Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Birding Fort Fisher - Sparrows and a Scissortail

All week, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was being reported from the Fort Fisher ferry terminal.  Though I've seen the species in Oklahoma back before I was a birder, the temptation of adding this spectacular bird to my North Carolina list was too strong to ignore.  I took the plunge and drove down with my two friends Sam and Edward to try our luck chasing the flycatcher.

Fort Fisher is located at the tip of a peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River, just southeast of Wilmington.  It tends to concentrate migrants, most notably shorebirds and sparrows, and is one of "the" places to bird in NC.  It's less than three hours from Raleigh, making it the most accessible coastal area for Triangle birders.

We arrived just after 8 AM.  Despite the urge to go directly to the ferry terminal and wait for the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher to show up, we birded some other stops first.  The first good birds of the day were two Vesper Sparrows (my first in NC) flitting around the parking area.  Excellent sparrow sightings would prove to be a theme on this day.  We soon found my first lifer of the day, a Seaside Sparrow.  Sparrows in the genus Ammodramus (of which the Seaside Sparrow is a member) are some of my favorite birds.  Fort Fisher has the perfect habitat for this coastal species - extensive salt marshes.

Seaside Sparrow - right at home in the salt marshes along "The Basin" at Fort Fisher.
We then proceeded to scope the tidal flats out in The Basin, a wide saltwater lagoon just south of Fort Fisher.  We were surprised to see a few Marbled Godwits feeding with a flock of unidentifiable peeps.  We saw a Clapper Rail fly up out of the marsh in front of us, so we walked in to investigate.  The rail didn't reappear, but we found something better.  A Nelson's Sparrow, another marsh-loving Ammodramus, flew up within a few feet of us.  Lifer!  My first NC Marsh Wren made its way through the grasses toward us, too.  The marsh birds were truly out and about on this morning!

Nelson's Sparrow - a beautiful orange bird.  This is distinguished from Saltmarsh Sparrow by its diffuse breast streaks and more orange breast.
Marsh Wren, one of many seen and heard by us at Fort Fisher.
An inquisitive Semipalmated Plover on a small beach entertained us for quite a while, and we managed to get quite close.

Semipalmated Plover
We decided it was probably time to head up to the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher stakeout at the ferry landing, just up the road from the marsh.  The bird was supposed to show up on a barbed-wire fence on the north side of the visitor parking lot.  We walked around for several minutes (with no sign of the rare migrant) and decided to sit down at a picnic table to wait for the bird to (hopefully) show up.  We waited.  And waited.  Some other birders showed up and began walking along the fencerow.

The ferry terminal's visitor parking area.  Not exactly the most picturesque location I've birded.
We were all getting anxious for something to happen.  I glanced behind us, and a noticed a bird sitting in a low branch on a tree.  I pulled up my binoculars - and it was the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher!  I couldn't believe it.  I started pointing it out to Sam and Edward while simultaneously trying to snap a photo.  As I struggled to get my lens cap off, the bird flew away, chattering in a very Tyrannus-like manner.  No photo for me.  We ran over to where it was, but it was nowhere to be seen.

The bird had flown south, so we decided to go look for the bird back by where our car was parked, by Battery Buchanan (a large man-made sand embankment).  We walked to the top of the Battery to get a more commanding view of the surrounding area.  A small sparrow flitted up in front of us.  Clay-colored - a rare migrant in North Carolina.  We got excellent views of the tiny bird before it flew back into the brush.  Another excellent sparrow sighting on the day! I've seen Clay-colored Sparrows in Montana where they are common, but on the East Coast this bird is pretty rare, usually only showing up in fall (with a few overwintering).

Clay-colored Sparrow on Battery Buchanan.

No sign of the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, though.  We moved back to the ferry terminal in hopes that the bird returned.  It wasn't there.  We decided we likely had seen the last of the flycatcher.  With this in mind, we drove about a mile up the road to look for more birds. There, around the State Historic Site's museum, we found a juvenile White-crowned Sparrow and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.  I also managed to get a cactus with one-inch spines stuck deep into my finger, which was an unpleasant experience I hope not to repeat.

We returned to the marsh, and waded barefoot along the edge of The Basin.  We got close-up views of a three-species sparrow flock, containing Nelson's, Saltmarsh (lifer), and Seaside Sparrows.  We were entertained for quite a while watching these beautiful species feeding and moving along the marsh's edge.  A flock of Willets and a few American Oystercatchers flew past, calling loudly.  

