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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Firsts and Seconds

Beryl is almost upon us. Tropical depression Beryl, that is – I guess she’s unhappy that her status has been downgraded! Anyway, the storm is set to dump rain and high winds on the Triangle area, and out of fear they could be M.I.A in the coming days (and no, I don’t mean they’re going to become international hip-hop stars), James and I took a chance and visited the nesting Warbling Vireos of Lake Shelley.

When we left, the sky was a monotonous overcast, but by the time we reached Raleigh, bright spots and blue blotches appeared among the clouds. Almost as soon as we left the parking lot, I could hear the incessant ramblings of a male Warbling Vireo calling from atop one of the nearby sycamores. At least I’m told they’re sycamores – I’m really bad at trees. Unfortunately, we were totally unprepared for the sun when the clouds broke, and the by the time James compensated for the light, the male jumped down from his singing perch and flew off. Still, a lifer is a lifer, and he got his shot.

Vireos just aren't very photogenic - we don't have good pictures of any!

We could never find the reported nest (mostly because I forgot my binoculars – more on that later), but I was able to view one of the Warbling Vireos quite closely. A large Common Grackle got a little to close to the nesting area, and a vireo swooped down, chasing the large blackbird out of its territory, and landed at a nice eye level. Using a detached spotting scope, I got my best view of a Warbling Vireo since I was in college, watching one sing along Beaver Lake in Asheville.

While the Warbling Vireos may have been our immediate target, the sure-fire birds were just a MacGuffin to get us out towards the Shelley Lake area. Around the far reaches of the lake, local birders had been sporadically reporting Great Horned Owls, and as it too would be a lifer for James, we decided to spend some time looking for one. Our strategies differed however, and James quickly bolted down the trail, quickly reaching the area where the owls had been reported. I, on the other hand, using only a detached spotting scope that would serve as my optics for the morning, painstakingly looked through every pine for any sign of a roosting owl. Then, randomly, I came upon a bundle of feathers.

This bundle of feathers, to be exact. I'm still not sure how I ever spotted it, but I remember
my heart skipping a beat when I did!

Immediately I called James on his cell phone, telling him simply: “I’ve got one.” He sprinted the half-mile back to my location, but at the time I couldn’t tell if the owl was even the Great-horned we were looking for – it could have been a more common Barred Owl, or even a juvenile of either species. As James ran up, the owl reached over and scratched his chin, revealing twin tufts of feathers. We’d found our bird, and maneuvered slightly to get into prime viewing position.

I watched through the scope as he peered down at us - he seemed to be looking into our souls!

Almost immediately after reaching our optimal spot, two things happened. For one, the clouds totally broke, and light shone upon the bird who clearly thought he was hidden in a dense tangle of pine needles. Secondly, a large mixed flock of American and Fish Crows started calling from just above our heads. We were afraid we’d betrayed the owl’s position, but he kept his cool and stayed put. Eventually the crows flew off, perhaps pursuing a different predatory bird – or even a second owl! The Great Horned Owl watched them depart into the distance, almost oblivious to our presence. Another lifer for James, and another bird I've only seen once before.

It's the first one I've found roosting during the day - makes for a totally different experience!

On the way back from our owl adventure, James and I couldn’t help but visit the Warbling Vireo one last time. Same as before, the male flitted between the sycamores, singing constantly. The only difference is he stayed in the same spot for more than a couple seconds, and James was able to get a shot of his lifer that he was finally happy with. While we sat there, staring up into the tree, a couple passing walkers (/not zombies) asked us what we were looking at. Was it an owl nest? A heron nest? They’d seen a heron a couple days ago, it must’ve been six feet tall, they said.

Why, does it look like a heron or something?

No, it was a Warbling Vireo. “That doesn’t mean anything to me,” she replied. “I know,” I replied, a knowing smirk on my face. “It’s kind of a birder’s bird.” The walker shrugged and walked off, not realizing that she’d passed up a creature wholly unusual in our neck of the woods. It’s too bad they couldn’t enjoy it like James and I did, but it’s her loss – just means more birds for us!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Spanish Bird of the Week #3: Song Thrush

By James

On a rare cloudy day in Seville, I elected to travel to another one of the urban parks that dot the city. While calling this park a greenway would be more than a compliment, it still gave me a good look at one of Europe’s more common birds, the Song Thrush.

