Archive for December, 2008

Now here’s one incredible local Loudoun backyard birding adventure!  All from the comfort of Betty and Bill’s home in Leesburg….not one, but TWO Bald Eagles came right in to their deck to fight over a bone!  Here’s Bill’s amazing story.  It happened Sunday (Dec 28th). Pretty cool!  Thanks so much to Betty and Bill for sharing this!

From Bill:

We were sitting in the solarium watching the bird action on our deck as we do every morning AND being entertained by a couple of Turkey Vultures playing with the wind as they looked for breakfast.  Betty says something like, “You know, how do we know we’re not thinking these are vultures but they are actually eagles.  I reply, “Well, we can usually see the red faces on the Turkey Vultures but you might be right about the Black Vultures.  They could be Golden Eagles, but neither of us has ever actually seen a Golden Eagle.  Why don’t you look it up in our book.” 

We always keep two excellent “birding” books on the couch in the solarium:  the Smithsonian Handbook “Birds of North America, Eastern Region” by F. J. Alsop III and the National Audubon Society, “Field Guide to Birds, Eastern Region” by John Bull and John Farrand, Jr.  So, Betty turned to page 183 of the Smithsonian Handbook (it has better pictures and is a little more user-friendly) and she starts reading to me about Golden Eagles: That they’re pretty rare in the East, the beak is noticeably different . . . “bulkier, more massive” than the vulture’s”

. . . and then she says (this is when it starts getting “spooky”) . . . “but it also says that the juvenile Bald Eagle is similar and, maybe, that’s what I’ve seen, just maybe.”  And it’s almost at exactly that moment that I’m looking about due north out our windows and I see what I think, initially, is two vultures flying side-by-side about 100 yards out heading directly at our windows, just slightly above our eye level. 

My thought was: “That’s a strange flight pattern for vultures.”   Now they are 75 yards out, coming fast and I see their pure white hooded heads and massive yellow beaks and I think: “Oh, my God, those are Bald Eagles!”  Betty is still reading out loud and I’m momentarily SPEECHLESS. 

Finally, I stutter, “Betty, look up, here come two Bald Eagles!”  I’m still in shock as she catches just a quick glance as one flares for a landing on our deck’s overhead trellis–we are now both looking up at his (or her) slightly yellow feet and blackish feathered leggings and that’s all we can see–and the other one had turned very sharply to the right and down toward the ground to scoop-up the rib-eye bone we had put out for the crows about an hour earlier.

Immediately, the one on the trellis took off after his mate(?) and they engaged in aerial combat with each other for possession of the bone while also fending off several not-so-happy crows.  After a few marvelous minutes, the eagles flew off to the south and the crows returned to “Old Abe,” the beautiful sycamore adjacent to the deck.  At that point all of us–the crows and the humans–were wondering, “What a way to start the day!”


Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth
find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.

- Rachel Carson


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owl-in-house-2_6_2005Eastern Screech Owls…they’re one of our smallest owls here in Loudoun yet also one of our most common. In this episode, we talk about their nesting, their habitat needs and setting up an owl house.

The Eastern Screech Owl has taken to suburban and urban landscapes and if we don’t clean up our woods, there’s a good chance that screech owls will take up residence. As we head into January listen for their courtship calls.

The photo shown here is of a screech owl peering out of a nestbox hole. This is the original box that I built which was well used but has now been replaced since after about seven years, the floor rotted out. We’ll see how the store bought box measures up.

To listen to this episode, click the play button at the top of this post and it will play now or Right Click Here to Download (select “Save as Target”).

Curious about what a Screech Owl sounds like? Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology has a sound recording that you can listen to….it’s simply trilling (heh heh):


The winter issue of the Habitat Herald is hot off the press! We’re assembling our team of labelers and sorters and will be mailing this next issue to all Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy members during the first week of January.

hh_winter2008Here’s a quick preview of what’s inside:
- A Update on Citizen Science in Loudoun County
- Part II of our Woodpeckers of Loudoun article
- A great write-up on our Birds of Loudoun Atlas project
- Persimmons – a really interesting native tree
- Upcoming programs and field trips through April
- Adventures of Zoom and Compass….a story of a red bird
- and lots more!

If you’re not yet a member, you can join online. Your membership will be good through December 2009!  ($20 for an individual, $30 for a family) and, it is tax deductible as allowed by the law. 

If you join soon we can get this latest issue of the Habitat Herald out to you in our next mailing – if you join after we have our mailing party then you’ll receive a copy of this issue in your New Member Information packet. The Habitat Herald is a member benefit and is published each quarter.


Just received a great sighting report from Joe Coleman from Saturday, Dec 27:

While scouting my Central Loudoun CBC sector a female SHORT-EARED OWL flew north right over my head about 5:15 pm in the fields to the south of Mountain View Elementary which is a little northwest of Purcellville.  This is where these birds have been found previous winters.

