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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Funny, It Doesn't Look Druish!

I had a very specific bird in mind when I visited Butner Gamelands with Mark and Scott on this cold Sunday morning. It’s a bird that frequents the edges of vast fields and really only shows up around here one or two solid weeks out of the year. Butner’s got loads of fields, plus it’s the right time of year, I should be able to find it pretty easily right? If you’ve read this blog at all, you’ll know the answer is something along the lines of “Hell no! How could you even think something so asinine?!”

In all reality, Butner was full of birds. All of our sparrows have already returned for the winter, including some of the less common ones in a pair of nice-looking Savannah Sparrows. There were large flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds, plus wintery stuff like Kinglets, Sapsuckers, and aptly named Winter Wrens, but none of the bird we were searching for, and so on this particular day, Butner was a bust.

So Mark, Scott, and I tried the nearby Ellerbe Creek mudflats, where Scott had found a Long-billed Dowitcher the week before. The dowitcher didn’t make an appearance, but we did find getting-late birds like both Yellowlegs and a Stilt Sandpiper hopping along on one foot because his other leg flopped at his side, broken apparently by some unseen force of nature. As we made our way down towards the flats proper, across the expansive grassy field that had at one time housed mud and shorebirds galore, a small bird flushed from in front of us. I didn’t get a great look, but Scott followed it up into a nearby tree. “I’ve got it,” he said. “It’s a Vesper Sparrow!” Our target bird!

Autofocus can be a frustrating thing sometimes...

I managed to get the bird in my spotting scope, breathing in my life looks and getting a chance to study its bold eye-ring and streaky sides, an absolutely unmistakable bird. Soon after spotting it, the bird flew across the vast field that makes for seemingly perfect habitat, and unfortunately I hadn’t gotten a good shot. Then I got a text from Nate of The Drinking Bird saying there were a bunch of Vesper Sparrows down the Ellerbe Creek flats, not realizing I’d just seen my lifer at the very location. At which point, as if on cue, another small bird popped up in the shrubs to my right – a second Vesper Sparrow, and this one much closer!

Now this is more like it! Great life looks of a great bird.

After getting these sweet shots, and listening to a third Vesper Sparrow sing along the creek, we continued up the flats far enough to meet Nate, who’d been birding out towards the end of the peninsulas. Apparently there were more sandpipers and some nice American Pipits to be had farther up, but we’d gotten our target bird, and we had real-world activities to attend to. On the way back, I noticed something bright green hopping amongst the dry maroon sedges – this nice Green Tree Frog, a species that I’ve seen only infrequently in the state.

Seems out of place when it's below freezing and all the leaves are dying!

Earlier that morning, Scott told us how the Vesper Sparrow derives its name not from the Latin word meaning ‘wasp’, or a lame scooter-like thing, or even a certain Princess from a certain 1987 parody film (SpaceBalls for those of you who consider your humor too high-brow to’ve seen this work of comedic genius) – turns out, those are all “Vespa”s. In fact, vesper is an archaic term relating to a religious service held in the late evening, and as Scott told his story it’s clear why – that time James, Mark, and I totally dipped on Vesper Sparrows while at the Roan Mountain Bald wasn’t our fault. We went in the morning, and the sparrows actually prefer being active and singing as it gets closer to dark – the exact time of day Scott and co. had tons of Vespers atop the very bald. Just goes to show – sometimes there’s more to a name than what meets the eye!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua: Birds #35-#41, plus... a Squirrel?

Welcome back for the third and final recap of James's expedition through Nicaragua. James found his best life bird of the trip, saw another volcano, and apparently almost got pinched in the face by a crab! Read on for the bird-filled details...

After two days on the quiet Isla de Ometepe, it was time to continue our trek across Nicaragua. After another 20-mile, two-hour cab ride, we got to the ferry terminal to head across the narrow part of Lake Nicaragua. Thankfully this ferry ride was only a half hour, and also gave me some nice looks at large group of Neotropic Cormorants.

In my opinion, much cooler than their Double-crested cousins.

The ferry dropped us off in Rivas, and from there we took a short 30-minute cab ride to the small beach town of San Juan del Sur, famous for good surf and incredible sunsets.

See? Told ya they were incredible!

We arrived at our hostel only to find that they had overbooked, and had no room for us. Thankfully for us, San Juan del Sur has far more hostels then tourists and finding another room was not an issue. Our new hostel was actually cheaper and it was right on the beach.

