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Friday, December 30, 2011

Go East, Young Birders!

Between Christmas and New Years, the best birding in North Carolina can be had along our famous Outer Banks, those narrow strips of land that could scarcely be considered sandbars, and yet represent a major hub of tourism in our state. However, once all the tourists have left for the season, waterfowl flock to our shores in numbers only found in a few select sites around the country. As birders, it’s our job to count them.

The morning before the legendary Pea Island Christmas Bird Count, James and I headed out with local and international birder extraordinaire Norm Budnitz and his friend Patsy to try and cram another day of birding into our Outer Banks excursion. The weather, however, had other plans, and as we left the Triangle fat drops of rain already splattered across the windshield. Thankfully, as we cruised eastward, we began to outrun the storm system, and as we reached Greenville the rain had ceased altogether. In the overcast sky, we found the first sign that we were nearing our target – on the side of the road, a large pond abounded with a flock of enormous Tundra Swans, home now from their summering grounds in the high Arctic. We pulled over, and as James leaped out of the car to photograph them, the murmuring din of a hundred swans vocalizing at once spread through the air, and I knew I was back for another year of fantastic winter birding!

I only get to see these guys once a year, and I love it every time!

Once we viewed the swans to our hearts content, we decided to stop at a random agricultural center run by NC State. Normally it wouldn’t be anything special, but part of their research involves finding better fishery techniques, and the large pool of fish this research hinges on is frequented by scores of majestic Bald Eagles two score, in fact, as the numerous adult and immature eagles we saw totaled almost forty individuals! While the American Kestrels perching atop the nearby telephone wires were cool, and the Northern Harriers dancing low over the fields were awesome, nothing quite beats seeing Bald Eagles up close and personal, and this young bird put on quite a show in a small pine right next to the gravel road.

He's giving us the "evil eye" - or, would that be the "eagle eye"?

Alas, as we left the fishery, rain began to drizzle once again on our car’s windshield, quickly whipping itself into a downpour before we reached the highway. Nearing our hotel in Nags Head, we decided to visit Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, a wildlife drive that on good days can house bears and bobcats, not to mention Short-eared Owls and a whole host of rarities. But today, the pouring rain and the frequency of gigantic Dodge Rams full of hunters meant that a couple Song Sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers were all we could muster out of this legendary site.

The rain couldn’t stop our lust for birding, however, and soon enough we were driving down to the marina at Wanchese to look at gulls roosting atop the pylons and moorings. Once there, we spotted a whole flock of Red-breasted Mergansers just off the dock, and James dashed out of the car to photograph them before they could sidle away. I grabbed an umbrella to keep the rain off his camera, but the winds proved too much, and before long a gust had turned the umbrella inside-out. We reached the dock’s edge just as the mergansers began to swim too far out of range for photography given the conditions, when with a sudden quick splash a whole cadre of beautiful males jumped out from under the dock and paddled in the ocean waters just in front of us.

The Red-breasted Mergansers gave us fantastic looks all three days!

I’ve seen Red-breasted Mergansers many times before, but seeing them so close up was a real treat, especially when the males looked their breeding best. Having had our fill and a little too much rain, we retired to the car and our hotel room. As darkness neared, the clouds broke and a little twinkle of sunset shone upon the adjacent beaches. Tomorrow we’d have much better light, but with it came its own slew of birding highlights and disappointments.

Come back Monday, when our Outer Banks adventures continue with Part II - The Stop Short!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

'Twas the First Count of Christmas...

In all honesty, I’ve inherited pretty much the coolest spot on any Triangle-area CBC. For the last couple winters, I’ve been able to count the mudflats that form on the northern arms of Falls Lake in the latter half of the year, an area which probably hasn’t been covered fully in the past. But it’s my spot now, and I love it – not just for the unique winter birds, but also perhaps for the solitude I can find amongst the vast expanse of mud and grass.

As I’ve mentioned before, venturing out onto the flats themselves takes some effort – there’s a half-mile hike down railroad tracks before traversing a steep rock flow, but after taking the trip so many times, I’ve learned which rocks are loose and which are stable, which helps in, you know, not breaking my neck. The flats themselves are pretty devoid of birds, save for a few Savannah Sparrows that’ll pop out of the sedges in front of you, but if you find a flock of birds, man you’re in business! Pretty soon, I found the shorebirds that make this place special – a wintering flock of six dozen Least Sandpipers suddenly burst into view following a cadre of flushed Killdeer. It’s a species that’s extremely hard to find within the count circle, but given proper habitat, they will stick around during the colder months. 

However, that day James and I had a second quarry in mind. Traveling farther down the flats, I could hear a high-pitched double whistle, and before long we spooked them – a large flock of American Pipits flushed from in front of us, and instead of flying away from the large, annoying humans, they flew right towards us! Pretty soon James and I were consumed by birds zipping between us and low over our heads, swerving and dodging to avoid the two humanoid obstacles in their way. Several of the birds landed in a nearby tree, and as one of the birds made its way up a branch, bobbing its tail the whole time, I was struck by how odd it was to see them perched and so high off the ground.

Check out those ridiculously long hind claws! All the better for perching with, I suppose.

Having made our way to the end of the peninsula, I could see a large flock of gulls congregating about a half mile from us. Most of them were Ring-billed Gulls, but I could clearly see a couple large Herring Gulls mixed in. Like any good CBC counter, I had to get a closer look, so we headed back to make our way to the far mudflats. On the way, however, I found myself distracted by a reedy whistle. Immediately I recognized it as a Golden-crowned Kinglet, a bird that’s common enough around here, yet one I can never get a good look at. So, I decided to try a little playback, which will attract the ire of any nearby Ruby-crowned almost immediately yet never seems to work on their gilded brethren. A couple seconds later though, a small bird landed on the isolated tree in front of us, then a second, and a third. The Golden-crowned Kinglets had shown up in force, and I thoroughly enjoyed my amazing views of these tiny little birds with their unfathomably neon orange crests.

Golden-crowned - great Kinglet, or the greatest Kinglet?

