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Monday, January 30, 2012

Who Could Ask For Anything More?

With 2012 being the 75th anniversary of the Carolina Bird Club, they’ve decided to do something different this year. I, along with several other younger generation birders (read: under 30) were asked to lead trips for their meeting in Southport, a small waterfront town in southeastern North Carolina. With all the great birds one can find on the coast, how could I possibly refuse such an invitation?

Friday started out with a bang. With my first trip located at Carolina Beach, sunrise found me riding the ferry across the Cape Fear River. The sun began to break through the clouds as several hundred White Ibis shot across our bow, while tens of thousands of Double-crested Cormorant streamed from a small roosting island. The sunlight wouldn’t stick around forever though – the forecast called for showers, so we had to bird quickly if we wanted to stay dry.

By the time we reached our first stop, the clouds had rolled in and the horizon was lined with fog. The strong winds brought in six-foot tall waves crashing against the rocks next to our sea-watching gazebo, but that only made it perfect for sea ducks. Several large flocks of Bufflehead struggled against the waves, looking like swarms of blackflies caught in a tempest. More graceful, however, were the Black Scoters that seemed to relish the surf, diving every time a wave rolled in. We were able to see all possible plumages in one flock, including males with their gaudy neon bills, drab-plumaged females, and a single immature male whose bill shown a muted lemon-yellow. As I scanned the flocks, I came across a pair of white sea-ducks near the Bufflehead. Immediately I tried to get my tourees on them – they were Long-tailed Ducks, a pretty good bird this far south. One tall wave later, the ducks dove and disappeared, and I never saw them again that day. Oh well, at least the Black Scoters remained photogenic.

I would apologize for the quality, but it was raining while I took this shot, so... not bad!

We saw other good birds that day, but the awful weather made photography difficult. Saturday, however, had different plans, and the ferry ride over to Carolina Beach lay cast in the orange-pink sunrise. Today, the cormorants refused to put on their show, but the Snowy Egrets and Tricolored Herons flying across the water proved more than compensation. We decided to check out the gazebo for yesterday’s sea ducks, but the Long-taileds had long since departed. Luckily, our scoter flock remained, and our Blacks from yesterday were joined by a nice White-winged and a rather drab Surf Scoter this morning.

After we had our fill of ducks, our group headed back towards the parking lot. We were about to be on our way, when I received a tip: check out the trees near the statue, you might find something good. As we drove past a tall bush, I spotted a thick-looking bird atop one of its snarled branches. We piled out of the cars, and much to our surprise, the bird was making a mechanical call, like something out of a Star Wars movie. I’ve never heard a Loggerhead Shrike vocalize before, but boy was it weird! Without warning, the bird alighted from its perch to the shrubs across the road, but the noise continued. As if answering my question, a second shrike popped up on top of the bush, and started calling out to its lost compatriot.

The term 'Butcher Bird' doesn't have the same meaning after I saw
Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York... I mean, he's the Butcher!

Keeping to our itinerary, we headed off to visit some staked out Great Comorants, an uncommon bird in North Carolina, but not difficult to find if you know where to look. While many in the group enjoyed their life-looks at the pair, I received a text from trip lead Mike McCloy – he’d just seen Common Goldeneyes back at Fort Fisher, and as that would be a lifer for even more people, we headed out. Unfortunately, once we arrived, the heat haze made it impossible to see any birds, and we were left without these awesome ducks. Luckily, Mike had given me another tip: head out to some reeds and try a little playback. Not a second later, we had a bird pop up and start inching towards us. Mostly it stayed hidden, but after a couple minutes it landed in a bush not feet from a dozen watching birders: a Sedge Wren, pretty much the most cooperative I’ve ever seen!

I got a better pic in the light... but of course it managed to magick a stick in front of its face!

We spent a little too much time with the Sedge Wren, so we had to head out for the ferry back home in a timely matter. Usually this means the standard collection of water birds, but today some of the more, um, rural members of our ferry decided to feed the birds off the back of the boat. While they tossed up old bread crusts and bits of potato chips, gulls flocked off our stern to catch what was thrown to them. Not to be outdone, several Boat-tailed Grackles took up posts along the railings to scavenge whatever the gulls missed, and in their intense vigil they apparently forgot that they stood mere feet from humans. Which worked out in my favor, because the light happened to be pretty much perfect at that time of day, and the lattice structure of the grackles’ feathers reflected into beautiful iridescence.

I urge you to zoom in - you can totally see the capillaries in its eyes, it was that close!

Though the grackles and gulls gave me views of maybe three feet, nothing could beat the spectacular birds I’d seen at this CBC meeting. Even after all that, my weekend was only half over, and I still had Sunday to chase a bunch of rare birds. But I got shrikes, I got scoters, I got Sedge Wren… who could ask for anything more?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Damn Nature, You Scary!

WARNING!!!!! Graphic nature images to follow!

This winter, for reasons unbeknownst to me, I’ve been exceptionally good at finding Fox Sparrows. It’s not like I ever find them in any numbers – one here, a second there, and that’s it. But for several weeks in December, it seemed like every birding site James and I visited had at least a Fox Sparrow or two, but it wasn’t always easy to find them. Sometimes I’d spy one at the very top of a tree acting like a finch, and sometimes one would skulk in the undergrowth like a towhee. But no matter what, we would always find them.

This one we found at Mason Farm is totally unrelated to the later bird, but it really illustrates my point.

The Durham Christmas Bird Count proved no different. After we’d scoured the mudflats near the mouth of Ellerbe Creek on Falls Lake, James and I found ourselves following the railroad tracks and checking the tree-line for additional species. Suddenly, I saw a large passerine flush from our left, landing in the gravel on the near side of the tracks. At first I thought it was a female Northern Cardinal – it was about the right size, and I caught a glimpse of rufous as it passed. Upon sighting the bird in my binoculars, however, I immediately recognized it as yet another Fox Sparrow.

Hum dee dum dumm... just a Fox Sparrow minding my own business...

