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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!

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