Literally, it turns out - looks like high tide comes knockin' at the door!

As much as I had loved Nicaragua up to that point, there was one thing that had been bothering me; it was never sunny. That was until one lovely morning in San Juan del Sur. I stepped out onto our balcony, and waited for the birds to come by. The first bird to offer some good looks was a very nice White-winged Dove, who found the power line across the street from us to be an excellent place to land.

::Robert's Note:: Not to brag or anything, but I got my lifer White-winged Dove in North Carolina!

After he headed off, one of the very common Crimson-fronted Parakeets quickly took his place. I had gotten poor views of this bird throughout the trip, but luckily this guy decided he wanted to get a little bit closer for me.

Much better than just glimpsing them flying over... like 99% of parrot sightings.

While enjoying my view of this awesome bird, I noticed a nice male Great-tailed Grackle enjoying the sun in a nearby palm tree.

::Robert's Note:: A bird we regrettably missed in California - still looking for my lifer!

Three life birds in less then thirty minutes without moving – not half bad! I eventually decided to leave the comforts of our hostel, and walk around the town a little bit. This turned out to be a very good decision. I noticed a couple of birds flitting about in a very warbler-like way. After following them around, I finally found one who decided to sit still and pose for me in a low flowering tree. I quickly realized it was a Blue-gray Tanager, one of the birds I was really hoping to see. He eventually got back to his flitting ways, but not before I got my shot.

::Robert's Note:: This is it... the number one most envious bird James found in Nicaragua...

I then noticed that the large birds that had always been soaring way out in the distance over the bay had elected to come towards the shore, giving me my first good looks at the Magnificent Frigatebirds that frequented the bay.

::Robert's Note:: These things never seem to show up when I'm around.

We ended up staying in San Juan del Sur for three days, and on our last day in the beach town, we took a hike up to the towering statue that watches over the bay.

Not a bad view... for a statue.

Surprisingly, the hike did not yield any new birds for me, but it did give me spectacular looks at one of the incredibly colorful crabs of Nicaragua, Gecarcinas quadratus – the aptly named Halloween Crab.

I pinch!

In addition, I found my second new mammal of the trip, as a Variegated Squirrel climbed over our heads. This mammal gave Robert and I more trouble then I ever thought a mammal possibly could, but we eventually were able to successfully ID him. ::Robert’s Note:: Yeah, this was an odd one. When we first looked at pictures of squirrels from Nicaragua, we could only find one gray-colored squirrel, the Deppe’s Squirrel, but it didn’t look quite right. There were however, many pictures of red Variegated Squirrels online, and it looked pretty close, only it was, you know, red. So I left it unidentified until very recently, when I checked Google Images just to see if anything had changed, and sure enough in the year since James went to Nicaragua, there are now several gray-morph Variegated Squirrel pictures on Google. Consider yourself ID’d, squirrel!

Truth be told, I find most squirrels difficult to ID. Chipmunks too!

We completed the hike and headed for our last stopping point of Masaya. Masaya was the least touristy town that we visited, and was really only famous for its volcano, which itself is famous for constantly releasing gases, and occasionally spitting up large, car crushing rocks.

::Robert's Note:: I think he's lying about those rocks...

The visit yielded me my first looks at an active volcano, and a good look at a very cool Stripe-headed Sparrow, which made an awesome last life bird in the awesome country of Nicaragua.

Could maybe use a better name though... how about Striated Volcano-Sparrow? Eh?

Well that's it folks - James left Nicaragua and came back to the States just a day later, and though he left all those cool Neotropic birds behind, that doesn't mean there aren't great lifers to come. Stay tuned next week as the Birding Bros. are reunited and head for sunny San Diego, California!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Species Spotlight #9: White-tailed Deer

I don’t remember every experience I’ve ever had with a White-tailed Deer, but I do remember a few good ones. There’s the time I was looking for American Woodcock at Mason Farm in the early twilight when I spooked one, and it ran across the field with its tail up in the air, screaming bloody murder the whole way. Fine way to start an evening of solo nightbirding. Then there’s the time near my apartment when, around midnight, I saw a deer feeding on the lawn, and I decided to inch as close as I could – she didn’t bolt until I was within ten feet of her! There’s that time when James and I visited Yates Mill and we flushed a fawn from right next to us, who ran less than fifty feet before turning and staring at us from the path. And then there’s this time.

