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Friday, November 23, 2012

A Special Broccasion

Thanks to President Franklin D. Roosevelt somewhat arbitrarily assigning Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday in November, James was able to come home during his break. We decided to celebrate the occasion by trying to find James his lifer Iceland Gull on Falls Lake. Though I’d seen it a couple days earlier, we were unable to relocate this bird amongst the large flock of gulls and cormorants. Instead, we made do with a trio of immature Bald Eagles that graciously circled overhead.

There was also a fourth-year individual that was starting to grow in its white head and tail.
That’s when James noticed something white high up in the clouds. I assumed it was a gull, but after getting it in my scope, I was surprised to see an American White Pelican riding the very thermals the eagles were enjoying. It’s another bird I’d seen recently at the location, but because the bird hadn’t been reported in days, I thought it’d left. We watched as a small Cessna from the nearby airfield appeared to come dangerously close to the large bird, though I’m sure it was an optical illusion. Still not something you see everyday around here!

Honestly, from this distance, the pelican looked as big as the Cessna!

Because he had a couple days left in town, we decided to hit up our old standby of Mason Farm, where we can always expect good birding. We weren’t disappointed – as soon as I stepped out of the car, I heard the perky chirps of a flock of Pine Siskins. This is supposed to be a great winter for irruptive finches, and though we haven’t heard hide or feather of grosbeaks and crossbills, seeing the siskins again is good enough for me.

I never get tired of hearing their rip-cord calls. Look forward to it every winter!

But the finch party didn’t stop there – we spotted a couple of Purple Finches along the old canal. While one of them was clearly a female, the other had flecks and hues of raspberry coloring in its plumage, like it had just bathed in a puddle of red wine. Either it’s a young male just starting to attain his adult feathers, or it’s an extremely mature female individual. The former is probably more likely, but either way we only got a good shot of the undeniably female bird.

I honestly don't get to see a whole lot of Purple Finches - this is by far my best view ever.

Along the fields, we noticed large flocks of Field Sparrows moving through the hedges. Normally a pretty skittish species, several of the birds popped into an open view, even responding to some tapes, something I’m not used to with this species in winter. We got such good looks that I was able to appreciate the subtle plumage of these tiny birds, complete with their bubblegum pink bills and their wide white eye-rings. These have got to be the one of the most adorable birds in the state!

Except for maybe Winter Wrens - they might take the cake in the cuteness category.

Not to be outdone, a nearby Northern Mockingbird stopped skulking in one of the bushes and perched out in the open. James froze because he was quite close to the bird, easily within five feet. He tried to take a picture, but against all odds, the mockingbird moved even closer to him. The bird ended up within the camera’s minimum focal distance, so James actually had to step back to take the shot you see below. But oh what a shot!

You can see every damn feather on this bad boy, from it's slightly-worn primaries to the bristles 'round it's bill!

Now when we showed up to Mason Farm, it was cold. Not like real cold, but certainly North Carolina cold – somewhere in the high forties or so. James and I both had our sweatshirts on, and I even opted to wear gloves. Even the birds seemed to be feeling it, some of them puffing up their feathers to retain heat. So herping was the last thing on my mind, but even so, James and I decided to flip our “Magic Snake Log” (actually a 6x6 wooden beam) to try our luck. And sure enough…

This is the third species of snake we've found under "Magic Snake Log" - it's living up to its reputation!

This small Eastern Garter Snake lay underneath, curled up against the winter weather. When I picked him up, he was quite cold, a tribute to their ectothermic habits. While I held and posed him, the exquisite snake started to warm up, even taking a strike at me. This is the garter snake I know, a cantankerous musking snake that doesn’t like to be held. But when the temperatures are this low, snakes don’t really have much of a choice. So I’ll choose to enjoy calm garter snakes and confiding birds for as long as I can – however long that may last.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

#55: Bushtit - Famosa Slough, CA

Before I headed out to California during the summer of 2010, I had a short-list of birds I wanted to see. On that list was the miniscule Bushtit, the only North American representative of the largely Eurasian family called Aegithalidae, or the long-tailed tits. I looked forward to seeing these birds all summer, but when I arrived in San Diego, I was surprised to that they were one of the first birds I saw.

Bushtits are wholly unique among North American birds. For one, they fly in tightly-knit flocks numbering between 20-40 birds, moving through low shrubs and bushes even in suburban habitat. I say “flock”, but these birds skillfully move between dense branches, flitting in and out more like a swarm of flies over roadkill. Additionally, the sexes look quite similar except for one key difference: female Bushtits have light-colored eyes, while those of the male are pure black, like shark’s eyes.

Which would make this one a male Bushtit.

During our time in San Diego, James and I found that Bushtits are particularly responsive to taped calls. Merely playing the tape in their general vicinity would lead to a swarm of these tiny birds in the nearest shrub. As such, we had fantastic views of these birds at close range, and got equally fantastic photos. I can’t wait til I can head out that way again, and get to enjoy these birds in all their miniscule glory.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Spanish Bird of the Week #14: Sardinian Warbler

By James

Previously, I’ve mentioned why I enjoy bird photography so much. The challenge, the frequent failure and the eventual rewards all make it an incredibly enjoyable hobby. A fortuitous byproduct of photography is that is really helps out with identification. This doesn’t happen as often anymore, but when I was a traveling novice birder, I would often identify birds by scrutinizing the photos on my computer. Usually I have my hunches and am able to confirm them in the field, but from time to time I completely misidentify a bird.

For instance, I have no real memory of seeing my lifer Purple Finch. Robert and I made a stop at Dairyland Road two winters ago to look for White-crowned Sparrows. I snapped a picture of a bird that I must have written off as a House Finch at the time, but when I got back to the computer I saw the picture and realized I had made a mistake. But hey – free lifer!

