Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Sunset Beach, from a Birder's Perspective

Sunset Beach, North Carolina, prides itself on being a family-friendly beach with extensive sand, warm waters, and its lack of high-rises.  It lays claim to some of the most complete dunes on any developed Carolina island, and consequently is the only beach in the state that is actually growing in size - a sharp contrast to Rodanthe on the Outer Banks, which always has one or two new houses literally falling in the ocean.

Sunset Beach also has a tiny sign on the drive in that says "bird sanctuary", which barely does this place justice.  Just a quarter mile from the last row of houses on the beach is a sandy point that juts out into the inlet, reaching toward crumbling Ocean Isle.  On my first evening in the area, I opted to go for a short walk up to the inlet to see what was around.  As the sun set behind a thick bank of clouds, I spotted my first Piping Plover - an endangered species.  It was somehow deeply moving to see such a ghostly bird alone in the falling darkness.  The only member of its species in sight - a fitting, but ominous, metaphor for the Piping Plover's current position on the very brink of existence.

Perhaps no other bird has sparked so much controversy among non-birders.  Piping Plovers depend on relatively undisturbed barrier islands to breed, nest, and migrate. Some people see seasonal beach restrictions to protect the plover as a complete travesty and an infringement on their rights, and stand sharply opposed to conservationists trying to save the bird from extinction.  This environmental battle has been playing out for several years - and there is no question which side I stand on.

Damages to nesting and migration habitat have whittled the Piping Plover population down to only 8,000 adult birds.  Luckily, organizations like Audubon care, and have been fighting to save this bird from extinction (much to the dismay of Hatteras residents).  Many other ground-nesting birds depend on the same habitat as the Piping Plover, such as the Least Tern. This particular plover I saw was likely passing through from its breeding grounds in the north to its wintering grounds in the south, and Sunset Beach was an ideal stopover.

The next morning, I returned to the inlet, hoping to see more birds in the daylight.  I was certainly not disappointed.  I got excellent views of terns and Black Skimmers, bizarre-looking birds that skim their bills in the water to catch prey.

Two Black Skimmers who gave a close fly-by.

In addition to the terns, skimmers, and copious amounts of dowitchers on a distant island, I spotted one of the all-time coolest marsh birds - which also happens to be a rarity in NC, and a lifer - a Reddish Egret. 

Reddish Egret!!!

Reddish Egrets are perhaps best identifiable by one strange quirk of their behavior - instead of waiting slowly to catch its prey, it will flap its wings and run around in a frenzy, trying to herd and catch small fish.  I spent several minutes watching the bird's antics through the spotting scope, until a flock of pelicans spooked it away.  I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the bird, let alone to see it so well.

Inland, on a quest for a reported Roseate Spoonbill, I spotted a large flock of Wood Storks and many Common Gallinules.  Good birds, but no Spoonbill (I saw one there last year).

Immature Common Gallinules near Calabash, relatives of both coots and rails.

The next day was less eventful, as I walked down to the other end of the island - to what used to be a separate "Bird Island" until a hurricane changed all that.  The four-mile barefoot walk proved to be not quite as productive as the day before.  At least I saw some Sandwich Terns, a few Ruddy Turnstones, the ubiquitous Sanderlings, Semipalmated Plovers, and some Willets.  Maybe I was just spoiled from the masses of fascinating birds I saw the day before.  I still enjoyed some photo-ops with some of the shorebirds (my favorite), and managed to snap a few keepers.  Sunset Beach is truly one of my favorite places to bird, and little guys like the one below keep me wanting to come back.

Ruddy Turnstone feeding on tiny Coquina clams.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Lake Crabtree's "Mud Island"

"Mud Island" is a large, well, mud island.  It formed where Crabtree Creek flows into Lake Crabtree, and only appears when the lake level is low enough, hence why no plants grow on it.   Mud Island has a reputation of having good shorebirds, maybe more so than any other place in Wake County.  Mud Island is out right now, and I figured it would be a good place to begin birding Fall Migration.  Some shorebirds begin returning to their wintering grounds very early, in the middle part of July, and I was hoping to spot some of these guys.

It's not pretty - Mud Island is a large brown expanse that rises just inches above the water level.  Birds love it because it is easily visible from the sky - something I can attest to having just flown over it in a plane less than a month ago.  I arrived there just before 9 AM with my dad and my friend Sam, and we immediately began scoping the mudflat.  After picking through a mass of Killdeer, I spotted the first migrant shorebird of the day - a Greater Yellowlegs.  The key I use to distinguish the Greater from its cousin, the Lesser Yellowlegs, is to look at the bill - Greaters' are slightly upturned.  They are also noticeably bigger when compared side-by-side, which is not always possible, like today.

While observing the Yellowlegs, Sam spotted some peeps that we ID'd (after careful observation) as Least Sandpipers based on their overall darker upperparts.  Two Spotted Sandpipers were working the island as well, bobbing among the abundant Killdeer.  We decided to scan the island one last time, and I spotted another large shorebird near the Yellowlegs - a Dowitcher.  But which type?  The Long-billed/Short-billed Dowitcher complex is one of the most notorious "slashes" in birding - even worse, in my opinion, than Alder/Willow Flycatcher and Greater/Lesser Scaup.  In Winter, I'd say it's downright impossible to ID a Dowitcher without a vocalization (and sometimes with), at least for a relatively inexperienced birder like me.  Luckily, this Dowitcher was in "worn breeding" plumage, a term that means it has been in its breeding garb for a while and it's starting to look a little old.  It was very dark, with dark red that extended through the lower belly, unlike a Short-billed, which has a bit of white and is lighter overall.  It lacked spots on the breast, and had an overall longish bill compared to Short-billeds I've seen in the past.  All these signs pointed toward it being a Long-billed Dowitcher, a year-lister and a rare bird in Wake County.

