Saturday, April 27, 2013

Reeling in Warblers

I spotted my first Prothonotary Warbler of the year at Bass Lake on Thursday.  Prothonotary Warblers have the most brightly colored yellow plumages of any birds I've seen - they almost glow.  It was nice to see this one feeding in the trees near the boathouse at Bass Lake, where at least one was also present last year.  I saw a four-leaf clover growing next to the trail, which I expected would bring good luck.  It did.  I was walking back when I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a very small Empidonax.  I managed to find an angle with a decent view, but Empidonax flycatchers are notoriously difficult to ID, especially in the dark.  Luckily, the bird made a few quick vocalizations, and I was able to (happily) identify it as a Least Flycatcher, the first one reported in Wake County this year, and a very uncommon migrant.  It must have been blown Eastward by the recent cold front - Leasts typically show up in the fall, not the spring.

Today, my dad, my neighbor, and I embarked on our annual trip to Weldon on the Roanoke River to catch Striped Bass.  In past years, we have caught over seventy fish, this time, there seemed to be none in the river.  Luckily, the Roanoke River is also a great place for warblers, so the trip wasn't a total bust.  The main bird I wanted to see was a Cerulean Warbler, a threatened species of high trees.  The Roanoke near Weldon is home to a disjunct breeding population, and I hoped to hear (or better, see) one.  I was immediately surprised by the amount of birds calling from the river banks.  My first great bird of the day was Swainson's Warbler, a skulking small brown bird of the underbrush.  I counted four calling from the banks of the river.  These are typically very difficult to find, especially near Raleigh, and were also a lifer.  Several hours (and no fish) later, we were drifting around a bend in the river when I heard a buzzy warbler call.  I recognized it as a Cerulean.  I played a call off my iPhone to verify, and it resembled the call I was hearing exactly.  Cerulean Warbler makes an excellent bird #190 for 2013.  Last year, I hit 190 sometime around Christmas... my improved bird identification by bird calls has certainly helped!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Migration Updates and Birding at Bass Lake, Yet Again

I haven't written a post recently, so I though I could mention what's been going on with my birding. I've picked up several flycatchers: a Great Crested Flycatcher at the Harris Lake Upper Ramp (and many since), several Eastern Kingbirds, and got a great view of an Acadian Flycatcher at Swift Creek Bluffs, my first Empidonax.  I also spotted a Green Heron at Yates Millpond, another first-of-year.

Today I headed out to Bass Lake after dinner to try my luck at more spring migrants.  I've had pretty bad luck with warblers this Spring, and today was a continuation of this bad streak - not a single one was there.  I did hear the distinctive "ee-o-lay" call of Wood Thrushes ringing through the forest.  I managed to spot one of the birds for a brief glimpse of my 184th bird species this year.  I worked my way back to where Basal Creek works its way into the lake.  Deep in the swamp, I heard what I had suspected would be at Bass Lake for a long time, but have never heard there - Barred Owls.  Two were energetically calling in the distance.  The activity makes me wonder if the two have a nest back there.  I will probably work my way back there again some other evening and try to listen to the owls for a little longer.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Kayaking at Harris Lake

The last time I birded the Northeast arm of Harris Lake, I had to bush-wack 3 miles.  That's a little too much effort for my preferences, so this time I kayaked.  My parents and I put in at the New Hill- Holleman Road bridge, and paddled to where the creeks merge with the lake in a swampy, bird-filled maze.  The first big find of the day was a Spotted Sandpiper, only my second this year.  It was bobbing up and down as it negotiated the shoreline.  As I was paddling along a wooded cove, I heard the "TEACH-er TEACH-er TEACH-er" call of the Ovenbird, a small woodland warbler that looks more like a thrush.  I realized that it was my 250th bird on my life list, and was elated.

