After listening to Greg Kerns speak at our September meeting (Of Rice and Rails), I was excited about seeing Soras up close and personal. Tom Miller was kind enough to drive Bob Ringler and myself to the Patuxent River Park in Prince Georges County. There, we met other members waiting outside the locked gate. Most people had elected to drive down separately. All total there would be 12 of us. While we were waiting, a train horn could be heard in the distance. This competed with the calls of American Crow, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and Blue Jay.
Greg showed up a short time later in an outfit reminiscent of The Crocodile Hunter. He unlocked the gate and then drove on ahead of us to get the boat ready. The dock itself was a short walk down from the parking lot. The boat was of the pontoon variety with comfortable seating and a cover to protect from the rain or the sun.
Speaking of rain, we had definitely dodged the bullet as far as the weather was concerned. It had rained quite a bit the night before, but the sky was pretty clear now. It wouldn’t remain that way for long though. Greg also pointed out the fact that it had rained so hard earlier that the water was unusually high. He hoped this would not make the Soras difficult to see.
Mary, Greg’s volunteer assistant, untied the boat and we were soon floating across the waters of the Patuxent River. Greg made certain to tell us that this river was the longest entirely in Maryland.
It wasn’t long before our bird list started to swell to include Double-crested Cormorant, Bald Eagle, Great Egret, Laughing Gull, Wood Duck, Great Blue Heron, and Mallard. A cold front was predicted for later that morning, so Greg wanted everyone to get a good look at a Sora as soon as possible. Once the winds picked up, the birds would be less inclined to stay out in the open.
There were many nice stands of wild rice. Greg had been instrumental in making sure this plant, which is so critical to the Soras’ survival, was protected or reestablished
whenever possible. He guided the boat into one nice stand of it and clapped his hands. We could hear several Soras call, but none of these were visible. He also tried playing a recording of the bird’s call, but still no Soras appeared.
Moving on, we did see (or hear) other species. These included Pileated Woodpecker, Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, Red-winged Blackbird, Cooper’s Hawk, Belted Kingfisher, Mourning Dove, Northern Harrier, Canada Goose, Osprey, Peregrine Falcon, Wilson’s Snipe, Rock Pigeon, Yellowthroat, Black Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal, and Northern Pintail.
Greg made a number of other stops for the Soras. He was determined that we would all see one. Most of us saw not just one, but three or four. Not only did we have good views of the birds, we were able to watch them as they fed. One was even climbing up a wild rice stalk.
Another bird was particularly cooperative. It stood out in the open for a very long time. Everyone was able to enjoy it, except for Mary, Greg’s helper. For some reason, she just could not get her binoculars on it. Greg was determined however. Mary would see that bird. He did everything he could to pinpoint it’s location for her. Eventually, even he gave up. Then Bob Ringler gave it a try. His luck wasn’t any better. Finally, just as we were thinking about moving on, Mary let out a loud, excited yell. “I see it!” she cried. At which point the bird immediately disappeared.
In addition to the wild rice growing along the river, there were other plants. Greg pointed them out to us. These included Bur Marigold, Smartweed, Pickerel Weed, Halberd-leaved Tearthumb, Sneezeweed, and Swamp Aster. The latter was a beautiful shade of purple. Greg had seen Bobolinks in it some time ago. We stopped to look, but could not find any.
Continuing along Western Branch, which is a tributary of the Patuxent, we heard and saw birds more associated with the woodlands than the wetlands. These included Eastern Towhee, Hairy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Blue Jay, and Gray Catbird. When we got to the bridge over the water, we could travel no farther and so turned around. A Northern Watersnake slithered off along the bank. We also saw a Red-bellied and a Painted Turtle sitting together on one fallen log.
The wind was really starting to pick up when we returned to the pier. People who headed for the parking lot quickly returned. Part of the walkway leading to the stairs was under water. We all had to pile on the boat again and disembark at another, drier location.