Monday, December 30, 2013

Lincoln's Sparrows at Harris Lake

I decided I would do some local birding today down at one of my favorite birding patches - the Harris Lake Upper Ramp.  I scoped some gulls to hopefully find a rare one among the masses.  The gulls were out in full force, but they were almost all Ring-billeds.  A few Herring Gulls and Bonaparte's Gulls were scattered here and there, but nothing rare.  I estimated around 1750 Ring-billed Gulls in all.  The Common Loons, always abundant off the Upper Ramp, were very vocal today, and I had the fortune of hearing one of my favorite bird calls again and again.

After thoroughly scoping the lake, I decided to head back.  On my way back up the gravel road from the boat ramp, I decided I'd pish for sparrows, just to see.  I couldn't believe my eyes when the first one that came up was a Lincoln's Sparrow!  Lincoln's Sparrows are very rare in our region, especially this late in winter.  I wanted to get a photo, so I played the bird's song off my iPhone.  To my surprise, two started chipping back.  Amazing!  I readied my camera to snap some shots - but my foot was burning.  Ouch - now it was really burning!  I looked down to see a swarm of fire ants all over my right foot.  I tore off my shoe and did the usual "fire ant dance" to bat them away.  Once the pain subsided, I went back to trying to photograph the Lincoln's Sparrows.  Again and again, the birds would flit quickly through the brush.  It was very frustrating.  At last, one flew out into a relatively open spot long enough for me to snap a few quick shots.  Lincoln's Sparrows are beautiful birds, with their subtle combination of red, buff, and brown, complemented by very fine brush streaks.  I'll definitely be back to this spot on the 1st to pick Lincoln's Sparrow up for my 2014 list - but for now I can be happy with this pleasant surprise.

The elusive Lincoln's Sparrow, today at Harris Lake.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Outer Banks Bonanza, Day 2 - Sandpipers, Say's, and Sandhills.

I went to bed happy Friday night.  I had seen 6 new NC birds and 3 new lifers.  And most of all, I had self-found a Snowy Owl in my home state.  I thought there was no way the next day would be nearly as good.

My predictions of a slow day seemed to be panning out as I trudged down the beach toward Cape Point on Hatteras Island.  I had high hopes for Iceland Gull, but there wasn't one to be seen.  Just lots of trucks, everywhere.  I started making my way toward a large flock of gulls, but before I could scope it, someone walked into them, scattering the birds everywhere.  So much for that.
A decidedly bird-less Cape Point.  As I was standing here, Neil Hayward was just offshore breaking the ABA big year record with a Great Skua sighting!  
I left Hatteras dismayed.  Not a single noteworthy bird.  At least I had the rest of the day - maybe, just maybe, favor would turn my way.  Our next stop was Oregon Inlet to find the Purple Sandpipers I missed the day before.  They would be a new bird for my North Carolina list, so I figured it was worth a shot.  The parking lot for the jetty and bridge looked entirely different on this day.  It was nearly full, compared with the three cars present on Friday.  And everyone there was a birder looking for the Snowy Owl.
The most crowded I've ever seen this parking area.
We made our way along the bridge walkway.  I looked down onto one of the concrete supports to see two Purple Sandpipers.  Another easy tick - my first of the day.  We saw many birders scoping in the same general direction in the distance, so we raised our binoculars to see the (very distant) Snowy Owl resting on a dune.  I couldn't resist seeing the owl one more time, so we headed up to join the others.

Where everyone was standing, however, was not within sight of the bird.  Most of the other birders had seen it fly in from the sound and land in the dunes - but had lost it almost immediately.  We all scanned the sandy expanse before us, to no avail.  The owl obviously wanted to remain hidden, but at least they got it for the Pea Island Christmas Bird Count.

