Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Local Birding: Eared Grebe Chase, among other things...

We have reached the point where Winter is pretty much over, and Spring isn't quite here yet - it'll be another month before I hear the calls of Waterthrushes, Ovenbirds, and Acadian Flycatchers.  This March has, however, been pretty good for Piedmont birding, especially in the water bird department.  Red-necked Grebes and White-winged Scoters, usually quite rare inland, have become almost commonplace this month.  I saw several reports of another, rarer bird - an Eared Grebe - from Jordan Lake.  It would be a new North Carolina bird for me, so I couldn't resist chasing it.

But first, my dad and I went down to the Harris Gamelands before sunrise to scrounge up an Eastern Screech-Owl.  It didn't take long to hear one responding to our playback.  About a half-hour later, as the sun went up, we watched a dozen or so American Woodcocks display in the fields - they would utter their nasal "peent"call, then take flight.  I always love watching this pre-dawn display, and this was by far the most impressive one I have seen.  Down at the boat ramp, I spotted an adult male White-winged Scoter swimming near the far shore.

Next up, Seaforth, a peninsula jutting out into the middle of Jordan Lake.  I hardly ever bird this area, though maybe I should - crazy birds like Long-billed Murrelet and Gray Flycatcher have been seen around there in years past.  The only downside is that it's in Chatham County, so anything I see here doesn't add to my growing Wake County list (currently sitting just one bird below the two-century mark).  But, Eared Grebe would be a state bird, and a "lifer plumage" for me - I've only seen them during breeding season out West.  Plus, it's fun to add more birds to my short Chatham County list.

Eared Grebes can be tricky - they are notoriously similar to the closely-related (and more common, at least in this area) Horned Grebe.  Head shape is probably the best way to differentiate between the two, especially this time of year when the molts can get messy.  The Eared has a rounder head that peaks in the front, whereas the Horned's head is more flat and elongated.  Eared Grebes also ride higher in the water, and have a slightly upturned bill.  I was faced with this identification challenge as I scanned a flock of grebes just offshore.  Horned, Pied-billed, Horned... Until a different bird popped into view.  It had all of the characteristics mentioned above - yes, this was it.  

Eared Grebe at Jordan Lake
As hard as I tried, I couldn't find the second Eared Grebe that was reportedly also present.  It would have been easy to overlook, they so closely resemble Horned Grebes.  Anyhow, I was happy I got to see it.  On the way out, we also spotted a newly-arrived Osprey soaring over the lake, one of the first spring arrivals I see each year.

That afternoon, after I was finished cleaning the gutters on the house, I went back out birding - this time to Prairie Ridge up in Raleigh.  It was a beautiful day in the low 70s, and the slight breeze kept the air nice and fresh - how could I not be outside?  My target up at PR was the American Bittern.  Yes, that same bird I saw back in December.  I needed it for my Wake County Year List, after all (I am realizing as I'm writing this just how far down the listing road I've fallen, but bear with me).

Prairie Ridge American Bittern - trying his best to blend in.
It didn't take long to find the bird - he was hanging out in a small pond, foraging among some reeds just a few feet from me.  He didn't seem to mind my presence, but I let him be after a few minutes of quiet observation.  There were two Lesser Scaup on the big pond downhill, and I snapped a few shots of them in the good light.  These ducks will be gone North soon, so I might as well enjoy them.

Lesser Scaup
That night, I went to Edward's house with Sam to watch "A Birder's Guide to Everything."  It was a great movie (that was strangely relatable...).  We went out to a nearby park to look for owls - and we spotted a Barred Owl flying around - a year bird, believe it or not.  A nice end to a great, bird-filled day.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Outer Banks Birding with the Junior Curators

I apologize for neglecting this blog recently.  Despite my absence, I have been doing some birding lately -  I recently went to the Outer Banks with other NC Museum of Natural Sciences Junior Curators and some staff from the museum: Brian, Liani, and Kathryn.  It was a pretty productive trip, and we got good views of several excellent birds.

