Sunday, September 29, 2013

North Carolina Big Day - September 28

At last, the weekend I had been waiting for had arrived.  I, along with my two partners-in-crime Sam and Edward, would be doing a North Carolina big day, combining Lake Mattamuskeet with the Outer Banks for an intense day of birding.  Our primary goal was to reach the century mark, something we've never done in one day before. The day would be hard, stressful, and tiring - but it would also be one of the best days of birding I've ever had.

We left Raleigh at 3:15 AM and headed east.  We knew that inland would be our only shot at getting an owl, so we checked a boat ramp along the swampy Roanoke River.  It was there we heard our first and second birds of the day - a Swainson's Thrush flight call and a hooting Great-horned Owl, respectively.  It was a good stop - two birds we wouldn't get again all day.

Our next stop was American Turf Farms in Creswell, a spot notable for its migrant shorebirds.  We timed our arrival to be just before sunrise.  We got there and - we didn't see anything.  For twenty minutes, nothing but Killdeer.  Then, out of nowhere, shorebirds started popping up.  Pectoral Sandpiper, Black-bellied Plover, American Golden-plover, and Buff-breasted Sandpiper put on quite a show for us.  It was hard to drag ourselves away from the extravaganza, but we had to keep moving.  Just down the road from the turf farm is a catfish farm that is usually crawling with Bald Eagles.  This morning was exceptional - as we flew by on the highway, we counted at least 40-60, likely more (!) eagles lined up along the shore.  It was an incredible high count, and testimony to the species' amazing recovery.

The next stop would be the most crucial to our Big Day's success - Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge.  The first good bird there was a flock of Bobolinks flying overhead, little golden blackbirds migrating southward.  Things really started to pick up after we entered the forest.  There was a massive flock of American Redstarts - probably numbering well into the hundreds! - that filled the woods along New Holland Trail.  It was distracting having so many warblers flying every which way, and there were almost certainly some rare migrants mixed in that we missed.  I have never seen so many warblers in one place in my life - there were dozens of Parulas darting around as well.  It was quite a spectacle.  While we were pishing around we saw an Empid fly out of the canopy.  It lighted on a branch in plain view - it was a lifer Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, a rare migrant and the first excellent bird of the day.  It is the best view of any Empidonax I've ever had! Nearby we found a Traill's-type flycatcher that refused to vocalize, but we could still count it as a "slash" for the day list.

When we started looking past all of the redstarts, the forest along Lake Mattamuskeet's New Holland Trail proved to be quite productive - the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher was seen in the top right tree.

We managed to clean up most of our target land birds at Mattamuskeet, despite barely getting Tufted Titmouse and just glimpsing a lone American Robin.  There was one passerine we still desperately needed - Eastern Towhee, usually an easy bird to get.  We also got all three small peeps, both yellowlegs, and Merlin, and we were sitting pretty at 75 day birds by the time we reached the Outer Banks.

The next official stop was Bodie Island, where a viewing platform overlooks a usually-productive marshy pond.  White Ibis and several heron species were new for the day, along with Black Ducks, Pintail, and Gadwall.  As we were preparing to leave, I noticed a group of large shorebirds clustered along an island.  Three were Willets, but one was smaller and markedly different than the rest.  It turned its head and we could make out its long, upturned, pinkish bill.  Hudsonian Godwit, or "hudwit" - a bird I had wanted desperately on this trip.  An amazing bonus for both our day and for our life lists.  Hudsonians are far rarer than their cousin, the Marbled Godwit, and little is known about their wintering grounds in South America.

Oregon Inlet was our next stop , and it proved to be a waste of time.  Every bird we saw there, we saw again later in the day - the last thing you want on a big day.  The one highlight was a peregrine falcon hunting over the dunes - more on peregrines later.  We also saw another of the many, many Merlins we would see during the course of the day.

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge was our last big push.  White-rumped Sandpiper, Dunlin, Black-necked Stilt, Pied-billed Grebe, American Avocet, Short-billed Dowitcher, and Marbled Godwit were all new for the day.  Black-necked Stilt was a North Carolina lifer, and Marbled Godwit was my first of the year.

Black-necked Stilt at Pea Island - usually gone by late September.

We headed out to the campground we would be staying at to set up our tents.  There, we picked up an unusually late Eastern Kingbird sitting on a wire above our site, House Finch, House Sparrow, and, on the beach, Ruddy Turnstone.  We were at 99.  One away from our triple-digit goal.

