Friday, January 31, 2014

Lake Crabtree - Frozen!

I had just come in from sledding when I got the email - a Common Merganser was at Lake Crabtree.  This would be my first in North Carolina, and I really wanted to see it.  I was getting that itch to chase, so I made the drive up there with my mom.  We were surprised to see the surface of the lake almost entirely covered in ice.  I believe this was the first time I have seen a frozen lake in the 18 years I've lived in North Carolina (though I have seen them in NY and Maine...)  It was awesome!

We arrived first on the county park side, and easily found a massive flock of ducks in a small patch of open water in the middle of the lake.  We watched a Coot venture onto the ice, scramble around awkwardly, then run back into the water - a comical diversion from the Common Merganser search.  Unfortunately, the glare from the sun was terrible, so we decided to head over to the Southport side of the lake.

The light on this side was exponentially better, so I was able to easily find the Common Merganser, a female, sitting on the ice in a massive flock of her smaller cousins, Hooded Mergansers.  From this side I also spotted the two White-winged Scoters that had been on the lake for the past week or so, as well as two adult Bald Eagles sitting on the ice.  I was excited to see the Merganser, my 197th Wake County bird!
It's probably one of the worst photos I've put on this blog - but the Common Merg is the big bird in the middle.
Bald Eagles chilling on the ice.

But the highlight for us were two beavers who were breaking up the ice along the shoreline where we were standing.  They would disappear under the water, then a few seconds later, break through the ice in another location, sending a loud shattering sound across the lake.  We could even see the beavers swimming under the ice!  It was pretty freakin' cool, I have to admit.
Beaver-turned-icebreaker at Lake Crabtree

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Life Through The Lens - Pine Warbler

I spend most of my time writing about the birds I see afield - whether at Harris Lake, the Outer Banks, or beyond.  My yard, however, gives me some of the best opportunities for bird photography.  The recent cold snap and snowfall has made my feeders as active as ever, and my newly-added brush pile has helped add to the diversity.  I went out this morning to photograph some of these hungry birds.  I was photographing some of the resident sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers when a beautiful Pine Warbler decided to stop by.  Pine Warblers do not make regular appearances in my yard, so I was happy to see this one just a few feet from me.  It took me a few minutes, but I finally managed to "crush" him in this beautiful shot.  Pine Warblers are one of the few colorful birds left this time of year, when most of the migrants have returned to their wintering grounds in the tropics.  It was nice to see this bright little bird on such a cold day.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Iceland Gull on an Icy Day

"Holy Shit!" I exclaimed, unable to contain my excitement.  The wind was howling, churning Harris Lake's gray waters, and the temperatures were barely above freezing.  It was cold, real cold.  And centered in my scope was an all-white gull from the far north.  "That's an Iceland!!!"  I bolted back to the car and grabbed my camera.  This is a very rare bird in this area - in fact, it's only the 6th state record away from the coastal plain.   Iceland Gull is a bird I've always wanted to find in North Carolina, but I thought my first would be on the Outer Banks, where they are regular visitors - not just a few miles from my house like this one.
Iceland Gull today at Harris Lake
Also present were Lesser and Great Black-backed Gulls, one representative from each species.  These birds are also rare in the area, though not nearly as rare as the Iceland.  We spent a few minutes observing this beautiful, ghostly bird before all of the gulls took off and we lost it in the crowd.  An incredible sighting, and probably the best bird I've ever seen in Wake County.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Big Day - Birding Huntington Beach and Georgetown County

Sam, Edward, and I had our alarms set early to leave. Yet somehow, none of them went off.  Instead of getting up at 4:30 AM as planned, we were scrambling out the door at six.  We frantically grabbed a bunch of clementines and crackers for breakfast and bolted out the door.  We were starting our third-ever Big Day behind schedule.  The quest to break our previous record of 102 species was on.  We drove down to our first stop, Huntington Beach State Park.

The sunrise was spectacular over the salt marshes in Huntington Beach.  All around us, the marsh was alive with rails, feeding in plain sight in the dim light.  Flocks of Hooded Mergansers, their wings whistling, streamed steadily overhead.  A Virginia Rail crawled out of the grass and swam its way across the channel, a lifer in plain sight.  It was a surreal start to an incredible day.  

