Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Shorebirding Eastern NC

Late August - the peak of shorebird migration.  Tempting reports were flooding in all week from American Turf Grass Corporation - a.k.a. "American Turf Farms" - about 2 hours east of Raleigh.   You may be asking - why do shorebirds flock to vast expanses of sod?  I thought shorebirds like the shore!  Well, some species, particularly ones that nest more inland or in the arctic tundra, like to chill in wet grass.  There are three sod-loving species in particular that really get the Carolina birder's heart pumping:  American Golden-Plovers, Upland Sandpipers, and Buff-breasted Sandpipers.  In fact, these birds have etched their very own nicknames into the birding vernacular - Goldies, Uppies, and Buffies, respectively.  I was toying with the idea of going out to the Turf Farm for months, and finally decided to take my good friends Sam Jolly and Edward Landi on a "shorebirding" trip down east.   The aforementioned species were our primary targets.

In typical birder fashion, we left Raleigh insanely early at around 5:45 AM.  After a quick meal of Cajun Filet Biscuits at Bojangles', we figured we would arrive around 8.  In reality, we got to the sod farm at about 8:30 due to a wrong turn down a sketchy dirt road.  We arrived at the turf farm optimistic - but our high hopes were only greeted by Killdeer.  We continued down the main gravel road under US-64 and immediately noticed a massive flock of shorebirds across a vast shortgrass field.  Like any good birders, we got out of the car and began scoping the flock.  

Sam and Edward busy sifting through the killdeer.

The first great find was a beautiful American Golden-Plover, still partially in breeding plumage.  A truly spectacular bird to watch, and one of my all-time favorites.

One of the Golden-Plovers at the farm.  This was the first one I'd seen since a trip to Alaska in 2005, before I was a birder.  Even then, I was impressed by this bird.

We soon spotted our next target, Upland Sandpiper, out a little further.  We eventually found four in total, and had amazing views through the scope.  Uppies breed in prairies and pastures further north, and are among the first shorebirds to pass through North Carolina on their way south.

Upland Sandpiper, among the strangest shorebirds.

Twenty minutes had gone by, and we still had not seen a Buff-breasted Sandpiper, which would be a lifer for me.  Eventually, Sam called out "buffie" and I rushed up to the scope.  It was about a mile away (okay, actually only a half mile) and was periodically invisible due to the heat distortion in the air.  Not exactly the view I wanted, but I was content with the new bird.  We eventually headed further down the road to get closer to the two Buffies.  At long last, I was satisfied - through the scope, I could see every little detail on their feathers.  Another excellent shorebird to add to my life list, and one I will cherish.  I've said it once and I'll surely say it again:  shorebirds are my favorite.  And Buff-breasted Sandpiper is one hell of a shorebird.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper - henceforth referred to by the rather adorable moniker "buffie".

Take any birder within two hours of Lake Mattamuskeet and they can feel its pull, like how migratory birds feel the pull of the Earth's magnetic field.  Of course, we couldn't resist stopping by the largest natural lake in NC.  It is one of our favorite places in the state, and we were hoping it would draw in shorebirds like it draws in birders.  

The subtle beauty of this vast lake, once drained for farmland.

Lake Mattamuskeet is vast - it's the only lake I know of in the state where you can't see the opposite shore.  Despite its huge size, it is incredibly shallow (average depth: 2 feet) and is essentially shaped like a giant pinto bean.  Along the way to the lake, we joked about seeing rare birds like Hudsonian Godwits or Wilson's Phalaropes once we reached the refuge - like always, dumb optimism was our go-to attitude (it could be worse).  

