Saturday, June 28, 2014

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks have been showing up all over the place recently, with brief appearances in each of North Carolina's three physiographic regions: mountains, piedmont and coastal plain, as well as northern outliers turning up Massachusetts and New Brunswick all in the last several weeks.  So on the one hand, a record of this species at Mattamuskeet is probably long over due.  Yet prior to 2013 there were only two formally confirmed North Carolina occurrences, so the pair I stumbled upon on Monday is certainly worth some excited documentation. 

It all began innocently enough. With the recent discovery of White-faced Ibises hanging around the refuge (see this post and this post) I have been giving any Glossy Ibises I see a second look if I get the chance. The long days of late June meant that after 13 hours of field work there was still plenty of daylight and I somehow had the energy to scrutinize some distant ibises.  

I picked out a couple young of the year glossies showing some odd white markings on the neck and crown, which I've never before seen in photos of field guides.

freshly fledged Glossy Ibis, Mattamuskeet NWR
Glossy Ibis, Mattamuskeet NWR
I stopped as I was driving out and hopped out of my car planning to scope some distant ibis when I noticed this cute pair of ducks right in front of me. 

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge
The provenance question always comes up with vagrant duck species.  This pair shuffled away from me, but didn't take immediate flight, which gave me some decent photographic opportunities.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Mattamuskeet NWR
They dabbled among the marsh plants (looks like the invasive Alligator Weed) a bit.

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks Mattamuskeet, NWR
Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Mattamuskeet NWR
They seemed to be quite at home among the other impoundment denizens. 
Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks with Snowy Egret, Glossy Ibis, White Ibis
They eventually began to preen.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Mattamuskeet NWR
I'm not sure what to make of this 'dance.'

After about 30 minutes the Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks abruptly picked up.  I followed them with binoculars and then switched to my scope until they became just wiggling dots against the sky that disappeared below the horizon to the south-southeast.  I thought that perhaps they might have resettled in one of the refuge impoundments in that direction, but a half-hearted search the following day failed to turn any up.   It seems like these ducks do not frequently linger after being found. 

In between shots of the Whistling-Ducks, I noticed a male Northern Pintail that had foregone the standard northern migration. He was keeping company with what appears to be a female Mottled Duck, another southern duck species with a complicated local history of anthropogenic introduction and showing a trend of northward expansion.

female Mottled Duck (right) with Northern Pintail, Mattamuskeet NWR
All at once I've got two species of duck that could possibly be considered first records for Hyde County if the authorities can stomach provenance concerns.

What will turn up at Mattamuskeet next?  Perhaps a Purple Gallinule?  There have been plenty of those turning up in NC lately, but it would take a good bit of luck to discover one among the sprawl of habitat available on the refuge. 

Until next time...

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Mourning Warbler is a bird worth celebrating

The Friday-the-thirteenth full honey moon magic left over from our fledgling Northern Saw-whet Owl encounter continued into the early hours of the morning when I was awakened by the shrill, incessant calling of a Sora.  This is a little aquatic rail species that should be breeding in a wetland up in Canada by mid-June, but for some reason was some 5000 feet up in the mountains of NC near the Sam Knob trail head having some sort of shouting match with my tent.  Weird.

After decamping Johnny, Lesley and I ran into Marcus Simpson and Marilyn Westphal in the parking lot and following them up the Art Loeb trail to the spot where a Mourning Warbler song had been heard by Merrill Lynch (the naturalist, not the financial firm) on a breeding bird survey several days before.

Mourning Warblers are notoriously elusive skulkers and seeing one, even when you know it in a shrub right in front of you, is almost never easy.  Small numbers pass through North Carolina twice each year on migration and occasionally a male is found repeatedly singing at the same place in summer as if he is trying to breed, though there are no definitive records of nesting in the state.
Mourning Warbler spot, Art Loeb Trail, Shining Rock Wilderness
Once we reached the spot, we heard him singing almost immediately, but true to form, the little guy just didn't want to show himself.  Rather than sit on a tall perch, he seemed to prefer singing from the middle of dense bushes or shrubs.  Another problem was that he seemed to be utilizing a rather large area as his "territory."  One moment his ringing song would erupt from right in front of us and the next he could be heard barely audible in the distance and then not at all.