Continuing along the railroad tracks, James and I came upon few species, chief among them being a couple Hooded Mergansers and a very special Fox Sparrow (more on that later). Upon reaching the far flats, however, we were greeted to the sight of a large flock of Northern Shoveler flushing from in front of us, with a few Bonaparte’s Gulls mixed in for a little flavor. The gulls gave their odd hollow screech as they kited on the strong winds towards the main gull flock. Setting myself up on a close peninsula, I made an effort to count and identify every gull there. Most were Ring-billeds as I’d surmised, and sure enough there were a couple Herrings mixed in. But one gull had a dusky head, and a darker mantle than these two species should show, plus size-wise it lay halfway between the more expected species. I’d found a Lesser Black-backed Gull, a bird that’s seen only a couple CBC's a decade around here, and probably our best bird of the day.

It's the gull in the middle. No, the other gull in the middle. No, the other gull in the middle!

That’s as far as the flats got however. Now having nothing but water between us and the interstate, we turned back only to find our flock of Northern Shovelers had nestled itself into the cove we’d just passed to get to the gulls. Most of the birds were females, but there were more than a few smart-looking drakes to be had, their golden eyes showing bright against their dark green head. Obviously, it would have been nicer to get closer to these birds, but it’s hard to stay mad at a flock that flushes because it’s shot at every day of the week except Sunday. If hunters had seen the shovelers as we had, they would have had point-blank shots at the birds peacefully foraging along the shallow shoreline. Instead, we merely enjoyed.

Every day I'm shovelin'...

The gull and ducks could have been the high point of the count for us, but not so. I decided to scope one final arm of the lake before heading home, and as James tried to photograph some cormorants, I heard a distinct “Woah!” emanate from his direction. Assuming it was a cool bird, I turned towards him, only to hear something crashing through the underbrush, panting and snarling the whole way. I prepared to give some hunter a piece of my mind, telling him he can’t be hunting on Sundays, and he should probably train his dog better than to jump on people. But then the thing hurtled in my direction, almost running headlong into me, before swerving at the last moment and leaping with surprising ease over a tall log. Mid-jump, I could see the rufous tinges to a silver body, and immediately I knew I’d just been less than two feet from a magnificent Gray Fox. It's the first Gray Fox I’ve ever seen in the Triangle, and unless something seriously changes the psyche of foxes, it’s the closest I’ll ever get to one. At the end of a long day of Christmas Bird Counting, the birds proved more than memorable – but perhaps somewhat ironically, the Gray Fox will always be that thing I remember best.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

#47: Gadwall - San Diego River, CA

There we were, James and I, on the side of a road looking down a concrete barrier into the San Diego River below us. Had this been North Carolina, perhaps we could have expected a couple Mallards, maybe a few Canada Geese or so. Instead, even in the middle of August, the river abounded with ducks, coots, and grebes, birds that seem to prefer the East Coast only in the dead of winter. But this was California, baby!

Of all the ducks we saw in California, I found Gadwall to be the most common. On our side trip up to Big Bear Lake, several family units of Gadwall would frequent the small wooden dock next to our rental. Young American Coots kept their distance as they to forage for insects on the water’s surface, while young Pied-billed Grebes learned to dive away from humans for the first time, but the baby Gadwalls were learning to dabble from their mother while just feet away from us watching birders.

Sure, he could have a nicer plumage, but seeing a Gadwall when it's not freezing out is a HUGE plus!

This particular Gadwall is a male, and as it was the middle of summer his plumage hadn’t attained the subtle brilliance of grays and blacks that it would in a few months time. His all-black bill remained the only clue to his gender, and while the rest of his family rested across the San Diego River from us, this male seemed to want to show himself off to us, boldly parading along the close bank despite his drabness. To this day, it’s the closest I’ve ever been to a Gadwall, but I won’t rest until I find that one drake willing to parade around in his breeding best.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Two-For-Two

James and I had a fine time birding the Ellerbe Creek mudflats for the Durham Christmas Bird Count: lots of ducks, a few lingering shorebirds, and a Gray Fox that almost ran headlong into me. But that’s all a story for another time. This story is about the bird of the hour. James and I were headed to Hickory Hills Boat Ramp to see what we could see, when we got a text from Brian Bockhahn, a ranger for Falls Lake: “GWFG in that farm pond that had the Snow Goose last year.”

Last year’s Snow Goose was my first real CBC find – for as common as it is on the coast, it’s incredibly rare inland. Scott first saw it flying over in a large group of Canada Geese, but I only saw a small goose flying over. So, after birding the flats and finding some first-of-the-count Dunlins, we headed out to check some of the ponds in the area to try and confirm our sighting, and after cruising around a while we found a large group of geese loafing around, including that nice blue-morph Snow Goose. Which means that when we got Brian’s text, we knew exactly where to go – the farm pond that has now held two lifer geese for me on each of the last two Durham CBCs.

Pulling off the side of the road, the Canada Geese were loafing around just like last year, some in the water, some roosting on the grassy hillside. Among the roosting geese sat a smaller one, its orange legs showing brightly while its more subtle browns and blacks lay cast in shadow. There’s no mistaking the bird – a beautiful Greater White-fronted Goose, a bird I’ve wanted to see for a long time, and my fourth wild goose in the Triangle this year (quadfecta?). Just one problem – the goose roosted with its head in its wing, hiding its namesake feature, which is no way to enjoy a lifer!

Yes, I could have been satisfied with this life look. Orrr...

So, standing along the road on the far side of the pond from our lifer, I hatched a plan, one of those things that you come up with on the fly but ends up poorly on execution. I started clapping. Loudly. Trying to get the goose’s attention. The Canada Geese took notice, perking up and moving away from the noise. The Greater White-fronted continued to roost. Only after I stopped my ludicrous display did the bird raise its head and make its way towards the water, giving James and I one heck of a look at this fantastic lifer.

I really didn't expect to get a lifer today... but damn I'm glad I did!

There’ve been some good birds so far this Durham CBC, like a Lesser Black-backed Gull James and I found on the mudflats, and an extremely late Anhinga just north of he city. But to me, the Greater White-fronted Goose really takes the cake! I’ve gotten two rare geese on the same random pond during the last two Durham CBCs, so I guess this one goes out to all the Ross’s Geese out there: Welcome to Durham!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Species Spotlight #16: Western Fence Lizard

While birding in San Diego, Cabrillo National Monument became one of my go-to spots: the habitat was nice, the birds were plentiful, and during the week there weren’t a whole lot of people. Plus, the it was really close to the place I was staying, and the while you had to pay an entrance fee, the pass you got lasted a whole week. The only problem, however, is that the place didn’t open til 9am, which is much too late for a jet-lagged East-Coaster.

