Tag Archives: Birding

View From The Tower

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“That’s Awesome!”

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard these words on the viewing tower at Huntley Meadows Park. Usually they come from a pre-teen, but many adults have exclaimed it when they get their first close look in a spotting scope at a great blue heron or a hooded merganser with 10 ducklings. 

It’s what I said when I made my first visit to the park almost 20 years ago.

I was with a friend who decided to take a hike in a neighborhood park in Alexandria.  I thought it was a woodland trail leading to a creek.  Not far down the path the trees opened, surrendering to a large wetland stuffed with life and crossed by a boardwalk allowing close observation. Echoing sounds of red-winged blackbirds filled the air.  I saw at least a dozen egrets as well as birds I had never seen before — king rails and green herons, and more reptiles and amphibians than I had ever witnessed at one time, all within a hand’s reach of the boardwalk.  I didn’t think an environment like this existed in this area, especially within five miles of the beltway.  Needless to say, I was fascinated. 

I had already completed school with a communications degree, and I had a small knowledge of biology.  Biology classes gave me nightmares during school, but my knowledge of nature grew through the purchase of used books containing basic information and photographs of the birds and reptiles I was seeing on my continuing visits to the park.  I would still struggle if I took a biology class today, but I have learned quite a bit since that time.  For example, I thought egrets were only in Florida and eagles were only in Alaska. They’re both at Huntley Meadows.

My fascination with the park led me to a small volunteer role in an activity called, “View from the Tower.”  I take the spotting scope from the Huntley Meadows Nature Center and stand on the wetlands tower for a couple hours giving visitors a closer view of the wetland inhabitants.  I feel bad for the other volunteers stuck inside the visitor center while I’m out witnessing the action. Sometimes I lose track of time and struggle getting back to the nature center before it closes. 

I am still only an average birder.  The birds I know best are those I’ve captured in photography.  The only bird log I keep is Lightroom.  To help me with my birding skills, I never volunteer on the tower without my worn copy of “The National Geographic Guide to Birds of North America.”  The visitors I try to make the biggest impression upon are people who are somewhat naive to wetlands the way I was on my first visit.  I hope to spark their interest in nature the way mine was ignited when I first visited the park. 

I have met, learned and shared with many wonderful people over the years on the tower, and some are close friends.  I have also witnessed many incredible things with visitors, whether it is an osprey hovering in the air and then diving straight into the water and coming back up with a fish, or someone seeing a bald eagle for the first time.  Even on slow days, I enjoy my time on the tower in the wetland surroundings.

I have always had a strong interest in photography, however due to a lack of specific subjects of interest, it was not in focus. My visits to Huntley Meadows Park quickly provided that subject of interest, and merging these two passions brought my photography into focus. Now I am a serious wildlife and nature photographer — not a professional by any means, because I spend money instead of make money.  But living my passions is rewarding in my life.

Author Curtis Gibbens is a volunteer at Huntley Meadows Park. His first photography exhibit is on display in the Norma Hoffman Visitor Center during July and August. The exhibit consists mostly of wildlife on the East Coast.  The photographs were taken at Huntley Meadows, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Shenandoah National Park, and in the Carolinas. Curtis will be at the park for a meet and greet on Saturday, July 6 from 10 a.m. to 12 noon. Or, you can catch him on some weekends at the tower.

View On Nature: Woodpeckers

“Guess who!? Ha-ha-ha HA-ha!” – Woody Woodpecker

Pileated woodpecker

Pileated woodpecker

Winter is a colorful season for woodpeckers in Annandale. Those of us at a certain age can remember Woody Woodpecker’s signature quote and his subsequent maniacal laughter. However, when folks call us at Hidden Oaks Nature Center to ask about woodpeckers knocking on their houses, they generally aren’t laughing.

Woodpeckers knock for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is communication and territorial establishment. That’s why sometimes they knock on metal drainpipes and gutters to the puzzlement of our patrons. “But it’s not wood!” they contest. Woodpeckers though, know that drainpipes, like many hollow logs and snags in the forest, are amplifiers. Once they learn through experience how raucously they can knock, they return to the source. That’s how woodpeckers tell others of their presence and/or perhaps availability. That’s the good news they want to broadcast.

