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Friday, July 29, 2011

#12: Prothonotary Warbler - Sandy Creek Park, NC

Living in the South, there’s one bird I can look forward to seeing every summer. All I have to do is search near water, and starting sometime in early to mid April, I can hear their incessant song from along stream-sides, lake shores, and swamp bottoms. I’m talking of course, about the Prothonotary Warbler.

To me, Prothonotary Warblers are one of the most beautiful birds in the world. They’ve got this deep golden hue that causes the bird to glow if the sun’s rays catch it right. They were named, like the Cardinal or the Bishop, for an order of the Catholic Church, the official record-keepers of Papal documents in Rome. Like the Northern Cardinal is so-called due to the red robes of its namesake, so the Prothonotary Warbler is named because real-life prothonotaries wore vivid yellow robes.

Prothonotary Warbler - Sandy Creek Park, NC; 5/27/2010

Unfortunately, because Prothonotary Warblers like dense vegetation near their watery homes, it’s hard to catch one in the light. James and I found this guy belting away next to the big pond at Sandy Creek Park – luckily the sun was on him, and you can see how colorful they can become in the right light. Hopefully we’ll get a better shot soon, but for now, I’m not complaining – Prothonotary Warblers are freakin’ sweet! 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

#11: Scarlet Tanager - Mason Farm, NC

There are some birds that you cannot help but remember the first time you saw one. Stuff like Cardinals and Chickadees are birds I grew up with, so it's hard to tell the difference between individuals I saw before I was birding, and the birds that came afterwards. But I sure as hell remember the very first time I saw a Scarlet Tanager.

It was way back when I was taking Ornithology in college (a great class, by the way, I highly recommend it). Anyway, for this particular class we took a field trip up to Craven Gap, a high-elevation trail that lies right along the Blue Ridge Parkway near the southern end of the Pisgah National Forest. After winding up the hairpin turns of a rather precarious gravel road (where, incidentally, I picked up my lifer Wild Turkey), we parked at the trailhead and stepped out of the school vans. Immediately, the professor perked up his ears.

“Ya hear that? What is it?” He knew exactly what it was, of course, but he was testing the class to see if we’d actually studied.

Scarlet Tanager?” I asked, a wild guess, more because that’s what I hoped it would be. And sure enough that’s what it was!

I think there was a female present, but it was hard to be sure because all the class’s binoculars were trained on the stunning male individual in front of us, a bright crimson bird with jet-black wings, positively glowing in the sunlight. It’s almost indescribable how vibrant red a Scarlet Tanager really is; you have to see it to believe it! Luckily it’s something I can look forward to twice a year.

According to the range maps, Scarlet Tanagers can be found in central North Carolina all summer, but for whatever reason I’ve only been able to find them during migration. And, of course, during fall migration, most of the males are a nice yellowish-green, having molted out of their breeding colors. But in late May at Mason Farm, James and I ran into this beautiful male Scarlet Tanager, who gave me the best look I’ve ever had.

Scarlet Tanager - Mason Farm, NC; 05/22/2010

I think the only way we could get a better shot is if we find one nice and in the light (this day happened to be a little cloudy). Still, I doubt I’ll ever get closer to one of these birds than I did that day, and ever since I saw that first one, it’s remained one of my favorite birds in the entire country.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The End Is the Beginning Is the End

Get it? Like that Smashing Pumpkins song that was in that Batman movie?

Anyway, oh man, I’m excited. It’s getting to be my most favoritist time of the year! Summer is on his way out and he’s about to usher in autumn, and with autumn comes migration, and with migration comes the birds, and around here the birds are already starting to show up.

The number one spot to find shorebirds, for me anyway, is the Ellerbe Creek Mudflats on Falls Lake. It’s gotten me a whole bunch of life birds, mostly shorebirds like Lesser Yellowlegs and Pectoral Sandpiper, but also really sweet stuff like Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and even a Connecticut Warbler last October! Getting there is fun. You have to walk down a set of railroad tracks only to climb down a precarious flow of loose rocks leading down to an old fisherman’s trail. But man, how it’s totally worth it.