James and I were visiting Lake Crabtree to find things like Bank Swallows and Bald Eagles, and ducks (0 for 3, though we did find a nice Caspian Tern), and while walking back from the causeway we saw movement off to our right – the deer you see below, frozen in her steps, watching us warily. Sure, most deers do that, but she seemed a little more cautious, and for good reason. That’s what makes this story so special – she’s got a large distended belly, and her teats are just starting to become enlarged. This isn’t just any deer. She’s pregnant.

She was standing absolutely motionless here - not even a flip of her ear.

It’s the first and only time I’ve been able to view a wild animal and identify its pregnancy, which is odd when you think about it, because White-tailed Deer are pretty common around here. Still, I enjoy them every time I get to see them. It’s good to know that no matter how urban an environment you may live in, there’s still nature a lot all around you, just you may not be able to see it.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua: Birds #27-#34 plus Volcanoes and Monkeys!

Well folks, it's time for the second installment of James's adventures in Nicaragua. He saw some great birds, a great mammal, and some great landscapes, so read on to see what he found!

With an area of over 3,000 square miles, Lake Nicaragua is the nineteenth-largest lake in the world. In the middle of this massive lake is the small island of Ometepe. Leaving from Granada, a painfully slow four-hour ferry ride will put you on the island, where the first thing you see is the massive Concepcion Volcano. However, our hostel (Monkey Island Hostel, the best hostel I have ever stayed at) was on the other side of the island at the foot of Concepcion’s twin, Maderas Volcano.

I bet there's some great birds in the courtyard!

Despite being around 20 miles away from our hostel, the taxi ride took over 2 hours. Ometepe has only one road, and it’s in terrible shape in most places. However, after a surprisingly grueling six-hour trek from Granada, we had finally arrived at our hostel. We woke up the next morning ready for our hike to the top of the extinct Maderas. It’s the smaller of the two on the island, but it’s still a grueling eight-hour hike to the summit of 4,600 feet.

I dunno, doesn't look so far from here.

Ometepe Island is covered in dense rainforest, meaning that the breakfast itself provided me with three lifers. I looked into a tree and found a nice Hoffmann’s Woodpecker hanging out. ::Robert’s Note:: Helping James ID this guy was a nightmare – turns out Golden-fronted Woodpeckers and Hoffmann’s Woodpeckers look exactly the same to me, and we only settled the ID by looking at range maps.

Something about where and where there isn't yellow on the bird...

Our guide then pointed out that hanging out a few branches away was a very nice Red-billed Pigeon.

Way cooler than the pigeons we've got around here!

After finishing our breakfast of eggs and pancakes, I was walking back to my room when I noticed a very impressive Great Kiskadee parked on top of a nearby bush.

Birds and breakfast - a winning combination!

After getting those nice shots, it was time to start the climb. One of the birds that Ometepe is famous for is the massive White-throated Magpie-Jay, or urraca in the native Spanish. For whatever reason they are very common on the island, and this particular one elected to sit still for me. 

::Robert's Note:: Only the second-most envious I was about a bird James
found on the trip... I wonder what the first could be?

The hike continued, and as we gained altitude we got into more farmland, which was apparently nice habitat for this Dusky-capped Flycatcher who wanted to hang out for a little while.

You thought Empids were hard? Try IDing tropical Myiarchus!

The hike gave us magnificent looks at the island and the nearby Concepcion. Unfortunately that meant that I wasn’t always prepared when a bird showed up. That was the case when a beautiful Northern Caracara flew overhead, and the result is a blurry picture that only the savviest of birders could identify. ::Robert’s Note:: I must admit, I had help with this one!

Ooooh, wait! I see it now!

In the midst of photographing all these birds, I heard some loud howling. Our guide pointed out a family of aptly named Golden-mantled Howlers, complete with an absolutely adorable baby.

A howler can shout at over 140 decibels... that's as loud as a jet engine!

After three and a half hours and almost 2 liters of water we arrived at the top of the volcano and were sitting in a cloud. After taking twenty minutes to recuperate, we started the climb back which our guide told us can be even more difficult then the ascent. He described a group of American girls who were so exhausted from the hike that they took eight hours just to get back to the hostel.

At least you'd have a nice view to pass the time.

