Sunday, April 27, 2014

Into the Second Century

Since the March 5th Red-necked Grebes, my Wake County list was stuck at a tantalizing 199 species of birds.  It seemed like nothing I could do would get me to break this arbitrary barrier, sending me into my second century of county listing.  I knew just filling in one of the big "holes" in my list could get me there - by nailing down a Blue-headed Vireo, Blackburnian Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Chuck-will's-widow, or an Eastern Whip-poor-will.  None can be considered "common" in the area, though Blue-headed Vireo is fairly regular.  With migration finally coming into stride, it was only a matter of time.

I arose at 5:15 AM Saturday morning to finally find one of these birds - the nocturnal Eastern Whip-poor-will.  The game lands around Harris Lake seem like prime habitat, I just had to be there at the right time.  By the time I finally got to the area around 5:45, however, light was beginning to appear on the horizon.  I probably had a 10-minute window to find the bird before the morning chorus of diurnal species started up.  I sat on the hood of my car, looking at the moon, and listening to a few early-rising Eastern Towhees and Common Yellowthroats.  I was about to give up on the Whip when I heard its classic call coming from a patch of trees a hundred yards away - "whip-po-or-WILL! whip-po-or-WILL! whip-po-or-WILL!"  I instinctively jumped into my car and drove down the road to where it was singing.  To my surprise, the little nightjar flushed right in front of me.  It looked like a big brown moth, with a short tail and oversized, floppy wings.  Eastern Whip-poor-will - county bird #200.  I like the sound of that.
Looking back at the patch of trees the Eastern Whip-poor-will was calling from.
I had a solid two hours until the bird walk I was leading over at the county park started, so I wandered around the patchwork of habitats that make up the Harris Lake game lands.  Prairie Warblers were incredibly numerous in the early successional habitats, and I counted over two dozen birds.  Hooded Warblers and Ovenbirds called from the forest.  I watched a Great Egret, another new arrival, fly along the far shore of the lake, as a Bald Eagle and an Osprey hunted for fish.  I also managed to find a few Yellow-breasted Chats, those noisy warbler-ish, blackbird-ish misfits.  Just as I was leaving, I heard my first-of-year Eastern Wood-Pewees and a reclusive little Worm-eating Warbler.  51 species of birds in just two hours - one of my best solo lists to date.  But the weekend was just getting started.
Even though they are beyond-abundant down at Harris, Prairie Warblers are one of my favorite local breeders.  I mean look at him - he's spectacular.
Yellow-breasted Chat 
The bird walk I led went great, and we saw some good birds - at least 5 Summer Tanagers, a Yellow-throated Vireo, and a drake Wood Duck.  The real highlight (for me at least) was a Merlin that decided to fly over our party, just 30 or so feet above the ground.  It was my 150th bird at Harris!

Sunday morning, Sam and I decided to do a little birding at Lake Crabtree then head over to Schenck Forest.  Crabtree was decent - we picked up both yellowlegs, two flyby Blue-winged Teal, a heard-only Black-throated Blue Warbler, and a few heard-only Scarlet Tanagers - but other than that it was fairly uneventful.  We hoped Schenck Forest would be better.

After a few minutes, it didn't seem like it would.  All the usual suspects were there, but none of the migrants we were after seemed to show themselves.  We started wandering deeper into the forest.  Sam stopped suddenly, and said "Thrush".  I stopped too.  The bird flew down out of sight, and we waited.  And waited.  A little Ovenbird walked slowly along the forest floor, and I joked with Sam that he had just misidentified the Ovenbird as a thrush.  Sam was convinced it wasn't - that it was actually a Gray-cheeked Thrush.  I played the song off my phone just to see what would happen (my policy on playback is not to use it on breeding birds - but since GCTHs don't breed here, I thought I was safe to use it briefly).  Sure enough, the bird flitted up and landed just a few yards away.  Everything about it pointed to Gray-cheeked Thrush, an uncommon-to-rare migrant in these parts.

The thrush was all we needed to get the migrant ball rolling.  Soon we spotted a stunning male Black-throated Blue Warbler singing his heart out.  Two Louisiana Waterthrushes sang their piercing songs from the creek bed.  We continued downhill, and I heard the distinctive song of the Black-throated Green Warbler, a bird common in the mountains but uncommon this far east.  Sam and I jumped across the creek to track down the noisy little bird, and we looked back to see Edward running down the trail to meet us.  I signaled for him to come up quietly.  The BT Green popped into view after a few minutes, giving us all one of the best views we could ask for.  Soon a flock of three Black-and-white Warblers and a singing Prothonotary Warbler moved in to join him.  We ended up with 11 species of warblers at Schenck, a pretty good number for this area.  Just as we were heading into the parking lot, we spotted four little blackbirds in one of the pastures.  They were my first-of-year Bobolinks, a great way to close out my weekend birding.  One lifer, one state bird, and a slew of new migrants.  Let's hope my big day next weekend goes this well.

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