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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Scouting for Scoters

For the past few days, a Surf Scoter has been reported on and off from the Hickory Hills Boat Ramp on Falls Lake. This part of the lake falling in Durham, I needed the bird for my county list, and headed out yesterday morning to chase it. Unfortunately, after about an hour of scanning the lake, I packed up and left. No way was this scoter still around, I thought. The lake seemed totally devoid of birds! Later that same day, however, the bird was refound.

So today I tried again, this time opting to check the lake later in the afternoon, when the light was better. But after another hour, still no luck. A local fisherman looked intrigued by my scope setup, so I showed him a flock of cormorants roosting a half mile away near the interstate. He was pretty impressed. My first Pine Siskin of the winter flew over and I told him how I identified the bird by its flight call. That started a conversation about all the birds you could find on the lake, and I pointed out crows, egrets, and herons. I was starting to explain ways you could identify birds by flight when I saw an odd dark bird rocket into a nearby cove. It wasn’t elongate like a cormorant, but more like a football with wings. I swung my scope over and sure enough – Surf Scoter!

I showed the fisherman, and although he was still impressed by the optical range of my scope, he was less impressed by the dingy first-year bird in front of him. A birder’s bird I guess. I raced down the clay hillside and made my way towards the cove, but got stopped a hundred feet away when the route became impassable. Still, I was close enough to snap a couple pics of the bird foraging along lake’s edge. It’s not as pretty as the clown-faced males I can find along the coast, but it’s good enough for Durham county bird #214!

On my way back I stopped by the artificial wetland were I’d gotten my 213th county bird earlier this week. Sure enough the American Bittern was sitting just in front of the bird blind, neck outstretched as a form of camouflage. Clearly the bittern thought it was doing a good job, because it barely flinched as I sat there photographing it!

Eventually the bittern got bored, or hungry, or some combination of the two, and started making its way around the wetland, doing this odd kind of shuffle with its feet, presumably to scare up a meal. I watched it spear at crayfish and frogs, as a school of tiny minnows tried to flee from its gigantic feet. I’ve never seen a bittern this active, it’s a heck of an experience. But don’t take my word for it: check out the video!

So it’s been a good week. Two awesome county birds, some early winter visitors, and absolutely beautiful weather. If this is how the vagrant season is shaping up and it’s only October, it’s gonna be one hell of a winter! 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Goes Down Easy Like Vermouth and Bitterns

When you’ve found over 200 birds in your county, it becomes difficult to add ticks to your county list. One of the birds I’ve been dreading is the American Bittern because it usually involves waking up before dawn in early Spring and heading out to rural Durham county, just hoping you’ll flush one from the local waterfowl impoundments. So when I heard that same bittern could be found at a spot that’s been one of my birding haunts since I first took up the activity, I jumped at the opportunity.

I got off work late and raced over to the running trails that lay alongside the Washington-Duke golf course. The gravel parking lots were full, so I ended up starting my journey from the neighborhood that I grew up in – a little far away for my comfort, given how quickly the sun was descending in the sky. I was afraid that it would be too dark to photograph the bird were it still present, so I decided to do something I’ve not done in a long time – I ran.

Out of breath, I paused on the bridge that stretched across the artificial wetland. I put my binoculars up to my face, and I saw it. The American Bittern was a couple hundred feet away, motionless in front of a wooden walkway. I had my county bird, but I wanted more. So I ran over to the walkway, tiptoeing once I got there so I wouldn’t frighten the bird. I looked out of the viewing platform and… I couldn’t find it.

Frantically I searched. I’d just seen it, I know I had. There’s the little peninsula of pond weed I saw from the bridge, a couple of willows, the creek. The bittern was nowhere to be seen. I casually glanced to my right, and immediately realized my mistake. I’d been looking about twenty feet too far away. The American Bittern stood just six feet off the viewing platform, looking right at me. I pulled out my camera, but couldn’t see through the viewfinder because my glasses were fogged up from all the running. With a little effort, I managed the one decent shot you see below.

The bittern was actually too close for my camera to focus. I had to zoom out a ways just to fit it in the frame, and that still equated to just a head-shot of the bird. The bird seemed to acknowledge my presence, and started walking out into the marsh. Frogs and fish jumped out from in front of its feet, but the bittern had fed enough that day and ignored the potential meal. Then it stopped and stared at me, almost motionless.

There we were, one awesome county bird and one out-of-breath birder. For as much as I’d been dreading picking up an American Bittern for Durham county, I was glad to have such an easy tick in front of me. My glasses finally stopped fogging up, and I was able to glimpse the bird through my binoculars, enjoying the subtle shades of its feathering, the same colors that made it invisible to me not five minutes before. Though it’s not likely, I hope the bird stays around all winter. Eventually I’ll get a chance to head out in the morning when the light is better and fully photograph this wonderful creature. But until then, I’m left with a feeling of relief and county bird #213. And man it feels good!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Brace Yourselves...

