Friday, December 30, 2011

A big year for Durham?

After the crazy streak of rare shorebirds on upper Falls Lake this fall I realized I had a pretty decent Durham County list going for the year.  And with Nate Swick of the Drinking Bird doing his Triangle Big Year, John Vanderpoel on the brink of setting an ABA record, and with that awesome, star-studded, money-losing movie coming out, I figured why not jump on this band wagon?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Carteret County Rail and Sparrow Extravaganza

Jacob Socolar, Mark Kosiewski, Ali Iyoob, Michael McCloy, Nick Flanders, Paul Tallie, Elisa Enders and I set out on an epic birding trip down to Carteret County with the audacious goal of finding six rail and six ammodramus sparrow species in two days.  
The team

Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas Bird Count!

I joined Tom Krakauer and Ken (whose last name I can’t recall) in Quail Roost up in northern Durham County to help with the Durham Christmas Bird Count.  I already commented on the beauty of this part of Durham in my post about the spring count here.  
Quail Roost Farm

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Terrible pictures of Beautiful birds

I finally made it down to New Bern to see the Anna's Hummingbird that has been visiting the Berher's yard (lifer #1539!).

It didn't visit the feeder while I was there, but helpfully announced its presence by making some bizarre vocalizations from atop a tree in the yard.  It sat for several minutes and I was able to view it through my scope and take some distant photos. 
I guess the Anna's just wasn't thirsty today?
After awhile it zipped off with a flurry of angry-sounding tweets as if on an urgent mission. I might have stuck around hoping to get a view of its gorget illuminated by sun, but I had my own pressing plans...

Friday, December 2, 2011

Fall Recap: chases and finds

With the November bird eating competition completed and Frasier Firs going on sale everywhere, the fall is certainly behind us. It has been a busy one for both work and birds and I just haven't had a chance to post some rather remarkable sightings.

I made a trip out to see the Allen's Hummingbird in Catawba County with Mark Kosiewski. This may have a set a chase-distance record for both of us, so I'll admit we were both a bit hesitant when we were making our plans.  But this was not only the second NC record for the species (which I've told told is a tricky find even in its native California), but also a gorgeous adult-male!  Plus success was virtually guaranteed since the individual was regularly returning to Dwayne Martin's feeder outside of his Riverbend Park office.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A xenophilic day in Durham

I started off by going to the Eno River to chase the Great "White" Heron that had been reported.
White morph Great Blue Heron

Sure enough.  This thing was no Egret!

Monday, November 14, 2011

A gorgeous morning of birds in SWAMP

I led a group of students from the Duke Student Association of Wetland Scientists (SAWS), Nicnats and the Duke Natural History Society (DNHS) out on bird walk in SWAMP yesterday.
Awesome people (from left Kai, Katie, Tong, Paul)
The weather and leaves were equally gorgeous and birds seemed especially active as if wanting to make the most of the warmth and sun.  Every dense patch of grass and bushes seemed to be saturated with calling sparrows.  The resident Red-shouldered Hawk cooperatively posed for photos by the dam.  

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Birding on the Job

Part of my responsibility as teacher assistant for the Nicholas School of the Environment wetland ecology and management class is to help with the field trip: a visit to wetlands in coastal North Carolina.  Oh, the drudgery!  

Actually, this trip is -the- highlight of the course for student and instructor alike.  It does chew up fall break…but what better way to spend it than a bunch of beautiful marshes, bogs and swamps? It was a great opportunity for some on-the-job birding as well, and we stumbled upon some cool wetland species and birds of prey.  
Jones Lake, Bladen County, NC
Our itinerary covered more sites than I care to describe here (see photo above), so I’ll just stick to the ones with the most noteworthy birds.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

y(Y?)ellow-bellied flycatcher

There have been quite a few recent local reports of Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, a rather rare migrant to North Carolina.  It seems that this is either a great fall to see the species or a great fall to see another of the confusing Empidonax flycatchers, such as a first-year Acadian with yellow-washed belly, and report it as a Yellow-bellied.  

Without hearing birds of this genus vocalize, identification can be quite tricky, and many a cautious birder will stick with Empidonax sp. Even under ideal viewing conditions.  

Take this bird I photographed at Brickhouse Road over the weekend…
 Not a great look, but definitely some sort of empid.  

Moments later I came upon another empid. that may or may not have been the same individual.  This one clearly had a yellow belly, green back and even a yellowish-looking throat. 

I followed it for several salleys along the path and it spent time along the forest edge on both the more mature side as well as the denser, younger wet side.
After a while it took a break from foraging and settled cooperatively for a few minutes in this tree.
What's it doing eating a caterpillar?  I thought these things were supposed to catch flies!
So this post has turned into an ID quiz for which I have no answer key.  Can anybody tell me what this bird is?

Previously I had never seen an immature Acadian nor a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.  Surely this bird is one or the other… but which?  

If the photos aren’t enough… Check out this video… 

No it doesn't vocalize or do anything super-exciting.  It just looks around, and more importantly stays in focus  (I have several other clips in which my camera decided that a twig was far more interesting.)

I'll admit I'm not flycatcher expert, but I'm starting to lean toward Sierran Elaenia =P

Update 10/14/11:

After consulting carolinabirds and frontiers in bird identification listservs there was no consensus among expert opinion.  I think I got a total of 5 votes for Yellow-bellied and 4 votes for Acadian.  In general folks in the Acadian camp were more confident in their ID.

