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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Here I Am... Birding Like a Hurricane!

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there was this little thing called Hurricane Irene that rolled itself on through North Carolina over the weekend. While in the Triangle Irene seemed little more than a whimper, apparently it did some major damage farther east, including ripping a new inlet right through Hatteras Island. But for us Triangle birders, a hurricane means a chance to find birds that are otherwise rare inland.

I met Mark K and Ali Iyoob really early in the morning, because we had an epic day planned, which meant hitting up the local reservoir, Falls Lake. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones who had the same idea – we met birders Audrey Whitlock and Nick Flanders before we even got to the meat and potatoes of our birding! The only real storm bird we found that day was a little Least Tern (Durham bird #191!) fluttering its way off the causeway, and that was just the beginning.

Our next stop involved walking down the old abandoned railroad grade off of Will Suitt Rd. The old grade meanders itself through the woods before terminating at a large mudflat just across the lake from the Hickory Hills Boat Ramp. Immediately we found several interesting birds, including Stilt Sandpipers and a Short-billed Dowitcher. Then we saw a large shorebird moving left – a wholly unexpected Willet (192 and counting!) Oh, and you know what the best part of birding with a group is? If you ask real nice, they’ll let you use their pics on your blog!

This one's thanks to Ali - the dude has a ginormous lens!

As odd as the Willet was, I’d seen plenty of them on the Outer Banks recently, so while it was cool to see, it really didn’t pique my interest like this next bird. While scanning the flats next to the bird, we found this nice American Golden-Plover, a bird I don’t often get to see. Plus, it hadn’t quite molted out of its breeding plumage, leaving just a little bit of black belly. Ali and I snuck up on him and he managed this nice shot!

So much more lithe and graceful than its Black-bellied cousin.

As we were watching the birds, a little Black Tern (193!) rolled into our scope views, and began as series of acrobatic swirls as it hunted along the shallow lake, before landing on a rock right in front of us – definitely my best ever views of this bird. And thanks to Mark’s digiscoping rig, he managed this shot of it – a little better than trying to photograph it from a moving boat, eh?

No picture can represent the amount of fun we had watching this acrobatic little guy!

Behind it, a little Piping Plover (194) ran along side its Semipalmated brethren. It’s a very rare bird as far inland as we are, and like most of the birds from the Great Lake region, it was banded – one leg had a red band on it, the other leg had a green one. It’s not quite obvious from this pic, but it sure looked green when viewed it in good light. I’ve emailed a couple of Piping Plover researchers, so perhaps we can figure out where this guy came from!

The fact that there's a green band is actually a matter of some debate - but I recall it so clearly!

Then, Nick announced that he’d found an odd bird. We pored over its leg color and its wingtip length before realizing that we were just too far away to call it, so decided to move closer. Upon doing so, its black legs became clear, a nice buffy hue became evident, and its long jet-black wingtips were absolutely unmistakeable – it was a juvenile Baird’s Sandpiper, a lifer for me and Nick, and a county bird for everybody else (including myself – Durham bird #195!). Luckily, Mark managed this long-distance digiscope of this my life bird.

Er, it was a bit more obvious in the field... but a Baird's Sandpiper nonetheless!

With that, we decided to head on to the next mudflat, but not before spying a dumpy-looking gray shorebird that turned out to be a nice Red Knot, a great bird inland and Durham county bird #196 for me. But we soon moved on to the northern Falls Lake railroad grade, or as it's called in the birding community, the Granville flats. Immediately I came upon a duo of herons standing near the tracks, and they were completely unmistakable – juvenile Tricolored Herons! The county lines do wonky things along that old railroad grade, but luckily those two herons were pretty firmly in Durham, meaning they were county birds #197.

What, you don't see it? Zoom in for God's sake!

Other birds on the flat included an odd looking Greater Yellowlegs along with all the usual stuff. Ali and I waded onto a muddy peninsula, and across the lake we noticed an oddly pin-headed bird running along a rocky shoreline. We concluded it to be a Wilson’s Phalarope, but unfortunately a bird in the wrong county (damn you Granville county government!). Still, a nice bird, and we tried to get everyone else on it, but on our hike back to a better vantage point, I got stuck in the mud in a major way. Thankfully, Ali was there to bail me out, otherwise I probably would have ended up a poor skeletanized birder, as Mark so gleefully put it. We couldn't ever refind the Phalarope, but on the nearby rocks Ali and I found a Northern Water Snake feeding on a Bluegill. It spooked when we showed up, and dropped the fish, which was still alive!

