Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Snowy Owl on the Outer Banks

Back in fourth grade (and long before I was a birder), I was flipping through a magazine when I stumbled on a particularly interesting article.  It was about a Snowy Owl seen at Fort Fisher back in November 2001.  The story featured a two-page illustration depicting the most amazing, stark-white owl, gliding smoothly over the dunes.  It was the first bird that ever captured my imagination - and it was just a drawing.

Fast-forward to Tuesday - I was sitting in Anatomy class when I decided I should check the listserv.  I read the words "Snowy Owl" and just about lost it.  My heart was racing.  I honestly thought about just walking out of class and leaving right then and there - but I managed to get a hold of myself.  I immediately texted my dad, telling him that we would be going to the Outer Banks the next day.  He reluctantly agreed, knowing damn well how much I wanted to see that bird.  This was the first Snowy Owl in NC since the Fort Fisher bird twelve years ago.  I had to see it.

We (my dad and my friends Sam and Edward) left Raleigh around 4:30 in the morning, driving through the rain.  A nor'easter was pounding the Outer Banks, and we were the only people crazy enough to drive into it.  Once we made it onto the banks, we were greeted my pounding winds, driving rain, and pitch-black clouds looming overhead.  Highway 12 was under several inches of water.  If anything, this day would be an adventure.

Highway 12 on the way down to Hatteras looked more like a lake in some spots.
The weather on Hatteras itself was even worse.  We arrived at the parking area for Access Point 45, near where the bird was last seen the night before.  We stumbled along the beach with heavy rain stinging our faces and the wind nearly blowing us over.  The conditions were downright brutal.  

We fanned out over the wide beach in order to cover more ground. The rain began to die down.  I spotted a big white lump on the beach behind a pile of debris, so I snuck in closer to investigate.  I pulled up my binoculars, and the big white lump moved its head.  It was the Snowy!  I frantically waved and yelled for everyone to come see.

Snowy Owl - probably my favorite bird, period.
My heart skipped a beat - I was actually looking at a real, live Snowy Owl!  We had only been there for 30 minutes, and we had found it!  There was no one else as far as the eye could see - we had the owl all to ourselves.  I had expected hordes of birders to be out there, but I guess the storm had kept the less-insane at home.

After about a minute,  it suddenly lifted its wings and flew closer to the dunes.  It was a surreal moment, watching this big, graceful white bird gliding over the desolate beach.  We observed the owl at a considerable distance for a while longer, until it eventually flew to the other side of the dunes and out of sight.  I was in awe.

Snowy Owl flying over the dunes
In an effort to find some interesting gulls, we headed further down the beach.  We found a flock consisting mostly of Great Black-backed Gulls, with a few Ring-billeds and Lesser Black-backed Gulls mixed in - but nothing unusual.  The sky down the beach was growing very dark.  This storm cell overtook us in several minutes, and we hunkered down in the dunes to avoid the lightning strikes.   We became completely rain-soaked and drenched that half-hour, enduring intense torrential rains.  Finally, the front passed, and we continued back down the beach.  If we hadn't just seen a Snowy Owl, it would have been a miserable return trek - but we couldn't have been happier just then.  The Snowy Owl was one of the most spectacular birds I've ever had the pleasure of seeing.  This epic "twitch" was one I will never forget.
Sam and I waiting the storm out.  Check out my duct-tape fix on my rain pants.
(Photo by Edward Landi)

Monday, November 25, 2013

Life Through The Lens - American Bittern

November, no birds.  This has been a synopsis of this month, at least for me.  Time after time, I come up empty.  And nothing has mounted my frustrations more than the American Bittern.  One has been hanging out at Prairie Ridge Ecostation in Raleigh, and is supposedly "reliable" to see.  I really wanted to see this bittern - it would be a good Wake County year bird for me (aside from the fact that bitterns are just really cool birds to see!).  I went there Saturday, and saw nothing.  Again today, I braved the unseasonably cold weather to see the bird.  An hour and a half, with no bittern.  This makes American Bittern the first bird I've ever "dipped" (or missed) twice consecutively.

So, alas, I am left gazing at old photos, longing for another American Bittern sighting. These chunky herons blend so well with their marshy surroundings they can be almost invisible. Their eyes are positioned facing downward, to aid in catching their favorite prey.  Bitterns have one of the most unique and bizarre calls in the bird world - listen to one here - described by the Nat Geo guide as "oonk-a-lunk". They are a charismatic and surprisingly tame bird, making them great photography subjects.  If only the Prairie Ridge bird would cooperate...

American Bittern from Pocosin Lakes NWR last December

Bittern at Yates Mill last spring - it walked right under the boardwalk I was standing on!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

November, So Far

The past few weeks have been relatively uneventful considering birding. I went to the mountains with the Museum and got some new county ticks, but no noteworthy birds.  Despite our group's best effort to find Red Crossbills, the best bird of the weekend was a mere Hairy Woodpecker.

Okay, this made up for the lack of birds in the mountains.
I have, however, fared slightly better closer to home.  On Halloween I had great views of a Lincoln's Sparrow down at Harris Lake.  It was an excellent life bird for me, the only one reported in Wake County so far this year (I would have a photo if I hadn't forgotten a memory card...).  On November 2nd I also found some locally uncommon Vesper Sparrows and my first NC American Pipits this year.

Vesper Sparrow on Inwood Road
Other than those stated above, I really haven't birded all that much- hence the lack of posts on this blog.  But this weekend, I felt I needed to see something good.  I felt a little out of practice.  I felt rusty.

Rusty Blackbirds were today's target.  Rusties have experienced a dramatic decline over the passed several decades, with no concise explanation.  Habitat loss is one possible culprit, though mercury poisoning may be a more likely cause.  The species' population has declined anywhere from 85-99%, a downright shocking number.  This decline is also why these birds are somewhat difficult to find - especially along the East Coast, where the birds have been especially hard-hit.  

Rusty Blackbirds love wetlands, and Lake Betz up in the Research Triangle Park north of my house has the perfect swampy habitat these birds yearn for.  Naturally, this was the first place I went to look.  Just five minutes into my visit, two rusties, a male and a female, flew into view.  My first lifer this month, and one that has been a long time coming.  

After a spotting a few more noteworthy birds- at least seven Red-headed Woodpeckers and my second Winter Wren of the year- we headed over to Lake Crabtree to scan for ducks.  Several beautiful Hooded Mergansers, Lesser Scaup, Northern Shoveler, Ring-necked Ducks, and two American Wigeon were all in a raft in the center of the lake.  American Wigeon was a new county bird for me.  It was nice to finally see some ducks - a sign that winter has arrived (at least in terms of avifauna).  Now if only I could find a real rarity...