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Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Rather Blustery Day

Who’da thunk it? Just a month after James and I rushed down to Pinehurst for a beautiful male Western Tanager, I received a phone-call from Ali Iyoob apprising me of a second individual, a female – and pretty much in my own back yard. The bird had been coming to a feeder in northern Durham, but a combination of strong winds and extreme cold made me wonder whether the bird would survive the night. Nevertheless, the next morning I headed out with Mark and Nate to check out this awesome find, and we weren’t disappointed – almost immediately, a bird looking much like a giant goldfinch flew into a tree right in front of us, allowing for spectacular photos! Oh, wait…

Alas, we meet again - my old nemesis, Stick-Through-the-Face!

Nevermind that, it was only a fluke. The Western Tanager flew off from its perch across the street, but I would get my shot when it returned. In the meantime, we had plenty of bird life to occupy us as we waited in the cold and wind. American Goldfinches were plentiful, and several smart-looking Northern Cardinals chased each other around a small hedge. Then, without warning, a whole flock of birds flew in, including a saffron rocket that landed in the pine right above me – this was my chance, my one perfect shot!

Damn! Foiled again! What a dastardly foe...

Still, it was awesome to see this western species so close to home. As we left, we happened to glance at the feeder complex across the street. Among the multitude of House Finches stuffing their faces full of nyjer seed, we noticed an altogether raspberry bird, totally out of place even from a distance. Upon taking a closer look, we found ourselves looking at a male Purple Finch, a good bird this year considering the finch stock has been running low – I mean, how long has it been since you saw a Pine Siskin? Making the best of our morning, we ran around getting additional county ticks for everyone, including Hooded Mergansers for Mark and Mute Swan for myself. Still, nothing quite measured up to the little subdivision with two awesome birds.

All birding is relative - I've seen more Western Tanagers than Purple Finch this year!

But the day was still young; we had places to be and birds to see there! Mark and I parted ways from Nate and headed to the New Hope Waterfowl Impoundment – ordinarily it’s nothing special, but it was kind of on the way home and Mark wanted his Durham county Brown Creeper. We totally dipped on any sort of creeping birds, but on the cement causeway, we found a small cadre of Ruby-crowned Kinglets foraging along the swampy bottom. A little pishing here and a little playback there, and one of the males reared his namesake feathers and started going crazy.

He's got a better punk-rock 'do than Sid Vicious!

I was shocked at how brazen this little four-inch bird thought himself. He would occasionally forage on the trees around us, but he focused the bulk of his attention on the two humans in his territory. From his base of operations in a nearby bush, he’d make little sorties to buzz right by Mark, or check out the algae-filled no-man’s land between us. At one point, the comparatively tiny kinglet landed not three inches from my size-11 shoe, completely oblivious to the fact that I towered above him. At this distance, my camera couldn’t possibly auto-focus, but he hung out so close I had no problem snapping several dozen awesome shots.

To infinity, and... well honestly, like a foot away.

Eventually, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet ended his campaign, preferring to focus on food and females. Throughout the years, I’ve had many close calls with these boisterous little birds, but none have come so close I that could have stepped on them were I not careful. The whole experience was definitely one of the coolest of the day – and on a day that included a vagrant Western Tanager, that’s nothing to sneeze at!

Unless you happened to be allergic to kinglets, I guess!


  1. Here in Maryland this winter Siskins and Purple Finches are being seen at about the same rate as Common Redpolls according to the Ebird stuff. Weird.

  2. One of these years we're gonna have a good finch winter, and we'll have just as many Common Redpolls as Evening Grosbeaks... but I don't expect that anytime this decade.