I've seen a train on these tracks just once... luckily I wasn't on that bridge!

The lake itself is a managed reservoir, so during the winter the water level is usually quite high and the fisherman’s trail is impassable, but during times of drought the water drops like a stone, and luckily this corresponds with shorebird migration. You can see why the fishermen use it during these times of low water – all around are gigantic invasive Common Carp that like to sidle their way up to shore and make a huge amount of noise splashing around if you get too close.

He really wants whatever's in that bottle! Maybe he's an alcoholic?

On the way down to the flats, you can see the Great Egrets that are starting to show up. On a good day on the flats I can see over a hundred of these guys at once, not bad for the middle of North Carolina.

Great Egret - Falls Lake, NC; 07/18/2011

And finally we get to the meat and potatoes of the whole thing. James and I scared up a pair of little Least Sandpiper, and he managed to get a decent shot of one before it up and flew off. Unfortunately, the flats haven’t fully formed yet, and the soon-to-be grassy peninsula has a couple of impassable channels across it, so the Leasts couldn’t be chased for a better pic, and the Pectorals stayed too far out as well. 

Least Sandpiper - Falls Lake, NC; 07/18/2011

I went back after this particular trip and found a nice Semipalmated Sandpiper at a decently close range, but as soon as I pulled out the camera for a shot, he too flew off into the wind. Too bad, too, as that would have been lifer for James… but he got two different lifers this weekend, so more on that later. James got a nice video of the ubiquitous Killdeer that're always hanging around the flats. Man he's got long wings!

Click through for HD Video!

If there’s one species I can always look forward to seeing around this area, it’s the Red-headed Woodpeckers. They seem to like the dead trees around the swamps here, and you can hear their wild shouts from all the way down the railroad tracks. We found this particular guy on the way back, and he gave us a decent shot by perching up on a branch.

Red-headed Woodpecker - Falls Lake, NC; 07/18/2011

That was it for today, but I’ll definitely be back in the near future, when the grassy peninsulas are fully formed and stuff like Pectorals, White-rumpeds, and hell maybe even more Buff-breasteds will walk within feet of you. To me, this is the epitome of birding.

Friday, July 22, 2011

#10: White-eyed Vireo - Mason Farm, NC

Wow, double digits already! Tons more to come!

There’s just something about vireos. Around here you can find a species in any season of the year, singing from the very tops of trees. Mostly in the summer you hear Red-eyed Vireos whistling their incessant fluted songs, and deceptively loudly at that. Even if a singing Red-eyed sounds like it’s right next to you, you’ll eventually spy it hopping around thirty feet above your head. But there’s one species of vireo that breaks all the rules.

I’m talking, of course, about the White-eyed Vireo. Sure, it’s loud and raucous just like any other vireo, but if it sounds like it’s coming from right next to you, usually it really is. The only problem is there’s often at least three feet of vegetation between it and you, as White-eyeds, unlike other vireos, prefer low shrubs, bushes, and willows to the tall trees of its cousins. However, that doesn’t stop them from being extraordinarily hard to get a good look at.

White-eyed Vireo - Mason Farm, NC; 05/22/2010

Luckily, there’s a little tool in the birder’s arsenal called playback. Depends on what side of the argument you’re on (neither the time nor place for that at the moment, but perhaps I’ll get into it in the future). Now, usually playback just does not work on vireos, Red-eyed, White-eyed, or otherwise. But just this one time, the little guy popped up for a half second before retreating into his leafy fortress, and James managed to snap two pictures. Thankfully, one of them came out, and still it remains out best picture of a White-eyed Vireo.