James started sidling up to the bird. Hunkered down near some pine straw, it appeared the bird thought itself well-camouflaged, and it refused to move even as James inched closer. Eventually, James stood no more than ten feet away from it, a feat I’ve never seen a Fox Sparrow repeat in my entire birding career. This bird must be acclimated to humans or something, perhaps used to the fishermen that walk the tracks on their way to catch a carp or two. Then, as James stood over it, the Fox Sparrow turned its head.


That’s why the Fox Sparrow didn’t move as James got closer. Not that it didn’t care, or that it chose to ignore him, but that the sparrow literally couldn’t see James coming from the left side of its body. Its eye lay dangling out of its socket, probably the result of a failed attack, perhaps by a fox or a Cooper’s Hawk. Looking at this picture, I wonder if the optic nerve remained connected, but I can’t imagine how debilitating this must be for the bird. Eventually, the Fox Sparrow turned its head so its good eye was facing James, and upon noticing the encroaching human, flew off for the safety of the bushes.

Nothin' to see here folks... nope, no hanging eye-ball or anything...

Of all the Fox Sparrows in all the world, we got to see the one that couldn’t see us, an incredible feat of survival in the one-eyed face of adversity. I may never again get this close to one of these birds, and if this is what it takes for Fox Sparrow proximity, I may never want to. I don’t often get grossed out by this kind of thing, but I almost couldn’t handle this bird… because, damn nature. You scary.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Death of a Nemesis

The Nemesis Bird is a bird that, for whatever reason, you haven’t seen despite repeated efforts, to the point where it’s almost an embarrassing miss on your life list. There are actually two kinds of such nemeses: there’s the bird that you go out to find, in the right habitat, at the right time of year, and you just can’t seem to kick up. Then there’s the more infuriating type, a bird that you’ve been close to, and you know this because you can hear it in the trees just across the road, or the reeds on the other side of the marsh; yet it doesn’t present itself. This is the latter. Or, should I say, it was the latter.

I’m not saying I hear Eastern Screech-Owls all that often; in fact I can count the number of heard screeches on one hand. There’s the first one, the one I heard calling its tremelo deep in the woods near Jordan Lake one October. Then there’s the bird I heard at Lake Mattamuskeet, and another at Falls Lake (an unintentional pattern; perhaps birders just frequent lakes). Finally, just this past December, James and I heard one calling, yet again near Lake Mattamuskeet. I know owls aren’t easy, but after four times I should have seen one already, right?! That’s when I got the text from Mark. He’d seen one the previous day, roosting in an old knot on the same snag he’d had one last year, and it should be back this morning. I was out the door before the reply text finished sending.

The owl was being seen on private property in Fearrington Village, a subdivision outside of Pittsboro. As a kid, I’d head out there to check out their famous Belties, an ice-cream sandwich breed of cow – chocolate black on both ends, vanilla white in the middle. But today, we whipped past the cow pastures, even ignoring large flocks of blackbirds, Blue Jays, and robins. We had a mission. Pulling into the drive, Mark looked behind him – “It’s here!” he exclaimed, and he pulled a three-point turn so the bird would be on my side of the car. Sure enough, as we inched forward to the forked snag missing patches of bark, I could see a small owl that would have been totally invisible to me if I hadn’t been told exactly where to look.

Check out that look on his face:
"Hey, can a guy not sleep off his hangover in peace?! I mean, DAMN!"

Most east-coast screech-owls look a gaudy shade of rusty red, and are relatively easy to pick out in dead trees. I’m told it doesn’t matter to the owls because most birds are incapable of seeing color, and so the screech-owls appear perfectly camouflaged. This bird, however, was the far more uncommon gray-morph, and its camouflage is uncanny, even to my color-enabled eyes – the bird seems to melt right into the tree, its breast pattern identical to bark covered with a little lichen. That didn’t stop the Eastern Screech-Owl from having a backup plan, and as soon as we looked away for a second the bird dove deep into its chosen hole, never to be seen again.

We went back by his little snag later in the day, but he preferred to stay hidden. Not that it mattered, I had my bird and one more nemesis became nothing but a tick on my life list. I remember when I was still looking for my lifer Eastern Screech-Owl, I found myself longing for a red-morph bird. But man, after having had this amazing experience, how could I possibly complain?

Friday, January 20, 2012

#48: Yellow-crowned Night Heron - San Diego River, CA

In San Diego, pretty much every bird I saw was a lifer for me, including some birds I never thought I’d see. However, only two of the birds I found could be considered rare for the area, but there’s a problem – birds that are rare for San Diego are unfortunately common on the East Coast. One was an American Oystercatcher I found roosting at the Cabrillo Tide Pools, an area where Black Oystercatchers are far more common (never did find a Black, grrr). This is the other.

James and I pulled up to the San Diego River to find shorebirds swarming over the flats that formed in the low tide. Short-billed Dowitchers probed the mud while my lifer Marbled Godwits raced back and forth, occasionally dipping their heads for a bite. Upriver a couple hundred feet, we could see a large flock of Elegant Terns lounging around with a couple Caspians. We started walking down the bank to get a little closer, when I noticed a small gray wader on the close shore. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but raising my binocs, I found myself looking at a Yellow-crowned Night Heron, a bird that’s not supposed to be here, and a lifer for James!

They may be rare in San Diego, but they breed every year in suburban Durham county!

Later, I learned that these night herons are part of a small colony that has only recently begun to colonize southern California. They’re still rare, but with enough time and effort you can certainly find some. Apparently they’ve taken to nesting in the nearby Sea World, so perhaps they’ll stick around for some time. Either way, it’s certainly the most cooperative Yellow-crowned Night Heron I’ve ever seen, and to this day, it remains the bird I recollect when I look at its tick on my life list.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Prequel

Although the Dovekie James and I found was by far the highlight of our trip up the Outer Banks, we certainly had our fair share of awesome birds beforehand. The first day started out slowly – before we even crossed the Pamlico, we stopped at Alligator River NWR to try and find the previously reported Golden Eagle. No dice, I’m afraid, and the strong winds kept most of the waterfowl far out and hunkered down. Not much to do at this point but continue on our journey.

