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.  

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