Local spots offer good birding during doldrums

Late March is a dull time for birds. The waterfowl are gone, although you may have heard thousands of tundra swans and Canada geese migrating overhead at night during the past few weeks.

Our jewel-like nesting migrants from Central America, such as prothonotary warbler, indigo bunting and summer tanager, will not be back until April. The massive push of millions of migrants from the tropics to the boreal forest will not occur until May. But I can suggest some good birding locally despite the seasonal lull.

Take a gull identification cruise on the ferry between Jamestown and Scotland. Standing at the back of the boat, start throwing out stale bread or crackers as soon as the journey begins, and you should be rewarded with good looks at six gull species, including Bonaparte's and lesser black-backed. Royal and Forster's terns, bald eagles and osprey are also frequent, although they will not be eating your crackers. In recent years, rare gulls such as sabine's, franklin's and black-legged kittiwake have also been seen. The round-trip takes less than an hour and it's still free.

Participate in the spring hawk watch at College Creek on the Colonial Parkway. Almost daily from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., February-April, Brian Taber, Bill Williams and other local birding luminaries sit beside the small parking area on the river side of the parkway, counting northbound raptors. Most are eagles, vultures and osprey, but nearly every species of hawk has been seen flying across here, and lots of other interesting birds too. Bring a lawn chair, and a spotting scope if you have one. Currently, during the morning hours (try 9-10 a.m.), a flock of almost 30 white pelicans, very rare in Virginia, can be seen from the hawk watch, soaring energetically above their wintering spot across the James River at Hog Island.

Learn the bird songs. It's easiest at this time of year when only the local species are singing. From 7-9 a.m. on all but the coldest mornings, no matter where you live, there is probably a northern cardinal, a Carolina wren, a song sparrow, an eastern towhee, a brown thrasher, an American goldfinch, a house finch, and a chipping sparrow singing near your home. All of them differ a lot from each other, and there are many internet sites that will allow you to look at and listen to these resident songbirds. Are you really getting the most out of nature if you don't know which birds are singing?

Ready to take the next step? Many species vocalize frequently but never sing. Start learning some of the neighborhood bird calls, including red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, fish and American crows, red-shouldered hawk, mourning dove and cedar waxwing. With these common vocalizations mastered, you'll be ready to detect the unfamiliar once migration starts, allowing you to focus on finding the more unusual species sheltering in your yard. Learning bird vocalizations is no more difficult or frustrating than acquiring any other skill – it just takes practice and a desire for self-improvement! 

Dan Cristol teaches in the Biology Department at the College of William and Mary. Email him at dacris@wm.edu. To discover local birding opportunities visit williamsburgbirdclub.org.

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