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Thursday, December 22, 2011

'Twas the First Count of Christmas...

In all honesty, I’ve inherited pretty much the coolest spot on any Triangle-area CBC. For the last couple winters, I’ve been able to count the mudflats that form on the northern arms of Falls Lake in the latter half of the year, an area which probably hasn’t been covered fully in the past. But it’s my spot now, and I love it – not just for the unique winter birds, but also perhaps for the solitude I can find amongst the vast expanse of mud and grass.

As I’ve mentioned before, venturing out onto the flats themselves takes some effort – there’s a half-mile hike down railroad tracks before traversing a steep rock flow, but after taking the trip so many times, I’ve learned which rocks are loose and which are stable, which helps in, you know, not breaking my neck. The flats themselves are pretty devoid of birds, save for a few Savannah Sparrows that’ll pop out of the sedges in front of you, but if you find a flock of birds, man you’re in business! Pretty soon, I found the shorebirds that make this place special – a wintering flock of six dozen Least Sandpipers suddenly burst into view following a cadre of flushed Killdeer. It’s a species that’s extremely hard to find within the count circle, but given proper habitat, they will stick around during the colder months. 

However, that day James and I had a second quarry in mind. Traveling farther down the flats, I could hear a high-pitched double whistle, and before long we spooked them – a large flock of American Pipits flushed from in front of us, and instead of flying away from the large, annoying humans, they flew right towards us! Pretty soon James and I were consumed by birds zipping between us and low over our heads, swerving and dodging to avoid the two humanoid obstacles in their way. Several of the birds landed in a nearby tree, and as one of the birds made its way up a branch, bobbing its tail the whole time, I was struck by how odd it was to see them perched and so high off the ground.

Check out those ridiculously long hind claws! All the better for perching with, I suppose.

Having made our way to the end of the peninsula, I could see a large flock of gulls congregating about a half mile from us. Most of them were Ring-billed Gulls, but I could clearly see a couple large Herring Gulls mixed in. Like any good CBC counter, I had to get a closer look, so we headed back to make our way to the far mudflats. On the way, however, I found myself distracted by a reedy whistle. Immediately I recognized it as a Golden-crowned Kinglet, a bird that’s common enough around here, yet one I can never get a good look at. So, I decided to try a little playback, which will attract the ire of any nearby Ruby-crowned almost immediately yet never seems to work on their gilded brethren. A couple seconds later though, a small bird landed on the isolated tree in front of us, then a second, and a third. The Golden-crowned Kinglets had shown up in force, and I thoroughly enjoyed my amazing views of these tiny little birds with their unfathomably neon orange crests.

Golden-crowned - great Kinglet, or the greatest Kinglet?

Continuing along the railroad tracks, James and I came upon few species, chief among them being a couple Hooded Mergansers and a very special Fox Sparrow (more on that later). Upon reaching the far flats, however, we were greeted to the sight of a large flock of Northern Shoveler flushing from in front of us, with a few Bonaparte’s Gulls mixed in for a little flavor. The gulls gave their odd hollow screech as they kited on the strong winds towards the main gull flock. Setting myself up on a close peninsula, I made an effort to count and identify every gull there. Most were Ring-billeds as I’d surmised, and sure enough there were a couple Herrings mixed in. But one gull had a dusky head, and a darker mantle than these two species should show, plus size-wise it lay halfway between the more expected species. I’d found a Lesser Black-backed Gull, a bird that’s seen only a couple CBC's a decade around here, and probably our best bird of the day.

It's the gull in the middle. No, the other gull in the middle. No, the other gull in the middle!

That’s as far as the flats got however. Now having nothing but water between us and the interstate, we turned back only to find our flock of Northern Shovelers had nestled itself into the cove we’d just passed to get to the gulls. Most of the birds were females, but there were more than a few smart-looking drakes to be had, their golden eyes showing bright against their dark green head. Obviously, it would have been nicer to get closer to these birds, but it’s hard to stay mad at a flock that flushes because it’s shot at every day of the week except Sunday. If hunters had seen the shovelers as we had, they would have had point-blank shots at the birds peacefully foraging along the shallow shoreline. Instead, we merely enjoyed.

Every day I'm shovelin'...

The gull and ducks could have been the high point of the count for us, but not so. I decided to scope one final arm of the lake before heading home, and as James tried to photograph some cormorants, I heard a distinct “Woah!” emanate from his direction. Assuming it was a cool bird, I turned towards him, only to hear something crashing through the underbrush, panting and snarling the whole way. I prepared to give some hunter a piece of my mind, telling him he can’t be hunting on Sundays, and he should probably train his dog better than to jump on people. But then the thing hurtled in my direction, almost running headlong into me, before swerving at the last moment and leaping with surprising ease over a tall log. Mid-jump, I could see the rufous tinges to a silver body, and immediately I knew I’d just been less than two feet from a magnificent Gray Fox. It's the first Gray Fox I’ve ever seen in the Triangle, and unless something seriously changes the psyche of foxes, it’s the closest I’ll ever get to one. At the end of a long day of Christmas Bird Counting, the birds proved more than memorable – but perhaps somewhat ironically, the Gray Fox will always be that thing I remember best.

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