We started out Saturday morning birding Nags Head Woods, a tract of native forest north of Jockey's Ridge.  I had relatively low hopes for this patch, and it definitely exceeded my expectations.  The highlight was an Orange-crowned Warbler in a flock of a hundred or so Yellow-rumped Warblers.  Orange-crowned Warblers are scarce winter residents in the Southeast, and it is always a treat to find one.  The forest was also full of Cedar Waxwings, and there were dozens of ducks on the sound side of the park.
Birding at Nags Head Woods
Next up was Jockey's Ridge State Park, home to the largest sand dune on the East Coast.  I always love visiting this park, the dunes are quite a sight.  But there was one reason in particular we were visiting the area - Snow Buntings.  They are rare but regular along the northern coast of North Carolina, and a small flock had been recently sighted along the northern end of the park.  We searched and searched, traversing several ridges and dipping down into basins.  Walking on sand can be pretty tiring, especially when there are no birds around.  Despite our best efforts, we ended up dipping on the buntings.

We were forced to go to Corolla (Sam and I wanted to spend more time at Oregon Inlet and Pea Island instead).  Up there we did manage to spot a flock of five Wilson's Snipe flying around, as well as hundreds of Tundra Swans feeding in the sound.  So I guess it was alright.

The next stop is the undeniable highlight of any winter birding trip to the Outer Banks - Oregon Inlet.  First on the to-do list was to see the Great Horned Owl that had been chilling in an abandoned Osprey nest at the fishing center.  It's not every day you get to see a nocturnal, forest-dwelling species sitting in the middle of the sound - but Oregon always yields something interesting.
Great Horned Owl - it's that feathery lump in the middle, I promise.  See, there are ear tufts!
But on to the south side of the bridge - where I found the infamous Snowy Owl back in December (yes, I have to keep bragging about that - it was pretty cool).  It didn't take long for us to spot the six Harlequin Ducks and one Red-necked Grebe that were hanging around.  Harlequins are my favorite ducks - I guess they're pretty much everyone's favorite ducks - so I was pretty excited to see them again.  And this was the first Red-necked Grebe I had gotten a decent view of (though soon surpassed by my Harris Lake sighting about a week later).  The highlight for me, however, was watching three Purple Sandpipers feed along the edge of the jetty.  This was a lifer for Brian and a state bird for Sam and Edward (and a year bird for me).  Shorebirds are some of my favorites, and I always enjoy watching them.
Six Harlequins and one White-winged Scoter
Purple Sandpiper
The sun was going down, so after Oregon and a quick stop at Pea Island's North Pond, we went to eat at my favorite restaurant on the Outer Banks - Gidget's.  I've eaten there every time I've visited the area since the Big Day back in September - the Snowy Owl chase, the crazy winter birding trip a month later, and now with the JCs.  It's always a satisfying place to warm up (especially when they're serving chicken and dumplins).  After checking into the hotel, we went out to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse to do some night photography, and to just hang out.  It was pretty sweet seeing the lighthouse beam at night - and also a little eerie.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse at night.
We started the next day bright and early, visiting the Salt Pond at Cape Hatteras.  Right beside the parking area, in a flooded field, Sam and Edward spotted a rail sp. fly into the tall grass.  I jumped into the marsh clapping my hands, trying to flush the bird.  I heard a rustling just two feet from me - the grass parted and a little Virginia Rail flew out.  A new bird for North Carolina, and a cool experience.  We also flushed an American Bittern a few yards down from the rail spot - this was already a productive day!  Thousands of cormorants were flying overhead, and innumerable gannets were streaming by, all migrating north.  It's always amazing to see such vast numbers of birds in flight - and makes me wonder how incredible bird migrations were just two hundred years ago.  Sam and I seawatched for a while, but failed to turn up anything unusual.  It was nice to see birds returning northward, a sign that spring is finally on its way.

Next, we visited the Band-tailed Pigeon stakeout in Manteo.  I had seen the pigeon several weeks earlier - but everyone else still hadn't.  I had a general idea of where to look for the bird, and I spotted it roosting just a few minutes after arriving.  We all watched it preen and rest for a half hour, before heading back to the beach to look at a dead Common Dolphin that had washed up on shore.  After that, we drove to Alligator River NWR, the last stop on the trip.  The refuge consists of swampy pocosins adjacent to extensive fields.  Harriers were pretty common, as were Kestrels.  The highlight of our visit was one Rusty Blackbird, a new Dare County bird for me, that was hanging out in a swampy thicket on the side of the road.