Like the thrushes we get in the States, distinguishing a Song Thrush from the closely related Mistle Thrush is no easy task. There are several distinguishing characteristics, such as their behavior. Mistle Thrushes tend to stay on the ground, and stay very upright, while Song Thrushes kept to the trees. Thankfully, the thrush gave me a perfect look at the best diagnostic, the breast patterning. 

The Song Thrush’s breast speckles are described as “upside-down hearts” while those of the Mistle Thrush seem more like thorns. Unfortunately, I never came across a Mistle Thrush in my four months abroad, though I found several more Song Thrushes. I guess I’ll need to do another trip over to Europe to get them. Que mala suerte.

Friday, May 25, 2012

When Life Imitates Art

Like I said before, beach birding wasn’t the point of our trip down to the Fort Fisher area, although we found some pretty sweet birds. Walking miles and miles through the sand ended up being totally worth it, but by the end of our trek we were too exhausted to find our target species. Instead, the shorebirds we saw would have to slake our lust for our target bird, a bird I’d been longing to see since I was a child flipping through old field guides. The most beautiful bird in North America.

This Whimbrel was nice, but I need a little more color in my birds!

That’s not to say we didn’t encounter the species that day. I’d always heard that the Fort Fisher Aquarium was a great place to find these birds, and it didn’t disappoint. As soon as we pulled up, I heard a song with the rhythm of a Blue Grosbeak but the timbre of a House Finch. As neither of those birds are particularly common in this beachside scrubby habitat, I knew what I was hearing, so I tried a little playback. Immediately, a bird flew in, but not the one I was expecting.

That's it! That's the bird! The one we traveled over 3 hours to find! Oh, wait...

Much to my chagrin, a female Painted Bunting alighted into a nearby bush. Clearly she was attracted to the call – her constantly fluttering wings said that much – but I found it odd that a singing male would totally ignore his competition. In any case, while she wasn’t nearly as gaudy as her counterpart, I thoroughly enjoyed the moss-green bird that paraded mere feet in front of us. This female may have been my lifer Painted Bunting, but it wasn’t the Painted Bunting I was looking for.

It's the Painted Bunting I need for my life list, but not the one I want - or the one I deserve.

Instead, that bird would come later. I’ve heard that the second-best place to find male Painted Buntings is the feeder by the Carolina Beach State Park marina. You’re just supposed to wait around for one to show up, but upon arrival we found this guy shredding up a storm on top of a tall cedar. I only got him in my binocs for a split-second, but he remains my “lifer” male Painted Bunting.

For such an awful look, this is the only one that sat out in the sun for us.

Meandering the expansive dirt trails of Carolina Beach, we accidentally found ourselves in a place we weren’t supposed to be. Turns out, the trails are kind of poorly marked, and somewhere between dodging cactuses and climbing over derelict bridges, we realized we’d come to an unmaintained part of the trail that was supposed to be closed. But it was Painted Bunting heaven – we watched an immature male sing from the top of an old snag, just starting to grow in his red breast. A fully mature individual graced up with his presence by hopping on the ground in front of us, giving me my (at the time) best look at a Painted Bunting ever!

It would end up being my third best look ever by the next day... but, I mean,  Painted Bunting, man!

After hearing the tantalizing calls of Common Nighthawks and Chuck-wills-widows, we decided to call it a night. The weather had other ideas though, and after enduring a night of torrential downpour by sleeping in the car (not fun, I promise you), we decided to test our luck on an overcast morning. At a recently burned area near the Carolina Beach marina, I heard that tell-tale song once again, and tried a little playback to see what would respond. This time, a fully-adult male Painted Bunting swooped in low and gave us awesome looks.

Go ahead, cast Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt - cuz this is as good as it gets!

Even my other brother, an ardent non-birder, couldn’t help but acknowledge that this ridiculous-looking bird was kind of awesome. Time and time again, the bunting would alight on a branch and inch closer to us, trying to check us out, until finally he was right above our heads, singing his eccentrically random song. Finally, after twenty years of wanting to see this bird in person, I’d achieved my goal – that perfect Painted Bunting experience.

I'm Indiana Jones, and this is my Holy Grail. Which makes Carolina Beach my Petra, makes James my Sallah,
and that random lady at the front office like Eliza Doody or something.