I feel like this is the time to mention, as a post-script, that I really enjoy White-eyed Vireos. Positively gaudy among the vireos, with splashes of gray and yellow, those insane white eyes, and a crazy song that is only matched by a couple of species in the entire bird world. Just, I really like ‘em, that's all.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Most Difficult Hardest-to-Find Very Common Life Bird Ever

I’ve had good luck finding life birds recently. James and I walked right up and found those Dickcissels that had been hanging out in Raleigh, or the Scissor-tailed Flycatchers in Orange that now have a successful nest (huzzah!). But nice as that is, sometimes it’s good to work to find your life bird. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I found mine pretty much right away. It’s James that had the trouble this time.

We were heading to New York to, among other things, attend a Mets game and meet up with some family. I woke up early in the morning at my aunt’s place in the highlands, and began to bird. I got my lifer right away, along with a nice Veery and Scarlet Tanager, but James slept in a little bit. Before you knew it we had to move along with our plans to go hiking, meaning James missed out on some very easy life birds.

So we headed to Bear Mountain State Park, which is probably best known as being maybe the place where FDR caught his polio. There was supposed to be decent birding around, so we made the brutal hike up the mountain (not that I’m averse to hiking or anything, but a 1200’ elevation gain in 1.8 miles seems a little excessive to me). After hiking the whole way up and down, it was clear we’d gotten skunked.

That is one scenic-ass vista! Bear Mountain, NY; 07/16/2011

Or more accurately, chipmunk’d. You see, Eastern Chipmunks are everywhere up there. Every time you hear some interesting bird chipping away in the underbrush, it turns out to be one of these little mongrels (you know, I bet that’s how they got their name; that just now clicked for me!). I must have heard at least 20 of them that day, and one of them was nice enough to hang out and munch away in a pocket of life for us, giving James his photo-lifer Eastern Chipmunk.

Eastern Chipmunk - Bear Mountain, NY; 07/16/2011

Speaking of things that like to chip, Chipping Sparrows are also incredibly prevalent up north, and are also a source of frustration when an interesting sound turns out to be an odd Chippie. I’m convinced that a song I’d written off as a fast Chipping Sparrow was actually a Worm-eating Warbler, but I could never confirm the sighting.

One of many Chipping Sparrows that weekend - Bear Mountain, NY; 07/16/2011

After that, it was off to the more promising Iona Island and Doodletown Road trails. Unfortunately for us, besides a few Great Blue Herons and a family of Eastern Phoebes, that was a total bust too. It’s a little late in the season, and the Cerulean, Blue-winged, and Black-and-White Warblers that may have been ubiquitous just a few weeks ago were nowhere to be found.

So, the next morning rolled around. It was time to get James that single life bird I’d promised him this trip, the one that I’d already received myself. We went walking around the neighborhood and picked up the easy stuff, like House Wrens and a lone female American Redstart. Some Chimney Swifts, which are a photographer’s worst nightmare as they jink and juke like little battle squadrons in some analogue of an old-school dogfight, provided a challenge for James, but he performed admirably. Definitely the best shot we’ve gotten of one to date. But no life bird. And it was getting to be time to leave.

Chimney Swift - Orange County, NY; 07/17/2011

Just then, there it was, I heard it from the neighbor’s house up the street. I would have mistaken that little two-note whistle for a Tufted Titmouse if I hadn’t’ve made that very mistake the previous morning. Atop a tree sat a little puffball of a Black-capped Chickadee, James’s life bird and only my third (after seeing two the day before). He flew from his tree-top perch down to a small shrub and began to forage all along it, giving us great looks albeit only decent photographs (he seemed to enjoy being in the shadows).

Black-capped Chickadee - Orange County, NY; 07/17/2011

It’s odd, I can probably stand outside at any point in the day around here and find our native Carolina Chickadees, but the minute we decide to search for his more northerly cousin, he makes us fret for over an hour trying to find him. No matter, the bird was ours, and James was content with his photographs. And all done in time for breakfast!

