Monday, December 30, 2013

Lincoln's Sparrows at Harris Lake

I decided I would do some local birding today down at one of my favorite birding patches - the Harris Lake Upper Ramp.  I scoped some gulls to hopefully find a rare one among the masses.  The gulls were out in full force, but they were almost all Ring-billeds.  A few Herring Gulls and Bonaparte's Gulls were scattered here and there, but nothing rare.  I estimated around 1750 Ring-billed Gulls in all.  The Common Loons, always abundant off the Upper Ramp, were very vocal today, and I had the fortune of hearing one of my favorite bird calls again and again.

After thoroughly scoping the lake, I decided to head back.  On my way back up the gravel road from the boat ramp, I decided I'd pish for sparrows, just to see.  I couldn't believe my eyes when the first one that came up was a Lincoln's Sparrow!  Lincoln's Sparrows are very rare in our region, especially this late in winter.  I wanted to get a photo, so I played the bird's song off my iPhone.  To my surprise, two started chipping back.  Amazing!  I readied my camera to snap some shots - but my foot was burning.  Ouch - now it was really burning!  I looked down to see a swarm of fire ants all over my right foot.  I tore off my shoe and did the usual "fire ant dance" to bat them away.  Once the pain subsided, I went back to trying to photograph the Lincoln's Sparrows.  Again and again, the birds would flit quickly through the brush.  It was very frustrating.  At last, one flew out into a relatively open spot long enough for me to snap a few quick shots.  Lincoln's Sparrows are beautiful birds, with their subtle combination of red, buff, and brown, complemented by very fine brush streaks.  I'll definitely be back to this spot on the 1st to pick Lincoln's Sparrow up for my 2014 list - but for now I can be happy with this pleasant surprise.

The elusive Lincoln's Sparrow, today at Harris Lake.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Outer Banks Bonanza, Day 2 - Sandpipers, Say's, and Sandhills.

I went to bed happy Friday night.  I had seen 6 new NC birds and 3 new lifers.  And most of all, I had self-found a Snowy Owl in my home state.  I thought there was no way the next day would be nearly as good.

My predictions of a slow day seemed to be panning out as I trudged down the beach toward Cape Point on Hatteras Island.  I had high hopes for Iceland Gull, but there wasn't one to be seen.  Just lots of trucks, everywhere.  I started making my way toward a large flock of gulls, but before I could scope it, someone walked into them, scattering the birds everywhere.  So much for that.
A decidedly bird-less Cape Point.  As I was standing here, Neil Hayward was just offshore breaking the ABA big year record with a Great Skua sighting!  
I left Hatteras dismayed.  Not a single noteworthy bird.  At least I had the rest of the day - maybe, just maybe, favor would turn my way.  Our next stop was Oregon Inlet to find the Purple Sandpipers I missed the day before.  They would be a new bird for my North Carolina list, so I figured it was worth a shot.  The parking lot for the jetty and bridge looked entirely different on this day.  It was nearly full, compared with the three cars present on Friday.  And everyone there was a birder looking for the Snowy Owl.
The most crowded I've ever seen this parking area.
We made our way along the bridge walkway.  I looked down onto one of the concrete supports to see two Purple Sandpipers.  Another easy tick - my first of the day.  We saw many birders scoping in the same general direction in the distance, so we raised our binoculars to see the (very distant) Snowy Owl resting on a dune.  I couldn't resist seeing the owl one more time, so we headed up to join the others.

Where everyone was standing, however, was not within sight of the bird.  Most of the other birders had seen it fly in from the sound and land in the dunes - but had lost it almost immediately.  We all scanned the sandy expanse before us, to no avail.  The owl obviously wanted to remain hidden, but at least they got it for the Pea Island Christmas Bird Count.

We began the long drive back home, but with two more stops planned.  A Say's Phoebe had been reported from the same exit off US-64 where I had seen the Cackling Geese the day before.  It was too close to the highway to resist stopping.  We pulled off the highway and looked around - nothing.  It seemed like this would be our first miss of the trip, but we decided to drive down the dirt road just a little further.  We reached a chain-link gate blocking the road, and a small flycatcher flew out of nowhere and perched on it.  It was the Say's Phoebe!  I had seen one in Utah last year, but this bird is very rare in NC - only 9 have been seen in the state.  This was my 270th life bird in North Carolina!
9th state record Say's Phoebe
The cinnamon-colored belly of the Say's Phoebe helps distinguish it from the Eastern Phoebe.
One more stop to make - this time a field in Edgecombe County, north of Tarboro.  Two Sandhill Cranes had been seen there associating with a large flock of Tundra Swans.  We arrived as the sun was slipping behind the trees, but the huge flock of swans was hard to miss.  After a few minutes of scanning, I finally picked out the two Sandhill Cranes in the back of the flock.  These birds aren't extremely rare in North Carolina, but most sightings are flyovers of birds migrating south, making them hard to pin down.  Therefore, this made an excellent NC bird for me.
Two Sandhill Cranes behind the Tundra Swans.
This was an amazing two-day trip.  I went 100% on all the birds I chased - Cackling Goose, Harlequin Duck, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Say's Phoebe, and Sandhill Crane, and I even got the incredible bonus of my self-found Snowy Owl!  My year list stands at 321, much higher than I ever thought I would get this year.  I wonder what amazing adventures 2014 will bring.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Outer Banks Bonanza: Day 1 (or How I Found A Snowy Owl At Oregon Inlet)

The year is quickly drawing to a close, and I figured some year-end birding was in order to round out 2013.  And where would any self-respecting Carolina birder go for good birds? The Outer Banks.  I made the trip with my dad and my grandpa.  Little did I know, this would be my most epic two days of birding to date.

The first destination was exit 548 off US-64, near Creswell, NC.  It's home to a massive flock of Canada Geese - but I wasn't looking for these.  I was looking for their pint-sized cousin, the Cackling Goose.  One, two.  Their short, stubby bills and smaller size made them surprisingly easy to pick out.  It's always nice to get a lifer from an offramp!  Now on to the next stop: Lake Mattamuskeet.

Mattamuskeet is one of my favorite places to bird.  On this day, however, things were slow.  No Snow Geese were to be seen, and most of the Tundra Swans were hunkered down on the far corner of the lake barely in sight.  I spent a while scoping the waterfowl, looking through flocks containing hundreds of beautiful Northern Pintail and Northern Shovelers.  Nothing unusual, but still fun to see. We continued down the wildlife drive.  All the usual suspects were present.  We were pleased to see a group of a dozen or so Black-crowned Night-herons roosting in the trees - always a good sight.

Black-crowned Night-heron
We left Mattamuskeet and drove over to the Outer Banks.  A group of Harlequin Ducks, rare visitors to NC, had been reported from the south end of Oregon Inlet under the Bonner Bridge - so naturally this was our first stop.  

We walked up along the bridge.  No birds.  A few other visitors were also looking for the Harlequins, and they hadn't seen them yet either.  I looked on the other side of the bridge, and saw four ducks swimming along in the sound.  Harlequins!  I had last seen them in Massachusetts back in March, and these were my first in NC.

