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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.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Spanish Bird of the Week #16: Eurasian Wryneck

By James

As much as I’ve enjoyed blogging about the many lifers I found in Spain, I’ve struggled to remember the story behind every bird. I remember the first time I saw a Rose-ringed Parakeet, preening in a knot of a tall tree in Parque Maria Alvarez. I remember the first time I found a Great Tit, feeding on a low branch at Parque Alamillo. However, I don’t remember exactly how I found them, or whether I was able to instantaneously identify them, and writing up the story of my experiences with them has been difficult. That said, there are a few species where I clearly remember the first time I laid eyes on the bird, where my memory goes well beyond the picture I have in the “Birds” folder on my computer. The Eurasian Wryneck is one of those birds.

At this point in my semester, Spring migration in Spain finally began to pick up. This really started to test my ability to identify birds by myself. During very previous migration of my career, Robert birded with me, picking out calls while the two of us worked together to figure out the source, sometimes a nice warbler flitting in some low trees. But in Spain, I had no clue what I was listening to. I trained myself to ignore the constant calling of Serins and Eurasian Blackbirds, and would instead listen for something unique.

As I walked up and down the reeds that lined the large pond of Parque Alamillo, my ears heard something they hadn’t before. An odd song that I knew was a bird I’d never found, and it was close. It kept calling, and I tracked it to a small but dense tree. I tried some “pishing” that is so effective in the States, not knowing if it would work as well across the pond. Suddenly, a small passerine shot out of the tree. For whatever reason, I had a feeling that this was not the mystery caller, and I did not pursue. Another 15 seconds passed, all of the sudden a second bird flew out, and landed on an open branch not more than twenty feet from his original perch.

The second the odd woodpecker landed I knew exactly what I had: a Eurasian Wryneck. I’d thankfully taken a long look at the field guide for Parque Alamillo, which suggested that the wryneck is a very good bird for the park, listing it as escaso (scarce) for the park, for AndalucĂ­a and for Spain in general. eBird confirmed that this was an unusual find, with no reports for AndalucĂ­a outside of the coastal park of Donana. I was lucky enough to get several excellent shots of my lifer before it flew back into dense foliage.

While I had over 120 lifers in my time in Europe, this is undoubtedly in the top five. The second I heard the distinct call I knew I had something unique. I still remember being in a state of shock for a little over a second as one of the weirder birds I have ever seen landed out in the open, seemingly asking me to photograph him. I wish I had as crisp a memory of every lifer I’ve gotten, but not every bird is as rare, as awesome or as cooperative as that one Eurasian Wryneck.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Spanish Bird of the Week #15: Lesser Kestrel

By James

I mentioned in an earlier Spanish Bird of the Week that the Common Kestrel became a bit of a nemesis bird for me. Luckily, I had a much better experience finding and photographing the far less common Lesser Kestrel. Not only did Lesser Kestrels frequent the massive Seville Cathedral (the third largest cathedral in the world) but they also made their homes in some of the smaller churches throughout the city. Fortunately for me, one of these smaller cathedrals could be found just four short blocks from my apartment. I typically just saw the small falcon, which is actually considerably larger than our American Kestrels, flying over the cathedral or city square, but on one occasion I was fortunate enough to find them perched on a low overhang.

Not only was this by far the closest to the ground I had ever seen these birds, but it was also my first time seeing a male. These birds became one of my favorite parts of my city walks, and I saw them almost daily as the church they frequented was right along my path to the Parque del Alamillo. But I never got better looks at these dapper birds than that time I found them perched on my local cathedral.

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.

Friday, November 23, 2012

A Special Broccasion

Thanks to President Franklin D. Roosevelt somewhat arbitrarily assigning Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday in November, James was able to come home during his break. We decided to celebrate the occasion by trying to find James his lifer Iceland Gull on Falls Lake. Though I’d seen it a couple days earlier, we were unable to relocate this bird amongst the large flock of gulls and cormorants. Instead, we made do with a trio of immature Bald Eagles that graciously circled overhead.

There was also a fourth-year individual that was starting to grow in its white head and tail.
That’s when James noticed something white high up in the clouds. I assumed it was a gull, but after getting it in my scope, I was surprised to see an American White Pelican riding the very thermals the eagles were enjoying. It’s another bird I’d seen recently at the location, but because the bird hadn’t been reported in days, I thought it’d left. We watched as a small Cessna from the nearby airfield appeared to come dangerously close to the large bird, though I’m sure it was an optical illusion. Still not something you see everyday around here!