The first destination at the lake was the Wildlife Drive, which has yielded excellent birds in the past.  Not this time.  The impoundment was all but deserted, and we barely managed to find a Yellow Warbler and two Tricolored Herons before heading to the eastern shore of the lake, known as Lake Landing.  Now, understand, we had never been to Lake Landing before, and our expectations were much higher than they should have been.  We pictured beautiful, Pea Island-esque impoundments brimming with dowitchers, peeps, and godwits.  No such luck.  Most of the "impoundments" on the map were almost completely overgrown by weeds and shrubs - great habitat for Indigo Buntings, but not for what we wanted to find.  Luckily, as the road conditions deteriorated (bad to worse), the birding conditions ramped up.  Things were set off by a Northern Bobwhite, always a reassuring species.  Then we found two Pileated Woodpeckers up in a tree.  The road began following some canals, and we spooked an immature Night-heron.

Several minutes later, we pulled along the ditch to eat our lunches.  We noticed a steady stream of Yellowlegs flying by to a point on the lake we couldn't see from our position.  I climbed up on the car to see over the cattails.

"There's a pretty big flat out there, and it's crawling with birds"  I said, "to bad there's no good way to scope it from here."

As determined teenage birders, we couldn't resist the temptation of that huge mudflat in the corner of the lake.  We spent the next hour figuring out a way to see it, concluding in a Bear Grylls-style bushwhack through dense seven-foot marsh grass.  At long last, we had reached the lakeshore.  Now down to business.  Scoping mudflats can be a tedious process, especially from as great a distance as we were at. Sorting through all of the common, less desirable birds for the lifers proved difficult.  Semipalmated Plovers, Black-bellied Plovers, Yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpipers.  All cool, but nothing new.  After at least five thorough scans of the whole expanse, we finally picked up something of interest.  A slim shorebird was facing away from us, preening alone on the mudflat behind some gulls.  It had a gray cap and a contrasting white face, more so than any nearby yellowlegs.  A Wilson's Phalarope - the bird we had joked about wanting to see earlier was actually within our grasp!  Phalaropes are aquatic sandpipers with lobed toes and unique feeding patterns, involving spinning and twirling while floating on the surface.  They are highly prized by Carolina birders due to their beauty and relative rareness - phalaropes are notoriously difficult to find on the East Coast.  We also spotted two (my first in NC) Black Terns out on the flat with the Laughing Gulls.  Getting to the scoping spot was well worth the effort, despite our complaints.

Me scoping the mudflat a long way away - birding is starting to get intense.

Lake Mattamuskeet never fails to impress.  I get at least one lifer every time I go there, and this time was no different - Wilson's Phalarope.  The highlight of the day (or even the month) for me was birding American Turf Farm, though.  I absolutely love all three of our target species, and we got better views of them than I ever expected.  It was an incredible day, concluded with milkshakes from "Little Man" (yes, the quotes are actually part of the name) restaurant in Plymouth.  Shorebirding is officially my favorite sport.  

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Endless Summer

Some shorebirds, who migrate thousands of miles every year from the far reaches of the Southern Hemisphere to the Arctic Tundra, live in an "endless summer".  These birds never experience winter, and they may travel hundreds of thousands of miles in their lifetime to avoid it.  The tiny Semipalmated Sandpiper, for example, leaves North America by fall and arrives on its "wintering grounds" in South America just in time for the Austral Summer.  The Bar-tailed Godwit flies the non-stop 6,500 miles between New Zealand and Alaska twice every year, an incredible feat for any animal.  These birds experience the pleasant summer temperatures of high latitudes without having to bear the brunt of the cold weather such regions are notorious for.

Kayaking at Harris Lake was nice - but no birds.  

I have found myself trapped in the middle of another seemingly endless summer - but this one has a 100 degree heat index.  It seems like this season has dragged on long enough.  The combination of the heat (or rather the humidity) and the lack of bird activity has kept me indoors the past few weeks, and has made me kind of anxious.  Bring on the birds!  Unfortunately, the mudflats that are usually crawling with shorebirds this time of year are swamped under the unusual amount of rain North Carolina has gotten this year.  Every birding trip I've taken around the county has left me with really good views of really full lakes.  But no birds, except for the odd egret.

 A Killdeer - about the only bird I've seen around Raleigh these past few months.