We decided our next stop would be Bodie Lighthouse to check out the ducks. James especially was hoping for a lifer that should have come his way by now, and sure enough out among the swans were hundreds of Green-winged Teal. It’s a species we’d magnificently missed seeing this winter, but the teals at Bodie stayed too far abreast to photograph. On our way out of the parking lot, however, we spotted a couple Eastern Meadowlarks foraging under some nearby pines. Normally meadowlarks flush at the first sign of a birder, or even a birder’s vehicle, but by using the car as a blind we were able to watch these pudgy blackbirds feast to their heart’s content.

Meadowlarks are ungainly, waddling birds... but they sure are pretty!

Just as we were leaving the parking lot, we ran into a pair of birders who’d just been to our next destination, Pea Island’s North Pond. The water level’s down, they said, so there aren’t any ducks, but we did find the bittern. Bingo! Last time we were at North Pond, we missed the accommodating American Bittern that likes to hang out at the turtle pond there, probably because of the insane winds. But today, even the winds couldn’t keep him down. We raced over, walked towards the boardwalk and… he was gone. No bittern once again. Disappointed, we walked a little further to find North Pond nothing but a huge sand flat, when a birder alerted that the bittern was in fact present. Quickly, we noted that tucked away in a little cove, invisible from almost every angle, the American Bittern hunkered against the howling gusts. We were able to flank him and watch him at point-blank range. As we did so, in typical bittern fashion, he scarcely moved a muscle.

"The birder's visual acuity is based on movement, like a T. rex - they can't see me if I don't move!"

The sun began to set, so we retired for the night. The next morning, we awoke to a glassy Pamlico Sound, and we knew the winds that plagued us the day before had diminished to barely a whisper. We hit up Bodie Island again to find all the ducks much closer than they had been, and the Green-winged Teal began to stir from their peaceful roosts and started foraging near the observation deck. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a raptor zooming across the nearby field of reeds – a “gray ghost”, a beautiful male Northern Harrier. The ducks paid him little attention, so he flew off into the sunrise, but man; what a bird! Walking along the boardwalk one last time, I heard the chatter of Sedge and Marsh Wrens, but none would perch upon the reeds for us. Too bad; we had places to go and birds to see.

I looked through all these ducks for a Eurasian Wigeon or a Common Teal... no luck!

Not a mile down the road, we pulled into the Oregon Inlet Marina, that random little spot where James got his lifer Red-necked Grebe on the Christmas Bird Count. Hoping for a good assemblage of sea ducks, we instead found the waters of the sound looked much like North Pond – one big sand flat, filled with shorebirds, egrets, and ibises. Instead, we focused our attention on the loons that would surface quite close to us inside the marina itself. James was attempting to photograph one when he spotted another American Bittern, our second for the trip! As he approached it, the bittern flew off to a small mud bank on the far shore, away from meddling humans. James was checking out the bittern’s new hiding spot when he noticed a second bird making its way along the bank, and he yelled out with excitement – “Rail!”

No, it's okay, you can stand there preening for like five minutes. I don't mind.

Quickly, I swiveled my scope around, and sure enough a beautiful Clapper Rail foraged out in the open, not a yard from the statuesque bittern. The rail ran up and down, and around the bittern, pausing every so often to probe its beak into the soft mud. It’s the most active Clapper Rail I’ve ever seen (granted, I’ve only seen one other), but it seemed so focused on its early morning hunting that it didn’t bother noticing James sneaking up behind the dock pylons to snap the shot you see above. After drinking in his lifer Clapper Rail, James made his way back around towards the car, only to find one of the Common Loons surfacing not twenty feet offshore. James managed to snap this one perfect picture before the loon realized what it had done and dove back underwater to escape the gaze of the watching birders.

That look in his eyes says, "I've made a huge mistake!"

And you know the rest of the story already. After enjoying some great birds at the marina, James and I headed off to the old Coast Guard station at Oregon Inlet, found a struggling Dovekie, and returned it to the sea. Because we were on a time crunch (getting James back to college, etc), we only birded the Outer Banks for a good six or eight hours. But that’s all the time you need to see some great birds at one of the best birding spots in the Carolinas

Monday, January 16, 2012

A Bird In The Hand Is Worth A Dovekie In The Bush

As the old saying goes, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. That is, what you have is not worth sacrificing for something that merely could be better. The adage is used as a cautionary tale, but today, as James and I birded the Outer Banks on his way back to William and Mary, I learned that this proverb may, in fact, be totally wrong.

As James and I passed over the Bonner Bridge, we noticed a bunch of cormorants hanging out on a couple of roped pylons just offshore in the placid, glass-like waters of the Pamlico Sound. Scoping them out, I found a Great Cormorant towering over its numerous Double-crested cousins.

“Hey, we should photograph the Great! It’s in pretty good light right now,” I shouted over to James, who was already checking out the mergansers in the small bay.

“No,” he maintained. “I’d rather see what’s out at the end of the jetty.” Fair enough. After yesterday’s strong winds topped 20 mph, I couldn’t refuse a day of sea-watching across a calm Atlantic Ocean scarcely able to create a single white-capped wave.

Walking around the stone wall that lined the bay, James noticed a rustling in the nearby grass. “What do you think it is?” he asked. Several birds called from just inside the chest-height blades.

“I dunno,” I replied. “I hear a Savannah Sparrow and a Towhee in there.” It had to be one of those. Towhees especially are well known for turning over the undergrowth with their legs, looking for food. But because most birds hop around, their rustling often sounds rhythmical, unlike this. This sounded random.

“It sounds like a mammal,” James said. It would make sense. We’d seen some cotton rats recently, and their skittering through fields and briers sounded pretty similar. “I think I can see it,” he continued. “Take a step into the reeds, you should be able to flush it towards me.”

As I advanced, the Savannah Sparrow and Eastern Towhee both flushed past James, landing in the dunes on the other side. I couldn’t locate the source of the sound, but I could definitely hear it again.

“I see it!” James exclaimed. “It’s a… bird?”


“Yeah, it’s black and white… like a Razorbill. I’m not sure what it is though!”

As I continued into the tall grass, I finally saw the source of the rustling. Flailing around on the ground in front of me, unable to fly, was an unmistakably tiny Dovekie, a rare little auk scarcely larger than the common Northern Cardinal. Assuming it had a hurt wing, I picked it up so it wouldn’t become food for a feral cat, or some native predator.

