One thing about birding, naturalist Sally O’Byrne warns prior to our bird-watching excursion: “It’s not for the faint of heart."
If it’s cold, you’re out there. If it’s hot, you’re out there.
“Meet you at 8. Wear hiking shoes; it could be muddy.”
This would be my first time birding. To avoid having a novice trek into the Delaware wilderness with naught but a handful of birding guides, O’Byrne, former president of the Delmarva Ornithological Society (DOS), and her friend Bill Stewart, vice president of the DOS and director of partnership and marketing at the American Birding Association (ABA), have graciously offered to lead me on a trip to spot some of our state’s feathered friends.
It’s perfect timing, too. O’Byrne says this month is the busiest time for migration. For the first two or three weeks in May, shorebirds fly from South America and gorge on horseshoe crab eggs in the Bombay Hook area before heading north to the Arctic tundra. Bombay Hook is internationally famed as one a migratory flyway for these shorebirds.
Songbirds such as colorful warblers migrate to the area this month, too. And throughout the year, dozens of species flock here, including bald eagles, egrets, herons, chickadees, woodpeckers, cardinals, robins, wood ducks and green-winged teals. Two particular birds that are common in Delaware year-round, the blue jay and cardinal, draw people from around the country.
Morning is usually the best time for birding, O’Byrne says, although it can depend on the season or what you’re looking for.
Our plan is to meet early at Delaware City then check out Port Penn, Thousand Acre Marsh and Dragon Run Park, all birding hubs located within a short stretch of one another.
When I arrive, Delaware City is quiet, just waking.
Located on the C&D Canal, the town is on the verge of revitalization. And an unlikely player in the rejuvenation is the ABA. It’s currently headquartered in Colorado, but this summer, due to the state’s phenomenal birding opportunities, Delaware native and ABA President Jeff Gordon is moving the headquarters to Delaware City’s Central Hotel*.
Picking out O’Byrne and Stewart by the 19th century hotel is easy; they’re the only people wearing binoculars around their necks. They give me a quick tour of the future ABA building, which is under renovation.
“This is going to become a real point of destination on weekends,” says Stewart.
“Delaware’s pretty well-known internationally for birding, and this means a lot more attention to Delaware,” says O’Byrne. “We’ll be organizing regional trips; there will be offices, a retail store, educational programs – a huge boost to birding in this whole region. People see birding as having huge economic potential.”
During the short walk to O’Byrne’s car the two long-time friends frequently interrupt the conversation, pointing and calling out names of birds.
In the sky: “Gull!”
In a tree: “Cardinal!”
Both 61, with equally big personalities, O’Byrne and Stewart make charming and adventurous guides. And although they’re just friends, they have the peculiar habit of calling one another “babe.”
We start driving. O’Byrne begins to speak but brakes hard at Stewart’s sudden shout. Conditioned to this tone after years of birding together, she knows it can mean only one thing.
“Bald eagle! Straight ahead through that tree, it’s flying over toward us, dead at us. Jump out,” Stewart commands me, and as I scramble with the seat belt and get out of the car, reaching back across the seat for my borrowed binoculars, he’s already standing, peering through his. The bird is heading off into the morning sun, and I catch only a glimpse of its white tail.
When we’re back in the car conversation picks up where it left off, until another sighting; then it’s all brakes and urgency again.
"I can tell you there’s a few less mailboxes on earth because of me and other birders,” Stewart says.
How could he identify that eagle from its initial distance?
“I saw it,” he replies simply, waiting for the profundity of his statement to sink in before continuing. “I saw it tipping, it’s very large; white head, white tail.”
After birding for as long as they have, he says, they can identify a bird by behavior and location. A birder must change habitats to find different species, Stewart explains, starting with the basics. Does a specific type of bird thrive around water, for example? Then a birder begins to separate the details – shallow or deep water, fresh or salt – to determine what sort of bird would most likely be in a particular area.
For new or first-time birders O’Byrne recommends learning backyard birds (which is a task in itself; this spring, Stewart has identified 103 bird species in his Wilmington backyard). Otherwise, it’s easy to get frustrated. They also emphasize bird walks with other birders and a guide (See sidebar for details).
And there are dozens of places to get involved. Birding has a great social community, O’Byrne says, which includes more than 15 national festivals annually, and clubs and societies in almost every state. The DOS is one of the more active clubs on the East Coast. “It’s vibrant. Our birding community here in Delaware is made up of a whole lot of fun people,” says O’Byrne.
Locations for spotting a variety of birds are Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, Cape Henlopen State Park, Ashland Nature Center, and Brandywine Creek State Park.
Green-winged teal ducks in the wetlands on Route 9, floating in the water and dipping under for fish, bring us to a halt. Delaware has a large winter and spring population of ducks, but after mid-May they all migrate elsewhere, Stewart and O’Byrne explain.
"Look at them in your binocs. Just stunning,” says Stewart. “Hi guys,” he says through the window.
Something else startles the ducks and they flap away. “Aw,” he says, “you don’t have to go. See how they run on the water? Mmm mmm mmm…never get enough of those.”
If birding played out like a novel, the bald eagle would certainly be its antagonist. At almost every stop, like this one, a peaceful habitat is disrupted and birds are “flushed out” (driven off) by this bird of prey.
At Port Penn’s Augustine Wildlife Area, Stewart spots a hooded merganser and we pull into a waterside lot for a better look.
The two friends quickly devise a strategy for exiting the vehicle without scaring the birds.
“You two use the car as a blind. I’ll stay in the car,” O’Byrne says.
Stewart nods, already on the move. “Let’s see if we can get the scopes on them,” he says to me.
He takes one of the telescopes out of the trunk and positions it on the passenger side -- farthest from the birds. We peer through it over the hood. The merganser, a beautiful black, white and brown duck floating in the marsh, has big yellow eyes fixed in seemingly perpetual shock.
