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Monday, March 11, 2013

The Vanellus Icing on the Cake

You know that feeling you get when you turn on the radio and hear “Bum bum bum bada bumbum!” and you’re like “Heck yeah, Under Pressure is my jams!” But then instead of hearing Queen and David Bowie it ends up being “Ice Ice Baby”? Multiply that exact feeling of disappointment by several magnitudes, and you’ll know what it’s like to miss a mega rarity.

Although I saw it on the first day it showed up, James had never seen a Northern Lapwing. This particularly reliable individual had been hanging out next to a pond in rural Person County, and as soon as James came home for Spring Break, we headed out to see it. We arrived to see a half dozen birders milling around their scopes, and it soon became clear the bird hadn’t been seen since that morning, when a bold photographer ventured to close and flushed it from its favorite field. It was a tough loss.

So instead we turned our minds to herping. Even though it’s been quite frigid outside, the herping season kicked off with a bang. Salamanders prefer to do their breeding in the moist and cold weather of late February and early March, as the summer months prove a little sweltering for them. James and I visited a couple sites in Duke Forest and after turning a couple logs, we found our lifer Spotted Salamanders.

It’s a species I’ve been wanting to see for quite some time, and these large salamanders have the typical Ambystoma temperament. They are extremely docile and slow-moving, probably a side effect of having to breed in 40-degree temperatures. However, our next quarry couldn’t have been different. In a different part of the forest, we found a ton of Red-backed Salamanders, including one log that had seven individuals under it!

They’re the complete opposite of Spotted Salamanders. Small, lithe, and quick moving, the Red-backed Salamanders were extremely difficult to photograph, and would often scurry off the log before we could photograph them. There are two color morphs of these guys – one dull and gray (the “lead-backed” kind), and one much more vibrant (the nominate “red-backed”). Of course, we wanted to photograph the more colorful type, which we soon achieved with a little luck.

But James was still left without his lifer Northern Lapwing. After a report that the bird had returned to its field the day after we missed it, James planned another trip without me (who knew work could be so lame). Again, James found himself in the same situation we faced the first time: he was at the field; the bird was not. After several birders came and went, the bird magically appeared in a far corner of the field, and he was able to snap this long-distance photo.

Vanellus vanellus - the lapwing so nice they named it twice.

Normally, just seeing a European mega-rarity is treat enough. It’s especially relieving for James, because he went to Europe and still missed this great shorebird. But to photograph what constitutes the third record of Northern Lapwing for North Carolina, the first one that’s even been chaseable? That my friends, is the Vanellus icing on the cake. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

So Long, "Crap"-tree

Out by RDU Airport there’s this local reservoir called Lake Crabtree, and it’s supposed to be this great birding spot with loads of ducks in the winter with the occasional rarity mixed in. But there aren't many accessible points to view the lake from, and the birds always seem to be out of scope range. Add to that the cold and wind that seem to accompany our outings there, and it all adds up to one relatively miserable time. So James and I have given it a nickname: Lake “Crap”-tree. And each time I visit, I swear I’ll never go again.

That is, until James and I had to pick our sister up at the airport. We were in the area, so we figured why not get a little birding in? The best place to check out the lake is the dam on its back side, and as soon as we got out of the car, we saw a nice raft of Hooded Mergansers with some Red-breasted Mergansers and Redheads mixed in. A nice Eastern Meadowlark called down-slope from us and our second Osprey of the year flew overhead – a much better start than we usually get from birding Crabtree!

Ospreys are back, Fish Crows are back - it's 40 degrees outside and it feels like spring!

Of course, there was a reason we’d come down to the lake that day. A lone White-winged Scoter had been sighted associating with a flock of scaup, and as we’ve gotten only distant views of this species in the past, we were keen to get better looks. The raft of scaup proved elusive at first, but I soon spotted them amassed along the mouth of Black Creek: hundreds of Lesser Scaup, more than I’ve ever seen at once! The obligatory sweep of the flock turned up several dozen round-headed Greater Scaup, a slightly larger species that kept themselves along the edges of the flock.

Not a bad shot from almost 1000'! Plus there's a Lesser Scaup on the left side for comparison.

But we had a mission, so I continued to scan the raft of ducks. I scanned right past a small group of American Wigeon, and I ignored a couple of Ring-necked Ducks. And then I saw it – a large, dark duck with its head tucked under its wing. Our White-winged Scoter! Before long, the raft of ducks started drifting towards the middle of the lake, and the White-winged Scoter stretched itself out and started preening, giving us great looks at its namesake white wings.

I've seen this species in the Triangle more than the other two scoter sp. combined! Definitely my best looks ever.

While we were busy checking out the scoter, who by this point was diving and coming up with something apparently edible, a small raft of Lesser Scaup broke off from the main group and made its way towards our viewing platform. We were able to note their peaked head feathers, a far cry from the rounded heads of the distant Greater Scaup. Plus they showed a purple sheen to their feathers, while the Greaters’ were green. This is supposed to be an incredibly variable field mark, quite dependant on the sun’s angle, but I mean – peaked, purple-headed birds and round, green-headed ones? It doesn’t get more cut and dry than that.

I wish more ducks would be as confiding as these Lesser Scaup.

We enjoyed the antics of the scoter just once more before heading back to the car. The Osprey was back soaring overhead, this time joined by a beautiful adult Bald Eagle. We gazed up at the majestic birds while bikers and runners zoomed past, completely ignorant of what they were missing. Their loss, I guess. But we had a better than great day birding at a lake that I don’t visit often. Good enough that I’m going to start calling it by its real name! So long, Lake “Crap”-tree. Hello, Lake Crabtree.