How often do you find a living fish on land?!

Ali and I decided to cross a small peninsula of briars and scrub to get a better look at some of the shallow islands that were forming around us. I got stuck by a thorn pretty good trying to avoid a Black Locust tree, and as I was nursing my bleeding hand on the flats, Ali noticed an odd bird fly up onto an old snag. I dragged my scope around to check it out and was totally surprised to find a Peregrine Falcon munching on a deceased shorebird. Holy crap, what a great bird! Not only was it a state bird for me, but it was also Durham county bird #198. Ali managed this digiscope by holding up his iPhone to my meager scope.

I really cannot express how cool it was to find this bird in basically my own backyard!

I spotted a nice Caspian Tern flying across the lake, but it was time to be getting back to the cars. We decided to leave the Falls Lake area and try for a Hudsonian Godwit at Lake Wheeler (failure), grab some lunch (great success!), find a Best Buy (mild success), and end the day at nearby Jordan Lake, where mudflats were beginning to form at New Hope Creek. Not much around, but we did manage to spot a flock of White Ibis foraging at the north end of the flats, far enough north that I was able to count them for Durham!

The Ibises were my last county bird of the day, #199. We started out early in the morning trying for storm birds, and while there were few to be had, we still managed to whip up a whirlwind, leading to a flood of new birds for the county like we were a damn hurricane. Now if only we could get one to drop off pelagic birds like Irene did in the northeast!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Species Spotlight #2: Black Rat Snake

Well, it’s that time of year again. Hurricane Irene only raised the Falls Lake water level a half inch, and already it’s below that again, which means the mudflats are intact and expanding. Any birder worth his salt is going to be checking these mudflats as often as possible, something I’m very familiar with, as it’s exactly what I did last year. On the way to the flats one day, I discovered this enormous Black Rat Snake sunning himself on the gravel road next to the railroad tracks.

He must've been over five feet long!

As you can see, he was all stretched out along the gravel, and didn’t really mind me taking a couple pictures. He just sat there as I kneeled down beside him to take a couple of macro shot, culminating in this nice one with his tongue flicking out. Lucky he wasn’t an ornery fellow, or he could have easily struck at me, but I guess he was happy enough that I wasn’t manhandling him or anything.

You can't get much closer than this!

After hiking down to the mudflats and back, I crossed the gravel road again and the snake was gone. Looks like he got all the sun he needed, but even so he was a really fantastic snake, and it was so cool to get up-close and personal with this awesome animal!

Friday, August 26, 2011

#15: Acadian Flycatcher - Sandy Creek Park, NC

Sandy Creek Park is really an old standby, and during the summer of 2010, James and I visited it on almost a daily basis. While the two large ponds are really the big draw of Sandy Creek, there’s also a greenway that runs along the creek itself. During large rainstorms, the creek will flood its banks, and when the waters recede the asphalt will become covered in large swaths of the very sand that gives Sandy Creek its name.

In any case, the greenway can be good for forest birds, Prothonotary Warblers, Northern Parulas, and Yellow-billed Cuckoos chief among them, but during the summer it’s home to a particular species of Empidonax flycatcher. Now, Empids love riparian environments, but they’re very hard to identify by sight alone. However, the season will narrow it down – during migration in the Triangle, you can see three species, Least (which I’ve seen on several occasions around here), Yellow-bellied, and Willow (neither of which I’ve seen in the Triangle). But during the summer, we only get one, and walking along the creek on any given day, you’re bound to hear the charming little pSEET! of an Acadian Flycatcher.

Acadian Flycatcher - Sandy Creek Park, NC; 06/06/2010

Unlike other Empids, Acadians prefer to hang out in the tree canopy, rather than down by the creekside, which is exactly what this little guy was doing. I’ve had birds that sound like they’re right above you, yet are impossible to locate because they’re small, the leaves are thick, and they really love to move around! So this shot, all things considered, isn’t the worst in the world. It’s not the greatest either, but it’s the only one we’ve got of an Acadian Flycatcher and I think it’s bound to stay that way.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

So Long, and Thanks For All the Birds!