Next in line was the long hike to the jetty, notable for being a magnet for sea ducks and other ocean-loving birds.  We joked about the "scoter hat trick" we wanted; to see Surf, Black, and White-winged Scoters all in one day.  When we got up on the jetty, it looked like our wish may come true.  Right beside us, floating in the inlet, were two White-winged Scoters.  A female Black Scoter drifted by.  All that was missing was Surf, the one scoter I had never seen before.  Sam called out a potential Surf floating next to a distant Red-breasted Merganser, and we put our scopes on it.  Sure enough, there it was - a Surf Scoter, a bird I had wanted to see for a long time.  It disappeared behind the jetty parallel to  ours, and we turned our attention to the Ruddy Turnstone that was now standing within inches of us.  We named this unusually-tame bird Levi for some reason or another.  He was quite cooperative for photographs, and I nabbed several good shots.

Ruddy Turnstone on Huntington Beach's jetty.
White-winged Scoter
Levi was still following us, but we had work to do.  We scanned across the inlet, looking for new birds.  I spotted a large, dark duck quite a ways away.  It was a Common Eider, a pretty rare visitor this far south.  This was probably one of our best birds of the day.

A very distant Common Eider
We also spotted both Common and Red-throated Loons.  Sam and I both glimpsed what looked to be a Aechmophorus grebe, but it went under water and we couldn't find it again - which was certainly a bummer, that could have been a really good bird!  On the long walk back, we spotted a Kestrel as well as a few new shorebirds, most notably Black-bellied Plover and Short-billed Dowitcher.  Savannah Sparrows were flitting in and out of the dunes.

We then headed over to Mullet Pond, an area notable for its waterfowl.  An immediately-obvious Mute Swan was hanging out just below the observation area.  After a thorough scoping, we managed to find several good ducks, including both Teal, a Northern Shoveler, and some Greater Scaup.  A Lesser Yellowlegs was also feeding along the shoreline.  On the short walk back from the platform, we heard a chicken calling from the underbrush.  Seeing as there are no farms in the area, a chicken at Huntington seems quite strange - but since Red Junglefowl is not ABA-countable, it didn't count for the Big Day.  A strange occurrence, that's all.

Back at the visitor center, Edward spotted a beautiful Blue-headed Vireo in a cedar near the feeders.  This was the first time I'd actually seen a Blue-headed (though I have heard them), and the little bird gave us great views.  A Black-and-white Warbler soon joined it, and both flitted around through the trees.
Blue-headed Vireo - a charismatic but uncommon winter bird.
We left Huntington with 72 species - not bad for just a few hours.  The Blue-headed Vireo and the sea ducks were definitely highlights of the trip, and we were optimistic about the rest of our day.  We picked up Black Vulture on the drive back to Debordieu.  Our first stop there was a small dirt road that runs parallel to a ditch leading to a marsh.  Standing in the middle of the road was a immature Wood Stork, an unexpected surprise and an excellent bird for the day.  We also found Red-bellied Woodpecker, Killdeer, Wood Duck, Eastern Towhee, and Song Sparrow.  Once we got out to the marsh, we managed to flush a Seaside Sparrow from its grassy habitat.

Big Days take us to strange places - this was the only spot we saw Killdeer on this day.
Later, we drove around in a golf cart looking for the land birds we were missing.  Slowly but steadily, we filled in the gaps - House Finch, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and Anhinga were all easy. We were so close to our previous record, we had to beat it.  We (barely) found an Eastern Phoebe, a surprising near-miss.  We also managed to find #100, a Black-crowned Night-heron roosting in a tree on one of the golf course ponds.  Finally, I pished out two House Wrens around 3:30, tying the 102 mark.  Then it was a distant Great Black-backed Gull that broke it, at 103.  We had done it, with time to spare!  And we still had some easy birds left - Downy Woodpecker, especially.  I do not remember a day spent birding for that long where we didn't find a Downy.  After a drive down a dirt road in the cart, we finally heard one giving the "pik" call about half a mile away.  It's always funny what birds give you the hardest time on a big day - it was Eastern Towhee on our last one in September.
As the sun went down, we headed to the marsh to try to find some last-minute diurnal birds.  A Northern Harrier was flying very, very far away, just close enough to give us an identifiable view.  Two vocal Least Sandpipers flew by.  We had hit 106.  Now, we only had nocturnal birds left to find.

We knew we could get Screech Owl in the same spot we had them on Friday, so we headed there first.  Three responded to our playback.  We sat quietly and listened to their haunting yet fascinating cries, reflecting on the day.  We tried our luck with other owls, but Screech was the only species present.  The marsh was our last destination.  I played a Sora call over the speakers, hoping to get one last bird.  After several tries, we finally had a brief response, making Sora, #108, our last bird of the day.  Despite the late start, we still managed to outdo ourselves yet again.  We are starting to get the hang of this big day business!

