Monday, May 19, 2014

North Carolina Big Day - May 4th, 2014

2:15 AM.  The alarm starts buzzing beside my head, ending my five-hour slumber.  I clambered down my bed and stumbled down the hall to wake up Sam.  We packed the cooler and jumped into the car - it was go time. 
A 90s-style birding promotion of the day.  Sam clearly has too much time on his hands.
We were embarking on a big day - yes, another one.  Our goal was to hit 135 species of birds, all seen within 24 hours in North Carolina, on a route that would take us from marshy Atlantic inlets to bottomland forests, and all the way back to Raleigh.  We cruised down I-40 toward Wilmington and the coast.  The major highway was all but abandoned at 3 in the morning, and we kept ourselves awake by jamming to some music and drinking some super-concentrated cold-brew coffee.  It was pretty potent stuff, to say the least, and the taste kind of burned until you got used to it.  At about 4:15 we arrived at our first destination, a lonely road north of Wilmington where Chuck-will's-widows had been reported.  We pulled off on the shoulder to investigate a good spot.  Immediately, we heard a chorus of Chucks singing - dozens of them.  One easy first bird. 

Because the Chuck-will's-widows were so easy to find, we were left with extra time on our hands - so we opted for a breakfast.  We arrived at McDonald's relatively smoothly (the only major, and unfortunately literal, bump was The Raccoon Incident, which will forever live in infamy).  While sitting in the parking lot eating chicken biscuits, we picked up House Sparrow, a bird almost always present under the Golden Arches.  Just like that, we brought our bird list to a whopping 2 species.

But now the "real" birding would begin.  We made the short jaunt over to the north end of Wrightville Beach to visit our first true destination - Mason Inlet.  This area is excellent for shorebirding, and we knew it would be a crucial stop for our day to succeed.  We arrived just before dawn - the subtle glow of the morning sun was just appearing along the horizon.  There was just enough light to see through the scopes, and we walked down to the gnat-infested marsh to start looking.  Just calling it "gnat-infested" may be the understatement of the year.  We were literally being eaten alive by the swarming little bugs.  If the guests in the nearby hotels had been awake, they would have seen two teenage fools swatting wildly at their necks, contorting every which way and hopping around, while trying to look through scopes at a Black-bellied Plover.  It was horrible - but we needed the birds. 

As we flailed desperately to swat away our marauding insect companions, we heard the whispery song of the Nelson's Sparrow, as well as the noisy call of a Clapper Rail.  We also spotted an Eastern Willet feeding on a mudflat in the marsh, a lifer subspecies that could eventually be split.

We booked it out of the marsh and away the growing cloud of gnats to hit the beach, which would be the crux of our inlet visit.  A steady stream of tiny Least Terns began pouring out of their sandy nesting grounds to feed offshore.  I noticed a decent flock of gulls hanging out a little ways down the beach, so we set up the scopes.  Laughing, Laughing, Herring, Ring-billed, another Laughing... until a large dark-backed gull came into view.  And another.  It was an easy identification - Lesser Black-backed Gull - not really too rare, but relatively late.  It was a good bird to find, and was certainly one we didn't expect to see.  We couldn't stand around long, so we decided to move towards the (hopefully shorebird-infested) inlet to the north.  It didn't take long to spot the classic coastal birds of the region - things like Black Skimmer, Common Tern, Royal Tern, and Brown Pelican.  We watched a half-dozen Wilson's Plovers scurry out of their nesting area toward the beach, a lifer for Sam.  Soon we were calling out shorebirds every which way - Least Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Piping Plover, Whimbrel.  Whimbrels are one of my favorite birds, and we managed to see 6 from the inlet, including one loner feasting near the marsh.

Wilson's Plover, a sly-lookin' shorebird.
Whimbrel, in a terrible photo that does little to highlight its glory.
So, yeah - Mason Inlet was a success.  We thought.  But we had just missed three really stupid birds - Dunlin, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and Western Sandpiper - that we wouldn't get later in the day.  Anyway, Sam walked away with two lifers and I with several new year birds.

