From eagles to wrens, Frederick County is a birdwatching haven | Seniors | #vacation | #seniors | #elderly
David Smith was one of those kids who enjoyed all things in nature and he spent countless days exploring the habitat around the family home in southwest Florida. A vacation Bible school teacher’s collection piqued his brief interest in butterflies. But it was a family vacation when he was a young teen that ignited another interest that has lasted a lifetime.
“We had a place in the mountains of Tennessee, where my mother was from. A couple that were friends of my parents came to visit,” he recalled. “The woman was an avid birder and I remember seeing her every morning on the porch with binoculars, looking at birds.” Curious, he would venture out to see what birds he could find in the woods, then describe them to her to see if she could identify them. The first was “a tiny gray bird” she said was likely a blue-gray gnatcatcher.
“After a week, before she left, she gave me my first field guide and a checklist,” Smith said. “My parents got me a cheap pair of binoculars and I spent more time looking at birds.”
That was 50 years ago, said Smith, and he’s still an avid birder. The Mount Airy resident moved to Maryland in the 1980s and is a member of the Frederick Bird Club and the Carroll County Bird Club, both chapters of the Maryland Ornithological Society (MOS.) He’s also a board member of the Audubon Society of Central Maryland, which has two birding sanctuaries in Frederick County.
It’s estimated there may be as many as 60 million bird-watchers in the United States. A 2016 report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put that number at around 45 million. About 86 percent observed birds around their home and 36 percent said they took trips to observe birds. And with the pandemic putting the brakes on many activities, more people have found solace in outdoor activities such as wildlife and birdwatching. A June 2020 article in the magazine of AARP noted that birding began booming with lockdowns. And people are combining birding with other activities, working it into their fitness plans with “run birding” or birding with bikes.
“For me, it’s being outdoors and during COVID, it’s been my mental savior,” said Kathy Calvert, of Adamstown. She began birding about 40 years ago. “It’s gotten me to places in Maryland I didn’t know existed. It’s been a joy!” Every county has some place for birding, she said, from city and state parks to unlikely places such as landfills and wastewater treatment plants (which can attract waterfowl, gulls and migrating shorebirds).
Birding in Frederick County
Locally, the No. 1 hot spot for birders is Lilypons Water Gardens in Adamstown. This 250-acre tract was once one of the country’s main suppliers of goldfish and is now a prime source for water gardening materials. Birders can explore the grounds, which front the Monocacy River, during business hours.
“We welcome birders all the time. We’re a haven for that,” said Margaret Thomas Koogle, fourth-generation owner and president of Lilypons, which opened in 1917. “It’s a wonderful, very natural habitat. It’s a working farm. There’s all kinds of wildlife—ducks, geese, foxes, turtles, lizards, butterflies.”
Koogle said there was definitely an increase in birders visiting in 2020. “There’s a particular pond that attracts birders,” Koogle said. “Some people would stand on top of their SUVs to get a better look at the pond. So we built a pavilion so they could stand on that.” A notebook, tucked in a mailbox on the front porch of the Lilypons store, is where birders can note the date and bird species spotted on their visits. The current log dates to 2007.
Calvert said in spring you may see migrant warblers and flycatchers; sparrows and hawks in fall; and lots of waterfowl in winter. Last year, she spotted her first Connecticut warbler there. “It took me 20 years before I saw one in the state,” she said.
“Any of the county parks are wonderful,” said Calvert. “I love the Frederick Watershed. I’ll take a trail there and sometimes I’ll not see much and sometimes it’s a bonanza.” She also likes the trails at Owens Creek Campground in Catoctin Mountain Park, Thurmont. “Anywhere on the C&O Canal is wonderful. The best access is at the Monocacy Aqueduct,” she said. “Birds are everywhere! I’m birding when I’m in the parking lot at the grocery store or when I’m in the parking lot of the post office.”