To me, the Painted Bunting is the Elton John of the bird world – its song is pretty good, but it looks entirely extravagant, to a ridiculous extent. Thankfully, after all the effort we went through to get this bird, it didn’t go breakin’ my heart. But we had to let the sun set on it (mostly because it was cloudy that day). So we headed home a little early, content with our views of the tiny dancers, but not completely satisfied – the light didn’t benefit us during the trip, and the only photos we got ended up with were in bad light on a cloudy background. Oh well. I guess that’s why they call it the blues.

Is that enough Elton John puns? Can I go home now? Good.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Usual Suspects, Part II

One of the most common birds in suburban North Carolina has an interesting history. Originally, the House Finch was native to the southwest United States, but starting in the early- to mid-1900s, the birds were sold as pets along the Eastern seaboard. In order to escape hefty fines thanks to the Migratory Bird Act, everybody and their brother released their captive House Finches, and they’ve since become a staple of North Carolina feeders. They’re also doing very well in their native range – having been to southern California, I can say that the huge flocks I saw there totally dwarf anything we have out East. Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say I enjoyed their pleasant warbling song of theirs.

For whatever reason, it took me forever to learn the House Finch's song... but now I hear it everywhere!

Speaking of songs, I’ve always heard that Eastern Bluebird’s song sounds a little bit like an American Robin’s. While this is true, there’s more to it than that. The male Eastern Bluebird sounds like a Robin that’s been at the bar all night drowning in whiskey, and then stumbling home has to slurredly explain to the police officer why he’s missing his pants. Thankfully, our Bluebirds don’t look nearly so decrepit, and they’re a constant feature at our bird feeders. When I catch a nice male in the sunlight, the deep cerulean that refracts is absolutely breathtaking to me, even though I see them almost every day.

So far I've seen 2 out of the 3 bluebird species... just need Mountain to complete the trifecta!

And while we’re on the subject of singing, there’s no bird with a repertoire quite like the Northern Mockingbird. Usually they’ve got random phrases of incongruent sounds, but they’ll regularly mimic the songs of other birds. Thus far, I’ve heard Mockingbirds mimic the songs of things like Summer Tanagers, Killdeer, Lesser Yellowlegs, and even Common Nighthawk. And Mockers sound just as good as the birds themselves! It’s like if you sang Journey for karaoke and then you sounded so much like Steve Perry they made you a part of the band… oh wait, that totally happened! Mockingbirds are like the random Filipino guys of the bird world.

"It's a sin to kill a mockingbird... all they do is make music for us to enjoy." Plus, Gregory Peck is badass in that movie!

This last bird is an odd one for me. They’re often quite secretive, but in the breeding season they can be quite bold, singing from the tops of trees with that signature tremolo of theirs. I remember one time in Ornithology class, we sat a dummy Eastern Towhee out in the open and played its song. A male immediately swooped down to check out his “competition” and puffed up to the size of a softball, prancing around like he owned the place. Confident in his dominance, he flew up into the branches and began singing again.

A bird that's everywhere and nowhere, constantly present but hiding in the shadows - it's the Batman of birds!

I always thought it was weird that these stark black-and-orange birds were closely related to the dingy and streaky American sparrows, but I suppose evolution acts in weird ways. I’m just lucky that I get to enjoy these birds as commonplace, and it always seems strange when people get all up in arms about a Northern Mockingbird that shows up in Wisconsin or Michigan. Then again, I’d be excited for a Spotted Towhee or something, so I suppose it’s all relative. For now, I’ll just enjoy the birds I have.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Spanish Bird of the Week #2: Spotless Starling

ROBERT'S NOTE: James's adventures in Spain continue with another awesome European bird, a bird I didn't even know existed until just before he left!

Much earlier in our illustrious blogging career, we commented on the European Starling, and the inglorious task of finding these pesky invasives. While I saw my “lifer” in the beautiful park surrounding Independence Hall in Philadelphia, all one really has to do is head to the nearest Bojangles’, grocery store, or urban area, and there they are.

I was surprised to find out that in Europe, or at least in Andalucia, there are no Bojangles’. Crushing. Perhaps consequently, there are also not many European Starlings, a bird they call the Common Starling. I never ate at Bojangles’ in Spain, and I never saw a Common Starling. I feel this is a situation where correlation does not equal correlation. However, I was more than happy to dip on the Common Starling because I was fortunate enough to run into one of their very close relatives, the Spotless Starling.