Alder Flycatchers, Least Flycatchers and Chestnut-sided Warblers kept us company while we listened to Marcus Simpson's stories of Blue Ridge natural history and for the warbler to return from interminable forays down slope.  After a couple hours Marcus and Marilyn left but were replaced by several other birders including a few members of the "Bird Police" (North Carolina Bird Records Committee).  At this point a cloud rolled in and the Mourning Warbler finally decided to perch up on a distant snag where he sat and sang for a couple minutes.
Morning Warbler, Art Loeb Trail
He was out of range of most of the cameras present, but I was able to get a few diagnostic shots for records purposes!

Despite the sombre name, to see a Mourning Warbler, especially a singing male, in North Carolina is definitely worth celebrating!

The Southernmost Saw-whet Owl

We arrived just in time to see the Friday-the-13th Full Honey Moon creeping up over the top of  Devil's Courthouse, one of North Carolina's most infamous of rock faces set beside the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The national park sign explained that according to Cherokee Legend the cave below the cliff is "the private dancing chamber and dwelling place of the slant-eyed giant, Judaculla."  It was a dramatic start to our nocturnal quest.  

Of course our goal was not to slay a giant, but spot the tiny Northern Saw-whet Owl, one of North Carolina's most elusive breeding bird species.  Our guide was Marcus Simpson's Birds of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which proclaims that the area around Devil's Courthouse is one of the best places in North Carolina to see this northern species.

My friend, "Johnny birder," needed to see one for his life list and his wife Lesley, though not nearly the psychotic lister, was happy to join us on a short birding trip to the mountains. 

Up on top of the Courthouse we were treated to a jaw-dropping moonlit view of the valleys, clouds and towns below. 
View of the Friday-the-13th Full Honey Moon from atop Devil's Courthouse
It was a bit windy and we hadn't heard any owls after about an hour and I was beginning to worry that it was too late in the season to hear them sing.  How many silent owls were we walking past in the darkness?  Eventually, Johnny and Lesley noticed a squeeking sound that we might have passed off for branches rubbing in the wind except that it was too regular.  Further investigation with lights revealed a nest box and a fledgling calling from a branch just in front of the opening!

Fledgling Norther Saw-whet Owl, Devil's Courthouse
 After some photos and much celebration we made a late camp for the night.  Who should we run into at dawn the next morning, but none other than Marcus Simpson himself, the very author of the bird guide that had led us to this cute baby owl.

Better yet was the back-story he shared with us.  Marcus had set up the nest box we had seen, which he has been monitoring along with 30 others in the North Carolina mountains for decades. Despite diligent annual checks, he had never found evidence that any of his boxes were being used by Saw-whets.  So the owl we found was very important!  It demonstrated that these little owls were using at least one of his boxes.  On top of that, it represents the southernmost record of breeding for this species!

I can only assume that the confluence of celestial and calendarial events led us to make this discovery.  Thanks to Johnny and Lesley for helping spot this little treasure and to Marcus Simpson for writing up the map for us (buy your copy now!).

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Birding the Oregon Trail

The Joint Aquatic Sciences Meeting (JASM) brought me to Portland, Oregon for a week jammed wall-to-wall with more than a dozen concurrent sessions of 15-minutes presentations from limnologists (they study lakes), oceanographers, freshwater and wetland scientists, and phycologists (folks who study algae, as I learned). 

Black-headed Grosbeak, Mount Tabor Park

The humorous among us found that amending the conference acronym with the host state’s two-letter postal code yields ORJASM, which captures the cathartic excitement that abounds whenever 3000 ecologist super-nerds assemble (insert witty Oregon Trail computer game reference here).  
I was there to present on my research on waterfowl at Lake Mattamuskeet in eastern North Carolina, but I wasn’t going to fly all the way across the country without fitting in some birding.  So I arrived the weekend before and stayed for the Memorial Day weekend that followed to explore Oregon’s lush forested mountains, high deserts, valley wetlands and iconic coastline in search of lifers.  

