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.

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