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Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Competition

Finally we come to it,  the Birding Bros. Blog's raison d'etre (which somes like some kind of fancy cheese; but to be fair, I think most French words sound like fancy cheese).

Anyway, James and I have a little bit of a competition going. It mostly comes from our difference in life lists - I count every bird I have ever seen, and James counts every bird he has ever photographed. Now, this may sound unfair, after all photographing a bird is generally a lot harder than seeing it, so I should have the advantage, right? Not so fast - James has now had the privilege of visiting some amazing international birding locations in both Nicaragua and Spain.

As such, our numbers are nearly even. Our current totals can be found on top of the sidebar, but these will be updated as we gain more lifers (James got two today, but more on that later). The end goal of The Competition is to find more birds than the other person, and you'll notice that the sidebar says I am currently "losing" The Competition and James is currently "winning", but as is the nature of birding, there's no end in sight. Thus, there can't truly be a "winner" or a "loser", and The Competition is in a constant state of flux. We'll share the birds (and other animals) we find along the way, and hopefully you all will have as much fun as we're having!

That was a pretty wordy post, a stark difference from our usual photo-blog format. Well, James has gotten slightly bored with photographing those birds he already has several amazing pictures of (lookin' at you Indigo Bunting), so instead he's begun to film them! Below is a compilation of all the birds he's managed to videotape so far. Enjoy!

Full screen for best quality!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Epic Mountain Birding, Part III - The Reckoning!

As I’ve mentioned before, the entire reason we (that is, James, Mark and I) headed up to the mountains two Saturdays ago was to meet up with other young birders including Jacob Socolar, Ali Iyoob, and Scott of Birdaholic. And, also as I’ve mentioned before, we never found them, even though we walked within feet of their tents! Blame it on an over-reliance of technology. Well, it was noon and we’d hit up all of our targets, so it was time to make a new plan.

We decided on three more spots to visit on our way back to the Triangle: rural Watauga County for rare nesting Bobolinks; Elk Knob for Vesper Sparrows; and Grandfather Mountain for more Red Crossbills. Of those, it turns out Grandfather Mountain is actually really easy to get to from Roan Mountain, so that’s where we started.

First off, Grandfather Mountain is a perfectly fine place. Amazing vistas, beautiful habitat, and most of all, great birds. Lots of Dark-eyed Juncos and Tree Swallows serenaded us as we made our way up the switchback turns to the visitor’s center. There’s just one problem: it’s $15 just to get onto the mountain. And that’s not $15 a vehicle, that’s $15 a person. When we asked the young lady at the ticket counter what all our combined forty-five dollars was going to, she replied in a hell of a southern drawl “It all goes back to the upkeep of the mountain,” which is fair enough “…and, um, to feed the bears.” Because I guess they keep a couple of bears up at the nature center up there, an excellent use of resources. It all seemed a little overkill to me, but I guess it was going to be worth it for good looks at Crossbills.

Mistake #1:
Is something we ran into on Roan Mountain as well. It was Father’s Day weekend, and damn, it was busy. Doubly so on Grandfather, which is touted as the #1 tourist destination in North Carolina. All around the summit were cars, tourists, and, ugh, children. We walked along the Hanging Bridge out there looking for the Crossbills, but we could find none, which leads directly to…

Mistake #2:
Walking all the way out to the cliff to look for Common Ravens. We’d seen a couple soaring around the cliff from a lower elevation, and I heard a couple more while I was up there. We also got nice looks at a very cooperative Chestnut-sided Warbler in the vegetation right next to the Cliffside, definitely the best looks I’ve ever gotten.

Chestnut-sided Warbler - Grandfather Mountain, NC; 06/18/2011

But RIGHT THEN Mark started motioning to James and I from over by the hanging bridge, and we quickly made our way over. That is to say, James did – slightly more nimble, he sidestepped a slow-moving lady on the uneven rocks, while I got stuck firmly behind her. And, apparently, literally one second before I finally found my way over to the bridge…

Red Crossbill - Grandfather Mountain, NC; 06/27/2011

Damn it. Bully for James and Mark, anyway, but I still wanted my state Crossbill, so…

Mistake #3:
We decided to walk up the very steep trail towards McCrae’s Peak. Not much around besides a couple of Canada Warblers, decent looks at an adult and fledgling Red-breasted Nuthatch, and a couple of Veerys that managed to miss being photographed just as a group of hikers walked past (James had kind of a Veery curse at this point). Well, it started sprinkling a little, and not wanting to deal with slippery rocks on the way back we made our way down the mountain. Until, of course, just 10 minutes before we were to reach the parking lot, when James noticed some very ominous, very dark clouds. All of a sudden, the winds picked up and we were stuck in sustained winds of 85 mph with gusts as high as 112 mph, which apparently isn’t all that uncommon an occurrence on the mountain. James and Mark made it down okay, but I slipped on a rock just 50 feet from the parking lot and pulled a muscle in my back (ouch). I could hardly walk, and the winds made raindrops feel like a shower of BBs. After keeping us quarantined for two hours waiting for the winds to die down, the fine folks at Grandfather Mountain allowed us to leave. Unfortunately for me, I would be relegated to car birding, but being the mountains, that wasn’t all bad.