Monday, July 18, 2011

#9 - American Redstart; Mason Farm, NC

Mason Farm needs no introduction. Unless you’ve never heard of it, then I guess it does need an introduction. I’ve heard it quoted by several veteran birders as one of the best all-around birding locations in the Triangle, and I myself have often found this be true – be it migration, summer, or winter, I always find something nice at Mason Farm, and this was no exception.

For some reason this trip sticks in my mind. It was James’s first real birding trip to the location (I’d taken him there once before, but he seemed more interested in the omnipresent dragonflies, as I recall). It was the very tail end of migration, and there wasn’t too much left – mostly summer residents that had become ingrained, but there were at least a couple migrants sticking around (more on that later). But there’s one bird that, if you show up at a certain time of the year, is the most numerous bird present.

American Redstart - Mason Farm, NC; 05/22/2010

I’m talking, of course, about the American Redstart. What? You didn’t know that was what I was talking about? Must not be the right time of the year. Anyway, James and I found this guy along the willows that follow one of the small creeks of Mason Farm. And every time I see it, I think, man, I will never get tired of American Redstarts. Deep black and literally neon orange all in a nice common little bird. It’s one of those birds you don’t hear about before you start birding, but after you see one you can never forget it. I’m looking forward to fall migration, when I get another chance to see these guys again – it’s always a treat!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

#8 - Blackpoll Warbler; Sandy Creek Park, NC

There comes a time in a birdwatcher’s career, not long after he starts, when life birds stop coming to him during the course of a normal birding day, and he must seek life birds if he wants to keep getting life birds. For me, this happened sometime after my first year of birding had passed me by. I couldn’t just get a new life bird by stepping outside my door, or visiting my local park. It would take something more concentrated than that.

Thus, I started paying attention to the great resource that is eBird. Not only where people had seen the birds that I wanted to see, but more importantly, when. Those bar charts come in handy with a bird like the Blackpoll Warbler, which for some unknown reason decides it has to migrate much later than the other warblers, and around here is most common in the last week of May and the first of June. So, during those dates, I started hitting my local birding haunts hard.

And it paid off! After hearing (but not seeing) the birds at 17 Acre Woods, I headed off to Sandy Creek Park, which you may remember from last post as the place James and I got those sweet looks at a Northern Parula. This time though, we found a small bird flitting around in the tops of one of the willows. Of course, said willows happened to have the sun behind them, so at the moment I couldn’t confirm the bird as anything other than the more common Carolina Chickadee, and I mean who can blame me? That’s kind of what it looked like! 

Blackpoll Warbler - Sandy Creek Park, NC; 05/21/2010

But then it skipped on over to the shorter willows across the path and I able to confirm my lifer Blackpoll Warbler, which James managed to snap this picture of. Not the greatest picture in the world, but hell, it’ll do!

Monday, July 11, 2011

#7 - Northern Parula; Sandy Creek Park, NC

By the time May 2010 had rolled around, I’d been birding in the greater Triangle area for over a year. I went to such far ranging places as Mason Farm (great place), the 17 Acre Woods greenway (migrant trap!), and the vast Jordan Lake. And yet somehow I’d managed to miss a little park tucked away next to the rat race that is 15-501, something I kind of regret.

Sandy Creek Park is always a nice place. It’s fairly birdy on any given day, and most importantly it was a grand total of three minutes from my house. I never found anything totally fantastic there, but I’ve been able to find a number of nice birds there with extreme regularity, stuff like Green Heron, Prothonotary Warbler, and Wood Ducks, which are kind of hit-and-miss at my other birding locales.

Northern Parula - Sandy Creek Park, NC; 05/19/2010

One of the birds I can always find there (and most other sites I visit) are the Northern Parulas. Walk along the greenway and you can’t miss these little guys buzzing and trilling at the tops of the trees along the river like they own the place. Apparently we were in this guy’s territory because he swooped in and started scolding us for being there. No matter, he let us get really close and James got a great shot. To this day, it remains our best shot of a Northern Parula, and it’ll probably stay that way for a long time!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

UPDATE: Better Scissor-tailed Flycatcher photos

FINALLY got James on the phone and he busted ass from Durham to go see the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Great success once again! We got the male doing some flycatching over the powerlines, so we got front and back views.

