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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!

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