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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?

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