Male Scissor-tailed Flycatcher sequence - Anilorac Farms, NC; 07/09/2011

Also, got this shot of both birds at the nest site. When we first got to Anilorac Farms, we got sweet up-close looks at both birds doing a little aerial combat over one of the fields. No pics of that unfortunately.

Both Scissor-tailed Flycatchers at nest site - Anilorac Farms, NC; 07/09/2011

Finally, James took this sweet HD video of the male while he was on the powerlines. Too bad so many cars have to come through!

Click through for HD Video!

Sweet life bird for the both of us! Totally unforgettable experience.

Riddle Me This, Birdwatcher

Q: What do the NBC show Parks and Recreation, the Academy Award-nominated The Social Network, and the state bird of Oklahoma have in common?

A: I watched all of them this weekend!

I had to work the late shift at work last night, and I couldn't have possibly forseen what was gonna go down on the listserv the next morning. So, when I woke up late, and I saw the excruciatingly earlier-this-morning emails from such birders as Jacob Socolar (who found it) and Kent Fiala (who found the nest), I was FREAKING OUT. This was a bird I had wanted to see since... hell, since I was a kid. And now it was only 15 minutes away. And now I was four hours late. For a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.

I think it took me about 10 minutes between waking up, seeing the emails, and being out the door. That's about as quick as you can possibly make a decision. I called James immediately, but he wouldn't pick up his phone. That meant I was without his 35x lens, instead having just my 10x point-and-shoot. It'd have to do. Immediately upon reaching Anilorac Farms, I found the nest. It's kind of funny, a bird from the mid-south (is that a thing?) should choose such an obvious site for a nest in the middle of Orange County. Yet, there was the female, incubating away on top of an old radio antenna.

Female Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on nest - Anilorac Farms, NC; 07/09/2011

One bird down. Now just to find the promised male. He was a little harder to find - for such a flashy bird, I didn't often find him in an exposed location. I could hear him calling though. Kind of a high-pitched hoarse Western Kingbird kind of call. But after just a little waiting, he flew out from near the Anilorac Farm sign and started flycatching over the field. As he banked, his trademark scissor-tails would flare out, and his rosy underwings could be seen from a hundred yards away. Eventually he sat himself on top of one of the trees near the creek, and chased some Barn Swallows off his perch.

Male Scissor-tailed Flycatcher - Anilorac Farms, NC; 07/09/2011

He continued flycatching from the trees for a while before once again banking over the fields. I don't think I'll ever get used to seeing such a beautiful bird fly spread-tailed over the fields. All of a sudden though, he banked towards me, and landed just across the road from me, on top of a powerline. This was my chance! Even with my cruddy 10x camera, I managed a decent shot. My lifer Scissor-tailed Flycatcher! 

Lifer Scissor-tailed Flycatcher! Anilorac Farms, NC; 07/09/2011

A bird I've waited my whole life to see, now just a scant 30 feet across the road from me. If this isn't the kind of stuff I got into birding for, I don't know what is.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Birder's Bane: #6 - European Starling; Philadelphia, PA

Some birds you just have to get out of the way. You see them everywhere, you have them on your life list, but you don’t really like or appreciate them. This is one of those birds. And I hate them.

Yep, I’m going on record as saying it. I hate European Starlings.

Sure they may be nicer in Europe, where they’re, you know, actually from. But ‘round these parts they’re a pest, an introduced species that’s spread like the plague and is starting to affect species that have fought hard and evolve to survive in our country’s ecosystems. Purple Martins are good examples of this. They no longer nest in natural cavities because they’ve been kicked out by nesting Starlings; now they live almost exclusively in man-made structures. The same thing is starting to happen in Arizona where Gila Woodpecker cavities in saguaro cacti are being used by aggressive Starlings. And that’s just part one of the problem.