Walking back from my visit to Parque Maria Luisa, I heard an odd noise coming from a nearby patch of trees. Early in my Spanish adventures, just about every call was an odd call, but that’s because almost every bird is a life bird. A quick glance through the trees and I located the bird, out in the open and singing in the winter sun. Unfortunately, I only found one more Spotless Starling during my trip, but at least I was able to get a nice little break from the large flocks of those annoying parking lot birds we get in the States.

Way cooler than the starlings we get around here! Stay tuned next Sunday for another edition of the Spanish Bird of the Week!

Friday, May 18, 2012

A Beach of a Hike

Early Thursday morning, James and I found ourselves looking down a long expanse of beach filled with shorebirds. We were at the Fort Fisher spit, a skinny bit of land that apparently runs all the way down to Bald Head Island. And we were on a mission: to locate a Wilson’s Plover, the only breeding shorebird I’d yet to see in the state.

Willets are much more common, and we found several in their nice breeding plumage like this one.

Unfortunately, as soon as we started, some guy started walking his dog next to the ocean, which meant that all those promising shorebirds we’d seen were perpetually 300 feet in front of us. Not a fun way to spend the first mile of a birding trip. Finally, the guy turned around, having had his so-called “fun”. Birds started appearing before us – flocks of running Sanderlings, several skittish Black-bellied Plovers, and a Willet or two. We found this nice American Oystercatcher trying to roost between some old tire tracks.

American Oystercatchers may look like clowns, but the crazy sounds they make are downright comedic!

I’m not sure if she had a nest there or not, and I never got an answer. You see, the beach is Off-road Vehicle accessible, and sure enough, a giant pickup barreled its way down the beach and would have run over the bird had she not flushed just in time. The occupants of the truck didn’t care, of course – they had fishin’ to do. Closer to the water, I noticed that some of the Sanderlings were starting to attain their breeding plumage, and several of them sported flecks of red in their dusky feathers.

I will take literally anything that makes poring through hundreds of Sanderlings more interesting.

At this point, we’d walked almost two miles, and were starting to lose hope of seeing a Wilson’s Plover. We flagged down a passing State Park employee picking up old signs and dumping them in his flatbed, and asked him where they could be found. Just ahead, he answered. At Crossover Four. We walked up and found an off-road path cut through the dunes, abutting an expansive estuary. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered that this is the kind of habitat Wilson’s Plovers enjoyed, not beachfront. Other birds enjoyed the muddy shores as well, and this Dunlin showed in his breeding best as he dashed back and forth, probing for food.

Come to think of it, this may be the first breeding-plumage Dunlin I've ever seen. How did I mess that one up?

As we passed by some reeds, we heard a raspy song nearby. Immediately, I knew it was an Ammodramus sparrow, and as Seasides are the only ones we get as common breeding birds, I immediately passed it off. James spotted it and got me on the bird, and immediately I knew I was dead wrong, and of course the song sounded wrong for Seaside – instead we were looking at a beautiful Nelson’s Sparrow, the last of the so-called “maritime sparrow” trio I needed for my life list. I don't know why he's not back in New England by now, but I'm glad he decided to stick around!

And I'm even happier that he decided to pose for pictures!

Coming off such a great bird, we noticed that the mudflats around us just teemed with birds – tons of Ruddy Turnstones ran around, well, turning stones, and several Semipalmated Plovers flashed breeding displays at each other. James turned on his “Jackal mode” and sidled up to this nice Tricolored Heron dancing around in the shallow water, spearing at fish.

They see me rollin', they hatin'....

Everywhere we looked, we saw one or two Black-bellied Plovers hanging out amongst the other shorebirds. Of course, that look would be your last, as the birds have this uncanny ability to flush before you’re anywhere close. James joked that they should be called the “Killdeer of the Sea,” although unlike Killdeer on our mudflats back home, these guys don’t take the rest of the shorebird flock with them when they bail. Still, with a little effort, we were able to get a decent look at one before it flew off.

It's been a ridiculously long time since I saw one in this plumage. Like, years!