While our time on the Ocracoke had ended, James and I still needed to make our way back home. And, being an island, the only way to get off it was by ferry. Anybody who's ever taken a ferry, especially during peak season, knows that there's a lot of waiting involved. You wait in line to get your ticket. You wait in line to get on the ferry. You even wait while they tell you what lane to get in once you're on the boat! So, to kill time, I did a little exploring around the terminal, and found a nice little spot with a good view of the Pamlico Sound. Immediately, I noticed something big and brown in the sand next to the water's edge - a Horseshoe Crab!

He must've been 2 - 2½ ft long, pretty sizeable!

I'd never seen one this intact in the wild before. Unfortunately, as is often the case with these cool beach finds, he was dead. He'd buried himself pretty good in the sand before he died, so digging him out wasn't really an option, but I've studied these guys in Bio lab before. Underneath is an amalgam of primitive claws and legs, and in fact they're not really related to crabs at all, but rather they're members of the clade Chelicerata, which also happens to include things like spiders and scorpions (crabs and other crustaceans are more closely related to insects). Oh, and another reason you don't want to dig him up? He's pretty darn spiny!

How do I know? I er, kind of tried to dig him up.

Looking back over the sound, there were few birds. A few Spotted Sandpipers on the jetty, a couple of Royal Terns rollicking on the sea breeze. I was actually about to turn back when I heard an odd shrieking whistle, and then a reply from along the jetty. Looking right, I watched as a vocalizing American Oystercatcher flew past to join its friend on the rocks, which was pretty cool to see. Along the shore, the lapping waves brought small fish close to the sand. I still haven't figured out what they are, so if you have any ideas, let me know!

While we're on the subject, anchovies are the worst pizza topping. Ever.

After having a decent amount of fun watching the little fishes, I made my way back to the local establishment known as SMacnally's to have a beer or two while the ferry made its way into port. Lucky for James and I, some guys had just finished their chartered fishing trip and were cleaning their catch, throwing the remains into the harbor. Where there's a free lunch to be had, there are always birds that follow, in this case Brown Pelicans and Laughing Gulls.

He was really putting on quite a show, catching fishy bits in midair!

And that was that. The ferry was arriving and James and I had to get on the boat. As we turned to leave, one of the Brown Pelicans flew up onto a nearby pylon, and James took the opportunity to photograph the bird at close range - and what a pic! He couldn't even fit the whole bird in the frame! Looking at it again, I'm almost ashamed that I wrote off pelicans the whole trip, instead focusing my attention on shorebirds and ibises - they really are nice-looking birds.

He sat there passing judgement on me for a good ten minutes!

Well, we had a ferry to catch, a mainland to get to, and apparently some Reddish Egrets to see. If I could just say one thing to the island that had been my home for those four days, I think it'd be: so long, and thanks for all the birds!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Species Spotlight #1: Nutria

You might remember when James and I were down at Pea Island a couple weekends ago and through the smoke and haze we found a Nutria feeding beside North Pond. Now, normally this is something I’d add to our “Other Animals” gallery, but because it was such a mediocre picture, I really don’t want to. So instead, I’m going to start a new column that’ll show up every once in a while wherein we spotlight one of the many non-bird animals we’ve seen on our adventures.

This story goes all the way back to December of 2010 (er, so, eight months ago). I’d just taken part in an amazing bird count at Bodie and Pea Islands, and now we were moving on to our second Christmas Bird Count of the weekend – Lake Mattamuskeet, a place that at the right time of the year, can be filled with damn near a million ducks, geese, and swans. Our scheduled route took us along the wildlife drives that surrounds the waterfowl impoundments next to the lake, and we were finding the usual stuff – Northern Harriers, Tundra Swans, and multiple species of ducks. All of a sudden, we came across a couple of large furry rodents feeding alongside the gravel drive.

Not a care in the world!

They were Nutria, a mother and a baby, happily munching away amongst the American Coots and Wilson’s Snipes that surrounded them. They didn’t seem to mind us getting out of the car for pictures, and when we did end up getting too close, they tried to bail into the water as Nutria are wont to do. There’s only one problem: that week, eastern North Carolina had seen somewhat unusual snow and cold temperatures, which meant the impoundments had all frozen over. So what did the Nutria do? Walk on the ice, of course!

This is going to work out well, I'm sure of it.

Both the mother and the baby tried walking on ice – I think the baby even fell in at one point, leading to an adorably hilarious attempt to get back onto the slippery surface, probably because the water was pretty darn cold. The mother, on the other hand, decided she’d had enough of us. With as much grace as a large rodent could possibly have on ice, she turned around and waddled to the canal on the other side of the road, never to be seen again.

