I’m not a sissy, or at least I don’t think I am, but we all have our limitations. Mine were revealed recently at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Church Creek on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I can show you gorgeous pictures of the tidal swamp with a sea of grasses seemingly extending to the horizon, only rarely interrupted by Loblolly pine islets and areas of shimmering open water. If you’re lucky you might see a hunting harrier there, or I can show you pictures of the Bald Eagle pair, the fishing herons, or the splendid Red-headed Woodpecker. But all these shots tell only half the story.
It was very hot, humid, and overcast. We just had several days of rain and the air was still nearly saturated. The lowlands of south Dorchester County are barely above sea level and undoubtedly were a few feet below sea level during the recent hurricane. It all was a perfect stew for the bugs. The people who live here are hardy souls, they must be. On that recent day the bugs, not the birds, drove the bus. There were mosquitos the size of a Buick, biting flies, the green-headed and other varieties as well. In a prior life I did minor surgery and would prepare my patients for the initial needle stick by warning they were about to feel a Dorchester County mosquito bite. They all understood the analogy.
The absence of other birders at the refuge should have been a clue, but I just had to get out and see some birds. It was early for waterfowl, the refuge specialty, but one can always see eagles and waders there, or maybe even a shorebird migrant. The reliable refuge did not disappoint.
So, when birding Blackwater NWR this time of year you need a strategy. Stay in the truck and keep the windows up! But if you’re a real birder and a real bird photographer this just will not do. The second strategy is bug spray, gallons of it, coating every square inch of clothing and hat, not just the exposed skin. The only problem with this is the chemicals wreak havoc with your camera and lens, and some bugs seem un-phased by the odor. Incidentally the odor does fend off other humans, including a spouse. A more informative blog would run down the pros and cons of the various insect repellents on the market. You’re on your own in this regard.
Another strategy is to pick a windy day to blow the buggers away. My day was dead calm. So in the end I tried a combination of all of the above cruising Wildlife Drive with the windows up and the AC on. As you all know, pictures through the window glass are not ideal and the vibrations from the running engine further degrades the image. When you sight a bird you have to decide if it’s worth the risk of venturing out of the truck for a quick shot, and then diving back in before the bugs realize what’s happening. Even in those brief moments some invariably sneak in and must be dealt with, smished on the inside glass. Remember to pack a fly swatter.
In some cases you can park the truck across the trail, trying to create a good angle through an open side window, remembering to kill the engine first. The motion of the opening window spooks some of the birds but this technique did give me that shot of the Red-headed Woodpecker above. There must be a back story to that Bald Eagle pair I saw. They looked like a couple who just had an argument and couldn’t bare to look each other in the eye. Blackwater is a premier location on the East Coast to see these beauties.
The Kingfisher, Killdeer, and gulls were distant birds, causing me to yearn again for a 500 or 600mm lens, but they’re still only a dream at current prices. Lunch was yogurt, granola, and a bottle of water, in the truck, windows up, and the local country music station cranked up loud; it was not all bad.
And the bugs were not all bad either. It was just the biting ones and the resultant welts that irritated me. But it’s also the season of the singing Cicadas and the clicking Crickets. My urban grandson, visiting from his loud downtown apartment last summer, couldn’t fall asleep on our screened porch in the country because of the insect symphony. His honking urban jungle, however, is never a problem. Between bird sightings at Blackwater there was a good butterfly show. I need to improve these skills but did see many Sulfurs (not sure if Clouded or Cloudless), a few Buckeyes, and of course the glorious Monarchs, likely just beginning their long migration to Mexico.
But there is a definite downside to birding like this, largely confined to the truck. You miss the valuable auditory component, especially for the little songbirds that are often heard before seen. You miss the fresh air and breeze, the smell of the tidal marsh, and the sorely needed exercise gained by trudging along the waterside trails. Despite this it was a good day of birding–do you ever have a bad one? You should check out Blackwater NWR. In a few weeks the wintering waterfowl will be in, the bugs will be on the decline, and the scenery is something to behold.
I must take a moment to pay tribute to the recent passing of one of our area’s pre-eminent birders. Les Roslund was a lifelong birder, first in the Mid West and later here on the East Coast. His extensive knowledge was kindly shared with all, especially the new birders whom he was the first to welcome to the local birding club. I frequently ran into Les birding alone at the Pickering Creek Audubon Center near his home. He always asked what I was seeing, especially the sparrows, in which he had a keen interest and extensive knowledge. He was a gentleman birder, a friend to us all, and will be sorely missed.