Probably the most obvious bird in these parts has to be the Laughing Gull – they’re big, raucous, and can literally be found in parking lots or dumpsters. That makes them about as close to a “trash bird” as you can get, but when you look closely they’re actually really cool. This one stuck around after his compatriots flushed from the mudflat, and it soon became apparent why. It had been standing on one leg for a while, but as soon as it started walking, we noticed a distinct limp. We didn’t want to put it through any more trouble, so left it to roost on the flats in peace.

This now rates as one of the best pictures we've gotten of any bird ever.

At this point, James and I thought about turning around, but decided to push on just a little farther. This turned out to be an immediate good decision, as a flying Whimbrel gave me my first look at this species in the state. But it would get even better, and couple hundred feet farther up I heard an odd high-pitched call, and watched as a bird barreled towards me, landing at my feet. No way, I thought. But sure enough, I’d stumbled upon my lifer Wilson’s Plover!

I quintupled the number of Wilson's Plovers I've ever seen in just a few short minutes.

Soon, I heard another squeaky call, then two more. Soon, I’d found five Wilson’s Plovers, all right in front of me. There were several drab females and a couple dapper males, with ink-black bands stretching across their chests. We tried to get a little closer, when suddenly one of the males rushed off, low to the ground, with one wing hanging off to the side. He was pulling the classic broken-wing trick, a defense mechanism to draw predators away from a nesting site. Clearly, we’d stumbled nearer than he felt comfortable with, so we turned around and watched him run back to his lady friends.

Aaaand out the frame he goes!

After walking two miles barefoot through the sand, heading down Crossover Four was the best decision we made all day, and it wasn’t done handing out gifts just yet. Sure the incessant calling Clapper Rails were cool, as was the alternate-plumage Horned Grebe swimming around and parading his head-tufts. And it was super awesome to see hordes of Fiddler Crabs march across the flats like advancing armies. No, that didn't quite do it.

There were almost a thousand of these guys moving in huge groups. Really cool to see!

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a small sandpiper zoom into the flats, and immediately I told James to get on it. I’d already ID’d it in flight (boo-yah!), but I enjoyed watching my first of the year Semipalmated Sandpiper all the same. Plus, the last time James saw this bird he got terrible looks, so it was nice to get something a little more up-close and personal.

Not the most glamorous bird in the world, but one I see far too infrequently.

With that, we headed back for a long walk through the sand. Turns out, that kind of exercise does a number on your calves, but while the Wilson’s Plovers were our goal for the day, they weren’t the reason we’d come down to this part of the state. I needed to stay awake and healthy for one very special bird – and thankfully, said bird put on quite a show! Stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Usual Suspects, Part I

Now that we’ve started a photo gallery here at the Birding Bros., I’ve noticed it’s got some pretty substantial holes, birds that should be present and accounted for but aren’t. For the most part, it’s because they’re just so common that we’ve already had amazing point-blank looks that we’ll never be able to top. So this post aims to showcase those birds that are impossible to miss while birding in central North Carolina. These are The Usual Suspects.

Anywhere you go, the first sound you hear is almost certainly the incessant raspy din of Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice. For whatever reason, these are some of the most common birds on the East Coast, and they feel the need to call at anything that seems remotely abnormal, be it an owl, a snake, or nothing at all.

Lucky for us, these southern chickadees sing a lot prettier than their Black-capped cousins!

Lucky for us birders, we can put this to use. By imitating the rasping alarm call of these Parids, a technique called “pishing”, we can occasionally get the birds going, and sometimes a better bird will pop out to see what all the commotion’s about. In the fall, when warblers associate with large flocks of these “chickamice,” it’s a great way to figure out just who’s migrating through on a given day.

Believe it or not, they have some of the most varied songs in the bird world. I'm always astounded
with the sounds they come up with!

Now, I’ve heard people say that we’ve got it pretty good bird-wise here in the southeast. I don’t really know what they’re talking about, because none of the birds we’ve got can truly compensate for the pain of a 98-degree day with 100% humidity. But, I suppose we do have birds that are far more common here than in other parts of the country. For example, as long as there’s a pine tree in eyesight, you’re sure to hear the pleasant trill of the Pine Warbler, the only warbler species that sticks around all year long.

During most of the year, they stick to the treetops; but during the winter, it's not uncommon
 to see them on the ground feeding with a mixed flock.

