After folding my hand on this group of swans, I started to formulate a new plan as I continued south. According to eBird, there has been a large group of Tundra Swans (>100) at Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge. However, this would be a 16-mile detour from my route. I decided that I wanted to nail this bird down today so it wouldn't become a headache later. What I underestimated was was how many hills I would face today. The worst one was a long, slow drop down to Mason Neck that needed to be reclimbed as I returned to the main road after seeing the swans. On my way down to Mason Neck, I stopped at Pohick Bay Park to check the area for swans. I did not find any, but I did find an astounding concentration of ducks. Redheads, Canvasbacks, both Scaup, Ring-necked ducks, Ruddy ducks, Gadwall, American wigeon, Ruddy ducks, Black ducks, Hooded mergansers, and Coot were literally shoulder to shoulder in some areas. It was really amazing to see this many ducks in one small spot!
*click for full sized images*
There were Bald eagles everywhere I went today. Several immature birds were making passes at the concentrated ducks which made for entertaining viewing. I probably saw 20 of them today, many of which were sitting out on the frozen Chesapeake at various points. This same ice, however, did make locating Tundra swans difficult. These birds like to be along marsh edges where the can reach their food in the shallows. They can't feed in the deeper, open water as can many of the ducks species above. I figured the ice must have pushed them out of the area. However, by scanning this ice I was able to locate a group of 25-30 Tundra swans at the extreme end of Mason Neck (#126)! They were really distant, but here's a digiscoped record shot. The left arrow points to a standing bird while the right one points to a bird with its head raised. All the others looked like white rocks with their heads tucked under their wings as they slept. Its amazing that they can stay warm like this. They give me hope that I can do the same!
Finding these birds felt great. It really made the detour worth it. The ride back to the main road was tough and was highlighted by many hermit thrushes and loads of bluebirds (I saw a thrush earlier in the day for #125). By the time I had reached the main road, I was finished. I could not ride another 32 miles to Fredericksburg after covering ~33 already. I knew there was a Best Western in Potomac Mills just 6-7 miles south, so I decided to duck in there for the night. I just couldn't face more riding. I felt like a bit of a failure for bailing on my ride, but I just have to take this medicine since I know its going to be a long year. I rode 40 miles today when it was all over.
To be completely honest, the riding that I do on a daily basis at the moment is not enjoyable. It seems to snow every other day, the temperature has been above 30 once in the last 2 weeks, many roads are in terrible shape, and the winds keep pounding. Since I have so many miles to cover, and since bike paths are not an option with snow, I am riding on main roads with lots of cars, traffic lights, and salt spray. My face is literally covered in salt crust when the day is over. I want to ride and bird from sunrise to sunset, but in these conditions, I just cannot do it. I use so much energy just staying warm that there isn't much left for riding and birding. In short, I am really ready for this segment of the trip to end. Birding is always great, but the 90% of my time that I spend riding is memorable for all the wrong reasons. I do realize it is going to get much better as conditions improve. I also know that I will grow personally from this challenging time, and I certainly know it makes for a really compelling story. It's just really tough to remember this as I spit out salt chunks kicked up by passing trucks.
However, something happened at the end of my day today that did lift my spirits. When I arrived at the Best Western, this is what I found on my bed. This was not prompted, I promise. I had spent the day braving the cold for Tundra swans and now a bonus swan had appeared in my Best Western room. I got a good laugh out of the coincidence. It was a really tiny gesture that made a big difference on this tiring day. It just reminded me to keep my eyes always open since I never know what I might find at any point along the way, in the field or elsewhere.