Upon further review - much more different!

An even more unusual situation is when I have a similar realization while viewing my photos on the computer, but it comes months or even years after I snap the picture. This has taken place only twice: once in Nicaragua with an Orange-chinned Parakeet (which I originally assumed was a more common Crimson-fronted Parakeet) and once in the mountain town of Ronda in Spain where I got my lifer Sardinian Warbler.

To be fair, it would have been easier to ID if we had a good Nicaragua bird guide.

Fortunately I have a much clearer memory of finding the Sardinian Warbler than the Purple Finch or the parakeet. The town of Ronda has one major tourist attraction – a gigantic stone bridge spanning a chasm nearly 400 feet deep. I was hiking down into said chasm and, of course, birding along the way. Spring was right around the corner, which meant the birds were quite active, and I ran into European Goldfinches, Red-billed Choughs and a Common Raven.

Looks like something out of Lord of the Rings!

I came around a bend and saw this small black bird sitting on a branch. Unfortunately I only got one shot of the back of the bird, hiding (for the most part) the bright red eye ring that would have been a dead give away. I assumed it was one the very common Blackcaps, which is a pretty embarrassing misidentification as there would be no white throat, and the back would be grey.

A lifer is a lifer!

That remained my identification until last July, almost a year and a half after the picture was taken, when a random bout of nostalgia led me to flip through some of the pictures from my semester abroad. After gaining more experience with Blackcaps during the course of my stay, I instantly realized I had made a mistake in my first month of Spanish birding and that I’d actually seen a Sardinian Warbler! And that is why I will continue to take pictures first and ask questions later… even if it’s sometimes much later.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Scouting for Scoters

For the past few days, a Surf Scoter has been reported on and off from the Hickory Hills Boat Ramp on Falls Lake. This part of the lake falling in Durham, I needed the bird for my county list, and headed out yesterday morning to chase it. Unfortunately, after about an hour of scanning the lake, I packed up and left. No way was this scoter still around, I thought. The lake seemed totally devoid of birds! Later that same day, however, the bird was refound.

So today I tried again, this time opting to check the lake later in the afternoon, when the light was better. But after another hour, still no luck. A local fisherman looked intrigued by my scope setup, so I showed him a flock of cormorants roosting a half mile away near the interstate. He was pretty impressed. My first Pine Siskin of the winter flew over and I told him how I identified the bird by its flight call. That started a conversation about all the birds you could find on the lake, and I pointed out crows, egrets, and herons. I was starting to explain ways you could identify birds by flight when I saw an odd dark bird rocket into a nearby cove. It wasn’t elongate like a cormorant, but more like a football with wings. I swung my scope over and sure enough – Surf Scoter!

I showed the fisherman, and although he was still impressed by the optical range of my scope, he was less impressed by the dingy first-year bird in front of him. A birder’s bird I guess. I raced down the clay hillside and made my way towards the cove, but got stopped a hundred feet away when the route became impassable. Still, I was close enough to snap a couple pics of the bird foraging along lake’s edge. It’s not as pretty as the clown-faced males I can find along the coast, but it’s good enough for Durham county bird #214!

On my way back I stopped by the artificial wetland were I’d gotten my 213th county bird earlier this week. Sure enough the American Bittern was sitting just in front of the bird blind, neck outstretched as a form of camouflage. Clearly the bittern thought it was doing a good job, because it barely flinched as I sat there photographing it!

Eventually the bittern got bored, or hungry, or some combination of the two, and started making its way around the wetland, doing this odd kind of shuffle with its feet, presumably to scare up a meal. I watched it spear at crayfish and frogs, as a school of tiny minnows tried to flee from its gigantic feet. I’ve never seen a bittern this active, it’s a heck of an experience. But don’t take my word for it: check out the video!

So it’s been a good week. Two awesome county birds, some early winter visitors, and absolutely beautiful weather. If this is how the vagrant season is shaping up and it’s only October, it’s gonna be one hell of a winter! 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Goes Down Easy Like Vermouth and Bitterns

When you’ve found over 200 birds in your county, it becomes difficult to add ticks to your county list. One of the birds I’ve been dreading is the American Bittern because it usually involves waking up before dawn in early Spring and heading out to rural Durham county, just hoping you’ll flush one from the local waterfowl impoundments. So when I heard that same bittern could be found at a spot that’s been one of my birding haunts since I first took up the activity, I jumped at the opportunity.

I got off work late and raced over to the running trails that lay alongside the Washington-Duke golf course. The gravel parking lots were full, so I ended up starting my journey from the neighborhood that I grew up in – a little far away for my comfort, given how quickly the sun was descending in the sky. I was afraid that it would be too dark to photograph the bird were it still present, so I decided to do something I’ve not done in a long time – I ran.

Out of breath, I paused on the bridge that stretched across the artificial wetland. I put my binoculars up to my face, and I saw it. The American Bittern was a couple hundred feet away, motionless in front of a wooden walkway. I had my county bird, but I wanted more. So I ran over to the walkway, tiptoeing once I got there so I wouldn’t frighten the bird. I looked out of the viewing platform and… I couldn’t find it.

Frantically I searched. I’d just seen it, I know I had. There’s the little peninsula of pond weed I saw from the bridge, a couple of willows, the creek. The bittern was nowhere to be seen. I casually glanced to my right, and immediately realized my mistake. I’d been looking about twenty feet too far away. The American Bittern stood just six feet off the viewing platform, looking right at me. I pulled out my camera, but couldn’t see through the viewfinder because my glasses were fogged up from all the running. With a little effort, I managed the one decent shot you see below.

The bittern was actually too close for my camera to focus. I had to zoom out a ways just to fit it in the frame, and that still equated to just a head-shot of the bird. The bird seemed to acknowledge my presence, and started walking out into the marsh. Frogs and fish jumped out from in front of its feet, but the bittern had fed enough that day and ignored the potential meal. Then it stopped and stared at me, almost motionless.