However, they might be broadcasting bad news to you. If they’re knocking on your wooden eaves or fascia boards they might be hunting insects that are already rooting around in there, potential headaches for homeowners.

And about those headaches — why don’t woodpeckers suffer from them? It turns out that, unlike heavy-metal millennials in a mosh pit, a woodpecker’s head is designed for head-banging. They can knock up to 22 times per second, and their tongues wrap all the way around the backs of their heads to provide excellent cushioning for their brains. This enables woodpeckers to withstand decelerations (knocking and its after-effects) at more than 100 times the impact than can humans. In fact, woodpeckers’ shock absorption qualities were intensely studied to design cases for flight recorders in airplanes.

That same super-long tongue is the scourge of insects everywhere, which wrongly think they’re safe hiding in deep holes of logs and standing dead trees or buried in the wood siding of your house.

Woodpeckers use their excavating skills to hollow out burrows, which are often used year-round as homes. Sometimes they’ll use existing holes, but some individual birds like to create their own nesting cavity each year. Different strokes for different species.

Hairy woodpecker

Hairy woodpecker

At Hidden Oaks right now, there’s potential for you to see downy, hairy, red-bellied, northern flickers and, during really cold weather, yellow-bellied sapsuckers at the suet feeders. You might also spy the much-larger pileated woodpecker with the prominent comb often thought of in connection to the aforementioned Woody Woodpecker. Cartoonist Walter Lantz, however, noted that the acorn woodpecker from the west was the actual inspiration for his ideas in the 1940s.

Woodpeckers breed in the late winter/early spring, but the pairing-off and courtship often starts in winter. During this time certain species get their brightest coloration to be more attractive to potential mates. This effect makes woodpeckers brilliant and vivid contrasts to the backdrop of winter’s bleakest, gray months.

Red-bellied woodpecker

Red-bellied woodpecker

Do you want to see woodpeckers in your backyard this winter? Suet feeders are the best way. Fill them with commercially-sold suet bricks, or just fill them with raw beef fat purchased from or donated by your local butcher.

Hidden Oaks Nature Center keeps suet and fat feeders out during the winter so our patrons can view these beautiful creatures on the fly. Come see for yourself.

By Michael McDonnell, manager, Hidden Oaks Nature Center

The Improbable Mr. Wilson: A Tale Of A Wandering Warbler

There has been a lot of chirping about a little yellow bird at Huntley Meadows Park recently. Ever since a Wilson’s warbler was unexpectedly seen during the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird count on Sunday, December 30, staff, volunteers, and visitors have been curious about the bird’s origin. A tiny patch of orange plumage above the bird’s beak sparked a debate and led to the endearing moniker, The Improbable Mr. Wilson.

Meet The Improbable Mr. Wilson.

Meet The Improbable Mr. Wilson.

According to park manager Kevin Munroe, Wilson’s warblers, like most warblers found in the park, are neo-tropical migrants, which means they breed somewhere in the northeastern U.S. and Canada each spring and summer before traveling south to spend their winters in Mexico, Central America, or South America. Munroe says it’s not unheard of to see a misplaced migrant at this time of year, but they typically either move on or expire due to a lack of food sources. For a specialist in hunting insects like Mr. Wilson, January in Northern Virginia is a tough place to find a meal.

However, Mr. Wilson has proven to be a resourceful visitor. Since his first sighting, scores of people have reveled in the sight of the wandering warbler feeding at the birdfeeders next to the visitor center. He has managed to avoid the hunting hawks and was photographed chomping on a caterpillar. Mr. Wilson has also been seen feeding on Sweetgum seeds along the paved trails. As people inadvertently step on the spiky pods, Mr. Wilson swoops in to munch on the released seeds.

Wilson's Warbler by Dave Boltz

The Improbable Mr. Wilson snacks on a caterpillar.

