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Monday, May 03, 2004

Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary, Jug Bay Natural Area, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and Sandy Point Park with Robin J. and Ed L.

Every year at this time my wife and I travel down to the Annapolis area for an extended weekend. Our stay culminates with Robin and my brother-in-law running in the "Governor's Bay Bridge" 10k race. Birds, crab cakes and microbrews were our main focus before the big race (but not necessarily in that order). We stayed in Edgewater near Annapolis and birded in four locations in Ann Arundel and Prince George's counties. We also took a longer drive south to the town of Sandgates in search of the legendary "Shrimpy" the Kelp Gull.

Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary, our first birding destination, has become one of my favorite spots to bird in that area due to its proximity to Annapolis and its varied habitats. Its 1,678 acres on the Patuxent River include farm fields, ponds, marshes and woodlands. We didn't experience the big fallout of spring migrants that I was hoping for but did have a few nice highlights to report.

From the beehive of activity at the Purple Martin houses next to the parking lot to a Ruby-throated Hummingbird collecting spider webs we observed many species already involved in breeding chores. A silo on the property was topped with one of the most extensive Osprey nests that I've ever seen. In the woodlands Red-eyed Vireo, Northern Parula, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and tanager songs dominated the airwaves. Standing quietly at the edge of a swamp absorbing the song of a distant tanager we were apparently invisible to a mink on the hunt. Bounding along at the edge of the water without a care in the world the long, slender creature appeared as if he was coming to welcome us to his neighborhood. When he was only a few feet away he noticed the three of us and made a quick u-turn, disappearing into the underbrush. Following in his direction and deeper into the swamp we could hear the clear, ringing song of Prothonotary Warblers. "Sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet. sweet", the brilliant, golden-yellow males sang from low perches in decaying tree trunks within the bog.

At the north end of Merkle is the Patuxent River Park Jug Bay Natural Area. Jug Bay is a complex of forested wetlands and tidal marshes. There are about 8 miles of hiking trail and boardwalks. We stopped off at Jug Bay on our way home and walked the short looped, Black Walnut Creek trail. Hooded Warbler are usually very conspicuous here, although on this day we only heard their songs. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers seemed to be singing from just about everywhere, making their thin, insect-like croons. As we stood on the boardwalk trail a pair above us were making various jumbled whistles and mewing sounds. We watched them for a few minutes and discovered that it was a mated pair working on a nest in a cypress. One bird was collecting mud from the edge of the river while the other pulled bits of lichens off of adjacent trees. It was wonderful watching those two chattering, hyperactive birds building a tiny nest on top of a branch. Every once in a while the female would sit down in it to test the fit. Her long, skinny tail would stick up like a spoon in a tea cup. We worked up an appetite watching those industrious little birds so we put away our binoculars and went in search of crab cakes.

On Saturday we had planned to bird at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Just south of Edgewater, SERC has 12 miles of undeveloped shoreline and 2,600 acres of mostly Eastern deciduous forest. It is primarily a natural laboratory used for ecological research but it does have hours where it is open to the public. Unfortunately Saturday wasn't one of those days. My brother-in-law called their security office, though, and they were kind enough to allow us to bird the grounds. When we checked in at the security office they took a driver's license and gave us a walkie-talkie "in case we got into any trouble". When we were walking the trail towards the water we heard one of the officers over the radio say, "Did the birders arrive yet, over". The response came back, "Yeah, they're here". Then, "Do you need me for anything?" The lieutenant replied, "Nope, I gave them a radio and took their license, 10-4." This was the most "official" birding that I've ever done. The woodlands were kind of quiet and, other than dozens of Common Yellowthroats calling and chasing through the grass, the water's edge was unproductive. We did have one surprise when we spotted a first year Bald Eagle looking for fish above the river. Watching the eagle and thinking about seafood motivated us to return the radio to security and go in search of more crab cakes.

After lunch on the Solomon Islands we drove to the small town of Sandgates, the home of "Shrimpy" the Kelp Gull. Discovered in 1998 this normally southern hemisphere gull has adopted Maryland as his home. He can usually be found on the dock behind the "Sea Breeze" restaurant. Unfortunately, we discovered that in the spring he migrates to parts unknown and returns in the fall. Instead we found a small group of Forster's Terns dock sitting for the season.

