Brilliant Bird Biodiversity in Baltimore's Patterson Park

A stunning variety of birds can be found in this idyllic stretch of urban green space—especially in spring.

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Baltimore is a bird-loving city, and we're not just talking about our hometown Orioles and Ravens sports teams. In addition to a strong community of avian enthusiasts, Charm City boasts plenty of green spaces that are excellent options for bird watching—but Patterson Park is arguably the crown jewel.

There's a reason why local birders—ahem—flock to Patterson Park, which spans 137 acres in Southeast Baltimore. According to the Patterson Park Audubon Center, over 200 species of birds have been documented in the park. The manmade Patterson Park Boat Lake offers a natural place for aquatic birds to forage and nest, and a variety of tree species are attractive to both native and migratory birds.

National Aquarium Director of Field Conservation Charmaine Dahlenburg visits Patterson Park nearly every day and is our resident expert on the wildlife found in this urban oasis. She's seen her fair share of birds in the park—but some stand out in her memory more than others.

"The barred owl that visited Patterson Park last year stunned visitors because of its sheer size. This was the first owl I'd ever seen in the wild, making it extra memorable," Charmaine explained. "The black and white warbler is a favorite for me to search for because they are so quick to move! You really need to be patient if you are trying to capture a photo."

At the top of her list of species she hopes to spot soon is the Baltimore oriole. Although this namesake of Baltimore's baseball team has been reported as a frequent visitor to Patterson Park during peak migration in the spring, they're difficult to spot since they spend a lot of time quickly flitting among the tall treetops.

Native Birds of Patterson Park

There are more than 40 species of resident birds in Patterson Park, according to the Patterson Park Audubon Society. The following birds represent just a small sample of the species you can expect to see in the park—and in other Baltimore green spaces—this time of year.

American Robin

Every year, the sight of American robins eagerly hopping across lawns in search of earthworms is a reliable indicator that spring is just around the corner. However, in many parts of their range, these common birds don't migrate over the winter and stay put in the same area year-round. During the winter months, though, you're less likely to see them, as they spend their time in treetops instead of lawns.

Cooper's Hawk

Naturally found in forests, this medium-sized hawk is becoming increasingly common in urban areas where there are trees tall enough for nesting and plenty of prey, which includes smaller birds and mammals. A stealthy hunter, the Cooper's hawk will patiently stalk its prey before using a burst of powerful speed to attack. This raptor's unusually long tail and rounded wings help it navigate through dense vegetation when it's on a high-speed pursuit of prey.

Double-Crested Cormorant

The feathers of these black waterbirds become easily waterlogged, which is why they're often spotted perched near water with their impressive wings spread out to dry in the sun. Waterlogged feathers, coupled with unusually dense bones, cause this bird to sit very low in the water—but these features also help this expert diver to swim quickly and efficiently. Double-crested cormorants can stay underwater for long periods of time; if you see one diving, Charmaine suggests keeping your eye on the water's surface to see where it pops back up. You may be surprised by how far it's traveled!

Mallard

For many, the mallard is easily the most identifiable species of duck, and for good reason—it’s one of the most populous species of duck in the world, found in large numbers across much of North America, Europe and Asia.

Male Mallard Duck Diving in Patterson Park Boat Lake

These water birds are at home in natural and manmade lakes, ponds and other bodies of water—like the Patterson Park Boat Lake—where they're oftentimes seen bottom-side-up as they forage for aquatic plants.

Female Mallard Duck Swimming in Patterson Park Boat Lake

With their emerald-green heads, bright yellow bills and jet-black curled tail, males are certainly visually distinctive—but the female mallard's mottled brown coloration serves an important purpose, providing camouflage when she's sitting on her nest.

Mourning Dove

The hardy mourning dove can be found in virtually every habitat in North America, with the exception of dense, unbroken forest. They scavenge on the ground for seeds and other food, which they store in their crop—an enlarged pouch that is part of their esophagus—before flying to a safe spot to digest their meal. These birds—which are named for their soft, sorrowful-sounding call—have prolific populations in cities like Baltimore due to their resilience. According to Charmaine, they can survive pretty much anything and everything, including injury, very little habitat and scarce food sources.