Honestly, from this distance, the pelican looked as big as the Cessna!

Because he had a couple days left in town, we decided to hit up our old standby of Mason Farm, where we can always expect good birding. We weren’t disappointed – as soon as I stepped out of the car, I heard the perky chirps of a flock of Pine Siskins. This is supposed to be a great winter for irruptive finches, and though we haven’t heard hide or feather of grosbeaks and crossbills, seeing the siskins again is good enough for me.

I never get tired of hearing their rip-cord calls. Look forward to it every winter!

But the finch party didn’t stop there – we spotted a couple of Purple Finches along the old canal. While one of them was clearly a female, the other had flecks and hues of raspberry coloring in its plumage, like it had just bathed in a puddle of red wine. Either it’s a young male just starting to attain his adult feathers, or it’s an extremely mature female individual. The former is probably more likely, but either way we only got a good shot of the undeniably female bird.

I honestly don't get to see a whole lot of Purple Finches - this is by far my best view ever.

Along the fields, we noticed large flocks of Field Sparrows moving through the hedges. Normally a pretty skittish species, several of the birds popped into an open view, even responding to some tapes, something I’m not used to with this species in winter. We got such good looks that I was able to appreciate the subtle plumage of these tiny birds, complete with their bubblegum pink bills and their wide white eye-rings. These have got to be the one of the most adorable birds in the state!

Except for maybe Winter Wrens - they might take the cake in the cuteness category.

Not to be outdone, a nearby Northern Mockingbird stopped skulking in one of the bushes and perched out in the open. James froze because he was quite close to the bird, easily within five feet. He tried to take a picture, but against all odds, the mockingbird moved even closer to him. The bird ended up within the camera’s minimum focal distance, so James actually had to step back to take the shot you see below. But oh what a shot!

You can see every damn feather on this bad boy, from it's slightly-worn primaries to the bristles 'round it's bill!

Now when we showed up to Mason Farm, it was cold. Not like real cold, but certainly North Carolina cold – somewhere in the high forties or so. James and I both had our sweatshirts on, and I even opted to wear gloves. Even the birds seemed to be feeling it, some of them puffing up their feathers to retain heat. So herping was the last thing on my mind, but even so, James and I decided to flip our “Magic Snake Log” (actually a 6x6 wooden beam) to try our luck. And sure enough…

This is the third species of snake we've found under "Magic Snake Log" - it's living up to its reputation!

This small Eastern Garter Snake lay underneath, curled up against the winter weather. When I picked him up, he was quite cold, a tribute to their ectothermic habits. While I held and posed him, the exquisite snake started to warm up, even taking a strike at me. This is the garter snake I know, a cantankerous musking snake that doesn’t like to be held. But when the temperatures are this low, snakes don’t really have much of a choice. So I’ll choose to enjoy calm garter snakes and confiding birds for as long as I can – however long that may last.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

#55: Bushtit - Famosa Slough, CA

Before I headed out to California during the summer of 2010, I had a short-list of birds I wanted to see. On that list was the miniscule Bushtit, the only North American representative of the largely Eurasian family called Aegithalidae, or the long-tailed tits. I looked forward to seeing these birds all summer, but when I arrived in San Diego, I was surprised to that they were one of the first birds I saw.

Bushtits are wholly unique among North American birds. For one, they fly in tightly-knit flocks numbering between 20-40 birds, moving through low shrubs and bushes even in suburban habitat. I say “flock”, but these birds skillfully move between dense branches, flitting in and out more like a swarm of flies over roadkill. Additionally, the sexes look quite similar except for one key difference: female Bushtits have light-colored eyes, while those of the male are pure black, like shark’s eyes.

Which would make this one a male Bushtit.

During our time in San Diego, James and I found that Bushtits are particularly responsive to taped calls. Merely playing the tape in their general vicinity would lead to a swarm of these tiny birds in the nearest shrub. As such, we had fantastic views of these birds at close range, and got equally fantastic photos. I can’t wait til I can head out that way again, and get to enjoy these birds in all their miniscule glory.