Hey, who you lookin' at tough guy?!

Not sure which animal I’m gonna spotlight next, but I should let it be known that I saw two “lifer” mammals on that day at Lake Mattamuskeet… and the Nutria was by far merely second best!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Everybody's Birding for the Weekend!

In any case, it’s James’s last weekend before he has to head back to college, so I figured we’d hit the always awesome Ellerbe Creek mudflats on Falls Lake, just to see what was there, and as per the usual, we weren’t disappointed. As soon as we headed down the stone rocks from the railroad trestle, I spied three male Wild Turkeys making their way along the forest’s edge, and James manage to snap a shot just before they bolted for the woods.

It's a trio of tom turkeys!

The mudflats are getting pretty extensive, especially the ones closest to the railroad tracks – already they extend almost all the way to the powerlines that cross the twin peninsulas. So James decided to take off his shoes and wade out until the shorebirds were in good light, which led to this nice pair of Lesser Yellowlegs that decided to stick around after all the other birds had bailed because those blasted Killdeer spooked everybody with their incessant shrieking.

A little nicer than their much more larger cousins, IMO

At this point, we ran into another group of birders, consisting of Erla Beegle and her partners in crime, and we began to delve into that most hallowed of birder conversations – “Did you see anything good?” And we both had the same answer – “The usual stuff.” Peeps, Yellowlegs, and Pecs, nothing special. All of a sudden, we look up to see a bird soaring like a jet plane across the flats, its long tail and neck making it one hell of a distinctive bird. Erla pegged it right away: “Anhinga!”

A female, I think; and it's got a fish in its mouth!

An awesome bird that’s particularly difficult to find inland, though there’s rumors it breeds in small numbers at the larger reservoirs around here. It’s a lifer for James, as we haven’t gotten to the southern coast for a couple of years now, so it’s especially cool we found one so close to home. After finding our bird of the day, we made our way down the peninsula, finding this confiding Pectoral Sandpiper on the way. Pecs are notorious bailers, almost as bad as the Killdeer, so it was nice that this guy decided to stick around.

Still waiting for that perfect shot of a Pec!

The end of the peninsula was full of peeps and the like, so we decided to check it out for Semipalmated Sandpipers, a bird that we could honestly use a better picture of. No such luck (it’s those damn Killdeers again), but we did manage to find a trio of Caspian Terns, and James managed to Jackal mode himself up to this little Least Sandpiper. It really doesn’t get much better than that.

But pretty much the perfect shot of a Least Sandpiper!

Just as we were leaving, we decided to hit up the ol’ standby, the Cheek Road causeway that crosses the heart of the northern end of the lake. At first we didn’t see anything, then I spied an Osprey landed on one of the mudflats, which flew up to its nearby nest. And then, a huge bird flew out of the woods on the right, and began to soar over towards us. That Bald Eagle would be the last bird we’d see all day, but what a way to end the day!

First the Turkey, then the Eagle - two prospective American symbols on the same trip!

Friday, August 19, 2011

North Point or Bust!

There are some days that you can just look at your birding brother and go, damn that was a good day of birding! Our last full day on Ocracoke was one of these days. Not so much the birds we found (though we found some good ones), but also more the manner in which we found them. For our last day, we decided to head to Ocracoke’s North Point, a place that is normally a diminutive beachfront, but come low tide, extends itself by several hundred feet.

James found this juvenile Tricolored Heron before we'd even left!

Not wanting to walk the sandy beach in hiking boots, I instead decided to go for something I’d call “birding casual” – barefoot, wading through the mud and water, just trying to get as close to the birds as possible. With a cool breeze coming off the ocean, it’s definitely the most relaxed birding experience I’ve ever had. Oh, and did I mention there were birds? Lots and lots of birds! Immediately we came upon a large flock of gulls, terns, and skimmers.

Royal Terns were by far the most common terns I found on Ocracoke

James really took his Jackal mode to the next level, and decided to lie on his stomach to sneak up on the birds. And amazingly enough, the birds didn’t seem to mind! The Common, Forster’s and Least Terns that abounded in the colony were quite content to let this human into their midst, and even this Black Skimmer couldn’t bring himself to fly away.

Zoom in and you can see a series of grooves along the bill - anyone know what they're for?

