Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Howell Woods

I joined my friend Sam Jolly and his mom to go to Howell Woods out near Goldsboro, despite the summer-like weather (hot).  We had several target species: Swainson's, Kentucky, and Prothonotary Warblers, along with Yellow-breasted Chat and Mississippi Kite.  We saw (or at least heard) all of them, along with dozens of Acadian Flycatchers and Eastern Wood-pewees.  I was especially excited when I saw my first Chat calling from a brushy area just off the trail, and I was surprised at how colorful it actually was.  America's largest species of warbler no longer evades me!  A Yellow-billed Cuckoo made quite an appearance as well, but the highlight for me was this Mississippi Kite that we saw just as we left.  A pretty sweet bird #222 this year, and the most beautiful raptor I've ever seen...

The Mississippi Kite - Howell Woods is one of the best places in NC to see this species, and it did not disappoint.  We ran into some British birders who were also looking for this graceful bird... I hope they saw it!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Best Bird this Month

On my usual weekend birding trip, my dad and I met up with my friend Sam to bird the south shore of Lake Crabtree, one of my new favorite haunts.  I mainly wanted to test out my brand-new spotting scope on the mudflats, and to play with my other new toy, a Manfrotto carbon fiber tripod.  Since Spring Migration is winding down, I wasn't expecting much in the way of birds.  At least it would be a nice day outside, in the unseasonably cool (it was in the mid-60's, and is usually mid-80's), sunny weather.

We began our 4.5-mile hike around 7:45 AM, and optimistically approached our first viewpoint of some mudflats.  The only birds present were some dingy-looking Mallards and a Killdeer - no cool migrants shorebirds as we had hoped.  About half a mile further down, we stepped off the trail to observe a singing Indigo Bunting when we spotted a Yellow Warbler, my first of the year, in a willow tree near the lakeshore.  Yellow Warblers are the only entirely yellow warblers - it sounds kind of stupid now that I write it, but the solid yellow color is the best distinguishing feature of this species.

We were continuing down the trail, which was following a brushy clearing beside the lake, when we saw an Empidonax flycatcher perched in a tree above us.  Only this one was certainly not an Acadian, the most common species in this area.  It was grayer, and was vocalizing differently - a whistly pip!  I knew it was either a Willow or an Alder flycatcher (both formerly lumped together as Traill's flycatcher), and I double-checked the vocalizations on an app on my phone.  Yep, it was an Alder, the first in Wake County this year.  This species prefers moist brushy areas, and the area we were in certainly fit the bill - it was an inundated area filled with tall grasses and brambles, with a few small willows.  My third Empidonax, and the best bird I've seen this month.

The rest of the trail was relatively uneventful, though we did get a great view of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and we saw some mystery bird fly into the brush that we couldn't ID.  The "mud island" at the mouth of Crabtree Creek only yielded one lone Killdeer, the most common shorebird in the area.  So bringing the scope along ended up being basically pointless, but I guess it was good to see that it works.

Another great day - I love when things turn out better than expected.  Maybe I'm just a pessimist, but the birding should start to suck soon, until I head out to Montana this time next month.  Summer is the worst - too hot, too humid, too buggy, and too little bird activity.  At least we had a long, cool spring this year to help us ease into it.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Birding My Way Through Northeast NC

Mackay Island NWR is one of the most remote points on the map of North Carolina.  It is located in the far northeastern corner of the state in Currituck Sound, a brackish estuarine body of water dividing the northern Outer Banks from the mainland.  Visitors have two options to get there:  take a 45-minute ferry ride or drive up through Virginia.  Not coincidentally, Mackay Island (actually called Knotts Island, but the refuge is Mackay Island - I don't know why, just go with it) is a fantastic place for spotting the elusive Least Bittern, King Rail, and enough "peeps" to make any birder go mad.

Upon arrival, we promptly began a kayak trip through the Great Marsh, the focal point of the 8,320 acre refuge. Five minutes into the paddle, I flushed a Least Bittern from the reeds, my first lifer of the weekend.  I saw at least three more later during the paddle.  One bittern was incredibly cooperative - I observed the petite heron skulking through the marsh grass, then perch itself up high so it could watch my every move.

This photo sums up my experience observing this Least Bittern - he peered at me for several minutes through the reeds as I watched patiently.

When we were finishing up tying the kayaks back down to the car, I spotted a Tricolored Heron in a distant snag and pointed it out to my dad.  As we were observing the heron, I spotted movement along the road.  I snatched my binoculars and held them up to behold a King Rail, my first in North Carolina, and a lifer for my dad.  Rails are some of my favorite birds, and this particular one gave us great views, especially for such a secretive species.  While we were eating lunch, we heard two more calling to each other, but they remained hidden deep in the marsh.