I'm probably one of only a few people ever to hold their lifer Dovekie!

James and I rejoiced in our find, and called out to a passing group of birders. They knew the name of a wildlife rehabber we could take the bird to. But one of them came up with an alternative theory.

“You know, it could’ve overshot the ocean with these winds we’ve been having. Maybe it just can’t take off?”

I hadn’t thought of that possibility, but he was right. Like grebes and loons, Dovekies and most other auks have their webbed feet set far back on their body. As obligate divers, a Dovekie’s feet and wings work in perfect synergy, allowing them to swiftly locate and capture prey underwater; however, in order to take off, they have to get a running start before there’s enough air over their wings for flight.

I call this one, "As Close As You Can Get To A Dovekie Without Getting Wet".

I’d been restraining the bird’s wings so it wouldn’t flap and perhaps injure itself further, but upon moving my hand, the Dovekie gave several strong flaps, its wings slapping against my extended arms. The bird certainly seemed healthy, so we cautiously walked over the large rocks that divided the parking lot from the bay, and headed down to the beach.

When I say it's a small bird, I mean it's tiny. At least, compared to me it is!

Surrounded by birders as if it were some kind of ceremony, I carefully placed the Dovekie on the packed sand just a couple feet from the gently lapping waters of the Atlantic. James was going to try and photograph it in situ on the beach, but as soon as I let go my hands, the bird pattered its feet across the sand and seamlessly continued into the ocean before finally alighting. The bird flapped its stubby wings for all their worth and before we could comprehend what happened, the bird had flown around side of the Oregon Inlet jetty and out of sight.

Sure it's blurry, but it remains the only record of my "Free Willy" moment.

After parting ways with the passing birders (who, it turned out, shared pretty much our exact birding agenda for the day), James and I decided to walk the length of the jetty and see if perhaps the Dovekie had decided to grab a quick bite to eat in the breakers off the point. Along the way, I heard an odd sound that made me turn around – but there was nothing. I heard it again – puff! – and this time I could see the dorsal fin of a Bottlenose Dolphin breach the surface not fifty feet away! But not just one – a whole pod of dolphins made its way down the jetty rocks, surfacing to exhale every so often, all of them very close. What a sight to behold!

And it was low tide too! Must've been shallow out there!

Reaching the end of the jetty, we found a whole load of nothing. Apparently, the windless day meant that pelagic birds could spend their time far out at sea, and even the formerly common Northern Gannets were relegated to white specks over a mile offshore. So we turned around, noting more dolphins on the way (can I reiterate, awesome?) but nothing else of note. Once we returned to the parking lot, James noticed the cormorants remained on the pylons, and sure enough the Great Comorant stuck around too. We got our photograph and retreated for the car to plan the rest of our excursion.

Large and in charge.

So, at least today, the old “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” phrase ended up being totally untrue. We had our bird, we left it, and we got a better one. As it turns out, in fact, a bird in the hand is worth exactly one awesome Dovekie.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Woodcock O'clock!

Towards the end of winter, the bird life starts to get tired. The juncos have been here for almost five months, the White-throated Sparrows are finishing off the last of the bird seed, and even the formerly cheerful racket of foraging Ruby-crowned Kinglets has relegated itself to commonplace. Luckily, at this time of year, there’s something you can do to relieve your avian ennui. For some reason, February is the month American Woodcocks have chosen to stop skulking in the deep forest, and begin their elaborate mating displays.

We arrived at Mason Farm earlier than we needed to. Unfortunately for photographers, woodcocks feel the need to display after sundown, and as that wouldn’t occur for another couple hours, James and I decided to walk the loop trail. Bird activity had slowed by the afternoon, but we still found a couple of small flocks. Chickadees and Titmice rasped from the shrubbery near a damp swamp, and a Golden-crowned Kinglet foraged lower in the branches than I’ve ever seen one. But the exciting part came after I heard a reedy whistle coming from a nearby tree. Looking up, I found none other than a Brown Creeper working its way up a trunk quite close to us, and James raced over to snap this shot.

Creepers have to be among the most frustrating birds to photograph!

As the clouds started to move in, even the mixed winter flocks started to disappear. The cool winds couldn’t hide the fact that it was a balmy sixty degrees outside. So as we rounded a turn on the gravel path, I was quite surprised to find a large toad hopping through the tall grass, apparently taking advantage of the unseasonable January weather. Before he could escape into the wilderness, I caught him and placed him on the trail to get a better look – in North Carolina, there are two very similar species, and I had to make sure of its identity. Luckily for us, the toad had single warts ringed by dark skin, meaning he was an American Toad, an amphibian that had escaped James’s camera lens until this point, as the more common and closely related Fowler’s Toad has proved to be more photogenic.

He doesn't look very amused, does he?

Finally, the sun began to set, and we made our way to a stretch of trail that lies between two large fields. It’s a spot I’m told has been historically good for woodcock in the past, and it’s where I got my lifer almost two years ago. Of course, January is still a little early for their breeding displays, and I couldn’t be certain the birds would be out and about so early in the year, but as it's been a mild winter, I liked our chances. As the sun dipped below the horizon, however, I heard an odd sound travel from across the field. weent. That’s it! The Woodcocks were back! Over the course of the next half-hour, more and more American Woodcocks called in the fields, and soon enough they began to take off on their display flights, winnowing over the fields by using specialized feathers on their wings. Suddenly, the winnowing became faster and faster as one bird spiraled towards the ground, and as he neared it became more mechanical before silencing. With naught but a rustle of feathers, a male American Woodcock flew right past us and landed in the middle of the trail.

A much nicer view than nearly stepping on one in the middle of the forest!

We managed to catch him in the spotlight, and as James photographed him, the bird straightened his posture and let out a single weent, hoping to attract a female to his trail-side hovel. He ducked back down, ran a couple feet, flashed his tail feathers, and without warning he’d alighted, once again winnowing over the fields. After just a half hour of watching the birds, the fields fell silent once again. All in all, we must have seen around ten American Woodcocks that night, including a male courting a female down the trail from us. But none gave us quite the views as that one male on a balmy night in January.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Species Spotlight #17: California Sea Lion

North Carolina doesn’t really get seals. At least, not like they do in the rest of the country. Sure you can get the odd Harbor Seal in winter if you look in the right spot (I’ve seen just one at Oregon Inlet), but it’s not like they swarm over docks and buoys like they do in much of the northeast. Likewise, in California, seals are just a part of life. Well, not seals technically. No, these eared behemoths in the family Otariidae are sea lions.