That is, until I saw one very acrobatic white bird bank and juke over the salt flats. I raised the alarm to James, who immediately stood up to take the shot, causing some of the Least Terns to flush. Unfortunately, the pics didn’t turn out, and it looked like it might be lost to the ages. We rounded the corner, and as James crawled on his stomach towards another group of terns, and he asked me to check the bird closest to him with the scope. “Holy crap!” I exclaimed, “Gull-billed Tern!”

Only he wouldn't turn around for us dangit!

The Gull-billed Tern was a lifer for both of us, and to see one on the landed on the ground at close range like this really added another level to the sighting. As James tried to photograph an uncooperative nearby adult Tricolored Heron, we watched as something snow-white flew onto the flats and ended up landing right next to him, leading to what is probably my closest-ever sighting of a White Ibis, and a very nice looking individual at that!

I don't think I will ever get tired of White Ibises!

From there, we scoped out every flock of terns and gulls around to try and find a Black Tern, or maybe something better. No dice, but by the time we’d run out of Piping Plovers and Sanderlings to look at, we were all the way out on the northern point of the island. On our right the majestic Atlantic Ocean lapped the shore, and to our left we could see Hatteras just a couple thousand feet away, with the Hatteras Village water tower visible just past that. As we waded back along the white sand shores, this Ruddy Turnstone ran parallel to us, pausing to eat when it could. And with that, our Ocracoke adventure was over.

Is there a more beautiful shorebird?

It seemed to have ended before it even began, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. James and I got several lifers on this trip, and had many more great birding experiences. If you ever get a chance to bird the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I highly recommend it. Just, stay away from guys with giant pickups… they might not take too friendly to your kind ‘round there!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Erratum: or, Those Darn Peeps!

They call ‘em peeps. If only they could be as brightly colored or come in pleasant shapes like those little marshmallow Easter candies. But if it was that easy, it wouldn’t be fun, would it? In any case, you may remember from last week when James and I visited Oregon Inlet and found a black-legged peep that I had identified as a Semipalmated Sandpiper because, well, it had semipalmations! Turns out, as often happens in birding, I was wrong.

The suspect in question - Oregon Inlet, NC; 08/11/2011

Being in central North Carolina, I rarely, if ever, see other black-legged peeps besides the Semipalm. Occasionally a Sanderling will turn up, but they’re bigger and pale, and easier to ID. So it never even occurred to me to consider other birds, and after consulting several of the top birders in North Carolina, it turns out this bird is actually a Western Sandpiper. Good field marks are a slight droop to the bill towards the tip and a pattern of chevroned streaks continuing down the flanks. Bad field marks include black legs and webbing between the toes.

Still, it’s the best look I’ve ever had at a Western Sandpiper, even when I saw them in California. All the Westerns I’ve seen in North Carolina have been especially long-billed individuals, or juveniles with nice rufous scapulars, so it was nice to be set straight and learn a thing or two about advanced shorebirding. So, I guess this next one goes out to all the confusing peeps out there: bring it on!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Birding the 'Banks: Part II - There and Back Again

Hitting up Pea Island and Oregon Inlet were really our main two goals for the day, so afterwards we were a little bit aimless, but I did have a short list of places for us to go. We checked out Bodie Lighthouse to try for some rails (we couldn’t find any) and fruitlessly cruised the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center for a Canebrake Rattlesnake that was supposed to be hanging around. We actually ended up back at Pea Island to check out the beach across the street, a nice place where I’d seen a pair of Merlins at close range this past winter, but as it’s now summer, I didn’t know if we’d be able to find anything.

The first order of business was to get past the beachgoers, and as there weren’t any ORVs at this location, it wasn’t long before we were on the birds. Mostly the usual stuff, like Sanderlings and Willets, with an odd Black-bellied Plover thrown in (including a nice breeding-plumaged one). But one shorebird caught my eye just as it had done the day before. Chilling by a tide-worn sandcastle was a not-so-red Red Knot, and just like my lifer, James’s lifer took off before we could get very close. Still, with the added zoom, the photo didn’t turn out half-bad!

The Red Knots never let us get very close, too bad!

