CHESTERTOWN — Kent County went to the bird watchers for a weekend.
From May 31 to June 2, the Maryland Ornithological Society held its 72nd annual convention at Washington College. The convention brought around 150 MOS members to the area for bird watching field trips, seminars and keynote speaker Jeff Gordon, president of the American Birding Association.
This year is the national group’s 50th anniversary.
The Kent County Birding Club, a chapter of the MOS, hosted the convention. According to Meg Harris, chairperson of the convention committee and a member of the Howard County Birding Club, this is the third time the convention has been held at Washington College.
Maryland has a wide variety of bird species and habitats, so the convention moves around from year to year to allow attendees to see birds from all around the region. The Eastern Shore has unique habitats that cannot be found elsewhere in the state, said Nancy Martin, president of the Kent County Bird Club.
“The Eastern Shore is phenomenal for the amount of wildlife it supports,” Harris said.
These “regional specialties,” like the salt marshes at Eastern Neck Island, draw different birds, which is a perk for bird watchers eager to see them all.
“A lot of people keep a list” of birds they have seen, said Martin. “It depends on how obsessive they are.”
There were 20 different bird watching destinations and four different time slots for field trips during the weekend. All the field trips took place in the morning, when the birds are most active.
In Kent County, the most popular — and the most lucrative — birdwatching spots are at Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge and the Millington Wildlife Management Area, which at 4,000 acres is the largest forested area in the county.
The Millington site, which features hardwood forest, wetlands, fallow fields and marshes, is a good place to find warblers or thrushes.
At Eastern Neck, one might catch a glimpse of the brown-headed nuthatch, where they nest at the very edge of their range.
“People returned there two or three times; they’re good bird places,” Martin said.
This year, there also were two field trips to Poplar Island in the Chesapeake Bay, where bird watchers could find water birds that would not be accessible on land.
“We don’t normally visit there, so getting a trip there was good,” Martin said.
The best part of bird watching in a group is the “surprises people find — there are a lot of ears and eyes watching,” Martin said.
The two “best” birds that were spotted over the course of the weekend were both at Eastern Neck: the black rail and the Mississippi kite. Black rails are a near-threatened species and they are highly secretive, so they are not often spotted in the wild. Martin said that the rail, which is a small marsh bird that migrates here, was not actually seen, but watchers heard its call.
“It likes to hide out; it’s skittish. It’s unusual to be this far north,” Harris said of the rare rail sighting. “It was noted at Eastern Neck on Sunday afternoon, and lots of people, including those not on the trip, heard it.”
The Mississippi kite, a breed of raptor hawk, was an unexpected find as well, because they are not native to the area. Martin said their nesting areas usually only go as far north as northern Virginia.
Another draw of the convention is the camaraderie with other birders, who came from all over the state and Delaware, and the opportunity to visit and enjoy Chestertown. Martin said there is “a lot of sharing going on” at birdwatching conventions. Bird watchers can compare lists and trade information, which can be helpful to beginners.
“It’s a matter of getting out and sharing the knowledge, both people that are experienced and people that are beginners,” Martin said.
The convention also included seminars in the afternoons, like the Raptor Round-up with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Scales and Tales program and the Safe Skies workshop, during which participants discussed how to protect birds from flying into windows.
In his keynote address, Gordon discussed the ABA’s 50-year legacy, what the next 50 years will look like for birds and birders, and how birders can help make the world a better place.
Birding is a hobby dependent on the environment, so birders do “anything we can do to support conservation and encourage others to do so as well,” Harris said.
According to the MOS’s website, the nonprofit “promotes the study and enjoyment of birds, knowledge about the natural world around us, and fosters their appreciation and conservation.”
The convention is just an extension of the society’s mission.
“To that end, MOS conducts an annual convention where both members and non-members can meet, socialize, discuss conservation and natural resource topics, and enjoy guided field trips in various regions of Maryland,” the website reads.