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?

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