Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Day of Ducks

I am in New England to tour colleges, but I planned on spending today birding northeastern Massachusetts.  I saw on the ABA Rare Bird Alert that there was a Tufted Duck (ABA Class 3), a European vagrant, in a pond only twenty minutes from my hotel - an opportunity that can't be passed up.  My mom and I arrived at Johnson's Pond and I scanned the lake - no sign of the Tufted.  Only a small flock of Ring-necked Ducks,  but there was a promising-looking flock on the opposite shore of the lake.  There was no easy access to this shore, so we drove a little ways and walked out on a peninsula to try to get a better view.   We met two birders from nearby Ipswitch who had a scope set up.  I looked through and almost immediately saw a duck with a distinct tuft - the Tufted Duck! My second ABA rarity this month. There was also a Common Merganser, my first of the year, and several Black-capped Chickadees, a lifer (I don't bird outside of the South much). The two birders told us that Halibut Point in Gloucester would be a good place to go next, so we set off.

After driving through the historic town of Gloucester, we made it to the end of the road at Halibut Point State Park, a rocky promontory over the bay and a former quarry.  As soon as we made our way down to the shore, a duck caught my eye.  I brought up my binoculars and... it was a Harlequin Duck, my first ever.  There were a total of twelve at the park, swimming off the rocks.  These are my new favorite ducks, and I got excellent views of them.  Also offshore were two more duck species, Common Eider and Long-tailed Duck.  A small flock of Purple Sandpipers were feeding on a boulder near the Harlequins.  
Harlequin Ducks, a hen (left) and a drake.

Long-tailed Ducks

More Harlequins

Next in line was Parker River NWR, where I hoped to see Short-eared Owls.  We spotted a few Black Ducks and a Mute Swan right away, but things slowed down quickly.  I guess I'm just used to the Outer Banks, where seeing 50+ species in a few hours is expected, but there were very few birds here in Massachusetts.  I did see a few more Eiders, some Pintails, and a handful of gulls, but it didn't produce the same quality or quantity of bird sightings we had at Halibut Point.  No sign of Short-eareds, but I did spot a Merlin as we were leaving.  

I don't know what else is in store for my trip up North, but hopefully I can see some more great birds like I did today.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Quest for the Red-Cockaded

One of North Carolina's "specialties" is the Red-cockaded woodpecker, a diminutive fellow that depends entirely on Longleaf Pine forests for its survival.  Unfortunately, Longleaf Pine forests were all but wiped out after European colonization, and the now-endangered species is isolated in a few pockets throughout the South.  One of their NC strongholds is Weymouth Woods, a state park created to preserve the longleaf pine habitat.  After an hour-and-then-some drive south to Southern Pines, my dad and I tried our luck at spotting one.  We started out optimistic.  Within minutes, we had seen four Pileated Woodpeckers (one of which was excavating a nest), two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and a Red-bellied woodpecker - all we had left to see was the Red-cockaded.  No luck.  We wandered around for what seemed like forever.  Every pecking noise caught my attention, and I would look up only to see a Brown-headed nuthatch, or some other denizen of the pine forest.  We spotted a nest cavity and waited around forever, but still couldn't spot the little woodpecker.  Unfortunately, we had a deadline to leave, so we left dissatisfied.  I said that I would have seen it if I had worn a different hat - my green one's mojo must have worn off.  Well, I can't always see everything.  I'll be back later this year...
I'm looking forward to a trip to the Northeast this week - there should be some different, more northerly birds.  Next stop: Parker River NWR in Massachusetts.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Halfway There... Edisto Island, SC

One of the perks of being a Junior Curator at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences is being able to go on some fun field trips to "naturey" kind of areas.  This weekend we went camping at Edisto Island, south of Charleston.  We arrived at the campsite around 10 pm Friday night (it was a long drive) and stumbled around in the dark setting up the tents.  The "bird herd", myself and my fellow birders Sam and Edward, were in the same tent.  Around 12:30 AM that night, I was busy listening to a very emphatic conversation in the neighboring campsite about strategies to stockpile ammunition, and how one of their guns had been stolen, used in a murder, and then returned to the guy with the blood still on it - when Edward shot up out of his sleeping bag and said "Chuck-will's-widow". We quickly unzipped the tent door, all three of us scrambling to get our heads outside, when the nightjar called again, from only about 100 feet away. A lifer for me, I was excited to hear this one.