We made our way down the dike on foot, since the gate prohibited any vehicles from entering. I began sorting through the flocks of shorebirds in the impoundment, hoping for something new.  Spotted, Solitary, Least - nothing I haven't seen already this year, but still fun to spot.  A Merlin flew out of the trees, its pointed wings beating fiercely. This was a big surprise - these small falcons are usually all but gone by May, so it popped up as "rare" when I reported it to eBird (the first of 8 "rarities" this weekend for me).   I looked out on the mudflats and spotted my first Glossy Ibis, my second lifer on the day.  I scanned again for shorebirds, and this time had a little more luck - Semipalmated Sandpiper, my third Calidris this year!  Peeps can be quite a challenge, and luckily I managed to snap some photos to help me ID them.

 The Merlin we saw at Mackay Island NWR - kind of a bad photo, but hey, it was pretty far away!

We opted to take the ferry back to Currituck, then head out to the Outer Banks to visit Corolla, the northernmost point accessible by actual roads.  On the ferry, I spotted several Bonaparte's Gulls, and my first Black Scoter this year - a female floating out in the sound.  It seemed pretty late to still be in NC, but just about everything has been late this year.

The long drive up to Corolla proved to be uneventful.  We pulled up to a small parking area for the Currituck Estuarine Reserve and set off down a short boardwalk.  I heard a distinctive song I had memorized but never heard in the field - a Warbling Vireo, a rarity on the Outer Banks.  It was presumably blown in by the storms that day, and just goes to show how significant weather is for birding.  We also visited the Corolla Lighthouse as the light was fading - closed, but I did hear (and see) a Blackpoll Warbler at the rest area, another lifer.  A great way to close out the day!

Lake Mattamuskeet NWR was the destination for the next morning, and it certainly did not disappoint.  We arrived around 10 AM and were immediately greeted by 15 American White Pelicans, highly unusual for NC at this time of year.  White Pelicans have one of the largest wingspans of any North American bird, and are quite a sight.  Out on the mudflats with the pelicans were a few Semipalmated Plovers (year-listers), some peeps, and several Caspian and Forster's Terns.

Some of the American White Pelicans present at Lake Mattamuskeet

We decided to walk down another boardwalk, this one through a cypress swamp.  Almost immediately after we stepped out of the car, we heard what had become one of my nemesis birds - Northern Bobwhite.  One was whistling his bob-WHITE!!! call from a grassy area near the pump station.  The timing was unusual - I had just explained to my parents the decline of the Bobwhite in North Carolina, and it was good to hear at least one.  Also along the boardwalk, we heard several Prothonotary Warblers, a few Pewees, and some noisy Great Crested Flycatchers.  Two American Woodcocks flushed from a brushy area near the trail; I have to admit I didn't realize how loudly they can beat their wings when they take off.

I finished the weekend with 217 birds on my year list and 195 in North Carolina.  Least Bittern was probably my favorite sighting this weekend - there is just something about the way they prowl the reedy marshes that fascinates me.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Birding, Post-Big Day

I've spent the past few days struggling to find any year-listers - it's almost like I saw every bird on the big day and there are no more left to see.  I went to Lake Crabtree, and ended up walking four miles to try to see a Laughing Gull (which would have been a new Wake County bird for me).  I was a day late - the big storm that blew them in had all but disappeared, leaving me with sunny 80 degree weather. Along the trail, I managed to hear a Worm-eating Warbler, see a Black-throated Blue, and stare into the dark, wet eyes of a Barred Owl.  None of these were new, but I did compile my longest solo list to date - 51 species.  A small personal victory: fifty was a milestone I couldn't seem to pass.

I tried Bass Lake Wednesday to no avail, and left empty-handed.  I got a quick glance of what I thought might have been a Broad-winged Hawk, but when it reappeared it was obviously a Red-shouldered.  Wishful thinking, I guess.  I ended up just watching the resident Barn Swallows fly in and out of their nests, chattering to each other and their babies.  

