Shortly after the pendulous medication of the canada goose, a flash of red on a crow-sized bird alerted me to the flight of one of my all-time favorite birds, the Pileated Woodpecker. It doesn't matter how many times I see this magnificent bird, it always stops me in my tracks. This handsome individual below is a female, a male would have the red head crest extending down all the way to the bill, the malar stripe (extending back from the bill) would also be red on a male. She was a most obliging individual, so engrossed in foraging on a rotten log that she seemed completely oblivious to me, affording a luxuriously long viewing of a bird I have normally found irritatingly skittish. 

Crossing the bridge back to Georgetown from the island I was distracted by the sight of a bald eagle soaring high above the Potomac river. It seemed a fittingly poetic end to a day of birding in the nation's capital. The birding was not over however, the day held one more surprise in store. As I was watching the Bald Eagle I noticed an extremely familiar silhouette fly by at speed in my periphery vision. Sure enough, a Peregrine Falcon was chasing pigeons and putting on the kind of incredible arial display that few other birds could match. The views of the Peregrine in flight were matchless. Unfortunately my photography was not; the combination of proximity and speed, while so vicerally impressive, completely baffled my skills and I didn't manage to get the bird in focus even once. It was such a key part of my birding experience that day that I'll leave you with a blurred photo regardless, I like to think it at least gives an impression of speed. 

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