One theory about Mr. Wilson’s visit is that he is filling up for a late departure for the Southeast U.S. or the Gulf Coast, where he could survive on seeds, berries, and any available insects. But it is the presence of the bright orange markings visible in the many high-quality photos being shared online that have birders wondering if Mr. Wilson may have traveled from the west, not the north.

The bright orange patch above Mr. Wilson's beak caused quite a stir.

The bright orange patch above Mr. Wilson’s beak caused quite a stir.

After seeing the orange forehead in a photo, longtime birder Bill Young exclaimed, “Mr. Wilson appears to be even more improbable than he seemed at first glance.” Young has had many close looks at Wilson’s warblers in the past, but doesn’t recall ever seeing the orange marking. He and Paula Sullivan consulted the Garrett and Dunn warbler guide and found that there are three varieties of Wilson’s. Of the three, only one displays the orange markings, the chryseola. They learned that the chryseola variety breeds along a narrow band of the West Coast, from southern British Columbia to Southern California, and winters in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and south to western Panama.

This revelation led Young to declare, “So Mr. Wilson is most likely not an eastern or central bird who is a little late and a bit off course; he probably came from the other coast of North America, which is a pretty amazing trip for a creature who weighs about a quarter of an ounce.”

Huntley Meadows volunteer and avid bird buff Larry Cartwright, known among birding circles as an expert, concurs with Young’s assessment.  “I think this vagrancy from the west happens frequently. We had a dark yellow warbler that turned out to be one of the dark western subspecies, and there is quite a number of Rufous/Allen’s hummingbirds reported this year and they are all from the west. So Bill is absolutely right.”

Although Munroe is confident the wandering warbler began its journey on the West Coast, he said, “We can’t exactly check his passport, so we’ll never really know.” He remains open to other theories and welcomes discussion.

Mr. Wilson was last seen in the park on Wednesday, January 2. The birders who were fortunate enough to have seen him are grateful for his improbable visit and wish him a safe journey home – wherever that may be.

Thanks for stopping by, Mr. Wilson.

Thanks for stopping by, Mr. Wilson.

Written by Matthew Kaiser, deputy public information officer

Treasures in Silence at Hidden Pond

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Sometimes the easiest way to observe nature is to stay put and let nature come to you.  You might relax on a park bench and notice a frog flip into a pond, or pause during a walk (I like to schedule my pauses for the uphill sections) to quietly let a deer browse ever closer.  You learn that good things come to those who wait. 

Staying put also is one way to survey wildlife. 

The annual Northern Virginia Bird Survey, hosted for 18 years by the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia, employs this method for counting all the birds that can be heard or seen. Surveyors stand for five minutes at specific points located 250 meters apart.  The yearly June survey identifies the breeding birds in our area.  Is it probable that some birds are missed by this method?  Yes, but it nevertheless provides a good snapshot of what’s around. 

Taking part in the survey is also a good exercise in attention span.  Try it. Go outside, be quiet, and see how many birds, butterflies or frogs or whatever you choose you can count in five minutes.  I have found in conducting these surveys that I have a three-minute attention span, because I invariably look at my watch after three minutes.

This year, I surveyed birds at six points at Hidden Pond Nature Center and along the Pohick Stream on June 30. These are the 36 species I recorded: 

Cedar Waxwing

Great Blue Heron (not breeding)
Red-shouldered Hawk
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift (fly over)
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Acadian Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Blue Jay
American Crow (fly over)
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Carolina Wren

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
White-eyed Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Northern Parula
Common Yellowthroat
Scarlet Tanager
Northern Cardinal
Eastern Towhee
Song Sparrow
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle (fly over)
American Goldfinch

Now it’s your turn. Here’s another opportunity for a few peaceful moments outdoors. Grab a book or download an app about bird identification or bird calls. Head out to a nearby park. There are over 400 of them in the county. Stand still. Five minutes. Okay, three. Listen. Look.

Turned into a nice day, didn’t it?

By Carmen Bishop, Hidden Pond Nature Center