Today I drove a quarter mile from my house to Monument Park, an obscure little grove right next to downtown Holly Springs.  The "Holly Springs" for which the town is named are actually located in the park, but no one seems to take any notice.  Because the area gets little human disturbance, the bird life is pretty good (considering the location in a populated area).   I spotted a vibrant male Scarlet Tanager, a crimson beauty with striking black wings.  It was the first one I've actually seen this year; I heard one at Schenck Forest over the weekend.  I was walking next to the "Holly Springs" (which are not very impressive, by the way) when I spotted a perched Swainson's Thrush angled skyward on a small tree limb - a lifer!  Then, almost on cue, I heard two distant Eastern Wood-Pewees, a year-lister that has evaded me far too long.  EWPE was also my 150th species in Wake County this year, which is more than I saw in the entire state all last year.  Migrants such as the Swainson's Thrush have certainly helped me reach this total.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Wake County Big Day - May 4

A "big day" is the premier activity for birders - it is an attempt to see as many species of birds as possible in one day, often in a specific geographic area.  As a first attempt at a big day, my friends, Sam and Edward, and I decided to do one entirely in Wake County, since Wake County is our "home turf" and we know many of the best birding hotspots in the area.  It is also more manageable of an area. We wrote out many of the possible species we could see, and we expected somewhere between 80 and 90 species seemed likely, but we were secretly hoping to hit 100.

My alarm ("Heavy Soul" by the Black Keys) went off at 2:20 AM, and I went to go wake up the rest of the team.  We were out the door by 2:45, and we headed out to our first destination, the game lands near Harris Lake.  It's a strange feeling being the only car on the road!  Our goal at Harris was something I heard out there back in February - an Eastern Screech Owl.   As we entered the game land, a Wake County Sheriff drove by going the opposite direction, and immediately made a U-turn to tail us,  apparently because driving to the middle of nowhere at 3:00 AM isn't something people normally do. As we pulled off the spot where I previously heard the Screech Owl, the sheriff turned in with us and put his lights on.  I'm not going to lie - we were kind of scared.  I rolled down my window, and the sheriff asked for my license.  A second sheriff came up on the other side of us and checked us out to make sure we weren't up to no good.  They asked us what we were doing, and I went on the explain in my most polite voice how we were looking for owls, and that we were beginning a Big Day.  They kind of looked at me like I was crazy, but they probably figured that we were telling the truth, and they left and let us go look for the owl.

The Screech Owl was a no-show, so we stopped at Walmart next to try to see nighthawks.  This was a longshot to begin with, and we didn't see any.  However, we did hear a Great Horned Owl, bird #1, as well as Killdeer and Canada Goose.  Our next hour was spent trying to find breakfast.  We stopped at several McDonald's that were closed.  We figured out that they don't serve breakfast until later, so we had no choice but to buy cheeseburgers and fries.  We drove out to Schenck Forest in Raleigh as our sunrise stop, and ate our "breakfast".  We miscalculated sunrise time, and arrived like an hour and a half early, so we spent the time sitting in the car.  Finally, light began to appear above the horizon, and we began our walk.  The first birds we heard were Eastern Meadowlarks, Pine Warblers, Carolina Wrens, and Chipping Sparrows.  We spotted another Great Horned Owl up in a pine tree, and watched it glide silently from its roost.  Ovenbirds began singing, their ringing calls echoing through the dim forest.  It was surreal walking through the fern-laden forest, listening to the birds calling, especially in a county with nearly 1 million human inhabitants.  The next birds we got there included Barred Owl, Great Blue Heron, and Red-eyed Vireo.  We found three new species of shorebird at the lake: Least, Spotted, and Solitary Sandpipers, birds we would not see again the rest of the day. On the way out, we heard a Scarlet Tanager, by 198th bird of the year. By the end of our excursion we had exactly 40 species - not a bad start.

Our next stop was Sandling Beach at Falls Lake.  A Black Vulture over I-540 made bird #41.  We would have arrived sooner, but it opens at 8 AM.  We timed it perfect, arriving at exactly 8:01!  It surpassed our expectations - we all got a new birds for our life lists.  New for Sam and Edward was an Acadian Flycatcher, and new for all of us was a beautiful male Black-throated Blue Warbler, one of nature's most stunning creatures.  Sandling also gave us Bald Eagle, Ring-billed Gull, both Prairie and Hooded Warblers, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet - all good birds to add to our day total, now at 53.

Other stops at Falls Lake, including Blue Jay Point and the Falls Dam, gave us some nice birds as well.  Things such as Black-and-white Warbler, Orchard Oriole, and Cliff Swallow helped bring the total up to 63 by the time we left Falls Lake at 11:00 AM.  From then on, the birding would be much slower.  We decided to eat our picnic lunch at Lake Crabtree, which is one of the most heavily birded spots in the Triangle.  Crabtree didn't give us many hard-to-see birds, but did give several common birds that we were missing, including Brown-headed Cowbird, Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, American Goldfinch, and Fish Crow.  We spotted all of these while eating lunch, making our total an even 70.  I was anxious to see what my 200th bird for the year would be - but I would have to wait another two hours to find it.