The next hour or so proved to be fairly stressful.  We searched and searched the grounds of Cape Hatteras, looking for something new.  We found a promising trail heading down to an old cemetery, and decided to check it out.  It looked like good Towhee habitat, and we still didn't have Towhee on our day list.  It was getting late.  I did something I never thought I would ever, ever, EVER have to do.

I used playback on an Eastern Towhee.

I played the loud call from my phone several times, and we all heard a very distant response.  Bird #100 was an Eastern Towhee!  It seemed like every milestone we hit was a boring bird.  25 was Great Egret, 50 was White-breasted Nuthatch, 75 was Rock Pigeon, and now 100 was Eastern Towhee. At least we reached our goal, and we could finally relax.

To try to find more birds, we walked down an Off Road Vehicle (ORV) road (does that even make sense?) to reach the Salt Pond.  Edward narrowly avoided stepping on an angry Cottonmouth (a lifer reptile) with its fangs reared - after that we payed a little more attention to where we were stepping!  We scoped the pond and found another Avocet, some plovers, and bird #101, Lesser Black-backed Gull.  A Peregrine Falcon showed up, and began chasing the other birds.  It landed on the shore for a break, and we watched it for quite a while through our scopes.  Peregrines are always fun to watch, especially in a state like NC where they are still relatively uncommon.  

The sun was setting, and on the way back to the car we flushed an Eastern Meadowlark to finish up our list at 102.  It was too windy for flight calls, and we decided to throw in the towel and go to sleep.  The day was successful - we had reached our goal!  It was great experience for future Big Days - our first time doing a statewide one - and left us all with new life birds.  It was an amazing day I'll never forget.

Here is the complete list, with locations/times:

Williamston Boat Ramp - 4:45 AM
1. Swainson's Thrush
2. Great Horned Owl
American Turfgrass Corporation - 6:30 AM
3. Northern Cardinal
4. Mourning Dove
5. Carolina Wren
6. Killdeer
7. American Golden-Plover
8. Black-bellied Plover
9. Great Blue Heron
10. Pectoral Sandpiper
11. Buff-breasted Sandpiper
12. European Starling
13. American Crow
14. Gray Catbird
Highways US-64 and NC-94 -  7:20 AM
15. Turkey Vulture
16. Bald Eagle
17. Common Grackle
18. Red-winged Blackbird
19. Blue Jay
20. Northern Harrier
21. Northern Mockingbird
22. Brown-headed Cowbird
23. Eastern Bluebird
24. Merlin
25. Great Egret
Lake Mattamuskeet NWR - 8:15 AM
26. Canada Goose
27. Blue-winged Teal
28. Greater Yellowlegs
29. Semipalmated Sandpiper
30. Western Sandpiper
31. Osprey
32. Bobolink
33. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
34. Caspian Tern
35. American Goldfinch
36. American Redstart
37. Black-and-white Warbler
38. Northern Parula
39. Palm Warbler
40. Belted Kingfisher
41. Hairy Woodpecker
42. Carolina Chickadee
43. Pine Warbler
44. Brown-headed Nuthatch
45. Chimney Swift
46. Wood Duck
47. Red-bellied Woodpecker
48. Pileated Woodpecker
49. Prairie Warbler
50. White-breasted Nuthatch
51. Tree swallow
52. Downy Woodpecker
53. Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
54. Tufted Titmouse
55. Common Yellowthroat
56. "Traill's" Flycatcher (Alder/Willow)
57. Boat-tailed Grackle
58. Blue Grosbeak
59. Red-eyed Vireo
60. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
61. Common Gallinule
62. Mallard
63. Least Sandpiper
64. Semipalmated Sandpiper
65. Forster's Tern
66. Lesser Yellowlegd
67. Double-crested Cormorant
Highway US-264 - 10:25 AM
68. Red-tailed Hawk
69. Northern Flicker
70. American Robin
71. Laughing Gull
72. Great Black-backed Gull
73. Ring-billed Gull
74. Brown Pelican
75. Rock Pigeon
Bodie Island Lighthouse/Pond - 11:25 AM
76. Willet
77. Northern Pintail
78. American Black Duck
79. Tricolored Heron
80. Little Blue Heron
81. Gadwall
82. White Ibis
83. Snowy Egret
84. Hudsonian Godwit
Oregon Inlet - 12:30 PM
85. Sanderling
86. Herring Gull
87. Royal Tern
88. Peregrine Falcon
Pea Island NWR - 1:50 PM
89. White-rumped Sandpiper
90. Black-necked Stilt
91. Dunlin
92. Marbled Godwit
93. American Avocet
94. Pied-billed Grebe
95. Short-billed Dowitcher
Campground - 3:15 PM
96. Eastern Kingbird
97. House Finch
98. House Sparrow
99. Ruddy Turnstone
Cape Hatteras - 4:45 PM
100. Eastern Towhee
101. Lesser Black-backed Gull
102. Eastern Meadowlark