There we were, one awesome county bird and one out-of-breath birder. For as much as I’d been dreading picking up an American Bittern for Durham county, I was glad to have such an easy tick in front of me. My glasses finally stopped fogging up, and I was able to glimpse the bird through my binoculars, enjoying the subtle shades of its feathering, the same colors that made it invisible to me not five minutes before. Though it’s not likely, I hope the bird stays around all winter. Eventually I’ll get a chance to head out in the morning when the light is better and fully photograph this wonderful creature. But until then, I’m left with a feeling of relief and county bird #213. And man it feels good!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Brace Yourselves...

Winter is coming. I first noticed when I got out of my car in the Mason Farm parking lot. The air was cool and crisp, with a clear blue sky overhead. A flock of Cedar Waxwings flew in the trees above the creek, and my first White-throated Sparrows of the season chipped away in the brambles. The whole place was surprisingly birdy, perhaps because everything was trying to fatten up before it got really cold.

I never give up the opportunity to watch a confiding bird, even one so common as a Mockingbird.

While the winter birds began trickling in, the migrants were trickling out. At first we couldn’t find any real migrants, and instead contented ourselves with a lagging flock of Palm Warblers that flitted through a field of Queen Anne’s lace, picking at chaff and working its way along the tree line.

If only they'd let themselves be photographed, but as with all warblers, easier said than done.

Most surprising were the stragglers, those summer birds that haven’t yet made their way south. Among the vocal Yellow-rumped Warblers, we found breeding birds like Red-eyed Vireo, Indigo Bunting, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. It’s hard to imagine seeing birds like this on a day when the temperature dips in the 50s – I’m used to seeing them in weather more than 30 degrees warmer! After picking through tons of these birds, we finally began to see our promised migrants, highlighted by a pair of Black-throated Blue Warblers that foraged right in front of us.

No picture can do this fantastic bird justice. What a treat!

As we continued along the trail, I heard the loud, sharp notes that signaled a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers up ahead. As we reached the forested area, I saw a bird fly to the right, and immediately had it in my binocs. One of the woodpeckers was making its way up the tree. I’ve always liked Hairy Woodpeckers because, despite looking extremely similar to Downy Woodpeckers in field guides, they’re immediately distinguishable in the field thanks to their size. James snapped a couple pics in the general area, and pointed out to me an odd bird, which perhaps not coincidentally then flew off. That was the bird I’d seen fly in, and the woodpecker was merely in the background. Then James showed me the pic.

Somehow, an almost unmistakable bird.

It was a Gray-cheeked Thrush, a species I haven’t seen in years. I’m still kicking myself for not being more focused and getting a better look at the bird. Even so, I had to be happy for James. It’s a lifer for him, which is something that’s happening less and less these days. I think he's the only birder in history to get his lifer Gray-cheeked before his lifer Swainson's!

We exited the forest, and started walking past some of the large fields. Just when I thought I’d go all winter without finding one, I heard a distinctive nasally call I’ve been training myself to recognize. I’ve heard tell it’s a good year for these guys, and after getting them on my last two outings, I’m inclined to agree. A little playback and a small bird flew like a feathered dart into the tree next to me. It’s a species I see all too infrequently, and one I’m hoping to get to know better this winter: a Red-breasted Nuthatch.

I've seen five nuthatch species in my life, and this is by far my favorite!

Ever since I started birding, the North Carolina winters have seen poor numbers of Red-breasted Nuthatch. But apparently the pine crop failed up north this year, which means the birds are starting to enter the state in droves – and it’s not even really that cold yet. Hopefully, the nuthatches are just a harbinger for large flocks of irruptive finches, which could include Evening Grosbeaks and Red Crossbills if we’re lucky. It’s been almost twenty years since the grosbeaks came to the state in any numbers, but if it’s going to happen again, it might as well be now. This winter is going to be cold as Hell on Hoth, and the birds already know it. Brace yourselves.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Spanish Bird of the Week #13: White Wagtail

By James

The White Wagtail is undoubtedly one of the most common birds in Andalucia. I saw them just about everywhere. However, despite quickly becoming a bird you overlook as a result of its abundance, this bird has a special place with me. The White Wagtail was actually the first of well over 100 life birds that I got in Spain.

As a result of some delays and flight changes, I ended up getting stuck in the Barcelona Airport for a six hour layover. The airport has HD-TVs everywhere and feels more like a mall than an airport. It’s pretty nice. For the first hour. Around hour three I completely zoned out and started staring out the window a la John Dorian. Suddenly my eyes caught a small black and white bird skittering its way across the tarmac. Now, I didn’t do too much bird research prior to heading across the pond, but I had done enough to know what this bird was. I was shot the picture through a grimy window, and the bird was probably 100 feet off, but a lifer is a lifer! Thankfully that was not my final experience with these guys.

A few weeks later I finally started getting tired of the urban birding haunts of Sevilla, and found, in the top right corner of my map of the city, what appeared to be a large green area. A little Google research and I had a new birding destination: Parque Alamillo. I’ve mentioned this park several times before, but all the other species I posted about were birds I got en route. Before I got there, I was expecting another park filled with people and impressive, but not exactly bird-friendly gardens. What I found was a surprisingly American and delightfully quiet park. It was simply a green-space, and was subsequently surprisingly birdy. My Google search turned up a rather intensive 8-year ornithological study of the park, and that they’d made a park species list complete with seasonality, relative abundance, and even the best places to look!