Here is the List, in order of when we saw/heard them.
  1. Great Blue Heron
  2. Clapper Rail
  3. Hooded Merganser
  4. Sedge Wren
  5. Snowy Egret
  6. Little Blue Heron
  7. Greater Yellowlegs
  8. Virginia Rail
  9. Tricolored Heron
  10. Tree Swallow
  11. American White Pelican 
  12. White Ibis
  13. Ring-billed Gull
  14. Double-crested Cormorant
  15. Forster's Tern
  16. American Crow
  17. Boat-tailed Grackle
  18. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  19. Carolina Chickadee
  20. Mourning Dove
  21. Northern Cardinal
  22. Tufted Titmouse
  23. Carolina Wren
  24. White-throated Sparrow
  25. Dunlin
  26. Willet
  27. Semipalmated Plover
  28. Northern Gannet
  29. Sanderling
  30. Red Knot
  31. Bonaparte's Gull
  32. Brown Pelican
  33. Pied-billed Grebe
  34. Herring Gull
  35. Horned Grebe
  36. White-winged Scoter
  37. Black Scoter
  38. Ruddy Turnstone
  39. Red-breasted Merganser
  40. Surf Scoter
  41. Common Loon
  42. Common Eider
  43. Red-throated Loon
  44. Savannah Sparrow
  45. Great Egret
  46. Black-bellied Plover
  47. Short-billed Dowitcher
  48. American Kestrel
  49. Belted Kingfisher
  50. Lesser Scaup
  51. Brown Thrasher
  52. Blue Jay
  53. Northern Mockingbird
  54. Northern Flicker
  55. Mute Swan
  56. American Wigeon
  57. Gadwall
  58. Redhead
  59. Northern Shoveler
  60. Green-winged Teal
  61. Blue-winged Teal
  62. Lesser Yellowlegs
  63. American Coot
  64. Ruddy Duck
  65. Greater Scaup
  66. Bald Eagle
  67. Turkey Vulture
  68. American Robin
  69. Golden-crowned Kinglet
  70. Osprey
  71. Blue-headed Vireo
  72. Black-and-white Warbler 
  73. Black Vulture
  74. Wood Stork
  75. Eastern Towhee
  76. Wood Duck
  77. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  78. Chipping Sparrow
  79. Red-tailed Hawk
  80. Red-winged Blackbird
  81. Song Sparrow
  82. Killdeer
  83. Seaside Sparrow
  84. Common Gallinule
  85. American Black Duck
  86. Brown-headed Nuthatch
  87. Eastern Bluebird
  88. American Goldfinch
  89. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  90. Pine Warbler
  91. Common Grackle
  92. White-breasted Nuthatch
  93. Fish Crow
  94. House Finch
  95. European Starling
  96. Cedar Waxwing
  97. Eastern Phoebe
  98. Anhinga
  99. Eurasian Collared-Dove
  100. Black-crowned Night-heron
  101. Mottled Duck  
  102. House Wren
  103. Great Black-backed Gull
  104. Downy Woodpecker
  105. Least Sandpiper
  106. Northern Harrier
  107. Eastern Screech-Owl
  108. Sora

Monday, January 20, 2014

Western Kingbird in Georgetown County, SC

This past weekend was spent birding around Georgetown County on the coast of South Carolina, particularly in Debordieu, a community where my friend Edward's family owns a beach house.  Lucky for us, this gave us access to a very "birdy" area.  On Friday just after we arrived, Edward, Sam, and I opted to go for birding for a few hours before dinner.  We focused our search on the extensive marshes in the area.  We heard several Clapper Rails calling from the deep within the grasses - always a good sound.  We tried to play some Virginia Rail calls to get a response, but we could only find the Clappers.

While we were playing the call, a large-ish passerine flew overhead.  We all optimistically thought it would be a rarity, so we ran over to investigate. The bird was sitting on a power line not too far away.  We all raised our binoculars.  It was a Western Kingbird! A rare find on the East Coast, and a lifer for me - in fact, it was my 350th life bird.  Western Kingbirds are pretty, well... pretty - its yellow breast is complemented by its beautiful ash-colored head and dark gray wings.  I love flycatchers, and this is certainly one of my favorites I've seen.  We watched the bird fly-catch for a few minutes, and I managed a few photos.  Then, just as quickly as it came, the kingbird flew off, not to be seen again (at least not by us).  This trip was going to be a good one; we could feel it.
Western Kingbird
After the success of the Western Kingbird, we decided to look for Screech Owls in longleaf forest on the north end of town.  Three were calling, and I finally got to hear the "whinny" call (usually I just hear the trills).  It was a great end to a fantastic few hours of birding.  The self-found kingbird was the highlight of the year so far.