We first spotted the ubiquitous California Sea Lion in the middle of San Diego bay, where they pile by the hundreds onto floating platforms next to the naval docks. As we approached, we could hear their bellowing barks as they called out to each other, that classic seal sound you hear in the old movies – orf! orf! orf! We watched them slide into the water, transforming from clumsy beast to graceful swimmer, turning and rolling in the ocean as they searched for food.

In colloquial Spanish, they call them los lobos del mar: the wolves of the sea.

That could have been the last we saw of these magnificent creatures, but we took a small side trip down to La Jolla Cove one day. As the Brown Pelicans nested on the cliff face and the Brandt’s Cormorants roosted along the precipice, a large pod of California Sea Lions swam in a little inlet inside the kelp line. Even at this distance, we could clearly see most of the pod were smaller females, with the one big bull seen above swimming among them. As the sea lions swam closer, they became suddenly juxtaposed against seemingly insignificant snorkelers looking the bright orange Garibaldi fish you can see swimming just under the ocean’s surface. The sea lions paid the potential prey little attention, as over the years these animals have become accustomed to life with humans. But it’s clear that humans aren’t the ones who rule the seas in San Diego – it’s el lobo del mar. The California Sea Lion.

Monday, January 9, 2012

How Otterly Delightful!

The Lake Mattamuskeet Christmas Bird Count is a great day spent scoping the largest lake in our state for ducks, swans, and other water-loving birds that live along its shores. Of course, none of that applied to James or I, because along with Scott of Birdaholic, our count area consisted of a ten mile stretch of a local highway that runs along the huge expanse of water. Still, you’ve got to do the best you can with the life that you’re given, so some time before dawn, we headed off to start counting!

Starting at the very edge of our count area, we started raising our binoculars to the skies to see what we could find. The birds, oblivious to the human life around them, were already awake and singing. One large group of blackbirds suddenly alighted from a tree when a dark shape cut through the flock. We edged closer to see what it was, and the falcon leapt from its perch, slicing through the still morning air like a dagger. Larger than the kestrels we would see all day, the bird was a Merlin, and the first decent bird we saw that morning.

The approach was simple: driving down our highway, we’d pull over every so often and keep track of the birds we saw. Red-winged Blackbirds would fly overhead and Killdeer would call from the fields, and we had to count every single one. We stopped at an old woodpile to check it for Lincoln’s Sparrow, a long shot, but the habitat looked right. As we made our way towards it, we met a couple of hunters on the way back from shooting ducks on the lake. Far from the birder-hating killers we assumed we’d be dealing with out east, the hunter was actually rather friendly, pointing us in the direction of a couple small impoundments behind a fish market, which he so thoroughly described as a ‘crab shack’.

Red-winged Blackbirds were by far the most common bird we saw that day... numbers totaled over 8000!

Upon arriving at the specified location, we became suddenly inundated with an entirely different roster of bird life than we’d previously seen: Fish Crows called from the banks, Bald Eagles sat regally in the nearby pines, and a large flock of White Ibis foraged among the numerous Ring-billed Gulls. Counting the birds proved to be difficult; the birds apparently take a liking to the leftover seafood thrown out by the fish market, meaning the shores of the impoundments were littered with oysters and crab shells. Oh, plus it smelled something awful, the result of years upon years of rotting crustacean carcasses piling up six inches deep in some places. As we checked through the nearly one thousand blackbirds for something different, netting us a couple Boat-tailed Grackles and a single Rusty Blackbird, James excitedly exclaimed from the shore: “Otters!

This one was straight-up chillaxin' on his little island!

Four otters, in fact, perhaps a family unit. They swam together through the impoundment, before hopping onto a small island in the middle of the water. Now, I’ve seen otters before, a couple times, and they’ve done some pretty crazy things. But I’ve never seen them engage in play-fighting like these guys did. As soon as they hopped up on land, they otters began jumping on each other, rolling around and baring their teeth. Of course, they never meant each other harm, and as after they had their fun, the otters returned to the water.

We watched them play-fight for a full five minutes - extremely entertaining!

The fun didn’t stop there, even. The otters dove gracefully yet purposefully in the water, like some mixture of synchronized swimming and water polo. Every once in a while they’d surface and swim circles around each other for no apparent reason. If there’s one animal that enjoys having fun as much as human beings, it’s the River Otter. After spending an extended amount of time underwater, one of the otters finally surfaced with some food, and began to chow down right in front of us.

Nom nom nom...

The crab shack ended up being the coolest place we’d count all day. Sure some of the random canals were nice, filled with Pied-billed Grebes that wouldn’t dive at a moment’s notice, and nice adult Black crowned Night-Herons roosting in the trees, but no other area could quite match the magnitude and excitement those random impoundments behind a random fish market randomly situated on Highway 12. That said, there were still plenty of cool birding experiences to be had at Lake Mattamuskeet!

Getting this shot necessitated the use of the tried-and-true 'car blind'.

We're not done yet, not even close! Join us next week for the conclusion of our eastern North Carolina odyssey – Part VI: Old Friends in Odd Places!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Would that be Accidental or Occidental?

The bird had apparently been coming to Marjorie’s house in Pinehurst for a month or so. Being very busy during the holidays, as most of us are, she didn’t have much time to check it out thoroughly, and assuming he was an oriole, she put half an orange out for him on the feeder set-up. Weeks passed, and the orange remained uneaten. Instead, the bird continued visiting her peanut feeder, and after snapping a couple pictures with her point and shoot, she brought over Michael McCloy to check out the bird and confirm her suspicions. Sure enough, they were looking at a bright male Western Tanager, a bird of the Rockies and the Pacific Coast, and a bird off-course by several thousand miles.