This park, which I completely missed for the first few weeks, turned out to be a decent birding haunt, and my new Sevilla hotspot. In total, Parque Alamillo yielded me 25 lifers and over 50 species over my four month stay, including plenty of looks at White Wagtails. Among them was this absolutely incredible look, as one of these handsome birds wanted to forage, and occasionally strike a pose, right in front me!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

How Not to Identify a Bird

We’re going to start this post the same way I started out my last one. I have the afternoon off from work, I drive up to the Few’s Ford parking lot, and I exit my car. From the woods, I can hear an odd clucking, a cuckoo. I search for it, and before long it sits up on a bare branch allowing me to get photos. A dark, thin bill. A dull eyering. Small size. Everything points to one ID in my mind: Black-billed Cuckoo. But, as the discussion of the bird continued, it became clear this was actually a young Yellow-billed Cuckoo. And everything I know is wrong.

My mistake? Relying on field marks. On some level in one’s birding career, they stop using field marks to identify a bird. Instead, you rely on the overall impression of a bird, and by gestalt you immediately know its ID. Every once in a while, a bird throws you for a loop, and you begin to register field marks to try and find an answer to its identity. Sometimes you have to take a step back though, and acknowledge that even with an unknown bird, its general impression can give important clues. While many of the field marks appear to point towards Black-billed Cuckoo, the overall impression of the bird is wrong. The bill is actually a little too small, and its vocalizations are too guttural. Plus the tail is too small.

A young Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Can't you tell?

First off, why does the tail look small? It’s missing tail feathers, which is important because that’s a sign of molting, and a heavy molt like this would make it harder for a migrant to continue on its southerly journey. It’s hard to see in most of the photos, but you can just make out a pale area continuing inward from the beak towards the eyes. They aren’t feathers – no, this bird is a fledgling, and the pale area is the gape it retains from its time in the nest. It’s late in the year, and most field guides indicate this plumage doesn’t continue past August, but cuckoos are apparently notoriously late breeders. Plus, I blame global warming.

You always hear about confusing fall warblers, but never confusing fall cuckoos.

So why is the bill so thin and black? Turns out, some young Yellow-billed Cuckoos actually have dark bills in the nest, and even fewer retain that past fledging. In addition, young birds don’t have very large bills to begin with, but the real kicker lies in the bird’s feathers. They’re shaggy and fluffy, not sleek like those of most cuckoos. This bird is in juvenal plumage, that awkward stage when a bird is just out of the nest and learning to fly. The fluffy feathers obscure part of the beak, making it look even smaller than it should.

How a Yellow-billed Cuckoo is supposed to look - sleek, slender, and with a big honkin' yellow bill!

And what about those weird sounds the bird was making, that call and response with another cuckoo in the woods? It seems this was the call of a juvenile bird, and while it maintained the tempo of a Black-billed Cuckoo, it’s growling, guttural nature is unmistakably Yellow-billed. It’s something I should have noticed in the field, but the call was so strange I pretty much dispelled the idea of Yellow-billed Cuckoo from my mind.

So there you have it. A mistaken ID, but one resulting from a perfect storm of odd and poorly-known circumstances. This could have been identified correctly in the field, but it takes an expertise much greater than mine. You can’t look at this bird and use its field marks to ascertain its identity. You have to know so much more – about its breeding habits, about its growth cycle, about its social behavior. You have to understand the bird’s whole biology to figure out its identity, and until you do, you’re just a guy looking at pictures in a field guide. The whole thing is an experience always remember, and for the rest of my life, I’ll never again mis-identify a fledgling Yellow-billed Cuckoo with a black bill. You could say I… won’t get fooled again.


Friday, September 21, 2012

When It Rains, It Pours

::ROBERT'S EDIT:: Check out the post above for a discussion about the correct ID for this bird!

Migration is really heating up around here, but I can’t fully enjoy it. I’ve been stuck in the work routine recently, which means my birding (and by extension, blogging) time is limited - something I'm trying to work on getting more of! Today, for example, I had a free afternoon, so I decided to visit Few’s Ford on the Eno to see if I could drum up any of the Empids that’ve been reported recently. As soon as I stepped out of my car, I heard an odd clucking reminiscent of a farm chicken, or a turkey with something stuck in its throat. So I pressed forward into the woods to investigate.

I could hear the clucking up ahead, deftly dodging spider webs and poison ivy. Twenty feet in, however, the sound changed direction – it was coming from my right, no, wait, behind me! So I raced back to the parking lot, and the clucking again retreated into the woods. By this time I had my suspicions about this bird, but I had to see it to confirm. Finally, the sound stopped moving, and I could hear it just above my head, at the top of a tree. I ran to the parking lot and there it was.

Honestly, not a bird I thought I'd ever photograph. And certainly not in the Triangle!

A Black-billed Cuckoo! Actually there were two of them, doing a little call and response routine from the woods. But this is the only one that showed for pics. It’s a great bird anywhere in the state, but in the Triangle it’s pretty phenomenal. How phenomenal? Well, I've actually seen them once before, on the 17 Acre Woods greenway in Durham. But most of my birding friends have never seen one! Immediately, I texted all the birders I could think of, but half of them were going out of town and one of them already “had” the bird on his state list by way of Nocturnal Flight Calls (you know who you are). But Nate Swick of The Drinking Bird needed it as a lifer, and raced over to check them out.

Not a great pic, but all the field marks are there - non-contrasting tail pattern, green-gray eyering, and...
what was that last one... oh yeah, the black bill!

The bird flew from its perch well before Nate showed up, but the birds were still vocalizing. Eventually we found it again, foraging between the leaves of a sweet gum (or was it a sycamore? Note to self: learn trees better). We noted how different it was from the more common Yellow-billed Cuckoos: smaller, leaner, with a tiny bill that stuck out like a thorn. Even the way it foraged was different, deftly flitting about, almost like a large warbler.