I scored a coach-surfing host in one of Portlandia’s eastern suburbs, convenient for a foray up Oregon’s famous Colombia River Gorge.  Here tree-trunks are car-sized, ferns cover the forest floor and clear trout-filled streams spill along boulder-strewn valley floors.  This is temperate rainforest and it seems like the kind of place that creatures from Avatar should appear.  Instead I found one of my top targets, the American Dipper (a.k.a. Water Ouzel).  

American Dippers, Eagle Creek

I found some other exciting birds here, like Western Tanager and Rufous Hummingbird, but the canopy was filled with invisible singing warblers that I couldn’t identify.   

Western Tanager, Eagle Creek

I had listened to all the western warbler tapes, but it seems like the songs are quite a bit more variable than the eastern species I recognize.  After giving up on seeing the Black-throated Grays or Townsend’s or Hermits or whatever was teasing me, I continued up the gorge.

Black-throated Gray Warbler, seen later in Mount Hood National Forest

The transition from rain forest to desert is dramatic.  Suddenly the Naavi homeland is replaced by a brown open scrubland, and then eventually there’s nothing but rolling hills of billowing wheat and pasture.  Here is where I saw my first Vaux’s Swifts.  

A southward turn at The Dalles brought me to the town of Tygh Valley, a crossroads that I had been told was home to an ample population of Lewis’s Woodpeckers.  It took strolling along several of the cross streets and enduring as many odd looks from passersby before I found them near the river at the base of town.   

Lewis's Woodpecker, Tygh Valley

A pair of Bullock’s Oriole’s zoomed by, but there wasn’t much else going on, so I returned to my parked car where a Lewis’s Woodpecker was circling around overhead, fitting that birding maxim: the bird you seek is usually in the parking lot.

Next stop on my loop was a managed game land where I spotted the first of four empidonax targets: Gray Flycatcher.   

Gray Flycatcher, White River Wildlife Management Area

Here I noticed a raptor high overhead being mobbed by a Common Raven—a Golden Eagle! 

Golden Eagle, White River Wildlife Management Area

This was only the second I had ever seen, though I’ve still yet to find an adult.

I worked my way back west circumnavigating the majestic Mt. Hood, which juts abruptly white through the crumpled blanket of evergreen.   

Mount Hood
As it was late afternoon by this point, bird activity was low in the high elevation forest, but I was able to track down my target here: a Varied Thrush!

Fast-forward through an enjoyable and stimulating week of ORJASM...

...and I struck out for the Pacific Ocean. On the way I stopped to bird the lush coastal range to find Pacific-Slope and Hammond’s Flycatchers, MacGillivray’s and Hermit Warblers, among others.

lush, moss-covered vegetation (with Pacific Wren), Tillamook State Forest

Hermit Warbler, Tillamook State Forest
 I heard a Sooty Grouse drumming here, but it wouldn’t show itself. 

By the time I arrived at Cannon Beach it was late afternoon and hundreds of people were out enjoying a rare sunny day on their holiday weekend.  My main targets here were Tufted Puffin and Pigeon Guillemot.  After finding a few thousand Common Murres, but neither target alcid at the “bird rocks” I made my way the mile or so down the beach to “Haystack Rock.”  Here I encountered Tim, a volunteer monitoring the rock’s puffin colony for the Fish and Wildlife Service.  Tim reported seeing 16 puffins in the morning, but regretfully informed me that all were currently sequestered deep in their burrows or out at sea feeding.   

Common Murres, Haystack Rock

There were no guillemots in sight either, though masses of perhaps 1500 Common Murres were huddled together along the cliff top along with several dozen nesting Western Gulls.   

Haystack Rock with Bald Eagle terrorizing alcid/gull colony

An approaching Bald Eagle caused chaos among the rock’s residents sending flocks of murres swirling out over the beach and into the water.  Apparently the eagles have prevented the murres from successfully breeding here over the past several years, though they remain locally overpopulated and continue to try.  The puffins are declining, but persist and breed when the crowds of murres don’t block the entrances to their burrows. If it weren’t for the Department of the Interior protecting this rock, nothing would breed here at all. 

nesting Black Oystercatcher, Haystack Rock

Tim called it a day and encouraged me to return in the morning when the puffins are easier to see.  I stuck around for another hour or so and being the lone man with the spotting scope ended up being approached by all sorts of curious beach-goers.  