Luckily, the nearby Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery is a nice spot in its own right. Housing the graves of countless armed service members, the steep chaparral hillsides that line the cemetery are filled with birds – mostly common stuff like California Thrasher, Spotted Towhee, and Ash-throated Flycatcher, but all new birds for me! James and I visited one day after birding the whole of Cabrillo (and very successfully at that), and as we watched Western Kingbirds singing from the tree-tops James photographed this lizard lounging along one of the many stone walls in the area.

Looks like it belongs in 60 Million Years, BC!
Speaking of which - Raquel Welch is like 71 this year! Who knew?

It’s a Western Fence Lizard, and like its name suggest, it’s closely related to the Eastern Fence Lizard we get out in North Carolina. Really closely related, as a matter of fact – I probably couldn’t tell you the differences between the two species except that we totally found this one in California. Still, fence lizards are pretty cool, and I’ll take an awesome lizard any day of the week!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Who're You Callin' a Red-neck?

I have a curse, and a blessing. Luckily for me, however, the blessing outweighs the curse in every situation, but it’s really really annoying! You see, I seem to have the uncanny ability to sink in mud. I suppose it has been lessening of late, but last winter I found myself waist-deep in mud – not ten minutes later, I had my lifer Yellow Rail. This summer, after finding myself merely thigh-deep in mud, I viewed my lifer Red-necked Phalarope. Today, I found myself just ankle-deep. But the curse continues, and so does its blessing.

Mark and I decided to try for a Red-necked Grebe that’s been hanging around a small lake in Greensboro. It’s a bird I’ve chased more than three times before, yet never seem to have located – most recently, I missed the bird by less than five minutes. So when Mark brought it up, I was totally game! Unfortunately, as we neared the marina where the bird had been seen, we found a very discouraging locked gate, because it totally makes sense that Tuesday is the only day of the week the marina should be closed. Plus, a fence ran around the nearby dam and basically everywhere you could view the lake with good light, which could have put a damper on the entire morning. But we were birders, and we found ways to persevere. Dirt trails run around the whole of Lake Brandt, but I found they didn’t run nearly close enough to view the lake – so it was time to trailblaze!

And that’s where I made my mistake. The woods around Lake Brandt were oddly damp, and Mark and I found ourselves looking at a shallow puddle filled with dying leaves, but just on the other side lay a perfectly dry stretch of land leading right to the lake. Just one giant step and I could make it… one step and… NOPE! Ankle deep in mud! But the step after that was totally dry, and I made my way up a steep hill to the lake. I started scanning the vast expanse before me, but Mark, having found a drier way around, shouted “That’s it!,” having apparently seen the bird with his naked eye. Incredulously, I asked “Where?!” to which Mark replied “Well there’s a bird out there, anyway.” Yeah right, Mark. So I turned my scope to check out a bird lounging near one of the buoys, and… well you tell me!

What, you don't see it? Trust me, I was there!

If you looked at it just right, you could see the remnants of the bright rufous neck that gives the Red-necked Grebe its name. Yet with its long bill and rather elongated body, even in this non-breeding plumage the bird seemed strikingly unique, totally unlike any other waterbird we get in North Carolina. Getting this life bird felt good, but for some reason, the views I got of this incredible bird, over 500 yards away on the other side of the lake, weren’t satisfactory. That’s when we hatched a plan to move down the shore a ways and park ourselves at the point of a little peninsula – it didn’t seem like much, but the move halved our distance to the bird, and through the scope I finally got those views I’ll remember for the rest of my life – a large grebe, neck tucked in to one side, one foot outstretched while it treaded water with the other, slowly circling around. No picture can express the experience I had watching that bird do what it does best.

The harsh light makes it look almost like a loon. Just, not as awesome!

And that was that. Mark and I had to get to work, and living over an hour away from the lake meant leaving time to return. Sure the bird could have been closer, and the light could have been better, but can you really blame fate when a bird that breeds in western Canada finds its way to a random lake in the southeastern United States? (The answer is no, you cannot.)

That should have been the end to a successful day, but upon my return home I noticed a White-tailed Deer feeding just three feet outside my apartment window. The shade made photographic this congenial mammal impossible, so I stepped outside only to noticed two more deer standing in perfect light feeding across the parking lot.

I had trouble fitting it in the frame... and this was taken from across the street!

For some reason the image stabilizer on the camera started having trouble, but even still I managed this sweet shot of a deer that much improved upon our old one, and a nice behavior shot of an animal that seemed totally obvious to me. That is, until I took a step closer, which apparently was one step to far. One Red-necked Grebe down, one White-tailed Deer well-photographed, and suddenly, work didn’t seem so bad. At least, for today.

Friday, December 9, 2011

#46: Horned Lark - Fiesta Island, CA

I have to admit, with all this Fiesta Island-bashing I’ve been doing, I actually purposefully chose it as a birding destination. You see, whenever I go somewhere I’ve never been, I always check out eBird first. It’s a great resource that helps me figure out what birds are common to the area and where the best places to find them are. In this case, Fiesta Island turned out to be the one place in the San Diego area where large flocks of Horned Larks had been reported, and so I figured it was a good place to start. We don’t really get larks in the Piedmont of North Carolina, probably because they prefer oddly specific habitat. In Europe, they call them Shore Larks, mostly because they’re common on beachfronts, and I’ve found that more specifically, Horned Larks just like sand. It’s hard to come by out here, but Fiesta Island is nothing but sand, and that makes it perfect Horned Lark habitat.

Which is why I found it odd that after driving around the entire island and subsequently wandering around a good portion of its interior, we hadn’t found any yet. James and I were starting to get pretty bummed about it when I spied movement in one of the few patches of grass that eked out an existence in this sea of sand. They were Horned Larks, and not just a couple, but a whole flock! They blended in surprisingly well to the scrubby brown grass, and we edged closer because the camera was having a tough time picking them up. The flock alighted, but not too far, so we kept trying for that perfect shot. Every time we neared, the flock would flush again, and after a good half mile of this, James and I finally gave up and made our way back to the car. Unfortunately, we took a different path than we did the first time, and we found ourselves exactly one large dune away from our transportation. As we climbed over to the other side, the Horned Lark flock flew in from nowhere, and this beautiful male had the decency to land on top of the dune right in front of James.