In exchange for getting him a lifer, Nate agreed to show me where he’d seen a couple Empid flycatchers a couple days earlier. If the flycatchers were there, they weren’t vocalizing at this time of day, so I decided to hike back to my car along the river. I didn’t find all that many birds, but I did flush a pair of drake Wood Ducks and this nice Green Heron.

They may be common, but it's always awesome to sit there and watch a Green Heron do his thing.

I braved overgrown trails and patches of mud, and soon lamented the effort I was giving when there weren’t birds to be found. Just as I was about to give up, I heard chickadees up ahead, and soon found a large flock flying back and forth across the river. Flitting between the common birds were the warblers that make a birder’s day worth it – Tennessees, Redstarts, and Black-throated Green Warblers actively foraged, often obscured by thick foliage. I enjoyed a nice Black-and-White Warbler that made his way up a trunk not ten feet away. But in my enjoyment I forgot to take pictures, so you’ll have to make do with what is probably the biggest River Cooter I’ve ever seen.

To put it into perspective, the turtle in back was a good foot or so long.

Down the trail, I heard an odd spink! That’s how I’d describe it – loud, sharp and metallic. Like a Northern Waterthrush chip-note on steroids. Then I realized I’d heard the sound once before, when I was in Ornithology class. We were on a bird walk around Beaver Lake when our professor pointed out a black bird vocalizing from the top of a tree. It flew off, and I could see bright crimson on its chest and armpits. The memory finished replaying in my head and I ran after the sound, because this Rose-breasted Grosbeak would be a photo-lifer for me.

I'll take what I can get, yeah I'll take what I can get... but you ain't seen nothing yet!
... actually that was my last picture of the day. Sorry!

I found the bird almost instantly, but much to my chagrin it was a female, not the brightly-colored male I was looking for. Still, a photo-lifer is a photo-lifer, and I tried to get my camera to navigate the thick foliage and focus on the grosbeak. I gave up pretty easily and just took a shot of the general area around where the bird was foraging. Luckily enough, one of the shots picked up the bird you see above!

I finished the loop and returned to my car. Even this late in the afternoon, I could still hear the Black-billed Cuckoos calling, albeit deeper in the woods than before. I briefly considered going in after them, but I was sweaty, muddy, and seriously wanted a shower. But it was totally worth it – I had my best day of migration all fall, and I didn’t even have to wake up early. The best kind of birding!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

For Those About to Twitch - WE SALUTE YOU!

You loyal readers may have noticed I’ve been absent lately. There’s no excuse, really, but if I had to create one – work, life, and writer’s block got in the way of my blogging. That isn’t to say that I haven’t done anything lately. Over the past couple weeks, rare birds have been reported across the Triangle, and I’ve gone to chase them. This is the tale of three twitches – one that worked, one that didn’t, and one that was so ridiculous I honestly didn’t have a chance in hell.

We’ll start with the ridiculous. Last Sunday, a Magnificent Frigatebird was reported flying over the local mall. But the local mall is several hundred miles inland, you say? I agree, but the prevailing theory is that the bird was blown in by Hurricane Isaac. The frigatebird made its way down Jordan Lake, and the whole Triangle birding community took up the chase. One other birder saw it on the way down – Ali Iyoob, lucky birder extraordinaire, found it along the lake just after it was reported. The rest of us twitchers missed it by a good hour. No other good birds were to be found, so a couple of us headed towards the local water treatment plant, only to find a single Least Sandpiper to console us for our disappointment.

To be fair, it's a very fresh-plumaged juvenile. I've never seen a Least Sandpiper so rufous!

The next day, being Labor Day, many birders were out and about. And sure enough, a second rare bird was found – this time a Lark Sparrow, out at Lake Crabtree. Through texts and emails, the word spread, and soon enough I found myself at the parking lot of the lake, looking through the scope at a large sparrow chowing down on a huge caterpillar.

Apparently, the edge of a recreational volleyball court is the perfect habitat for hungry Lark Sparrows.

The bird was a lifer for me, and a welcome one – I’d missed seeing one earlier this year by just a couple minutes. But somehow the victory seemed bittersweet. The bird before me was drab, dingy, first-year – not the crisp white bird I’d always dreamed of seeing. Still, as the bird foraged for grass seeds on the edge of an unused volleyball court, I couldn’t help but enjoy it. Maybe it wasn’t the lifer I felt I deserved – but it was the lifer I needed.

It's a bird I've wanted to see for a long time... but this plumage? It's 'eh'.

For the most part, the birders stayed far away, viewing the small bird through high-powered spotting scopes. I find this to be a very European style of birding – enjoying the bird from a distance. To me, birding is a personal experience, best had when you’re feet away from a bird and you can view its habits without the need of binoculars. I’ve only experienced this with a couple of species, and I wanted Lark Sparrow to be one of them, so I moved closer.

Out in the Great Plains, Lark Sparrows frequent the volleyball courts that abound in the prairie.

I soon found out why this bird was called a Lark Sparrow. As I got closer, the bird flew a short distance down the shoreline. Immediately, it’s demarcated characteristics disappeared, and all I saw was the drab, streaked back of an apparently boring bird. While this description fits the larks of Europe and Africa very well, it’s not the most telling feature of the Lark Sparrow. Instead, I noticed its flight – bounding, flying high and then shooting down to a much lower level. A sparrow, though one immediately reminiscent of a lark in its breeding display. A Lark Sparrow.

Looks pretty much like every lark I've ever seen... not that I've seen that many larks.