Fort Fisher turned out to be even better than expected.  I got seven new birds for my North Carolina list, four of which were year birds and three of which were lifers.  We spotted three rarities (Bobolink, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and Clay-colored Sparrow) and 66 species total.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Carolina Black-cappeds

Carolina Chickadee - one of the most common birds in North Carolina.  This one was visiting my backyard feeder.

The aptly-named Carolina Chickadee (often in association with Tufted Titmice) reigns over the forests of North Carolina.  I'd be hard pressed to name a passerine bird I see more frequently.  These birds are so prevalent that I often overlook them, and I have never really given much thought into observing them.  Anywhere in the state, I am just about guaranteed to hear their rapid "chickadee-dee-dee-dee" calls somewhere overhead.

Well, almost anywhere.

During the last ice age thousands of years ago, the state was populated by the Carolina Chickadee's close (and nearly identical) cousin, the Black-capped Chickadee.  But as the climate warmed, these cold-weather Chickadees followed their favorite breeding habitat (yellow birch, firs, etc.) northward. A few, however, remained on the highest peaks of the Smoky Mountains, above 5,000 feet where these northern trees still grow.  Unlike along the Carolina x Black-capped "hybrid zone" to the north, the two species don't seem to hybridize in the Smokies.  This leaves a purebred "island" population, hundreds of miles from the next-closest population in the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia.

I was in Great Smoky Mountains National Park for some amazing fly fishing, and I figured I ought to go tick this Northern species for my NC list.  The highest peak in the Smokies is Clingman's Dome, straddling the border with Tennessee at 6,644 feet above sea level.  This is the epicenter of the North Carolina Black-capped Chickadee population, though others can be found on nearby peaks.  It was 64 degrees in the valley, but up on Clingman's Dome the temperature plummeted to 43.  A cold front was howling over the mountain, and a cloudy mist was sweeping over the mountaintops.  There is short nature trail about halfway down the road that leads to the summit, and I figured that would be a good place to look for the chickadees.

Almost immediately after stepping out the car, I heard the distinct, huskier voices of several Black-capped Chickadees.  I ran down the trail and managed to snap a few photos of the birds.  I honestly never thought I would get so excited over a chickadee!

Black-capped Chickadee - notice the striking white secondary feathers on the wing.  This photo is pretty terrible, I know - it was really dark!

The best distinguishing feature between the two species (other than voice) is that Black-cappeds have obvious white secondaries, while Carolinas don't.  The cheek on a Black-capped is whiter, and they are slightly larger and puffier.  All of these field marks were apparent as I watched the six or so birds flit through the forest, especially since I had seen Carolinas just a few hours before.  Black-capped Chickadee is my 250th North Carolina life bird - a significant milestone for me, considering I just started birding (not even) two years ago.

The next morning I saw one of the most beautiful sunrises I've ever seen - from just below the frosty summit of Clingman's Dome.  The vast landscape of Western NC stretched before me, cloaked in a layer of fog with only a few peaks breaking through.  A spectacular end to an excellent trip.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Life Through The Lens - Black-necked Stilt

Few shorebirds are as striking as the Black-necked Stilt.  With a body straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, striking pink legs, and a sharp black-and-white tuxedo, this Stilt is sure to impress even the most seasoned naturalist.  Black-necked Stilts are right at home wading through shallow pools and marshes across the country, though they are more widespread in the West.

Stilt at Cane Ridge WMA in Indiana

I have been fortunate to see this incredible bird on two occasions this year - once in Indiana (I had three flybys on a trip to Cane Ridge with my grandpa) and more recently at Pea Island NWR in North Carolina.  There I could actually see the bird - observe it feeding, wading, and just hangin' around.  I'm quickly becoming an obsessive "state lister", and Black-necked Stilt was a pleasant addition, especially considering that Stilts are rare in late September.  

Pea Island stilt from a few weeks ago

These long-legged birds never cease to amaze me.  Every time I see one I am reminded of the beautiful complexity of nature and it's stunning diversity.  Birds currently lay in the crosshairs of ecological degradation, and these charismatic stilts can help people recognize the true value of our spectacular avifauna.