Part two shows up while you’re out birding, and can occur almost anywhere. You hear a weird sound, a song or a call, and start frantically searching for the bird in question. You see it, up on the powerline, and it’s… it’s… a Starling? Damn it. But wait, you see some movement in the corner of your eye, follow it with your binoculars, and… ANOTHER DANG STARLING. Jesus! Those things are everywhere!

European Starling - Independence Square, PA; 05/15/2010

Anyway, like I said last time, James and I were up in Philly for our other brother’s college graduation, and we stopped by Independence Square in Philadelphia. Mostly pigeons and pigeon-crap everywhere, but also a ton of Starlings too. We found this guy eating a worm, and surprisingly, it’s remained our best photo of a European Starling. Not because we haven’t seen any as close or anything, but mostly because we haven’t bothered. As I said before… those things are everywhere!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

#5 - Baltimore Oriole; Villanova, PA

When my non-birding brother graduated from Villanova in 2010, I brought my binoculars and James brought his camera, and for one purpose – but it wasn’t for birding. Instead, the commencement speaker was none other than star of Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters, Jamie Hyneman! He’s kind of a personal hero to the both of us, and sure enough showed up in all his beret-filled glory. Interestingly enough, and unbeknownst to me at the time, Hyneman is from the nearby King-of-Prussia, which is probably best known for having a mall bigger than the actual town is! (I exaggerate a little, but seriously, that mall is freaking huge.)

After graduation was over, we made our way back to the car, which due to the huge number of people present, was parked all the way back in the secondary parking lots. That turned out to be not such a bad thing – for one, we got to take a back road that was right there and completely ignore the post-graduation traffic jam. But for another, just as we got to the car, I heard an odd series of whistles coming from a nearby tree. When I went to investigate, I found a beautiful male Baltimore Oriole singing from the shadows.

Baltimore Oriole - Villanova University campus, PA; 05/16/2010

He never really got into the light, so this is the best shot James got, but hell, it’s a damn Baltimore Oriole! I’ve only ever seen a handful more in my birding career, and never managed to get another picture, so this one has kind of special to me. Thank God for serendipity!

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Bird That Almost Wasn't

If there’s one thing you’ve heard of the Carolina Sandhills for, it’s probably golf. Apparently the sands from the ancient coastline that graced the region millions of years ago makes for good greenskeeping or something. Oh, and you’ve probably heard of the Fort Bragg Military Reservation. But there should be a third reason you’ve heard of the Sandhills.

The very geography that makes the region a haven for upper-class golfers (redundant?) also gives it vast forests of pine with a nice savannah understory, and that means the wildlife in the region is found nowhere else in North Carolina. Stuff like Pine Snakes, Florida Cooters, and even a species of tree frog whose nearest disjunct population is in New Jersey. Oh yeah, and, you know, birds.

I decided we’d go down to the site where I’d gone this past April to check out North Carolina’s first record of Cassin’s Sparrow. It had a whole bunch of birds that would be lifers for James, species which I wouldn’t mind getting better looks at anyway. Driving around the dirt road, many common grassland species were present in numbers, like Eastern Kingbird and Orchard Oriole, and even an unexpected Cooper’s Hawk (those guys are always unexpected for me).

But the main draw of this site is the nearby Red-cockaded Woodpecker colony, a species which almost exclusively nests in live Longleaf Pines that have low amounts of deciduous vegetation around them. There were many marked nest holes around, and even some active feeding trees – you can tell them by the sap that drips down the trunk and becomes white when it dries.

Longleaf Pine with sap wells - Scotland Co., NC; 06/30/2011

Unfortunately, there were no actual woodpeckers to be found, so we cruised around trying to listen for their squeaky calls. All that netted us was a flyover Common Nighthawk, which would have been a lifer for James but we couldn’t ever actually locate the bird.