Here we also spot yellow-leg ducks, a swamp sparrow, cardinal, crows, a mockingbird (the only North American bird that does not have a song of its own), a red-bellied woodpecker (identified by the red on its head; and their up and down movement when they fly away), red-winged blackbirds, and a Carolina chickadee.
The chickadee, a tiny black, gray and white creature, disappears too soon for our liking. Stewart steps toward the overgrowth where we first spotted it and makes an unexpected sound.
“Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch,” he calls. Then he points. “Here it comes!” He intensifies the ch-ch-chs, and they start going double time. The chickadee appears again for a moment before flying off.
Birders have a term – “spark bird” – to describe the first bird that drew them into birding. Although neither Stewart nor O’Byrne has a favorite, his spark bird was the hawk, while O’Byrne’s was the wood thrush. If I ever become a real birder, that chickadee may have been mine.
Stewart was handed his first birding field guide in his 20s. “I just felt like I lived inside that book. It pulled me in,” he remembers.
O’Byrne didn’t start pursuing the hobby until her 40s, when she decided she wanted to pick up birding in order to call herself an all-around naturalist.
Birding brought them together, of course. The first time they ever spoke was nine years ago on the phone when Stewart called O’Byrne, then-president of DOS, about illegal duck shooting he had witnessed. A friendship was born.
Stewart is a full-time birder with the ABA, and has been on trips all over the country and will head to South Africa soon on a birding expedition. He also runs a Delaware-based birding tour company called Red Knot Outfitters.
Throughout the morning as we venture from one scenic hideaway to the next, my two companions never stop scanning the sky, treetops and fields. They’re always on the lookout. I ask if the lifestyle ever gets stressful.
“That’s the problem with being a birder. You never really stop,” says O’Byrne. “And sometimes, I’d just like to go for a damn walk.”
“It’s tough on the family,” adds Stewart, who has five children and two grandchildren.
On the way to our last stop, Dragon Run Park, he calls a halt again, eyes searching out the window.
“Duck? Duck…goose?” He peers through some trees. “Oh, iiiit’s a stump. Let’s go, babe. See, sometimes we make mistakes.”
At Dragon Run we hope to see “one of the prettiest birds in the world,” according to Stewart – the wood duck. We set our scopes on a concrete slab and watch the scene unfold. A narrow body of water surrounded by overgrowth and trees, the park is a bird haven.
Gadwalls, shovelers, ringnecks, pintails -- all variations of duck -- float, dip, bask, roam. But something’s up; they’re stirring uneasily.
“They’re not flushing from us,” Stewart says, scanning with his binoculars for the disturbance. O’Byrne is on it with a telescope.
Now the ducks, peaceful morning gone, are up and running.
I spot quick movement above the tree line, and that ominous white tail.
“Bald eagle! Is that a bald eagle out there?” I ask, realizing, as I speak, that I have picked up the urgent tone.
“Yep, that’s a bald eagle. Good girl,” says Stewart. “That’s what’s flushing them.”
But the eagle finds no prey. A few moments later when calm has returned to the habitat, we spot what we set out for: brush strokes of green, brown, white and orange -- the wood duck. All this within 10 minutes.
In the two hours the three of us spend together, we sight at least 30 species.
“It’s really great to go somewhere, blend into it, then watch everything around you move and change,” says Stewart.
Their most important birding tip, though, is this: “All you gotta do is take the time to look,” says Stewart. “And look up.”
For more info on the DOS or ABA, visit dosbirds.org and aba.org.
Visit dnrec.delaware.gov/fw/shorebirds for info on the Delaware Shorebird Project involving migratory birds to the arctic.
To book a Red Knot Outfitters tour, visit redknotoutfitters.com.
*Delaware City’s Central Hotel will also be a trailhead for a major bike trail stretching 24 miles to Chesapeake City.
Interested in birding?
Check out these recommendations from expert birders Sally O’Byrne and Bill Stewart on where to go and what websites to visit:
-The Delaware Nature Society offers regular free birding walks at various locations, including a hawk watch at Ashland Nature Center (delawarenaturesociety.org; 3511 Barley Mill Rd., Hockessin).
-The Delaware Birding Trail website lists about 30 locations for birding, along with birding tips and more. Contact for free birding pamphlet (delawarebirdingtrail.org).
-Visit eBird, an online national database organized by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which provides international information for tracking migration (ebird.org).
-The DOS hosts an annual Bird-A-Thon event, which raises money for preserving habitats. The event has helped purchase 1000 acres of shorebird habitat that will be permanently preserved. The event this year is May 3-11 (dosbirds.org/Bird-A-Thon).
-The Sussex Bird Club provides guided field trips and monthly meetings (sussexbirdclub.com).
-Brandywine Creek State Park birders lead a monthly bird walk, the last Saturday of the month, free with park admission. (destateparks.com; 41 Adams Dam Rd., Wilmington)
-The Delaware Valley Ornithological Club offers trips, meetings and more (dvoc.org/Main.htm).
-Birding experts at Kennett Square’s Bucktoe Creek Preserve lead free bird walks every Sunday morning (bucktoecreekpreserve.org; 432 Sharp Rd., Kennett Square, Pa.).
-The West Chester Bird Club offers field trips and programs (westchesterbirdclub.org).
-On the last Wednesday of the month through July a heron survey is conducted by the state, counting the number of birds flying to Pea Patch Island, one of the largest heronries on the East Coast (dnrec.delaware.gov).
-The DuPont Nature Center at the Mispillion Harbor Preserve provides interactive exhibits all about birding and birds in the state (dupontnaturecenter.org; 2992 Lighthouse Rd., Milford).