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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving Is For The Birds

Ordinarily Thanksgiving would be a day to sleep in, relax, and perhaps take in a televised parade (I swear they didn’t lip sync when I was a kid, or am I imagining things?). But when James is only in town for a couple of days and my work schedule is pretty hectic, Thanksgiving is thankfully the perfect day to go birding.

In the hopes of nabbing James a couple of lifers, we headed down towards Jordan Lake. Come January, the cold nights of deep winter will draw thousands of gulls and scores of ducks to Ebenezer Point, but the relatively balmy weather suggested perhaps we arrived too early for this natural onslaught. While the lake itself looked pretty empty, I could still pick out a small raft of Redheads on the far side, with a lone female Red-breasted Merganser lounging around in the middle. Both of these were lifers for James, and though the photos are barely identifiable, this pair of Bald Eagles put on more than enough of a consolation show for us!

A picture really can't capture the majesty of seeing them in person!

While the mid-20th century may have been hard on these birds, I’m thankful to live in a time when a trip to Jordan Lake is guaranteed to land you at least one of these majestic eagles (only, we saw five!). But the sun shone low on the horizon, the day was young! We stopped by a couple of containment ponds nearby to the Point. Mostly there’s nothing special, the ubiquitous sparrows and juncos abounding in the fields. But for some reason, Bufflehead seem to gather in these man-made ponds in sizeable flocks, and today was no exception. Oddly enough, they seemed fine with James sneaking up to the chain-link fence and snapping these shots until he turned his back and left – only then did they flush!

Come on Bufflehead, get your head in the game!

However, turkey and football beckoned, so our Thanksgiving Day birding came to an end. Of course, the next day was Black Friday, and while shoppers flocked to the malls, we flocked to the birds! We had planned on visiting Stagecoach Road to try for some owls, but the sight of camouflaged men sporting blaze-orange caps and scoped rifles made us rethink this plan and instead head for the old standby of Mason Farm. Almost immediately after entering the canal area, I spotted an odd bird high up in a tree – an absolutely unmistakable Fox Sparrow, my first of the year and a bird I see all too infrequently. Unfortunately, he seemed content with the very tops of those trees, or with some low, thick scrub, and never ventured anywhere in between. While it’s the best photo of a Fox Sparrow we have, it still leaves much to be desired!

Ironically, it showed up close and out in the open... when we both had our backs turned!

After we gave up on the sparrow, almost as if on cue, a large flock of blackbirds descended upon the low trees near the canal. Some of them were undeniably large Common Grackles, shouting cacophonous phrases from their tree-top perch. But among the din we could hear another noise, the characteristic squeaky door hinge of a Rusty Blackbird. We’d seen Rusties here last time we visited, but these guys took it to a whole new level – the flock contained at least thirty-five of these endangered blackbirds, and several of the nicer looking males took the time to sing that weirdly mechanical song of theirs. One of the males did not care at all as James inched closer to photograph him, much to our enjoyment.

This brings the winter's total up to 77... not that it's a competition or anything. (It is.)

James and I walked the rest of the trail, but we couldn’t find much more bird action, so we left to cruise the open fields and farms of Dairyland Road. We first stopped at the legendary Anilorac Farms, the site of those nesting Scissor-tailed Flycatchers from earlier this summer. However, huge tractors plowed the fields as we arrived, and we couldn’t find any of the hoped for birds. The fresh furrows should prove fruitful for American Pipits in the near future, but at the time the only bird we found was this juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk perched on a nearby telephone pole. We’ve gotten notoriously bad shots of raptors in the past, but this one stuck around as James deftly maneuvered himself into position.

Why can't all raptors be this cooperative?

We had only one site left on our unofficial itinerary, a small back road with a couple of hedgerows along its edges. Sure, the large flocks of Eastern Meadowlarks were nice to see, but normally it wouldn’t be anything to write home about. However, this random spot is the only place I can guarantee myself a White-crowned Sparrow every winter – and today was no exception. As I neared a crepe myrtle, two birds flushed across the road, and in the perfect afternoon light I could clearly see their namesake snow-white crowns. After a spot of playback, one of them flushed to the top of the bush to get a better view, and gave us our best photograph ever of these amazing little birds.

Awesome sparrow, or the awesomest sparrow?

Normally White-crowned Sparrows are extremely uncommon in the Piedmont of North Carolina, but around these hedgerows we found at least eight or ten, including a nice singing individual. After slaking our thirst with amazing views, we headed home quite content with what we’d found. Sure we never got to search for those owls we were hoping for, but between a Rufous Hummingbird, a couple close-up Bald Eagles, and incredibly satisfying point-blank looks at those White-crowneds, this turned into an amazing Thanksgiving weekend full of the best kind of birding – birding with my brother.


  1. Great report, Robert. I'm really liking the immature Red-shouldered hawk, Rusty Blackbird, and Fox Sparrow photos. Hope you guys had a good Thanksgiving!

  2. @Maddy - Thanks, yeah, the birding around Thanksgiving was pretty awesome. I'm actually super surprised how close we got to that Rusty - it just didn't want to leave!

  3. @jill - Thanks! Wish I could take credit for them, but James took all the photos in this post.