Rare northern visitors flock to region

February 19, 1994|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

This is anything but the winter of discontent for Maryland's bird watchers.

The deep freeze up north has pushed many birds far south of their normal ranges. In recent days, some species -- such as the powerful, barrel-chested gyrfalcon and the tiny Bohemian waxwing -- have shown up in Maryland for the first time on record.

"It's off the charts. In the 20 years I've been birding in Maryland, there's never been a stretch like this," said Rick Blom, a Harford County resident and one of the country's most skilled birders, as they prefer to be known.

"The weather has shuffled the deck," said Mr. Blom, a columnist and editor for two national birding magazines.

He is also a prominent member of Maryland's informal special operations unit of birders who scramble from the mountains to the beaches when the rare-bird hot lines start buzzing.

In the past week, the back roads south of Frederick have been crawling with birders.

The gyrfalcon, which nests in the Arctic, was found along New Design Road about a week ago. Also, scores of other northern species, such as short-eared owls, rough-legged hawks, snow buntings and Lapland longspurs, are attracting birders from across the state and beyond.

"The word is spectacular," said Dr. William Dobbins, scanning the snow-covered farm fields off New Design Road for the elusive falcon, which he had seen once already.

Earlier in the week, Dr. Dobbins, a Georgetown resident and retired professor of medicine at the University of Michigan, rushed to Assateague Island to see a lone Bohemian waxwing that had been sighted there. He did not see the bird.

Bob Mumford, a management consultant from Darnestown, near Gaithersburg, was combing the Frederick highways in search of the gyrfalcon. He has a vanity license plate that reads "Gyr" and a telephoto lens that looks like a bazooka.

"I chase birds all over, but I particularly like gyrs," he said. He has recorded seeing 730 bird species in North America.

The gyrfalcon, the largest falcon in North America with a wingspan of 48 inches, preys on birds. The Frederick bird is brown, but the species also occurs in white and gray.

Claudia Wilds, another well-known birder in the region, said experts think the relentless snow and ice has locked up food supplies for birds of prey, waterfowl and smaller species, driving them south.

"All their food supplies are so deeply covered with snow and ice, they can't get at it," said Ms. Wilds, author of "Finding Birds in the National Capital Area," which covers the mid-Atlantic region.

Birders are finding it hard to keep up with the flurry of sightings. At such times, the most fanatical birders seem moved to cast aside all other responsibilities.

Other notable sightings include a common gull at Conowingo Dam near the mouth of the Susquehanna River. The bird, never before seen in the state, is normally confined to western North America.

Huge numbers of common redpolls, sparrow-sized birds with deep-red markings, have been showing up at feeders across Maryland. The species has not been seen in such numbers since the late 1970s. Redpolls are among the northern species that periodically "erupt" far south of their normal haunts.

Gail Frantz, who lives off Route 30 north of Reisterstown, has 300 redpolls at her feeder. "It just keeps building and building," she said.

And her seed bill keeps growing.

A few hoary redpolls, a closely related and almost identical species, also have been reported at feeders.

Unheard numbers of red-necked grebes, including one group of 75, have turned up on the Potomac in Washington and elsewhere.

"White-winged" gulls have been showing up at Conowingo Dam and other locations in higher than normal numbers.

"The rumors are incredible," said Ms. Wilds.

She cautioned that some sightings of birds such as the Barrow's goldeneyes, a duck never before recorded in Maryland, and other species, have not been confirmed.

As the thaw continues and spring approaches, though, many of the invaders will be returning to their northern habitats, Ms. Wilds said. Unfortunately, she added, some birds may be too far out of their normal ranges to find their way back.

Meanwhile, Maryland's birders remain on the alert, wondering what will show up next.

Said Mr. Blom, "This is just the craziest winter."

BIRD WATCH

Here are some of Maryland's most notable, rare avian visitors and where they have been seen this winter:

FIRST-TIME MD. SIGHTINGS

* Gyrfalcon, in Frederick.

* Bohemian waxwing, at Assateague Island.

* Common gull, at Conowingo Dam.

UNUSUAL SIGHTINGS

* Common redpoll, statewide, in numbers not seen since the late 1970s.

* Hoary redpoll, scattered reports in Baltimore, Carroll and Allegany counties.

* Red-necked grebe, near Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, in uncommon numbers.

* Northern goshawk, one each near Columbia and Berlin.

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