Giving up on the perfect picture, I opened the door of my car, and took one last look at my lifer – hundreds of feet away, still, foraging on the sides of a recreational volleyball court. I’ve no idea why the bird chose this morning to hang out at one of the local birding sites, but it wasn’t the only one. A Willow Flycatcher was reported in the area just a couple days later, and as our current picture of the species is quite frankly terrible, I decided to chase it. Unfortunately, the reportedly vocal individual was gone – I blame the service guy who just finished mowing the trail. Certainly the noise of his John Deere ride-on mower proved too much for the bird to handle, and it vacated its premises. This obliging Eastern Cottontail was a partial consolation prize. But even a rabbit can’t take away this sting of missing a bird.

If you look closely, you can see a fat mosquito turgid with this rabbit's blood. I'll bet I fed many mosquitoes that day.

But, as James says, c’est la birding. Sometimes you get want you want, sometimes you get what you need, and other times you get nothing at all and you’re super disappointed for the next couple weeks. Each time you decide to twitch a rare bird, you take on a gamble, one you’re likely to lose. Every once in a while it works out for you, but for the most part I find twitching a hostile and soul-crushing activity. That’s why I give a shout out to all you birders who seek rare birds on a whim, traveling for miles to reach your potential quarry. I know it’s hard, I’ve been there. I wish somebody were rooting for me too. So, in the slightly modified immortal words of AC/DC, I pledge: For those about to twitch – WE SALUTE YOU!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Spanish Bird of the Week #12: Grey Wagtail

By James

Robert and I had been chasing down the Bachman’s Sparrow all afternoon. Robert heard the elusive bird deep in the shrubby forests of the Carolina Sandhills, and I decided to go in after it. I got a few distant looks as the bird flitted about on downed pine trees, but my efforts had yielded me nothing but dark, blurry, grainy shots. I was about ready to admit defeat. The Red-cockaded Woodpeckers we looked for earlier were nowhere to be found, and the Bachman’s Sparrow was proving to be quite camera shy.

Despondent, I worked my way back to the sandy road, when Robert announced that the bird seemed to be moving closer. Seconds later the subtle sparrow flew in to within a matter of feet from me, though he was backlit and obscured by pine needles. I shifted over a few feet, slowly of course to make sure not to spook the small bird. All of the sudden I had an open shot, and I got what is undoubtedly one of my favorite of the 416 bird pictures I’ve taken over my birding career. The sun lit up the pine needles, framing the Bachman’s Sparrow that decided this small branch was the perfect spot to burst into song.

A shot like this needs no caption. Except for that one... damn.

After reviewing my pictures that day, and seeing that I got the shot, elation and relief washed over me. Moments like these are why I still love bird photography. It’s undoubtedly a frustrating and challenging hobby. To get a really great picture, you need so many things to go your way, and unfortunately most of these things are out of your control. First off, you need perfect weather. Some people like an overcast day for photography, but I prefer a cloudless sky. Only perfect sunlight really makes a bird’s color truly pop.

What if he had been in the shade? Simply not as good.

Secondly, you need the bird to cooperate. I have seen Blue Jays countless times, but it’s a bird that simply refuses to show itself well when my camera is involved. In addition, you need your camera to cooperate. I realize that it is probably a combination of the steadiness of my hands and the amount of dust on the lens, but I swear that sometimes my camera has good days and sometimes it has bad days.

One of these days we'll find a Blue Jay that's not a total coward...

Lastly, you, the photographer, need to be on your game. If you plan on getting a good picture of a Canada Warbler you need to be able to move and aim your camera just as quickly as those small Parulids can flit about. Some days everything comes together, and you get a picture like the one Robert and I got last summer when an Indigo Bunting sat up singing just a couple feet away from us.

Pretty much the best look I've gotten of any bird. Ever.

Unfortunately, the Grey Wagtail does not have such a glorious conclusion. A quick run through my checklist for perfect bird photography reveals the culprit. Weather? Sunny, not a cloud in the sky. Cooperative bird? Yep. As I walked down the river to my favorite birding haunt, I saw a bird wandering around next to the cement bank of the Guadalquivir River. I assumed it was a House Sparrow when I spotted it in my peripherals. However, as soon as I actually got clean look, from not more than fifteen feet off, I quickly realized the bird's true identity. 

So was it my own photography skills? The Crested Lark and Booted Eagle shot from the day seem to suggest that I had steady hands (da best!), and I had the bird well exposed and in the center of the frame. Which means the camera’s processor had ONE JOB TO DO.

And it failed miserably...

Unfortunately the camera elected to focus on the water behind the bird. Before I got a second opportunity, the wagtail flew off. Luckily, I managed to chase it down and get a somewhat decent shot, but it decided it no longer wanted to be photographed and flew off before I got to within fifty feet. I elected to delete the missed picture (simply too painful to keep) and not toss my camera deep into the Guadalquivir River (why can’t a $400 camera have 35x zoom and produce DSLR quality pics? Jeez.) Of course, if it was always that easy, it wouldn’t be any fun. C’est la bird photography.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Species Spotlight #21: Eastern Garter Snake

Back when I was a kid, I only knew a couple kinds of snakes. Copperhead was one. I had to be careful of Copperheads – they were poisonous, after all. But I also knew the Garter Snake. Back then I didn’t know better, so I thought pretty much everything was a Garter Snake. Brown Snake? Nope! Juvenile Garter Snake. Water Snake? Nope! Garter Snake in the water. It took me a long time to get over this preconception. It took even longer to find an actual Garter Snake.

I’ve never actually caught a Garter Snake. Not yet, anyway. They’re supposed to be quite nasty, and the first one I ever identified was slithering along a white picket fence at my parents house. My dog, curious as always, stuck his nose in the face of this foreign creature, and it struck at him time and time again. My dog, a rather stupid and oblivious creature, continued to sniff it.

