The History of Birding in Montgomery County

By Don Messersmith

The earliest records of Montgomery County birds are difficult to determine because they are mingled with reports from the adjacent District of Columbia and from other parts of Maryland. A vague reference to a quote by the Rev. Andrew White in 1677 stating that parrots abound in winter in Baltimore County might suggest the presence of now-extinct Carolina Parakeets in what is now Montgomery County.

The first birding record is due to Drs. Elliott Coues and D. Webster Prentiss and dates from some time between 1858 and 1862 when they were medical students at Columbian College, now part of George Washington University. They remarked that “the country all about was as primitive as the most enthusiastic naturalist could desire.” An article based on their extensive notes and titled “List of the Birds of the District of Columbia, etc.” in the 16th Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for 1861 [399-421, 1862] enumerated 226 species.

In 1879, Coues prepared a “List of Birds ascertained to occur within a radius of fifty miles around Fort McHenry Md.,” in “Zoology of Vicinity of Post,” Ornithology, 1879. This list contains 233 species. In 1883, Coues and Prentiss published a second edition of their “List,” completely revised and rewritten, which appeared in the Bulletin of the United States National Museum [No. 26]. The list, entitled “Avifauna Columbiana: Being a List of Birds Ascertained to Inhabit the District of Columbia, with the Times of Arrival and Departure of such as Are Non-Residents, and Brief Notes of Habits, etc.,” includes some references to birds collected in Montgomery County, and the attached map stretches as far as Rockville in the northwest and the Patuxent River to the northeast.

In 1895, Frank C. Kirkwood published “A List of the Birds of Maryland” in the Transactions of the Maryland Academy of Sciences [2: 241-382]. Although most of the records are from the Baltimore area, there are a few references to birds collected elsewhere, including some from a colleague in Kinsington.” Kirkwood lists several sightings of Passenger Pigeons as late as 1893. He also has a reference from Audubon [Iv, 124] that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is seen occasionally in Maryland (Montgomery County?).

Lucy Warner Maynard’s 1898 book Birds of Washington and Vicinity mentions several Montgomery County localities, including Chevy Chase, Takoma Park, Forest Glen, Kensington, and Rockville. She states, “Passenger Pigeons are now very irregular in September and October.”

CLUBS FORMED

Several organizations played a role in the evolution of birding in Montgomery County. The Biological Society, formed in 1880, published lists that included Montgomery County birds. One of these, published by May Thacher Cooke in 1929 in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington [42: 1-80], contains 287 species. The Natural History Society of Maryland, formed in 1929, had an active ornithological program and published bird records. Other records of Montgomery County birds are scattered in the literature. However, it was not until 1958 that we find rather complete coverage of the subject with frequent mention of Montgomery County. This came with the publication of “Birds of Maryland and the District of Columbia,” by Robert E. Stewart and Chandler S. Robbins, in North American Fauna [No. 62, 1958]. Stewart and Robbins also list many people who carried out field studies in the early part of the 20th century.

The Audubon Naturalist Society of the District of Columbia (now of the Central Atlantic States) was formed in 1897. An 1898 list identifies 290 species for Washington, D.C., and vicinity. The society’s first official birding trip to Montgomery County occurred on May 13, 1901, when a “Field Meeting” was held at Forest Glen Seminary. As reported in the Washington Star, “ The meeting was led by Henry Olds and Arthur H. Howell, and the participants were 13 women,” who probably were students in their bird class. The paper reported that 50 to 60 specimens were “inspected.” In 1908, Dr. C. W. Richmond prepared a list called “Birds of Chevy Chase” that included 42 permanent resident species, 46 summer residents, 40 spring and fall migrants, and 10 winter residents.

A mimeographed, four-page leaflet called Audubon Bird Bulletin No. 2 May 1945, by Richard Tousey, is entitled “Where to See Birds in the District of Columbia Region” and includes the C&O Canal in Montgomery County. The April 1946 issue of the Wood Thrush, the first journal of the Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS), reports that the first Breeding Bird Census was conducted on April 14, 1946. Led by Robert E. Stewart, Chandler S. Robbins, and B. M. McHenry, the participants covered the area from Sycamore Island to Minnehaha Creek. In May of 1946, there were trips to Langley Park and a “Big Day Trip” to Seneca. That year’s Christmas Count, on December 21, extended into part of Montgomery County. In 1947, the Audubon Naturalist Society published the first edition of A Field List of Birds of the District of Columbia Region, compiled by John W. Aldrich, Irston R. Barnes, Roger Tory Peterson, Chandler S. Robbins, Robert E. Stewart, and Richard Tousey. Two Montgomery County sites, the C&O Canal and Seneca, are listed. The Second Edition (1961) added the Buckeystown-Dickerson area, and the Revised Edition (1968) included Hughes Hollow and Great Falls Park.