I love this shot because you can totally see those namesake tufts of feathers!

After that, I saw a couple Horned Larks here and there around San Diego, always on sand and nearly always on the beach. I glimpsed a couple on Coronado as beachgoers yet again let their dogs run free (has anybody ever heard of a leash law in California?!) and fighter jets flew into the nearby naval base, but never again would I see flocks of them like I did that day. It’s an experience I’ll never forget, and seeing that flock of Horned Larks almost makes me remember Fiesta Island fondly. Almost.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Species Spotlight #15: Side-blotched Lizard

I’m not much of a herper. Don’t get me wrong, I think reptiles are pretty awesome; it’s just that I’ve never actively sought them out, nor have I relished the thought of trying to identify some of the more cryptic ones (I mean, am I the only one who finds turtles incredibly difficult?). So here I had this unidentified lizard from our trip to California laying around on my hard-drive with no clue as to its true identity, so I did the only thing a non-herper can do – I asked for help.

Thankfully, in any community of birders, there’s always a bit of overlap in knowledge. Sure I may not be able to identify every lizard I see, but if you ever need to know something about dinosaurs or early bird evolution (not likely), I’m your guy. I asked a bunch of young birders I know to help me identify this lizard, and sure enough someone familiar with southwestern lizards answered my plea. Now, there are a couple things confounding the ID here – first, and perhaps most notably, the lizard has autotomized a good portion of his tail (i.e., he shed it as part of some defensive behavior), and judging by the fact he’s still alive, it worked. But now I can’t get a good read on how long it may have been, or its pattern, so it’s completely useless to me now. Secondly, the lizard’s head seems proportionally large compared to his body, indicating he’s a juvenile. With many animals, including lizards, juveniles have different color patterns than adults, so just going through pictures of southern California lizards on the internet wasn’t going to help me in the slightest.

Talk about blending in to your surroundings!

However, after a bit of discourse and a lot of process of elimination, we got an answer. This little mite-ridden juvenile James and I found atop a cliff near the tide pools at Cabrillo National Monument was a Side-blotched Lizard, something fairly common in the San Diego area, but completely foreign to us. The thing had been a complete mystery for over a year, so it felt really good to finally have a one-hundred percent positive, unequivocal, and definitive identification. If only every reptile could be so easy.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

City Slickers and Country Bumpkins

It’s a constantly changing force, this thing we call evolution. Living things have to continuously adapt to their surroundings lest they fall behind and, you know, die; in the immortal words of Michael Scott: adapt, react, readapt, apt. The most tumultuous change in recent history has been the spread of humans across what had been vast swaths of untouched land, and as such the bird life all around us has had to change in accordance.

So it should be no surprise to me that birds, those dinosaurs which through extreme adaptability were able to survive a mass extinction of most of Earth’s wildlife, permeate my urban environment. Earlier this week, I pulled up to my local grocery store to the sound of Cedar Waxwings. As 90% of my Cedar Waxwing sightings involve birds flying overhead, I immediately looked to the sky for a flock passing over. Then I realized the reedy whistles were much louder than I’m accustomed to, and seemed to be staying in one place. These waxwings were, in fact, a mere ten feet above my head feeding on the fruit of a decorative Bradford pear tree.

This one kept on preening instead of feeding - maybe he got his fill elsewhere?

No doubt the other patrons of the parking lot in question eyed me quizzically as I grabbed my camera and started photographing this noisy tree. But what can I say, I’m a sucker for Cedar Waxwings, they’re probably my favorite part of winter birding. I remember one incident as a kid when I walked across a pedestrian bridge between two buildings on Duke University’s medical campus. Tall bushes lined the sides of the breezeway, and waxwings were eating their fill of berries, but clearly something was wrong with these birds. One lay keeled over on its side, another sat swaying back and forth, and none of the birds would flush when you got near them. The berries had apparently fermented, and the birds were, for lack of a better term, drunk. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen this behavior from any birds, and it’s definitely stuck with me because of it.

I don't want to calculate a blood alcohol limit for Flying While Intoxicated,
but if I did, it'd be... infinitesimal.

I don’t necessarily find my apartment complex an especially birdy locale, but I’ve noticed an increase in activity of late. Every morning White-throated Sparrows flit through the shrubs lining the buildings, and Yellow-rumped Warblers chip and flycatch through yet more Bradford pears while House Finches flock above them. These are birds that have adapted well to an urban lifestyle, and as such seem incredibly common to us humans. One morning I awoke to dried leaves moving along the parking lot under their own volition. Turns out another common urban bird, a Carolina Wren, was foraging for small insects or other scraps of food among the leaf litter. He seemed pretty intent on feeding and didn't notice as I inched towards him. All the better for me, I suppose!

Apparently, photographing a moving target is difficult. Who knew!

Recently, I’ve also been hearing the staccato rattle of Ruby-crowned Kinglets around my apartment. I love kinglets, and not just because they’re small and occasionally colorful. It’s the way they feed that makes them special to me – moving quick like a warbler only to dash out and hover under a branch to glean a quick morsel. They act more like a hummingbird than a Passerine at times, and their activity seems totally out of place on a cold winter’s morning. Still, I was able to watch one at close range as it foraged along the hedgerow behind my place. If only it would flash it’s namesake ruby crown for me!

These female birds aren't nearly as bold as the males, but still bolder than most!

Later in the week, I decided to forgo my surroundings and head out to rural Orange County to visit some of the freshly plowed fields. I had a goal in mind, to find the large flocks of American Pipits that frequent the farmlands, but like combining lemon and lime to make Sprite, there’s more to it than that. If we ever get the rare Lapland Longspur in the Piedmont of North Carolina, they’ll be hanging around pipits, and that’s the bird I was after. Regrettably, after looking through a flock of almost 400 pipits, I couldn’t spot a single longspur, nor could I hear their distinctive double-call as the flock swirled across the field. While Eastern Meadowlarks sang from unseen perches, I noticed a bright spot sitting atop a dead tree overlooking one of the fields. My suspicions were confirmed as I put my binoculars on this American Kestrel surveying his fallowed environs.

This is the closest I could get to him... that's what I get for taking my time with scope views!