Harlequin Ducks feeding near Bonner Bridge
Above the ducks on a concrete pylon, I picked a Great Cormorant out of a flock of Double-cresteds.  Their larger size and distinct plumage help distinguish Greats from other cormorant species.  My second lifer of the day!  I was getting on a roll...
The Great Cormorant is the largest one, at center.
Dad recommended we walk out to the end of the jetty, and I agreed.  I figured we would only see a few gannets and a gull or two, but at least we could give it a shot.  We were about three-quarters of the way to the end when a white lump caught my eye.  I half-jokingly said "Is that a Snowy?" to my dad, and we both haphazardly raised our binoculars just to check.  We both said a few expletives and became giddy with excitement.  We had found a Snowy Owl right here in North Carolina!

Oregon Inlet Snowy Owl
I honestly think that, even if I saw a Snowy Owl every day, I would never get tired of them.  They are absolutely stunning birds, and I was grateful to have the opportunity to observe this owl for upwards of an hour, alone on the beach.  The Hatteras Snowy, which I saw exactly one month earlier, did not give me such great views.  My dad and I couldn't get enough of this bird's beauty.  We watched it preen and rest on the side of the dune, and even hop just a few feet.  I love Snowy Owls.

We decided we should head back - Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge was still on the agenda for the day.   Back towards the parking lot, we found two other birders who were looking for the Harlequins.  We told them about the location of the Harlequins and the Snowy Owl, and they got to see both too.  Oregon Inlet proved more productive than we initially thought - it was one of, if not the, highlight of my year.  Amazing.

The Snowy Owl in all its glory
The target at Alligator River NWR was another species of owl - this time of the Short-eared variety.  The only one I had ever seen was back in 2005 in Denali National Park - far from the coast of NC.  I wanted this bird both for my year list and for my state list (and just because Short-eared Owls are downright cool).  These owls are supposed to come out just before dusk and patrol the massive fields along Alligator Rivers' Milltail Road.  So that's exactly where we went.

It was still about an hour until sunset when we pulled in, and we didn't really know what to do.  We started scoping some ducks.  Pintails, pintails, more pintails...  I pulled up my phone and checked the Carolinabirds listserv.  "Ash-Throated Flycatcher... Milltail Road".  The words jumped out at me.  It said that the flycatcher was close to the maintenance buildings.  Wait, the maintenance buildings just behind me!?  I was only 300 yards from a rare Southwestern flycatcher!

We high-tailed it down the road, and almost immediately heard this little Myiarchus calling.  But where was it?  It was too deep in the trees to see.  Aghhh!!!  I hate heard-only's.  We eventually gave up and slowly drove back down the road.  A flycatcher shape caught my eye from the roadside.  Wait - was that it?  It was!  I grabbed my camera and bolted out of the car.  The little guy proved quite cooperative, landing just a few feet from me at one point.  Definitely an unexpected surprise!

Ash-throated Flycatcher

The flycatcher flew back into the forest, and we started patrolling the road for owls.  Northern Harriers were seemingly everywhere.  The sun slipped behind the horizon.  We were running out of time.  On our way out, a large bird slipped across the road in front of us.  A Short-eared Owl.  It glided smoothly over the field right next to our truck.  An incredible end to an incredible, rarity-filled day.  What would the next day bring?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Seeing Rufous

Rufous Hummingbirds breed in the Northwest, from high elevations in the Rockies up along the Pacific Coast, all the way to southeast Alaska.  They range further north than any other hummingbird species.  Increasingly, these birds have foregone their typical wintering grounds in Mexico for the American South.  More and more feeders are put out every winter, and more and more Rufous Hummingbirds (and other hummers, in lesser numbers) are found in North Carolina.  

The cooperative immature male Rufous Hummingbird.
I was lucky enough to see one Saturday morning, on the shortest day of the year.  Lena Gallitano was gracious enough to allow myself and my usual counterparts, Sam and Edward, to visit her home, where she has two Rufous Hummingbirds visiting her feeders.  She has an amazingly "birdy" yard, filled with feeders of all kinds.  We saw both hummers almost immediately after arriving - a female and an immature male.  The male bird gave us excellent looks - we admired his beautiful rusty-red plumage.  Rufous Hummingbird makes 190 species of birds for me in Wake County this year - a number I couldn't have imagined back in January.  

On our way back through Lena's yard, we looked up to see a striking male Baltimore Oriole sitting in a tree.  I'm always shocked at just how orange orioles are - they almost glow.  The three of us couldn't have been happier.  It looks like I'll be heading to the Outer Banks in a few days, hoping to pick up a few last-minute birds before the year is over.  Stay tuned!
Baltimore Oriole - another terrible photo of a really cool bird.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Bittern At Last

The American Bittern at Prairie Ridge was still being reported.  And I still hadn't seen it.  I really wanted the chance to photograph this bird, and to take some videos.  On Saturday after a quick stop at Lake Crabtree, where I saw a snipe and a few ducks, I decided to give Botaurus lentiginosus another shot.  
Eastern Phoebe at Lake Crabtree's Southport Entrance (in an industrial park).  I would post the snipe photo, but it is actually really terrible and it looks like a mud clod.  But it wasn't a mud clod.  I promise.
I walked over the ridge and descended toward the pond.  There was a group of three birders already there - this is certainly a popular bird!  They were all looking intently into a brushy area.  I hoped that was a good sign.  

It was.  The bittern was just a few yards away, hunkered down in the woody brush near the pond.  I spent about an hour observing it slowly and stealthily feed on tadpoles.  It was well worth my third trip out there to see this spectacular bird.  For my video, click here.

The Prairie Ridge Bittern, finally!

Right at home.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Snowy Owl on the Outer Banks

Back in fourth grade (and long before I was a birder), I was flipping through a magazine when I stumbled on a particularly interesting article.  It was about a Snowy Owl seen at Fort Fisher back in November 2001.  The story featured a two-page illustration depicting the most amazing, stark-white owl, gliding smoothly over the dunes.  It was the first bird that ever captured my imagination - and it was just a drawing.

Fast-forward to Tuesday - I was sitting in Anatomy class when I decided I should check the listserv.  I read the words "Snowy Owl" and just about lost it.  My heart was racing.  I honestly thought about just walking out of class and leaving right then and there - but I managed to get a hold of myself.  I immediately texted my dad, telling him that we would be going to the Outer Banks the next day.  He reluctantly agreed, knowing damn well how much I wanted to see that bird.  This was the first Snowy Owl in NC since the Fort Fisher bird twelve years ago.  I had to see it.

We (my dad and my friends Sam and Edward) left Raleigh around 4:30 in the morning, driving through the rain.  A nor'easter was pounding the Outer Banks, and we were the only people crazy enough to drive into it.  Once we made it onto the banks, we were greeted my pounding winds, driving rain, and pitch-black clouds looming overhead.  Highway 12 was under several inches of water.  If anything, this day would be an adventure.