As we walked down one of the sandy roads, we found this juvenile Southeastern Five-lined Skink, commonly known ‘round these parts as a Blue-tailed Skink. This particular youngster decided that James’s shoe was totally a good hiding place, and I had to end up fishing him out of the sneaker when he tried to dive under James’s foot!

Southeastern Five-lined Skink in shoe - Scotland Co., NC; 06/30/2011

So, it was off to our next locale, Weymouth Woods Nature Preserve, which I’ve heard from several veteran NC birders is the spot to find the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. I just wish they’d told the birds, because despite finding several nest holes we struck out on the woodpeckers once again. The savannah understory was very interesting however – it was odd hearing grassland species like Indigo Bunting and Prairie Warbler in the middle of a vast pine forest. In any case, at this point James was feeling pretty disappointed, so we decided to go back to the first Red-cockaded spot and just plant until one showed up. It was a long-shot, but it was the only shot we had.

Sitting around the nest-holes, we saw several other woodpeckers – Red-headed, Red-bellied, even Pileated, but no signs of the bird we were looking for. A Northern Bobwhite cried plaintively over the nearby field, and it was beginning to feel like we’d made the hour-and-a-half drive down here for nothing. Then, all of a sudden, there it was – you could have mistaken it for an odd Brown-headed Nuthatch if you weren’t paying attention, but in reality it sounds more like a high-pitched Red-headed Woodpecker. It flew in and started drumming on a tree, and then a second showed up – Red-cockaded Woodpeckers!

Red-cockaded Woodpecker - Scotland Co., NC; 06/30/2011

James was highly relieved at this point, he’d really wanted to see one of these fine endangered species, but seeing two was a real treat. Almost as if on cue, just fifty feet from where we’d been watching the woodpeckers, I heard the distinctive tremolo of a Bachman’s Sparrow, another Sandhills specialty which we’d managed to miss at both sites before.

Bachman's Sparrow - Scotland Co., NC; 06/30/2011

Lucky for us, this nice male let us get very close – he just sat up on an exposed perch belting out his song while we crept closer and closer, and only bailed when we got within five feet or so. This one really showed off the subtle plumage of the Bachman’s Sparrow – blurry russet streaks offset the beige, and there’s a hint of mustard yellow to the wings; truly, it is a birder’s bird.

Click through for best quality!

Well, that took care of both of our targets for the day. Two lifers for James, two great looks at great birds for me, and thankfully, in the end, one great day of birding!

Bachman's Sparrow singing - Scotland Co., NC; 06/30/2011

Saturday, July 2, 2011

#4 - Rusty Blackbird; Durham, NC

I forget what we were looking for at the New Hope Waterfowl Impoundment. I suppose we were probably looking for waterfowl! In any case, I remember it being a cold, crisp yet sunny day in March when we came across a large flock of several hundred blackbirds. Mostly Common Grackles but interspersed amongst them were fifty or so of the much rarer Rusty Blackbirds.

It was hard to get an accurate count. The flock was moving quickly across the trees along the small grass corridor, and the Rusties especially so, being smaller and faster than their raucous cousins. Sometimes though, you could hear that pleasant metallic twang of a Rusty Blackbird in the din, either from high in the trees or from along the wet shore of the impoundment, walking along and overturning leaves for insects as only the Rusties like to do.

Rusty Blackbird - New Hope Waterfowl Impoundment, NC; 03/09/2010

It was a decent find – Rusty Blackbirds are one of two Euphagus species in the world, and they are undergoing significant population decline, somewhere in the 85-95% range. Scientists aren’t quite sure why, but habitat destruction and perhaps mercury poisoning seem to shoulder the most blame. In any case, I’m sure there was some time in the past when a flock of several thousand of these small blackbirds was not an unusual sight, but today a flock of fifty seems significant. There may come a day in the near future when you can no longer hear their fine melody on a crisp winter’s day in the Carolinas… not in my lifetime, I hope, and I pray, not ever.