Lifebirds and Swamp Sparrows

One of things which I think fascinates people about birding and birds is that discovery is constant. Estimates for the number of extant bird species in the world vary, but most authorities agree that just over 10,500 species is probably a safe ballpark number. In the American Birding Association (ABA) area alone–defined as all of the North American continent North of Mexico and excluding Hawai’i–987 have been recorded and Maryland boasts records of just about half of these. Amazingly, all three of these figures continue to grow almost constantly. By the end of next year, the ABA area list will likely stand over 990.

There is always the chance of finding a record that is outstanding on some level–county, state, country etc. There is always the chance that that little park down by the grocery store that you walk through everyday will today hold something special. Maybe a new bird for the county, maybe even one that’s a lifebird; a bird which you have never seen before.


My most recent lifebird: the Harlequin Duck








This thrill, anticipation even, of discovery, is what keeps us coming back to birds again and again. Every time I leave my dorm to go birding, I’m wondering if this time might be the time when those Tundra Swans that everyone else in the county seems to be seeing will fly over, or if maybe when I get up to the ploughed corn and soy fields a Snowy Owl, the ghostly monarch of winter will be staring back at me with unfathomable golden eyes.

But that’s only part of the fun for me. The amazing thing about birding is that, while these are the discoveries that get all the attention, the ones that often provide the greatest satisfaction are on a much smaller scale. Take the Swamp Sparrow: it’s a common bird, being one of our expected “winter birds”. In spring most of them head to the muskegs and fens of central Canada and New England, but some deign to breed in the bogs of western Maryland, or the open grassy salt meadows of the Eastern Shore, and so they can be found in some part of Maryland the whole year. They’re attractive birds, but dressed in grays and chestnut-browns, they’re not what anyone would probably call a real knockout. Yet I haven’t met a birder who doesn’t pause to appreciate them, or whose face doesn’t twitch with a bit of joy when one tosses back its head and casts its melodic trill into the still morning air.


Swamp Sparrows are tastefully dressed, but not nearly as showy, or even as crisply-handsome as some of their relatives

One of birding’s–or even, of nature’s–true splendors is that a little Swamp Sparrow which I encounter daily from September till May can inspire me to stop and stare as much as a flashy, sexy, lifebird like a Harlequin Duck. I think its because we never really know these creatures that we share our world with. We can see them as often as we want, but when the Swamp Sparrow picks up and flys away, when the dragonfly darts into the shadows of a great cypress tree, when dolphins duck beneath the waves again, we can’t follow. All we can do is watch and wait and hope that we might catch another glimpse, that we might be given another chance to share, and discover, some of their  world.


I like Winter, really, I do

Despite the fact that it is now predicted to be in the fifties over the weekend and in the seventies early next week, Winter is here. The sub-freezing temperatures early this week make sure we all know that. That had me a little bit nostalgic for Summer, which is very unusual for me. I normally hate Summer, and have similar feelings towards any season when the temperature does not allow for the comfortable wearing of jeans and scarves 😛

But this Summer, I got very invested in insect photography, and I found myself missing the butterflies and dragonflies I had come to enjoy during the warm, sticky, Summer months. I think this is because I never really noticed that they have their own drums that they march too. Just as I have re-assigned the start and end of the seasons so that they fall in line with the birds that I see (fall really begins in August when the warblers and shorebirds start arriving), I am starting to do it with the dragonflies and butterflies. I now feel like Summer won’t be able to begin until I start seeing all the skimmers and damselflies out and about. I’m kinda looking forward to that so that I can know when the different species begin to show up. When will my new start to Summer be? When I find my first Spiketail? When the last Clubtail disappears, will I feel like Spring has ended?


This is one of my all-time favorite photos I’ve taken; it’s a Blue Dasher in Cape May, New Jersey


Familiar Bluet


The famous Monarch butterfly, one of the most glorious butterflies, and always, for me, a herald of the end of Summer, and approaching Autumn months


My excitement for the return of warm weather and of my insect friends aside, I actually do like Winter. The cold doesn’t bother me that much, and the birding can be really good. I also like winter because it offers some spectacular opportunities for photography. There are no thick leaves blocking out birds from view, there are lots of ducks around, which offer generally closer approach than many other species, and the lighting is often spectacular earlier in the day than at other times of year, thanks to an early-setting sun.


Branches in the way? No problem. They have no leaves on them, so no harm done 🙂 Cooper’s Hawk

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Ducks really are just spectacular; this is a Ring-necked Duck

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Canvasback are very trusting at times, one of the things that makes them attractive for photographers, aside from that fact that they are pretty damn attractive