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Sunday, September 11, 2011

They Call Me The Jaeger-meister!

In birding, you just never know what’s going to happen. You think you’ve seen almost every bird there is to see in your area, and after many years they’ll still surprise you. Such is the case with my Durham county bird list. There are some egregious misses on it, stuff I’d expect to see at one point or another – Forster’s Tern, both Scaups, and Worm-eating Warbler rank chief among them. So today’s sighting from Falls Lake totally blindsided me, and immediately I knew I had to give chase.

On the way to the local boat ramp, I remained in close contact with Scott of Birdaholic. He had his scope already trained on the bird from his vantage point of the Cheek Road bridge, and the bird, apparently, was just lounging around in the middle of the lake. Couldn’t be easier, right? Right? Of course not, as soon as I showed up the bird took flight, and began to fly towards me, with Scott following it the whole way. Only one problem: I couldn’t find it.

It flew somewhere between the lake and the clouds, and for one reason or another I just couldn’t get my binocs on it. So Scott, now having lost the bird in an endless expanse of sky, joined me in looking for it from the boat ramp. After about a half hour, he had it again, floating against the breeze, and I got my first looks. In a flash, it was gone again. And just as suddenly, it reappeared, this time resting on a muddy peninsula next to an early Ring-billed Gull. I managed a digiscope, but it’s really so garbage that I had to include labels - however, that doesn’t change the fact that, snoozing on the far shore next to an unsuspecting gull was a very rare inland Parasitic Jaeger!

Not only Durham county bird #201, but my first in the United States!

Content with my views (which were far better than my awful digiscope would have you believe), I headed to the nearby Ellerbe Creek mudflats, a place that really deserves to be visited every day. On my way down there, I met a bird photographer from Wisconsin who had never visited the flats before – boy was he in for a surprise! The birding started out slow – no more than Killdeer, Pectoral Sandpiper, a couple Lesser Yellowlegs, and a mountain of peeps. A flock of the peeps flew in and landed right next to us, giving nice looks at a couple Least Sandpipers and a single Semipalmated Sandpiper.

That's the Semipalmated on the right - he kind of towers over that Least!

On the far peninsula I spied the bird we were after, so I made the executive decision to try the treacherous path to the far flats and hopefully end up next to the birds. Even though the flats were extremely low, deep mud and high sedges made it one heck of a hike. Finally, after getting a leg-full of chiggers (er, excuse me, chegroes), we found our quarry – a nifty pair of American Avocets that had been frequenting the flats for some time now. I know, it’s the same birds from my last post, but honestly who could tire of these awesome shorebirds?

Not I, said the birder.

After watching them sweep their recurved bills back and forth, picking up tiny invertebrates as they fed, we turned our attention to the other bird I’d spied from across the creek channel – a pair of fantastic little Red-necked Phalaropes, no doubt from the same stock that I’d seen from Granville county a month or so ago, but this time I was able to get much closer and get awesome views. One of the phalaropes flew off as we arrived, but the other seemed quite content to run around in a circle like a child’s wind-up toy.

Luckily it showed up in Durham this time! Durham county bird #202!

As if that weren’t enough, there were times when the two sets of feeding birds would cross each other’s path, leading to some very interesting photographic opportunities. With the Red-necked Phalarope in the foreground, the Avocets behind, and hundreds of blazing-white Great Egrets dotting the lake in the distance, it’s hard to believe that we were birding in the middle of North Carolina, scant miles from major urban centers. But I guess that’s birding for you. Even after so many years of the hobby, there are still so many surprises to be had.

Avocet, Avocet... Phalarope! C-C-C-COMBO BREAKER!!!

I left the photographer to his subjects, and as it was getting late, I had to be getting back. I tried to walk through the sedges to flush one of the previously-reported Virginia Rails, but no luck – I just ended up with more chegroes attempting to burrow themselves under my skin. With the sun at my back, I had time to reflect on finding so many great birds in such a short time, and in Durham of all places. I don’t know what it is that keeps me coming back for more in this hobby, but honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.


  1. Robert, I should be thanking you. I never would have gotten the Jaeger if you hadn't sent me that text (and then you may not have gotten it either ;)

    lol nice killer instinct reference

  2. Hey, I guess we worked as a team then! That thing apparently stuck around til this morning.

    And yes, I'm old school like that ;)

  3. @Jeremy - Thanks man! I think that unexpected county birds are always the best county birds... now if only I could find that darned Worm-eating Warbler....