Highway 12 on the way down to Hatteras looked more like a lake in some spots.
The weather on Hatteras itself was even worse.  We arrived at the parking area for Access Point 45, near where the bird was last seen the night before.  We stumbled along the beach with heavy rain stinging our faces and the wind nearly blowing us over.  The conditions were downright brutal.  

We fanned out over the wide beach in order to cover more ground. The rain began to die down.  I spotted a big white lump on the beach behind a pile of debris, so I snuck in closer to investigate.  I pulled up my binoculars, and the big white lump moved its head.  It was the Snowy!  I frantically waved and yelled for everyone to come see.

Snowy Owl - probably my favorite bird, period.
My heart skipped a beat - I was actually looking at a real, live Snowy Owl!  We had only been there for 30 minutes, and we had found it!  There was no one else as far as the eye could see - we had the owl all to ourselves.  I had expected hordes of birders to be out there, but I guess the storm had kept the less-insane at home.

After about a minute,  it suddenly lifted its wings and flew closer to the dunes.  It was a surreal moment, watching this big, graceful white bird gliding over the desolate beach.  We observed the owl at a considerable distance for a while longer, until it eventually flew to the other side of the dunes and out of sight.  I was in awe.

Snowy Owl flying over the dunes
In an effort to find some interesting gulls, we headed further down the beach.  We found a flock consisting mostly of Great Black-backed Gulls, with a few Ring-billeds and Lesser Black-backed Gulls mixed in - but nothing unusual.  The sky down the beach was growing very dark.  This storm cell overtook us in several minutes, and we hunkered down in the dunes to avoid the lightning strikes.   We became completely rain-soaked and drenched that half-hour, enduring intense torrential rains.  Finally, the front passed, and we continued back down the beach.  If we hadn't just seen a Snowy Owl, it would have been a miserable return trek - but we couldn't have been happier just then.  The Snowy Owl was one of the most spectacular birds I've ever had the pleasure of seeing.  This epic "twitch" was one I will never forget.
Sam and I waiting the storm out.  Check out my duct-tape fix on my rain pants.
(Photo by Edward Landi)

Monday, November 25, 2013

Life Through The Lens - American Bittern

November, no birds.  This has been a synopsis of this month, at least for me.  Time after time, I come up empty.  And nothing has mounted my frustrations more than the American Bittern.  One has been hanging out at Prairie Ridge Ecostation in Raleigh, and is supposedly "reliable" to see.  I really wanted to see this bittern - it would be a good Wake County year bird for me (aside from the fact that bitterns are just really cool birds to see!).  I went there Saturday, and saw nothing.  Again today, I braved the unseasonably cold weather to see the bird.  An hour and a half, with no bittern.  This makes American Bittern the first bird I've ever "dipped" (or missed) twice consecutively.

So, alas, I am left gazing at old photos, longing for another American Bittern sighting. These chunky herons blend so well with their marshy surroundings they can be almost invisible. Their eyes are positioned facing downward, to aid in catching their favorite prey.  Bitterns have one of the most unique and bizarre calls in the bird world - listen to one here - described by the Nat Geo guide as "oonk-a-lunk". They are a charismatic and surprisingly tame bird, making them great photography subjects.  If only the Prairie Ridge bird would cooperate...

American Bittern from Pocosin Lakes NWR last December

Bittern at Yates Mill last spring - it walked right under the boardwalk I was standing on!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

November, So Far

The past few weeks have been relatively uneventful considering birding. I went to the mountains with the Museum and got some new county ticks, but no noteworthy birds.  Despite our group's best effort to find Red Crossbills, the best bird of the weekend was a mere Hairy Woodpecker.

Okay, this made up for the lack of birds in the mountains.
I have, however, fared slightly better closer to home.  On Halloween I had great views of a Lincoln's Sparrow down at Harris Lake.  It was an excellent life bird for me, the only one reported in Wake County so far this year (I would have a photo if I hadn't forgotten a memory card...).  On November 2nd I also found some locally uncommon Vesper Sparrows and my first NC American Pipits this year.

Vesper Sparrow on Inwood Road
Other than those stated above, I really haven't birded all that much- hence the lack of posts on this blog.  But this weekend, I felt I needed to see something good.  I felt a little out of practice.  I felt rusty.

Rusty Blackbirds were today's target.  Rusties have experienced a dramatic decline over the passed several decades, with no concise explanation.  Habitat loss is one possible culprit, though mercury poisoning may be a more likely cause.  The species' population has declined anywhere from 85-99%, a downright shocking number.  This decline is also why these birds are somewhat difficult to find - especially along the East Coast, where the birds have been especially hard-hit.  

Rusty Blackbirds love wetlands, and Lake Betz up in the Research Triangle Park north of my house has the perfect swampy habitat these birds yearn for.  Naturally, this was the first place I went to look.  Just five minutes into my visit, two rusties, a male and a female, flew into view.  My first lifer this month, and one that has been a long time coming.  

After a spotting a few more noteworthy birds- at least seven Red-headed Woodpeckers and my second Winter Wren of the year- we headed over to Lake Crabtree to scan for ducks.  Several beautiful Hooded Mergansers, Lesser Scaup, Northern Shoveler, Ring-necked Ducks, and two American Wigeon were all in a raft in the center of the lake.  American Wigeon was a new county bird for me.  It was nice to finally see some ducks - a sign that winter has arrived (at least in terms of avifauna).  Now if only I could find a real rarity...

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Birding Fort Fisher - Sparrows and a Scissortail

All week, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was being reported from the Fort Fisher ferry terminal.  Though I've seen the species in Oklahoma back before I was a birder, the temptation of adding this spectacular bird to my North Carolina list was too strong to ignore.  I took the plunge and drove down with my two friends Sam and Edward to try our luck chasing the flycatcher.

Fort Fisher is located at the tip of a peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River, just southeast of Wilmington.  It tends to concentrate migrants, most notably shorebirds and sparrows, and is one of "the" places to bird in NC.  It's less than three hours from Raleigh, making it the most accessible coastal area for Triangle birders.

We arrived just after 8 AM.  Despite the urge to go directly to the ferry terminal and wait for the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher to show up, we birded some other stops first.  The first good birds of the day were two Vesper Sparrows (my first in NC) flitting around the parking area.  Excellent sparrow sightings would prove to be a theme on this day.  We soon found my first lifer of the day, a Seaside Sparrow.  Sparrows in the genus Ammodramus (of which the Seaside Sparrow is a member) are some of my favorite birds.  Fort Fisher has the perfect habitat for this coastal species - extensive salt marshes.

Seaside Sparrow - right at home in the salt marshes along "The Basin" at Fort Fisher.
We then proceeded to scope the tidal flats out in The Basin, a wide saltwater lagoon just south of Fort Fisher.  We were surprised to see a few Marbled Godwits feeding with a flock of unidentifiable peeps.  We saw a Clapper Rail fly up out of the marsh in front of us, so we walked in to investigate.  The rail didn't reappear, but we found something better.  A Nelson's Sparrow, another marsh-loving Ammodramus, flew up within a few feet of us.  Lifer!  My first NC Marsh Wren made its way through the grasses toward us, too.  The marsh birds were truly out and about on this morning!