Thankfully we were able to persevere and make it back in just three. During those three hours I ran into another two new birds. First was the almost impossible to identify Mountain Elaenia. This one took almost a year to successfully identify, and I wouldn’t have had any chance at id’ing it in the field. ::Robert’s Note:: This one was all me, though admittingly I had no idea when James first showed it to me. Experience with flycatchers, and Empidonax flycatchers in particular, made me realize this was a large-bodied, small-headed flycatcher – an Elaenia for sure, and the wing-bars make it a Mountain Elaenia.

::Robert's Note:: I don't want to gloat or anything, but... boo-yah!

The next bird was quite a bit easier to identify, with a pair Groove-billed Anis hanging out in the middle of Ometepe’s so-called “road”. 

Oh, to live in a country where anis are commonplace!

We finally arrived back at our hostel, and after a victory cigar, we headed to sleep, with the beach town of San Juan del Sur next in the Nicaragua itinerary.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ross's Goose, Take Two

After work this morning, I returned to the Stonewater ponds in order to refind the Ross’s Goose and hopefully nab some more face-time with this cool little bird. At first the pond was empty, but come almost 11am, a whole slew of geese barreled into the water, including the guy I was after. I followed him for a while, and he got pretty close, so enjoy the photo series below, and the video at the end. Hopefully this can settle once and for all whether or not he’s a hybrid or not (I vote not).

This pic really shows the extent of the 'grin patch', and it isn't much - in line with
juvenile Ross's Goose, which shows more 'grin' than adults do.

At this point he started to swim towards me, and I was like 'eh, I'll take it'.
Note the wrinkly skin at the base of the bill.

Just who the hell does this photographer think he is?!

View at Youtube for HD quality!

I’m going to head out there again this afternoon and try for some more shots in nice light, we’ll see how it goes but be prepared for another update!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

What's So Great About That Ross Guy, Anyway?

It’s odd, I think, that I should find myself in the exact same position as last week. A rare bird gets reported in the Jordan Lake area, but I can’t get to it because I’m at work. Such are the pains of the working birder. However, like last week, I was able to find the bird in question after trials and tribulations that I’m positive don’t plague most birders while they’re twitching (though they probably do).

A local birder found an odd goose on a little pond in her subdivision, and posted the photos to the forums. On the whole it looked every bit like a Ross’s Goose – right bill shape, small size, and, er, predominantly white. But it seemed to show a little too much grin, a trademark characteristic of its larger cousin, the Snow Goose. The bird merited further investigation if it returned the next day.

Sure enough, by the following morning, the bird returned its little pond, surrounded by the Canada Geese it associates with. Nate refound it first, and I texted Mark about the find right away, as he happened to be in the area. Both guys confirmed it in the field as a Ross’s Goose, and ordinarily I wouldn’t give chase (I do have three other Ross’s Geese in the state, after all), but the bird was just so darn close! It was my duty as a birder! Work, however, stood like a colossal mountain separating me from my quarry.

Once I got off work (finally), I made a bee-line for the subdivision, and luckily found the bird right away. Wait, that’s right, it never works like that for me. No, instead today was the day they decided to repave Highway 751 for literally the entire two-mile stretch between where I was and where I had to go. Cars lined up fifty deep waiting for a sole flagman to determine their fate. What should have been a five minute trip took fifteen, which was no good – this time yesterday, the Ross’s Goose flew off with its compatriots for roosts unknown.

After what seemed like an eternity, the subdivision pond was within my sight, and I could see the geese were still there. I saw a small group of birders down by the shore, and began towards them, but the paved path down to the pond lay longer than it seemed online (damn you Google Maps!), and I couldn’t seem to gain any ground. Suddenly, I saw a small white speck pick up out of the water and march its way onto the nearby grassy hillside (don’t fly, don’t fly!). As I neared, dodging jogger and baby stroller with a deftness I didn’t know I possessed, the goose began to feed (don’t fly, don’t fly!). Finally, I found myself next to Mark and Jennifer, the birder who’d found this amazing sighting to begin with. I steadied my camera (don’t fly, don’t fly!) and – there! Snapped the shot!

Small, with a rounded head and petite bill - that's the ticket!