A member of the Frederick Bird Club, Kathy Brown recently presented a webinar on birding for Frederick County Public Libraries in which she noted that worldwide there are 10,000 bird species. Of those, 1,154 can be found in North America and 442 species have been found in Maryland. Colombia is the birdiest country in the world, with more 1,800 species.
Brown, who has headed the Catoctin Christmas Bird Count for MOS for a number of years, said that over the last 10 years compared with the previous 10, there has been a dramatic decline in some bird species in Frederick County. The number of American kestrels has declined by 35 percent, mourning doves are down by a third, Northern mockingbirds by 37 percent, song sparrows by 27 percent, American goldfinch by 47 percent and Carolina chickadees by 27 percent. Nearly gone are the northern bobwhite quail and ring-necked pheasant. On the upside, there has been an increase in the wild turkey, black vultures and raven populations.
Brown moved to Frederick County 20 years ago. After going birding with a friend, she thought that joining the Frederick Bird Club would be a chance to meet people and develop a new hobby.
MOS has about 2,000 members statewide, and the Frederick chapter has about 60 members. “For some, their interest in birds is looking at a feeder through the window, and for others, it’s looking at birds around the world even if it means going to some uncomfortable places just to see birds,” Brown said. Prior to the pandemic, she traveled to South Africa where she spotted a bird on her bucket list, the secretary bird, a raptor.
Avitourism is popular with many birders. Bonnie Borsa, of Frederick, is one of them. “I do travel to bird,” she said. “I’ve gone to Costa Rica, South Africa and Alaska” on organized birding trips “to see as many birds as possible.”
“The best time to bird is in spring because all birds are in breeding plumage, the flashiest,” she said. Late April through early May is the peak time.
“If they breed in your yard, they stay in the area year-round,” said David Smith. That includes cardinals, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, Carolina wrens and most woodpeckers. Some, like juncos and white-throated sparrows, are only here in winter, he said.
Fall brings migrants, and around July, birding is at its slowest locally because the breeding season is over, the young have left the nest, migration hasn’t started and the birds are not as vocal.
To maximize your chances of seeing a variety of birds, you have to get up with the sun unless, of course, you are looking for night birds, then you have to hoot with the owls. The slowest time of day for birdwatching is between 1 and 3 p.m. It picks up again at dusk when birds return to their roosts.
Every birder has stories about that special bird(s).
Borsa saw an evening grosbeak in the county recently, which, she said, “hasn’t happened for decades.” Another “hot” sighting in Frederick was off Schifferstadt Boulevard, where a purported Pacific-slope flycatcher was seen. “It is so similar to another western flycatcher species that an avid birder collected bird droppings to analyze the DNA to see if it indeed was the Pacific-slope flycatcher,” she said. “People from all over the state came to see that bird.”
Earlier this year, a male painted bunting, a more southern species, was spotted along the C&O Canal in Montgomery County. Birders by the hundreds flocked to the towpath to catch a glimpse of the colorful visitor. Another became a regular feeder visitor to a yard in Myersville.
This past winter, a greater white- fronted goose, rarely seen east of the Mississippi, visited Whittier Lake in Frederick, where it’s not unusual to see hundreds of Canada geese. “One quite rare for here, a barnacle goose was sighted and many birders went to see it,” said Borsa. “One birder commented, ‘Trying to find it is an exercise just like Where’s Waldo’.” In contrast, when a Ross’s goose showed up (solid white), one birder commented, ‘Finding that bird is like seeing a nun in a biker bar’.”
Calvert was thrilled to see a common gallinule, a bird of the deep south, at Lilypons. “That’s not going to happen again,” she said. And when there were reports of a swallow-tailed kite around Baker Park, she went on the hunt. Knowing it would be following open fields, she finally landed a look at this bird behind Walkersville High School.
“To me, highlights are any day when I have many of a species pass through” or birds exhibiting a specific behavior, like nesting or feeding their young, she said.