Your song, your forms, your rhythmic flight,
Your manners for your heart’s delight…
…Forgive our harms, and condescend
To man, as to a lubber friend,
And, generous, teach his awkward race
Courage, and probity, and grace!
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, May-Day and Other Pieces
Yes, we can learn a lot from birds. And so begins a new project — our urban birding project — something our whole family of birders, young and old, can enjoy. Of course you could go to any bookstore and purchase a book of birds complete with beautiful glossy professional photography, but what would be the DIY fun in that? We want to discover them ourselves.
We love taking nature walks along the waterfront in Old Town and in our regional wildlife preserves such as Dyke Marsh by the Belle Haven Marina and Green Spring Gardens, a secret gem hidden behind the strip malls on Route 1, just to catch a glimpse of the hundreds of species of birds that call this area home.
For this project, we will photograph and document what we learn about the birds – colors, interesting characteristics, what they like to do in their spare time. As we discover different species, we’ll share what we find here.
To get started, here are two birds we’ve spotted in the Del Ray area – perhaps you have seen them as well?
We found this fierce creature sitting on the fence in our backyard. Sharp-shinned Hawks stalk bird feeders in the hope of snacking on little songbirds, and there are plenty of bird feeders in our neighborhood to create quite the buffet. With piercing eyes and a beak and talons as sharp as knives, he’s not messing around. This beast is bigger than my cats — yowsers!
To learn more about the hawk, we consulted our Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region.
In addition to binoculars, this is a must-have for any budding birder. It contains great photographs of each species to aid identification as well as detailed descriptions about habitat, nesting and even the sounds they make. We can see from the guide that the striped square tail is part of the Sharp-shin’s signature look.
If you are still stumped when identifying birds, the Cornell Lab of Orinthology has a great website you can use to search for birds based on shape, name or taxonomy. And if you want to get even more interactive, check out these birding apps.
We consulted the book Birds of Prey which Jack recently picked up at his school’s science night. We learned this is the smallest hawk in North America, it uses its long tail to navigate the woods in fast pursuit of songbirds and mice, and it lives mostly in dense forests except when it makes special trips to urban and suburban areas to snack around bird feeders.
Great Blue Heron
My husband Mark took this photo of the incredibly majestic Great Blue Heron over in Oronoco Park in Old Town, Alexandria. Adorned with a crown of silvery shale gray and gold and feathers cascading down its long and mighty neck, the Heron is the king of the waterfront. Elegant and sophisticated. And in contrast to the Sharp-shinned Hawk, quite a bit more approachable and docile too.
The photo in the field guide helped us identify the specific type of Heron and differentiate it from a similar bird, the Egret.
After further research we learned it’s the largest North American Heron, it makes a “hoarse, guttural squawk,” and it wades in the water to hunt for fish which it swallows whole.
Look for more posts about birds in the months to come. We hope to have quite a good collection by the year’s end. What birds have you seen in the Del Ray area? Any hawks stalking your bird feeders? Have you been to any of the local wildlife preserves to watch birds?