Today on the way home from scouting the CBC sector I’m in tomorrow I saw a probable 1st-year NORTHERN GOSHAWK on Ebenezer Church Rd near its intersection with Yellow Schoolhouse (a couple of miles from Bluemont in western Lo Co).  I didn’t get long looks at it before it flew but it was the size of or a little larger than a Red-shouldered Hawk (several nest in this area) and had a very obvious white supercilious, a Buffy breast with dense streaking, and a specked back with a fair amount of white (a strong highlight) on the wing coverts.  When I first saw it I thought large juvenile Cooper’s Hawk but when it perched changed my mind.  It was not in the Central Loudoun count area but the Calmes Neck CBC area which is on Jan 4.

Joe Coleman, near Bluemont, Loudoun Co


pine_siskins_bill_ebertI received some great photos from Betty and Bill Ebert yesterday of the Pine Siskins that are in their yard simply gobbling up the thistle seeds!  The photo included here was taken by Bill and it certainly shows how active they are.

I sat outside for a good while yesterday watching them myself.  They’re a feisty group and they seem to have a lot to say. Watching the thistle feeder, it was easy to tell the difference between the Pine Siskins and the Goldfinches. While they’re about the same size, the Pine Siskins have a lot of streaking on their bodies.  This is a bird that we only have during the winter, as they spend their breeding periods primarily up north through Canada.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a great species account on Pine Siskins and you can also listen to their calls.

Are you seeing Pine Siskins in your yard? If so, click on the comment button above and let us know about your sightings.


All good things are wild and free.

- Henry David Thoreau


pine-siskin-dec-22-2008-41The cold front seems to have brought a number of Pine Siskins to Loudoun and our surrounding area!  I noticed a number of them at our platform feeder here in Waterford this morning – mixed in and feeding alongside the Goldfinches and House Finches.

I emailed with Joe Coleman about this and he shared the following: “You wouldn’t believe how many siskins are being reported at feeders from north of Baltimore to south of Roanoke & in some cases as many as 50 to 80 birds in a yard.  None had come to my feeders until a few days ago & now their numbers are swelling every day & are they feisty!”

I haven’t been able to get a good photo yet (ok, so it was too chilly for me to sit out there and wait for the birds to come back after I spooked them off with the camera) but here is a photo taken through our very dirty window. Keep an eye on your feeders – these sweet birds may be descending into your backyard too!  Sunflower chips seem to be a hit. Watch for the streaking as well as the yellow on the wing and the slender pointed bill.  The photo here is of a female and you can just barely see the yellow on the wing.  The male has more yellow visible.


Holly is a great plant for the yard both because of the greenery it provides in the winter and for the great wildlife benefit. At least 18 different species of birds use it for food as well as for the shelter that the dense spiny foliage offers.  See what else you know about holly. You can download the American Holly crossword or just read more about it in our article on American Holly from the Habitat Herald. [note: I've included the Holly article in with the crossword puzzle so when you download the puzzle you get both]

More crosswords on Loudoun wildlife and nature can be found on our Educational Resources page.


You don’t remember that sunless late December morning.  Temperatures and wind gusts lingered in the 20’s, pushing the wind chill well into the “stay in bed” range. Even my long johns shivered. The last time I had pulled on long johns was to interview some crazy Pennsylvania ice fishermen. This time we teamed up to join some crazy Virginia ice birders. A strong link exists between long johns and insanity.

I held a deep fear of experienced birders. Who was I, an untested birding amateur, to dare to walk the woods and roads with a team of varsity birders and to presume to name and count birds for the official Christmas Bird Count?

I had one ace up my sleeve. A rufous hummingbird, the first reported in Loudoun, had chosen to spend Christmas in hummer-2our yard. She was lured to a hummingbird feeder that I had forgotten to take down after our regular crew of ruby-throated hummingbirds had flown south.

It was beginner’s luck, like drawing to an inside straight on your first hand of poker. I had drawn a rare rufous hummingbird that may have spent the summer raising a family 2,500 miles away in the Pacific Northwest. Or so guessed Mary Gustafson, the professional bird bander who hung a trap over the hummingbird feeder and lured in the wandering hummer. Within minutes, she had caught, weighed and banded the little bird with the frequent flyer miles. Mary also plucked a trophy tail feather to confirm the identity of “Y42321.”  Then she carefully laid Y4 on her back in my mother’s hand. Hummingbirds never lie on their backs and don’t know what to do or how to get up. When we turned her over, she quickly flew off, and despite the indignity, stayed with us until mid-January.

Y4 made me a short term hero on the Christmas bird count, but I quickly regained my amateur status. I spotted a hawk. To me it was just a hawk, but one of the real birders immediately called out “red-shouldered hawk.” He showed me a picture in the bird book. I had so much to learn.

As we walked back through the woods, a large bird with a red head and black and white barred back flash past. “What’s that?” asked the real birder at my side.  Without thinking, I called out “Red-bellied woodpecker.” My fellow real birder nodded and the woodpecker was logged. My first call. Maybe I could do this. Yesterday I couldn’t spell “crazy frozen birder,” now I was one.

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Join us on our Christmas Bird Count at All experience levels are welcome and you can come out for a full day or just part of the day.

Donovan and his long johns write from Hamilton, VA ( You can read this and other articles by Donovan on Loudoun nature and our environment in the Elan magazine.

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