The falcon looked ridiculously small as he sat atop this massive tree, and for good reason – kestrels would probably fit in the palm of your hand if they ever gave you the opportunity to do so. I tried to sidle my way closer to this fantastic male individual, but the traffic grew heavier along the road, and one extremely loud truck later the bird bolted across the field. I would say it’s too bad, but just being in the presence of this amazing little bird is more than enough to make my whole week’s birding totally worth it!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Species Spotlight #14: Brush Rabbit

Last week, we highlighted that common rabbit of southern California, the Desert Cottontail. But like North Carolina, where we have the more common Eastern Cottontail but the rarely seen Marsh Rabbit, southern California has its own second, cryptic, and rarely seen species – the Brush Rabbit.

Unlike the Desert Cottontail, which inhabits the dry and sandy areas of San Diego, the Brush Rabbit is a specialized resident of the chaparral which lines the coastal cliffs that grade into the Pacific Ocean. While its xeric cousin is quite conspicuous, the Brush Rabbit prefers to skulk and hide in its habitat of scrub and sage, much like the Marsh Rabbit does around here. Even though we had decent pictures of these two rabbits, I still found identification difficult. I definitely felt I had two different species – this one lacked the rufous nape and seemed slighter than the Cottontail – but I couldn’t be sure, until I learned a little trick online. The Desert Cottontail will always show a black tip to the ears, while the Brush Rabbit shows none. Here, we can clearly see the lack of black-tipped ears, thus solidifying its identification.

This guy looks more like our cottontails, but is rather distantly related.

James and I found this particular Brush Rabbit at Cabrillo National Monument, as we watched birds at the famous location known as ‘The Drip’. While Black-headed Grosbeaks and Bell’s Vireos drank from the leaking faucet, this little guy fed among the dry leaf litter not feet from us, completely oblivious to our presence. Good for us, of course, but perhaps he should be more mindful of the local wildlife, like the California Whipsnake I found at this very location just a day later!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

#45: American Kestrel - Fiesta Island, CA

Sometimes, it’s the little differences. Sure California has tons of birds never seen anywhere near North Carolina, but even the birds we share seemed somehow atypical. A great example of this sentiment is the raptors, the birds of prey. Around here we’ve got Vultures, Red-shouldereds, Red-taileds, Cooper’s, Kestrels, and Peregrines (in more-or-less descending abundance), but out west I found a different situation entirely. Red-shoulders abounded as the most common raptor, followed closely by Cooper’s Hawks. I found Turkey Vultures and Red-tailed Hawks to be almost nonexistent (saw just one example of each), and Peregrines were surprisingly common compared to what I see out here. But it’s the American Kestrels that stole the show – I found more kestrels around San Diego in two weeks than I can find in North Carolina all year!

This sighting brings us back to that dreaded beachfront they call Fiesta Island. After driving the whole loop, James and I decided to make our way into the interior of the island, which proved to be a much more pleasant birding experience – gone were the raucous beachgoers, their incessant jet-skis, and their poorly trained leashless dogs. Instead, we found a quiet habitat of sand and scrub, a complete departure from the beach we just left. That morning, the ‘June gloom’ that now invaded August had been especially strong, with a thick fog just starting to lift as we explored this odd environment. James spotted a small bird on top of a shrub, and looking into my binoculars I found it to be none other than the American Kestrel you see below.

If only this were a nice-looking bird in good light... but ya can't always get what you want!

Apparently the thick fog soaked the bird’s already ragged feathers, and as James crept closer, the kestrel seemed to be in no hurry to leave. We just sat and stared at this all-together bedraggled-looking bird, and he just sat and stared right back at us. Finally, as James stood within six feet of him, the kestrel decided he’d had enough, and took off – not far though, just another small shrub not ten feet away. It looked like he was having a tough time of flying, so we slowly walked around him and let him rest in peace. To this day, it’s the best look I’ve ever had of an American Kestrel, and it’s likely to remain that way for a long time.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving Is For The Birds

Ordinarily Thanksgiving would be a day to sleep in, relax, and perhaps take in a televised parade (I swear they didn’t lip sync when I was a kid, or am I imagining things?). But when James is only in town for a couple of days and my work schedule is pretty hectic, Thanksgiving is thankfully the perfect day to go birding.

In the hopes of nabbing James a couple of lifers, we headed down towards Jordan Lake. Come January, the cold nights of deep winter will draw thousands of gulls and scores of ducks to Ebenezer Point, but the relatively balmy weather suggested perhaps we arrived too early for this natural onslaught. While the lake itself looked pretty empty, I could still pick out a small raft of Redheads on the far side, with a lone female Red-breasted Merganser lounging around in the middle. Both of these were lifers for James, and though the photos are barely identifiable, this pair of Bald Eagles put on more than enough of a consolation show for us!

A picture really can't capture the majesty of seeing them in person!

While the mid-20th century may have been hard on these birds, I’m thankful to live in a time when a trip to Jordan Lake is guaranteed to land you at least one of these majestic eagles (only, we saw five!). But the sun shone low on the horizon, the day was young! We stopped by a couple of containment ponds nearby to the Point. Mostly there’s nothing special, the ubiquitous sparrows and juncos abounding in the fields. But for some reason, Bufflehead seem to gather in these man-made ponds in sizeable flocks, and today was no exception. Oddly enough, they seemed fine with James sneaking up to the chain-link fence and snapping these shots until he turned his back and left – only then did they flush!

Come on Bufflehead, get your head in the game!

However, turkey and football beckoned, so our Thanksgiving Day birding came to an end. Of course, the next day was Black Friday, and while shoppers flocked to the malls, we flocked to the birds! We had planned on visiting Stagecoach Road to try for some owls, but the sight of camouflaged men sporting blaze-orange caps and scoped rifles made us rethink this plan and instead head for the old standby of Mason Farm. Almost immediately after entering the canal area, I spotted an odd bird high up in a tree – an absolutely unmistakable Fox Sparrow, my first of the year and a bird I see all too infrequently. Unfortunately, he seemed content with the very tops of those trees, or with some low, thick scrub, and never ventured anywhere in between. While it’s the best photo of a Fox Sparrow we have, it still leaves much to be desired!

Ironically, it showed up close and out in the open... when we both had our backs turned!

