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

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