Birding in the time of Quarantine by George Armistead

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Birding in the time of Quarantine by George Armistead

It’s all relative. I feel lucky, considering. Chatting with friends and colleagues in Ecuador, Colombia, South Africa and even other countries where simply leaving one’s house is hardly possible, I’m thankful to have some freedom of movement during this trying time. And never have I been so thankful for birds and birding. 

So many Americans have no idea how good we have it here compared to some other parts of the globe. Here in my hometown of Philadelphia, while the volume of cases has been distressing and indeed, I worry for family and friends, it has been nice to observe an entire spring migration unfold. May is magical in the mid-Atlantic states, and indeed in much of the Eastern U.S., and Philly being the birthplace of American Ornithology is no exception.

Smart and smart-looking, the Blue Jay is my favorite American bird. In the crow family (Corvidae) they migrate more than other corvids. This one was at Benjamin Rush State Park.
A sure sign of spring, the yellow flashes of the Pine Warbler are among the first splashes of color after the rather monochromatic winter.
A common bird, the American Robin is an abundant thrush, but seldom is one seen like this dilute plumage/’isabel’ individual in NE Philly.
May 2020 yielded Philly’s first-ever Seaside Sparrow, which I successfully “twitched” at FDR Park. Here I am just after seeing it, my 196th bird for 2020 in the city.
The Bald Eagle, the national bird in front of Philadelphia, “the birthplace of the nation” at Heinz Nat. Wildlife Refuge.

Despite living here all my life, I never really birded the city itself much until 2011. That year I was traveling less, and suddenly the most intriguing frontier to me became the place where I’d grown up, but hardly knew from an ornithological perspective. Under the tutelage of Philly’s finest feather fiends, I began to peel back the layers of city birding and urban exploration. It was fascinating to begin to see the city as birds do, and to try and find birds in areas where mostly there isn’t much habitat for them. We are fortunate to have the Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, one of the most visited NWRs and most heavily eBirded hotspots in the country right here. But apart from that good birding areas are limited, little known, or hardly see much attention. Yet these are a good combination in forming a nice backdrop for discovery.

Every year since 2012 I set for myself the goal of trying to see 200 species within Philadelphia’s city limits. Some years I succeed and others I’ve come up short. But the goal is a good one as it means I must get out a fair amount to have a chance to reach it, and I must sustain the effort over the entire year. It’s the excuse I need at times to not hit the snooze button and to get out and see what’s around. Of course migration months are most thrilling, and May is perhaps most thrilling of all, and one upside of the pandemic was that I was around a lot this year and I got out a good bit, even adding to the one list I cherish most, my Philly list.

Some highlights below:

Scarce yet annual, this Glaucous Gull was a nice prize on April 12th.
One morning an American Bittern surprised me by flushing out of a field. It was then mobbed by a Fish Crow for sometime.
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – Spirited and cute, the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is a common bird of spring and summer, and a happy sign that winter is ending.
American Redstart – May is for warblers, like this American Redstart. Some 30 species of warblers move through each spring.
The nation’s oldest surviving botanical garden is Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia. It is also where the father of American Ornithology Alexander Wilson grew into an ornithologist, and where this Orchard Oriole was photographed.
Breeding birds in June always provide a treat, and here we have evidence of Great Horned Owls having nested in the area.
This Eastern Whip-poor-will at Awbury Arboretum was a new bird for my Philly list. Along with the Seaside Sparrow, a flock of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, an American Oystercatcher, and 2 Red-necked Phalaropes, my all-time Philly list grew to 285 this spring.