Birding Howard County, Maryland

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  • August can produce unusual sightings—or days when almost nothing is seen (i.e., when one shorebird or warbler wave has moved out and the next has not arrived). The chance of seeing something special is enough to keep some observers checking reservoir levels, watching weather systems (particularly cold fronts and hurricanes), and visiting specialized habitats.
  • The calendar says it is midsummer, but fall migration is underway. This migration is more extended than the one in spring when birds are intent on reaching their breeding grounds. Although the fall movement is most pronounced from the last half of August through October, it continues until lakes and reservoirs are frozen which can be well into winter and, of course, varies from year to year.
  • Scan the sky with binoculars at every opportunity! This is a rewarding practice at any time of the year, but especially so during fall migration. Hawk watchers are acutely aware that raptors are not the only birds engaged in long distance movement. Waterfowl, cormorants, egrets, herons, gulls, terns, swifts, swallows, and pipits are just some of the possibilities. Besides birds, monarchs and other butterflies, as well as half a dozen species of dragonflies, may pass overhead. Wind speed and direction, temperature, time of day, cloud cover, and precipitation—not to mention location, persistence, and luck—all influence what might be seen. Sky-watching is exciting because it is so unpredictable. Early morning and evening tend to be the most productive periods, but during the mid-September to late October period, almost any time of the day is worthwhile.
  • Teal are among the earliest waterfowl migrants. The first birds usually arrive between mid-August and early September.
  • Continue to look for wandering egrets, herons, cormorants, or even a very occasional White Ibis.
  • Northern Harriers have been seen moving through the county beginning in late August, primarily from dawn to mid-morning.
  • Soras may be present from mid-August into late October, though they are seldom heard or seen. Scan pond edges at Meadowbrook Park, especially in foggy or drizzly weather. Join a field trip to the non-public University of Maryland Central Farm where they are usually recorded in the course of the season.
  • Shorebirds are obvious this month on reservoir mudflats and along shallow pond edges. Heavy rains may make some fields and sod farms attractive. Heat and increased water usage draw down the reservoirs exposing mudflats at Pigtail and Big Branch that attract a changing array of shorebirds. (The size of exposed flats varies from year to year depending on rainfall, heat, water demand, and dam maintenance.) Most county sediment control ponds are too steep-sided to be attractive, but the shallow pond at the entrance to Western Regional Park is an exception. Forebay Pond at the east end of Lake Elkhorn can also be worth checking; Wilde Lake's southern end usually has a sandbar as does the northwest edge of Lake Kittamaqundi. Whenever any of these lakes is dredged, excellent habitat is created temporarily during the dredging. If the drawdown coincides with a peak migratory period, unusual shorebirds become a reality. Some birders remember the spring a Piping Plover and a Short-billed Dowitcher appeared during the 1994 dredging of Wilde Lake. No matter how attractive local shorebird habitat may be, Howard birders are forced to work hard for almost every species beyond a basic handful.
  • Killdeer numbers increase on both mudflats and short-grass expanses at turf farms as well as at Western Regional Park. The peak is mid to late August.
  • At one time this was a month when Laughing Gulls appeared in numbers. That has not been the case since the county ceased to have an active landfill. This month and the next are still among the best possibilities for spotting a wanderer, but it tends to be a matter of luck since sightings are so few. Reports in 2009 spiked to the highest number in a decade. Most were between late Augusta and mid-September.
  • Be alert for the passage of Caspian Terns, especially mid-August to early September. Rarely are they seen for more than a short time, normally in low numbers, on or over reservoirs and lakes. Occasionally, they are reported resting on the sandspit at the northwest end of Lake Kittamaqundi or on a sandbar at Triadelphia Reservoir.
  • Both Black Terns and Common Terns are unusual county birds. They have been seen moving ahead of fronts or storms but are unpredictable in frequency of appearance or location although Triadelphia has the most records. The few fall records are scattered through August and September.
  • The most consistent county location for Forster's Tern is Triadelphia Reservoir. Some years there will be a succession of days in mid to late August when a few will be visible from Brighton Dam, either resting on one of the buoy markers or flying over the water.
  • Dusk from mid-August through early September is the prime time to spot migrating Common Nighthawks.
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbirds continue to visit flowers and feeders. The two species of jewelweeds (both found in damp habitats) are among their favorite nectar sources.
  • Look for Olive-sided Flycatchers perched at or near the tops of dead or dying trees near water. A favored perch or location may be used for hours; occasional birds may stay in a neighborhood for several days. The third week of August through the second week of September is the peak period.
  • Late August to mid-September is the best time to search for Yellow-bellied Flycatchers.
  • Swallows are ubiquitous over ponds and lakes. Brighton Dam may be good for species besides the nesting Cliff Swallows, especially during the first half of the month.
  • A flight of passerines may be triggered when temperatures drop below 60°F or when there is a drop of 10°F or more.
  • American Robins begin to congregate at roost sites in late afternoon. Trees with dense foliage such as maples are a frequent choice. Suburban gatherings are not always popular with homeowners as the birds may number in the hundreds.
  • Blue Grosbeaks are sometimes easier to find this month than earlier in the summer. Check open scrubby areas and brushy borders, often near small streams or wetlands. Rockburn Branch Park and Alpha Ridge Park are consistent locations.

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