We began the long drive back home, but with two more stops planned.  A Say's Phoebe had been reported from the same exit off US-64 where I had seen the Cackling Geese the day before.  It was too close to the highway to resist stopping.  We pulled off the highway and looked around - nothing.  It seemed like this would be our first miss of the trip, but we decided to drive down the dirt road just a little further.  We reached a chain-link gate blocking the road, and a small flycatcher flew out of nowhere and perched on it.  It was the Say's Phoebe!  I had seen one in Utah last year, but this bird is very rare in NC - only 9 have been seen in the state.  This was my 270th life bird in North Carolina!
9th state record Say's Phoebe
The cinnamon-colored belly of the Say's Phoebe helps distinguish it from the Eastern Phoebe.
One more stop to make - this time a field in Edgecombe County, north of Tarboro.  Two Sandhill Cranes had been seen there associating with a large flock of Tundra Swans.  We arrived as the sun was slipping behind the trees, but the huge flock of swans was hard to miss.  After a few minutes of scanning, I finally picked out the two Sandhill Cranes in the back of the flock.  These birds aren't extremely rare in North Carolina, but most sightings are flyovers of birds migrating south, making them hard to pin down.  Therefore, this made an excellent NC bird for me.
Two Sandhill Cranes behind the Tundra Swans.
This was an amazing two-day trip.  I went 100% on all the birds I chased - Cackling Goose, Harlequin Duck, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Say's Phoebe, and Sandhill Crane, and I even got the incredible bonus of my self-found Snowy Owl!  My year list stands at 321, much higher than I ever thought I would get this year.  I wonder what amazing adventures 2014 will bring.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Outer Banks Bonanza: Day 1 (or How I Found A Snowy Owl At Oregon Inlet)

The year is quickly drawing to a close, and I figured some year-end birding was in order to round out 2013.  And where would any self-respecting Carolina birder go for good birds? The Outer Banks.  I made the trip with my dad and my grandpa.  Little did I know, this would be my most epic two days of birding to date.

The first destination was exit 548 off US-64, near Creswell, NC.  It's home to a massive flock of Canada Geese - but I wasn't looking for these.  I was looking for their pint-sized cousin, the Cackling Goose.  One, two.  Their short, stubby bills and smaller size made them surprisingly easy to pick out.  It's always nice to get a lifer from an offramp!  Now on to the next stop: Lake Mattamuskeet.

Mattamuskeet is one of my favorite places to bird.  On this day, however, things were slow.  No Snow Geese were to be seen, and most of the Tundra Swans were hunkered down on the far corner of the lake barely in sight.  I spent a while scoping the waterfowl, looking through flocks containing hundreds of beautiful Northern Pintail and Northern Shovelers.  Nothing unusual, but still fun to see. We continued down the wildlife drive.  All the usual suspects were present.  We were pleased to see a group of a dozen or so Black-crowned Night-herons roosting in the trees - always a good sight.

Black-crowned Night-heron
We left Mattamuskeet and drove over to the Outer Banks.  A group of Harlequin Ducks, rare visitors to NC, had been reported from the south end of Oregon Inlet under the Bonner Bridge - so naturally this was our first stop.  

We walked up along the bridge.  No birds.  A few other visitors were also looking for the Harlequins, and they hadn't seen them yet either.  I looked on the other side of the bridge, and saw four ducks swimming along in the sound.  Harlequins!  I had last seen them in Massachusetts back in March, and these were my first in NC.

Harlequin Ducks feeding near Bonner Bridge
Above the ducks on a concrete pylon, I picked a Great Cormorant out of a flock of Double-cresteds.  Their larger size and distinct plumage help distinguish Greats from other cormorant species.  My second lifer of the day!  I was getting on a roll...
The Great Cormorant is the largest one, at center.
Dad recommended we walk out to the end of the jetty, and I agreed.  I figured we would only see a few gannets and a gull or two, but at least we could give it a shot.  We were about three-quarters of the way to the end when a white lump caught my eye.  I half-jokingly said "Is that a Snowy?" to my dad, and we both haphazardly raised our binoculars just to check.  We both said a few expletives and became giddy with excitement.  We had found a Snowy Owl right here in North Carolina!

Oregon Inlet Snowy Owl
I honestly think that, even if I saw a Snowy Owl every day, I would never get tired of them.  They are absolutely stunning birds, and I was grateful to have the opportunity to observe this owl for upwards of an hour, alone on the beach.  The Hatteras Snowy, which I saw exactly one month earlier, did not give me such great views.  My dad and I couldn't get enough of this bird's beauty.  We watched it preen and rest on the side of the dune, and even hop just a few feet.  I love Snowy Owls.

We decided we should head back - Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge was still on the agenda for the day.   Back towards the parking lot, we found two other birders who were looking for the Harlequins.  We told them about the location of the Harlequins and the Snowy Owl, and they got to see both too.  Oregon Inlet proved more productive than we initially thought - it was one of, if not the, highlight of my year.  Amazing.

