Monthly Archives: May 2021

These honored dead

I discovered Alexandria National Cemetery last week. It is one of the 14 original national cemeteries established in 1862.

I walked through and noticed that the headstones were inscribed with names of men from “the North” who died during the Civil War, though Virginia was part of the South. A sign explained that Alexandria was captured and occupied by the Union as soon as war broke out, in order to defend the Potomac River entrance to the nation’s capital at Washington, D.C.

Our Memorial Day commemorations grew out of various Decoration Day traditions that began after the Civil War.

Blue Jay in another part of the cemetery.

This bird was looking young and handsome in blue and gray feathers.

The Gettysburg Address was on an outside wall of the cemetery superintendent’s lodge. President Lincoln gave the speech at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg, PA four months after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.


City birds, big bugs and a new birdwatcher

A Starling disassembles a cicada, on a sidewalk in Alexandria, Virginia.

It’s a big year for bugs.

Cicadas crawl about forests all over the world, and most have annual life cycles. But periodical cicadas, which don’t exist anywhere else on Earth but the eastern United States, spend far more time underground before emerging in broods to mate either every 13 years or every 17 years. A different cicada brood emerges most years, but these groups vary greatly in size and location. This year will be special: The so-called Brood X is among the largest and densest. The insects will appear by the billions in three distinct hotspots that cross parts of Pennsylvania, Delaware, Washington, D.C., Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Georgia, and Tennessee. 

House Sparrows were munching cicadas too.

Seems like a big bug for a small bird, but cicadas are slow and defenseless. Though perhaps their defenses are in their periodically large numbers.

Birds usually help keep bug populations in check, and the cicada influx will be a bonanza for a number of medium- or larger-sized birds that are big enough to dine on the two-inch insects. But because millions of cicadas emerge on a single acre of forest during big brood years, even the keenest birds hardly put a dent in the population.

If you live in the mid-Atlantic region, you can: Help researchers learn which birds eat periodical cicadas.

I am visiting my eldest daughter Anna who moved to the DC area with her husband a year ago during the stress, masking and lockdown restrictions of Covid. Regarding meeting new people and enjoying the culture and variety of city life, she said, “I might as well be living on the moon.”

Earlier this spring, Anna discovered a woodland area along a stream a few blocks from her apartment. It connects to a small park with a paved path looping under trees and through the grassy flood plain. She goes there many evenings after a long day of working from home and before doing homework for her online classes. She has started to learn the birds.

A Great Blue Heron is a regular visitor to the stream.

Yesterday in the early evening, Anna logged her first eBird checklist there. A new birdwatcher has fledged!

These Mallards made the list, as did one Mourning Dove, two Blue Jays pestering three Crows (Fish or American, we weren’t sure), a couple of Carolina Chickadees in a willow tree, four European Starlings strutting around on the park lawns, two madly-singing Gray Catbirds, three Northern Cardinals, and a couple of House Sparrows.

She also learned that a pair of binoculars plus intent staring up into the tree canopy or down into a meadow can be a conversation starter with other nature lovers, dog walkers and curious passersby. Welcome back to Earth from the Moon, dear daughter.

Tern time

You can know a Sandwich Tern by the yellow tip on its bill, as though it’s been dipped into a mustard jar. Mustard. Sandwich. Get it?

I’ve been lazy about learning my terns. So I especially tried to see terns last Saturday (a week ago) for birding’s Global Big Day.

I did a couple of eBird checklists, first along a favorite stretch of beach north of the House of Refuge in the morning, then north of Fort Pierce at Avalon State Park in the afternoon.

I contributed two checklists to the amazing world total. Nice to be a part of the big day, but it reminded me I don’t always enjoy a diligent count of carefully identified birds while also trying to get a few good photos.

Royal terns loafing in the bright afternoon at Avalon.

My husband helped during my afternoon excursion. He had the binoculars and I had the camera and the iPhone eBird app. So I would ask him to count and also check and describe the birds up ahead in that flock on the beach to see if they were a mix of different species or they were all the same.

The Royal Terns were active and plentiful on that stretch of the beach. They are large terns with dagger-like orange bills, black legs and a long, forked tail.

Breeding adults have a full black cap that sometimes looks a bit shaggy and unkempt in a strong breeze. Non-breeding adults look like they have the receding hairline of male pattern baldness.

Non-breeding hairdo.

Forked tail of a Royal Tern with a full black cap.

Caspian Terns are the other large terns along Florida beaches. I will try to get a photo and show the differences between the two.

The medium-sized terns around here: Sandwich. Breeding birds also have a shaggy crested black cap. Non-breeding birds have a partial black crown, as shown above.

Turnstone on the rocks

Nice camouflage.

I followed this Ruddy Turnstone with my camera for a few minutes this afternoon out on the rocky shoreline near the House of Refuge on Hutchinson Island, in Stuart.

This bird is “wearing” its more colorful breeding plumage. See the difference between breeding and non-breeding feathers HERE.

Ruddy Turnstones breed in the arctic tundra. The rest of the year they are along the coasts in the Americas and Eurasia, sometimes very far south. Some birds fly 6,500 miles between breeding and non-breeding grounds.

This is an oddly rocky spot along the Florida Atlantic coast. The turnstone seems to fit right in, though these “stones” are a bit too big for this bird to “turn” them over to look for bugs and crustaceans.

Sometimes I come here just to look out at the ocean. The water is a beautiful color from our raised, rocky vantage point.

Ruddy Turnstones are long-distance migrants with a worldwide distribution. They’re found in at least five different populations on both North American coasts as well as in South America, Eurasia, Africa, and Australia. All North American populations breed in the Arctic and travel and winter in large flocks that may include other shorebirds

Blue is non-breeding and migration; yellow is the breeding grounds of the Ruddy Turnstone. Pretty impressive migration. Map from the American Bird Conservancy.

These medium-sized sandpipers are a common visitor to our shores, and a good bird to know.