After we gave up on the sparrow, almost as if on cue, a large flock of blackbirds descended upon the low trees near the canal. Some of them were undeniably large Common Grackles, shouting cacophonous phrases from their tree-top perch. But among the din we could hear another noise, the characteristic squeaky door hinge of a Rusty Blackbird. We’d seen Rusties here last time we visited, but these guys took it to a whole new level – the flock contained at least thirty-five of these endangered blackbirds, and several of the nicer looking males took the time to sing that weirdly mechanical song of theirs. One of the males did not care at all as James inched closer to photograph him, much to our enjoyment.

This brings the winter's total up to 77... not that it's a competition or anything. (It is.)

James and I walked the rest of the trail, but we couldn’t find much more bird action, so we left to cruise the open fields and farms of Dairyland Road. We first stopped at the legendary Anilorac Farms, the site of those nesting Scissor-tailed Flycatchers from earlier this summer. However, huge tractors plowed the fields as we arrived, and we couldn’t find any of the hoped for birds. The fresh furrows should prove fruitful for American Pipits in the near future, but at the time the only bird we found was this juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk perched on a nearby telephone pole. We’ve gotten notoriously bad shots of raptors in the past, but this one stuck around as James deftly maneuvered himself into position.

Why can't all raptors be this cooperative?

We had only one site left on our unofficial itinerary, a small back road with a couple of hedgerows along its edges. Sure, the large flocks of Eastern Meadowlarks were nice to see, but normally it wouldn’t be anything to write home about. However, this random spot is the only place I can guarantee myself a White-crowned Sparrow every winter – and today was no exception. As I neared a crepe myrtle, two birds flushed across the road, and in the perfect afternoon light I could clearly see their namesake snow-white crowns. After a spot of playback, one of them flushed to the top of the bush to get a better view, and gave us our best photograph ever of these amazing little birds.

Awesome sparrow, or the awesomest sparrow?

Normally White-crowned Sparrows are extremely uncommon in the Piedmont of North Carolina, but around these hedgerows we found at least eight or ten, including a nice singing individual. After slaking our thirst with amazing views, we headed home quite content with what we’d found. Sure we never got to search for those owls we were hoping for, but between a Rufous Hummingbird, a couple close-up Bald Eagles, and incredibly satisfying point-blank looks at those White-crowneds, this turned into an amazing Thanksgiving weekend full of the best kind of birding – birding with my brother.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Species Spotlight #13: Desert Cottontail

Like I’ve mentioned several times before, the most common mammal in North Carolina is our omnipresent Eastern Gray Squirrel, and in San Diego they’ve got an equivalent – last week’s California Ground Squirrel. But our second most common mammal is the fairly ubiquitous Eastern Cottontail, a medium-sized but incredibly skittish rabbit that can be found foraging on grasses in parks, gardens, and suburban lawns. Not to be outdone, San Diego has their own version, a rabbit that in the absence of greenery instead lives in brushy, dry, and dusty areas throughout California. I present to you the Desert Cottontail.

Don’t be fooled by its moniker – the Desert Cottontail is just as likely to be found in suburbs as the Eastern Cottontail, only instead of living off of manicured lawns and hiding under dense foliage, it thrives in the canyons that run between neighborhoods, blending in surprisingly well with its drab surroundings. When I first encountered these large rabbits, I found myself struck by how colorful they were compared to their Eastern relatives. Where our cottontails are uniformly brown all over, the Desert Cottontail sports a pelt of intricate tans and grays, punctuated by a gaudy (for a rabbit) nape that shines bright rufous in the sun. Quite the departure from what I’m used to!

It's either deal with us humans or jump in the river. I think he's chosen wisely.

While I’d seen these guys all around during my early expeditions in San Diego, James and I ran into this guy on a small bike trail that runs along the San Diego River towards the ocean (but to be fair, pretty much everything in San Diego runs towards the ocean). As odd as it seems, we found this specialized desert dweller under a highway overpass where the only shelter came from the sparse shrubbery lining a concrete barrier. No way an Eastern Cottontail would expose himself to such conditions, and yet here in residential San Diego, this Desert Cottontail found himself right at home.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Most Rufous-y Hummer in the... Yard

It’s nearly Thanksgiving, and while that means a day of turkey, beer, and football, it also means that James is back in town from college! We only had a couple hours to bird, but our first stop was a no-brainer: I took James to visit the Rufous Hummingbird that’s been coming to a feeder not five minutes from my apartment in Chapel Hill.

The last three times I’ve visited this bird, I’ve had to wait anywhere between and thirty minutes to an hour and a half for the bird to show up, but not so this time. Within about five minutes we heard a reedy whistling and looked up to see the hummingbird sitting right in the sun! James got fantastic life views, and I enjoyed seeing him closer than I ever have before when he flew off. So I devised an experiment – because of the difficulty identifying Selasphorus hummingbirds, nobody’s really quite sure whether or not this could actually be an Allen’s Hummingbird. So I preloaded my phone with the song of a Rufous, and upon playing it the bird dashed from over the weedy field and hovered right in front of us for several seconds before landing in a bush not six feet away! In my mind, this confirms his identity as a Rufous Hummingbird.

I doubt we could've gotten this close even in its home range!

As we accomplished our goal nearly an hour ahead of the time we’d allotted for it, James and I decided to hit up Mason Farm, the local spot that’s always got a little bit of something. Today, that something turned out to be sparrows of all kinds – loads of White-throateds, Chippings, and Songs poured out from the bushes along the canal. In the middle of a nearby path, we found this rather bold Painted Turtle attempting to cross from one section of canal to the other, but not before we stopped to take a couple pictures. He didn’t seem to mind too much, never completely retreating into his shell, and after we were done he went about his merry way and slid down the nearby bank into his watery home.

Although I don't think anyone enjoys having a camera shoved in their face.

Once we got away from the main canal, the bird life seemed to lessen, in number anyway. But as we walked along the vast fields, a bird flushed from the undergrowth much like a sparrow would. But the bird flew too high, too quickly, and it was too black. No, the dry call notes we were hearing belonged to a male Rusty Blackbird who’d apparently been foraging next to a small pool beneath a bush. He’s a male, but most of his breeding plumage has turned into that rusty coloration that gives the bird his name. While Rusty Blackbirds as a whole have undergone a massive population decline in the last couple of decades, I can still find them every winter, something I’m truly thankful for.

