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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!

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