Another common resident of our southeastern pine forests is the Brown-headed Nuthatch, a bird that I honestly take for granted. They just don’t get these pint-sized birds in other parts of the United States, but around here they’re a dime a dozen, and extremely entertaining to boot. You’d be hard pressed to watch a bird feeder for five minutes before hearing their squeaky-toy call and watching one swoop in for a seed or two.

I once found one of their nest when I looked into a hole and one flew out into my face!

Of course this all hardly scratches the surface of our common bird life, so we’ll have a continuation of this article next week. Until then, the Birding Bros. are going to head down to Carolina Beach and hopefully pick up some sweet coastal species, including a lifer or two if all goes well. We’ll let you know how it goes!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sunday Spain Bird of the Week #1: Common Kestrel

ROBERT'S NOTE: Early last year, James got to visit Spain as part of his study abroad program, and boy did he see some great birds! So, every week he's decided to write up a different European species as part of an ongoing series we're calling the Sunday Spain Spectacular: Los Aves del Espagna - The Birds of Spain! ... it's a working title.

In January of 2011 I was fortunate enough to spend a semester abroad in the awesome AndalucĂ­an city of Seville. While it was an absolutely amazing experience, getting to travel through Europe and experiencing an incredible city, it also provided with some pretty sweet birding. Spain is in a bit of a butter zone for birds, getting both African species, common European species and some really cool migrants. In the four months that I was abroad I managed to get 115 life birds, including 58 within the extremely urban city of Seville. The first bird I saw was a Common Kestrel, which flew about in the fairly large city parkland, Parque Maria Luisa. 

Unfortunately this distant look from atop some sort of giant scaffolding was the best picture I ever got of this awesome bird, and it became a bit of a nemesis. I certainly had my chances. I may have gotten another shot of a bird circling the massive Seville Cathedral, but it is impossible to determine whether it is a Common Kestrel or the threatened Lesser Kestrel. Luckily I got a much better shot the Lesser Kestrel a few weeks later, but we’ll get there. 

I had a third chance when I encountered a Common Kestrel feeding on the ground in the Parque Alamillo. Unfortunately he was facing away from me and as I moved to get a good shot, that arch-nemesis of birders, a runner, scared him off. This left me out of luck, and the distant shot you see at the top of the page is the best one I got of the Common Kestrel. Don’t worry though, almost all of the other 114 bird pictures are a lot better! I swear!


Man, what a cool bird! The jealousy doesn't stop there - check back every week for a new Spanish bird and more awesome European birding adventures!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Warbler-iffic Day

After Wednesday’s intense storms, I woke up yesterday morning to a cloudless sky and sun shining through my windows. I have to admit I was mostly asleep when James called me, but the prospect of birding on this gorgeous day got me out and about, and we headed for Mason Farm. The day started out slowly, with little singing and even less showing. A pair of beautiful Prothonotary Warblers positively glowed in the early morning light, giving me my best look at the species this year.

Apparently they call them "swamp canaries" across much of the south - not a great name, but not inaccurate either.

A short walk through the woods gave us great looks at an Ovenbird catching food for its young, but we didn’t see anything great until the next field over. While we surveyed the five or so Indigo Buntings singing in the field, James saw one that seemed quite a bit larger, and when I put my binocs on it, I saw a brilliant Blue Grosbeak chilling in some low hanging brambles. We tried to get it closer, but they’re not really the type to stick around and suffer humans, so we had to move on.

Another species we haven't yet gotten that perfect shot of... still working on it!

Just around the corner, James noticed a small bird flitting through the braches that hung over the trail. I couldn’t tell what it was at first, but upon looking through my binoculars I saw a beautiful male Canada Warbler making his way through the trees, presumably for small insects and other prey. Every once in a while, he’d give snippets from his song, and I didn’t realize what it was at first. I sat there for almost five minutes trying to figure out what this odd song was before finally realizing it was the Canada Warbler singing overhead.

My first in the Triangle for spring, and a totally unexpected bird this time of year.

Back along the canal, we tried to find migrant warblers, and though American Redstarts and White-eyed Vireos put on good shows, we couldn’t find what we were looking for. We walked back and forth for a good half hour, and during one pass we realized there was a snake sitting in the path. It seemed obvious, but I don’t know how we missed it before. It froze while James shot this picture, but bolted as soon as I made the move to catch it. Typical Black Racer behavior.

Apparently I'm still not a fast enough herper to catch a Black Racer, which is a huge disappointment to me.

