Back when we were living in Washington State and I would see something like Mount Rainier or a pod of orca whales, I would always say “well, you don’t see shit like that in Philadelphia!” Of course I was 100% correct, you don’t see shit like that in Philadelphia. Not by a long stretch. However, Mother Nature still has great and wonderful things to send your way here if you are looking for it.
For example, back in September 5th, after I had gotten the kids off to school and was standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes. I took a look out the back window to see a little yellow bird hopping in and amongst the leaves of a hosta below me. When it hopped out into full view, I could see that it was a Connecticut Warbler! Perhaps the most sought after fall warbler species on the east coast. It has been at least 20 years since the last time I have seen one of these little guys! And a yard bird to boot!
While that was really exciting it was no match for today’s excitement. For most of September and October I have been birding for a couple of hours a day down at the Stroud Preserve, which is just three miles away from home. Ecologically speaking, there is nothing really special about the place other than a small serpentine outcrop that has a few really rare plants. For the most part it is a fractured landscape consisting of small chunks of forest, streams, open grassy fields and row crops. It essentially resembles the rest of Chester County’s agricultural lands. I have seen many good birds there over the past year. It occasionally produces some outstanding birds, and today I had two!
I usually like to ride my bike down to the entrance, but today William missed the bus and I had to drive him to school, so, I just decided to drive on the preserve. As I got out of my car I could see two large birds to the north flying low over the east fork of the Brandywine Creek. They were just close enough for me to discern that one of them was an adult Bald Eagle because I could clearly see its big white head and big white tail. It was unmistakable and could be nothing else. The other bird looked all dark to me so I assumed it was an immature Bald Eagle. The adult was chasing and harassing it.
I stood up, stretched, and put my binocular strap over my head and took a closer look. Immediately I was reminded why you shouldn’t make assumptions as the darker bird had a bicolored tail, with the outer half being dark and the base being white. This too was unmistakable and could be nothing other than a juvenile Golden Eagle!
For those of you who are unaware, Bald Eagles here are fairly common. In fact, my records show that I have seen them on about 36% of all of my visits to the Stroud Preserve. Golden Eagles on the other hand are not so common. They are considered rare in the Delaware Valley and when you do see them around here they are usually high overhead. I have seen them in the greater Philadelphia area before. Back in my freshman year at Temple (fall of 1981) I saw one flying over downtown Philadelphia. This wasn’t even my first one for the Stroud Preserve. Back on September 16th I saw one high over the preserve flying with approximately 4000 Broad-winged Hawks. It was so high up that I could barley discern that it was a Golden Eagle.
This bird today was low and it was moving towards me. I watched as both eagles dodged and darted at each other flying in tight little circles, with each circle bringing them a little closer to me. After about ten minutes of this areal dog fight between our avian giants they were right in front of me and only about 50 feet or so above the tops of the trees with the sun over my left shoulder, making for an absolutely stunning view of the eagles. I could clearly see the eye of the bird and the golden hackles of the nape. I can honestly say this was one of the best looks at a Golden Eagle in all of my nearly 40 years as an avid birder. (The photo above is of the eagle with my iPhone, you can just barely make out the white at the base of the tail).
At this point the Bald Eagle decided it had had enough and swiftly moved on down stream. The Golden Eagle stayed for the most part in front of me a spent the next 5 minutes climbing a thermal then heading off to the west-southwest, which is the direction that all the migrating hawks have been heading.
Not a bad start for the day! The rest of my walk around the preserve was pretty slow. I saw only the usual cast of characters, which were in fairly low numbers. However, a minute or so after I turned around to head for the car, the second great bird of the day popped out of the woods hear the old barn. This bird was large, about the size of a Red-tailed Hawk, with a broad, heavy body, dark streaking down the breast, long rounded tail, short rounded wings, and the clincher, a broad white supercilium. This could only be one thing, an immature Northern Goshawk! Wow. It flew out over a grassy field where it was immediately descended upon by a hoard of crows. It quickly headed for the shelter of the trees and disappeared in the blink of an eye.
Either of these two birds would have been the highlight of a day, week or month. To have them only a few hours apart on the same day was special. To see them along the Brandywine, where George Washington’s army marched past two and a half centuries ago is not something you could see in Seattle!
Keep looking up!