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DVOC Field Trip Report
by Steve Kacir

April 18, 2010
Chesapeake and Delaware Canal for Rails and Nightbirds

The field trip for me, started at 2:00AM, when my wife woke me, asking, “Aren’t you supposed to get up at 2:00AM?” To which I replied, somewhat in a rush after seeing my alarm clock, “I have to LEAVE at 2:00AM!” Somehow I wound up dressed and on the road, though mourning the lack of time for a shower. I was hurtling down the interstate towards the Thousand Acre Marsh, my thoughts alternating between a longing for coffee and estimating how late I would get to the canal. As I turned onto Reedy Point Rd, I rolled down the windows to listen to the sounds of the marsh on the way to the canal meeting location. I heard nothing but the wind entering the windows. I convinced myself the wind was only due to the speed at which I was traveling, since the forecast had been for low winds gusting to only eight miles per hour. Having had enough of the freezing air invading the car, I rolled the windows back up and bounced down to Dutch Neck Rd. Presently, I arrived at the meeting location, not in the preferred fifteen minutes earlier than the field trip, but with five minutes to spare. The van from the Upper Main Line YMCA was already in place, and filled with young birders, ready for a night’s railing. Aside from this, there was no sign of life, no song, no calls and no movement not caused by the wind, which seemed suspiciously gustier than 8mph winds should appear.

I walked up to the van, and greeted Brian Raicich, but it turned out not to be Brian that I met at the driver’s side, but the other Brian (Quindlen). It’s always good to have fewer names on a trip. An impromptu scouting trip for Yellow Rail at Turkey Point found success in a confluence of three Steves last year. That sorted out, I proceeded to launch into some details of the game plan for the night, and explained that I was going to gear up and then we would wait a little bit for stragglers. The Brians told me that they had gone down to Grier’s Pond before parking at the meeting location. There, they heard an American Beaver slapping its tail. Sometime during the conversation, I got a call from Bill Keim, who explained that he and Gail Johnson would be arriving in five minutes or so. Spring Peepers started singing somewhere in all that. Their cheering songs pierced the darkness and made the canal zone seem more alive. I made the mistake of feeling optimistic that if the frogs were calling, surely the birds would as well.

I put on my warm weather gear, including rain pants, an all-weather jacket and my winter coat’s all-weather outer shell. I threw on gloves and a winter hat. Yes, it was that cold. Presently, Bill and Gail pulled up, which was fortuitous as it saved me from determining how to carry a CD-player, spotlight and LED Lantern without growing a third arm. Gladly, Gail took the lantern, and I offered Bill my MagLight, but somehow we never wound up using that. Todd Fellenbaum pulled up. The troops piled out of the Upper Mainline YMCA van, and I wondered at where Bob Shaffer and Arnella Trent were. Arnella, it turned out was running late, but I didn’t think to check email at the time. Besides, my iPhone was buried under several layers of clothing and likely would sleep its way through dawn in a contented, albeit digital, manner. So, I decided we would head towards the birdy part of the Thousand Acre Marsh on foot, and, undoubtedly, Bob would find us there in due time.

We had just come to the right spot, when Bob drove up along with Butch Lishman. These two had been scouting around before meeting up at the field trip. Unfortunately, there was no news, which was not good news. The wind rushed off the canal. Some bird, we never got a good look at it, flew from one of the lights at the canal and disappeared into the darkness. We stood at the edge of the Thousand Acre Marsh, and I explained what birds we might hear at the location. Then we got very quiet and listened carefully. We heard the wind, and some Spring Peepers calling. Reluctantly, I played a recording for Sora. Immediately, a Sora called back from the marsh, which put everyone in a good mood. Many of the students from the YMCA were astonished at how the Sora replied immediately after the recording was played. Their enthusiasm was infectious. I made sure that everyone had heard the Sora then tried for Common Moorhen, which is a very reliable species at that location. No response. Virginia Rail. No response. King Rail. No response. In some vague hope of just getting lucky, we tried American Bittern with no response.

Hoping a change of scenery might help, we drove down to Grier’s Pond, where Arnella Trent caught up with the trip. The results at Grier’s pond were similar to the Thousand Acre Marsh, though we did hear our second bird of the trip: a rooster. We moved on to the base of the Reedy Point Bridge. There, I tried for the usually reliable King Rails, and had no response. We tried to get Virginia Rails to call, and heard our only other pre-dawn birds: two Canada Geese. Moorhen did not call, and neither did Sora. We went back to the first location at the Thousand Acre Marsh. There, I tried to see if we could entice the Sora to call again for Arnella’s benefit. Nothing. All we heard were occasional Spring Peepers and the wind, which was obviously in the 15-20mph range, not gusting to 8mph as expected. Even as the sun rose, the response by the birds was weak. An American Robin called briefly. A few Swamp Sparrows sang sporadically. One of the YMCA students pointed out our first Common Yellowthroat, and some more yellowthroats sang afterwards. In previous years, the dawn chorus at the canal has been deafening, and the birds would start singing maybe an hour before dawn. That morning, there were individuals singing but no real chorus, and no birds sang before dawn. The dawn song was easily the least impressive dawn chorus I’ve heard on any of the trips I’ve led to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

In fact, that morning we set a couple records for the field trip. We had the most participants ever: sixteen plus the leader (me). We had the youngest participants ever in the form of the eight students from the Upper Main Line YMCA, though who among them is the youngest we did not attempt to find out! I think it was probably the coldest and definitely the windiest evening on which I’ve ever attempted to run the trip. We also had the least pre-dawn birds ever for the rail trip – only four: 1 rooster, 2 Canada Geese and a Sora. Much of the trip was spent in speculation as to why so few birds were calling. I think a large part of the blame falls on the wind, though the temperature might have had an effect as well. It’s also possible that the harsh winter had an effect on the local bird population. Freezing temperatures and deep snow may have driven birds that might normally overwinter in the area farther south. It’s possible those birds that left the marshes had not returned yet, or that the habitat was crushed by the snows and made unattractive to the birds. Water levels may have had an effect as well, though the water levels were lower than I had seen them on the 2008 trip, when Grier’s Pond was flooding Dutch Neck Rd.

The trip broke up at dawn, and the YMCA van headed out to John Heinz NWR before dropping the kids off at the scheduled 9:30AM meeting time. The rest of us continued on to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, where we had better luck finding seasonal birds. Of these, most memorable for me, was a singing Saltmarsh Sparrow in the tidal marsh opposite Raymond Pool. It was nice to get one more nocturnal singer for the day, even if it was well after dawn. Other highlights included returning shorebirds: Least Sandpipers, Pectoral Sandpipers, Wilson’s Snipes, both Dowitchers, both Yellowlegs, American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts. Seaside Sparrows sang in the marshes, and Bald Eagles soared overhead. On the way home, four of us stopped back at the Thousand Acre Marsh, where Bill Keim spotted a flock of sixteen Caspian Terns on an exposed mudflat at across from the base of the Reedy Point Bridge. It was around 4:00PM when I gave up and headed for Starbucks and home.