We made our way to the spot in Watauga County where the Bobolinks were supposed to be located. Plenty of Red-winged Blackbirds and Eastern Meadowlarks, but the Bobolinks were heard-only; we couldn’t locate them amongst the tall grasses. We did, however get nice looks at a Grasshopper Sparrow that sat atop a fencepost and began to sing for us.

Grasshopper Sparrow - Watauga County, NC; 06/18/2011

On the way to Elk Knob, we ran across a family of Wild Turkeys sitting along the side of the Blue Ridge Parkway. We pulled over as it would be a lifer for James (a bit of a nemesis bird for him), but as we did the adults bolted down the hillside and the fledglings surprisingly up and took flight! Just one fledgling remained for James to photograph, and it remains his only photo of an honest-to-God Turkey!

Wild Turkey fledgling - Blue Ridge Parkway, NC; 06/18/2011

Elk Knob was the next spot, where there was very little to actually see. We heard both Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Least Flycatcher, but couldn’t actually locate either. A couple of fledgling Brown-headed Cowbirds gave us a start as we attempted to turn them into Vesper Sparrows, but it wouldn’t take, and as such Vesper Sparrow is still a bird I must resign to as a miss for the trip. A quick stop at another nearby birding spot netted James his lifer Yellow-throated Vireo, as well as decent looks at Red-winged Blackbirds… but I wouldn’t know as my condition meant I stayed in the car and took a much-needed nap.

Red-winged Blackbird - I-forget-where-because-I-was-sleeping-in-the-car, NC; 06/18/2011

After all, it was over fourteen hours since we’d first started our epic birding day on just a couple hours of sleep, and we had many great birds. I had great looks at three lifers, and Mark received two, which doesn’t happen to much these days. James of course cleaned up on his first birding trip to the mountains, and photographed something like nine lifers (or was it ten? I can’t even keep it straight). In any case, highly successful for the lot of us, awful weather and injured backs aside – I still consider it one of the best birding experiences of my life!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

No Dickcisseling Around!

Sometimes when you chase a bird, you spend hours searching for it, and it’s a huge bummer. Neither sight nor sound of the bird in question, and not much else, and you end up super depressed.

OTHER times, however, you drive right up and find your bird! Such was the case when James and I hightailed it to Mid Pines Rd in Raleigh to find what would have been a life bird for the both of us. Heading down the dirt road of between the agro fields owned by NC State, we were calling out powerline birds left and right. Well, really, James was calling out the birds because I was driving, so instead I was just making wild guesses.

“Is that it?” “Indigo Bunting.”

”How about that one?” “Bluebird…”

“That’s gotta be it!” “No, that’s a Kingbird.”

“What about--“ “DICKCISSEL!”

Dickcissel - Mid Pines Rd, NC; 06/25/2011

As we pulled up, the Dickcissel flushed off the powerline and into a field. Which would have been bad, had I not forgotten my binoculars in the other car.

Wait, forgot my binoculars, you say? Yeah, I did. Luckily, however I brought my scope (whilst simultaneously forgetting my tripod), so the handheld look I got at 20x were just fine to me! The bird sang its song pretty quickly (Dick! Dick! Mumblemumblemumble), and at one point just before flushing into a tree, we saw a second bird that I believe to be the second, female Dickcissel reported earlier.

Dickcissel singing - Mid Pines Rd, NC; 06/25/2011

After getting walk-away views of this fantastic bird, James and I swung by the nearby Yates Mill County Park where we found a late Ring-necked Duck that’s been hanging around the lake, as well as fantastic views of non-birds like a Muskrat, a Carolina Anole, and a couple of White-tailed Deer fawns.

Muskrat chowing down - Yates Mill County Park, NC; 06/25/2011

Nothing as fantastic as a Dickcissel, but a fantastic day of birding nonetheless.

Ring-necked Duck - Yates Mill County Park, NC; 06/25/2011
Man, I made it through that whole post without blowing it and making some immature pun. That was really hard! Oh wait… forgot about the title…

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Epic Mountain Birding, Part II - The Continuing!

In the Appalachians, much of the wildlife more common way north of NC exists around pockets of extreme elevation. These animals can be so demarcated by altitude that mountain peaks can sometimes act as “islands” for many bird and mammal species. So, after a night of fruitful owling, and a lack of camping sites at the base of the mountain, we bought a day parking pass and slept in the car near the top of Roan Mountain, in the beautiful Rhododendron Garden. I woke up early the next morning serenaded by the raspy songs of Veerys, and it was clear we were strangers in a strange land.

