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Enjoying nature in Maryland during the holidays

MackayGuest post by Bryan MacKay

With Winter Solstice just past and the year end approaching (with head-scratching mild weather persisting here in the east), there are plenty of  reasons to get outside in Maryland this month. For inspiration, we once again turn to Bryan MacKay’s A Year across Maryland, his week-by-week guide to enjoying the natural world in JHUP’s home state.


Fourth Week of December: Saw-whet Owls

Winter brings to Maryland North America’s smallest and perhaps most appealing owl, the northern saw-whet. Just eight inches tall, with a large head and arresting yellow eyes, saw-whets are susceptible to predation by larger owls and other birds of prey because of their diminutive size. Hence, they choose densely vegetated habitats with a complex understory, where larger birds might have difficulty maneuvering. In Maryland, saw-whets overwinter on the Piedmont and the Eastern Shore and have been studied in depth on Assateague Island. Each year, one or two pairs may nest in extreme western Maryland.

MacKay Sawwhet owlSaw-whet owls are common in North America, breeding in summer in boreal and northern hardwood forests across the northern tier of the United States and southern Canada. Many, but not all, migrate south with colder weather. The saw-whet owl population may be irruptive; that is, in years when their prey (primarily deer mice) are abundant, they will have significantly larger broods and greater survivorship. Because the young of these irruptive broods invariably migrate, they swell the count at banding stations. For example, in 1995, five banding stations in the mid-Atlantic captured 2,596 saw-whets, most of whom were immatures, while in the previous four years, fewer than two hundred owls per year had been banded.

Like all owls, saw-whets are primarily nocturnal, hunting at night from low perches in dense cover. Unfortunately, the species seems to be more susceptible than most owls to collisions with motor vehicles. Saw-whets have eleven different vocalizations, including alarm calls and mate-attraction calls. They nest in cavities, often abandoned flicker or pileated woodpecker holes, but will use nest boxes supplied by humans if the box’s dimensions are appropriate.

Where to see saw-whet owls this week:  Saw-whets have been extensively studied on Assateague Island in winter, although you might encounter this owl anywhere in suitable habitat on the coastal plain of the Eastern Shore or southern Maryland and into the Piedmont.


Trip of the week: Christmas Bird Count

Various locations statewide. What to see and do: For more than a century, the National Audubon Society has sponsored and coordinated a census of birds known as the Christmas Bird Count, documenting winter bird populations in Canada, the United States, the Caribbean, and beyond. It’s an immense undertaking, engaged in by thousands of volunteers, sometimes braving cold temperatures and chilling winds, in search of every bird within a given search area.

MacKay Christmas bird countThe data reveal trends in populations over time, and the resulting data are invaluable to scientists and conservationists alike. You don’t have to be a hardcore birder to participate. Novice volunteers are welcome and are teamed up with one or more experienced birders. You’ll learn a lot and get a warm feeling (after you thaw out) of accomplishment at having helped our avian friends.

More information: Visit http://www.audubon.org.


First Week of January: Mixed Flocks of Winter Songbirds

It’s a cold winter afternoon. Under a bright sun, the forest seems pleasant and inviting. The golden light of late afternoon slants through the trunks of tulip poplars and American beech, casting a filigree of shadows on the forest floor. All is quiet. No call of bird nor trill of insect disturbs the serenity. This quietness is a surprise, for a variety of birds spend their winters in our central Maryland forests: chickadees, titmice, woodpeckers, sparrows, juncos, and even bluebirds. So where are they?

Another ten minutes of hiking reveals a seemingly identical patch of woods, but this one is alive with the chip notes, alarm calls, and drummings of several species of songbird. All of a sudden, the forest seems alive. The birds are moving, always moving, and before each bird can be identified and counted, the flock is gone from sight and out of earshot. Winter birding is like that: most of the forest is bereft of birds, but when one is sighted, it is invariably in the company of a mixed-species flock.

Mackay winter song birdWhy might birds of the winter forest form flocks with individuals of other species? After all, during the breeding season most birds are territorial with members of their own species and generally ignore members of other species. The answer likely lies with the unique survival strategies of winter birds.

Winter imposes constraints on birds that spring, summer, and fall do not. Most significantly, food is more difficult to find. Moving across the landscape in the company of a small group means that if one bird discovers a bush full of berries, the rest of the group can take advantage of the bounty, while one bird moving through the forest alone might miss that prime source of winter food.

Another advantage enjoyed by mixed-species flocks is increased vigilance for spotting predators. Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks—accipiters whose primary food is birds—may find hunting easier in winter, when leaves no longer hide their targets. For songbirds, having more eyes on the skies means that any predator is more likely to be spotted before it can attack.

Finally, some birds, including chickadees and bluebirds, share warmth, roosting together in tree cavities through the long cold night. When it comes time to bed down, birds that travel in a group don’t have to search the forest for their bunkmates.

