Birding Howard County, Maryland

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  • Begin the new year by becoming a weather watcher. Track the movement of major fronts and weather systems; check wind speed and direction, as well as precipitation and temperature changes. Watching the weather beyond Maryland's boundaries can be helpful in anticipating unusual concentrations of birds, migration triggers, or the potential for unusual species as the result of winds or storm systems.
  • During most winters, ponds freeze so that wintering waterfowl will be concentrated in a few locations—usually on the larger lakes and reservoirs. Open water may be visible from Brighton Dam where large numbers of Common Mergansers and a few Red-breasted Mergansers gather annually. Centennial Park usually has a good-sized hole in the ice kept open by hundreds of Canada Geese and lesser numbers of other waterfowl. Snow Geese, especially the white phase, will be easily spotted, but the blue phase takes a more careful search (occasionally white domesticated geese appear). One or more Cackling Geese may also be present, but make that identification with caution because small Canadas are resident. Other expected waterfowl are American Wigeon, Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, Bufflehead, and Ruddy Duck. The species mix may vary considerably within a few days and may include grebes and coots as well as ducks and geese. When most open water in the county freezes, a few diving ducks may remain on deep quarry ponds or in the few remaining patches of ice-free water.
  • Bald Eagles remain until freeze-up. Triadelphia Reservoir usually has the highest concentration depending on the amount of open water. Now that there are several known active nests in the county (along with several others in adjacent counties) an eagle sighting is a real possibility at any time of the year.
  • By the end of January, Red-shouldered and Red-tailed hawks are engaged in courtship. Be on the lookout for talon-grappling, closed-wing dives, and other aerial displays over nesting territories.
  • Watch for the very occasional Rough-legged Hawk which hunts like a Northern Harrier by quartering low over fields in open country. This species is not reported every year.
  • Resident raptors are augmented by wintering migrants. A drive along US 29 and I-70 usually reveals perched buteos. Although American Kestrel populations have dropped dramatically during the last two decades, in winter it is possible to spot a few perched on utility lines or hovering over fields. Most Northern Harriers are seen west of MD 32, although sometimes one winters in farm fields along Folly Quarter Road. Accipiters are widespread and can frequently be found in the vicinity of feeders. Sharp-shinned Hawks were once the expected winter accipiter; however, the sharp rise in the number of nesting Cooper's Hawks in the last decade means that sighting either species is equally possible.
  • Lakes, reservoirs, and shopping center parking lots attract gulls. Centennial Lake, Wilde Lake, Lake Elkhorn, and Lake Kittamaqundi, as well as either reservoir, may host a dozen to 50 or more Ring-billed Gulls with at least a few Herring Gulls. An occasional Great Black-backed Gull or, even more infrequently, one of the white-winged gulls may make an appearance. For this county, a Lesser Black-backed Gull is a special bird. Since the demise of an active county landfill, the most consistent location at which to spot unusual gulls is Brighton Dam overlooking the southern end of Triadelphia Reservoir. Early morning and mid to late afternoon are the most productive times.
  • Search for Long-eared and Northern Saw-whet owls in pine stands of appropriate height, density, and location. While looking for these infrequently found species, you may locate other species of roosting owls.
  • Most species of woodpeckers can be seen or heard in floodplain and upland deciduous woods, although Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are few. Wintering Red-headed Woodpeckers are rare.
  • After a light snow (which makes the search easier), look for Horned Larks and American Pipits on manured fields, short-grass areas with poor turf, or any fields with exposed ground. Scan flocks carefully for the much more unusual Lapland Longspur or Snow Bunting.
  • In the winter woods, look and listen for loosely associated flocks of woodpeckers, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, and Carolina Wrens. Patience may produce a Brown Creeper, a Golden-crowned Kinglet, or a Yellow-rumped Warbler.
  • Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice are singing by the middle of the month. During winter and early spring, these species, as well as Downy Woodpeckers, may be found occasionally in weed patches feeding on the contents of goldenrod galls.
  • Check weedy edges and tangles for sparrows. A few Fox Sparrows usually winter in thickets. White-crowned, American Tree, and Savannah sparrows are among the less common species that can be found in open situations. White-crowned Sparrows are partial to patches of multiflora rose in these open locations.
  • Lapland Longspurs are frequently found in fields that had been planted in corn. They prefer extensive open fields without fences and hedgerows and are often found in association with American Pipits and Horned Larks.
  • In winter, Dickcissels frequently associate with House Sparrows so check the abundant flocks at Lake Elkhorn and Lake Kittamaqundi carefully. A Dickcissel was seen from December 9, 1999 to January 19, 2000 at Lake Elkhorn in a House Sparrow flock.
  • Search flocks of blackbirds for the rarely seen Yellow-headed Blackbird. Most sightings are of immature birds.
  • Keep feeders filled and watch carefully for irruptive northern species that may wander through. Purple Finches may come regularly for days or even weeks, or they may appear briefly and never be seen for the rest of the winter. Pine Siskins favor thistle (nyger) seed as do Common Redpolls, although both species are seen much more infrequently than Purple Finches. When Red-breasted Nuthatches invade, they will sometimes visit feeders, most consistently those with some nearby pines. Evening Grosbeaks are now rare wanderers here. When they do visit, it is almost always one or two birds instead of the flocks that were reported 30 years ago.

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