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!