Having spent several weeks out in California and coming up empty on the tanager front, I knew this chase was happening. Heck, it’s only an hour and a half away, and James really wanted to see the bird after finding out it was a nice male, and not one of the drab females that usually grace our state. So this morning, we made a bee-line for Pinehurst, and after Marjorie graciously allowed us inside her house, we waited intently while the sunlight danced around her birdless feeders, hoping that if the tanager did show up, it would land at the right moment. Then, a flurry of activity – out of nowhere, Blue Jays drank from the nearby bath, Pine Warblers and Chickadees ate out of the seed feeders; even a Northern Flicker popped up to the feeder closest to the window. And right in the middle of her platform feeder filled with peanuts, a golden bird with a wash of crimson to his head. The Western Tanager positively glowed in the morning sun.

The bird stuck around for a full ten seconds, which is like 9.5 seconds longer than
it had ever stuck around before!

Having allocated several extra hours in case the tanager decided to be timid, James and I decided to visit the nearby Weymouth Woods Nature Preserve. If you recall, we visited last summer to try and find its most famous residents, the colony of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers that call the preserve home. Of course, last summer we also got totally skunked on the birds, and I’d almost totally written off Weymouth Woods as a potential spot to find the endangered woodpeckers. This morning, however, I watched several dozen Brown-headed Nuthatches work their way through the pines they enjoy so much, when all of a sudden from the middle of the flock, I heard an odd whark! near the base of one of the trees. I assumed it was just one of the nuthatches making an uncharacteristic noise, but as I neared a larger bird flew up to a nearby pine, and the pattern of black and white bars across the back meant could only mean one thing – a beautiful Red-cockaded Woodpecker, and not fifty feet from my car!

Even at this distance I can't see the red cockades. I'm convinced they don't exist!

The woodpecker flew down one of the trails, stopping every so often to check out a pine and hammer away at a couple bugs. Suddenly, I heard another whark! come from behind me, and a second Red-cockaded joined the first. Within minutes, whark!s started sounding from every corner of the forest, and the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers started streaming in from previously unseen perches. There must have been something like 10 or 15 birds in all, every one working their way from pine to pine, starting at the bottom and sidling up until they’d rid the tree of insects. At one point, I had five of these so-called “rare” woodpeckers working the same spot on the tree, as if they were butterflies swarming over a salt puddle.

Despite the Red-cockadeds, we ended the day with 6 woodpecker sp. So close!

After following the flock for a good half mile or so, one of the birds finally decided to sit up near the light for us (for some reason, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers seem to prefer the shady side of trees). With that, it seemed like we’d gotten everything these Sandhills could have possibly offered us on this cool January morning. We stopped back by Marjorie’s to see if the tanager had shown up again (it had, just once), and we checked the local golf course rather unsuccessfully for Fox Squirrels. All in all though, I think we nailed this morning. If only birding could be this awesome every day!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Tale of Two Loons

We saw our first birds at Oregon Inlet early in the morning. Just as the sun rose over the eastern horizon, gulls kited over the old Bonner Bridge, and pelicans soared low over the cresting waves. Upon reaching the Pea Island side of the bridge, I noticed a cormorant standing tall upon a bundle of pylons next to a couple of Great Black-backed Gulls. It looked large and beefy, almost as large as the gulls themselves, and I thought, just maybe… but we didn’t have time to check it out, as our North Pond count awaited.

After counting our area, we returned to Oregon Inlet to check out what birds we could find. My mystery cormorant had vacated his pylon, though his black-backed compatriots remained. No matter, we had to check out the jetty to see what the cold winter winds had brought. Just past the first bend in the jetty, James noticed a small flock of Red-breasted Mergansers dancing among the waves that crashed upon the rocks, including this nice male individual, whose bright red bill positively glowed in the early afternoon sun.

Zoom in and you can totally see the serrations on its bill!

As we continued our way down the jetty, we couldn’t find any of our hoped-for sea-ducks, scoters, eiders… heck, not even a Purple Sandpiper or two. What we did find, however, were birds streaming past at an astonishing rate. Almost all of the birds consisted of Northern Gannets flying low and occasionally picking off a fish that strayed to close to the surface, or north-bound Red-throated Loons flying with those clumsy wing-beats of theirs. Throughout the day, we’d seen both these birds in good numbers, but only at the end of the Oregon Inlet jetty, jutting out into the tumultuous Atlantic Ocean, could we get close to them.

The loons flew much closer in than last year, when my lifer was almost 300 ft out!

As if that weren’t enough, several Gannets appeared to be feeding right on the shore not a hundred yards away. James raced down to photograph them, but I stayed behind to continue the sea-watch, and just as it seemed I’d made a mistake not following my brother, a small flock of four Red Knots flew in from the south, planting themselves right in front of me at the base of the jetty. The birds were much closer than the one I’d seen just a half-year ago on Ocracoke, but far from their namesake plumage, each knot wore a winter coat of drab gray feathers. While I may have had my fun, James apparently had even more fun as the stiff sea-winds made it difficult for the Gannets to fly quickly as they hunted, and several kited slowly just in front of him – not bad for seeing a pelagic bird from land!

The last time I saw Gannets this close up, I was on a cruise in the North Sea
and one flew right outside my window!

On the way back, the birds came more slowly than they had before, with more mergansers loafing in the surf, and several gulls floating overhead. But when we reached the beach, we noticed something different among the now-ubiquitous mergansers – they’d been joined by several Horned Grebes, who apparently enjoyed swimming among the rolling waves. They’d dive and resurface just in front of us, apparently indifferent to the humans gawking at them from shore. As with the mergansers, we never get looks this good in the Piedmont, so I really enjoyed the experience while I could!

Why must diving birds be so aggravating to photograph?

Upon reaching the parking lot again, our car-mate Patsy noticed that the mystery cormorant had rejoined the Great Black-backed Gulls on top of the pylons. The sun lay just to the birds left, leaving him fairly back-lit, which made it hard to discern many details. Still, just by the silhouette, I was pretty sure… so I called Norm over to confirm it. He had trouble too. There was white under the chin, but not that much white… then Kyle and Brian pulled up to see what was going on. They, too, thought the proportions looked beefy but… Then I remembered. It’s so simple; I can’t believe I didn’t think about it before. The Double-crested Cormorants that abound in the inlet all have orange skin over their lores, but no other species of cormorant around here should show that. Neither did this guy, and the combination of the large size (almost as big as the Great Black-backeds!) plus that white stubble under his chin solidified it – we were looking at a Great Cormorant, a pretty good bird as south as we were, and a lifer for me!