Nelson's Sparrow - a beautiful orange bird.  This is distinguished from Saltmarsh Sparrow by its diffuse breast streaks and more orange breast.
Marsh Wren, one of many seen and heard by us at Fort Fisher.
An inquisitive Semipalmated Plover on a small beach entertained us for quite a while, and we managed to get quite close.

Semipalmated Plover
We decided it was probably time to head up to the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher stakeout at the ferry landing, just up the road from the marsh.  The bird was supposed to show up on a barbed-wire fence on the north side of the visitor parking lot.  We walked around for several minutes (with no sign of the rare migrant) and decided to sit down at a picnic table to wait for the bird to (hopefully) show up.  We waited.  And waited.  Some other birders showed up and began walking along the fencerow.

The ferry terminal's visitor parking area.  Not exactly the most picturesque location I've birded.
We were all getting anxious for something to happen.  I glanced behind us, and a noticed a bird sitting in a low branch on a tree.  I pulled up my binoculars - and it was the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher!  I couldn't believe it.  I started pointing it out to Sam and Edward while simultaneously trying to snap a photo.  As I struggled to get my lens cap off, the bird flew away, chattering in a very Tyrannus-like manner.  No photo for me.  We ran over to where it was, but it was nowhere to be seen.

The bird had flown south, so we decided to go look for the bird back by where our car was parked, by Battery Buchanan (a large man-made sand embankment).  We walked to the top of the Battery to get a more commanding view of the surrounding area.  A small sparrow flitted up in front of us.  Clay-colored - a rare migrant in North Carolina.  We got excellent views of the tiny bird before it flew back into the brush.  Another excellent sparrow sighting on the day! I've seen Clay-colored Sparrows in Montana where they are common, but on the East Coast this bird is pretty rare, usually only showing up in fall (with a few overwintering).

Clay-colored Sparrow on Battery Buchanan.

No sign of the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, though.  We moved back to the ferry terminal in hopes that the bird returned.  It wasn't there.  We decided we likely had seen the last of the flycatcher.  With this in mind, we drove about a mile up the road to look for more birds. There, around the State Historic Site's museum, we found a juvenile White-crowned Sparrow and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.  I also managed to get a cactus with one-inch spines stuck deep into my finger, which was an unpleasant experience I hope not to repeat.

We returned to the marsh, and waded barefoot along the edge of The Basin.  We got close-up views of a three-species sparrow flock, containing Nelson's, Saltmarsh (lifer), and Seaside Sparrows.  We were entertained for quite a while watching these beautiful species feeding and moving along the marsh's edge.  A flock of Willets and a few American Oystercatchers flew past, calling loudly.  

Fort Fisher turned out to be even better than expected.  I got seven new birds for my North Carolina list, four of which were year birds and three of which were lifers.  We spotted three rarities (Bobolink, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and Clay-colored Sparrow) and 66 species total.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Carolina Black-cappeds

Carolina Chickadee - one of the most common birds in North Carolina.  This one was visiting my backyard feeder.

The aptly-named Carolina Chickadee (often in association with Tufted Titmice) reigns over the forests of North Carolina.  I'd be hard pressed to name a passerine bird I see more frequently.  These birds are so prevalent that I often overlook them, and I have never really given much thought into observing them.  Anywhere in the state, I am just about guaranteed to hear their rapid "chickadee-dee-dee-dee" calls somewhere overhead.

Well, almost anywhere.

During the last ice age thousands of years ago, the state was populated by the Carolina Chickadee's close (and nearly identical) cousin, the Black-capped Chickadee.  But as the climate warmed, these cold-weather Chickadees followed their favorite breeding habitat (yellow birch, firs, etc.) northward. A few, however, remained on the highest peaks of the Smoky Mountains, above 5,000 feet where these northern trees still grow.  Unlike along the Carolina x Black-capped "hybrid zone" to the north, the two species don't seem to hybridize in the Smokies.  This leaves a purebred "island" population, hundreds of miles from the next-closest population in the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia.

I was in Great Smoky Mountains National Park for some amazing fly fishing, and I figured I ought to go tick this Northern species for my NC list.  The highest peak in the Smokies is Clingman's Dome, straddling the border with Tennessee at 6,644 feet above sea level.  This is the epicenter of the North Carolina Black-capped Chickadee population, though others can be found on nearby peaks.  It was 64 degrees in the valley, but up on Clingman's Dome the temperature plummeted to 43.  A cold front was howling over the mountain, and a cloudy mist was sweeping over the mountaintops.  There is short nature trail about halfway down the road that leads to the summit, and I figured that would be a good place to look for the chickadees.

Almost immediately after stepping out the car, I heard the distinct, huskier voices of several Black-capped Chickadees.  I ran down the trail and managed to snap a few photos of the birds.  I honestly never thought I would get so excited over a chickadee!

Black-capped Chickadee - notice the striking white secondary feathers on the wing.  This photo is pretty terrible, I know - it was really dark!

The best distinguishing feature between the two species (other than voice) is that Black-cappeds have obvious white secondaries, while Carolinas don't.  The cheek on a Black-capped is whiter, and they are slightly larger and puffier.  All of these field marks were apparent as I watched the six or so birds flit through the forest, especially since I had seen Carolinas just a few hours before.  Black-capped Chickadee is my 250th North Carolina life bird - a significant milestone for me, considering I just started birding (not even) two years ago.

The next morning I saw one of the most beautiful sunrises I've ever seen - from just below the frosty summit of Clingman's Dome.  The vast landscape of Western NC stretched before me, cloaked in a layer of fog with only a few peaks breaking through.  A spectacular end to an excellent trip.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Life Through The Lens - Black-necked Stilt

Few shorebirds are as striking as the Black-necked Stilt.  With a body straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, striking pink legs, and a sharp black-and-white tuxedo, this Stilt is sure to impress even the most seasoned naturalist.  Black-necked Stilts are right at home wading through shallow pools and marshes across the country, though they are more widespread in the West.

Stilt at Cane Ridge WMA in Indiana

I have been fortunate to see this incredible bird on two occasions this year - once in Indiana (I had three flybys on a trip to Cane Ridge with my grandpa) and more recently at Pea Island NWR in North Carolina.  There I could actually see the bird - observe it feeding, wading, and just hangin' around.  I'm quickly becoming an obsessive "state lister", and Black-necked Stilt was a pleasant addition, especially considering that Stilts are rare in late September.  

Pea Island stilt from a few weeks ago

These long-legged birds never cease to amaze me.  Every time I see one I am reminded of the beautiful complexity of nature and it's stunning diversity.  Birds currently lay in the crosshairs of ecological degradation, and these charismatic stilts can help people recognize the true value of our spectacular avifauna.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

North Carolina Big Day - September 28

At last, the weekend I had been waiting for had arrived.  I, along with my two partners-in-crime Sam and Edward, would be doing a North Carolina big day, combining Lake Mattamuskeet with the Outer Banks for an intense day of birding.  Our primary goal was to reach the century mark, something we've never done in one day before. The day would be hard, stressful, and tiring - but it would also be one of the best days of birding I've ever had.