We made a stop at Prairie Ridge Ecostation to see the Purple Martin colony.  We also managed to spot a White-breasted Nuthatch and some Cedar Waxwings.  Our next stop would be Sam's house, to try to see the Rose-breasted Grosbeak that had been visiting his feeder.  (On Thursday when I went to his house after school to see the Grosbeak, we also spotted a Philadelphia Vireo, a rarity).  We didn't see the RBGR, but his feeder did have Downy Woodpecker and a very late Red-breasted Nuthatch, whose brethren are mostly in Canada by now.

The next place we birded is our favorite area in Wake County - the Mid Pines Road/Yates Mill area.  It offers a great diversity of habitats, including ponds, marshes, swamps, forests, and fields. We first drove down Mid Pines Road, a gravel road winding across the NC State University agricultural fields.  A fourth Blue Grosbeak of the day was perched right beside the road.  We also spotted an immature Buteo, but we couldn't tell if it was a Red-shouldered Hawk or a Broad-winged.  Eventually, we decided it looked more like a Red-shouldered, and headed a little further up the road.  We saw a small blackbird flying just above the field and brought up our binoculars:  it was a Bobolink, my 200th bird of the year!  We went on to see another great bird - an immature Baltimore Oriole, a lifer for me and Edward.  We felt like we couldn't be stopped: anything was possible.  We proceeded to Yates Mill, where we picked up White-eyed Vireo (giving it's crazy call) and, at long last, Indigo Bunting, which had evaded us for the entire day.  We went on to the Lake Wheeler causeway to scope some egrets, with success - three Great Egrets were present.

Checking out the Bobolink at Mid Pines Rd.

Our next stop is probably the most under-appreciated birding hotspot in Wake County, Swift Creek Bluffs, which is managed by the Triangle Land Conservancy.  We picked up Belted Kingfisher right away, calling from Swift Creek.  Further up the trail, we spotted a thrush - only this one was different than the Hermit Thrushes we are used to seeing around.  It was grayer, had a dull tail, and didn't have a rusty tail... It was a Gray-cheeked Thrush, the first one in Wake County this year!  This bird migrates from South America to the furthest reaches of the taiga to breed, and this one was just passing through on its journey.  The best bird of the day, and my 202nd bird of the year.

We decided to try Hemlock Bluffs before dinner - never again.  We only saw ten birds.  Not ten species, ten birds.  Six goldfinch, three titmice, and one Yellow-rumped Warbler.  Ugh.  This was where the day started going downhill.  After dinner, we moped around Harris Lake for the second time, and we picked up American Kestrel.  We tried Walmart again for Green Heron and Loggerhead Shrike (both of which I had seen there a week ago), with no luck.  Bass Lake was also a bust - no Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, like there are every other day I have been there.  The wind began to pick up, and Bass Lake deserted of both people and birds.  We had also hoped for Prothonotary Warbler, but they wouldn't seem to show themselves.  Finally, the winds died down and we managed to pick up Wood Thrush and Common Yellowthroat, #86 and 87, and the last birds of the day.  Several failed attempts at nightjars led to nothing, and we heard one hoot from a Barred Owl to close out the day at 10  PM.

All in all, our total was right where we expected it to be.  We probably could have gotten 100, if several things had gone our way.  There were the misses - Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Caspian Tern, Green Heron, Loggerhead Shrike - all things I had planned on seeing at several locations throughout the day.  But, it was a great first shot at a Big Day, and we left tired but content with some great new birds on our lists.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Cattle Egret Chase

I got home expecting to sit around,  with a possible excursion to Bass Lake to try for a few migrants.  My plans changed after checking eBird's Rare Bird Alert for North Carolina.  A Cattle Egret, a rare bird for Wake County with only a handful of records, had been spotted 30 minutes away at Lake Crabtree.  I somehow convinced my mom (not a birder) to let me go up there, and she decided to go with me. We wandered around the park for a good thirty minutes with no luck.  On the way back to our car, we decided to double-check the field it was initially spotted in earlier that morning.  I was talking about how the bird had already high-tailed it out of there when a white object caught my eye.  It was the egret!

Cattle Egrets have a strange history.  Originally a native of the Old World, they flew across the Atlantic from Africa and "invaded" South America in the mid-20th Century.  Since then, they have been expanding their breeding range northward into the United States.  These birds seem like they are straight from the African savannah, with their buff-colored crest and stocky figure, and in a sense they are. Cattle Egret is life list #260 and year list #194 - a great way to close out the month of April.

This Saturday, my friends and I will embark on a Big Day for Wake County - trying to see as many species in 24 hours as possible.  The summary of this adventure will likely be my next post.