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Golden-winged Surprise

Harris Lake County Park is one of my favorite fall migration hotspots.  It's located on a funnel-shaped peninsula that tends to concentrate south-bound migrants, making it the perfect place to search for warblers.  I've had good luck there recently with some new birds for my NC list: both Chestnut-sided and Bay-breasted Warblers.

Sunday morning I returned to the park, hoping for more good luck.  I arrived a little later than I had hoped, and the bird activity was slightly sub-par.  I ended up wandering down an old service road, scanning the treetops.  One Black-and-white Warbler and a few Summer Tanagers kept me moving along.

I came to a spot close to the middle of the park, where the trees (for reasons unknown to me) had cartoon eyes attached to them - it was actually kind of unsettling.  I had a feeling I was being watched by the pines' obscure expressions and lazy-eyed looks, but I had to ignore it.  There was a big mixed flock above me, and I began looking for any gems.   Pewee, Pine Warbler, Titmouse.  Then nothin'.  I waited another few minutes, and a group of three warblers came flying out of the woods.  The first one I laid eyes on was a drab gray-brown bird that disappeared before I could be sure of what it was.  I looked a little below and saw my first Blue-winged Warbler, a beautiful yellow bird with a black eyeline and blue-gray wings.  I was pretty excited to get my first Vermivora warbler and my 175th Wake County year bird.  Above the Blue-winged was a Northern Parula, a more common bird - but still a nice migrant.  I left happy, but with the knowledge of a new birding patch.  Whenever I go to Harris again, I'll have to check the "place where the trees have eyes", even if it creeps me out a little.

The idea of returning to the park began gnawing at me as soon as I returned home, but I had to wait until Wednesday to finally go for another visit.  It was a beautiful 70 degrees, with a light breeze and no humidity - what I would describe as perfect weather.  It was one of those days where you just feel like something good is bound to happen.  And that "something good" did happen.

On my way down the service road, I figured I'd stop and scan the bushes and low trees.  Almost immediately, I saw a small bird flitting around about fifteen feet away.  I raised my binoculars just in time to see a golden glint on its wing.  My heart started racing - there's only one bird with wings like that!  I was finally looking at one of the top birds on my "wanted" list - Golden-winged Warbler.  Happier than a kid in a candy store, I frantically retrieved my camera and began trying to snap a shot for the blog (and for the eBird checklist as proof of my sighting).  After a few misses, the bird finally decided to perch on a branch in the open.  Clickclickclickclick, my 8 frames-per-second camera's shutter went off like a machine gun. I got it, even if the photos were mediocre at best.

Golden-winged Warbler.  I never thought my first one would be just a few miles from my house! This is life bird #333.

Golden-winged Warbler populations have been declining for decades, due to a combination of habitat loss and hybridization with the closely-related Blue-winged Warbler.  This bird is certainly a hard-to-get species, and I was incredibly lucky to have such a fantastic encounter with it, especially so close to home.  This bird will definitely go down as one of my favorite sightings of the year - unexpected and beautiful.  The bright golden shine of its wings were absolutely spectacular, and I will certainly never forget their glint in the diffused sunlight.  Move over Prothonotary: I think I have a new favorite warbler.  

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Fall Warblers and #300

Fall has officially started in terms of migration.  The air over North Carolina is slowly losing its stifling humidity - and although highs are still in the upper 80s, I can actually bear being outside.  Every so often, a pleasant breeze reminds me that beautiful October air is only one month away.

I thought I would try my luck at Bass Lake in Holly Springs right after school earlier this week.  The birds were few and far between - even the usual suspects weren't showing.  The first interesting bird was a Great Horned Owl calling in broad daylight.  I've never heard a Great Horned doing this before, though I have heard Barred Owls "haw"ing in the late afternoon.  The owl was a new bird for Bass Lake.  I also spotted a second "location bird" - a Yellow-billed Cuckoo near a small creek.

