Sunday, July 12, 2015

Oregon Bound

A solo cross-country drive is bound to be an interesting experience - and my 2750-mile journey from central North Carolina to southeastern Oregon in mid-May certainly was. I reached my end destination, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, in a little under a week's time (I'm interning there for the summer). Along the way, I managed to spot some pretty sweet birds and got to see some incredible things. I got caught in a snowstorm, picked up 6 lifers, and did a bunch of county listing. All in all, an eventful week spent behind the wheel of my Subaru.

My first leg was also my longest - the 11-hour drive from Raleigh to my grandfather's house in Evansville, Indiana, who had promised to go along for some birding the next day. Aside from my jaunt through the Appalachians, it was a pretty boring drive, but I made good time. I spent the next day hitting some birding spots around southern Indiana, getting a few birds with a slightly western, or at least Mid-western, flair. Bell's Vireo was a good find at Blue Grass FWA, one of the easternmost breeding localities for this species (and a place I visited a few years back)

Bell's Vireo
Dickcissel was another target bird, a species with a rather unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on your taste in humor) four-letter AOU code. One can never see too many DICKs. I even took a few DICK pics. 
Dickcissel singin' away at Bluegrass FWA
My Indiana list was nearing the one hundred mark, so we opted to continue birding around the Evansville area. Eagle Slough, a birdy stretch of bottomland forest along the Ohio River, got me my first ever views of an alternate-plumaged Magnolia Warbler (I've only seen them in the fall before). I ended up rounding out the day patrolling the edges of my grandpa's corn fields, hoping the strips of forest would provide decent enough migrant traps. Sure enough, they did. Some interesting migrants like Least Flycatcher, Swainson's Thrush, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak, along with a random flyover Common Loon, got me to that 100 mark for the state, and around 90 species for the day. Not a bad total at all.

The next day was a long and boring drive from Evansville to Lincoln, Nebraska, mostly through Missouri. I had hoped to spot a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher sitting on a wire along I-70, but none were to be seen. I pulled into Lincoln exhausted, but with some daylight to spare. I decided to drive across town to hit the Lincoln Saline Wetlands, a nice little park with some good bird activity. The winds were a bit strong, but I did spot a flock of Franklin's Gulls, a lifer, along with my FOY Western Kingbird and a nice Lincoln's Sparrow.

Lincoln's Sparrow. I like Lincoln's Sparrows, despite their disdain for posing for photos.
 The next day was arguably my biggest adventure bird-wise for the drive out. I had the relatively short (six-and-a-half hour) drive from Lincoln to Cheyenne, Wyoming, so I thought I'd use my extra free time to search out some Great Plains species. High on the list was Lark Bunting, an unusual species of sparrow only found across the midsection of the country. I was also hoping for the long-shot Mountain Plover, a sporadic and rare resident of western Nebraska. Following up on a few old eBird reports of this shorebird species, I decided to check out some roads off the highway south of Kimball, near the Wyoming and Colorado borderlands. I took the exit off I-80 and headed south down a straight road through an endless expanse of nothingness. Then I did what only a birder would do - turned off on a random dirt road, rolled down the windows, and started cruising.

It only took about three minutes for me to spot my first, and probably easiest, target - a handful of striking male Lark Buntings flew up onto a wire above the road. Horned Larks were everywhere, and I also managed to spot a migrant White-crowned Sparrow. 

Now it was Mountain Plover time. I had a vague idea of where to look - barren fallow fields with exposed soil are their preferred habitat. Unfortunately for me, there were vast expanses of this habitat in the area. I picked a few more dirt roads and cruised slowly trying to spot one. No luck, and I was starting to feel a little down. Finally, I saw what I assumed would be perfect plover hab. A few minutes of waiting and, to my complete surprise, a Mountain Plover appeared about fifty feet away.
Success in southwest Nebraska
Mountain Plovers are by no means common - Sibley puts their world population at around only 20,000 birds. Excited with the successful little detour, I got back on the interstate and arrived safely to visit family in Cheyenne.

The next morning was the long and desolate drive to Idaho, broken up only by a stop to see McCown's Longspurs off a highway exit near Laramie. I saw about a dozen males displaying, flying energetically toward the sky, then outstretching their wings in a v-formation and parachuting back to earth, all while singing a complex song. An amazing sight.

McCown's mid-display
There wasn't much in the way of birds between there and Oregon. A surprise snowstorm here, lifer Ring-necked Pheasant there. I had a nice visit with Chuck Trost, an over-5,000 species lister and a retired ornithology prof from Idaho State, who showed me around a few Idaho birding patches. I pulled into Burns, Oregon on the 17th, ready to start my internship and work on my Harney County list. Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, home for the next ten weeks.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Enter the New Year

I decided this will be the year I make a dedicated effort to work on my state list, which began the year at 310 species. Not a bad number, but one that can definitely grow. But I never would have thought I would add 4 new birds to that list in a matter of three weeks, one of which wasn't even on my radar. Throw in a couple other stellar rarities I had already seen, and it's been one hell of a January.