With another lifer out of the way, it was time to visit a place I’ve wanted to bird for a long time: the Salt Pond at Cape Point. In the winter, it’s supposed to be great for things like Snow Buntings, or even a vagrant Common Redpoll, and earlier this summer it hosted a beautiful Red-billed Tropicbird. Walking along the mowed grass path towards the pond, we found this nice Southern Toad trying to hide under a bush. Nothing a zoom lens and a flash bulb can’t fix.

He's doing his best to camouflage himself, but it didn't work!

When we finally reached the pond, the first thing James noticed wasn’t a bird – it was actually a family of River Otters he spied cavorting near the shore. James was pretty psyched about it, he’s never seen a wild one, and I’ve only seen a River Otter once, so we tried to get into the good light. Alas, as soon as we stepped foot on the muddy shore, the otters bolted for the bushes, and we were left with this silhouetted distance shot. Still, I mean – River Otters! How cool is that?

Cooler than Billy Dee Williams drinking Colt 45's on the other side of the pillow

Having learned our lesson, we made our way into the better light where Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers were feeding along the pond’s edge. Not that we really needed any of them, we’d already gotten great pics of both, but we were more interested in the Short-billed Dowitchers that were probing the mud nearby. One of them still retained its burnt-orange breeding colors, but he was having none of James’s sneaking around, so instead we settled for this slightly paler but far more confiding individual.

Actually one of the more common shorebirds hanging around Salt Pond.

The apparent gluttons for punishment that we are, we headed back against the sun, where more dowitchers, sandpipers, and a single Piping Plover were busy doing what birds do best. Just up the shore, I spied a bird that looked like a Yellowlegs that was feeding oddly, and from my experience shorebirding, I knew exactly what to expect. James tried to flank it into the good light, but this Stilt Sandpiper decided he’d rather feed somewhere without annoying humans. In any case, it’s a bird I never get tired of, and a lifer for James to boot!

Sometimes, you just have to settle for back-lit...

With that, it was time to go. We had a ferry to catch and some great birds under our belt (and one great mammal!) but we weren’t through yet. Our car got put on the outside lane of the ferry, and right next to us on one of the wood pylons sat a huge Great Black-backed Gull who gave us stunning looks. At this range its size made it a very impressive bird, and a great way to end our Hatteras adventure!

Looks like he's been doing some swimming!

It’s not over, not by a long shot! Check back Friday to see what lifer James and I picked up on our last full day on the island!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Interlude: Falls Lake Strikes Back!

As much time as I’ve spent on the Falls Lake mudflats, I’ve only ever been to the ones that form at the mouth of Ellerbe Creek, mostly because it falls within Durham County, and I love my Durham County list (187 and counting, btw). But when a Red-necked Phalarope was discovered on the Granville County flats on the Neuse, and when fellow birder Kyle Kittelberger wanted to go find it, well, how could I refuse?

James and I were actually running a little bit early, so we decided to check out the nearby Hickory Hills Boat ramp and immediately found a nice Common Tern lounging on a buoy (188 and counting). And by this point we started running late, so it was off to the North Railroad Grade!

The sun plagued us all day! Too bad we didn't have a boat...

It’s a lot longer of a walk than the grade over Ellerbe Creek, but it’s nice and shaded for part of it, and it was a cool day anyway. No complaining! Once the lake was in sight, immediately the scope views abounded with Pectoral Sandpipers, Lesser Yellowlegs, and even six (!) white, immature Little Blue Herons, a decent count. But the best bird came when James spied a large white bird soaring high above the trestle. Upon photographing it, he found it to be a nice Wood Stork, a really nice bird this far inland.

Not the greatest Wood Stork in the world, but it was really high up!

Wait, did I say that was the best bird? Cuz we also found the Phalarope! Unfortunately, it was on the southeast side of the trestle, which means it stayed in poor light. But even still, it’s habit of running back and forth and in circles all over the flats meant it was really obvious even from a distance of several hundred feet. That would just have to be my life looks at a Red-necked Phalarope, and that was that.

Too bad...

Wait, who am I kidding, we’re birders dammit! James, Kyle, and I climbed down the rather loose rocks until we were on the flat, and made a plan to flank the bird until we were in decent light. When the mud got to deep though, we had to turn around and go home.

Almost there...

HELL NO we didn't! We took off our damn shoes and waded into the deep mud, knee high in places. I don’t regret it for a second, we all got great views of the bird (which didn’t seem to perturbed at our presence), and James got some top-notch pictures. Definitely a bird I can say I’ve had my life views of, and definitely an experience I’ll never forget!