While the Black Racer was exciting, we had birds to see. James noticed an odd bird with a yellow belly flitting through a nearby tulip poplar, and I tried to get on it, but every time I put my glass up the bird disappeared deeper into the foliage. Finally, I got the briefest of glimpses, and I got my one and only look at a breeding-plumaged Magnolia Warbler. Knowing its identity, we played the song to draw it in, but it didn’t respond – instead, randomly, this Common Yellowthroat flew in and gave us a hell of a show.

Responds to Magnolia song, ignores Yellowthroat calls - that's what I'd call a Scumbag Yellowthroat!

Still, a Magnolia Warbler would have been a lifer for James, so we moved up and down the path to try and get a look at it. Every once in a while we’d see something flitting, just briefly, and we’d look again and it was gone. It didn’t help that every other bird decided to come out into the open while we were searching, and we ended up with great looks at American Redstart and White-eyed Vireo. But we didn’t have our target. Back at home, James looked through his pictures, and realized that one of them did indeed show a blurry but identifiable shot of the bird we were searching for – his lifer Magnolia Warbler!

Oh Maggie we couldn't have tried any more... you're so hard to photograph!

It’s a great-looking bird by anybody’s standards, but it’s starting to get late in the year. Pretty soon our migrants will be gone, and I’ll have to spend all summer trying to get that one perfect shot of an Indigo Bunting or Prairie Warbler. For now, I’ll enjoy the migrants I have. James is enjoying them too, and as soon as he got home, he emailed me some shots of a bird he found flitting around our feeders.

Not a great pic, but it's enough to make me suuuper jealous!

Turns out, it’s a Worm-eating Warbler, a lifer for James, and a bird I’ve never seen in Durham county! I’m going to try and pick it up tomorrow, and hopefully it’ll stick around, but I’m not feeling too confident. I have terrible luck with these bird, but the thought of a new county bird would get me going any day of the week. Hopefully it’ll end up in my favor!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Nature on the Fly

Birding during the summer months is difficult, especially when one of us has a life list entirely determined by photography. This means that not only do we have to find birds, but we’ve got to find them during the day and in decent light. So when the weatherman screwed up the stormy forecast and the sun shone bright through my bedroom window yesterday morning, James gave me a call and we headed out to see what we could find.

Unfortunately, with the good weather came poor birding. Along the trail, we couldn’t find many warblers besides American Redstarts and Black-throated Blues, and even they didn’t want to come close enough for some pictures. Thankfully, a fast-moving raptor and a high-pitched screech made me look to the sky, where we found two circling Broad-winged Hawks. This is an odd species for me in that I’ve heard them call, and I’ve seen them, but never have I experienced both at the same time. The hawks flew fast, making photography difficult, but it was super cool to finally see this migrant in the Triangle.

I remember learning the call of a Broad-winged Hawk in college, but this is the first time
I've really heard it well in the field.

Checking the canal portion of the trail one last time, we came upon this friendly American Redstart hopping through the willows. When I say friendly, I mean it ventured pretty close to us, but like most warblers it seemed to stay behind a veil of leaves the whole time. Still, every once and a while it would pop out in the open and sing its song, allowing James to get some decent shots. Not quite the perfect shot we’re looking for, but we’ll keep at it!

How hard is it to sing out in the open? I mean, COME ON!

Other than that the birding at Mason Farm was unremarkable, and we headed home. That’s when Ali called and said he wanted to go herping, and I said, well, why not? James had to go home, so Ali and I headed for Duke Forest to do a little flipping. We didn’t find much, save for an active Copperhead that darted off as soon as we flipped his board. But under a random piece of tin next to an old barn, Ali spotted a small snake that piqued his interest, and he grabbed it to examine it closer.

At the time I took this photo, I'd narrowed it down to "snake sp."... still a long way to go!

It was a small snake, brown on top and pale underneath. This clearly marks it as an earth snake, but as there are several species around here, we had to be sure which one. Turning his binoculars the wrong way ‘round, we were able to use them as field glasses and check out the scaling, which turned out to be unkeeled. That, plus the random dark spots and rounded nose meant we’d found a sweet little Smooth Earth Snake, a lifer for the both of us.

They say this snake is hard to find; I wouldn't know. I tend to find such snakes rather easily!

