Western Regional Park opened in 2006 making it the county's newest regional park and one of the few parks in western Howard County. Although its varied habitats are of interest much of the year, the shallow entrance pond and the short-grass ballfields make it a particularly attractive birding destination from mid-summer through early fall.
GPS: N39 18 17.0 W77 01 32.6
Habitat: This park is the only county park with attractive shorebird habitat for those species usually found on mudflats and those preferring short-grass situations. The shallow pond at the entrance to the park (P 1) fills with every substantial rain, but drops quickly in hot weather. When the drops coincide with shorebird migration periods, the pond becomes a destination for birders. During droughts, the mud hardens and vegetation begins to grow. In the fall, this can produce ideal conditions for a variety of sparrows. Although heavily used during league play, the extensive short-grass, unfenced soccer fields are attractive to "grasspipers." The park also contains a nice chunk of mature woodlands, a warm-season grass meadow, and streamside brushy areas. There are excellent views of the sky. Several small ponds with adjacent annual vegetation provide habitat for amphibians, dragonflies, and butterflies. There will be some changes as the park develops more completely, but birders can hope that there will be a minimum number of changes and plantings in the vicinity of P 1 and the soccer fields.
Layout: Active recreational facilities form the nucleus of the park. Soccer and baseball fields spread throughout the front portion along both sides of the paved road that winds through the park. A tot lot is located adjacent to the first parking lot on the left and a concession building with restrooms (May–Sept) is on the right; portable toilets are positioned in several parking lots year-round. Three sediment ponds are located along the road. The first one (P 1) is the only water in the eastern section. It is the largest of the three ponds and, so far, has offered the most species diversity, but it is prone to drying completely during droughts. P 1 was reconfigured during 2011 making it less attractive to shorebirds. Enter the western half of the park through a metal gate (with adjacent wooden fence). On the right, just beyond the gate, is a small, narrow sediment pond (P 2); a third pond (P 3) lies several hundred yards farther along the road, also on the right, almost out of view in a bowl-shaped depression. Ponds 2 and 3 usually retain at least some water during prolonged dry spells and attract frogs and dragonflies. During wet periods, a stream flows from P 3 creating a somewhat marshy area as the water flows toward the western edge of the park.
The park has an extensive series of paved and dirt trails that provide access to most areas of the park. Paved trails go around most of the playing fields, through the stand of trees located just to the west of the artificial turf playing fields, and along the tree edge of some of the mature forest.
A mature oak forest lies in the northwest corner of the park. From the access road, a wide mown path (to the right of a pavilion and several hundred feet past P 2) leads to the main entry point of the woods trail. The interior trails form several loops of varying length that go through the woods. A short spur on the north part of the loop deadends at a private drive on the north edge of the park. Upon reaching this paved driveway, double back to the main trail and continue around the loop. You can circle around through these trees and exit where you entered or take a trail that starts in the NW corner of the park and goes along the west edge of the park to the SW corner of the park, where you can explore scrub habitat.
The entire western section of the park is still being developed. Its appearance is changing substantially. Currently, the scrubby edge on the east side of the stream constitutes some of the best sparrow habitat in the park. There is a trail that goes through this habitat and eventually ends (or begins) on a paved trail just north of Pond 3. During periods of normal rainfall, portions of it are wet – or at least damp. There is a fine view of the sky from almost any vantage point. Note that all the trails can be muddy after rains.
Best Time to Visit: Early to mid-morning in the spring and fall are best, while mornings in summer produce the best passerine and flyover results. Any time of the day is good for shorebirds; twilight is best for nighthawks during migration periods. A full schedule of organized sports is played here on the weekends (except in the winter) and on summer evenings. At peak playing times, parking can be difficult; be sure to honor parking restrictions.
Birding: There have been 180+ species of birds (plus a warbler hybrid, a domestic, and an exotic species) observed on or over the park. The best time to bird here is during spring and fall migration. Many rarities have already been found during this period and the potential exists for something special to show up anytime.
