Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2008

Birders take to towpath for mid-winter bird survey

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Bird enthusiasts John Beetham, of Highland Park, N.J., Mary Pfaffko, of Washington, and Denise Ryan, of Cheverly, pause in their trek along the C&O Canal towpath Saturday to identify a bird.
Cheverly resident Denise Ryan, a board member of the D.C. Audubon Society, first became interested in birds as a young girl when she asked her father to identify a bird perched on her family’s bird feeder.

‘‘He gave me a pair of binoculars and a field guide, and said, ‘You figure it out,’” Ryan said.

As it turned out, the bird was a chickadee, a small bird named for its unique call. Now, after years of bird watching and listening to recordings of birdcalls, all Ryan has to do is listen to identify the bird’s signature cry.

The skill was a boon to her Saturday, when she joined more than 60 teams of bird enthusiasts in the 10th annual C&O Canal Midwinter Bird Survey. The survey, held by the D.C. Audubon Society and the National Park Service, aimed to tally the number and species of birds that live along the 184-mile stretch of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal during the winter.

Each year, participating birders divide up the land and trek between 3 to 5 miles, recording the types of birds they come across. In past years, more than 110 species have been identified.

The count has become increasingly popular among birders, said District resident Peter Vankevich, who got the idea for the count 10 years ago while participating in a 100K hike along the canal. Vankevich, former president of the D.C. Audubon society, said the mile markers along the canal towpath made the location ideal for scientifically cataloging the locations of birds.

‘‘We get people who love their miles and come back year after year,” Vankevich said. ‘‘I don’t know of any national park that has such good winter bird surveying data than what we’ve collected.”

Binoculars and a field guide remained a trusted staple for Ryan as she walked along the towpath between Edwards Ferry and White’s Ferry Saturday, occasionally pausing to listen for calls or glance up into the tree canopy. She was joined by D.C. Audubon president Mary Pfaffko, a District resident, and John Beetham, Web master for the organization. Beetham traveled from Highland Park, N.J., to participate in the count.

Winter bird counts, especially Christmas bird counts, are popular among birders countrywide. Many birds identified in the winter in Maryland have flown south from northern areas such as eastern Canada, and some from as far away as Alaska, said Beetham, who has been a birding counter for five years. This year, food supply in Canada is scarce, and Beetham said he was hoping to spy northern breeds such as the yellow-bellied sapsucker who have flown south in search of food.

‘‘That’s one of the nicest ones to see, but it’s not always guaranteed,” Beetham said.

The data the group collected, combined with findings from the other volunteers, will be posted online and will help in determining long-term trends in winter bird populations.

‘‘It’s like a snapshot over time,” said Potomac resident Janet Millenson, immediate past president of the Maryland Ornithological Society. ‘‘If in the past, we used to see big flocks [of one species of bird] and now we only see a few, that might be a pattern.”

The C&O Canal has long been a favorite location for Montgomery County bird enthusiasts because birds abound in the protected area, said Millenson, who tallied birds this year between Violet’s Lock and Riley’s Lock. Many Montgomery County residents, such as the nearly 400 members of the Montgomery Bird Club, are attracted to the activity because it’s an easy way to experience nature, Millenson said.

‘‘Birds are beautiful, they’re interesting, and they’re everywhere,” Millenson said. ‘‘Watching birds can connect you with nature and make you more observant and aware about what’s going on around us.”

Identifying a favorite bird is a daunting challenge for many birders, but Millenson said the crow was one of her favorites, likening them to the residents of Montgomery County.

‘‘They’re smart, there’s lots of them, they’re outspoken and they’re willing to commute long distances,” Millenson said.

to learn more

The results of the bird survey data will be posted at www.dcaudubon.org. Data from previous years can also be accessed via the site.