Two other ANS publications were Montgomery County Localities: Where Birds Live. Habitats in the Middle Atlantic States, edited by Shirley A. Briggs and Chandler S. Robbins, 1951; and another, edited by Shirley A. Briggs, 1954. The latter contains short articles by several birders who tell of their favorite birding spots, including the Potomac River and the C&O Canal.

When the Maryland Ornithological Society (MOS) was organized on April 9, 1945, as an offshoot of the Natural History Society of Maryland, record keeping became more organized. In the May-June 1947 issue of Maryland Birdlife, W. Bryant Terrell reports on bird activity at his feeding shelf in Takoma Park, the first reference to Montgomery County birds to appear in that publication.

The first recorded county Christmas Count was the Seneca Count of 1955-1956 when, in 10 party-hours, the participants saw 32 species. The annual Christmas Count has since been expanded to include the Triadelphia, Sugarloaf, and DC Christmas Counts.

In March 1968, MOS published Field List of the Birds of Maryland, by Chandler S. Robbins and Willet T. Van Velzen. Known as the “Yellow Book,” it listed 329 species and included five specific Montgomery County birding spots. The second edition by Chandler S. Robbins and Danny Bystrak, published in April 1977, listed 374 species. By the time the third edition appeared in May 1996, compiled by Marshall J. Iliff, Robert F. Ringler and James L. Stasz, the number of species had risen to 399. The Field List also lists each bird by county, and of the 399 Maryland species, 319 have been reported in Montgomery County in recent years.

Under the leadership of W. Bryant Terrell, a chapter of MOS called the Takoma Park Nature Club was formed in 1951 and remained active until 1962. Another chapter, the Rossmoor Bird Club, existed from December 1968 until 1972 at Leisure World in Silver Spring. These groups organized field trips and kept some records of Montgomery County birds.

From 1964 to 1969 Carl W. Carlson, a resident of Bethesda, wrote a series of 19 bird-finding articles in the ANS publication The Atlantic Naturalist. An article on Montgomery County, published in January 1965, described “Travilah, Seneca, and Sycamore Landing, Maryland.”

About this time, a group of active birders who were members of MOS and ANS came together to form the Montgomery County Chapter (MCC) of MOS. Founded and organized by Carl W. Carlson and Sarah Baker, the new chapter first met in October 1964. In March 1965, its first annual meeting drew 63 members. On March 21, 1965, Carl Carlson led the new chapter’s first field trip, along the C&O Canal from Potomac to Sycamore Landing. The Chapter’s newsletter (now called The Chat) first appeared in 1967.

In 2003 the name of the chapter was changed from Montgomery County Chapter/MOS to Montgomery Bird Club, a Chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society. Today, membership stands at about 220. Since the club’s founding in 1965, 31 individuals have served as president of the club.

DOCUMENTATION OF COUNTY BIRDS

Around 1968, someone (possibly Carl Carlson) prepared a hand-printed and colored “Bird Checklist for Montgomery Co. MD.” It lists most of the common birds (147 species) reported for the county up to that time and shows their occurrence by seasons with simple bar graphs. The 1995 Montgomery County Checklist, prepared by a committee headed by Norm Saunders, with John Bjerke and Julie Kelly, and with assistance from 21 members, contains 317 species, including 65 accidentals. In 2001, John Bjerke, once more with the assistance of local birders, updated the checklist.

The only MOS Sanctuary in Montgomery County, called “Adventure,” was located on Glen Road in Potomac. From fall 1972 through spring 1995, MCC charter members Margaret and Morrill (Don) Donnald managed an ambitious bird-banding program on the 16-acre property. With the help of some 180 volunteers, they amassed a wealth of information on patterns of bird migration. A new banding program –this time targeting nesting birds– began in May 2000. Chapter member Gemma Radko headed the summer operation. She and her two or three volunteers banded once every two weeks from the end of May through the beginning of August, about eight times per summer (this according to MAPS requirements.) Gemma has taken the Donnald’s records to the Bird Banding Laboratory at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel. Adventure is now Adventure Conservation Park, one of the properties of Montgomery Parks.

