Were you one of the folks who joined the thousands of other Marylanders who rang in the New Year going on a First Day Hike?
If so, I bet you felt the benefits of spending an hour or so outdoors in the sunshine enjoying the mild winter weather. When I spend time outdoors, my mood immediately improves and I feel both relaxed and invigorated, a nice combination if you ask me.
The Department of Natural Resources released the official numbers for 2020’s first-day hikes, and again we had a record-setting year. A grand total of 4,986 hikers reported hiking on New Year’s Day.
Well, they can add four more to the tally and make it an even 5,000 because I took three of my daughters on an unofficial hike that afternoon at Greenwell State Park in Hollywood.
While I’m definitely not a night owl, I stayed up a little too late on New Year’s Eve to make the 8 a.m. roll call for the official first-day hike at Greenwell. Speaking of staying up late, if you were one of the revelers up until midnight on Dec. 31, did you catch a glimpse of the moon that night? It was a Cheshire Cat grin, straight out of Alice in Wonderland.
So instead of getting up early, I slept in and headed to Greenwell around noon with three kids and our dog, Scout. It was such a nice day.
I wasn’t surprised to see lots of other families and couples hiking around. I wouldn’t doubt that the actual number of first-day hikers in Maryland is closer to 10,000 people, when you consider those citizens who ventured forth solo or in small groups of their own.
We parked by the pavilion and enjoyed watching five white-tailed deer graze in one of the nearby fields for a few minutes. When we got out of the truck, our movements spooked them and they high-tailed it into the woods to take cover.
The next thing we saw were several vultures riding a thermal high up in the sky, so high they were more like tiny specks than birds with five-foot wingspans. We headed down to the kayak launch to see if any wading birds might be in the shallows.
That was a bust, although we made sure to avoid stepping in the copious amounts of goose poop that indicated a flock of Canada geese had been there recently.
Later, on the beach, we saw a perfect set of heron tracks in the sand. There were also several diving ducks in the water, which are always interesting to watch. The kids and I like to play a little game where we guess where they’ll pop up next.
We hiked about three miles in the hour and a half we spent on the trails at Greenwell. I’m not sure who enjoyed it more, the humans or the dog. As usual, as soon as Scout got back to his seat in the truck, he put his head on the center console and immediately took a nap. He was already in a deep sleep before our vehicle left the park.
The best part of the day wasn’t the hike, though.
After we left the park, I decided to take a scenic detour through some of the back roads of Hollywood. There are many off-the-beaten-path, rural areas still left in St. Mary’s County, and I relish driving through them just to take in the beauty of the landscape.
There aren’t many days where I am not bound by a schedule, so whenever I can just take a drive, I enjoy the heck out of cruising around and enjoying the sights.
It didn’t take long to see something exciting. I’ll give you a couple clues as to what one of my daughters spied on a powerline.
This bird is usually observed in Maryland in wintertime, near fields or forest edges. It was a bird a little bigger than a robin and about the same size as a mourning dove. Its wings were bluish-gray and its tail was reddish-brown. It had black whiskers under each eye. This bird is often called the sparrow hawk.
If you guessed American kestrel, you are correct. As I was driving along enjoying the sights, my oldest daughter shouted out from the backseat, “Mom, stop, there’s a kestrel on the powerline.”
I slowed down and sure enough, I could see the tell-tale field marks of the smallest of the falcons in North America.
What a show that little raptor put on for us. I pulled over onto the side of the road and we watched as it hunted over the fields. It would hover in the air for several seconds with its wings beating rapidly and then dive down to the ground to catch its prey.
I wondered what it was eating. Their diet usually consists of frogs, lizards, insects, small songbirds, and, of course, rodents. My guess is there were some furry little voles or mice crawling around in the grass.
We made a couple of U-turns to circle around and even got out of the truck (while Scout continued to snooze) to get a better look.
The field the kestral was hunting had large, mature trees and shrubs growing wild in the windbreaks, so there were plenty of perches to choose from. Periodically we’d find it perched in one of the trees, giving it a good view of the expanse around it.
The moral of this story is you just never know what you might find when you spend time outside. We would have never seen that American kestrel if we hadn’t made the trip to Greenwell.
And this story gets even better because just about a quarter-mile down the road from the first kestrel, we spied a second on another powerline. Two kestrels in one day.
From the looks of the forecast, January is going to have a lot more nice days like New Year’s. Why not put on a pair of walking shoes, grab a light jacket (since that’s all you’ll need) and head outside to enjoy them?