Where to find mixed flocks of winter songbirds this week: Large tracts of mature forest, such as those along the C&O Canal, in Rock Creek Park, and most Maryland state parks often hold mixed flocks of winter birds.


Bryan MacKay is a senior lecturer emeritus in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of A Year across Maryland: A Week-by-Week Guide to Discovering Nature in the Chesapeake Region; Hiking, Cycling, and Canoeing in Maryland: A Family Guide; and Baltimore Trails: A Guide for Hikers and Mountain Bikers.

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Enjoying nature in Maryland this month

Guest post by Bryan MacKay

MackayWith a cautious nod to what seems to be (let’s hope) the arrival of Spring in Maryland, we offer the following April excerpt from Bryan MacKay’s A Year across Maryland, his week-by-week guide to enjoying the natural world in JHUP’s home state.


Rockfish (Striped Bass) Fishing Season Opens

Rockfish, that toothsome and combative gamefish, is now migrating down the Bay along the edges of the shipping channel, after spawning in the upper Bay and tributaries. Striped bass are anadromous fish: mature adults spend most of their time in the ocean but visit freshwater to spawn. About 70 to 90 percent of the entire Atlantic coastal striped bass spawn in Chesapeake Bay, especially in the upper tidal Potomac, the Choptank River, and the Susquehanna flats. The eggs and larvae are susceptible to certain environmental conditions and to pollution. Varying water temperatures cause significant mortality, as does acid rain runoff and trace concentrations of metal ions like aluminum, copper, and cadmium. Young rockfish spend the first three to seven years of their life in the Bay before entering the Atlantic, thereafter returning only to breed. This portion of the fishing season targets spawners returning to the ocean; younger fish must be released when caught. Striped bass can weigh up to 75 pounds; most fish over 30 pounds are female. Larger females are especially important to the survival of the species, as size correlates with egg production.

Where to find rockfish: It is possible to catch rockfish from land at Point Lookout State Park and other sites directly on the Bay, but most striped bass are taken from a boat in deep water. For a listing of charter boats, see www.marylandcharterboats.com.  For a useful weekly blog about what’s being caught where in Chesapeake Bay, see www.dnr.state.md.us/fisheries/fishingreport/log.asp.

Lesser Celandine Flowering

MacKay April lesser celedineThe month of April brings the extensive flowering of this invasive non-native plant in alluvial floodplains and suburban lawns. Indeed, just before trees leaf out, lesser celandine seems to be everywhere, choking out native herbaceous vegetation, including the native wildflowers of April like spring beauty, bluebells, and bloodroot. Lesser celandine has kidney-shaped, thumbnail-sized shiny green leaves and brilliant, shiny, yellow flowers.  Emerging from many small bulbs, lesser celandine is almost impossible to eradicate. Only the fact that the leaves are above ground for only about two months, emerging in March and dying back by mid-May, keeps lesser celandine  from being considered our most troublesome invasive plant.

Where to see lesser celandine: Unfortunately, lesser celandine is extremely common, even ubiquitous, on the floodplain next to almost every river and stream in central Maryland. It is especially troublesome in Patapsco Valley, Gunpowder Falls, Susquehanna, and Seneca Creek State Parks and in Rock Creek Park and along the C&O Canal towpath.

American Robins Calling at Dusk

Mackay April robinPerhaps the ultimate bird of the suburbs, robins have adapted completely to humans and their developed landscapes. Robins will begin constructing nests as soon as the trees leaf out, and by mid-April, male robins are staking out their territories, singing to attract a mate, and chasing each other. Dusk seems to bring the most activity, and their alarm calls and song in the gloaming is a favorite sound of spring.

Where to see American robins: Listen for the calls of robins at dusk anywhere and everywhere in Maryland. The only places in Maryland where robins do not nest is on some small islands in Chesapeake Bay and possibly on Assateague Island.

Virginia Bluebells Flowering

MacKay April virginia-bluebellsWildflower enthusiasts may argue over what is our loveliest spring bloom, but certainly one finalist is Virginia bluebells. A plant common to alluvial floodplains, bluebells carpet the forest floor as far as the eye can see in some locations. Sky-blue trumpet-or bell-shaped flowers occur in hanging clusters above light green, fleshy leaves. Bluebells are pollinated by bees and butterflies. The flower buds are a gorgeous shade of pink, converting to blue upon full expansion. Albino flowers seem to occur in most populations. Virginia bluebells have a short season, blooming for only about two weeks in mid-April. Interestingly, while the flower is abundant in the floodplains of some Maryland rivers, such as the Potomac, Susquehanna, and Patuxent, it is missing entirely from others, like the Patapsco. Virginia bluebells form natural gardens covering many acres of alluvial floodplains at several locations in central Maryland.

