Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge

Exactly a year about, I found myself camping with a friend in Rhode Island. We were staying just over the Connecticut border in Burlingame State Campground. It was a lovely spot and great for outdoor activities, with the campsite right on a small lake. One day we decided to leave the campground for a hike at the nearby Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge, which encompasses 787 acres, is home to roughly three hundred bird species, over forty mammal species and twenty reptile and amphibians. The habitats included within the borders of the refuge include fields, shrublands, woodlands, fresh and saltwater ponds and sandy beaches and dunes. What makes it extra special is that this refuge is the only undeveloped coastal salt pond in the whole state of Rhode Island. For we two-legged mammals, the refuge also provides roughly three miles of nature trails, including two observation platforms.

When we arrived at the refuge it was late morning. The day was already very hot. As we set out on the trail, it was amazing how green everything appeared. As we got closer to the water, many of the trees grew in curved and sprawling directions rather than heading straight up to the sky. The appearance of dry stone walls here and there added to one’s impression of a mystical, otherworldly atmosphere. You felt that seeing a fairy or a leprechaun wouldn’t be that out of place in these woods.

When we did spot some movement in the trees, it turned out not to be a fairy after all. Rather a lone Cedar Waxwing was hoping around the branches, either snacking or collecting some material for its nest. Always easy to identify with its distinct body type, black mask and yellow tail tip, this Cedar Waxwing was so busy, it made no attempt to hide from us.

Further down the trail we saw another flash of movement, this time a brighter, yellow flash. A Yellow Warbler perched on a branch just long enough for us to get a decent look at it and snap a few photos before it was off again, a bundle of energy and activity.

At this point the land around the trail became noticeably narrower, as we approached the peninsula where the Osprey Point observation platform was located. We noticed that the water had a foggy haze over it, helping to further enhance that mystical atmosphere we had begun to sense earlier. Unfortunately it also negatively affected our visibility.

Once up on the wooden observation platform we were confronted by a rather large bush or shrub, which had used the man-made platform as a trellis to allow it to reach even further into the air, toward the sun. But while the vegetation obscured our view even more, it was itself a haven for many of the smaller birds that love that kind of covering. A Song Sparrow was the first to show himself to us, belting out his song with great enthusiasm. Rustling in another part of the bush revealed a male Common Yellowthroat who came into view only long enough for me to begin lifting my camera before he hurried back into the network of vines and leaves, away from sight. However, after a few minutes, a much less jumpy female Common Yellowthroat came into view. She was much less skiddish than her male counterpart and I was able to get some very clear photos of her as she gleamed among the flowers.

Extending our gaze beyond the vegetation, we were able to spot one Double-Crested Cormorant, fishing in the brackish water. Additional movement on the water’s surface caught our eyes. But what we saw was definitely not a bird. It took us a few minutes of guessing before it came close enough for us to realize we were looking at an otter. Whether it was a river or sea otter is difficult to tell, but it was probably a river otter, as this was a fresh water pond. It turned out to be one of several that we saw when we started looking closer. They appeared to be bringing building materials from deeper water in toward shore, possibly to build a nest. They were much bigger than I expected.

After watching the otters for quite a long time, we headed back on the trail and went to the second observation platform, Otter Point. There the fog was just as thick, but the vegetation was a bit thinner. We watched a pair of Canada Geese make their way slowly across the water, when we saw a large bird fly in and land on the naked branch of a tree across the water from us. After a few minutes the Osprey flew off, caught a fish and then returned to the same perch and began to eat it. The irony was not lost on us that we saw otters at Osprey Point and an Osprey at Otter Point.

The Osprey’s meal reminded us that we were ready for lunch ourselves, so we started to head back along the trail. Emerging from the woods, the trail skirts the edges of a large, open grass field. On one of the only trees in the area, a gnarly looking fruit tree, we noticed a Tree Swallow. He was most likely resting after having flown repeatedly over the field gathering the many insects that were hovering in the thick and humid air.

Before reaching the car, the trail took us alongside the Farm Pond, a scenic little body of water, covered in vegetation. Getting closer to look for fish or turtles, we spotted several frogs floating among the lily pads. Most likely American Bullfrogs, these frogs floated below the water’s surface, allowing only their eyes, and sometime the tips of their noses to emerge above. Having spotted several frogs, we once again headed for the car. We didn’t make if far before we were distracted by the rustling of leaves high up in a maple tree on the opposite shore. A quick look through my lens revealed a rather noisy female Baltimore Oriole, picking at something, possibly some tasty insects or sap. Having seen her eating confirmed that we were past ready for lunch, and we practically marched back to the car to go out in search of our own sustenance.

