Monday, January 31, 2011

Great C&O Canal Walk and Critter Sightings!

Had a wonderful walk along the C&O Canal Sunday with my girlfriend. Beautiful wintry day, and several delightful surprises!

(Note: click on an image to enlarge it.)

The first bit of excitement was a small hawk zooming across the towpath directly in front of us and perching in a tree overlooking the river. As regular readers have probably figured out by now, I'm a bit of a nut on raptors, so this was very cool. Based on the size and markings, from the quick glimpse of him flying, I guessed it to be a Sharp Shinned Hawk. Another walked speculated it might have been a Kestrel Falcon, but I didn't think so. Based on the photos I took of it perched, and looking at bird books and websites, I think we were both wrong. The hawk had a long tail, common to both Kestrels and Sharpies, but the rounded tip shown in this photo isn't typical of the Sharpie, and the lack of any russet tones rules out the Kestrel.

So what was it? At the moment, I'm leaning toward either a small/young Cooper's Hawk (which does have a rounded tail), or a Merlin, a slightly bigger relative of the Kestrel, without the russet coloration. The Cooper's is far more common, but this bird was rather small for a Cooper's. Anyone else want to chime in? This photo was taken with a 12x zoom, and then cropped heavily to feature the bird. The original and a couple of other shots are at:

The next fun thing was the canal being frozen hard enough for my girlfriend to try out her "new" skates! These were bought for all of $7 at a local thrift store, and look virtually brand new. I don't have any skates, so I basically just slid around on my boots, and watched and cheered as she and her dog zoomed around the ice. Such fun!

We were out in the afternoon, from around 3:30 to 6:30, and the light was just amazing. And we saw a beautiful sunset too boot. On the return walk, we had three other wonderful surprises... First from far off we got to watch a red fox trotting about the ice in the area known as Widewater. He appeared and disappeared several times, seeming to hide among the small rocky islands in the basin there. Suddenly, he made a decision and set out across the ice, ultimately climbing the bank and vanishing into the woods on "our" side of the canal.

A little while after that, we startled a great blue heron, which took off with a mighty flapping of wings, circling around to finally sail off over the river ahead of us. It was nearly dark by then, so we were at least as surprised as the heron was. Really amazing to see it rise from the dark waters and fly into the darkening sky.

Finally, as we were nearing our starting point, and the sun had been down quite a while, we both stopped, transfixed... at first I thought I was hearing things... or mistaking something for a sound I haven't heard in a very long time. But no, we both stopped and listened, and there was no mistaking the sound of a large pack of coyotes, on the far (Virginia) bank of the Potomac, singing their eerie song! The last time I'd heard that sound was when I lived in Flagstaff, AZ, about a decade ago, and it was surprising, exciting, and a little chilling to hear it here. There's just something so wild and strange about their call... I remember being alone in a tent, far back in the Coconino National Forest, and hearing that sound. It's really like nothing else you've heard.

Check this link for some audio clips and info on coyotes:


for a direct link to a recording of coyotes.

All in all, a wonderful, beautiful walk, and a delightful day. Made all the better by a hot meal and a quiet evening talking about it afterwards.

1 comment:

bikelovejones said...

That's the one thing about life in The East: ponds and creeks freeze hard enough to skate on. The water out west is usually too rushing, too bubbly or too big to completely freeze (not to mention it doesn't usually get THAT cold out here).

LOVE your final photo graph of sunset.