Where to find Virginia bluebells: Extensive stands of bluebells occur at Susquehanna State Park, along the C&O Canal towpath, at Patuxent Research Refuge (North Tract), and at Bull Run Regional Park (Virginia).

Bryan MacKay is a senior lecturer emeritus in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is the author of A Year across Maryland: A Week-by-Week Guide to Discovering Nature in the Chesapeake Region; Hiking, Cycling, and Canoeing in Maryland: A Family Guide; and Baltimore Trails: A Guide for Hikers and Mountain Bikers.

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Enjoying Nature During the D.C. Summer: Go Early, Go Often

by Howard Youth

The nation’s capital wears its thick cloak of green this time of year. The towering trees, the flourishing vines, the humidity. Tourists feel they’ve stumbled into a tropical city. But, no, it’s just Washington, D.C. in summer. A very exciting time and place for the naturalist. So, drink a lot of water, accept the sweat, and head out early to the city’s wonderful natural areas. You’ll be richly rewarded.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

In 1976, at the age of ten, I developed an interest in reptiles. Two years later, herons grabbed my attention. These alluring birds drew me into birding, a passion I keep to this day. In Washington, D.C. at this time of year, if you are up early and near the Potomac or Anacostia rivers, you are bound to see a heron of some stripe. When you watch one stalk the shoreline in search of frogs or small fish, it’s easy to agree with the many paleontologists who believe birds evolved from trim, predatory dinosaurs. One of the best heron-watching sites is Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Walk the boardwalk into the restored tidal marsh there, or stroll along the lily and lotus ponds. By July, herons dispersing from bay or coastal breeding areas augment the small number of herons present in the area through the breeding season. At Kenilworth, you will likely see the small green heron, the large, grumpy-sounding great blue heron, and the great egret. But others show up, especially in July and August, and these might include little blue heron, black-crowned and sometimes yellow-crowned night-herons.

From July into August, spotted immature black-crowned night-herons loiter around the National Zoo’s Bird House, having just left their nests in the trees. The zoo’s night-heron colony is just one example of how zoos around the world not only exhibit, but also attract, wild creatures. The zoo is open very early for walkers, joggers, and nature buffs. If you walk from the Connecticut Avenue entrance down to the bottom of the hill and back, you not only get a great workout, but you also have the chance to see wild gray catbirds, eastern chipmunks, woodpeckers, wood ducks, cardinals, white-tailed deer, and of course gray squirrels, including black-coated ones that descended from black phase gray squirrels released at the zoo last century. These black squirrels hailed from Ontario. In many parts of that Canadian province, most gray squirrels are black.

Summer in Washington means noticing those small creatures you might have missed in other months. Even if you close your eyes, you can’t ignore the city’s summer wildlife. Listen to the growing crescendo of buzzing annual cicadas, invisible but seemingly everywhere, or the chittering of chimney swifts catching insects high over the city streets. With the abundant heat and humidity, dragonflies and damselflies flourish, snapping up mosquitoes and other small flying insects. At dusk, you might see bats doing the same thing.

Sun-drenched stumps and rock walls may be adorned with five-lined skinks, small and shiny lizards. The females and young sport black stripes running down their backs and flashy blue tails. Males are gold with red heads. Green frogs and bullfrogs, snapping and painted turtles, and maybe even a snake or two will cross your path. Likely snakes include common garter snakes and black rat snakes. The northern copperhead, the only poisonous species in the area, is rare in the city and unlikely to be seen.

While spring in Washington boasts tree and shrub blooms—yoshino and kwanza cherries, dogwoods, mountain laurels, redbuds, azaleas—summer has colors all its own. Day lilies, herbs, meadow flowers such as asters and butterfly weed, and of course, ornamental crape-myrtles: these are plants you see coloring the view at the landscape level. If you don’t want to miss anything, remember that when it comes to appreciating nature, it pays to stop and look around at the small things. The unheralded jewelweed grows in clumps along waterways and moist woodland edges. Its tiny but spectacular blooms draw hummingbirds. The white and red clover and dandelions growing in the lawn attract many pollinating insects, and cottontail rabbits as well.

Growing up in the area, I spent many hours exploring the C&O Canal. If I imagine the tow path, it’s usually a still summer morning, with a bit of mist rising from the water, a dense overhang of American sycamore, tulip tree, and mighty oaks. Another persistent memory: Walking across the entrance bridge to Roosevelt Island, blue-backed barn swallows drifting over the water with a backdrop of tangled vegetation, a mix of vines, shrubs, and trees that made it easy for me to fall in love with tropical places. For if you spend July and August in Washington, D.C. you feel that the heat, and the bounty, of equatorial realms moved north for a spell.

youthHoward Youth is the author of Field Guide to the Natural World of Washington, D.C., published by Johns Hopkins Press.

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