No sooner had I left the warm comfort of Mark’s Toyota Matrix when I heard on odd sound and saw a finch-like bird with a large bill atop one of the spruces – a Red Crossbill, a lifer! Soon after, James, Mark and I headed for the Round Bald near Carver’s Gap, which was supposed to be THE place for our first target bird of the day. On the way down towards the spruce line, we flushed a rabbit with its baby, which could have only been an Appalachian Cottontail given the altitude (damn near 6000’). This rabbit is an excellent example of the island-like nature of the mountain peaks – they are genetically different from the normal Eastern Cottontails that you can find most anywhere else, and only exist at the top of very tall mountains like Roan.

Once on the bald, we immediately found our first target. In a small rhododendron patch upon the uniform grassy bald, we could hear the husky song of an Alder Flycatcher flitting among the evergreens. We found it gleaning insects, and dropped anchor when it popped up right in front of us to give us our life views! Immediately afterwards, a random Chestnut-sided Warbler showed up in the same bush, giving James his life bird.

Alder Flycatcher - Roan Mountain, NC; 06/18/2011

There were no Vesper Sparrows on the bald, which is unfortunate because it was another target, but we had other fish (birds?) to fry. We checked out some fledgling Dark-eyed Juncos in a grove of pines, which turned out to be very ironic – because of the lack of cell service, we missed meeting up with Jacob Socolar, Scott of Birdaholic, and Ali Iyoob. Turns out, the tents on the other side of that grove belonged to those very guys! They decided to sleep in, so we never met up with them the rest of the trip, a missed opportunity, but again, the birds were waiting. A Red Squirrel on the way down gave me my second mammal lifer of the day, and with that, we headed down the mountain.

American Red Squirrel - Roan Mountain, NC; 06/18/2011

The first pull-off gave us fantastic looks at a couple of Canada Warblers, one of which landed on a rock just a couple of feet from us. A life bird for James, and the best look I’ve ever had.

Canada Warbler - Roan Mountain, TN; 06/18/2011

Other pull-off birds include Black-throated Green Warblers, Black-throated Blues, Least Flycatchers, and more Veerys. Mark thought he saw and heard a Black-billed Cuckoo, but we couldn’t get on it to confirm the sighting. No dawdling, we had places to get!

Black-throated Green Warbler - Roan Mountain, TN; 06/18/2011

Our next site was Hampton Creek Cove, a great place that’s kind of a sonuvabitch to find. Immediately out of the parking lot we had a nice look at a Yellow Warbler, a nice male singing his heart out. 

Yellow Warbler - Hampton Creek Cove, TN; 06/18/2011

A bunch of fledgling Tree Swallows sat on a dead tree, occasionally being fed by a nice-looking adult. A quick look by the creek yielded a nice vocalizing Willow Flycatcher, our third Empidonax flycatcher of the day, albeit one I still need in NC – Hampton Creek Cove is on the Tennessee side of the mountain, dangit. On the way back, we heard the opening notes to Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al”. That ZEEE zee zee zeet! belonged to another of our target birds, which soon showed up and gave us great looks – an amazing little Golden-winged Warbler, only the second I have ever seen, and another lifer for James (he was kinda cleaning up by that point, lol). 

Golden-winged Warbler - Hampton Creek Cove, TN; 06/18/2011
A quick look at a singing Chestnut-sided Warbler, and we had to head home, but not before James got one more life bird out of Hampton Creek Cove. 

Chestnut-sided Warbler - Hampton Creek Cove, TN; 06/18/2011
A nice Broad-winged Hawk flew overhead, one of the more common raptors in the mountains. We needed some North Carolina birds, and our plan quickly changed to include Grandfather Mountain and Elk Knob… which turned out to be, for me anyway, a HUGE mistake!

Stay tuned for Epic Mountain Birding, Part III – The Reckoning!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Epic Mountain Birding, Part I - The Beginning!

The Appalachian Mountains are full of unique wildlife, and on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, doubly so. Mostly it’s full of things like high-elevation salamanders and plants, but it’s also got breeding birds you can find nowhere else in the state! So, when a group of young birders (read: average age of about 20 or so) decided to go after these special breeders, man I was game!

Because I had to work on Thursday night, I couldn’t leave with the first wave of birders, so I left with James and Mark K of The Belted Cowbird on Friday… a little late, unfortunately, so we didn’t get to the Tennessee side of Roan Mountain until 10pm. Mistake #1! Not setting a meeting place – our cell phones didn’t work on Roan and we couldn’t find the other guys at the camping site or the summit. No problem. We had targets to find.