Any trip to the Outer Banks is a good one, especially when you get to go with a group of your good friends.  I'm sure I'll be back down there soon!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Grebe-vasion

Red-necked Grebes - they're pretty rare down South, especially inland.  So when I saw dozens of reports from central North Carolina with crazy numbers of these large Podicipediformes, I couldn't resist heading down to Harris Lake to track a few down.  It didn't take long.  One grebe gave me great views through the scope.  Their was no wind, and the light was just about perfect - ideal scoping conditions.  Red-necked Grebes are notoriously hard to get good looks at, so I was ecstatic about this one.  I continued scanning the lake from my viewpoint on the boat ramp parking area.  There was a second grebe, this one further away.  Two Red-necked Grebes in a few minutes - not an every day (or even every-year) occurrence in Wake County.
Red-necked Grebe, a pretty massive fellow compared to his other grebe cousins.
The increased numbers of Red-necked Grebes in the South seems to be directly correlated to the deep freeze up north - most of these birds typically winter on the Great Lakes, which are almost completely frozen over right now.  I certainly can't complain.  County lifer #199 - Red-necked Grebe.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Pocosin Lakes NWR

After seeing the Band-tailed Pigeon and eating lunch in Manteo, my dad and I head back west to the Pungo unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR.  Pungo is most notable for its waterfowl, especially the hordes of Snow Geese and Tundra Swans that flock there in winter.   On the drive back from the Pigeon stakeout, I glimpsed a promising duck flock in a pond just off US-64.  We turned the car around and pulled over on the shoulder.  To my surprise, there were five Common Mergansers in the pond, along with a few grebes and more common ducks.  Common Mergs are uncommon in North Carolina, and though they are more easily found near the coast, this was still a good find.  There was even one male - making it my first male Common Merganser in NC.  It was a nice little stop on the way to Pungo.
Common Mergansers
We finally arrived in the refuge in the early afternoon, and immediately spied an extensive flock of Tundra Swans, with more than a thousand birds in it.  They were feeding a long distance away, and the heat shimmer made scoping for the more rare (and previously reported) Trumpeter Swan nearly impossible.  Nonetheless, it was still an impressive sight.  The dirt road was a mud-boggin' mess in some places, and I had fun splashing through it in my Outback.  My dad was a little leery of my "off-roading" abilities - but hey! We didn't get stuck...

Along the drive, we spotted a Harrier, Merlin, and several duck species, including a few Green-winged Teal and Gadwall.  There was also a flock of over a thousand Red-winged Blackbirds flying over the fields - it's always cool to watch a flock's undulating, rhythmic motions in flight.  Another mile or so down the road, we decided to embark on a short quarter-mile walk to a duck blind on the shore of Pungo.  Much to our surprise, an Eastern Screech Owl began calling - it was mid-afternoon!  This was the first Screech Owl I've heard without using playback, and it gave the experience a more "natural" feel.  But I still couldn't manage to spot the little guy - I still have yet to actually see a Screecher.  The duck blind yielded few actual ducks, with the exception of a flock or two of American Wigeon.  The entryway to the blind also had dangerously low planks of wood along the top, which I had to duck to walk under (how fitting). The rest of the drive was relatively uneventful, seeing a few more common species.

Our next stop was a trip to Pettigrew State Park, on the shore of Lake Phelps, to listen for a mysterious owl that was heard calling there.  We pulled up to Somerset Place about half an hour before sunset, in place for the action.  A random cat emerged from the woods and proceeded to jump on my lap and start purring - definitely the first time anything like this has happened to me on a birding trip!  As the sun finally went down, the area came alive.  Huge flocks of Snow Geese, which had evaded us the entire day, began pouring overhead.  A dozen or so Woodcocks started displaying from the surrounding fields - a sight I always enjoy.  The mystery owl began calling right on schedule - a weird, nasally call like nothing I've ever heard.  Originally, it was thought to be a Long-eared Owl, but now the evidence points more in favor toward a messed-up Great Horned Owl.  I guess we'll probably never really know what this bird was - but it was still interesting to hear.
Snow Geese flying in to roost on Lake Phelps