Sunday, February 14, 2016

Six Weeks of Big Year Birding

Last year was great, bird-wise. I added 27 species to my North Carolina list, ranging from Trumpeter Swan to Townsend's Solitaire. Team Triangle, of which I was a member, handedly won the Piedmont eBird Challenge with 237 species (mostly due to a productive shorebird season and insane rarities like Gray Kingbird and Black-legged Kittiwake). Despite all this, I felt like I was missing something. I had nearly forgotten birding around my usual haunts in Wake County, having neglected them for more fertile ground in Durham and Chatham Counties and the far-off fields of the Albemarle Peninsula. So for this year, I decided to take the plunge and begin a Wake County big year. My primary goal, aside from birding regularly around Raleigh, is to hit 200 species, though I think 205-210 is definitely within reach.

It started off with my usual route on the Jordan Lake CBC, conveniently covering the only sector in the circle in WakeCo. I picked up a few uncommon-ish birds like some peenting American Woodcock and a few American Black Ducks, as well as a flyover Pine Siskin. Nothing overly interesting, but year birds nonetheless. Later that week, I made my now-annual pilgrimage to visit the Prairie Ridge American Bittern (#78), arguably the most cooperative member of this species I've ever seen.

The Prairie Ridge Bittern, which has become somewhat of a local celebrity due to his habit of standing right beside a trail in the same spot for the past three winters. 

I still was lacking any real rarities, which are crucial to any big year effort. My first good find came in the form of a Nashville Warbler (#90) at Lake Crabtree, annual in fall in Wake County but certainly atypical in mid-January. He had a habit of only appearing for me when I didn't have a camera, but about a half dozen other birders managed to find and photograph him over the next few weeks. This was certainly a "missable" bird for me. Next came a Lesser Black-backed Gull, another species I've seen the past three years in the county but isn't necessarily guaranteed. By February 1st, I had picked up my 100th species, a semi-rare Orange-crowned Warbler that has spent the past two winters at Lake Raleigh.

Though much of a county big year effort revolves around finding good birds, there's always the element of chasing that keeps me on my toes. Birds are always more satisfying when they're self-found, but they all count the same for my year total. Thus, when my friend messaged me a cell-phone pic of a male Common Goldeneye (#101) in a pond in Northeast Raleigh, I was there in a matter of minutes. Though this was my third Goldeneye ever in the county, it was my first male, and was an excellent new year bird. Many other birders have made the drive out to see this bird as well. It's hard to resist something as good-looking as this guy.

Common Goldeneye

Next up was something I'd been patiently waiting for over the past month - my annual trip to the South Wake Landfill, which some friends and I have labelled "Gullapalooza" for good reason. Last year only netted us 3 species (Ring-billed, Herring, and Lesser Black-backed, in decreasing order of commonness), but I was optimistic that this year would turn up something better. It didn't disappoint. We quickly found a first-winter Great Black-backed Gull, a less-than-annual sight in the Triangle. Though not a county lifer, I was happy to pick up this behemoth of a gull. We continued to pick through the flock of nearly 30,000 gulls for the next few hours, spotting over a dozen Lessers as well. The real highlight came when Edward spotted a first-cycle Glaucous Gull (#103) not too far from our position. This was my 221st all-time species for the county, and is one of only ten or so records from the inland part of the state. One can never see enough white-winged gulls.

Glaucous Gull, one of our most sought-after species on the landfill trip.
I kept up the pace over the next week, stumbling on three Tundra Swans, my first ever in Wake, in the Lake Wheeler marshes. I also got to see a returning female Rufous Hummingbird at a feeder in North Raleigh early one morning before class, bringing me to this weekend, where I've picked up my first Purple Finches at Blue Jay Point after several prior attempt's at my parent's house, and two female Redhead at Lake Crabtree, bringing me to 108 species for the year. I can't wait to see what the next ten months will have in store!

Purple Finches, like this one, aren't exactly rare in Wake County, you just have to find a reliable feeder.