Instead of a ring, Jared Parks gave his partner, Tara Holste, a pair of binoculars at their commitment ceremony in August. “We’re not going to spend a lot of time together if you don’t bird,” he told her.
Bird watching is more than a hobby for Parks, a land protection specialist with the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy in Queenstown, MD. He leads bird walks on properties the Conservancy has helped to preserve throughout the Shore and approaches the sport he practices every day with boyish fascination.
Parks has been birding with his father and brother since the tender age of 4. He was participating in the National Audubon Society’s Christmas bird counts by the time he was 7 and started banding and tracking birds in the fourth grade.
“It’s a lot easier to know [birds] when you see them in the same spot every day and actually hold them in your hand,” Parks said of his training years banding birds. Banding involved attaching small tags to the birds’ legs, wings or necks to monitor their movement and behavior.
At 39, Parks is one of the younger birders in the field, which often attracts retirees in their 50s and 60s who “have more time to be interested and look at things.” But Parks said the sport is attracting more young faces — affectionately called “young guns” — and always new ones.
Guided bird walks with experts like Parks can be a good place to start for beginning birders. But Parks said that all beginners really need is a good guidebook, binoculars or a spotting scope and the right scenery.
The Chesapeake Bay region has plenty of the latter. To get a preview of the region’s best in winter birding, we headed with Parks to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Located 12 miles south of Cambridge, the refuge was established in the 1930s as a sanctuary for birds migrating along the Atlantic Flyway, a critical overhead highway for migrants. The 25,000-acre refuge contains one-third of Maryland’s tidal wetlands, a key habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife.
The natural landscape here features an ideal mix — for birds, that is — of fields growing grains for wildlife, natural pools of freshwater and brackish tidal wetlands. The refuge’s mix of evergreen and deciduous forests provides additional habitat and a backdrop for birding that changes with the seasons.
“In the thick of winter, this place will be cacophonous with goose and duck and everything,” Parks said, surveying the landscape that’s already dotted with dozens of different species in late October. “This is the breath before the bird storm.”
Blackwater & beyond
Winter is a popular season for birding, despite an added chill in the air. The leaves have fallen off the trees, making it easier to spot the flap of a wing or hear a bird’s unique call in the distance.
Parks said the variety of birds at places like Blackwater is slightly less in the winter, but the birds are more cooperative and easier to spot. Because they’re trying to conserve energy, they are more likely to stay put at a food source — and for a photograph — when birders approach.
Blackwater is just one of the refuges that make up the Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes refuges on the Susquehanna and at Eastern Neck Island, another of Parks’ favorites.
One of Parks’ favorite places to bird is the beach at Ocean City, MD, when it’s deserted for the winter.
“I love going out there in the winter, standing on the jetty, seeing what’s out there and getting wet with the waves splashing up on you,” said Parks, adding that he doesn’t particularly like the beach at other times of year.
He leads occasional bird walks on the banks of the Marshyhope Creek on a property the ESLC helped preserve that’s now managed by the Boy Scouts. The property is best known for its globally rare wetlands complex known as Wade’s Savannah. The ESLC’s Lynch Preserve along the Choptank River and Robins Creek is also a prime birding spot, Parks said.
But, in the wintertime, most birders in the region think Blackwater.
“The flocks of waterfowl that get in here are second to none in Maryland,” Parks said.
At the refuge, he pulled over to take in a marshy impoundment that’s teeming with birdlife. Parks pointed out an eagle in the distance that’s “just a little spot,” but came to life with a pair of binoculars.
The refuge is home to the largest breeding population of American bald eagles on the East Coast outside of Florida, and the iconic birds seemed to be everywhere. Parks was quick to point out the eagles’ call, which is nothing like the screech that usually accompanies their appearance in Hollywood.
“I love watching TV and movies and picking them apart for their inability to get the right birds in the right places,” Parks said with a smile.
For Parks, knowing the bird’s sound is as important — if not more — than knowing what it looks like.
“I think the most important [sense] is hearing, oddly enough, but hearing and sight are almost interchangeable,” he said before using his eyes to spot a kingfisher in the distance.
He pointed it out, but it was a struggle to see the bird amid tree limbs jutting out of the water about 50 feet away. Parks set up his Swarovski crystal spotting scope to look through.
“Wow,” I let out as I caught an up-close glimpse of the bird’s gray-blue Mohawk and slender beak, as she surveyed the waters below from her perch, looking for a catch. The rust-red belt across her chest tells us she’s a female, Parks said, referencing his guidebook.
Parks swears by “The Sibley Guide to Birds,” and the copy he laid open across the hood of the car is tattered from years of use.
The book uses drawings of birds instead of pictures. The average bird has four different stages of plumage, along with being male or female, breeding or non-breeding and a whole suite of stuff in between.
That means the same bird can look very different at various stages and not much like its photographed image.
Parks showed a picture of a woodpecker that had just flown overhead, which he identified based on the shape of its body against the blue sky.
He then interrupted himself mid-thought to point out another bird, one he could not see at all but identified by sound.
“You hear that? It sounds like a broken squeaky toy,” he said. “It’s a brown-headed nuthatch.”
Blackwater features several habitats that are prime for birding, including marshy outlooks and wooded trails. A loop trail that parallels the water’s edge leads to a wooden walkway jutting onto the water.
“If you come down to Dorchester County, you might as well do the whole thing,” Parks said of the variety of trails, both walkable and drivable, at Blackwater. “You could spend a week here, easily, and have a blast.”
Three-square bulrush grasses grow out of the water on both sides of the wooden walkway here, providing a native freshwater habitat that’s become increasingly rare because of sea level rise.
A handful of bird species, mostly sparrows, rely solely on these upper marsh areas for habitat, Parks said. As water levels continue to rise at Blackwater and elsewhere, a consortium of natural resource groups are looking at how they can let other areas transition to this key habitat.
Standing on the dock, bird life fills the air, water and treetops around us.
Parks said he eschews wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses when birding, because they can block his peripheral vision, which is key to bird spotting.
“If you’re focused on one thing, it’s hard to see those little movements that indicate birds,” Parks said. “You have to soften your eyes.”
Sometimes the easiest way to identify birds is by explaining what they’re not — or what they’re often confused for.
Parks spotted a tern hovering over the water and tells me the difference between terns and gulls — it’s in the wings. He pointed out a group of double-crested cormorants on the water, the deep divers that are often confused with anhingas, a bird named for its long snake-like neck.
And circling over the treetops in the distance are two species I didn’t know I’d been confusing for years: the turkey vulture and the eagle. The turkey vulture, Parks said, has a slight V-shape to its wings when gliding, called a dihedral, whereas the eagle’s wings are mostly flat.
Parks said that he sees at least one eagle a day just driving around town because he knows what to look for.
“Does that mean you can bird while driving?” I ask.
“Sure,” he said. “Why not?”