It is an annual pilgrimage for artists, nature enthusiasts and curious onlookers.
They turn up at the Myrick Conservation Center in search of sunflowers-- 20 acres of the burgeoning vibrant, yellow blossoms-- which peak at the end of September. Planted in July, the fields attract mourning doves for the fall hunting season, but also cardinals, bluejays and scores of migrating songbirds that feed on fallen sunflower seeds.
Still, the highlight of the avian year is springtime when millions of brightly colored songbirds pass through the Brandywine Valley. It’s an optimal stop-over point for refueling during long-distance journeys from Central or South America to northern breeding grounds. One of the most stunning birds is the Scarlet Tanager with a blood-red body set off by jet-black wings and tail with a staring doll’s eye.
A spring layover at the Myrick Center is ideal since the grounds are flush with insects that provide ample food for raising young. There is also an added bonus-- perched high in the forest canopy, their joyous songs can brighten any day.
Six miles west of West Chester, Myrick’s 318 acres provide a varied habitat for more than 125 bird species. Skipping from treetop to treetop the birds can be spotted in the woodlands, wetlands and meadows that are also home to white-tailed deer, squirrels, wild turkey, and waterfowl.
“The natural areas here offer a tremendous refuge for the birds,” says Derek Stoner, 35, an avid outdoorsman and master bird photographer. “This is a birder’s paradise in the spring and the fall. It just takes a little looking, and a little patience.”
Stoner’s field work means being out in all types of weather since there are limited times during a season to observe a particular species. If a bird lived in the rich avian life of the Brandywine Valley over the past two decades, chances are it was stalked and photographed by Stoner, and its tweets, coos and whistles heard and sometimes recorded by him.
As a youngster growing up in Lancaster County, Pa., Stoner spent countless hours exploring his family’s farm honing his skills of birding, photography, hiking, hunting and fishing. Today, Stoner is the Conservation Project Coordinator for the Delaware Nature Society where he monitors conservation easements and coordinates the reforestation project at the 860-acre Middle Run Natural Area. He also is an instructor in environmental education programs for children and adults year-round.
A couple of visitors meet Stoner at a splendid oak tree at the entrance to the Myrick Center parking lot. The Trail Guide tells us that this is a Penn Oak – a tree that was a sapling back in the 1600’s when William Penn first set foot in Pennsylvania.
We set out across a broad meadow and onto a green path that slopes gently uphill, following a line of brambles and wine berries interspersed with mile-a-minute weed and multiflora rose. We wind down the trail passing stands of beech, ash and tulip poplar, tall and ancient.
It’s not so easy to pin names on the birds winging from canopy to canopy. So the birder’s prize piece of equipment and principal tool of the trade is a pair of binoculars.
“Binoculars not only visually bring folks closer to their avian friends, but enable birders to see more of the vivid colors than with the naked eye, thus appreciating the subtle beauty of feather patterns,” says Stoner, a renowned wildlife photographer. “It gives you a rare, invaluable glimpse into the private lives of birds.”
Stoner likens the process of avian identification as the birder playing the role of chef who follows a recipe to bake a cake. A specific list of "ingredients" includes the bird's shape, size, structure, color pattern, behavior, and habitat. All those ingredients make up the final product-- the type of bird-- so that humans can assign a name to its definitive species.
Soaring interest in bird-watching at the Myrick Center mirrors a national trend. Today, there are nearly 47 million bird-watchers in the U. S., according to a 2012 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report. Stoner averages 40 bird walks a year. He has led more than 400 walks (averaging 1o people) in his career.
“We see birders across the board demographically,” Stoner relates. “The antiquated image of a little old lady in a floppy hat carrying binoculars just isn’t true anymore.”
Andy Ednie operates the website “Birdline Delaware” that features monthly reports on rare bird spotting.
“Derek’s powers of observation are quite remarkable, I learn something new every time I’m with him,” says Ednie, a birder for 45 years. “We never had a birding program for kids so he started Delaware Dunlins (a shorebird). Derek has a unique sense of taking kids to the right place at the right time, giving them the best experience possible so they come back for more.”
In the fall, birds cover thousands of miles on their annual migration, often traveling the same course year after year with little deviation in the path followed. Periodically the flocks must stop to rest, feed, or wait for acceptable weather to continue their flight.
Immature birds may migrate unescorted to a winter home they have never before seen and return the following spring to the area in which they were born. The secrets of their amazing navigational skills remain largely hidden, but most experts point to navigation by the stars and sensitivity to the earth's magnetic field.
Birds start returning to our region in mid-April, but May is the month to get the best crack at seeing a bonanza of birds. Most of the species will only be here for a few weeks and then return in late summer and early autumn. The bird’s names alone read like found poetry. Stoner rattles off a bunch of Myrick favorites: Red-Throated Hummingbird, Scarlet Tanager, Tufted Titmouse, Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Dark-Eyed Junco Sparrow, Northern Mockingbird and that notorious Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker.
Spring also boasts a couple of advantages over fall for birders. Spring birds are sporting their most brilliant breeding plumage as they prepare to attract mates and repel rivals. They are very vocal, making it easier to locate them in a treetop or thicket. In the early spring a bird’s activity level is picking up. Sporting deep-blue iridescent backs, Tree Swallows are gathering nesting material. The black-capped Carolina Chickadees sit on a batch of eggs. Brilliant royal blue Eastern Bluebirds feed their fledglings.
During the summer months roughly 65 species of birds nest and raise young ones on the Myrick property. Fall birds often travel in larger, more impressive flocks that include both adult and juvenile birds. There is also greater bird diversity as new migrants arrive and depart daily. Eastern Kingbirds are flocking to the hedgerows as they gorge on the fruits of cherry, sassafras, and sumac trees. Colorful birds like Baltimore Orioles, Indigo Buntings, and Northern Cardinals are just a few species you may spot.
Birds put an enormous effort into singing, drumming, and winnowing. A Red-Eyed Vireo sings more than 20,000 songs a day. A Pileated Woodpecker drums on a tree at 15 beats per second. A Wilson's Snipe dives through the air, the feathers on its wings vibrating to produce a winnowing sound, hu-hu-hu.
It’s the male birds that sing since they usually take the lead in defending territories and attracting mates. There are calls used when a bird is agitated or to warn of danger. Research shows that a chickadee can actually communicate the size and type of predator to other species.
Birds are also an intricate component of ecosystems which we need for our own survival. Ecosystems such as forests and the marine environment provide us with food, medicines and important raw materials. Birds keep the climate stable, oxygenate the air and transform pollutants into nutrients. They play an important role in the effective and efficient functioning of these systems.
“Because birds are high up in the food chain, they are also good indicators of the general state of our biodiversity,” Stoner explains. “When they start disappearing, it means that something is wrong and that we need to take action.”
Does Stoner dream about birds?
“It’s hard not to. When you’re outdoors so much you have these extremely vivid experiences,” Stoner replies. “I dream about birds and all of nature. Sometimes I wake up and I feel like I just had one of those Planet Earth experiences. That’s the fun part of dreams. You get to travel without ever leaving home.”