“Hey man. Are those penguins flying around?”

It became clear that Oregonians have an endearing friendliness, and attracted to the area by its natural beauty, are keen to learn about local wildlife.  

The puffins never made an appearance that afternoon, nor did the guillemots.  I had a free place to stay lined up in Portland but the round trip to Portland and back to the coast would be nearly four hours—time  I would much rather spend birding (and I would be racking up quite few hundred odometer miles on rental cars already).  So I cruised up to the town of Seaside and after a delicious taco dinner at Casa del Sol staked out a secluded church parking lot and bundled myself up in the passenger seat.  How quickly I revert to budget backpacker mode when I get to birding and travelling on my own.  I spare no daytime for meals; and anything above a bunk in a hostel dorm becomes an unconscionable indulgence. Sometimes "Eat. Sleep. Bird." becomes merely "Bird."

I awoke back-sore at dawn to the sweet serenade of a Swainson’s Thrush.  Rather than return immediately to the Haystack Rock for the puffins I cruised north to Fort Stevens State Park at the mouth of the Colombia River.  At the Carolina Bird Club meeting in Hendersonville the other week I had picked up a 1978 copy of Birding Oregon by Fred L. Ramsey that had been left in the free bird book pile at the registration table.  Obviously a lot of the information contained is now, 35 years later, out of date, but the book had promised that this area, Clatsop Spit specifically, was one of the best birding spots in all of Oregon.  

I guess I didn’t pick up any lifers here, but author’s claims seemed to ring true through the decades.  The back side of the spit offers mud flats and marsh for excellent aquatic bird habitat.  It was a bit late in the spring season for shorebirds, but about half a dozen species lingered and three breeding plumage Dunlin tripped the local ebird filters (late date for them I presume).  My favorite feature here is the large elevated platform that offers a commanding view of the jetty and ocean, teaming with bird life.  Pacific Loons, Western Grebes and Surf Scoters littered the ocean, to name just a few.  I saw a smaller alcid fluttering along the water.  It was perhaps a bit larger than a Dovekie (my east coast frame of reference), but definitely smaller than a Common Murre—maybe an auklet or a murrelet?  I had to let that one go.   

Farther down the beach on a dune above the skeletal remains of a ship wreck, I was scanning the ocean when some guy came jogging up to me sputtering something about a whale.  I looked up, and—holy sea cow—a pair of whales were blowing in the middle distance.  I later was told that they were probably Gray Whales, so maybe I had a lifer after all.  

It was hard to pull myself away from the productive ocean, but my malnourished stomach was growling and I wanted to get back to Haystack Rock before too late.  Tim had suggested 10 to 10:30 as the best time for seeing puffins.

After another taco meal at Casa del Sol I raced once again to the utopic town of Cannon Beach, bustling with Memorial Day weekend activity.  By the time I found a place to park and made it out to the rock it was nearly 11.  Tim was at his usual spot for puffin surveying some 200 yards up the beach.  The Eagle was back and had chased all the Murres off the rock.  Not surprisingly no puffins were in sight.  There was this pair of Pigeon Guillemots having some sort of domestic dispute.

Pigeon Guillemots, Haystack Rock

Tim tried to tell me that the puffins were all gone, but scoping the ocean I noticed a few bobbing in the chop.   

Tufted Puffins (and Western Gulls), Haystack Rock
Quite a few were out there actually; twelve was my conservative high count.  Tim recorded this observation in his notes and thanked me for the puffin spotting (something I have some experience with in the Atlantic).   

This population of Tufted Puffins at Haystack Rock has been steadily declining over the last 50 years and it isn’t yet clear why.  I would think that having Bald Eagles constantly present predating on the overpopulated Common Murres can’t be helping the puffins’ chances for successful breeding.  How are they supposed to feed their chicks with the threat of death-by-eagle looming on top of their roofs?
On my way back from the coast I dropped by Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve to look for Cinnamon Teal.   

Cinnamon Teal, Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve

These beautiful ducks are local residents and I saw them immediately from the visitor’s center, but took a short stroll down one of the paths to get a closer look.  En route I was besieged on all sides by vociferous bird activity.   

