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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.