This makes something around forty-two I've seen this winter. Must be a sign!

While James photographed the blackbird, I heard the unmistakable jungle-like call of a Pileated Woodpecker emanating from the nearby forest. Turns out, the bird was closer than I thought. As we rounded a corner, James gave the signal to stop moving and crept over to his left. The bird lay just on the other side of a tree just a couple yards off the path. James got into position and snapped this shot of an enormous Pileated Woodpecker working his way up a horizontal branch.

Still looking for that perfect shot, but this'll do. For now.

But that’s not even the best part: just after James took the picture, the titanic bird flushed off the tree right towards him, and skimmed less than two feet over his head! Talk about your close calls! The rest of the trail didn’t hold many new or exciting birds for us, and the clouds appeared rather ominous, but the memory of point-blank looks at Rufous Hummingbirds and Pileated Woodpeckers is more than enough to label this day of birding a smashing success!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What's So Great About That Allen Guy, Anyway?

Like the rest of the rare birds I twitched this weekend, the tiny hummingbird coming to the feeder of a local park in Catawba County meant relatively little to me listing-wise. Unlike everybody else crammed into the room of the park’s offices, I’d gotten my lifer out in California, so this insane rarity would merely have to be a state tick. Still, I found it totally worth going out with a bunch of area birders to see North Carolina’s second record of Allen’s Hummingbird.

Because we had to return by noon, the four of us were out the door by 6am, which meant that after a rather uneventful 2.5 hour drive, the mid-morning sun shone upon a lone sugar feeder in the middle of a small clearing. At first, we could only see sparrows and chickamice and cardinals flocking around the outskirts of the clearing. Then, I caught the motion of a small shape on the nearby brambles, like a bumblebee skimming across the browning shrubbery. “There he is!” announced Dwayne, the finder, identifier, and ultimately bander of this impressive little specimen. “He’s back on his favorite perch.” Sure enough, camouflaged perfectly among the brown and green leaves, the Allen’s Hummingbird perched for all to see. Without warning, the little orange bird with a perfectly green back made a bee-line for the feeder, and all of a sudden the shutters of watching birders began to click like paparazzi following a celebrity. But a good celebrity, like a Scarlett Johannson or a Robert Downey, Jr. Not one of them Kardashians.

He was actually pretty small... more of a Danny DeVito type.

The hummingbird flitted back and forth between his little perch on the brambles and the feeder, with brief interludes to locales unknown. Each time he made it to the feeder, the cameras would click and words of awe would be exchanged among the birders. For a hummingbird of the Selasphorus complex, he’s surprisingly easy to identify, looking like he just jumped out of a field guide. After having our fill and getting overkill (but totally awesome) scope views, the four of us called it a day and returned for the long trek back to the Triangle. Totally worth it, in my opinion – the birds I saw in California would almost uniformly flush from in front of me, so it was nice to finally get the killer views I’d always dreamed of.

Not bad for having to photograph through a window, I say!

But the question remains – who is this Allen guy that got a hummingbird named after him? Turns out Charles Andrew Allen was an accomplished taxidermist of all things, who collected specimens on the West Coast during the latter half of the 1800s and sent them back to scientists out East. Apparently he recognized that a hummingbird specimen from Mexico represented a distinct species, and told his Eastern colleagues about it – and thus the Allen’s Hummingbird received its title, in honor of the one guy who knew it was special.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Should’ve Taken that Left Turn at Albuquerque

When you chase a bird, it’s usually for some specific reason – it’s a life bird, a state bird, a county bird, or hell, even a year bird. So I found it odd to be foaming at the mouth for a bird that’s amazing, totally unexpected, and way out of place that couldn’t be considered any of those things. In fact, were it for one key difference, I wouldn’t have batted an eye at all.

You see, a Great White Heron was reported from a small pump station along the Eno River in Durham. It’s like the more common Great Blue Heron in every way, except that it happens to average larger, have an all white plumage… and there’s one more thing… oh yeah, they happen to live exclusively in extreme south Florida and the Caribbean. How it ended up along a random bend of the Eno River, I’ve no idea. Doesn’t look much like the Florida Keys to me!

Looks about as far from the Florida Keys as you can get!

I didn’t expect to find much when Mark, Scott and I descended upon that old pump station. In all honesty I assumed the bird was the result of a misidentified Great Egret, but on that off chance we had to check. Looking around the busy overpass yielded nothing more than a few Song Sparrows, but I couldn’t give up that easily. I scanned the river bank to no avail, and I decided to walk just around the bend to see if it was roosting along the far side. All of a sudden, I saw it, right in front of me. A hulking white bird, with an unmistakably huge bill and pale legs – an honest to God Great White Heron! After firing a few record shots, we tried to get closer, but the bird flushed downriver. I didn’t have a shot I was happy with, which would never do, so I gave chase!

Damn you, twig-through-the-face! Damn you to hell!

Stumbling over loose rocks and hidden stumps, I found myself thinking that in all honesty, the bird had probably flushed farther than I could see. I decided to scale what looked like an old dam to get the best possible vantage point when a large white shape busted off the side of the river… it had to be gone for good this time! Not so, it flew just twenty feet and landed on a sturdy branch hanging over the rushing waters. This was it – my one and only chance to photograph a real Great White Heron. Luckily, even through the twigs and leaves in front of the bird, my camera nailed the focus!

Yep, I'll take that. It gets better if you zoom in!

So what makes this a Great White Heron and not just a highly leucistic resident Great Blue? I mentioned the huge boat-like bill, which makes the Great Blue’s look slender and narrow by comparison, and the pale yellowish-gray legs (Great Blues have rather dark legs). There’s also the short head plume which you can see in some of the shots, totally insignificant compared to a Great Blue Heron. But then there’s the size. I didn’t notice it at first, but on the way back I caught a Great Blue Heron in flight along the river. It looked very thin and lithe compared to the behemoth of a bird I’d just witnessed. When I got home, I checked some pictures online just to make sure, and it matched up perfectly. Bill shape, leg color, plume length – it was all there. As Marissa Tomei might say, the bird looked dead-on balls accurate.


Click through for HD Video!