We'll start on January 2nd. My dad, along with my usual birding cohorts Sam and Edward, worked our way onto the Outer Banks to do a little winter birding. Dad recently bought a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, so we thought we could take it for a spin and do some beach-birding from the car. On the way down, I picked up my state lifer Yellow-crowned Night-Heron on the Nags Head causeway. This was arguably my "easiest" bird left in North Carolina, and is one I just never put in the effort to see. Luckily, this adult bird has been very cooperative for many observers, and its easy access has made it somewhat of a celebrity among birders on the Outer Banks.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron at Nags Head
We pulled into the Bodie Island entrance road to listen for the previously-reported Northern Saw-whet Owls wintering in the pines. After a fifteen minutes of waiting (once the Great Horneds moved away), one of the Saw-whets piped up. The high-pitched, incessant hooting filled the night. I had heard these owls before, but this was by far my best experience with them.

The real highlight of the trip, however, came on the next day. We drove out to Cape Point, on the very tip of Cape Hatteras, to do some seawatching and gulling. We found the usual five species of gulls out  there - Herring, Ring-billed, Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed, and Bonaparte's Gulls - but nothing noteworthy. As we drove further out onto the sandy spit that forms the point, we flushed a flock of small passerines. The extensive white wing-patches were a giveaway for Snow Buntings, a species I had only seen once before. These birds had been present for a few weeks, but I had completely forgotten about them. The flock landed again, and a quick scan showed that one of the birds wasn't a Snow Bunting at all, but a Lapland Longspur, an uncommon species this far south. A great lifer to kick off the new year!

Lapland Longspur with two Killdeer.
Seawatching from the point got us a flyby Razorbill as well as a few dozen Surf and Black Scoters before we began to make our way back toward Raleigh. We decided to spend the afternoon cruising Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on the mainland, an excellent spot for birds of prey and a good place to pick up some Dare County land birds. Sam spotted an Eastern Phoebe from the car window, and we all excitedly jumped out of the moving car (save for my dad, who was driving) to get a look at this overdue county lifer. A nearby birder who was initially intrigued by our excitement seemed disappointed when we told him what we were looking at. Common birds matter, man.

Anyway, we stuck around until sunset to see two Short-eared Owls in the fading light, always a highlight of any trip. Alligator is the only reliable spot for Shorties in NC (at least that I'm aware of, there have to be others out there). Anyway, the birds at Milltail Road never disappoint.

The day after we got back, Sam and I participated in the Jordan Lake CBC. It wasn't a super birdy day, and most of what I remember involved a miserable slog through mud and rain down a power line cut (we got kind of lost). We did pick up Northern Bobwhite and Northern Harrier, two decent birds for the county, at least.

I have a soft spot for flycatchers, so it was probably no surprise I felt a hankering to chase the Ash-throated Flycatcher reported from the Pettigrew State Park boat ramp the day before. Lucky for me, I was headed down to the Outer Banks with Edward to lead a Wake Audubon trip that weekend, so I'd be in the area.

A productive day of birding on the Outer Banks with my group yielded most of the usual suspects from the area, but it also left pretty much everyone cold and tired. After everyone else headed in, I decided to keep birding.  But where to? It seemed the Ash-throated, only an hour away, would be my best bet before sunset.

I strolled down the Pettigrew State Park boat ramp road for twenty or so minutes, looking along the margins of the forest. I was about to call it quits when a large flycatcher flew right out in front of me, landing on the far side of the path. After a few minutes of observation and slow approach, I got to within a few feet of the bird and managed some pretty nice shots of this rarity. I'd seen an Ash-throated in North Carolina before, but this was about as quality of a sighting as anyone could get.

Ash-throated Flycatcher in the late afternoon light. Crushed.
My post-rarity euphoria ended abruptly when the sheriff's lights went on behind me on US-64.

Dammit. That was one expensive bird.

I managed to drag my weary self back to Bodie Island in time to see a Virginia Rail as well as the flocks of ducks taking off before nightfall. My spirits were low - that ticket probably cost me a few pelagic trips!

Two trips to the coast in January may seem excessive, but it still wasn't enough for me. So Sam and I decided to make a day trip to the Wrightsville Beach area, to try and round up as many rarities as we could. High on the list was Long-tailed Duck - there had been several reports of multiple birds from the area's inlets. We walked up to Masonboro Inlet early in the morning expecting to see one - but we had no such luck. An American White Pelican cruising in the inlet was a good county bird, but not exactly what we were looking for. The sun was rather blinding, however, so we decided to come back in the afternoon for better light.

A quick run south, and we found ourselves surrounded by Confederate troops. Fort Fisher was celebrating the 150th anniversary of its battle, and we were in the middle of it. After struggling through excessive traffic and driving past battalions of soldiers, we made it to the Aquarium, where two Mottled Ducks had been seen. A quick jaunt around the premises to the pond, and there they were - a pretty good state bird, and Sam's 300th.