One day last summer, James and I decided to visit the Korstian Division of Duke Forest. We saw great birds that day, but also plenty of snakes – Eastern Hognose and Northern Water being the highlights. But on the way down to the creek, we found this Eastern Garter Snake slithering across the path, and boy it didn’t want to be messed with. James took this long-distance shot, but as soon as he moved in for a macro, the snake began to ferociously strike the camera. Apparently that’s just how Garter Snakes are. They’re not too common, but I’ve never gotten up the courage to catch one if I see it. I’m prepared to get bitten if necessary. Next time.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Spanish Bird of the Week #11: Booted Eagle

By James

Even before I became a birder, I was fascinated by birds of prey. Though I didn’t know exactly what I was looking at, I’ve always been excited to see a hawk flying overhead. Now that I have become a birder, little has changed. Sure I’m able to differentiate a Red-tailed Hawks from Red-shouldered Hawk, and Cooper’s Hawk from Northern Harrier, but I still enjoy seeing large predatory birds soar across the sky. During my stay in Spain, the most common bird of prey I saw I was the Booted Eagle.

I found the Booted Eagle very interesting, especially for an eagle. Eagles are supposed to be majestic flyers, the most powerful birds in the sky. But in reality, the Booted Eagle is a relatively small bird, far closer in size to a Red-tailed Hawk than the large Golden and Bald Eagles that frequent this side of the pond.

Just like the Red-tailed Hawk, I rarely if ever saw one perched. Instead, the small eagle simply soared directly overhead, catching thermals and circling high into the sky. Thankfully, one day I got a great look. While walking down the Guadalquivir river towards Parque Alamillo, I saw a large bird flying straight at me. Finally, instead of getting an awkward overhead shot, I got a real look at this awesome bird. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Species Spotlight #20: Green Frog

I hear it all the time. Every time I pass a pond rife with duckweed, or a stagnant canal, or a streamhead. A distinct sound, like the bottom string of a banjo struck by an untrained student. Bonk! Always once, never in succession. This is the sound of a Green Frog. And they are hard to find!

A month or so ago, Ali and I found a small pool that had a Green Frog calling from it. There was nowhere to hide, no nooks, crannies, or thick vegetation. We found a large Bullfrog vocalizing from a low-hanging branch, but still the Green Frog called, and we couldn’t find it. That’s when we found a long tunnel dug into the earth, flooded with water until there was barely any space to rest. Still the Green Frog called.

We were never able to find that specific individual, but I’ve seen Green Frogs before. When James and I visited Howell Woods last summer, the resident park ranger spun a yarn about a Bullfrog that would sit at the edge of an artificial pool, waiting for hummingbirds to come and drink before striking with deadly force. Of course I didn’t believe the story, but once I looked down into the pool, I saw a very similar individual – a Green Frog lay among the lilies.

It’s a difficult identification, and it’s no wonder the park ranger didn’t note the caudal ridges that differentiated this individual from the closely related Bullfrog. It’s a frog that’s often heard but rarely seen. Yet they’re always present, hidden in the pond scum or under a muddy ledge. Still the Green Frog lives, oblivious to all these troubles.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

It Has Begun...

It’s getting to be that time of year – birds breeding in the north are starting to meander their way down, stopping every so often before heading for tropical climes. Included among these migrants are some of my favorite birds, the shorebirds. I look forward to shorebirding season every year once the water levels at the major reservoirs drop low enough for expansive mudflats to form. But it’s still early in the season, and the mudflats haven’t quite formed yet, so James and I decided to check out the next best thing – the drying beds at the local water treatment plant.

After receiving permission to lift the huge metal gate, we began our drive past large vats of what I can only assume is water being treated (for what, I’ve got no idea). Despite the expanse concrete, we found plenty of birds – a Blue Grosbeak sang from a nearby field, and a huge mixed flock of European Starlings and Brown-headed Cowbirds of all ages whirled and whipped around as they foraged along the roadside. Barn Swallows and Purple Martins dipped low over the water hunting for various insects, but I tried to push them out of my mind. Those weren’t the birds we were looking for. Then I heard a couple of high-pitched screeches pierce the air. Shorebirds!

At first I could only see a small flock of Killdeer, vocalizing loudly each time they took to the air. But then I began to notice a couple smaller birds with them, and once they landed on a nice concrete ledge, I found myself looking at my first true migrant of the season: a nice Solitary Sandpiper, and then a second, working their way down the line, looking for prey down below. Between them, pumping its short tail the entire way, ran a smaller Spotted Sandpiper, already bereft of its namesake breeding plumage.

If they're called Solitary Sandpipers, how come I'm always finding them in twos and threes?

Both of these species are easy to find during both migrations, and the seasons last so long that it seems there’s only a couple weeks out of the summer where I can’t find one of these sandpipers. James and I were searching for those exclusively fall migrant shorebirds, the harbingers of the year’s end. While I was getting an eyeful of an extremely cooperative Solitary Sandpiper, I noticed a head pop up behind tufts of grass that grew between cracks in the concrete ledge. There’s no way I could mistake it – I see hundreds, if not thousands, each shorebirding season. The Pectoral Sandpipers were back in town!

And still as aggravating to photograph as ever....

We inched the car closer, trying to keep it in neutral so we could use it as a photography blind. But the Pecs weren’t having any of it. Before we got too close, they took off with a couple of Killdeer and headed for one of the drying beds on the far side. You won’t find two more skittish shorebirds than these, and pretty soon they’ll be the bane of my shorebirding, taking huge flocks of birds with them when they flush a hundred feet away from you. For now though, I’m just happy the shorebirds are back. Here’s to three fruitful months of poring over peeps in worn plumage, trying to check the leg color on far-off pipers, and exploring the minutiae between specks in the distance. Here’s to shorebirding!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

#55: Cooper's Hawk - Famosa Slough, CA

I’ve mentioned before that I found a different suite of raptors in California than I see out east. For example, Turkey Vultures and Red-tailed Hawks are extremely uncommon out there (I only found one of each). But if there’s a day in North Carolina where you don’t see at least one of these magnificent birds soaring overhead, you know something’s wrong. I also found American Kestrels fairly common out west, and I’d often see one hovering in overhead even in the middle of the city. But I found myself most surprised by how many times I saw Cooper’s Hawks in San Diego.

