A Week to Remember

It’s right around September that the lines get drawn in Delaware. For the past month and half you’ve been driving to Kent and Sussex counties to scour mudflats, impoundments, and potato fields. Maybe you’ve taken a break and looked for roosting terns at Prime Hook and Port Mahon. You’ve seen an amazing array of birds – grass-pipers, golden-plovers, pelicans, and ibis. Your car is covered in a fine layer of gravel dust, your legs have bloody red smears on them, and you still haven’t seen a Curlew Sandpiper. You’ve had a great time but it’s starting to get a bit repetitive.

Maybe its time for a change of scenery, you think.

Thankfully, you don’t have to go far. Drive north an hour to the Piedmont, to the land of steep hills and sinuous roads, to the land of broad-wings and mixed-species flocks.

September is prime time for birding in northern Delaware. It’s the one time of year that birders flock from the south to the north. The pendulum, at least for a while, shifts. For us who live in Newark and Wilmington, it also means it’s the one time of year when our birding commute is a short one. No more carpooling on the way to Sussex, wracked with guilt as we watch our odometers spiral higher and higher.

Instead, I’m fifteen minutes from home, perched on a grassy hill at Ashland Nature Center in Hockessin watching raptors zip by, waiting in anticipation for the big broad-winged push. I’m waking up at the crack of dawn to drive one mile to Middle Run Natural Area in Newark to sift through migrants dripping from the trees.

This past week in northern Delaware has been a spectacular one. Bouncing between Ashland and Middle Run, I’ve tallied around 110 species, including 26 species of warbler. The species highlights have certainly been the rare migrant warblers at Middle Run, including Connecticut and Golden-winged. People go many years without seeing these species, and I’ve been lucky to see both within a week.

Golden-winged Warbler at Middle Run Natural Area on 13 September 2013. Photo by Derek Stoner.

But that isn’t it. It’s more than the species list that’s got me going. It’s been the surreal spectacle of it all – feelings that are hard to put into words.

The first moment that comes to mind occurred at Middle Run on September 6th and 7th, after the passage of a cold front. Dawn on the 6th revealed dozens of warblers streaming from tree line to tree line, concentrating in the trees illuminated by the first rays of sun. The sky was filled with their flight calls. Soon, the birds settled into the forest edge and scrub, and the next few hours passed in a birding-crazed blur. Here is a link to the ebird checklist from the morning of the 6th.

At dusk that same day, several of us were standing in front of the tree island in the tall grass meadow, birding as the sun went down. As we stood transfixed beneath them, dozens of warblers bounced around the treetop in a frenzy of zugunruhe. There was no need to spot a particular bird, just scan the tree, and you would have a whole new set of individuals to identify. As darkness finally fell and the birds disappeared, we all just stood there laughing in elation. It was truly amazing.

The second highlight of the week took place at the Ashland Hawk Watch. As my friend Taj wisely said, what makes or breaks a hawk watch are the people. I couldn’t agree more. Thankfully, the people at the Ashland Hawk Watch are exactly what you want: knowledgeable, easy-going, and full of good stories.

Of course, having lots of raptors doesn’t hurt either, and September 13th-15th didn’t disappoint. Anticipation was in the air as the weekend started out, after several days of southerly flow were broken by a strong front. The expected numbers didn’t materialize however, as winds remained strong and the weather somewhat unsettled. Although several hundred birds were seen on the 13th and 14th, there was still a sense of discontent. We wanted thousands.

I decided to sleep in on the 15th, exhausted after a few days of binge birding. My first mistake.

Second mistake? Leaving my phone on silent. As I finally woke, I saw I had seven new text messages.

“A kettle of 1,000 Broad-wings is over the hawk watch.” Oh God.

“Everyone get to Ashland now.” Bzoink. 5 minutes later I was out the door.

I arrived just as the tally hit 4,000 Broad-wings, and before the day was over it was to surpass 7,000. I lay on my back watching kettles circle overhead in the cloudless sky. It was dreamland. And of course, wonder is best served with good company… and that was certainly the case. Here is a video of a large kettle of Broad-winged Hawks over Ashland on the 15th.

Aside from the birds in New Castle County this week, I’ve spent time with great friends and made a lot of new ones. I got to witness the great hordes of an enthusiastic next generation at the ABA Young Birder Conference at Ashland. I got to hear a young birder correct his Dad as he asked his son if he had seen the bird species called a “Kettle.” The response? “Gosh, Dad. A kettle’s not a bird.” Late that night, surrounded by friends old and new, I rolled around in laughter at Pish & Twitch. Mad respect to my fellow rappers.

From left to right, Tim Schreckengost, Alan Kneidel, Ben Zyla, and Taj Schottland

All in all, I’ve got to say, September has solidified its position as the best month around. How do I know? Saturday night I kneed a hole in the drywall I was so excited. And September’s only half over! So… see you out there. There’s a front coming through.