We left Raleigh at 3:15 AM and headed east.  We knew that inland would be our only shot at getting an owl, so we checked a boat ramp along the swampy Roanoke River.  It was there we heard our first and second birds of the day - a Swainson's Thrush flight call and a hooting Great-horned Owl, respectively.  It was a good stop - two birds we wouldn't get again all day.

Our next stop was American Turf Farms in Creswell, a spot notable for its migrant shorebirds.  We timed our arrival to be just before sunrise.  We got there and - we didn't see anything.  For twenty minutes, nothing but Killdeer.  Then, out of nowhere, shorebirds started popping up.  Pectoral Sandpiper, Black-bellied Plover, American Golden-plover, and Buff-breasted Sandpiper put on quite a show for us.  It was hard to drag ourselves away from the extravaganza, but we had to keep moving.  Just down the road from the turf farm is a catfish farm that is usually crawling with Bald Eagles.  This morning was exceptional - as we flew by on the highway, we counted at least 40-60, likely more (!) eagles lined up along the shore.  It was an incredible high count, and testimony to the species' amazing recovery.

The next stop would be the most crucial to our Big Day's success - Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge.  The first good bird there was a flock of Bobolinks flying overhead, little golden blackbirds migrating southward.  Things really started to pick up after we entered the forest.  There was a massive flock of American Redstarts - probably numbering well into the hundreds! - that filled the woods along New Holland Trail.  It was distracting having so many warblers flying every which way, and there were almost certainly some rare migrants mixed in that we missed.  I have never seen so many warblers in one place in my life - there were dozens of Parulas darting around as well.  It was quite a spectacle.  While we were pishing around we saw an Empid fly out of the canopy.  It lighted on a branch in plain view - it was a lifer Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, a rare migrant and the first excellent bird of the day.  It is the best view of any Empidonax I've ever had! Nearby we found a Traill's-type flycatcher that refused to vocalize, but we could still count it as a "slash" for the day list.

When we started looking past all of the redstarts, the forest along Lake Mattamuskeet's New Holland Trail proved to be quite productive - the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher was seen in the top right tree.

We managed to clean up most of our target land birds at Mattamuskeet, despite barely getting Tufted Titmouse and just glimpsing a lone American Robin.  There was one passerine we still desperately needed - Eastern Towhee, usually an easy bird to get.  We also got all three small peeps, both yellowlegs, and Merlin, and we were sitting pretty at 75 day birds by the time we reached the Outer Banks.

The next official stop was Bodie Island, where a viewing platform overlooks a usually-productive marshy pond.  White Ibis and several heron species were new for the day, along with Black Ducks, Pintail, and Gadwall.  As we were preparing to leave, I noticed a group of large shorebirds clustered along an island.  Three were Willets, but one was smaller and markedly different than the rest.  It turned its head and we could make out its long, upturned, pinkish bill.  Hudsonian Godwit, or "hudwit" - a bird I had wanted desperately on this trip.  An amazing bonus for both our day and for our life lists.  Hudsonians are far rarer than their cousin, the Marbled Godwit, and little is known about their wintering grounds in South America.

Oregon Inlet was our next stop , and it proved to be a waste of time.  Every bird we saw there, we saw again later in the day - the last thing you want on a big day.  The one highlight was a peregrine falcon hunting over the dunes - more on peregrines later.  We also saw another of the many, many Merlins we would see during the course of the day.

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge was our last big push.  White-rumped Sandpiper, Dunlin, Black-necked Stilt, Pied-billed Grebe, American Avocet, Short-billed Dowitcher, and Marbled Godwit were all new for the day.  Black-necked Stilt was a North Carolina lifer, and Marbled Godwit was my first of the year.

Black-necked Stilt at Pea Island - usually gone by late September.

We headed out to the campground we would be staying at to set up our tents.  There, we picked up an unusually late Eastern Kingbird sitting on a wire above our site, House Finch, House Sparrow, and, on the beach, Ruddy Turnstone.  We were at 99.  One away from our triple-digit goal.

The next hour or so proved to be fairly stressful.  We searched and searched the grounds of Cape Hatteras, looking for something new.  We found a promising trail heading down to an old cemetery, and decided to check it out.  It looked like good Towhee habitat, and we still didn't have Towhee on our day list.  It was getting late.  I did something I never thought I would ever, ever, EVER have to do.

I used playback on an Eastern Towhee.

I played the loud call from my phone several times, and we all heard a very distant response.  Bird #100 was an Eastern Towhee!  It seemed like every milestone we hit was a boring bird.  25 was Great Egret, 50 was White-breasted Nuthatch, 75 was Rock Pigeon, and now 100 was Eastern Towhee. At least we reached our goal, and we could finally relax.

To try to find more birds, we walked down an Off Road Vehicle (ORV) road (does that even make sense?) to reach the Salt Pond.  Edward narrowly avoided stepping on an angry Cottonmouth (a lifer reptile) with its fangs reared - after that we payed a little more attention to where we were stepping!  We scoped the pond and found another Avocet, some plovers, and bird #101, Lesser Black-backed Gull.  A Peregrine Falcon showed up, and began chasing the other birds.  It landed on the shore for a break, and we watched it for quite a while through our scopes.  Peregrines are always fun to watch, especially in a state like NC where they are still relatively uncommon.  

The sun was setting, and on the way back to the car we flushed an Eastern Meadowlark to finish up our list at 102.  It was too windy for flight calls, and we decided to throw in the towel and go to sleep.  The day was successful - we had reached our goal!  It was great experience for future Big Days - our first time doing a statewide one - and left us all with new life birds.  It was an amazing day I'll never forget.

Here is the complete list, with locations/times:

Williamston Boat Ramp - 4:45 AM
1. Swainson's Thrush
2. Great Horned Owl
American Turfgrass Corporation - 6:30 AM
3. Northern Cardinal
4. Mourning Dove
5. Carolina Wren
6. Killdeer
7. American Golden-Plover
8. Black-bellied Plover
9. Great Blue Heron
10. Pectoral Sandpiper
11. Buff-breasted Sandpiper
12. European Starling
13. American Crow
14. Gray Catbird
Highways US-64 and NC-94 -  7:20 AM
15. Turkey Vulture
16. Bald Eagle
17. Common Grackle
18. Red-winged Blackbird
19. Blue Jay
20. Northern Harrier
21. Northern Mockingbird
22. Brown-headed Cowbird
23. Eastern Bluebird
24. Merlin
25. Great Egret
Lake Mattamuskeet NWR - 8:15 AM
26. Canada Goose
27. Blue-winged Teal
28. Greater Yellowlegs
29. Semipalmated Sandpiper
30. Western Sandpiper
31. Osprey
32. Bobolink
33. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
34. Caspian Tern
35. American Goldfinch
36. American Redstart
37. Black-and-white Warbler
38. Northern Parula
39. Palm Warbler
40. Belted Kingfisher
41. Hairy Woodpecker
42. Carolina Chickadee
43. Pine Warbler
44. Brown-headed Nuthatch
45. Chimney Swift
46. Wood Duck
47. Red-bellied Woodpecker
48. Pileated Woodpecker
49. Prairie Warbler
50. White-breasted Nuthatch
51. Tree swallow
52. Downy Woodpecker
53. Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
54. Tufted Titmouse
55. Common Yellowthroat
56. "Traill's" Flycatcher (Alder/Willow)
57. Boat-tailed Grackle
58. Blue Grosbeak
59. Red-eyed Vireo
60. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
61. Common Gallinule
62. Mallard
63. Least Sandpiper
64. Semipalmated Sandpiper
65. Forster's Tern
66. Lesser Yellowlegd
67. Double-crested Cormorant
Highway US-264 - 10:25 AM
68. Red-tailed Hawk
69. Northern Flicker
70. American Robin
71. Laughing Gull
72. Great Black-backed Gull
73. Ring-billed Gull
74. Brown Pelican
75. Rock Pigeon
Bodie Island Lighthouse/Pond - 11:25 AM
76. Willet
77. Northern Pintail
78. American Black Duck
79. Tricolored Heron
80. Little Blue Heron
81. Gadwall
82. White Ibis
83. Snowy Egret
84. Hudsonian Godwit
Oregon Inlet - 12:30 PM
85. Sanderling
86. Herring Gull
87. Royal Tern
88. Peregrine Falcon
Pea Island NWR - 1:50 PM
89. White-rumped Sandpiper
90. Black-necked Stilt
91. Dunlin
92. Marbled Godwit
93. American Avocet
94. Pied-billed Grebe
95. Short-billed Dowitcher
Campground - 3:15 PM
96. Eastern Kingbird
97. House Finch
98. House Sparrow
99. Ruddy Turnstone
Cape Hatteras - 4:45 PM
100. Eastern Towhee
101. Lesser Black-backed Gull
102. Eastern Meadowlark

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Golden-winged Surprise

Harris Lake County Park is one of my favorite fall migration hotspots.  It's located on a funnel-shaped peninsula that tends to concentrate south-bound migrants, making it the perfect place to search for warblers.  I've had good luck there recently with some new birds for my NC list: both Chestnut-sided and Bay-breasted Warblers.

Sunday morning I returned to the park, hoping for more good luck.  I arrived a little later than I had hoped, and the bird activity was slightly sub-par.  I ended up wandering down an old service road, scanning the treetops.  One Black-and-white Warbler and a few Summer Tanagers kept me moving along.

I came to a spot close to the middle of the park, where the trees (for reasons unknown to me) had cartoon eyes attached to them - it was actually kind of unsettling.  I had a feeling I was being watched by the pines' obscure expressions and lazy-eyed looks, but I had to ignore it.  There was a big mixed flock above me, and I began looking for any gems.   Pewee, Pine Warbler, Titmouse.  Then nothin'.  I waited another few minutes, and a group of three warblers came flying out of the woods.  The first one I laid eyes on was a drab gray-brown bird that disappeared before I could be sure of what it was.  I looked a little below and saw my first Blue-winged Warbler, a beautiful yellow bird with a black eyeline and blue-gray wings.  I was pretty excited to get my first Vermivora warbler and my 175th Wake County year bird.  Above the Blue-winged was a Northern Parula, a more common bird - but still a nice migrant.  I left happy, but with the knowledge of a new birding patch.  Whenever I go to Harris again, I'll have to check the "place where the trees have eyes", even if it creeps me out a little.

The idea of returning to the park began gnawing at me as soon as I returned home, but I had to wait until Wednesday to finally go for another visit.  It was a beautiful 70 degrees, with a light breeze and no humidity - what I would describe as perfect weather.  It was one of those days where you just feel like something good is bound to happen.  And that "something good" did happen.

On my way down the service road, I figured I'd stop and scan the bushes and low trees.  Almost immediately, I saw a small bird flitting around about fifteen feet away.  I raised my binoculars just in time to see a golden glint on its wing.  My heart started racing - there's only one bird with wings like that!  I was finally looking at one of the top birds on my "wanted" list - Golden-winged Warbler.  Happier than a kid in a candy store, I frantically retrieved my camera and began trying to snap a shot for the blog (and for the eBird checklist as proof of my sighting).  After a few misses, the bird finally decided to perch on a branch in the open.  Clickclickclickclick, my 8 frames-per-second camera's shutter went off like a machine gun. I got it, even if the photos were mediocre at best.

Golden-winged Warbler.  I never thought my first one would be just a few miles from my house! This is life bird #333.

Golden-winged Warbler populations have been declining for decades, due to a combination of habitat loss and hybridization with the closely-related Blue-winged Warbler.  This bird is certainly a hard-to-get species, and I was incredibly lucky to have such a fantastic encounter with it, especially so close to home.  This bird will definitely go down as one of my favorite sightings of the year - unexpected and beautiful.  The bright golden shine of its wings were absolutely spectacular, and I will certainly never forget their glint in the diffused sunlight.  Move over Prothonotary: I think I have a new favorite warbler.  

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Fall Warblers and #300

Fall has officially started in terms of migration.  The air over North Carolina is slowly losing its stifling humidity - and although highs are still in the upper 80s, I can actually bear being outside.  Every so often, a pleasant breeze reminds me that beautiful October air is only one month away.

I thought I would try my luck at Bass Lake in Holly Springs right after school earlier this week.  The birds were few and far between - even the usual suspects weren't showing.  The first interesting bird was a Great Horned Owl calling in broad daylight.  I've never heard a Great Horned doing this before, though I have heard Barred Owls "haw"ing in the late afternoon.  The owl was a new bird for Bass Lake.  I also spotted a second "location bird" - a Yellow-billed Cuckoo near a small creek.

In a wooded area, I came upon a flock of chickadees and titmice and began pishing pretty hard (after looking over my shoulder and making sure no one was around - I always feel awkward going "shppshh-shppshh-shppshh" loudly in front of strangers).  The titmice began responding to my calling, and I started to bring a pretty good-sized flock of birds in around me.  Something in particular caught my eye - I raised my binoculars to see a dull fall warbler bouncing around in a Sweetgum.  A Tennessee Warbler, a life bird and - wait - number 300 for the year!  I was pretty excited, and it certainly made up for the lackluster birding beforehand.

A few days later, I headed to Mason Farm 35 minutes away in Chapel Hill to do a little more warbler-hunting.  Again, it started out dull, but things picked up after spotting a Barred Owl and several White-eyed Vireos.  I am always amazed at how silently Barred Owls fly - one could fly right over your head and you wouldn't even know it was there.  This adaptation makes them lethal nocturnal hunters.

Barred Owl at Mason Farm

Soon we were seeing Redstarts, Parulas, and several Red-eyed Vireos.  In the final wooded area along the path, we began actively pishing and trying in a last-ditch effort to bring in some migrants.  Sure enough, we caught a glimpse of a Magnolia Warbler, a new state bird for me.  Magnolias are particularly beautiful warblers, even in their fall plumage. They have a striking black, white, and yellow pattern that makes them relatively easy to identify.