Not only did I find a whole bunch of Cooper’s Hawks, but I also got great views each time. I remember one day at Cabrillo National Monument in Point Loma when I stood on a scenic overlook that jutted out from a cliff that ran down into a chaparral valley. A stiff breeze blew from the Pacific Ocean into San Diego Bay, and an immature Cooper’s Hawk took this opportunity to fly into the wind, soaring at eye level as he searched for prey down below. I even got to see them perched, like this immature individual who would fly low over the reeds at Famosa Slough.

Out east our Cooper’s Hawks are different. If you see one, it’s probably flying from one section of dense forest to another, passing over the path for a brief moment while just a couple feet off the ground. My best look at this species came while I was driving home from work one day. I saw a bird following the contours of the empty road, maybe six feet in the air. I sped up until I was going way faster than I should have been (not recommended), matching the hawk’s speed. For a split second, right outside my window, I watched an adult Cooper’s Hawk fly like not many people ever have. A hell of an experience, to say the least. And a hell of a bird.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Long Awaited Lifer

Like I said before, the entire reason James and I headed down to Huntington Beach State Park was to find Roseate Spoonbills, an awesome bird that’s relatively common in the right part of its range. However, this far north the birds only show up during post-breeding dispersal, and by the time we showed up, the birds appeared to have dispersed even farther. We were really looking forward to them, but we had to make do with more common birds like this Tricolored Heron that hunted right off the causeway.

That morning, I watched an American Alligator idling in the water next to some large wooden scaffolding. Perhaps he was eyeing the Snowy Egret that would dart in and out of the rungs, every once in a while picking off a fish or two from the water’s surface. But the egret was skittish, and when the gator got too close it flew to the top row of the scaffolding. Luckily for me, this was about my eye level, and I enjoyed a great look at a common bird.

Without any indication, a huge white thing flew in and scared the Snowy Egret off its perch. And suddenly I was staring face to face with an enormous Wood Stork. I’m not sure if I’ve made it clear how awesome I find Wood Storks, but I think they’re pretty much the coolest bird ever. Just to get the chance to see a whole flock of them was almost enough to ease the sting of missing the spoonbills, and yet here I stood not five feet from one, enjoying every crook and cranny of its knobby head.

Immediately, I phoned James on his cell as he was off watching Common Gallinules and Painted Buntings. This was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen; he had to be there to photograph it! Alas, by the time James showed up, the Wood Stork abandoned his perch in favor of a little mid-morning hunting. To be fair, the bird was still right off the causeway and our views were amazing. But they’ll never match a Wood Stork that I could’ve reached out and touched if I wanted to.

If you watch Wood Storks hunt for a while, you’ll notice some idiosyncrasies about them. For one, most of the time they just stand there with their bills open, hoping something will swim through slowly enough that they can clap them shut. For another, they’ll often walk around with one wing outstretched, presumably shading the water so a hapless fish will take shelter underneath. It looks prehistoric when they do it, like they’re honest to God dinosaurs feeding in a herd during the late Cretaceous. Of course, being birds, they are in fact honest to God dinosaurs, but that’s a story for another time.

At that point, we had a choice – stick around in South Carolina, watching birds we’ve already seen, or make a bee-line for Twin Lakes in North Carolina, where the very Roseate Spoonbills we were looking for had been roosting for the last couple weeks. Not that we needed any help in the decision, but a couple Triangle-area birders let us know that the spoonbills had been seen earlier that morning. In little more than an hour (thanks to some poor directions from the internets), James and I found ourselves looking across the lakes for any signs of birds roosting in trees. And just our luck, they were nowhere to be found.

Disappointed, we tried one last pass at the lakes, and on the way back we noticed a couple white birds perched in a tall pine. They were far off, but they were definitely Wood Storks, and the Roseate Spoonbills were reported to be associating with a Wood Stork flock. As we scoped the far end of the lake, none of the birds turned pink enough for us to pick them out from a distance. I even began to convince myself that a far-off Snowy Egret looked like a spoonbill! I was that delusional. Then, something flew out from the far tree and into the water next to an old flagpole.

There's gotta be one in there somewhere!

I could barely see it with my naked eye, but the view through the scope confirmed it – Roseate Spoonbills, two of them! They fed alongside the storks and egrets like they had no idea that two birders had traveled through hell and high water to watch them. But at this distance, the views weren’t nearly satisfying enough. We drove down a side road, and sure enough there was an empty lot right next to where the spoonbills were hanging out. We raced down the hill, braving poison ivy and stinging nettles until we were right on top of the birds.

I took a second to myself. Sitting there, watching a pair of birds that I’ve wanted to see since I was a kid. The ridiculous looking bills, the muted pink just starting to grow in. I almost couldn’t believe it. Yet there they were, oblivious to my ecstatic state as birds are wont to do. Fearing we may be trespassing, we headed off before five minutes were up. But those five minutes were all I needed to fully enjoy one hell of a lifer.

On the way back to the car I noticed a Broadhead Skink sauntering through the leaf litter. I could have caught it were I fast enough, but I was still in a dreamlike state from seeing those two awesome birds. I don’t think there’s any life bird that I’ve wanted to see as badly as these spoonbills, and now that I’ve seen them, I honestly feel a little aimless. Like the sole purpose of my birding career to this point had been to find Roseate Spoonbills. I guess I’ll just have to find some other bird to hunt down so passionately, but I’m not sure what that bird will be. I suppose Snowy Owls are cool. Yeah. I choose Snowy Owls.