For more information about Trstom Pond National Wildlife Refuge, visit: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/trustom_pond/

Point Lookout, Maryland

Several years ago, in 2016, we spent a weekend camping with friends at Point Lookout State Park in Maryland. This area is very historic, having been used as a prisoner of war camp for captured Confederate soldiers. Today the park sports a really lovely campground, as well as walking trails and a beach area. The Park is located on the peninsula where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Potomac River. As a result, the natural environment is an interesting habitat. Its feathered inhabitants included many of the coastal and marsh birds you would expect. For more information about Point Lookout State Park, visit https://dnr.maryland.gov/publiclands/pages/southern/pointlookout.aspx.

We were immediately confronted by wildlife, from basically the moment we opened our car doors. The campground areas were small cleared patches cut into a forest of scraggly, straight, tall pines. The pines were so dense that once you were on your camp site you felt you were the only people in the world. You couldn’t see through to the next site on either side. It may have helped that we were camping in late May, before most families begin to descent on campgrounds en-mass.

I was excited for the birding possibilities upon arrival, but was further encouraged to hope when a hummingbird flew up to me, buzzed around my head for a moment, and then flew off again. The pines seemed to offer a comfortable habitat for many birds I had never seen before. This included spotting my first ( not to mention my second, and my third) Red-headed Woodpecker. Though they can technically be found in New Jersey, I have never seen another before or since. As its name implies, the most distinguishing feature of this woodpecker is its red-head. Unlike the Red-bellied Woodpecker with its red cap or the Pileated Woodpecker with its red crest, the Red-headed Woodpecker’s head is completely covered in red feathers. As if someone dipped its head in paint up to the neck. Its black wings and white underbelly help the red plumage to be even more pronounced.

The trees also allowed for a close encounter with a bird I really was unlikely to see in New Jersey, unless one took a wrong turn somewhere! The Brown-Headed Nuthatch is similar to its cousin, the White-Breasted Nuthatch and they have similar mannerisms. Namely, they both like to climb down trees upside down. The scratching of its long nails along the pine bark is what attracted my attention in the first place. Very similar in appearance and coloring to the White-Breasted Nuthatch, the biggest and most obvious difference between them is the black cap of the White-Breasted Nuthatch has been replaced by muted brown feathers that extend down the neck and level to the bottom of its eyes. If you were to compare the two side by side, the Brown-Headed Nuthatch would be sightly smaller, measuring a little over an inch smaller than the White-Breasted Nuthatch.

As I mentioned, the meeting of the bay and the river created the perfect ingredients for brackish water and marshes. Therefore, you will probably not be surprised to learn that we also spotted a few Great White Egrets and Great Blue Herons. In the case of the herons, a few would not be an accurate representation. So many herons flew over our campsite in the first few hours of our arrival, at first I thought the campground was in the flight path of a small local airport. Finally I was able to glimpse more than just shadow, and I realized that the area was teaming with Great Blue Herons!

Besides the Great Blue Herons, the other bird species that was occupying this peninsula in great numbers was the Osprey. These pescatarians were accommodated with a series of Osprey boxes along the bay road. However, not all of them felt they needed one of the purpose built boxes and made due with their own accommodation. This was true of one Osprey who had made a nest at the end of the campsite’s dock. Her nest was balanced between a floodlight and what I believe as the power box for said floodlight. This trip was one of my first encounters with Osprey, especially so close up. Of course this particular Osprey felt that when we were fishing on the other side of the dock, we might be too close. She kept a watchful, almost crazy eye on us the entire time!

The bay side of the park also seemed to be the home to a good many Laughing Gulls. Common along the whole eastern coast of the United States, the Laughing Gull is a bit smaller than the more commonly spotted Ring- Billed Gull or Herring Gull. Laughing Gulls are also easily distinguished from other species of seagulls because of their black head, sometimes referred to as a hood.

Any bird watchers who are going to be near St. Mary’s County Maryland should really consider a stop over to take a look at this majestic park and its feathered inhabitants.