Thankfully, the bird made its way towards the one patch of sun near the pond, but the evening light made exposing it difficult. It’s a juvenile bird, with a dusky head and a gray bill, nothing like the pink-and-blue bill you’ll find on an adult Ross’s Goose. Still, it’s the closest I’ve ever seen one of these guys. I edged a little closer, and the luckily the bird didn’t seem to mind, appearing intent on eating whatever grass it could chow down before leaving for the night. If only I could have spent a little more time with the bird, but despite the factors conspiring against me, I still managed this decent shot.

Easier than finding one amongst 30,000 Snow Geese... but more on that story later.

The moment couldn’t last, however. As I snapped my fifth and final shot, after only spending less than five minutes with the bird, I heard a loud bleat and watched as a large Canada Goose nipped at the Ross’s, who immediately took flight with a quick series of staccato honks. As it banked east, the bird passed from Wake County (where it had been lounging all day) to the nearby Chatham County, and disappeared behind houses and trees for parts unknown.

Like last week, I decided to sit down and research who this Ross guy was and why he deserved this cool little goose named after him. Turns out he was the chief mercantile at a remote post in the Northwest Territories of Canada, and like Franklin before him, he shot the bird and sent it to someone more knowledgeable, in this case John Cassin, aka the Finch/Sparrow/Vireo guy. I don’t particularly mind Ross’s Goose as a name for this bird (not sure why), plus I suppose that Some-Lonely-Canadian-Dude Goose doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Species Spotlight #8: Marsh Rabbit

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – one of my favorite parts about birding is discovering the non-avian aspects of nature while I’m in the field. As far back as I can remember, I grew up with Eastern Cottontails everywhere – in my backyard, in the park, on the side of the road. But little did I know that a second species of rabbit lived in my midst, in complete secrecy, and remained unbeknownst to me until just a couple years ago.

James and I decided to visit local birding site Mason Farm very early one morning in June, and as we traveled up the sun-drenched corridor, I spied a small dark rabbit in our path. Assuming cottontail, I put my binoculars up to my eyes and noticed an all-together different creature, with a stubby bulldog-esque muzzle and short, rounded ears. I’d heard these guys lived at Mason Farm, but I refused to believe it until I saw one. I called out to James – “Marsh Rabbit!” and he snapped the picture you see below.

Marsh Rabbit - Mason Farm, NC; 06/14/2010

We tried to get closer for a better shot, for as you can see the sun shone in our faces. However, just a couple steps closer and the rabbit bolted for a nearby canal. We searched for it, but the Marsh Rabbit had disappeared – apparently they’re not called Marsh Rabbits for nothing, and he’d jumped right into the water-filled canal and swum away. It’s one of the coolest sightings I’ve ever had, and a pretty good one – Mason Farm lies right on the western terminus of the Marsh Rabbit’s range, and is about as far inland as you can possibly find these guys. It’s not the first time I’ve had a surprise mammal sighting like this, and by all accounts it won’t be the last.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Birding Bros Go International! #23-26: Granada, Nicaragua

Hard to believe we've come this far, but after 22 installments of our bird photos, we've gotten to James's Nicaragua trip. Man, he saw some great birds there, so enjoy reading the account of his first day in Nicaragua below!

After a sixteen-hour roadtrip, including a rather misguided detour to Atlanta, we arrived in Fort Lauderdale, and following a short three-hour flight we'd landed in Nicaragua. The only international airport is in the capital of Managua, a city with an infamous reputation (I heard that you have to walk around with a baseball bat during the day). This drove us to the far safer nearby city of Granada, a city famous for a magnificent cathedral situated right on the main square.

Editor's Note: Am I the only one who notices the guy with the ice cream cart?

While we were only in Granada for a total of a day, the fairly urban environment yielded four life birds. The first bird I ran into was a Tropical Kingbird. These little guys frequented the power lines around the city, and if I recall correctly this particular individual situated himself across the street from the main cathedral.

Tropical Kingbird - Granada, Nicaragua; 07/08/2010

The next stop in our trek through Nicaragua was the Isla de Ometepe (famous for its twin massive volcanoes). This meant a ferry across Lake Nicaragua, which necessitated waiting at the ferry terminal. While waiting I noticed a small reddish bird in the path, and though he didn’t stick around very long I still got a good look at this nice Ruddy Ground-Dove.

Editor's Note: Insanely jealous of this one! Wasn't the first, and won't be the last.

I then noticed a parakeet hanging out in a palm tree, and after much deliberation (and consulting with the international birding site Robert and I decided that it was in fact a tiny Orange-chinned Parakeet.

