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Monday, November 7, 2011

To Twitch, or Not To Twitch?

Every once in a while, I get this urge. It usually happens when I’ve just settled down, started to relax, and because why the hell not, checked the local listserv, just to see. That’s when I notice a rare bird report from my area, and immediately I must give chase. This happened most recently with that Ross’s Goose that showed up in Cary recently – I didn’t need the bird for my state list, and I don’t particularly care about my Wake (and subsequently, Chatham) list, but I had to get down there to see that awesome bird. However, when something rare, say, a Tundra Swan, gets reported from my home turf of Durham, that urge turns into a need. A need for speed!

Unfortunately the bird was reported in the late afternoon, so I couldn’t race out to chase it until the following morning. A quick check of the Hickory Hills Boat Ramp on Falls Lake revealed a solid thousand Double-crested Cormorants, and some nice rafts of Gadwall and Ruddy Ducks, but not that magnificent bird I’d been hoping for. So, I decided to check out nearby Ellerbe Creek, whose mudflats still house shorebirds not yet wanting to head for climes further south. As I walked along the railroad grade, I heard a series of low chips emanating from the swamp to my left. That’s when I saw a flock of blackbirds hanging on an old leafless tree – Red-winged Blackbirds, as is to be expected, but also a good number of the overwintering and much more uncommon Rusty Blackbirds.

This was actually one of the more sizeable Rusty Blackbird flocks I've seen in recent years.

If the reappearance of Rusty Blackbirds doesn’t signal the start of winter, I’m not sure what does. These awesome brown-and-blackbirds have undergone a serious population decline recently, with somewhere between 85-98% of the birds disappearing over the past couple decades. As far as I know, nobody’s quite sure why, but it may have something to do with loss of breeding habitat in their northerly summering range. In any case, I’m glad I still get to see them down here every year, and lucky for me a nice rusty-looking female decided to hop up in the tree nearest to me – probably my closest ever look at a Rusty Blackbird!

I'll just come out and say it - one of the few species where the females are cooler than the males!

Heading down to the flats, I met fellow birder Nick Flanders scoping shorebirds from the far peninsula. The number of birds out there surprised me – several hundred peeps, mostly Least Sandpipers, plus decent numbers of Pectoral Sandpipers and both Yellowlegs. Almost more interesting were the American Pipits feeding intermittingly amongst the shorebirds, almost like they were honorary members of the sandpipers’ little mudflat club. Nick told me he had a relatively uncommon (and very late) White-rumped Sandpiper among the shorebirds, and as I neared, one of the pipits decided to land right in front of me and feed along the water's edge – and I was all too happy to snap this shot!

These guys were flying all over the place, making it very difficult to get an accurate count.

After enjoying the pipit I turned my attention back to the sandpiper at hand. As I crept closer to the feeding flock the mud grew deeper, and I began to sink. Not good at all, especially as the White-rumped Sandpiper decided to take this opportunity to stop preening and start edging towards the far end of the pond. Eventually I reached the water’s edge, and had to snap a shot no matter how distant. It’s frustrating to have to photograph like this, but hey, at least I got to photograph a White-rumped Sandpiper for the first time ever!

So it's one of my worst pics I've ever taken. Doesn't matter. Had White-rumped.

On the way back, I pointed out to Nick a couple of wriggling shapes in one of the ponds. They turned out to be Common Carp, and as the water level continued to fall in the now-isolated pond, the large fish had nowhere to go. I’d feel sorry for them, but the carp are a major invasive species around here, and if there’s an easy way to rid the lake of a couple dozen, I’m all for it.

This pic represents only a fraction of the fish struggling to survive in the shrinking pool.

Plus, turns out the shallow-swimming carp make for easy pickin’s! Nick and I met Scott (they guy who found the no-show swan) atop the railroad grade, and as we discussed our findings for the day a pair of immature Bald Eagles began to circle closer and closer to the fishy bonanza. I didn’t see the attack occur, but the next thing I know one of the Bald Eagles had a carp in its talons and started to rip into the fish while sitting in the nearby sedges.

And then he flew off after being mobbed by a bunch of crows.

We checked Hickory Hills one last time, and just to be safe scoped the Cheek Road causeway, but even with an extra pair of eyes courtesy Nate from The Drinking Bird, the swan remained unseen – but I don’t regret it for a minute. Sure it would’ve been nice to get the bird, but at least the wayward swan got me out to Falls Lake so I could check out rusties and pipits and eagles – any day I can mention those birds in the same sentence is a winner in my book! 

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