So now comes the question of – why? It’s just a rare subspecies (the white morph of the larger Ardea herodias occidentalis), so it does nothing for my county lists. But having seen it, I can say it was totally worth it, even just to be in the presence of this amazing bird. Plus, if they ever decide to split it again (as David Sibley so wants to do) I get a free armchair tick. So I guess this one goes out to all the bird record committees out there – please split the Great White Heron. I don’t even care if it’s a good species or not. At this point, having seen one in my native Durham, I’d really just like to add it to my life list!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Who's That Hummer? or, The Great Feeder Watch

In North Carolina, whenever a hummingbird decides to stick around for winter, you’ve really got to follow up on it. Our native Ruby-throated Hummingbirds rarely stick around for the winter, and it's much more likely that an over-wintering hummer is a rarer western species. So, when I heard about an unidentified hummingbird hanging out at a random residence in the middle of Chapel Hill, I had to check it out.

I had to use my flash in the shadow of the house, something I'd rather not do.

My vigil began slowly. The hummingbird feeder hung under an eave, and the whole patio lay cast in shadow, which made a cold, breezy day even colder. The birds didn’t seem to mind though. Common suburban species abounded, things like Titmice and Chickadees making up most of the flock, with some Robins, White-throated Sparrows, and Downy Woodpeckers thrown in.

These guys are definitely one of the perks of living in the southeast.

This Brown-headed Nuthatch had a propensity for a feeder nearest the porch, and several times would land at the nearby birdbath for a drink. Under one of the tables, a Carolina Wren would creep around looking for a nibble of suet before realizing he was feeding not three feet from a waiting birdwatcher.

Usually they're way more skittish than this, but I wasn't moving much.

That’s when it happened. The bird of the hour showed up with a high-pitched tsik! and landed in a bush next to me. Perfect, in the sun and everything! Only, there were branches and remnant leaves in the way, and the camera just wasn’t having any of it.

Bad autofocus! Bad! Stop being a moron!

The hummingbird quickly flew over to the feeder and took a few sips. Which should have been better for photography, but bird decided to drink from the opposite side of the feeder, barely poking his head out for a photo. That wouldn’t do. So I stood up to get a better view, rather more abruptly than I meant to, and with another couple tsik! tsik!s it flew off. And I thought that would be it. 

Stop being coy with me, hummer!

Until another tsik! drew me to a tangle of branches in a nearby maple, its leaves brown from autumn. Even without my binoculars, I could see the bright rump of none other than a rare Rufous Hummingbird, surprisingly well camouflaged amongst the remaining leaves longing to fall of their branches. He appears to be a subadult male, the rufous rump already well-formed, and generally bronze in color everywhere else. Luckily, he didn’t mind me inching closer for a couple more shots.

Maybe he's tired from crossing the entire country?

One step two close, however, and he headed off across a nearby grassy lot. The bird definitely appears loyal to that feeder he’s chosen, so perhaps he’ll stick around all winter. Or, at least, he’d better stick around for the Christmas Bird Count!

How about just til James gets back for Thanksgiving?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

#44: Heermann's Gull - Fiesta Island, CA

In my previous article, I expressed my disdain for Fiesta Island, its dirty beaches, the incessant jet skis, and those styrofoam coolers the locals were drinking cheap beer out of. We wouldn’t have visited were it not for the promise of birds, and soon enough we weren’t disappointed. Sitting amongst those Western Gulls lay an all-together gaudy bird, dark body and white head, with a comically red bill – none other than a Heermann’s Gull, the coolest gull in these United States.

Before I traveled to San Diego, Heermann’s Gull lay atop my “must-find” list. Around here, I’m relegated to Ring-billeds and Bonaparte’s gulls, nothing you’d really write home about. The promise of a gull that destroys the preconceived notions of subtle mantle and leg coloration became a beautiful reality while looking at this boldly marked bird. At the time, I though perhaps I’d be lucky enough to find one or two, if I looked hard enough. I did not realize the full extent of the situation.

Quite frankly the most ridiculous looking gull. Also, the most awesome looking gull! 

Like their Western Gull cousins, Heermann’s Gull is surprisingly common. Down at Torrey Pines State Park, I found a flock of several dozen, mostly juveniles in a dark gray plumage, but more than a couple looking like a white-headed harlequin in gull’s clothing. The best pic we got ended up being that bird from Fiesta Island, but nary a day went by when we couldn’t see a Heermann’s Gull or two. It’s definitely the coolest gull I’ve ever seen, and one of the coolest gulls in the entire world.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Species Spotlight #12: California Ground Squirrel

I can’t think of a better way to demonstrate the drastic change in fauna between North Carolina and California than to compare their two most common mammals. Last week, I showcased the Eastern Gray Squirrel, a species that can be found in any environment at any time of the year. It’s an arboreal specialist, jumping from treetop to treetop, clambering up and down the loose bark at speeds only a highly evolved animal could attain. However, there’s one major difference in the habitats present in southern California – they don't have trees, not like the hundred-footers we can get around here anyway. As such, the common squirrels there have had to evolve a much more terrestrial lifestyle – and thus I present you the California Ground Squirrel.

Perhaps he's just looking for an afternoon sugar rush?

James first photographed the ground squirrels several years before on a past trip out west. He found the one you see above trying to break into a tube of Mentos, presumably to improve his acorn-breath. But the picture exemplifies the adaptation of these squirrels to an urban environment much like their brethren from the east, even without the aid of trees. I first encountered the squirrels on that very first day in San Diego, at Famosa Slough. Walking along the path, I saw something dive behind a hillside of low-lying vines, and immediately I thought it must be something exotic like the crazy western birds I’d been encountering. Alas, I found only a squirrel, albeit a rather more colorful one than I’m used to on the east coast – it’s mostly brown, but with a bright white collar that grades into a series of spots along its back. Not bad looking, for a squirrel!

They live up to their name - I don't think I ever saw one more than three feet off the ground!

When I say these things were everywhere, I mean everywhere. When we traveled up to Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains, the bird life around us changed – Mountain Chickadees instead of Bushtits, Stellar’s Jays instead of scrub jays, and Band-tailed Pigeons instead of Mourning Doves. But the squirrels remained the same, and James managed photograph this one in the late afternoon sun as he fed rather nonchalantly near our campsite. Just like the squirrels we found in San Diego, and just like the squirrels we’ve got back home.