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Monday, January 14, 2013

The Quasi-Lifer

As often happens in birding, sometimes you get a perfectly serviceable and identifiable view of a bird you’ve never seen before. This bird is a lifer, beyond a shadow of a doubt, yet your views are far too fleeting and you’re left with a tick on your life-list that is little more than a name. For me, this bird was the Razorbill, an alcid that breeds in the northern reaches of our hemisphere. I’ve seen several, but always a mile or so out in the distant surf, little more than a speeding football with wings. This Sunday, James and I headed to the southeast corner of the state to try for his lifer Razorbill, with little more than a sliver of hope that his lifer photo would be identifiable.

I’d always heard that Johnnie Mercer’s pier in Wrightsville Beach was the place to go for these so-called “flying penguins”, but every time I visit they’re nowhere to be found. At least, I told myself, I could occupy my time trying to pick out the Pacific Loon that was said to frequent the structure. We arrived at first light, with the sun blazing over the horizon, and the flock of loons already far out to sea and situated in the sun’s glare. I glanced away from my scope just long enough to see a view I’d find increasingly frequent as the day wore on.

It was a Razorbill, less than ten feet away! James snapped his lifer photo but with a tip and a quick flap of its wings, the bird dove far underwater. As I scoped around the ocean, I found Razorbills everywhere I looked – some close, diving just off the pier, other dotted amongst the loons, and still more flying past in long lines of southbound birds. While we enjoyed their antics, the Razorbills dove and surfaced a little too quickly for a decent picture, and James instead had to settle for his second lifer that day – a tight flock of Black Scoter that buzzed the end of the pier.

From there, we decided to visit Carolina Beach Lake to try and find the drake Long-tailed Duck that had been frequenting its shores. Unfortunately, the lake was drained when we got there, its high waters giving way to mudflats. Boat-tailed Grackles and White Ibis fed along the mud, and our only consolation was this beautiful Tricolored Heron roosting just offshore.

In a tree above the lake, I found this little Yellow-rumped Warbler chipping in some of the lower hanging branches. These “butter-butts” have to be the most common bird along coastal North Carolina – it’s hard to go anywhere without hearing their familiar call-note. If you can find a grove of wax myrtles, it’s not uncommon to have a decent sized flock foraging on berries. This little guy responded to my pishing, and decided to investigate, giving me great looks of this surprisingly common bird.

So the lake was a bust. C’est la birding as James would say. Our next stop was the old Civil War museum at Fort Fisher, a great place to find some otherwise hard to see birds. As we pulled up, I noted a tree that last time I was a here housed a pair of Loggerhead Shrikes. I asked James to check the tree as we drove past, and sure enough, a Loggerhead Shrike watched his territory from atop a leafy throne.

I love shrike vocalizations – so metallic, like it shouldn’t belong in nature. The bird flew from his perch to another just across the street, which happened to be my go-to spot for another hard-to-see species: Sedge Wren. In this random little section of Fort Fisher where a mowed field abuts marsh reeds, I can always get these secretive little birds to show up with a little playback. Sure enough, this little guy decided to poke his head out and see what was going on.

If you’re at the Civil War Museum, you’ve got to check out the old gazebo across the street. A wall of gigantic rocks lines the beach here, which for whatever reason make perfectly suitable habitat for several sparrow species. Song Sparrows will flit in and out of the crevices, and you’re hard pressed to walk past without hearing the reedy whistle of a Savannah Sparrow. This particularly bright individual sat up on the rocks giving us fantastic looks.

At high tide, waves crash against the protective rocks, and many jetty-loving species that usually stay far out to sea will come in to feed. Immediately, we found a small flock of Buffleheads, and a little scoping revealed a pair of female Black Scoters quite close by. As I looked up from my scope, I barely glimpsed that which I’d become so familiar with earlier in the morning. James leapt onto the rocks to ready himself when the bird surfaced. Sure enough…

Another Razorbill! This one swam calmly just off the rocks and didn’t dive like the others had. Finally, after all the stories I’d heard, I was able to view this species close up and for a good amount of time. No longer will I remember Razorbills as that winged dot zooming across the horizon. Now I’ll always think of that ‘flying penguin’ bobbing up and down in the waves just off Fort Fisher. It may have been on my life list already, but these were definitely my life-views. My quasi-lifer.

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