Baltimore’s Birding Scene Is on the Rise

A new birding festival hosted by Patterson Park Audubon Center reveals the wilder side to some of the city's most beloved landmarks.

The B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber startles us as it howls through the cloudless sky. It also scares up a Yellow-billed Cuckoo from a shrub at the river’s edge, followed by a gold-tipped Northern Flicker.

We’re standing on the seawall at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry National Monument. The bomber—a stunt for the Preakness Day horse race at the nearby Pimlico Race Course—vanishes quickly. In the stillness that follows, we notice two Barn Swallows in frenzied courtship along the ramparts. Behind the chatty couple, a Red-winged Blackbird surveys the harbor from its perch on a defunct cannon. 

Our guide this afternoon is Keith Eric Costley, a Baltimore native and graphic artist who used to visit Fort McHenry weekly to tally birds and now makes it five or six times a year. He shows us the stand of holly trees he crawled through to pursue Northern Saw-whet Owls in December. Now that it’s mid-May, those birds are long gone; so instead, we're on the lookout for spring migrants moving up the East Coast.

It would prove to be a day of avian thrills: one of several during Patterson Park Audubon Center’s inaugural Baltimore Birding Weekend. With 120 registered attendees, the event's purpose is to bring attention to the city’s biodiversity, which evades even longtime residents, and connect people with its unsung green spaces. It worked. For three days, savvy volunteers marshalled amateurs like me on a crisscrossing tour of the city’s landmarks, including Druid Hill Park and Leakin Park, made infamous by The Wire and the podcast Serial, respectively. These urban oases are also renowned among local birds and birders, in part for their old-growth forests and alluring array of habitats. There were a few diversions, too: At night, we headed uptown to try craft beers and swap tales of our exploits. And on Sunday, some attendees traded birds for bats to take in a baseball game at Camden Yards.

While the stadium is reliable for spotting Orioles, Fort McHenry is the best place to catch more exotic travelers. It juts into the Patapsco River, which curls out from the incredibly birdy Chesapeake Bay. The monument ranks high on National Park Service birding lists with a count of 265 species throughout the seasons. (All told, the city hosts more than 200 species during spring migration.)

That includes the Ospreys, Common Terns, and Spotted Sandpipers that Costley points out from our vantage spot on the seawall. The fort, which dates back to 1776 and was written into the “Star Spangled Banner,” is enveloped by industrial parks and shipyards. But the Double-crested Cormorant flying past the abutting Lehigh Cement factory reminds me that birds aren't as delicate as we imagine.

As Costley pishes at the native black locust trees, he draws out a Yellow Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Eastern Kingbird, and Orchard Oriole. In the background, he identifies the slurring song of the Warbling Vireo. And then . . .

“Hello, baby!” one of the birders in the group yells. “Fire-throat at 12 o’clock.”

A male Blackburnian Warbler, more vibrant than any photo could capture, flashes through the leaves and steals our attention. Even Costley is impressed with the find. “You can just drop the mic and go home now.”

Baltimore isn’t what most people would think of as a hot birding destination. While its neighborhoods are rife with greenery and wildlife, it’s often overlooked for more rugged, coastal troves like Assateague Island and Delaware Bay. But Charm City birders want to turn the scene up a notch—and Patterson Park Audubon Center (PPAC) is right there with them. Based in a spacious tract of woodlands in Southeast Baltimore, PPAC serves as a hub for fusing community empowerment with bird conservation. Its educators pair with local schools to nurture young leaders in climate change action; its experts use native plants and art to enliven forgotten neighborhoods; and its birders lead free monthly walks in Patterson Park. The center’s location puts it among patrons with all socioeconomic backgrounds, including the largest population of Spanish-speaking immigrants in the city. The park itself, with its pools, pavilions, and Victorian features, plays a key role in residents’ lives, along with the lives of migrating birds. Susie Creamer, PPAC’s director, tells me that back in April, she and her coworkers counted 61 species in a mere two-hour period. 

And so, it makes perfect sense to have Patterson Park as the starting line for the city’s new birding festival. It’s where the kick-off excursion takes place on Friday, with Audubon Maryland’s Director of Bird Conservation David Curson at the helm. Right away, he homes in on a flock of regulars at the park: a group of third-graders in blue jumpers working on their bird-friendly gardens. 

Curson then directs our attention to the roof of St. Elizabeth of Hungary across the street. The century-old church is quite popular with Chimney Swifts, which might be his favorite species. “It’s an urban bird icon,” he says. Curson has been birding in Patterson Park for 14 years and notes that its wealth of mature trees and lakes have always made it a magnet for avian migrants. “Unlike in a forest,” he says, “the trees are spaced apart, and that makes it easier to see the birds.”

After we’re done checking for swifts, we glimpse an American Kestrel perched in full view under the third-quarter moon. Not far, a woodpecker knocks on a metal lamppost, sounding out loudly for a mate.

At the park’s wetlands, full of willow seeds and arrow arum, we hear the squeaky bicycle sound of a Blackpoll Warbler and the unexpected chuckle of a Least Bittern. A pair of nesting Green Herons and a Great Blue Heron also wade by.

In the wildflower garden planted by PPAC’s wunderkinds, we learn of the city’s master plan to create a five-acre meadow in the area. For the finale, we stop by what may be the best birding spot in Patterson Park: a small grove of willow oaks. There, we spot a surprising spread of forest-interior-dwelling birds, including a Red-eyed Vireo, Ovenbird, and Scarlet Tanager. It was the first time I’d ever laid eyes on a tanager; somehow, I never imagined it would happen around the brick rowhomes and rowdy playgrounds of my city.

The youngest guide in PPAC’s festival is Claire Wayner, a rising high school senior at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. As a child, she’d wile away the hours watching birds with her grandfather at his feeder. Today, she’s leading a fitting group of five toddlers and about a dozen adults down a footpath along Stony Run, one of Baltimore’s more well-known streams. It’s Sunday; the church bells peal softly in the backdrop as we fix our bins on a Carolina Wren, an American Redstart, and finally, an Acadian Flycatcher. All three species breed at the Run.  

Wayner, who loves mnemonics, imitates the Red-eyed Vireo for us: “Here I am, where are you, over here.” The path is rich with the smell of Japanese honeysuckle and skunk cabbage; the witchedy-witchedy-witchedy of a Common Yellowthroat only adds to the sensory overload. At the next stop, Wayner identifies a Veery, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and a Chestnut-sided Warbler—all by song. We cross paths with another birding group that zips by after looking at a rookery of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, which have achieved near-celebrity status in North Baltimore.  

We reach the colony soon enough, at the juncture of Stony Run and Jones Falls, across the bridge into Druid Hill Park. We're eye level with three night-herons as they tend to their eggs in plain sight, unfazed by the attention from the human traffic. The toddlers in the group have long called it quits, but the remaining adults channel their childlike delight as they get generous looks of the nests.

Standing on a busy bridge in front of an old factory, ogling at a blasé band of herons—this is truly a special birding experience. Outside of Baltimore, where else could you recreate this scene? I’m reminded of something that Costley said at the fort earlier when someone asked him, “What bird do you get really excited about?” He didn’t think long about his answer. “The one that’s right there [in front of me].”

If you can't wait until next year's festival, here's a map of the Patterson Park Audubon Center's unofficial birding trail through Charm City. (Craft breweries and crab joints not included.)


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