Anna's Hummingbird, Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve
Anna’s Hummingbirds were zipping by, Spotted Sandpiper’s were battling for territory and a Virginia Rail shuffled away from me as I approached.  The best bird for me here was this gorgeous Lazuli Bunting that popped up briefly to sing.   

Lazuli Bunting, Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve

He probably had fledglings to feed since he didn’t stick around for a better photo.

On my final day in Oregon I jogged back east to search for some targets I had missed the weekend before: Dusky Flycatcher, Cassin’s Vireo and Cassin’s Finch.   

Cassin's Vireo, Mount Hood National Forest

I was able to track down these birds along with the other targets on this whole Oregon trip thanks to some excellent advice provided by Stefan Schlick.  Stefan seems to have the knowledge of a breeding bird atlas and was able to direct me to more life birds than I had time to try to find.   Thanks to his help I was able to see 19 life birds (21 for the ABA area) and in doing so accumulated an Oregon list of 133—not bad for just a few days!

While I’m thanking people, I also want to give a shout-out to Bethani and Kaola who were generous enough to welcome a thrifty birdaholic like myself into their homes.  

Oregon is certainly a wonderful place.  Yes, the birds and landscapes there are phenomenal and Portland is one of the most pleasant, livable cities I’ve experiences, but I was really impressed by the friendliness of the people.  

 Fortunately, I left plenty of ‘opportunity birds’ on the table and would be glad to have another chance to visit the Pacific Northwest and explore further.

MacGillivray's Warbler, Mount Hood National Forest

For now it’s back to the grind of field work, lab work and meetings in the stifling North Carolina summer.  Hopefully I can get on a trip offshore soon.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Birding the southern Appalachians: World of Warblers

Birders from all over the Carolinas descended on Hendersonville in the southern Appalachians for the Carolina Bird Club spring meeting last weekend to witness warblers at their finest.  What makes spring birding in this region so special is that the warblers arrive and begin singing before the trees have had a chance to leaf out.  This gives birders a great opportunity to see these elusive, beautiful songsters in their breeding finery that just doesn't exist in the piedmont or coastal plain.
I lead a couple field trips around Polk County in the Saluda area and, including some extra birding while "off-duty," spotted 25 warblers over the weekend--an excellent haul.

Swainson's Warbler, Pearson's Falls
This Swainson's Warbler I found on an afternoon trip to Pearson's Falls, was unusually cooperative; normally photographing warblers is an exercise in futility.  The sprightly little birds are often far away, rarely sit still, and when they do happen to take a sedentary moment nearby, there's inevitably a branch in the way and/or poor lighting. Why don't I just paunch into a rough guide to taking mediocre warbler photos?

Palm Warbler, Lake Junaluska
Here's a friendly Palm Warbler, but it was late in the day and the sun was just in the wrong place.

Blackburnian Warbler, Max Patch Road
This is a typical view of a Blackburnian Warbler...100 ft straight up.  Not much one can do about that.

Yellow-throated Warbler, Polk County
This was a rare case in which a canopy species, Yellow-throated Warbler, inexplicably dropped down to about eye level, and next to our parked vehicles on my Warrior Mountain trip to boot.  Not a rare bird, but one that I rarely see this well, and a crowd-pleaser for sure.

Cerulean Warbler, Blue Ridge Parkway north of Asheville
The joy of birding along the Blue Ridge Parkway north of Asheville isn't just the Cerulean Warblers, it's also that the steep dropoffs at the overlooks give the opportunity to look into the canopy at eye level and see, yes, Ceruleans, but lots of other warblers as well.  Ceruleans are notoriously difficult to photograph and this capture is pretty uninspiring (they usually look much bluer).

Canada Warbler, Craggy Gardens
Odds of getting a decent shot go up exponentially when the target is an understory species, such as this Canada Warbler.  This capture stands head-and-shoulders above most of the rest in this post.
Hooded Warbler, Warrior Mountain escarpment
I wasn't as lucky with this Hooded Warbler.  It was a cloudy early morning, so the light was low and he was far away.

Black-and-white Warbler, Warrior Mountain escarpment
 Same goes for this Black-and-white Warbler.