Pretty sure I did a little jig after seeing this bird.

Content with my lifer, we piled back into the car and headed for Bodie Lighthouse, to check out all those ducks you saw last post. While we were waiting for that supposedly “sure-fire” Virginia Rail to show its face, I got a text from Brian. “Pacific Loon at the jetty.” Aw, crap, what to do, what to do… leave one potential lifer for a definite one? We decided to cut our losses and head back for the jetty, but just as we were leaving the parking lot at Bodie Light, I got a second text: “Loon hasn’t been seen for 5 minutes. We’re checking if maybe it moved up the jetty.” It was getting nail-biting. We pulled up to the jetty, and just as I stepped foot on the rocks, I got a third text: “It’s back!!!” All right! James and I raced down to the end where we could see a mass of birders apparently following the bird as it moved. Finally we caught up to them, and then… success!

Photographing this thing was easier said than done!

The bird preferred to feed in the extremely rough waters just to the left of the jetty, apparently caused by the incoming tide. It actually spent most of it’s time underwater – every once in a while, you’d hear “It’s up!” and everybody would train their cameras and binoculars towards the swells to catch a glimpse, but after catching a quick breath, the look would dive again and hunt for food. The whole routine got almost comical after a while. “It’s up! Wait, no, down again…” “There it is! Nope, dove…” “There! Aaand back down…” Eventually I succeeded on training my scope on the bird. It seemed good to me – thick, dark coloration on the nape and neck, and what seemed to be a chinstrap. Everybody seemed to be in good spirits after seeing the bird.

And why shouldn't they be?

That is, until we got to the countdown and started reviewing the pictures. Several of North Carolina’s top birders took a look at the shots and started picking apart the details. The bill was held at a slight upward angle – Pacific Loon doesn’t do that, its bill is straight. The light and dark areas on the bird aren’t demarcated enough, there’s no remnant vertical streaking on the neck, the chin-strap isn’t well defined… in the end, after much discussion, pretty much everybody decided this was an odd, young Red-throated Loon. It’s too bad, I would have liked to’ve gotten a second lifer out of my Outer Banks excursion. Oh well. At least I got awesome looks at a Red-throated Loon!

Our eastern North Carolina excursion isn’t over just yet! Check back next Monday for Part V of our adventure: How Otterly Delightful!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A-grebe to Disa-grebe

Like I said last post, the best part of any CBC is chasing rare birds once you’re done counting – just a few weeks ago, James and I were checking out a Greater White-fronted Goose found not five minutes from our count area. This time, however, we knew what to look for in advance.

Red-necked Grebes are pretty good birds in North Carolina, so good in fact that I traveled almost an hour and a half to find my lifer early in December. Oddly enough, one had been sighted just a mile or so from our Pea Island count, and could supposedly be seen from the end of the Oregon Inlet marina. We’d tried for the bird the previous day, but the heavy rain made long-distance bird viewing difficult. Not that this was a problem when we checked out the marina on count day – far from being a distant bird, the Red-necked Grebe decided to take up residence within the marina, giving us looks at no farther than fifty feet at all times. As the bird dove and resurfaced hundreds of feet away, James chased after it, eventually nailing this shot from between two moored boats. While the Greensboro bird may have been my lifer, this is the Red-necked Grebe experience I’ll always remember.

Sure it may look nicer in breeding plumage, but this is about as good a look as you're ever gonna get!

After checking out the Oregon Inlet itself (which was both a boon and a bust in its own way – more on that later), we headed for the Bodie Lighthouse, a great little spot with a nice viewing platform next to its large pond. While Pea Island may have been devoid of ducks, Bodie Light was relatively packed with them. Several large rafts of common species fed among the larger Tundra Swans, and of them, Northern Pintail was the most numerous. It’s a species that’s pretty hard to find in Durham, so heading to the coast is the one time a year I know I can always find them. We found this one just off the observation deck at the lighthouse, dabbling to his heart’s content.

A handsome bird... I would have one mounted on my mantle, if I didn't have to shoot and kill it first.

If Pintail are the most numerous species on the coast, American Black Duck are a close second. Sure they look kind of like female Mallards, but there’s one big difference – their call. While American Black Duck may be a thoroughly descriptive name, it’s kind of boring. Instead, I suggest calling them Laughing Ducks, as their descending nasally quacks are probably the easiest calls to pick out among an impoundment full of noisy ducks. Needless to say, this particular individual felt right at home among the Northern Pintails, feeding quite close to the observation deck.

I'm 2-for-4 on Mallard-like ducks... Mottled, and Mexican, you'd best be lookin' out!

And then we come to the third most common duck out east – the American Wigeon. I’m not exactly sure what part of the duck ‘wigeon’ refers to (although the archaic American name, Baldpate, seems to make more sense), but I relish any chance to see these ducks up close and in person. The ducks themselves aren’t even the best part – they’re kind of cool, but not really colorful and flashy like some of the others we get around here. But their calls are totally unreal, a high-pitched drawl that sounds like somebody blowing through a kazoo, or like one of those toy guns you could get as a kid that would spark when you pulled the trigger. These guys stayed pretty far out the whole time, which made searching for the odd Eurasian Wigeon difficult (nigh, impossible), but eventually a couple sidled up towards the observation tower, and let James grab his life photographs of these awesome birds.

American Wigeon is nice, but Eurasian escaped me once again... just a matter of time now....

And that was that. The wind kept a lot of the birds down, which meant things like a sure-fire Virginia Rail, and cooperative Marsh and Sedge wrens would just have to go un-viewed. However, just seeing ducks in large groups harkened back to the previous year, which such numbers were commonplace. Being an off-year for waterfowl, I guess you just have to take what you can get… but really, when you’ve got Pintail, and you’ve got Wigeon, who could ask for anything more?