We started on the summit, over 6200’. A cool wind split the night, and the bright orange moon was larger than I have ever seen it. City lights twinkled below, and in the shrubs along the summit, fireflies blinked with some odd kind of synchronicity. After searching around the parking lot, we decided our target was nowhere to be found, and so headed back down to the thicker spruce line. We pulled off the road real quick to listen, and there it was.

Pu pu pu… pu pu pu pu pu pu…

We found it on the side of the road, caught it just barely in Mark’s powerful lantern… and the damn thing ran out of batteries! WTF, terrible timing! Then  we heard it just up the road and ran after it, stepped up the hillside just a bit and found it in our low powered flashlights, low among the spruces, just ten feet away! Northern Saw-whet Owl!

Northern Saw-whet Owl - Roan Mountain, TN; 6/17/2011

We watched it for a good five minutes while James manually focused his camera in our flashlight beams. A couple of shots later and we had a fantastically decent image of this bird in what is the most southerly part of its breeding range. And the kicker? We found the bird on the Tennessee side of the mountain, and not a minute after we drank in our views it flew over to the North Carolina side, giving us a SWEET state bird that is particularly hard to find anywhere else in the Carolinas.

One target bird under our belt, and we still had a whole day of birding to go! Stay tuned for the exciting sequel: Epic Mountain Birding, Part II – The Continuing!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Bad Picture of a Great Bird: #3 - Henslow's Sparrow; Croatan, NC

When the listservs are abuzz with great birds like Henslow's Sparrows, sometimes you just gotta chase 'em. Such was the case in the late winter of 2011, when, after hearing about easy-to-find Henslow's Sparrows along a powerline easement in the Croatan National Forest, I set out to find them with Mark K of The Belted Cowbird. We arrived at the powerline easement a little later than we'd like to've (Hwy 70 makes no sense sometimes) and started walking in the tall reeds to flush the birds. They were easy to find, alright. Just head towards a patch of green leafy thingies ("plants", I believe they're called) and often we'd flush one. Easy to see, on the other hand, these birds were not. After flushing about six separate birds, we finally got one to sit up in a bush on the edge of the woods, and we got decent binoc views. 

Henslow's Sparrow - Croatan National Forest, NC; 03/05/2011

That is to say, after Mark gave me exact directions such as "It's sitting just under the branch; no, the OTHER branch. The branch with the stuff hanging down, and the other branch going over the left of it" to which I replied things like "Huh? What? Where? I don't-? You mean? Oh THAT branch?"  Finally, I got on the bird, and I snapped this pic at the veeeery edge of my camera's zoom range. I didn't even realize I'd gotten him in the frame til I checked the pics! So, I have photographic evidence of a fantastic bird, even though it took a little digital magic to make the bird viewable. Totally worth it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

#2 - Merlin; Durham, NC

Merlin - Durham, NC; 12/15/2009
Like I said earlier, this is primarily going to be a photoblog, and as James is the real photographer in the family, I'm gonna get rid of some of the worst pictures early on so we can get to the good stuff later. Merlins are very uncommon as far inland as Durham, but this Merlin had been showing up at a local golf course for a couple of years in a row when I decided to go visit it. It only showed up early in the morning or late at night, so it's really not the greatest shot, but I swear it's a Merlin! lol I got better looks through the scope, anyway. Unfortunately, the bird didn't show up the following year, which means James still hasn't gotten his lifer Merlin, but hopefully we're gonna rectify that this winter!

#1 - Reddish Egret; Oak Island, NC

Reddish Egret - Oak Island, NC; 8/16/2009
I wasn't at all interested in birds til a couple of years ago, when I decided to take an Ornithology class my last semester of college. I saw my spark bird there (more on that later) and from there, it was game on! I got a lot of life birds that semester, and yet, this Reddish Egret I found on vacation in southeast North Carolina is more special than any of them. It was the first life bird I ID'd by myself outside of that class, and even then I'd almost written it off as a juvenile Tricolored Heron or a juvenile Little Blue Heron before figuring out its true identity, and I'm glad I did! To this day, it remains one of my favorite life birds, and is overall a pretty uncommon bird here in North Carolina.

Inauguration Day!

Hey folks, BirdTrainerRobert here, or as you might know me on WhatBird, Kryptos18. I've been birding with my brother (jamesm008) for a good year and a half now, and we've got a backlog of bird pictures to share. Jim is the real photographer, and he's traveled around the world to foreign locales like Spain and Nicaragua, but I've tried my hand at the photo game too. So, basically this is gonna basically a photoblog, where we're going to go back and look at the great birds we've seen and share our experiences with them. Let's start with a couple of the first bird photo-lifers I've got left in the album (most of the common birds have been replaced with far far superior pictures). Hope you all enjoy it!