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

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