Monday, January 6, 2014

A New Year

2014 came surprisingly fast.  I walked outside just after midnight, just ten minutes into the year, to shoot off fireworks - and the loud pyrotechnics spurred a Blue Jay into calling briefly.  I realized it was bird #1 of 2014, and my 2013 list was set in stone at 321.  It's an odd feeling.  Suddenly every bird "counts" again - those Carolina Chickadees in my front yard, that Red-bellied Woodpecker that noisily greets me every morning, and those overly-vocal Carolina Wrens out back.

Sam, Edward, and I all headed out for some New Year's Day birding, trying to get a nice start on our year lists.  Harris Lake would be our center of attention - it's one of my favorite birding patches.  We started out by finding one of the Lincoln's Sparrows I saw a few days earlier, a lifer for my two companions.  Today it was just as stealthy, and even after several minutes we got mediocre-at-best views of the buffy undertones and fine breast streaks that characterize this species.  Luckily it was vocalizing, helping to nail down our ID.

We moved on the the northeast arm of the lake, which we unfortunately couldn't explore extensively due to duck hunts.  We did manage to scope some Wilson's Snipes and Canvasbacks, both good birds in our region.
Beaver pond at Harris - a.k.a the best Red-headed Woodpecker habitat basically ever.
The rest of the day was improvised, because our original plan to bushwhack along the lake shore had been foiled.  Our next stop was a swampy series of beaver ponds near the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant visitor center.  It was surprisingly birdy, and held several beautiful Red-headed Woodpeckers, a Sharp-shinned Hawk, and three Rusty Blackbirds - all excellent additions to our day, especially the blackbirds.  The rest of the day was relatively uneventful, but it was still great to kick off the new year with my best birding buds, the "bird nerd herd."

Enter Sunday the 5th.  I was birding the Jordan Lake CBC with veteran birder Will Cook (who can whistle an impeccable Eastern Screech-owl call, I might add) around Harris Lake.  Harris gets a few species, most notably ducks, that Jordan Lake doesn't get - and luckily the western half of the lake falls within the count circle.  We started around 7:30 in the morning by scoping the lake and finding a female Red-breasted Merganser - a good find and my first at Harris.   Will and I continued around the lake, stopping frequently to pick up more and more species.  From the county park we scoped into the count circle to find Canvasback, as well as Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Duck.

At the Shearon Harris visitor center I had visited on the 1st, we picked up House Sparrow and Starling as well as a lone Rusty Blackbird.  An added bonus was one drake American Wigeon and two Green-winged Teal swimming in the beaver pond with the Mallards and Black Ducks.  Both are stunning birds, and are uncommon in this part of the state.  Also present were Winter Wren, Red-headed Woodpecker, and Red-tailed Hawk.

We made several more stops in fields and farms on the side of the road to find the open-country birds like Killdeer, Kestrel, and Eastern Meadowlark.  We also found Savannah Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, and one House Finch.

"One last stop", Will said, "and it's a big one!"  I followed him down a gravel road to where it dead-ended at a large clear-cut.  From there, we went on foot for several miles to scope the lake for more ducks.  It seemed slow at first, with just a few eagles and a flock of a few hundred Ring-billed Gulls to entertain us.  We continued down the shore and found about two dozen Bufflehead, the males strikingly white against the dark water of the lake.  We turned our scopes onto some scaups in the distance.  Their flattened heads without prominent peaks eliminated Lesser Scaup - we had found a dozen Greaters!  An excellent bird to pick up on our last stop for the count.

Exactly half of the Greater Scaup we found on Harris.
By now it was getting hot out (mid-60s in winter always feels hot to me).  The ATV trails we were following had less traction than a slip-n-slide, and it was a fairly long trek back.  Fortunately we found several sparrows and Palm Warblers along the way.  Will pished 4 red Fox Sparrows into view, making 9 for the day - definitely the most I've seen on one outing!  By the time we made it back to the cars, we were tired but satisfied.  We had seen 72 species over the course of the day - an impressive list for the Triangle in any season.  I had a great time birding the area with Will, and it was fun to get out on another Christmas Bird Count.

Up to 83 species in 5 days, and headed back East on a museum trip to Pocosin Lakes NWR this weekend.  Who knows what will be in store these next few days?