We cruised awkwardly through a subdivision to pick up some suburban birds before heading to our next big stop, Carolina Beach State Park.  I had one thing on my mind - Painted Buntings.  One of the last "easy" birds in the state I had never seen.  Carolina Beach is one of the best places in North Carolina to find them, so I had high hopes.  When we pulled up to the park, we were immediately greeted by singing Northern Parulas and Yellow-throated Warblers.  We spotted a Summer Tanager and some Brown-headed Nuthatches as well - all common denizens of the pine-dominated forests of Carolina Beach.  We heard a song we weren't familiar with, so we creeped up along the trail to investigate.  It was a drab green Painted Bunting (I don't really know why it was singing-probably an immature male).  It flew off promptly, and we continued down the trail.  Soon we heard another bunting singing - and this one was much more cooperative.

Painted Bunting male - a coastal relative of the familiar cardinals, tanagers, and grosbeaks.
I could finally breathe a sigh of relief - I had finally seen a Painted Bunting.  It was about time.  There was little time to savor the moment, however - we had work to do.  Our next find was a female Blackpoll Warbler, a migrant we could have easily missed along our route.  A couple more birds here and there rounded out Carolina Beach for us.  We still weren't even halfway to our goal.  Fort Fisher, our last beach stop, would hopefully push us closer to that 135. 

Fort Fisher's strategic position overlooking both the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic helped make Wilmington the last Southern port to fall during the Civil War.  Now, its location makes it a major hotspot for birders.  We spotted a Cattle Egret along the roadside, a quick tick at 45 mph.  Fort Fisher has a high-ish promontory above the crashing Atlantic, and we figured we'd check the area for some ocean birds.  A small flock of Black Scoters was floating just offshore, as were scores of Brown Pelicans.  We ran over to the tangled mat of bushes across the parking lot where we knew a House Wren lived, and heard it calling almost immediately.  Next we went to The Basin, a wide shallow expanse of water abutting the Cape Fear, cut off by a long jetty.  Marsh Wrens and more Nelson's Sparrows were singing from the marsh.  We spotted a Seaside and a Savannah Sparrow in the grass, too.  Common, Royal, Caspian, Forster's, and Sandwich Terns were flying all around us, and Purple Sandpipers scurried along the jetty.  We picked up our third and fourth herons of the day - Tricolored Heron and Snowy Egret.  We still didn't have the easies like Great Blue Heron and Green Heron; Little Blue ended up being a miss.  We climbed Battery Buchanan, a sandy embankment that's usually pretty productive.  There we found our only Orchard Oriole and Tree Swallow of the day.

We really didn't feel too good about the day list after leaving Fort Fisher - there was still a brutal number of birds left to see.  We hoped Greenview Lake, a city park in Wilmington, would help fill in our embarrassing misses.  At first, it didn't seem like it would.  It was approaching midday, a time when bird activity slows to a halt.  We were poking into some bushes along the shore when we finally flushed a Great Blue Heron, a bird we were legitimately worried about before that point.  Next, a Green Heron flew past, apparently flushed by the obnoxious group of shouting women nearby.  We also saw our only Mallards of the day swimming around the cypress trees.  Greenfield seems like a nice place, and the cypress trees growing in the lake give it a distinctive Southern character - but we high-tailed it out of there, mostly due to the throngs of people enjoying the beautiful weather.  

Next stop - ILM International Airport on the north side of town.  We decided to look for the Loggerhead Shrike that had been reported from there on several occasions.  We ended up only seeing Brown-headed Cowbirds and dozens of noisy Northern Mockingbirds at the airport, but at the creek down the road we picked up Prothonotary Warbler, singing the classic "sweet sweet sweet" those golden birds are known for.  We took a short break to eat lunch and to drink more of that potent mason jar coffee.  This was our last stop in New Hanover county - the long road inland lay ahead.
Coffee Selfie
Howell Woods was our next big stop, and what we thought would be our last one with daylight.  On the drive in I saw what I thought was a Loggerhead Shrike sitting on a wire.  I slammed on the brakes and pulled off on the shoulder - sure enough, it was a shrike - the airport miss didn't matter anymore!  A Purple Martin colony was set up nearby, giving us another easy pick-up for the day.  Howell Woods is one of our favorite places within an hour's drive of Raleigh - it has the perfect combination of hardwoods, fields, bottomlands, and pine forests to be hella birdy.  A Mississippi Kite soared overhead as we jumped out of the car, and to our surprise a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak was hanging out at the feeder station.  We were worried the afternoon sun would have suppressed the bird activity - but the Outside Slough trail squashed any doubt.  Soon we were knee-deep in striking male Black-throated Blue Warblers, Acadian Flycatchers, and singing Swainson's Warblers.   Just what we had hoped for.  We heard a Magnolia Warbler, saw a few Indigo Buntings, and spotted a skulking Common Yellowthroat.  We also found a Pileated Woodpecker, leaving us with only one woodpecker left to see - Northern Flicker (which wouldn't happen).  A muddy puddle in a field yielded a small flock of Semipalmated Plovers and a new day bird, Solitary Sandpiper.
Classic Howell Woods
Pretty soon, though, we started to run out of birds to see.  After picking up a lifer Mole Kingsnake crossing the trail, we realized it was time to move on.  But where?  We had planned on an extra 4 hours at Howell.  The best bet, it seemed, was to go back to familiar areas in Raleigh to fill in our misses.  First stop - Yates Mill.

