Birds in the Sycamore Area
by John Thomson
In an effort to direct Phil Stone's Natural History of the Potomac Valley more specifically to the Sycamore area, I asked birder John Heidemann for a short piece on the local the local bird life. He demurred. I persisted in my demands. Acquiescing, he turned in a comprehensive list: 75 different birds! 38 of these he listed as "most common", 29 as "common", and 8 as "occasional." For the Sycamorean birdwatcher, they are listed below.
On our Island I think we take most birds for granted -- as they do us. We go about our separate ways and passively accept the other's presence. An exception to this rule is the grumbling over the droppings left by our geese on the canoe float and ferry landing. But, then, the geese regard us as the intruders, failing to recognize our century of occupation, as they have established a pattern of year-round residence. Migratory though they are considered, they have decided the assured supply of food provided by Sycamore Island -- by Ken Fassler, in fact -- is of greater importance. When Ken appears, they come honking and shouting for their breakfast, dinner, supper, or just a passing snack.
The pileated woodpecker, which also regards the Island as its home, has always taken me by surprise. It is so spectacular -- so large (crow sized) and so unexpected when it comes flying across one's line of vision. Its red crest catches the eye as does its loud call: Kuk-kuk, kuk-kuk, kuk-kuk. I have yet to see it show any sign of fear of human beings, and delight that it shares with us our home on the river.
When paddling up river from Sycamore one of the common sights is of large birds, with a six-foot wingspread, soaring high over the water, searching the rocks, islets and river banks for potential foodstuffs. This is the Turkey vulture. One of the fascinating sights of one canoe outing was to pass a host (flock is too small) of these red-headed black birds roosting in a dead tree. Completely fearless, they stared at us and only move up a branch or two if we got too close.
Of a different nature is the great blue heron, seen frequently by both river paddlers and towpath walkers. Standing on a rock, a branch, or in the shallow water looking carefully for fish, it almost inevitably blends into the rocks and vegetation despite the fact it is huge. It stands about four feet tall, the second largest wading bird in North America. As one approaches, by foot or by boat, the bird pushes off, soars into the air and proceeds with easy wing strokes to glide on downstream. It settles once again at the water's edge and watches. As one approaches, too close, it repeats its act. In my experience this can go on for miles.
Dealing as this does with "most common" or "common" birds of the Sycamore area, it is appropriate to close with an uncommon, or rare, sighting. Back in 1978 on a Sycamorean paddle from Violettes Lock to Great Falls we came across a group of the wierdest, gawkiest group of long-necked, long-legged birds standing on a beach and in the waters of a shallow channel in amongst the islands. Joan Heidemann's comment was that they looked like a bunch of teenagers hanging out at the drugstore. And, indeed, they were. We, and others in the Audubon Society, identified them as immature white Ibis. The astonishing thing is that their customary territory is well south of us -- in the low country from South Carolina to Texas.