In a wooded area, I came upon a flock of chickadees and titmice and began pishing pretty hard (after looking over my shoulder and making sure no one was around - I always feel awkward going "shppshh-shppshh-shppshh" loudly in front of strangers).  The titmice began responding to my calling, and I started to bring a pretty good-sized flock of birds in around me.  Something in particular caught my eye - I raised my binoculars to see a dull fall warbler bouncing around in a Sweetgum.  A Tennessee Warbler, a life bird and - wait - number 300 for the year!  I was pretty excited, and it certainly made up for the lackluster birding beforehand.

A few days later, I headed to Mason Farm 35 minutes away in Chapel Hill to do a little more warbler-hunting.  Again, it started out dull, but things picked up after spotting a Barred Owl and several White-eyed Vireos.  I am always amazed at how silently Barred Owls fly - one could fly right over your head and you wouldn't even know it was there.  This adaptation makes them lethal nocturnal hunters.

Barred Owl at Mason Farm

Soon we were seeing Redstarts, Parulas, and several Red-eyed Vireos.  In the final wooded area along the path, we began actively pishing and trying in a last-ditch effort to bring in some migrants.  Sure enough, we caught a glimpse of a Magnolia Warbler, a new state bird for me.  Magnolias are particularly beautiful warblers, even in their fall plumage. They have a striking black, white, and yellow pattern that makes them relatively easy to identify.

I honestly can't wait for cooler weather - 65 and sunny is just about as good as it gets, in my opinion.  I'm ready for the gulls and ducks to return to my area, but for now I have some nice fall migrants to fulfill my avian ambitions.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Freedom at 299

Ah... the beach.  White powdery sands, warm waters, and ocean breezes.  Many enjoy chilling and playing on the shores of North Carolina, and I am no exception.  But eventually, I get bored with body surfing and playing frisbee - when this happens, I go birding.

Once again, I found myself at Sunset Beach, the westernmost and southernmost NC beach town.  And once again, it yielded some interesting birds.  Late Friday night while walking the beach with a friend,  I heard a Veery nocturnal flight call above the beach - a new state bird for me.  On Saturday I braved the afternoon heat to scope the sandbar where I saw the Reddish Egret just one month earlier.  After trudging through the parched, sandy expanse between the dunes and the sunbathers, I reached the scoping spot.  I scanned through a flock of almost 100 Black Skimmers (more than I had ever seen) and many Short-billed Dowitchers milling around.  Then, I spotted a bird that looked substantially different than the rest.  Through the heat distortion I could make out its dark cap, brown cast, and long, down-curved bill.  Whimbrel.  A bird I have pretty much always wanted to see - and I was finally looking at one through the scope!  I couldn't help but to smile.  I probably would have done a celebratory dance if there hadn't been a whole troop of boaters beached right next to me.

The Whimbrel is the brown bird in the middle - I apologize for the heavy crop and heat distortion.

There was now only one prize left in my mind - something that had somehow evaded me on all of my trips to the coast.  It lives exclusively in salt marshes, where it spends much of its time among the thick grasses.  And it is common. "Common".  I was honestly beginning to think the bird was just a conspiracy conceived for the sole purpose of driving me crazy.  An embarrassing hole in my life list.  Clapper Rail - my nemesis bird.  Clapper Rails are usually one of the easiest species for a birder to find in coastal North Carolina.  Unless that birder is me.

I did my research - Clapper Rails are often most active in the evening and early morning.  So that evening I headed out along an abandoned sandy road on the back side of the island, along a peninsula that juts out into the marshland.  I began playing the repetitive call of the Clapper from my phone in hopes of a response.  I usually try to avoid using audio recordings to lure birds in, but I was honestly sick and tired of "dipping" on this bird - my Nat Geo field guide app's bird calls were my only hope of finally defeating my nemesis.  Eventually I heard a response to the call - a real Clapper Rail!  They do exist!  It was about 300 yards further down the road.  I was so close to finally laying eyes on the bird that had plagued me the entire year.  I sprinted down to where I thought the bird was calling from, and played the call again.  No response.  I was about to turn around when a smallish bird flushed out of the marsh right in front of me.  I got my binoculars up just in time to see the Clapper Rail in all its diminutive glory.  A weight had at last been lifted off my back.  Bird number 299 this year, and I am finally free of my Clapper Rail nemesis.