I honestly can't wait for cooler weather - 65 and sunny is just about as good as it gets, in my opinion.  I'm ready for the gulls and ducks to return to my area, but for now I have some nice fall migrants to fulfill my avian ambitions.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Freedom at 299

Ah... the beach.  White powdery sands, warm waters, and ocean breezes.  Many enjoy chilling and playing on the shores of North Carolina, and I am no exception.  But eventually, I get bored with body surfing and playing frisbee - when this happens, I go birding.

Once again, I found myself at Sunset Beach, the westernmost and southernmost NC beach town.  And once again, it yielded some interesting birds.  Late Friday night while walking the beach with a friend,  I heard a Veery nocturnal flight call above the beach - a new state bird for me.  On Saturday I braved the afternoon heat to scope the sandbar where I saw the Reddish Egret just one month earlier.  After trudging through the parched, sandy expanse between the dunes and the sunbathers, I reached the scoping spot.  I scanned through a flock of almost 100 Black Skimmers (more than I had ever seen) and many Short-billed Dowitchers milling around.  Then, I spotted a bird that looked substantially different than the rest.  Through the heat distortion I could make out its dark cap, brown cast, and long, down-curved bill.  Whimbrel.  A bird I have pretty much always wanted to see - and I was finally looking at one through the scope!  I couldn't help but to smile.  I probably would have done a celebratory dance if there hadn't been a whole troop of boaters beached right next to me.

The Whimbrel is the brown bird in the middle - I apologize for the heavy crop and heat distortion.

There was now only one prize left in my mind - something that had somehow evaded me on all of my trips to the coast.  It lives exclusively in salt marshes, where it spends much of its time among the thick grasses.  And it is common. "Common".  I was honestly beginning to think the bird was just a conspiracy conceived for the sole purpose of driving me crazy.  An embarrassing hole in my life list.  Clapper Rail - my nemesis bird.  Clapper Rails are usually one of the easiest species for a birder to find in coastal North Carolina.  Unless that birder is me.

I did my research - Clapper Rails are often most active in the evening and early morning.  So that evening I headed out along an abandoned sandy road on the back side of the island, along a peninsula that juts out into the marshland.  I began playing the repetitive call of the Clapper from my phone in hopes of a response.  I usually try to avoid using audio recordings to lure birds in, but I was honestly sick and tired of "dipping" on this bird - my Nat Geo field guide app's bird calls were my only hope of finally defeating my nemesis.  Eventually I heard a response to the call - a real Clapper Rail!  They do exist!  It was about 300 yards further down the road.  I was so close to finally laying eyes on the bird that had plagued me the entire year.  I sprinted down to where I thought the bird was calling from, and played the call again.  No response.  I was about to turn around when a smallish bird flushed out of the marsh right in front of me.  I got my binoculars up just in time to see the Clapper Rail in all its diminutive glory.  A weight had at last been lifted off my back.  Bird number 299 this year, and I am finally free of my Clapper Rail nemesis.

Elated, I ran back to the house - pizza was calling my name.  On the way back, something caught my eye - an American Bittern was standing in the marsh right next to the road!  Bitterns usually blend in well with their grassy surroundings, but this one was so close it was hard to miss.  My 229th bird in North Carolina this year, though I had seen some in SC and NY earlier this year.  An added bonus to the Clapper Rail gift a few minutes before.

This American Bittern I saw at Pocosin Lakes NWR last year, in its signature posture.

I couldn't find my 300th bird the next day at the beach - but I did take this awesome self-portrait at night...

Monday, September 2, 2013

Young Birders Event at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Over the last weekend of August, I had the amazing opportunity to visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as a part of the Cornell Young Birders Event, led by Jessie Barry and Chris Wood.  I knew the event would be an incredible experience, but I had no idea just how much I would learn about birds and the science behind them.  Myself and 15 other high-school aged birders convened in Ithaca on Friday afternoon for an introductory presentation by John "Fitz" Fitzpatrick, the director of the Lab.  We then got a tour of the Lab of Ornithology's beautiful facility, filled with both the history and endless possibilities.  We visited the Macaulay Library, which is the leading resource/database of bird vocalization recordings, and is now adding videos to their extensive digital collection.  We ate dinner with staff and graduate students, followed by an interesting presentation on Whimbrel nesting on the arctic tundra near Churchill, Manitoba.  Then it was off to the hotel - we would need sleep for an early start the next morning.

The next day we left at 6:15 AM to go to Myers Point for a video/ audio recording workshop with the staff of the Macaulay Library.  We got to play with all kinds of equipment, from 800mm lenses on DSLRs to parabolic microphones to record bird calls.  To practice recording calls, we carried shotgun mics around the park and trained them on a cawing American Crow.  I also recorded an immature Osprey splashing into the water to catch a fish.  The video recording process was equally as interesting, and I got some great pointers for my own work - and being that I have all the equipment to do this, I may begin recording bird videos in the near future.

We then went out and did some birding - great views of several warbler species (including Magnolia and Chestnut-sided) and heard a distant Eastern Screech Owl.  After this foray, we headed back to the Lab for a series of fascinating presentations about careers and opportunities in ornithology.  We were all shocked when it was time for dinner - I didn't think three hours watching presentations could have flown by so fast!

Irby showing us how to properly handle the specimens

After dinner we headed into the Museum of Vertebrates for a tour with Irby Lovette, an evolutionary biologist.  Irby has worked extensively on warbler phylogeny, so as an exercise we split into groups and tried to organize a group of warbler specimens.  It was pretty tough, but all of the groups came relatively close to replicating the actual warbler "family tree".   After this activity, we were shown the "special" drawer in the museum, where the Lab houses extinct animals like the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Passenger Pigeon, and Eskimo Curlew.  We were then given free range over the collection, and we poured over all of the specimens for hours.  Albatrosses, Woodpeckers, Motmots, Quetzals, Blackbirds, and Birds-of-Paradise all captured our imaginations.  None of us wanted "Irby's Night at the Museum" to end, but we had another early start in the morning.

The next day was spent birding around Cayuga Lake, especially in Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge.  Early in the morning we spotted a Cerulean Warbler, which gave us all amazing views.  I had only heard Ceruleans before, so it was nice to finally catch a glimpse of this beautiful blue canopy-lover.  While we were checking out the Cerulean, someone spotted a Bay-breasted Warbler, which was a lifer for me.  Chris imitated a Barred Owl call, and was greeted by one calling in return from the depths of the forest.  Later we searched for (and found) Red-headed Woodpeckers (rare in NY), and visited Towpath Road, a place where we could overlook a large impoundment filled with shorebirds.  There we found Sandhill Cranes, Peregrine Falcons, Common Nighthawks, a Wilson's Phalarope and a few Baird's Sandpipers, among many others.

Sandhill Cranes in Montezuma NWR

The next day we did a little more birding (and salamander hunting).  Afterwards we headed back to the lab, where we were all surprised when Zeiss gave us all brand-new Terra ED binoculars!  We were all VERY excited, and I think we all have new go-to "bins" for our birding adventures.