The light was beginning to acquire a golden tinge when we pulled up to the millpond, and we knew we had to hurry.  We ran down to the first bridge, scoping for shorebirds.  Spotted Sandpiper - check.  Lesser Yellowlegs - check.  Nothing else?  Move on.  We were pushing a brisk pace as we rounded the second bridge, where we found Eastern Phoebe and almost a dozen Eastern Kingbirds, the last easy flycatchers we could get.  We looked up at the sky - still plenty of daylight.  Mid Pines seemed like a good next stop to find the two field birds we had missed, Meadowlark and Bobolink.  Both landed on the fencepost just a few yards into the road.  For the first time all day, we knew we were climbing rapidly in numbers.

Swift Creek Bluffs is a little-known forest park in Cary, just off busy Holly Springs Road.  There was no one there when I whipped into the little parking lot, and we moved stealthily down the path.  Sam and I were both uncannily determined - usually we are just joking around, but now we were hardly talking.  We were too close.  A Louisiana Waterthrush popped out of the brush - 126.  A small group of thrushes flew across the forest floor.  Buffy face, eye ring.  Swainson's Thrush - 127.  Little red Catharus with subtle patterning.  Veery - 128.  All we could get there.  We were done.  We ran like hell.

It was 7 - we had just under an hour of light left.  One last-ditch effort was in store, to the game lands of Harris Lake.  My home turf.  In this case, my knowledge of the area helped immensely.  Our first stop was the bridge where Cliff Swallows were nesting.  High-pitched, squeaky song above the car - Black-and-white Warbler, 129.  Scan the marshes to the northeast - Bald Eagle - 130.  A few Cliff Swallows were feeding just offshore - 131.  Another scan through the scope.  Ruddy Duck - 132.  We went down the the Upper Ramp as the sun finally went down.  Two distant Wood Ducks flew past - 133.  At that point, we really couldn't see anything else, so we went into town to get some food and regroup.  It was 8:15.

I was too tired to keep driving around, so my dad filled drove us for the last leg.  Our first stop was the Upper Ramp at Harris, again, to listen for Whip-poor-wills.  We immediately heard five singing, along with a county lifer Chuck-will's-widow.  We briefly listened for flight calls, but Swainson's Thrush, one we had seen on the ground a few hours earlier, was the only call we heard.  Our next stop was Schenck Forest to find the resident Great Horned Owl.  No luck - all we heard were crickets.  We were about ready to call it quits, but we sat just one bird short of our goal.  We drove over to Mid Pines to hopefully hear a Barred Owl or a flight call.  After a few, silent minutes, hooting started wafting up from Yates Mill Park down the hill.  We sprung up to verify that what we were hearing was actually an owl (it was, a Barred) when a Grasshopper Sparrow decided to sing its whisper song just a few feet from us.  The expected Barred Owl and the completely unexpected Grasshopper were 135 and 136, just like that.  It was time to sleep.

This big day was the first time I've felt like we had a solid plan in place.  We had spreadsheets and lists for each destination we visited.  The only thing that we need to add to our planning is actual pre-day scouting - maybe next time.  I can't complain, though - 136 birds in one day is pretty solid.

The List.  Credit Sam Jolly.