Relevant field marks include the rusty coloration on the wings and, er, the orange chin.

After these three lifers we headed through the lax security and boarded the small “ferry”. I leaned over the rail and noticed a juvenile Mangrove Swallow was hanging out on the top of the boat, and luckily he decided to strike a couple of poses.

Apparently he wants to be fed!

With that, the ferry jolted forward, and we embarked on a four-hour trek across one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. Tune in next time for the report from Isla de Ometepe!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

What's So Great About That Franklin Guy, Anyway?

In order to be successful in today’s birding world, it’s important to be wired at all times. If you’re able, you can receive eBird alerts or listserv emails while you’re in the field and immediately twitch the rare birds in question. If you don’t have an iPhone or other smart device, you won’t even realize you’ve missed a life bird while you’re out birding. Or, in my case, while you’re at work, which is where I was when a would-be lifer Franklin’s Gull was reported from a random causeway over Jordan Lake.

When I got home and read that email on the local listserv, I thought I was screwed. No way would a Franklin’s Gull be anything but a one-day wonder, but I had to try. After a sleep-deprived night and early-morning shift at work, I made my way over to the causeway, and sure enough a bunch of gulls lounged around on a little jetty in the morning sun. Unfortunately, as I fumbled for my scope, a pair of kayakers decided to make a bee-line for the gulls, and as they neared the entire flock alighted. Whether or not the Franklin’s was present in the flock pre-kayakers, I’m not sure, all I am sure of is that when the flock finally settled down, my target gull was nowhere to be found. I did find a trio of juvenile Laughing Gulls and a previously-reported Sanderling, both pretty good birds for the area. If they stuck around, I remained confident the Franklin’s must be around as well, so I waited. There were other birds around to occupy my time, like these Black Vultures that would fly so close you could hear their feathers rustling!

Instead, here's a much more mundane pic of them standing around.

Periodically I would check the spit, just to see if my bird had shown up. No luck yet, but the water level began to drop, and the sandbar began to elongate. Gulls came and went, mostly Ring-billed Gulls, but also some more interesting birds, like a nice Common Tern, a good bird in the Piedmont at any time, especially so as the weather begins to grow cold around here. The trees surrounding the causeway were full of warblers, but as far as I could tell, the vast majority of them were Blackpoll Warblers, an insanely common bird at the right time of the year.

Naturally, he would jump into the light every time I put away my camera.

I watched the Blackpolls flit between that little grove of trees so many times, I now have a pretty good idea what a Blackpoll Warbler flight call sounds like. It’s important to check all the birds though, or I would’ve missed a nice flyover Peregrine Falcon earlier in the morning, or a pair of Ospreys that soared over the middle of the lake. As such, perusing the warblers finally turned up something different, a little bird with inky streaks down its sides, and a nice little pattern in the face – my first good look at a Cape May Warbler this fall.

A vast improvement over our old Cape May Warbler shot.

Suddenly, I heard an odd squawk over by the expanding sandbar. The birds were all in the air again, apparently because a pair of Caspian Terns had swooped in to cause a little trouble. Noting a little Forster’s Tern flitting around the newcomers, I noticed a smaller gull, oddly pale and with a weird mask on its face. Even without my binoculars, I knew I had finally found my bird – my lifer Franklin’s Gull had arrived!

Great success!!! Very nice, how much?! (*insert Borat quote here*!)

Immediately I was on my cell phone, texting fellow birders I knew were in the area. Lounging next to its Laughing brethren, the Franklin’s Gull was a remarkably distinct bird. It’s kind of fat, with a little round head and a tiny bill, not to mention the thick eye-arcs and white diamonds on its primaries. When it ruffled its feathers, you could even see the tail band that’s way narrower than a Laughing’s, and terminating at a pair of white outer tail feathers. Maybe if it had been alone, I would have done a double-take, but together with all the other birds, there’s no mistaking this amazing bird.

It'd walk around, swim, etc, but would not fly so we could see the tail pattern!

Other birders started showing up, hopefully because my texts had gotten through to the guys hanging out at Ebenezer point. We all marveled at the bird, surprised that it had stuck around, congratulating each other on the life, state, county, and at least year bird. On my way home, I found myself wondering who the hell the Franklin’s Gull was named for, and what he had done to deserve such an honorific. Turns out he was a British dude who tried to sail for the Northwest Passage in the mid-1800s, a fool’s errand that ended up killing him. But during some of his early expeditions, he was the first guy to take a specimen of Franklin’s Gull, which he gave to a naturalist to scientifically describe.

