When I first arrived, the marsh seemed as dead as the brittle weeds along its shoreline. But in Hughes Hollow, something always happens.
I had parked my car in the dirt lot on Hunter’s Quarter Road, a left turn off River Road going west. The path immediately cuts through a large impoundment. Open water lies on the one side. A swamp thick with bushes and trees lies on the other. If Montgomery County had a resident alligator, this is where it would live.
I scanned the open water with my binoculars, and then the brushy edges. When a rare bird shows up here, the news flashes through the birder network.
Before long, I had adjusted to the marsh and its rhythms. I heard the hoot of a barred owl. Male red-wing blackbirds were making their tumbling calls as they bustled about, staking out territory in anticipation of the arrival of their future mates. Just then, a whole flock of females suddenly appeared and landed in a tree to check things out.
Overhead, aircraft were making their approach to Dulles. I focused my lens on a sleek executive model, and then below, spotted some black vultures mixed with crows.
As the birds came closer, I noticed something strange. One of the crows was brown! An omen, perhaps? I would have to be alert.
The crows and vultures disappeared, and I pointed my binoculars almost at my feet. A tiny bird was pecking its way through the mud and grass and squeezing under branches. It was a swamp sparrow, behaving more like a mouse than a bird.
Hughes Hollow is not only great for wild nature, but for human nature as well. It’s always worth striking up a conversation.
I hailed a fellow wearing shorts and carrying a camera with a very long lens. He said he was learning how to fine tune the focus on his camera, with a long technical explanation.
Raising his impressive lens, he snapped a photo, and enlarged the image on the LCD for me to see. It was a very distant coot, recognizable by its bone-white bill.
“Gotta go,” he finally said. “The grandchildren are waiting for me.”
I later saw many more birds, including a pair of hooded mergansers that splashed down by a little island. They were sleek, elegant birds, the male with a white patch on its head that flashed in the sun like a strobe light.
Then the sun dropped behind the trees. I took a step off the path, and right under my nose a woodcock exploded into the air. It made a short arc, and tumbled back among the buttonwood bushes.
Hughes Hollow is part of the McKee Beshers Wildlife Management Area, and is open all the time. Some people even come in the evening, when good ears and a vivid imagination substitute for binoculars.
It is also open to public hunting. As with many other public lands in Maryland and across the country, McKee Beshers was purchased with the help of funds from a federal excise tax on firearms and ammunition.
During duck season, it’s interesting to see encounters between birders and hunters. They typically exchange notes on what they have seen, and wish each other good luck.
I finished the visit continuing toward the and the river, through fields and woods.
And the omen? Nothing happened that afternoon at the level of spotting a brown crow. But then, with omens, you must be patient.