We took a ride over the Southport Ferry, and spent a rather unproductive hour in Brunswick County. It wasn't hard for us to head back up to Wrightsville and try our luck once again at the inlets. Mason Inlet, on the north side of Wrightsville Beach, would be our first destination. We had good luck here last May, but it had been quite some time since we had visited this area in winter. A short trudge through the sand to the inlet itself seemed relatively uneventful at first - there were a handful of Northern Gannets circling offshore, and a short line of Horned Grebes flying by, but not much else until something bobbing in the water caught our eye. We could tell the distant thing was an Alcid, but that was about it. Sam and I assumed it was a Dovekie, a species we had never seen before, and we worked our way down the beach to get a better view.

Close inspection revealed that it was decidedly not a Dovekie. This thing was way too big. And its bill was way too long. A scan of the field guide apps on our phones brought us to the conclusion that we were looking at a Thick-billed Murre, a species very rare this far south. The Birds of North Carolina website says that there are only around 20 records for the state. No wonder we didn't know what it was! The bird appeared unwell, and we watched as the current swept it out of sight.

The light was fading fast, so we decided to haul out of there as quickly as possible to try our luck as Masonboro Inlet once more. Scan for Long-tailed Duck - no luck. Scan for the previously reported Eared Grebe - nothing. I focused my attention on a distant flock of gulls, and spotted a particularly white one. It was an Iceland Gull, one of a few that had been hanging around the area. Our New Hanover blitz certainly paid off, and we left the area more than happy. I had gotten two state lifers in just a few hours, a very rare occurrence these days. I couldn't imagine having a better first few weeks of 2015, that's for sure!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Quail-Dove Quest

Back in late September, I saw on the ABA Rare Bird Alert page that there was a Key West Quail-Dove at Long Key State Park. It was the first North American record since 2002.  I already had a sketch of a December Florida trip planned out, and all I could do was hope it would stick around. Reports fizzled out, then in early December, a Quail-Dove was once again being seen consistently at Long Key. I had to go for it. My mom and I arrived mid-afternoon, and after setting up camp at the park's beautiful campground, I began my search.

I don't really know what I was expecting the Quail-Dove chase to be like. I'm used to chasing rare ducks and shorebirds, where you basically just scope a field until you see the bird. This method usually doesn't take that long. It's pretty easy. This, however, is not how you find a Key West Quail-Dove. The preferred search technique for this bird, I learned, is to slowly wander the section of trail where the dove had been seen, in the hammock-type habitat. While ambling in dead silence, you peer into the dense tangle of foliage, hoping, by some remote stroke of luck, to spot it. I soon settled into an uncomfortably-tense, hyper-alert state. Every time the tiniest animal took a step, I heard it, and immediately whipped around to see what it was. I was finding giant hermit crabs scuffling deep within thickets. I saw more anoles than I've seen in my life. But no Quail-Dove. It was a bizarre and surreal experience. This went on for hours, until the park ranger showed up and told myself and half a dozen other birders to wrap it up because it was getting dark. No bird.

Golden Orb Trail, prime Quail-Dove habitat. 
I had the next morning to search again - it was my last chance. Luckily, the bird was being seen with more regularity early in the morning, before the park gates opened (I was already in the park at the campground). So around 7 AM, I resumed my slow meander up and down the Golden Orb Trail with other birders. After forty five or so minutes, still no luck. I eventually worked my way back toward the trailhead. Along the edges of the mangroves, I heard a rustling sound. I began looking around, trying to identify the source of noise. I took a few more steps, and I heard a bird take off. To my amazement, a large, chunky dove flew low across the trail, five yards away. It was a beautiful rufous color, and the undersides were a light grayish-buffy. My heart skipped a beat - it was the Key West Quail Dove! It landed out of sight, I heard it scurrying through the underbrush, and it was gone. I alerted the other nearby birders, two of whom had seen the bird(s) just a few minutes earlier. I stuck around a little while longer to try and re-find the bird with the rest of the birders, but I eventually just decided to head out - now that I had seen the bird, I wanted to see more of the Keys than that short patch of trail! Later that day, however, two Quail-Doves were seen and photographed together, proving that there was more than just one at Long Key. This is a historical discovery - the last time two were reported together in North America was in 1832, by none other than John James Audubon. There is a chance these doves bred at Long Key!

I read Audubon's account of the Key West Quail-Dove from 1832: "The flight of this bird is low, swift, and protracted...  it is fond of going out from the thickets early in the morning, for the purpose of cleansing itself in the shelly sand that surrounds the island; but the instant it perceives danger it flies off to the woods, throws itself into the thickest part of them, alights on the ground, and runs off with rapidity until it thinks itself secure." This is almost exactly what I saw on this day - the dove was somewhere along the shoreline in the mangroves in the early morning, and flew in this exact manner as soon as it perceived human presence into the dense hammock. I could hear the bird scurrying after it landed, but could not re-find it - I guess it found a nice hiding place.

Despite my mediocre and somewhat unsatisfying view of the bird, I left the park happy. Others had pored hours and hours into trying to see that bird. I was lucky.