I set out for Antietam National Battlefield shortly after dawn. Before I was halfway there, rain drops began falling on the windshield. Turn around or continue on? I had no idea what to expect as I had never birded in the rain. I decided to give it a try.
Traveling around the park by car, I suffered no physical discomfort. But, taking photos would be a challenge. First, the rain might get my camera wet. Shooting from the car window avoided that, especially if I held something over the protruding lens. There was also the problem of too little light. Using a high ISO setting to capture moving birds on a dark day would result in grainy photos. Most of all, I worried that I might see few birds. Fortunately, it rained lightly and intermittently.
I did not see a great many birds. But, I learned things that were possible only on a rainy day. For example, I observed that many birds hunker down in the rain, perching on telephone wires, fences and stone monuments. Normally skittish American Crows did not budge when my car passed.
I frequently saw birds huddled close together; for example, bluebirds lined up on a telephone wire and a trio of American Goldfinches sheltering under a fence rail.
It was a glum morning in birddom, but no bird was as glum as the Grasshopper Sparrow. To my surprise, more than three times the usual number of Grasshopper Sparrows appeared prominently near the road, usually on fence rails or posts.
I noticed that Grasshopper Sparrows appeared to suffer from the wet conditions more than other species. The sparrows repeatedly flicked or vibrated tail feathers, flapped or extended wings, and fluffed feathers with their feet. In the process, they exposed the feathers to air, potentially drying them. In comparison, other bird species observed today (bluebirds, crows, goldfinches, etc.) made little movement as they waited for the rain to end.
Rather than forage in tall grass as they usually do, Grasshopper Sparrows had responded to the rain by perching on fences where they were easily seen. Had I not come out on a rainy day, I would have greatly underestimated their numbers. On sunny days, I consistently saw three Grasshopper Sparrows; today, I saw nine. Nearly all of the sparrows I have seen on sunny days were singing from high perches – a characteristic of males. Most of those I saw today were not singing; possibly some or even most were females.
As I expected, the day’s photographs were dull and grainy when I viewed them later on my computer. But, the experience of birding in the rain was enlightening in ways I never anticipated. I would not hesitate to do it again.