Elated, I ran back to the house - pizza was calling my name.  On the way back, something caught my eye - an American Bittern was standing in the marsh right next to the road!  Bitterns usually blend in well with their grassy surroundings, but this one was so close it was hard to miss.  My 229th bird in North Carolina this year, though I had seen some in SC and NY earlier this year.  An added bonus to the Clapper Rail gift a few minutes before.

This American Bittern I saw at Pocosin Lakes NWR last year, in its signature posture.

I couldn't find my 300th bird the next day at the beach - but I did take this awesome self-portrait at night...

Monday, September 2, 2013

Young Birders Event at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Over the last weekend of August, I had the amazing opportunity to visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as a part of the Cornell Young Birders Event, led by Jessie Barry and Chris Wood.  I knew the event would be an incredible experience, but I had no idea just how much I would learn about birds and the science behind them.  Myself and 15 other high-school aged birders convened in Ithaca on Friday afternoon for an introductory presentation by John "Fitz" Fitzpatrick, the director of the Lab.  We then got a tour of the Lab of Ornithology's beautiful facility, filled with both the history and endless possibilities.  We visited the Macaulay Library, which is the leading resource/database of bird vocalization recordings, and is now adding videos to their extensive digital collection.  We ate dinner with staff and graduate students, followed by an interesting presentation on Whimbrel nesting on the arctic tundra near Churchill, Manitoba.  Then it was off to the hotel - we would need sleep for an early start the next morning.

The next day we left at 6:15 AM to go to Myers Point for a video/ audio recording workshop with the staff of the Macaulay Library.  We got to play with all kinds of equipment, from 800mm lenses on DSLRs to parabolic microphones to record bird calls.  To practice recording calls, we carried shotgun mics around the park and trained them on a cawing American Crow.  I also recorded an immature Osprey splashing into the water to catch a fish.  The video recording process was equally as interesting, and I got some great pointers for my own work - and being that I have all the equipment to do this, I may begin recording bird videos in the near future.

We then went out and did some birding - great views of several warbler species (including Magnolia and Chestnut-sided) and heard a distant Eastern Screech Owl.  After this foray, we headed back to the Lab for a series of fascinating presentations about careers and opportunities in ornithology.  We were all shocked when it was time for dinner - I didn't think three hours watching presentations could have flown by so fast!

Irby showing us how to properly handle the specimens

After dinner we headed into the Museum of Vertebrates for a tour with Irby Lovette, an evolutionary biologist.  Irby has worked extensively on warbler phylogeny, so as an exercise we split into groups and tried to organize a group of warbler specimens.  It was pretty tough, but all of the groups came relatively close to replicating the actual warbler "family tree".   After this activity, we were shown the "special" drawer in the museum, where the Lab houses extinct animals like the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Passenger Pigeon, and Eskimo Curlew.  We were then given free range over the collection, and we poured over all of the specimens for hours.  Albatrosses, Woodpeckers, Motmots, Quetzals, Blackbirds, and Birds-of-Paradise all captured our imaginations.  None of us wanted "Irby's Night at the Museum" to end, but we had another early start in the morning.

The next day was spent birding around Cayuga Lake, especially in Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge.  Early in the morning we spotted a Cerulean Warbler, which gave us all amazing views.  I had only heard Ceruleans before, so it was nice to finally catch a glimpse of this beautiful blue canopy-lover.  While we were checking out the Cerulean, someone spotted a Bay-breasted Warbler, which was a lifer for me.  Chris imitated a Barred Owl call, and was greeted by one calling in return from the depths of the forest.  Later we searched for (and found) Red-headed Woodpeckers (rare in NY), and visited Towpath Road, a place where we could overlook a large impoundment filled with shorebirds.  There we found Sandhill Cranes, Peregrine Falcons, Common Nighthawks, a Wilson's Phalarope and a few Baird's Sandpipers, among many others.

Sandhill Cranes in Montezuma NWR

The next day we did a little more birding (and salamander hunting).  Afterwards we headed back to the lab, where we were all surprised when Zeiss gave us all brand-new Terra ED binoculars!  We were all VERY excited, and I think we all have new go-to "bins" for our birding adventures.

Unfortunately, this incredible experience had to come to an end.  I thoroughly enjoyed the entire event - I was able to meet and befriend 15 other young birders, learn so much from Cornell staff and students, and see some awesome birds (I saw 131 species over the weekend).  I cannot thank Chris, Jessie, and all the others who helped with the event enough for their hospitality and dedication.  This was truly unforgettable, and it taught me so much about the vast range possible careers and opportunities in the wide world of ornithology.

Now time for school...