Chestnut-sided Warbler, Max Patch Road
 When you go looking for Golden-winged Warblers in North Carolina (no easy task, by the way; their population has declined some 98% in the state) Chesnut-sided Warblers become the 'trash' birds you can't get away from.  No complaints here!

Golden-winged Warbler, Max Patch Road
The real deal couldn't be bothered to pose for photos...this Golden-winged Warbler appeared to be busy trying to ensure the persistence of his genetic line in one his species' last holdouts in North Carolina.

Cape May Warbler, Lake Junaluska
 One of the handful of warblers we saw that is not a resident breeder in North Carolina was the Cape May Warbler.  This is one of those birds that could really use a name change.  It has no particularly affinity for Cape May, New Jersey, in fact, it is relatively difficult to find one there at all.  My vote would be to adopt its latin name tigrisoma and call it the 'Tiger Warbler.' Look at those stripes and orange face!

waterthrush sp., Polk County
We've worked our way from high to low and are now actually looking down on warblers. 

Which waterthrush?  It looks quite white; has a broad, flaring supercilium; and was working along the edge of a fast-flowing stream.  That makes it a Louisiana Waterthrush, right?
Northern Waterthrush, Polk County
Wrong! Closer inspection shows that it does indeed show a yellowish tinge, dense streaking and a fine bill.  I guess Northern Waterthrushes can make use of fast-moving habitats while migrating through the mountains (where stagnant water can be scarce), and can show that broad white eyebrow usually associated with Louisiana.  That's part of what makes birding fun: there's always more to learn.   

How quickly spring passes us by here in the South.  Most of the migrating warblers are well to the north of us now it seems.  They were few and far between on yesterday's Chapel Hill Spring Bird Count.  One surprising exception was a beautiful male Magnolia Warbler, the 32nd warbler species I've spotted in North Carolina this spring. That's certainly a record for me and, heck, that's a pretty good total for a year in this or any state. 

I've heard that springtime birding at Magee Marsh in Ohio is tough to beat, but if you want to see breeding plumage warblers without the crowds, it might be worth looking into a well-timed trip to the Southern Appalachians.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

More White-faced Ibises at Mattamuskeet NWR

Last winter when I stumbled upon an immature White-faced Ibis at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge it represented what would become just the third accepted record for this species in North Carolina.

Well now it appears if this bird may be (or have recently become?) an annual visitor to the refuge as I came across four White-faced in a flock of more than 100 Glossies last week.

White-faced Ibises, Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge
I first picked out a couple immature birds among a dense flock of glossies, but then after they took flight briefly I noticed a couple adults settle down apart from the group...perhaps a pair bond?

Can you find the White-faced Ibis in this scrum?

This begs the question: for how long have White-faced Ibises been visiting Mattamuskeet without being detected?

The refuge is relatively isolated and receives few birders outside of its world-famous winter waterfowl season. Because it is so vast, when birders do make the pilgrimage they rarely have the chance to check every every corner of each impoundment (not to mention the many areas that are inaccessible).  It also takes a good close look at the face to tell Glossy and White-faced Ibises apart; I've been lucky with cooperative flocks in that regard.

Who knows how long they'll stick around, but I will say that with or without rare ibises, spring is a fun and underrated time to bird Mattamuskeet.

By late April most of the waterfowl have departed except a few transient dabbler flocks, the most abundant being the handsome Blue-winged Teal, which are probably stopping en route from South America. 

Blue-winged Teal, Mattamuskeet NWR
Spring at the refuge also provides the rare opportunity to see some shorebirds in breeding plumage. I had to stop and try some quick digiscoping when I saw a flock of 140 dowitchers, but just when I was getting my first few captures, they took flight.

Long-billed Dowitchers, Mattamuskeet NWR
The cause for alarm turned out to be a prowling Peregrine Falcon, which I watched take a couple unsuccessful stoops at a Forster's Tern. 

Sadly my days of field work at Mattamuskeet will be coming to an end before too long and that will be goodbye to a lot of exciting bird life.  I can only hope some other rarity will magically appear in the meantime--perhaps a Garganey or Fulvous Whistling-Duck--wouldn't that be nice!