Since I started herping earlier this year, I’ve seen this Smooth Earth Snake, countless Copperheads, my fair share of Mole Kingsnakes, and even a Pigmy Rattlesnake; but for some reason I’ve never been able to photograph the common Brown Snake, and I’m starting to think there’s something wrong with me. My herping career has been unorthodox thus far, and I’d like to keep it that way. I’d love to get rid of that nemesis herp once and for all, but for now, I’ll take all the hard-to-find snakes I can get!  

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Birding Has Never Been So Black and White

Ever since James got home from college, I’ve been promising him migrant lifers. It shouldn’t be too hard – after all, I’m hearing reports from all across the state with great warbler lists, but for some reason all I can muster is a Black-throated Blue here and a Chestnut-sided there. So, yesterday morning, we made the decision to rectify our previous mistakes and go after something sure-fire. As we rounded the turn at Mapleview Farms, I could see a large flock of birds rising from the tall grass and circling back down again.

That awkward moment when you try and exit the car before it's stopped moving...

Success! I’d finally found James his lifer Bobolinks, a species of blackbird that only seems to grace our state about one week a year before heading for northern climes. Unfortunately, the Bobolinks kept their distance, and refused to venture closer than a few hundred feet. Although I was momentarily distracted by a Northern Waterthrush sounding like a Yellow Warbler doing a Lauren Bacall impression, and a pair of mating Orchard Orioles, the allure of Bobolinks and their astromech-like song kept me totally engrossed.

Between the weird light and the wheat, this shot looks like a painting - but no filters were used!

Because we’d found the Bobolinks so quickly, we had a couple hours to kill. So, we headed to Mason Farm because… why not? James was particularly interested because he’d heard there’d been tons of a certain zebra-striped warbler reported recently, and it’s kind of a nemesis bird for him. Alas, upon arrival, we couldn’t turn up much, although singing Scarlet Tanagers and Baltimore Orioles were pretty cool. True to form, the uber-friendly Yellow-breasted Chat was back at his post, although in much worse light this time.

I can't believe it's gotten to the point where I can be picky about my chat shots!

Along the way, we met a pair of Dutch birders, one of whom I’d met several years prior, and distinctly remembered showing his lifer Black-throated Blue Warbler. It was really cool to show them relatively common species like Northern Waterthrush and Prairie Warbler and have them truly appreciate the birds we take for granted. I’m sure I’ll feel the same way next time I’m in Europe and gush when somebody shows me a Chaffinch or White Wagtail. While these days I force the harsh calls of Summer Tanagers into the deep recesses of my subconscious so I can listen for something more interesting, the foreign birders made a point of tracking it down and watching it in all its crimson beauty.

That's not to say I don't like Summer Tanagers, it's just they're incredibly common during the
warmer months of the year... dang, what're those called again...

After a birding with them for a bit, we split up so that James and I could focus on the more productive canal section of the trail, turning up things like Acadian Flycatcher and Blue Grosbeak. When we met up again on the other side, I asked them if they’d seen anything, and they replied positively: a Black-and-white Warbler, just after we parted ways. This is, of course, James’s number one nemesis bird, so together we headed way back on the other side of the trail to see if it still remained. That’s when I heard a distinctive squeaky undulating call coming from the stand of trees just in front of us. A nemesis awaits!

Next to the branch with the leaves on it. No, the other branch! No, wrong tree!

We ran over to the sound, and it kept calling right above us. I couldn’t see it, and James was getting frustrated – clearly there were too many leaves between us and the warbler. That’s when one of the Dutchmen shouted “I’ve got it!” and pointed it out, sitting in the crook of a branch invisible from underneath. Unlike its normal behavior, the Black-and-white Warbler sat there preening for several minutes, occasionally pausing to give a couple squeaks, but never crawling along the branches like they usually do.

Sweet relief! This is a bird James has wanted pretty much since he started birding.

James felt elated and thanked the birders for their help. “It’s funny,” one of them said in response. “After all the new birds people have shown us here, this is the first time I’ve shown an American his life bird!” Truer words were never spoken, and again we parted ways so they could bird their way back to their car.

We drove past them on the way out, and asked again if they’d seen anything. “A Wilson’s Warbler,” they said. A potential lifer for me, but we could never relocate it. I’m still reeling from missing that bird. Man, those guys are good!