Totally worth it, a fantastic bird!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Birding the ‘Banks: Part I – An Unexpected Journey

Being on Ocracoke has its pluses: because it can only be accessed by ferry, so there are fewer tourists than you’d expect, and the relatively small island means you can bike anywhere in a matter of minutes. But as Outer Banks go, it doesn’t necessarily have the birding you can find elsewhere, which is why as soon as this trip was a-go, James and I made plans to visit the holy grail of Outer Banks birding sites: Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.

I’ve been to Pea Island twice, and I have fond memories of each time I’ve been there. The first time was chock-full of ducks, white pelicans, avocets, and pretty much anything else you can think of (Merlins, Cackling Goose, etc). And even though I got caught in a rainstorm the second time, there were still plenty of swans, terns and shorebirds around to slake my thirst. I just had to show James the majesty of Pea Island, it’s really a kind of birding Mecca (or Medina?). Which is why it was slightly disappointing when we finally showed up and visibility was somewhere around a couple hundred feet even though the weather report said it should be cloudless. You see, for the past couple months there’s been a raging wildfire at Alligator River NWR on the mainland, but usually the winds blow the smoke towards the center of the state. For whatever reason, the winds shifted, and the smoke was now blowing out right towards us. I mean, check out this Nutria – it couldn’t’ve been more than 50 feet away!

What? It's not awful! It's a "record shot." Of a Nutria.

Luckily, as soon as we'd made it to the nice two-story observation deck, the winds shifted again and the smoke suddenly cleared, giving us great looks at whatever was present. Unexpectedly, there wasn’t too much to see  – numerous Tricolored Herons, a couple Greater Yellowlegs, and Dowitchers a-plenty. None of the birds I’d hoped to show James, so we decided to head on to another near-legendary site to try our luck.

But not before this Eastern Kingbird put on a hell of a show!

There’s an old Coast Guard station near Oregon Inlet that, for whatever reason, seems to host a lot of nice, confiding birds. In the winter you can find jetty-loving species like Purple Sandpiper, Great Cormorant, and even an odd Long-tailed or Harlequin Duck. Today, however, became quite content with amazing views of a Semipalmated Plover that didn’t seem to mind James shooting it from behind an old dock piling.

This photo is misleading - Semipalmated Plovers are really quite small,

While James was busy with the plover, I noticed a nearby peep which was conspicuously pale and sported black legs. It probed the mud closer and closer to James, and he ended up getting a really fantastic shot of it, complete with a hind toe to separate it from the (possibly) similar Sanderling – the second semiplamated bird of the day, a nice Semipalmated Sandpiper. I encourage you to zoom in on that pic, you can even see the serrated webbing between the toes that gives the bird its name. ::EDIT:: Apparently, the bird is actually a Western Sandpiper.

Definitely the best looks I've ever had of a Semipalmated Western Sandpiper.

And so it was time to continue down the jetty. To the right is a large saltmarsh and sand flat that’s roped off to function as a breeding area for Least Tern and Piping Plover, and luckily it’s totally off-limits to ORVs. That’s really why I chose to visit this place – with the breeding colony so close, I hoped a couple of Piping Plovers would still be hanging around on the beach area, and I wasn’t disappointed. Soon enough, we ran into the nicest plumaged Piping Plover I’d see all trip! James managed to coax a nice pic of this guy by employing a stealth technique we’ve dubbed the “Jackal mode”. Not a bad pic for his lifer, and ordinarily a bird that’s quite skittish too!

Tastes like chicken? This wouldn't even amount to a drumstick!

The next step was to search the bridge spanning the inlet for the Gull-billed Terns that were reported to frequent it. Walking back along the jetty, we managed a couple of Spotted Sandpipers, with a pair of Seaside Sparrows hanging out along the marsh side. Most excitingly, however, was the apparently saltwater-loving Banded Watersnake James found lounging along the reeds, a truly unexpected find for us.

I was hoping for a Cottonmouth, but eh, I'll take it.

Crossing Highway 12, we made our way for the catwalk along the bridge. It’s supposed to be used for fishing, but we decided to use it for watching terns! None of the Gull-billeds we’d hoped for, but we got some close passes by an acrobatic Common Tern, and that would just have to be close enough. We had a schedule to keep to, and it was already past noon!

One good tern deserves another.

Tune in Wednesday for Birding the ‘Banks: Part II – There and Back Again!