Sunday's race finish line is at Sandy Point Park, a 786 acre park on the Chesapeake Bay. Racers have to arrive by 6:00am for a bus ride to the start at the opposite side of the bridge. I had at least two and a half hours of birding the park before the two thousand plus runners returned. It was cool and gray with rain threatening to dampen the morning. As it turned out, we missed the rain but birds were few and far between. I began trying to make a deal with the birding gods. I attempted to bargain for one "good" bird over five "average birds". No deal. I guess I was being too greedy so I opted for a one over ten deal. That must have worked because as I crossed the parking lot, ignoring the calls of several Orchard Orioles, I spotted something on the beach. Sitting among a small flock of Ring-billed Gulls was a very large, orange billed tern. I'm not sure how rare they are in that part of Maryland but I was pleasantly surprised to be looking at a Royal Tern. I was so pleased I could think of nothing better to do than celebrate with a pint of ale and...a crab cake.

While we had some fine birding during our short stay in Maryland we did make some other interesting discoveries. Our crab cake tastings lead us to the unanimous conclusion that "G and M's" restaurant near the airport had the tastiest offerings. "Stoney's Kingfishers Seafood House" on Soloman's Island came in a close second, although I could be wrong, we may need to go back and check them all again.
- - - - -
Merkle WS, Jug Bay NA, SERC, Sandy Point Park
Common Loon (Sandy Point)
Double-crested Cormorant (various)
Great Blue Heron (various)
Black Vulture (various)
Turkey Vulture (various)
Canada Goose (various)
Mute Swan (various)
Mallard (various)
Osprey (various)
Bald Eagle (SERC)
Sharp-shinned Hawk (Edgewater)
Red-shouldered Hawk (SERC)
Red-tailed Hawk (SERC)
Wild Turkey (SERC)
Killdeer (Edgewater)
Greater Yellowlegs (Jug Bay)
Laughing Gull (various)
Ring-billed Gull (various)
Herring Gull (various)
Royal Tern (Sandy Point)
Forster's Tern (various)
Rock Dove (various)
Mourning Dove (various)
Chimney Swift (various)
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Merkle, Jug Bay)
Red-bellied Woodpecker (various)
Downy Woodpecker (various)
Hairy Woodpecker (Sandy Point)
Acadian Flycatcher (Merkle)
Eastern Phoebe (Jug Bay, SERC)
Great Crested Flycatcher (Merkle, Jug Bay, SERC)
Eastern Kingbird (various)
White-eyed Vireo (Merkle, Jug Bay, Sandy Point)
Yellow-throated Vireo (Merkle)
Red-eyed Vireo (various)
Blue Jay (various)
American Crow (various)
Fish Crow (various)
Purple Martin (Merkle)
Tree Swallow (various)
Barn Swallow (various)
Carolina Chickadee (various)
Tufted Titmouse (Merkle, SERC)
White-breasted Nuthatch (Merkle)
Carolina Wren (various)
Marsh Wren (Sandy Point)
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (various)
Eastern Bluebird (Merkle)
Swainson's Thrush (SERC)
Wood Thrush (Merkle, Jug Bay, SERC)
American Robin (various)
European Starling (various)
Gray Catbird (SERC)
Northern Mockingbird (various)
Blue-winged Warbler (Jug Bay)
Northern Parula (various)
Yellow Warbler (Merkle)
Yellow-rumped Warbler (various)
Black-and-white Warbler (Merkle)
Prothonotary Warbler (Merkle)
Ovenbird (various)
Northern Waterthrush (Merkle, Sandy Point)
Common Yellowthroat (various)
Hooded Warbler (Merkle, Jug Bay, SERC)
Summer Tanager (Merkle)
Scarlet Tanager (Merkle, SERC)
Eastern Towhee (various)
Chipping Sparrow (various)
Field Sparrow (Merkle)
Swamp Sparrow (Merkle, Sandy Point)
White-throated Sparrow (various)
White-crowned Sparrow (Merkle)
Northern Cardinal (various)
Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Jug Bay)
Indigo Bunting (Merkle)
Red-winged Blackbird (various)
Eastern Meadowlark (Merkle)
Common Grackle (various)
Brown-headed Cowbird (various)
Orchard Oriole (Merkle, Sandy Point)
House Finch (various)
American Goldfinch (various)
House Sparrow (various)

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