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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Of Newcomers and Stragglers

I’ve got to admit, birds weren’t my primary focus last Friday. Rather, I was going to check out the cover boards at Sandling Beach on Falls Lake, but I couldn’t help stopping by my old birding haunt on the way. Over the causeway at Cheek Road, I watched my first-of-the year Cliff Swallows careen around the bridge, and I scoped out a couple pairs of nesting Ospreys. I even caught a glimpse of an odd gull with a black head, and I got excited until common sense took over. The white leading edge to its wings meant this was a Bonaparte’s Gull, and while I’ve seen countless thousands of these guys, this is the first I’ve seen in breeding plumage – almost as good as a lifer!

But, I had herps on the mind, so I kept on my way. As I stepped towards that first cover board, I distinctly noticed all the birds singing around me – a White-eyed Vireo in the bushes, Pine and Yellow-rumped Warblers in the trees overhead, even long-forgotten friends like Summer Tanager and Great-crested Flycatcher. Of course, none of these graced my camera lens like herps are so willing to do, so I shifted my focus. Under the very first board I flipped, I found this fat ol’ Eastern Narrowmouth Toad trying to do his best field cricket impression. No dice, toad! Consider yourself photographed!

My first adult too! It's a frog that I've always wanted to see.

Now, I had a singular goal in mind that day. Ali told me that Ringneck Snakes were can’t-miss under the boards at Sandling, but I knew better than to get my hopes up. I shouldn’t have been so worried though – a couple boards later, and I had my first Ringneck, a little one missing the tip of its tail. A few more boards, a few more snakes, including three Ringnecks under the same one! Posing snakes by yourself is apparently difficult, and these guys kept slithering away before I could snap my shutter. But all it took was that one shot, and I got it with this large individual that finally sat still for a half-second.

And by 'large individual' I meat about a foot. But man, that musk packs a wallop!

Thankfully, Ringnecks weren’t the only snakes I found. Under one of the boards, I found a nice big Black Racer that was content to chill until I tried to grab him, at which point he slithered away faster than I’ve ever seen a racer slither. Nearby, I noticed something that looked like an odd root tucked under one of the boards. Halfway buried, I pried it out to reveal this nice Rough Earth Snake, an extremely common serpent that I really should have seen by now. Luckily he was an extremely easy snake to pose, and sat still while I took shot after shot.

Not the prettiest of snakes, but one every herper needs to see.

After I’d overturned every possible board, I decided to check out the lake itself, just to see if anything was out there. Sure enough, I heard an odd screech and watched as two Caspian Terns flashed by. I got back in my car and drove in the direction they were flying, and upon reaching the swim beach I saw one of the terns sitting atop the yellow swimming barrier. Out in the water, I saw dozens of Ring-billed Gulls, and a couple basic plumage Bonaparte’s, but one dark spot made me look again.

This dark spot to be exact. Not the best shot in the world, but it gets the point across.

It was a Horned Grebe, and a far cry from most of the drab birds I see in winter, this guy was nearing alternate plumage, and his distinctive tufts of feathers had already grown in! Encouraged by my find, I scanned the lake to see an odd bird swimming and diving near some comorants – bulky, with a short neck and long beak, but I couldn’t quite place it at first. What waterbird has a dark head with a white underside? That’s when I realized I was looking at a breeding-plumaged Common Loon, something I’ve never seen inland!

Maybe our mild winter means that some of our feathery friends haven’t realized it’s spring yet, but all the better for me. It’s the first time I’ve seen some of these species in the plumage they’re always illustrated in my field guides. That day was the first good day of birding I’ve had in a while, and a welcome respite. Because man, birds are awesome. And I guess herps are cool too.

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