MARINER POINT -- Three young mallards paddled past the pier. Suddenly, a belted kingfisher broke cover from the marsh grasses and became a blue streak flashing across the narrow inlet. Several pairs of binoculars followed its flight.
"Was it a female?" someone asked
"I didn't see a russet band on the stomach. It's a male," Chris Manning replied.
The Nature Club of the Parkville Senior Center was on the prowl, this time to Mariner Point Park, a peninsula between two inlets off the Gunpowder River near Joppatowne.
Mr. Manning had always liked flora and fauna, but it wasn't until the 60-year-old Parkville engineer retired in January that he found them playing a major role in his life.
"Indigo bunting, great blue heron, Eastern kingbird; I'm a bird name-dropper," Mr. Manning said as he prepared to lead the club's weekly outing.
The Parkville Club is the only one of its kind among the county's 22 senior centers. It was started 4 1/2 years ago by Melvin Stairs, an active amateur naturalist. After his death two years ago, an interim committee kept it going until Mr. Manning retired and became the full-time leader.
"I'm having to learn a lot about birds and flowers and trees in a hurry," he said.
The hikers gathered around as Mr. Manning explained the characteristics of the spiny devil's walking stick. What look like leafy branches are really leaves themselves, from 2 to 4 feet long, he said.
The club is an informal organization with about 50 members, of whom about 30 are very active. "We average about 16 people on each trip," Mr. Manning said. "We've have had as few as five and as many as 24, in good weather and bad."
The oldest member is about 80, and most are in their late 60s, said Jane Manning, 57.
Some hikers came to study the flora and fauna, others just for a stroll through a pleasant wooded area.
"I'm here for the walk, for the sociability and to be outdoors," said Dorothy Compton, 72, of Parkville. She does church work and plays bridge most days but looks forward to Fridays for the physical activity.
"If you don't come out with a group like, this you wouldn't get out rTC in the fresh air to hear the leaves rattling and the water lapping," she said.
Joan Brown, 75, of Perry Hall, is a surgical nurse who emigrated from England in 1955 to work with the late Dr. R Adams Cowley, founder of Maryland's shock-trauma system.
Injured seriously in a mugging shortly after she retired in 1983, Miss Brown uses the nature walks in her therapy.
"I have to walk five miles a day for my legs. I don't like to walk around a track, so this is perfect," she said.
"We go to places where individuals, particularly older people, probably wouldn't go alone. There's safety in numbers," Mr. Manning said. "We keep the pace to the weakest, and we stay together as a group."
The group usually hikes about two miles, Mr. Manning said. "We scout out every place before the group goes, and we call it quits whenever we want. We don't go any place too steep," he said.
"We've had people who came just for the walking, but now they are starting to open their eyes and look up," Mr. Manning said. "Now they go home and go for the books to learn about what they've seen."
The group tries to stay within an hour's ride of Parkville but has traveled as far as Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania and Mason Neck State Park in Lorton, Va.
The hikers have walked sections of the Northern Central bike-hike trail; Susquehanna, Gunpowder and Patapsco state parks; Rocky Point, Fort Howard and Oregon Ridge parks; the Cylburn Arboretum and around Loch Raven Reservoir.
Margaret Snapp, 72, said she joined the club because of planned hikes along the C&O Canal and in the mountains near Thurmont. She has become the group's unofficial historian and maintains a record of its activities. "I just like being outdoors. I was inside for so long," said the retired court clerk.
Mrs. Manning has been a Nature Club member since it began. But after her husband retired, the couple became serious naturalists.
They have taken trail-guide courses at the Oregon Ridge Nature Center and ornithology classes sponsored by Philadelphia Electric Co. at Conowingo Dam.
Their ventures are not limited to club events.
"We just pack up any day and go out for a walk on a trail somewhere," Mr. Manning said. "I never had the chance before."