Enter August 11th.  I figure an attempt at some birding is in order, even if I am pessimistic.  If this little foray wasn't for fun, it was for the sake of my sanity.  Storms rolled in the night before, leaving the field at Lake Crabtree wet and ready for "grasspipers".  If everything went well, I'd at least see something.

I picked up my friend Edward to go scope things out.  We checked the large grassy field at Lake Crabtree County Park first, hoping for some turf-loving shorebirds.  Nothing - not even a Killdeer!  I was disappointed, but not surprised - finding anything would have been a long shot.  Before we left, I took a quick scan across the lake.  Through the binoculars, I could make out a barely perceptible mudflat - it was back from being underwater last weekend!  We headed over to check it out.

We reached the usual scoping location for the island, and we spotted several small peeps running along the shoreline.  In order to get closer, we trudged through a thick mat of briars and tall grass toward a point with a more commanding view of the island.  Our effort paid off.  One peep caught my eye as I was scanning the island, and it had wingtips that extended beyond its tail.  This is the trademark characteristic of two birds -  both the White-rumped and the Baird's Sandpiper.  But which one was it?  It didn't have spotting down the side like a White-rumped would, leading us to believe it was a Baird's Sandpiper, and excellent bird and a lifer. In addition, it was a nice buffy-brown color typical of Baird's (according to the field guide).  We eventually got a view of its tail, which lacked the distinctive white patch of the aptly-named White-rumped Sandpiper, and we became one hundred percent sure of our identification.  Baird's Sandpiper - a good bird any day, especially in Wake County.

Baird's Sandpiper - it's the tiny Calidris in the middle of the frame. 

We heard a loud call from above us, and three Caspian Terns swooped in and landed on the island.  Caspian Tern is another fall migrant this time of year, and is always fun to watch.  We turned our attention back to the Baird's, which spent most of its time bathing, feeding, and chasing Least Sandpipers around.  I love shorebirds, so this sighting of a great fall migrant like this really got me going.  A cool bird on a hot day - I can't complain. 

We headed out to Mid Pines Rd to try to find a Grasshopper Sparrow.  We easily found one singing next to a corn field, and Edward got another lifer on the day.   A little further down the road, we watched an immature Red-shouldered Hawk hunt along the fence line.  A good end to a great morning of birding.  The highlight of the week was easily the Baird's Sandpiper, migrating from the tundra of Canada or Alaska.  Maybe summer is coming to an end after all.

Red-shouldered Hawk at Mid Pines Rd preparing to light on a fencepost.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Life Through The Lens - Reddish Egret

The Reddish Egret is probably the most charismatic of our North American herons.  Most individuals are a drab red-gray, hence the "reddish" name (though some are white).  It is also the rarest breeding heron in the US - the Audubon Society estimates a population of only 12,000, with a range mostly restricted to the Gulf coast.  Its population was decimated by plume hunters in the early 1900s, and the species never fully recovered.  For this reason, it remains one of the most poorly understood herons species in the country.  Fortunately, the Migratory Bird Act now protects it, and we can still see this fascinating bird in North America.
Most herons and egrets hunt by slowly wading along shores and lakes, waiting for frogs, fish, and crustaceans to come into view.  They can spend hours waiting for the perfect moment to strike.  But the Reddish Egret takes a more active, and frankly more bad-ass, approach to catching food.  It runs and flaps its wings in a frenzied, circular "dance" to stir up mud and small fish.  An ingenious hunter, the Reddish Egret will also use its wings to make a canopy above the water - minnows flock to the shady area underneath, and the egret attacks.

Reddish Egrets, like many large wading birds, will disperse from their breeding grounds in the late summer - which is how the bird above ended up in North Carolina where I could see it.  I spent several minutes watching it feed - dancing, spinning, flying, and twirling more than an olympic figure skater.  Nearby birds seemed static in comparison to the comical grace of the Reddish.  A flock of Brown Pelicans, another bird back from the brink, flushed it deep into the marsh, far out of view.  I was left with a vivid memory of this energetic bird, and some photos - perfect for the August edition of Life Through The Lens.
Ready to strike