What's cooler than a Laughing Gull? ICE COLD! Also, Franklin's Gull.

I guess doing all that deserves getting your own bird. Still, such a mundane name as Franklin’s Gull doesn’t really capture the beauty, subtlety, and presence of the bird I viewed today on a random spit off of a random bridge over Jordan Lake. Perhaps Guy-That-Discovered-Me-Died-of-Hypothermia-in-the-High-Arctic Gull would be more fitting. At the very least, it can’t be less fitting.

I guess Maybe-Got-Cannabalized-By-His-Crew Gull didn't make the cut.

Oh, by the way James – if you’re reading this from college, I borrowed the camera you left behind to get pics of the gull. Sorry, bro! Thanks for letting me get these pics!

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Bros Are Back In Town!

Guess who just got back today? That wild-eyed brother that’d been away. Hadn’t changed, hadn’t much to say, but if those bros wanna bird you better let ‘em!

But that’s all beside the point. What’s not beside the point, however, is that James finally got around to having his Fall Break from college, and that means we had to head out birding! I decided on Falls Lake, a decent enough place for warblers and shorebirds when they’re in season, but unfortunately we were a bit on the late side of migration. Still, upon arriving at the Hickory Hills Boat Ramp, a flock of warblers flitted in and out of the willows along the shore of the lake, illuminated by the morning sun. There were handsome breeding-plumaged warblers like this nice Black-throated Blue Warbler

Ever since I saw my first one, this has remained one of my absolute favorite birds!

…And, of course, those hallowed confusing fall warblers, like this yellow in the front, white in the back, pale legged, female-type bird. Eh, ordinarily these are hard birds to parse out, but luckily I’d been studying. I immediately pegged this one as a Blackpoll Warbler, even at fifty feet. Not to brag or anything!

Like a boss!

Next we headed across the lake and took the long march out to the mudflats south of Will Suitt Rd. Yeah, it was late, and so the mudflats were empty, but the journey made it totally worth it! Right away, James spotted a pair of birds in the middle of a little bay, and they turned out to be a Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, which proceeded to line up and provide a sweet comparison shot.

I can't believe I ever thought this species pair made for a tough ID...

Lesser Yellowlegs turned out to be one of the most common birds of the day. Rounding a small peninsula, we found a small group of Killdeer that thankfully bailed without flushing this very confiding Lesser Yellowlegs which kept on feeding as James inched closer. I don’t think it would have flown off even if James ran into the water shouting and arms flailing, but nevertheless, we had to leave it be and continue on our journey.

When it comes to bird photography, there's no such thing as too close.

Our next bird, I feel, is one of the perks of birding in the Piedmont of North Carolina. Making a shortcut through a small grove, James and I came upon a beautiful Red-headed Woodpecker foraging low among the trees. Apparently it was collecting acorns and hoarding them for later, a behavior I’ve only seen in Acorn Woodpeckers out west, but I suppose there’s no reason the Red-headeds can’t do it too!

Merely the third closest I've ever been to one of these guys!

After making it to the flats and striking out on everything except the seemingly enumerable Palm Warblers that now inhabit the low sedges, we set out for that old standby, Ellerbe Creek. Much like Will Suitt, the Ellerbe flats were devoid of any shorebirds, save for a pair of Killdeer that screeched and flushed when a Northern Harrier made a low flyby over the grass. Making our way back, we ran into yet another warbler flock, with more Black-throated Blues, a Black-throated Green or two, and a couple of Northern Parulas.

It’d been a good day, but nothing fantastic – a few replacement shots, but nothing to write home about. So we decided to cross the old railroad bridge just to see what was out there, and upon doing so we ran into our only substantial shorebird flock of the day. Almost ten Stilt Sandpipers and a lone Lesser Yellowlegs foraged along the edge of a small pond. It’s a species that James has seen just once, and one I really can’t get enough of, so it was nice to see them at such a close distance.

Great sandpiper, or the greatest sandpiper?

And that was it. The next few days were cloudy, and James had to go back to school before we could back into the field again.

But that sparrow in the bushes is blasting out my favorite song. The nights are getting colder, it won’t be long… won’t be long ‘til winter comes, and the bros are back in town again!