Sidbury Road
1. Chuck-will’s-widow
McDonald's--Market St.
2. House Sparrow
Mason Inlet
3. Nelson’s Sparrow
4. Greater Yellowlegs
5. Black-bellied Plover (Gray Pleever)
6. Willet
7. Clapper Rail
8. Mourning Dove
9. Red-winged Blackbird
10. Great Egret 
11. Canada Goose
12. American Oystercatcher
13. Carolina Wren
14.  Northern Mockingbird
15. Boat-tailed Grackle
16. Common Grackle
17. Royal Tern
18.Fish Crow
19. Barn Swallow
20. Ring-billed Gull
21.  Laughing Gull
22. Sanderling
23. Double-crested Cormorant
24.  Least Sandpiper
25. Herring Gull
26. Lesser Black-backed Gull
27. Great Black-backed Gull
28. Ruddy Turnstone
29. Common Tern
30. Black Skimmer
31. Least Tern
32. Wilson’s Plover
33. Whimbrel
34. Semipalmated Plover
35. Piping Plover
36. Osprey
37. Red-breasted Merganser
38. House Finch
39. White Ibis
King’s Grant
40. Brown Thrasher
41. Gray Catbird
42. Carolina Chickadee
43. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
44. Chimney Swift
45. Tufted Titmouse
46. Eastern Bluebird
47. American Robin
Carolina Beach
48. Brown Pelican
49. Northern Parula
50. Prairie Warbler
51. Northern Cardinal
52. Yellow-throated Warbler
53. Brown-headed Nuthatch
54. Red-bellied Woodpecker
55. Pine Warbler
56. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
57. Red-headed Warbler
58. Downy Woodpecker
59. Summer Tanager
60. Yellow-rumped Warbler
61. American Crow
62. Blue Jay
63. Painted Bunting
64. Blackpoll Warbler
65. Red-eyed Vireo
66. Great-crested Flycatcher
67. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Side of the Road
68. Cattle Egret
Fort Fisher
69. Black Scoter
70. House Wren
71. Turkey Vulture
72. Tri-colored Heron
73. Marsh Wren
74. Snowy Egret
75. Purple Sandpiper
76. Forster’s Tern
77. Sandwich Tern
78. Tree Swallow
79. Caspian Tern
80. Savannah Sparrow
81. Seaside Sparrow
82. Orchard Oriole
Greenfield Lake
83. Mallard
84. Great-blue Heron
85. Cedar Waxwing
86. Green Heron
87. Black Vulture
88. Red-tailed Hawk
Smith Creek/ILM Airport
89. European Starling
90. Brown-headed Cowbird
91. Eastern Towhee
92. Prothonotary Warbler
Near Rose Hill
93. Red-shouldered Hawk
Howell Woods
94. Loggerhead Shrike
95. Purple Martin
96.  Rock Pigeon
97. Mississippi Kite
98. Rose-breasted Grosbeak
99. American Goldfinch
100. Black-throated Blue Warbler
101. Chipping Sparrow
102. Common Yellowthroat
103. Eastern Wood-Pewee
104. Acadian Flycatcher
105. Swainson’s Warbler
106. Pileated Woodpecker
107. Wood Thrush
108. White-breasted Nuthatch
109. Yellow-throated Vireo
110. White-throated Sparrow
111. White-eyed Vireo
112. Hooded Warbler
113. Indigo Bunting
114. Magnolia Warbler
115. Yellow-breasted Chat
116. Blue Grosbeak
117. Ovenbird
118. Killdeer
119.  Solitary Sandpiper
Yates Mill
120. Lesser Yellowlegs
121. Spotted Sandpiper
122. Eastern Phoebe
123. Eastern Kingbird
Mid Pines Road
124. Eastern Meadowlark
125. Bobolink
Swift Creek Bluffs
126. Louisiana Waterthush
127. Swainson’s Thrush
128. Veery
Harris Lake, NE of New Hill-Holleman Road
129. Black-and-white Warbler
130. Bald Eagle
131. Cliff Swallow
132. Ruddy Duck
Harris Lake, Upper Ramp
133. Wood Duck
134. Eastern Whip-poor-will
Mid Pines Road
135. Barred Owl
136. Grasshopper Sparrow


  1. Congrats on 136! From your writing, I felt like I was in the race for 135 with you.

    1. Haha thanks. We were pretty much running on caffeine by the end, so you can imagine that last push was pretty nerve-racking.