Montgomery County, with its large cadre of competent birders, has twice served as a testing ground for new bird-census projects. In January and February 1970, Montgomery County and portions of five other Maryland counties tested a new winter bird survey technique developed by Chandler S. Robbins which he reported in Maryland Birdlife [26:11-20, 1970].

A much more ambitious project was the Maryland Breeding Bird Atlas. The techniques were initially tried out in Montgomery County, as reported by M. Kathleen Klimkiewicz in Maryland Birdlife [28:130-41,1972]. A second article, by Kathleen Klimkiewicz and Joanne K. Solem, “The Breeding Bird Atlas of Montgomery and Howard Counties, Maryland,” appeared in Maryland Birdlife in 1978 [34:3-39, 1978].

Building on these studies, the statewide atlas project got under way in 1983. The state was divided into 239 blocks, each 2.83 by 3.37 miles. For five years, under the guidance of county coordinators, some 797 volunteers recorded breeding species in their blocks. By the end of three years, under the direction of County Coordinator Keith D. Van Ness Jr., Montgomery County’s effort was judged the best in the state, with almost all areas covered and an average of 60 to 70 species per block.

The census results were published in 1996 in the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Maryland and the District of Columbia. Chandler S. Robbins was senior editor and Eirik A. T. Blom, project coordinator [University of Pittsburgh Press]. The resulting distribution maps show 120 species as confirmed breeders in Montgomery County, with an additional seven as probable breeders.

A second Maryland/DC Breeding Bird Atlas Project was undertaken from 2002 to 2006. The Montgomery County portion included 53 blocks. Jim Green was the Montgomery County Coordinator. He reported that 108 species were confirmed as breeders. There were 10 other probable species, and eight that were possible breeders in the county. The average number of species sighted per block was 79. All participants were volunteers with 67 people serving as block leaders and 40-50 others who contributed data in some way.

A third Maryland/DC Breeding Bird Atlas, 2020 to 2024, is under way. Despite restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, atlasing activities started with great enthusiasm in 2020 under leadership of Gabriel Foley, Compiler, with help of Karen Cyr and Emily Huang as Montgomery County Coordinators. This third atlas takes advantage of eBird resources that did not yet exist for the previous two atlases.

PLACES TO BIRD COMPILED

During the 1980s, the late Claudia Wilds, an internationally recognized authority on birds and a former president of the Montgomery County Chapter, developed a book that would become an invaluable guide to local birding: Finding Birds in the National Capital Area. This meticulously researched and comprehensive guide set the standard for all guidebooks to follow. Published in 1983 and revised in 1992, the book describes good birding sites in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and North Carolina. The revised edition contains directions to and significant birds to be seen in seven Montgomery County localities and mentions some Montgomery County parks as good for observing birds.

In 1999 a group of club members began working on a guidebook to productive birding localities in the County. In 2000 at least 10 people began compiling information about birding in the County. In all, 18 to 20 people contributed their information and experience to the project. Their efforts resulted in the publication of A Birder’s Guide to Montgomery County Maryland in 2001.

The book, with excellent drawings of local birds by Michael O’Brien is dedicated to Claudia Wilds. Rob Gibbs provided the clear maps to each locality. A revised and expanded second edition was published in 2008. The editor-in-chief for the first edition was Linda Friedland and the editor-in-chief for the second edition was Stephanie Lovell.

The Montgomery Bird Club, through its dedicated members, continues to be a strong advocate not only for promoting birding for adults and young people, but also for conservation and environmental issues that impact the county.

Current checklists of Montgomery County birds are available by clicking here and Maryland birds are available by clicking here , respectively.

Dr. Donald Messersmith is a retired professor of entomology at the University of Maryland, where he taught entomology, ornithology, and environmental education. His “Field Study” courses in ornithology, taught for 53 years at the Audubon Naturalist Society and in conjunction with the Graduate School, USDA, created a cadre of knowledgeable bird enthusiasts who enriched the ranks of local birders. He is a life member and historian of the Montgomery Bird Club.