Come back Friday, when our Outer Banks adventures continue with Part IV - A Tale of Two Loons!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Stop Short

On last year’s Bodie-Pea CBC, I visited the legendary North Pond in the early afternoon after having already canvassed our residential Nag’s Head count area. Immediately, I found myself dumbstruck by the awesome numbers of birds there – a hundred avocets here, several hundred swans there, and thousands upon thousands of ducks in thick rafts that edged upon the grassy walkways. This year, however, something was different. This year, something was wrong. When we walked up to North Pond, we found it empty. No rafts of ducks. No large flock of swans. Nothing.

Hurricane Irene might be to blame. When she made landfall on the fragile Outer Banks, she tore a new inlet right through the middle of Pea Island, and cleaved in two the grass walkway that surrounded North Pond. Now, what had been isolated from the sea was consumed by it, increasingly filling with brackish water. However, there could be a simpler answer. This winter has been incredibly mild, and I’ve been able to bird in short sleeves on more than one occasion in the middle of December! This hasn’t escaped the notice of our nation’s waterfowl. With the lakes and rivers up north remaining unfrozen in the dead of winter, migrating ducks, geese, and swans no longer have to travel so far south to find food. It’s a phenomenon called the “short-stop”, but because I’m a huge Seinfeld fan, I’m going to rename it the “stop short” in honor of the immortal Frank Costanza.

That’s not to say we didn’t find any ducks – just not a whole lot of them. A couple Bufflehead flushed from the side of the causeway, and we found several American Black Ducks in a sheltered bay, cowering from the strong sea-winds against the reeds. Interestingly enough, Red-breasted Mergansers ended up being one of our most numerous ducks, likely a result of the saltier water I mentioned earlier. Luckily for us though, North Pond has a whole lot more to offer than just ducks. We found the American Avocets in good numbers just like last year, but more importantly we found a bird James had been really hoping for as a lifer. At first we couldn’t find any, but soon enough James spotted a hulking white shape amongst a small raft of rather miniscule Northern Pintails – an American White Pelican, and a real beauty too.

One of the heaviest birds in the country, just behind California Condor!

That bird was slightly too far away to photograph, but luckily we found one lounging against the causeway on the far side, it’s head clearing the three foot walls that lined the impoundment. Carefully, we snuck around the corner, hoping to hide ourselves amongst the tall hedges, but while trying to maneuver into position we found ourselves exposed amid a hole in the shrubbery, and James managed to fire off just a couple shots before the beast lifted up its eight-foot long wings and hurtled into the air. I can’t imagine anything more magnificent, and despite the poor light in the shot you see above, the experience was one of the coolest I had on the entire trip. Between trying to photograph the pelican and watching it fly off into the morning sun, we almost missed this Lesser Scaup foraging nearby. Lucky we did, as it gave James his second lifer of the day.

The only scaup we saw that day, a victim of low waterfowl diversity.

After rain the day before, the strong winds we encountered on North Pond came as an additional disappointment. Normally the hedges along the pond are filled with large numbers of Yellow-rumped Warblers, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Boat-tailed Grackles, but that day we only managed to locate a few individuals of each species. Then, we heard an interesting chip-note coming from the hedges to our left, and while trying to find it, we were suddenly diverted from our search when we spotted a mammal lumbering down the path towards us. Was it a Nutria, common in this part of the state? No, upon raising my binoculars, I found a Common Raccoon walking in our direction, not a care in the world. North Pond is the only place I’ve been able to find raccoons reliably in the daylight hours – I see one every time I’m down here, it seems. We found two that day, and we would have like to’ve gotten better shots at this one, but it spooked at the last moment and ran for the hedges, never to be seen again.

The last raccoon I saw was this time last year, interestingly enough on this very CBC.

Once we got over our momentary distraction, it was time to figure out who’d been doing that odd chipping. It didn’t take long for a beautiful male Orange-crowned Warbler to stop skulking and start foraging on top of the hedgerow. The Orange-crowneds ended up being incredibly plentiful on our eastern excursion, and by the end of our trip I must’ve come across ten different individuals. It took me long enough, but I’ve finally added the Orange-crowned Warbler to the list of Parulid chip calls I can identify. They’re a pretty uncommon bird in the Piedmont, so it’s nice to see them in good numbers for once. The male decided he had enough of putting on a show, however, and went back to skulking and chipping in the hedges. We moved forward.

Apparently a banner year for this species in NC - over 60 seen on the Mattamuskeet count!

Before long, we reached the end of our count area – that fissure Hurricane Irene gouged in the North Pond causeway. Looking across the newly-created inlet, we spotted more of the same – a couple Bufflehead and just past them, a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers. Pied-billed Grebes grouped in the narrow inlets, and amidst the waters of the Pamlico Sound, we watched Northern Gannets dance above the placid waves when all of a sudden a diving bird surfaced between us in the mergansers. A drab bird, but the huge bill gave it away almost immediately – a nice Common Loon, and a lot closer than I usually see them!

Usually they're a quarter mile across Jordan Lake from me.

On our way back to the car, we decided to take the low road so we could more clearly check out the one spot we’d neglected this whole time – a small mudflat that had formed in some of North Pond’s shallower waters where all the shorebirds in the area seem to have concentrated. Over a thousand of the birds we saw were Dunlin, clearly visible with their long drooping bills, but among them were some seemingly gigantic Black-bellied Plovers. Unfortunately, every once in a while the whole flock would alight and I’d lose track of the birds I was looking at. Is that one Sanderling or two - *birds flush* - dang! Oh, hey, a Ruddy Turnstone - *birds flush again* - crap! Still, it was amazing to see so many birds fly in perfect synchronicity – if only they’d sit still a little longer before doing so!

All these Dunlin and we still can't manage a decent picture of one...

With that, our count was finished. More American White Pelicans flew over, as did a flock of Snow Geese, but most of the birds we saw on the way up. This means we had a whole half a day ahead of us, the perfect amount of time to celebrate that most hallowed of CBC traditions – chasing rare birds in the afternoon, and poaching good birds from other counters areas. Game on!

Come back Wednesday, when our Outer Banks adventures continue with Part III – A-grebe to Disa-grebe!