Long-billed Dowitcher probing Mud Island like a sewing machine, taken with my 400mm lens - the digiscoped iphone photo was even worse.

If anything, Long-billed Dowitcher is a great bird for Wake County, and is hopefully just the beginning of the shorebirds I will see in the coming months as fall migration ramps up.  I will definitely be back to Mud Island - maybe something else cool will turn up.  

Saturday, July 13, 2013

More Birding in Montana, Alberta, and Idaho

I left off my last entry after I saw the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch at Logan Pass up in the Glacier high country.  That seemed to just be the beginning of my birding adventure in this part of the country.

The next day was our longest hike of the trip - Cracker Lake - which adds up to around 13 miles round-trip.  The lake was absolutely spectacular (above), cast in a glacial cirque below Mt. Siyeh.  As I was nearing the rocky outcropping that is considered the "end" of the trail, saw something flitting around in the krummholz (low-growing alpine evergreen shrubs).  Like any good birder, I whipped my binoculars out of my pack.  Okay, I guess a "good birder" would have already had binoculars out, but give me a break - 10x50s get heavy on a long, arduous hike.  But anyway, the target bird lighted on a small spruce tree just as I pulled the binoculars up to my eyes.  MacGillivray's Warbler, a beautiful, chunky warbler with striking gray-and-yellow plumage.  Not what I was expecting on this hike, but a welcome surprise.  

We ate our lunch while observing a massive bull moose swimming in the lake, and then began the return journey.  High on the cliffs surrounding the canyon, a flash caught my eye.  Looking through binoculars, the identity was apparent - a Peregrine Falcon, only the second one I've ever seen.  I watched it take off, flying on its powerful wings.  Peregrines can reach speeds up to 200 mph when diving for prey, making them the real speed demons of the animal world.  

The next day at Virginia Falls, I spotted a Western Tanager singing near the parking area, and spent a good amount of time watching a family of American Dippers gather insect larva out of the turbulent stream below the falls.

The next day, on the hike to Red Rock Falls in the Swiftcurrent Valley, I saw my FOY Mountain Chickadees and heard a tantalizingly close American Three-toed Woodpecker that never revealed itself.

Mountain Bluebird in Waterton Lakes National Park

We then left the states for a few days to go up to Waterton Lakes NP in Alberta.  There, my spotting scope came in handy to view five beautiful Trumpeter Swans swimming in Lower Waterton Lake.  While looking at Black Terns on a nearby lake that I'm not even going to attempt to spell, I saw some gray forms moving through the marsh.  I dashed to the car to grab the scope, and my suspicions were confirmed - Gray Wolves!

On the drive back to Idaho, I spotted a Swainson's Hawk perched on a road sign.  I've only ever seen this species from the car on the highway - last year I saw one from I-80 in Nebraska!

Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge, Idaho

Near Bonner's Ferry, Idaho, I visited Kootenai NWR, a bird haven.  It consists of wetlands and ponds, flanked on one side by mountains and the other by a river.  It has an excellent loop drive on elevated embankments, allowing for easy viewing into the marshland.  The visitor's center has a hummingbird feeder that gave me two lifers - Black-chinned and Calliope Hummingbirds.

Bad photo of a Black-chinned Hummingbird at Kootenai NWR

On the nearby "chickadee trail", I got two more lifers by hearing a Cassin's Vireo and seeing a family of Cordilleran Flycatchers, another cool western Empidonax.  On the drive, I saw my 275th year bird - a California Gull.  Kootenai NWR proved to be a great ending to a fantastic trip - I got 29 new birds for my life list over the course of ten days.  NC, Indiana, and Montana combined to make June my best month ever for birding, seeing at least 143 species.  July will bring me to the beach and to the beginning of Fall Migration (for shorebirds)... there is still much in store for me this year.

Life Through The Lens - American Dippers

[Note - This will be the first of a monthly series highlighting a bird I have seen, photographed, and find particularly interesting]

Few birds are as daring as the American Dipper, a diminutive species that inhabits streams, rapids, and waterfalls in the mountainous West.  In order to find their preferred food, insect larvae, Dippers leap into the frigid torrent of water.  Completely submerged, they either "fly" or walk along the river bottom, turning over stones to find their prey.   Dippers are specially adapted to the sometimes icy mountain streams - they have unusually thick feathers, more like a duck's than a songbird's.  Another, more fascinating adaptation is a large oil gland that secretes the bird world's version of Gore-Tex below the bird's tail.  Dippers will rub their bills in this oil and spread it all over their feathers, making them water-resistant.
Dippers get their name from the continuous bobbing they do while on land, possibly a way to communicate over the deafening sound of waterfalls.  They also communicate using a variety of chirps and whistles.  Dippers nest along cliffs near water, where they construct mossy hollows for their eggs.  The bird above, in Glacier National Park, had a nest just below the impressive Virginia Falls, where it and its mate would continuously bring their catch.  I spent upwards of an hour observing these birds, and they came within just a few feet of me after one of their dives.  If you are ever in the Rockies, Cascades, Sierras, or any other Western mountain range, I encourage you to look along streams for these slate-gray birds.  You can learn a lot by just sitting on a rock and watching them, like I did.  They are one of the most fascinating creatures I've come across - the perfect bird for my first Life Through The Lens.
The only dipper I saw in Canada was this bilingual fellow educating the visitors on the fragility of the canyon walls.  Dippers nest on canyon walls, so I think his statement about "never going on them" is a bit of a stretch... but is still a good message.