rotating banner

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!

No comments:

Post a Comment