By Isaac Rehert (Baltimore Sun, 1981)

In the woods, the skies were overcast although there wasn't yet any rain. It was early, far earlier than most 9-5, five-day-a-week people are used to rousing themselves out of bed on Sunday mornings.

Yet here was this group of people, out among the still mostly bare trees, sauntering along, talking in low tones, seemingly out for a simple early morning hike in the woods.

Some carried little backpacks, some held books in their hands, all wore sweaters or jackets because it was a bit cool this short a time after daybreak of an April morning.

Nearly everybody was wearing a pair of binoculars like an identification brooch dangling from a strap around his neck.

Suddenly, up front, the leader stopped and raised his arm. Everybody halted dead in his tracks and fell silent, and everybody's face acquired the same kind of alert, on-guard expression.

Binoculars, as if attached to a single rod, all rose up together, and everybody pressed his eye to his glass, peering at the same spot.

"Up in that second tulip poplar," the leader said, "Up at the second crotch, there's a dead snag there. That's him on the snag.

Long before they saw him, they heard his call, what Peterson's new field guide describes as "kwirr, churr or chaw," also as "chiv, chiv," The groups leader, calling it to there attention, said it was "a metalic sort of gargle."

They may all have heard it differently, but with those exact instructions they couldn't help seeing it, and now everybody pinpointed it through his glasses in the flesh.

"I've got him," somebody yelled, and somebody else said, "Yeah, so do I."

Where? I can't find him," said a third person. And one of the finders leaned over and helped him to see.

The leader said, "Notice the black and white stripes on his back. That's the red-bellied woodpecker. Only his belly isn't red."

Somebody else said, "But sometimes, there is just a tiny tint of red in it," and the leader allowed, "Yes, sometimes that's true, sometimes the red-bellied woodpecker does have a tint of red color in his belly, but don't count on seeing that because it's awfully hard to notice."

They watched for a while, and some people opened their books and compared the image in the glass to the one the master painted for them on the page.

Now, at the command of the leader, they followed the road a little farther, until somebody heard a "cheery, cheery" (Peterson also describes it as "whoit whoit" or "birdy, birdy, birdy" with an occasional short thin chip.

"Cardinal," somebody yelled, although nobody actually saw it.Everyboy stopped and listened for a while, and then their leader, imitating the bird, inveigled it into singing a duet with him.

It was an early spring birdwalk, held yesterday at the Hilton area of Patapsco State park. Twenty people braved the early hour and threats of bad weather to show up.

The leader, whose familiarity with both birds and park left little to be desired, was Rick Holt, a better-than-6-foot, uniformed ranger. With his broadbrimmed hat, his ruddy face, and his ready smile, people agreed he had to be the original pattern for the legendary Ranger Rick.

The birdwalk, the first of a series, was one of several dozen activities sponsored this spring by the park to cajole lazy urbanites out from the concrete and brick of their caverns, to enjoy natural soil, green leaves and treees.

To make it easy, the ranger, while people were still gathering, first served hot coffee-- brewed, naturally, on a propane camp stove-- and doughnuts from the supermarket in on of the rustic stone pavilions in the park.

He whetted birding appetites by announcing that, besides the common red-bellies, cardinals and chickadees, there'd be a good chance of seeing some pileated woodpeckers, as well as some bluebirds.

Bluebirds don't usually winter around here, he explained, but there is a convent near the park whose nums have coaxed these birds to spend the winter on their campus.

The pileated woodpecker, a big fellow resembling the nearly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker, is a bit of a rarity--although, said the ranger, not in this park.

"I see them most every day," he said. "This is a good area for them, mature woods where there is a lot of dead wood. It doesn't matter what kind of tree it is, they like to nest in dead wood.

Around the coffee table, the assembling birders revealed the diversity among them. Some beginners who hardly knew a grackle from a gannet. Others had had courses in ornithology and were out to brush up--and to enjoy human, along with bird, company.

Susan Harten, newly arrived with her husband Richard, from Texas, expressed annoyance at the pigeons of these parts.

"All winter long, they kept coming in to my feeder. What kind of pigeons do you have around here anyway?" Aren't they supposed to hang around courthouses?"

Charlotte Fuller was probably the most dedicated of the group, for, although she had her neck in a stretch collar, she was undaunted. "The one thing I shouldn't do in this thing," she said, "is look up. But if there's a chance of seeing a pileated woodpecker..."

After everybody was awakened and warmed by the hot coffee, Ranger Rick led them outside and informed them of the pros and cons of pack-birding.

"It gives us 20 pairs of eyes and ears to see and hear with," "But it also makes 20 times as much noise. We could scare away the birds. So we'll see."

In the woods, when the group heard the song of the cardinal, Ranger Rick imitated it--he really does have a fine cardinal whistle--and the bird answered, and Ranger Rick dit it again, back and forth, a long duet, until finally he, not the bird--gave it up.

"It's usuallly the bird that wins," he said, "It becomes a contest, they'll usually take you up, but they have a lot more patience than we do."

A pair of chickadees drove the group into their field guides when Ranger Rick informed them he wasn't sure what kind of chickadee it was, for their a two kinds a Carolina and a Black-capped.

They saw neither a pileated woodpecker or bluebird, but everyone seemed to have a good time and nobody complained.

Future birdwalks, all beginning at 7 a.m. will be held Saturdays on April 11, and May 2 and 9.

Other programs in the park include wildflower walks, Civil War military camp explorations, guided canoe trips, tree identification walks, woodcarver demonstrations and guided history walks.

All activities are free. Groups can arranger for special tours. Call 747-6602.

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