The shallow sediment pond (P 1) at the entrance to the park has elevated this park to one of the best shorebird locations in the county. So far, its mudflats have attracted 19 species of shorebirds! Shorebird migration is protracted, with the northbound trip starting in March and continuing into June, while the southbound flights start in July and may last until November. Highlights include American Golden-Plover, Western Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Baird's Sandpiper, Dunlin, Stilt Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, and Red Phalarope. Least, Pectoral, Semipalmated, Solitary and Spotted sandpipers, Greater and Lesser yellowlegs, Semipalmated Plover (not annual), Wilson's Snipe, and Killdeer are seen on an annual basis. Morning is an excellent time to check the pond since the park tends to be quiet and parking isn't a problem. At that time of day, however, the sun creates a lot of glare when viewing the pond from the west side. It is best to work your way to the southeast corner of the pond by walking outside of the rail fence to minimize any chance of spooking the birds, or take the paved path east of the pond. The shorebird numbers fluctuate throughout the day so midday or afternoon can also be productive often producing different numbers/species than were seen earlier in the day. Storms can force birds down, sometimes only briefly. The water level in P 1 can fluctuate dramatically. During extended dry periods, the water may evaporate entirely; on the other hand, the pond may refill quickly after heavy rains. Both situations negatively impact the shorebird habitat. While a Buff-breasted Sandpiper has been seen at this pond on several occasions, the majority of sightings of this species have been on the short-grass soccer fields. Late morning through early afternoon during early September have been most productive. Check the Species Accounts for the best times to find other rarities. The pond attracts other species as well. Tree and Barn swallows are seen frequently while Northern Rough-winged, Bank, and Cliff swallows, Gadwall,Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Redhead, Common Goldeneye, Merlin, Caspian Tern, and Laughing, Bonaparte's and Herring gulls have been seen occasionally during migration. Grasshopper and Savannah sparrows have also been detected near the pond. Occasional Great Egrets, Green Herons and Great Blue Herons show up here as well.
The northwest section of the park contains a mature oak forest. This section can be birded by walking around the perimeter (east to south) of the forest or walking the trails that go through it. If you opt to walk the outside treeline early in the morning, going clockwise helps to keep the sun at your back. The main entry point to the woods is on the hill above (north) of P 3. The entry area can be productive during migration, as is the interior. A variety of warblers including Tennessee, Nashville, Blackburnian, Cape May, and Worm-eating, as well as Veery, Gray-cheeked and Swainson's thrushes have been detected during migration. During the summer, Ovenbird, American Redstart, Wood Thrush, and Scarlet Tanager can be found along with the normal permanent residents, including Hairy and Pileated woodpeckers.
The southwest corner of the park has brushy/weedy margins along a stream and mature woods as well as a meadow. This is excellent habitat for sparrows and other skulking species. A number of seldom-seen species have been found in this area including Red-headed Woodpecker, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Lincoln's and Vesper sparrows, Marsh and Sedge wrens, Orange-crowned and Connecticut warblers. Lark Sparrow and Clay-colored Sparrow are the two rarities that have been found here, but it is only fair to say that conditions when they were recorded were somewhat different as construction was taking place.
Soccer fields form the interior of the park. This is one of the most reliable places in the county to see Horned Larks throughout the year. This is also a good place to watch for flyovers, including nighthawks at twilight during migration. An unmown field planted with warm-season grasses is west of P 2 and can be a productive place to find field and edge birds as well as butterflies in summer. Willow Flycatcher and Savannah Sparrow have been confirmed nesting in the park. Birding is sparse during the winter: Yellow-rumped Warbler, an occasional Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, Red-breasted Nuthatch, either kinglet, Hermit Thrush, Winter Wren, or American Tree Sparrow may be found, along with the permanent residents.
Highlights: A large sediment pond (P 1) surrounded by weedy habitat and a few cattails is one of the few reliable places in the county for shorebirds. The extensive, unfenced, grassy ballfields provide excellent habitat for species associated with turf.
Handicapped Access: There are ramps from the parking lots to the paved sidewalks that provide access to the buildings, the tot lot, and sports fields.