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...


  1. Congrats on 299, the Lucas-elusive Clapper Rail! (Thanks for the link; I listened to its call--very distinctive.)

    1. Thanks... It sure was a relief to FINALLY see it! I'm anxious to see what #300 will be!