Unfortunately, this incredible experience had to come to an end.  I thoroughly enjoyed the entire event - I was able to meet and befriend 15 other young birders, learn so much from Cornell staff and students, and see some awesome birds (I saw 131 species over the weekend).  I cannot thank Chris, Jessie, and all the others who helped with the event enough for their hospitality and dedication.  This was truly unforgettable, and it taught me so much about the vast range possible careers and opportunities in the wide world of ornithology.

Now time for school...

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Shorebirding Eastern NC

Late August - the peak of shorebird migration.  Tempting reports were flooding in all week from American Turf Grass Corporation - a.k.a. "American Turf Farms" - about 2 hours east of Raleigh.   You may be asking - why do shorebirds flock to vast expanses of sod?  I thought shorebirds like the shore!  Well, some species, particularly ones that nest more inland or in the arctic tundra, like to chill in wet grass.  There are three sod-loving species in particular that really get the Carolina birder's heart pumping:  American Golden-Plovers, Upland Sandpipers, and Buff-breasted Sandpipers.  In fact, these birds have etched their very own nicknames into the birding vernacular - Goldies, Uppies, and Buffies, respectively.  I was toying with the idea of going out to the Turf Farm for months, and finally decided to take my good friends Sam Jolly and Edward Landi on a "shorebirding" trip down east.   The aforementioned species were our primary targets.

In typical birder fashion, we left Raleigh insanely early at around 5:45 AM.  After a quick meal of Cajun Filet Biscuits at Bojangles', we figured we would arrive around 8.  In reality, we got to the sod farm at about 8:30 due to a wrong turn down a sketchy dirt road.  We arrived at the turf farm optimistic - but our high hopes were only greeted by Killdeer.  We continued down the main gravel road under US-64 and immediately noticed a massive flock of shorebirds across a vast shortgrass field.  Like any good birders, we got out of the car and began scoping the flock.  

Sam and Edward busy sifting through the killdeer.

The first great find was a beautiful American Golden-Plover, still partially in breeding plumage.  A truly spectacular bird to watch, and one of my all-time favorites.

One of the Golden-Plovers at the farm.  This was the first one I'd seen since a trip to Alaska in 2005, before I was a birder.  Even then, I was impressed by this bird.

We soon spotted our next target, Upland Sandpiper, out a little further.  We eventually found four in total, and had amazing views through the scope.  Uppies breed in prairies and pastures further north, and are among the first shorebirds to pass through North Carolina on their way south.

Upland Sandpiper, among the strangest shorebirds.

Twenty minutes had gone by, and we still had not seen a Buff-breasted Sandpiper, which would be a lifer for me.  Eventually, Sam called out "buffie" and I rushed up to the scope.  It was about a mile away (okay, actually only a half mile) and was periodically invisible due to the heat distortion in the air.  Not exactly the view I wanted, but I was content with the new bird.  We eventually headed further down the road to get closer to the two Buffies.  At long last, I was satisfied - through the scope, I could see every little detail on their feathers.  Another excellent shorebird to add to my life list, and one I will cherish.  I've said it once and I'll surely say it again:  shorebirds are my favorite.  And Buff-breasted Sandpiper is one hell of a shorebird.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper - henceforth referred to by the rather adorable moniker "buffie".

Take any birder within two hours of Lake Mattamuskeet and they can feel its pull, like how migratory birds feel the pull of the Earth's magnetic field.  Of course, we couldn't resist stopping by the largest natural lake in NC.  It is one of our favorite places in the state, and we were hoping it would draw in shorebirds like it draws in birders.  

The subtle beauty of this vast lake, once drained for farmland.

Lake Mattamuskeet is vast - it's the only lake I know of in the state where you can't see the opposite shore.  Despite its huge size, it is incredibly shallow (average depth: 2 feet) and is essentially shaped like a giant pinto bean.  Along the way to the lake, we joked about seeing rare birds like Hudsonian Godwits or Wilson's Phalaropes once we reached the refuge - like always, dumb optimism was our go-to attitude (it could be worse).  

The first destination at the lake was the Wildlife Drive, which has yielded excellent birds in the past.  Not this time.  The impoundment was all but deserted, and we barely managed to find a Yellow Warbler and two Tricolored Herons before heading to the eastern shore of the lake, known as Lake Landing.  Now, understand, we had never been to Lake Landing before, and our expectations were much higher than they should have been.  We pictured beautiful, Pea Island-esque impoundments brimming with dowitchers, peeps, and godwits.  No such luck.  Most of the "impoundments" on the map were almost completely overgrown by weeds and shrubs - great habitat for Indigo Buntings, but not for what we wanted to find.  Luckily, as the road conditions deteriorated (bad to worse), the birding conditions ramped up.  Things were set off by a Northern Bobwhite, always a reassuring species.  Then we found two Pileated Woodpeckers up in a tree.  The road began following some canals, and we spooked an immature Night-heron.

Several minutes later, we pulled along the ditch to eat our lunches.  We noticed a steady stream of Yellowlegs flying by to a point on the lake we couldn't see from our position.  I climbed up on the car to see over the cattails.

"There's a pretty big flat out there, and it's crawling with birds"  I said, "to bad there's no good way to scope it from here."

As determined teenage birders, we couldn't resist the temptation of that huge mudflat in the corner of the lake.  We spent the next hour figuring out a way to see it, concluding in a Bear Grylls-style bushwhack through dense seven-foot marsh grass.  At long last, we had reached the lakeshore.  Now down to business.  Scoping mudflats can be a tedious process, especially from as great a distance as we were at. Sorting through all of the common, less desirable birds for the lifers proved difficult.  Semipalmated Plovers, Black-bellied Plovers, Yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpipers.  All cool, but nothing new.  After at least five thorough scans of the whole expanse, we finally picked up something of interest.  A slim shorebird was facing away from us, preening alone on the mudflat behind some gulls.  It had a gray cap and a contrasting white face, more so than any nearby yellowlegs.  A Wilson's Phalarope - the bird we had joked about wanting to see earlier was actually within our grasp!  Phalaropes are aquatic sandpipers with lobed toes and unique feeding patterns, involving spinning and twirling while floating on the surface.  They are highly prized by Carolina birders due to their beauty and relative rareness - phalaropes are notoriously difficult to find on the East Coast.  We also spotted two (my first in NC) Black Terns out on the flat with the Laughing Gulls.  Getting to the scoping spot was well worth the effort, despite our complaints.

Me scoping the mudflat a long way away - birding is starting to get intense.

Lake Mattamuskeet never fails to impress.  I get at least one lifer every time I go there, and this time was no different - Wilson's Phalarope.  The highlight of the day (or even the month) for me was birding American Turf Farm, though.  I absolutely love all three of our target species, and we got better views of them than I ever expected.  It was an incredible day, concluded with milkshakes from "Little Man" (yes, the quotes are actually part of the name) restaurant in Plymouth.  Shorebirding is officially my favorite sport.