That morning, some of us got up early and walked around the campsite.  I got three year-listers there alone - Northern Parula, Wood Stork, and Yellow-throated Warbler, as well as more Chuck-will's-widows.  We then headed out as a group to the beach.  Five White-winged Scoters (a rarity in SC this time of year according to eBird) flew along the water, and we watched a Willet feed along the shoreline.  I somewhat jokingly mentioned how the jetty would be a great place to see a Purple Sandpiper, and sure enough one was sitting on it.  Number 150 for the year, and a lifer! Halfway to my goal of 300.  Here is my mediocre photo:

Next in line was Botany Bay plantation, where I hoped to see Painted Buntings, but they were a no-show.  Pine Siskins were feeding at the kiosk, though.  We drove through the park, but it was raining and there wasn't much activity.  After that, we visited the Serpentarium to check out some of the native snakes, such as Pygmy and Diamondback Rattlesnakes, as well as a Coral Snake.  Even though they weren't birds, they were still very interesting.  

The rain let up, and we headed down to ACE Basin NWR, and walked a short trail.  I wasn't expecting much, but was pleasantly surprised.  I moaned about how much it sucked that we (the "bird herd") have never seen or heard a rail, and within seconds a rail started calling from the marsh.  It flew up briefly, and the red coloring combined with the slower call confirmed that the bird was a King Rail, a very elusive bird and another lifer.  When I was waiting for the rail to reappear, an American Bittern flew by, another secretive marsh bird.  On the way to dinner, we saw a colony of Purple Martins, finishing off our day of birding with a First-of-Year bird. After gorging on pizza, we headed back to the campsite.  Some of us went out on a night hike hoping for owls.  No luck, but several raccoons were prowling the marsh.  

The next day was raining buckets, and we hustled to pack up our tents.  Our last stop on the trip was the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston, but our traffic was impeded by over a foot of water on the roads of downtown in some places (I'm not exaggerating).  We eventually got there, and toured the aquarium for several hours. Out on the deck of the aquarium, we spotted several dolphins, a Bonaparte's gull, and a dozen Northern Gannets, which are always fun to observe.  The trip to SC turned out to be a blast (despite the rain), and I came away with eight more birds for the year.  

Friday, March 8, 2013

Birding at Bass Lake

I got home from school to face three long hours of boredom preceding dinner.  I decided I would head out to Bass Lake, my local hotspot, to try some birding.  I wasn't expecting much (migration is still a few weeks off) but I was pleasantly surprised.  I saw my first Horned Grebe for my park list (my 70th species in the park), and the first Osprey I've seen in Wake County this year.  A lot of passerines were flitting around the brush along the trail, enjoying the first warm-ish day since January (crazy NC weather).  These flocks included White-throated, Swamp, and Song Sparrows, as well as Eastern Towhees, Carolina Chickadees, and Yellow-rumped Warblers.  I also spotted two Eastern Phoebes (snapped a few photos) and almost a dozen Pied-billed Grebes.  I ended the 80-minute excursion with 31 species, a personal best at this location.  With the spring influx of warblers approaching, I will definitely be visiting this local park more frequently.

One of the two Eastern Phoebes I saw at Bass Lake.   Eastern Phoebes are the only flycatchers to regularly winter in NC. 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Northern Lapwing (and more!)

Sunday, a report went out of a super-rare bird in North Carolina - for only the third time in history.  It was the Northern Lapwing, a spectacular crested green and white plover from Europe, and an ABA Class 4 bird (very rare visitor to North America).  It was hanging out at a pond behind a church in Person County, about an hour and a half northwest of Raleigh.
Many birders made the pilgrimage to see the bird this week, and it was my turn to see it.  We (myself and two friends) came up on Thursday afternoon with high hopes, but there was no sign of the bird, and left very disappointed. So, Saturday morning we went with my Dad for our second shot at this once-in-a-lifetime bird. After leaving home at 6:40 AM and driving up, we came upon several other birders already set up.  Within a few minutes, we had spotted the Northern Lapwing. Despite the distance, I managed to snap some photos that at least show that it's a Lapwing.  Lapwings have a unique flight style, and they have wings that seem a bit too big for their body.  They take slow wingbeats in an almost owl-like manner, very different from a typical plover.  We observed the bird for about 40 minutes and left the area satisfied.  Here are some of my shots of the best bird I've ever seen:

Next up on the to-do list was a rare White-winged Scoter (a sea duck) that had been at Lake Crabtree back in Wake County for several days.  It would be a lifer for me, so I really wanted to see it.  We pulled up to the parking area, and again, we saw the Scoter (bird #143 for the year) within several minutes of getting there.  It was on the opposite shore, swimming with about 50 Ring-billed Gulls.  I got another pretty bad picture for ID purposes and we continued down the path, seeing several sparrows, some Pied-billed Grebes, Red-breasted Mergansers, and a stunning Red-headed Woodpecker.

Another great weekend for me, the third in a row where I've gotten more than one lifer.  I really hope I can keep up this pace!