Northern Shoveler

At first glance, these dabbling ducks may appear similar to mallards—males of this species also have a dazzling green head and females are a mottled brown—but a quick look at their bills can help you tell them apart. Both males and females have an overly large, spoon-shaped bill, which they keep barely submerged in the water when foraging as they slowly swim forward, rarely going bottoms-up like mallards do.

Male Northern Shoveler Duck Swimming in Front of Brown Vegetation in Patterson Park Boat Lake

These shovel-like bills are lined with projections called lamellae that act as a colander, sifting through the water to help the ducks obtain their next meal.

Red-Winged Blackbird

With shiny black feathers and a brilliant scarlet-and-yellow patch on their wings, male red-winged blackbirds aren't difficult to spot. (Females don't share much physical resemblance; their coloration is a dark, streaky brown and they lack the brightly colored shoulder patch.)

They also aren't difficult to hear: Red-winged blackbirds' nearly incessant call fills the air at Patterson Park and other breeding sites from coast to coast during spring, when these bold, territorial birds are known to attack larger birds and humans they perceive as a threat to their nests.

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet

If you're looking to spot the small, fast-moving ruby-crowned kinglet in the low branches of trees and shrubs where it forages, keep an eye out for its telltale habit of continuously flicking its wings.

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet Perched on Tree Branch in Patterson Park

You can consider yourself lucky if you spot the ruby-red patch of feathers on the male's head—it almost always remains hidden but can become visible when the bird is excited by a potential mate or on high alert due to a nearby rival or predator.

Tufted Titmouse

This small gray songbird is extremely vocal during the spring and summer months, with a characteristic "peter-peter" call that can be heard throughout deciduous forests in the Eastern United States. The tufted titmouse will grab large seeds—or, as seen above, perhaps a peanut—in its feet and uses its small but powerful bill to crack open the shell.

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

As its name suggests, this woodpecker species feeds on tree sap. Using its sharp, straight bill, the yellow-bellied sapsucker drills small holes in tree bark—oftentimes in neat, uniform rows—and feeds on the sap that is secreted, as well as insects that are caught in the sticky stuff. Trees that have sap with high sugar content—including species of birch and maple—are favorites of the yellow-bellied sapsucker.

Intro to Birding

Whether you're in an urban green space like Patterson Park or an uninterrupted stretch of forest or countryside, and no matter your level of experience, you can be a birder. Spring migration is nearly in full swing in the mid-Atlantic, making it the perfect time to embark on your bird watching journey. Not sure where to start? Here are Charmaine's top birding tips:

The Early Bird Gets the Worm

Birds are most active in the early morning when they're foraging, so this is the best time to spot them. Set that alarm and get out there soon after sunrise!

Connect With the Community

Chances are there's at least one birding group in your city or town—in Baltimore, the Baltimore Bird Club and Patterson Park Audubon Society are two options. Join a bird walk or another event, which are usually free, where you can learn from experts. Birders are known to be an enthusiastic bunch, eager to help out beginners and share their passion, so don't be afraid to ask questions!

Grab Your Binoculars

While not strictly necessary for birding, binoculars are handy when trying to catch a glimpse of a bird far away. If you're not ready to invest in your own pair, check with your local birding club to see if they have binoculars for rent.

Don't Just Watch—Also Listen

Even if you can't quite spot the bird you're looking for, a sharp ear is key: oftentimes, you can identify a species based on its call alone. There are several free apps, such as Merlin and BirdNET, that allow you to upload recorded bird sounds, then help you identify the species.

Birding and Community Science

What's better than observing the bird biodiversity in your city or town? Documenting your observations to help advance science! When you download the free iNaturalist app and document the birds—and other wildlife—that you find, you’re contributing to community science, helping scientists to better understand and protect local biodiversity.

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