As we neared the lake's end, the water grew shallow and the bird life became more abundant.  Bald Eagles, almost guaranteed birds at Harris Lake, were chasing the flocks of coots.  I spotted my first Blue-winged Teal in Wake County.  I noticed a Tringa shorebird on the mudflats, and held my camera up to get a better look - a Lesser Yellowlegs, one of several present.  It was associating with a Greater Yellowlegs and a flock of Wilson's Snipe.  I paddled around a bend and flushed another group of snipes, and saw my first Solitary Sandpiper - another relative of the Yellowlegs.  Caspian Terns were still present, though in lower numbers than last weekend.  A Tree Swallow flew by, as did more snipes and Solitary Sandpipers.  As we were paddling back, I spotted a Common Loon, the first one I've seen in breeding plumage.  It's amazing to see their transformation from a drab gray bird to a striking, heavily patterned beauty.  Harris Lake is what I like to call the "Mattamuskeet of Wake County" because of it's diversity of bird life (and numbers of coots), and is one of my favorite places to bird. Here are some photos from today:

 Lesser Yellowlegs feeding
A lesser and greater yellowlegs, for comparison.  The Lesser is on the right.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Backyard Warblers

When I walked out the door Tuesday morning, I was greeted by a cacophony of bird calls - spring has arrived.  I listened for the charismatic call of the Louisiana Waterthrush, and was pleasantly surprised to hear it calling from the ravine behind my house. Bird number 169 this year, and a lifer.  Unfortunately, I was unable to try to see the bird, since school is "more important than birding" or something like that. So, when I got home, I promptly went outside to the top of the bluff overlooking a creek in my backyard.  Two Waterthrushes were chasing each other right below me in the creek bed, and they provided some amazing views.  As I was tracking the birds through my binoculars, a flash of yellow caught my eye.  When I got a good view, my heart rate skyrocketed - it was a male Hooded Warbler, which is arguably one of the most beautiful birds that can be seen in North Carolina.  Its combination of a green back, black "hood", and striking yellow face demonstrates the kind of artistry only nature can create.  Elated with my 249th lifer, I watched dazed as the bird flew around the underbrush.  It eventually flew out of sight, and I headed back to my climate-controlled house (it was gettin' kind of hot).

Today, I returned to the ravine - this time with camera in hand.  I carefully worked my way down the bluff and made it to the bottom.  A Louisiana Waterthrush was working his way up the creek, bobbing his tail as he went.  I positioned myself up on a precarious fallen tree and waited.  Promptly, the Hooded Warbler emerged from a tangle of undergrowth.  I raised my camera, and he flew away.  He landed in good light, I lifted the camera again, and he flew away.  This went on and on until finally he landed on a perch about fifteen feet away.   I leaned out, trying not to fall into the creek below me, and snapped a quick photo.  Yes!  I got it.  

Hooded Warblers are only just arriving to North Carolina.  This was the first one reported in Wake County this year, though many will follow.  

I spent another half hour observing the warbler.  Seeing amazing birds like this is what I love most about birding.  There is something utterly ridiculous in such a colorful plumage, but it makes the bird a real gem.  I think that Hooded Warblers are now tied with Prothonotary Warblers for the coveted "Lucas' Favorite Bird" title.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Spring - Finally

I managed to pick up a few more birds on my trip North - a Common Redpoll in Maine, a Common Raven and a Common Goldeneye in Vermont.  Coincidentally, they were all "common".  But now I'm back in North Carolina, where spring has begun to finally show itself.

The first bird I saw today was a first-of-year Barn Swallow off US-64, as I flew by at 75 mph.  I decided to take advantage of the great weather once I got home, and convinced my parents to go to Bass Lake with me.  I was surprised at what I found there.  The first example of new arrivals was a small flock of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers.  My dad spotted (and I ID'd) a Northern Parula singing from a small tree, giving me some of the best views of this energetic migrant I've had.  A big surprise was my first Common Raven I've seen in Wake County (ever).  It flew overhead soaring on massive wings, then landed in a distant tree.  Ravens typically don't stray into central NC, instead they prefer to stick to the mountains.

Today was a sign of things to come - more migrants, warmer weather, and interesting bird activity.  Though I'm not exactly looking forward to 95 degree days later this year, I am anxious for Spring Migration to come into full swing.