Winter is coming. I first noticed when I got out of my car in the Mason Farm parking lot. The air was cool and crisp, with a clear blue sky overhead. A flock of Cedar Waxwings flew in the trees above the creek, and my first White-throated Sparrows of the season chipped away in the brambles. The whole place was surprisingly birdy, perhaps because everything was trying to fatten up before it got really cold.

I never give up the opportunity to watch a confiding bird, even one so common as a Mockingbird.

While the winter birds began trickling in, the migrants were trickling out. At first we couldn’t find any real migrants, and instead contented ourselves with a lagging flock of Palm Warblers that flitted through a field of Queen Anne’s lace, picking at chaff and working its way along the tree line.

If only they'd let themselves be photographed, but as with all warblers, easier said than done.

Most surprising were the stragglers, those summer birds that haven’t yet made their way south. Among the vocal Yellow-rumped Warblers, we found breeding birds like Red-eyed Vireo, Indigo Bunting, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. It’s hard to imagine seeing birds like this on a day when the temperature dips in the 50s – I’m used to seeing them in weather more than 30 degrees warmer! After picking through tons of these birds, we finally began to see our promised migrants, highlighted by a pair of Black-throated Blue Warblers that foraged right in front of us.

No picture can do this fantastic bird justice. What a treat!

As we continued along the trail, I heard the loud, sharp notes that signaled a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers up ahead. As we reached the forested area, I saw a bird fly to the right, and immediately had it in my binocs. One of the woodpeckers was making its way up the tree. I’ve always liked Hairy Woodpeckers because, despite looking extremely similar to Downy Woodpeckers in field guides, they’re immediately distinguishable in the field thanks to their size. James snapped a couple pics in the general area, and pointed out to me an odd bird, which perhaps not coincidentally then flew off. That was the bird I’d seen fly in, and the woodpecker was merely in the background. Then James showed me the pic.

Somehow, an almost unmistakable bird.

It was a Gray-cheeked Thrush, a species I haven’t seen in years. I’m still kicking myself for not being more focused and getting a better look at the bird. Even so, I had to be happy for James. It’s a lifer for him, which is something that’s happening less and less these days. I think he's the only birder in history to get his lifer Gray-cheeked before his lifer Swainson's!

We exited the forest, and started walking past some of the large fields. Just when I thought I’d go all winter without finding one, I heard a distinctive nasally call I’ve been training myself to recognize. I’ve heard tell it’s a good year for these guys, and after getting them on my last two outings, I’m inclined to agree. A little playback and a small bird flew like a feathered dart into the tree next to me. It’s a species I see all too infrequently, and one I’m hoping to get to know better this winter: a Red-breasted Nuthatch.

I've seen five nuthatch species in my life, and this is by far my favorite!

Ever since I started birding, the North Carolina winters have seen poor numbers of Red-breasted Nuthatch. But apparently the pine crop failed up north this year, which means the birds are starting to enter the state in droves – and it’s not even really that cold yet. Hopefully, the nuthatches are just a harbinger for large flocks of irruptive finches, which could include Evening Grosbeaks and Red Crossbills if we’re lucky. It’s been almost twenty years since the grosbeaks came to the state in any numbers, but if it’s going to happen again, it might as well be now. This winter is going to be cold as Hell on Hoth, and the birds already know it. Brace yourselves.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Spanish Bird of the Week #13: White Wagtail

By James

The White Wagtail is undoubtedly one of the most common birds in Andalucia. I saw them just about everywhere. However, despite quickly becoming a bird you overlook as a result of its abundance, this bird has a special place with me. The White Wagtail was actually the first of well over 100 life birds that I got in Spain.

As a result of some delays and flight changes, I ended up getting stuck in the Barcelona Airport for a six hour layover. The airport has HD-TVs everywhere and feels more like a mall than an airport. It’s pretty nice. For the first hour. Around hour three I completely zoned out and started staring out the window a la John Dorian. Suddenly my eyes caught a small black and white bird skittering its way across the tarmac. Now, I didn’t do too much bird research prior to heading across the pond, but I had done enough to know what this bird was. I was shot the picture through a grimy window, and the bird was probably 100 feet off, but a lifer is a lifer! Thankfully that was not my final experience with these guys.

A few weeks later I finally started getting tired of the urban birding haunts of Sevilla, and found, in the top right corner of my map of the city, what appeared to be a large green area. A little Google research and I had a new birding destination: Parque Alamillo. I’ve mentioned this park several times before, but all the other species I posted about were birds I got en route. Before I got there, I was expecting another park filled with people and impressive, but not exactly bird-friendly gardens. What I found was a surprisingly American and delightfully quiet park. It was simply a green-space, and was subsequently surprisingly birdy. My Google search turned up a rather intensive 8-year ornithological study of the park, and that they’d made a park species list complete with seasonality, relative abundance, and even the best places to look!

This park, which I completely missed for the first few weeks, turned out to be a decent birding haunt, and my new Sevilla hotspot. In total, Parque Alamillo yielded me 25 lifers and over 50 species over my four month stay, including plenty of looks at White Wagtails. Among them was this absolutely incredible look, as one of these handsome birds wanted to forage, and occasionally strike a pose, right in front me!