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.