The Snowy Owl in all its glory
The target at Alligator River NWR was another species of owl - this time of the Short-eared variety.  The only one I had ever seen was back in 2005 in Denali National Park - far from the coast of NC.  I wanted this bird both for my year list and for my state list (and just because Short-eared Owls are downright cool).  These owls are supposed to come out just before dusk and patrol the massive fields along Alligator Rivers' Milltail Road.  So that's exactly where we went.

It was still about an hour until sunset when we pulled in, and we didn't really know what to do.  We started scoping some ducks.  Pintails, pintails, more pintails...  I pulled up my phone and checked the Carolinabirds listserv.  "Ash-Throated Flycatcher... Milltail Road".  The words jumped out at me.  It said that the flycatcher was close to the maintenance buildings.  Wait, the maintenance buildings just behind me!?  I was only 300 yards from a rare Southwestern flycatcher!

We high-tailed it down the road, and almost immediately heard this little Myiarchus calling.  But where was it?  It was too deep in the trees to see.  Aghhh!!!  I hate heard-only's.  We eventually gave up and slowly drove back down the road.  A flycatcher shape caught my eye from the roadside.  Wait - was that it?  It was!  I grabbed my camera and bolted out of the car.  The little guy proved quite cooperative, landing just a few feet from me at one point.  Definitely an unexpected surprise!

Ash-throated Flycatcher

The flycatcher flew back into the forest, and we started patrolling the road for owls.  Northern Harriers were seemingly everywhere.  The sun slipped behind the horizon.  We were running out of time.  On our way out, a large bird slipped across the road in front of us.  A Short-eared Owl.  It glided smoothly over the field right next to our truck.  An incredible end to an incredible, rarity-filled day.  What would the next day bring?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Seeing Rufous

Rufous Hummingbirds breed in the Northwest, from high elevations in the Rockies up along the Pacific Coast, all the way to southeast Alaska.  They range further north than any other hummingbird species.  Increasingly, these birds have foregone their typical wintering grounds in Mexico for the American South.  More and more feeders are put out every winter, and more and more Rufous Hummingbirds (and other hummers, in lesser numbers) are found in North Carolina.  

The cooperative immature male Rufous Hummingbird.
I was lucky enough to see one Saturday morning, on the shortest day of the year.  Lena Gallitano was gracious enough to allow myself and my usual counterparts, Sam and Edward, to visit her home, where she has two Rufous Hummingbirds visiting her feeders.  She has an amazingly "birdy" yard, filled with feeders of all kinds.  We saw both hummers almost immediately after arriving - a female and an immature male.  The male bird gave us excellent looks - we admired his beautiful rusty-red plumage.  Rufous Hummingbird makes 190 species of birds for me in Wake County this year - a number I couldn't have imagined back in January.  

On our way back through Lena's yard, we looked up to see a striking male Baltimore Oriole sitting in a tree.  I'm always shocked at just how orange orioles are - they almost glow.  The three of us couldn't have been happier.  It looks like I'll be heading to the Outer Banks in a few days, hoping to pick up a few last-minute birds before the year is over.  Stay tuned!
Baltimore Oriole - another terrible photo of a really cool bird.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Bittern At Last

The American Bittern at Prairie Ridge was still being reported.  And I still hadn't seen it.  I really wanted the chance to photograph this bird, and to take some videos.  On Saturday after a quick stop at Lake Crabtree, where I saw a snipe and a few ducks, I decided to give Botaurus lentiginosus another shot.  
Eastern Phoebe at Lake Crabtree's Southport Entrance (in an industrial park).  I would post the snipe photo, but it is actually really terrible and it looks like a mud clod.  But it wasn't a mud clod.  I promise.
I walked over the ridge and descended toward the pond.  There was a group of three birders already there - this is certainly a popular bird!  They were all looking intently into a brushy area.  I hoped that was a good sign.  

It was.  The bittern was just a few yards away, hunkered down in the woody brush near the pond.  I spent about an hour observing it slowly and stealthily feed on tadpoles.  It was well worth my third trip out there to see this spectacular bird.  For my video, click here.

The Prairie Ridge Bittern, finally!

Right at home.