Jeff Pippen's advice was probably best: go get Ken Kaufman's book and figure it out yourself.  

The section on empids is really helpful for determining which attributes are most useful (i.e. bill size/shape, primary projection) and which are not (i.e. color, tail flicking).  

The main problem with the pictures I posted is that they show more of the less-useful indicators.  I captured the bill from several different angles, but it's size seems to change from one photo to the next.  

The result was a crazy juxtaposition of comments, such as...

Expert A: "...the smaller bill...seems to point towards Yellow-bellied."
Expert B: "The bill is clearly broader at the base, longer, and pointier than Yellow-bellied, Least, or Willow/Alder Flycatchers."

So I went back to my original photos and videos and found that some of my "bad" pictures actually illustrate the important field marks better than the "good" photos above. 

In these photos (of the same individual) the bird here is in direct sunlight and the color is washed out...

...BUT the primary projection is shown much more clearly

...AND it is easier to see the width of the base of the bill.  

The apparently broad bill seems to fit much better with Acadian than Yellow-bellied. 

The primary projection also looks to be long...perhaps not too long to rule out Yellow-bellied on its own, but I think it also favors Acadian.  

So after chasing my tail all over the place and being pulled apart by conflicting opinions, I'm right about where I started with my best guess for the ID.  

Big thanks to everybody who has commented and emailed me about this bird...especially to those who voted for Yellow-bellied Flycatcher!  Unfortunately I don't think I can, in good faith, mark it down as such (especially since it would be a life tick).  

I've certainly learned a lot and hope others have as well.  Also, further comment and discussion is more than welcome.   

Thursday, September 22, 2011

More Falls Lake absurdity

Since classes resumed up birding opportunities have been woefully few and far between for me. The coincidence of the fall semester and fall migration, I suspect, is frustrating for many an academic birder.

So many odd birds have appeared at nearby Falls Lake in the past month it seems that every weekend it just has to be my birding destination.

There was the dark morph Parasitic Jaeger that Jeff Pippen found a couple weekends ago… perhaps the fourth record of the species in the North Carolina Piedmont. It was almost surely a relic from the recent passage of Hurricane Irene.

Here is my awful phone-scoped photo from about a mile away at Hickory Hills boat ramp. The white lump on the right is a Ring-billed Gull and the dark lump on the left is the jaeger.
Parasitic Jaeger with Ring-billed Gull (use your imagination)
Since the species relies on pilfering fish from other seabirds and there were just a few Caspian Terns around to compliment the lone gull as potential targets, I suspect this poor bird was exhausted and starved.  And likely doomed.

Then there was the American Oystercatcher that Steve Shultz stumbled upon. I didn’t bother to try phone-scoping this one, but it is apparently only the third record for the North Carolina piedmont.
American Oystercatcher
This picture is actually from Carteret County; I just figured I should include an Oystercatcher photo.  

All these trips to Falls Lake have kept me out of the woods hunting for warblers and other migrant passerines, which have been moving through in decent numbers over the past week. This is a bit of a tragedy since some really great birds have been turning up in the triangle, such as Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Wilson’s Warbler and Philadelphia Vireo, to name a few.

A silver lining to missing out on warblers was a large swallow flock at Ellerbe Creek that yielded my first Bank Swallow for North Carolina (#276).

Another was the gorgeous pair of American Avocets that has been be hanging around pools near the mouth of Ellerbe Creek.
American Avocet with prey
I had seen avocets before at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge at the coast, but never this close and never doing their characteristic sweep feeding!
Check out the video!

Oh and I had promised a photo of a confusing fall warbler.  Check out this one I saw at Ellerbe Creek. 
Confusing fall warbler!
What warbler shows a white eye ring, yellow lores, bold white wing bars and a bright yellow chest?

None of the warblers in my Sibley do.  A creative combination of different plumages of Pine Warbler could fit the description, but Pines don't generally hang out in low willow trees with Common Yellowthroats.  There also were no pine trees in the vicinity. 

Anyone have a suggestion?

What a silly ending to a post about not seeing warblers.  Even when I see them it's not like I can identify them anyway! =P

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Fall SWAMP count with SAWS

A whopping 14 masters students woke up early last Saturday morning and came out to tag along for a bird count with me in the Duke University Wetland Center (DUWC) Stream and Wetland Assessment and Management Park (SWAMP).  This shows that bird watching is exploding in popularity!  That, or that graduate students will do just about anything for free donuts and coffee, which were graciously provided by the Student Association of Wetland Scientists (SAWS) Duke Chapter.  But probably the real draw was celebrity leader Jeff Pippen who took time out of his busy schedule of finding rare seabirds in Durham to educate us all about everything natural that was to be found.
Jeff Pippen distilling wisdom in SWAMP

The Al Buehler fitness trail runs right through the SWAMP site and gets lots of traffic.  During our count we happened to be sharing space with an actual collegiate cross-country meet.  Obviously this isn’t the most conducive setting for birds and birding and we weren’t able to find any exciting fall migrants. 
A Belted Kingfisher at the pond was a crowd-pleaser.  But the best wetland bird came after everyone had left and I stole off on my own to count one final section of the site that is inaccessible to the public.  At a small vernal pool I stumbled upon a very agitated Green Heron that kept flaring its crown feathers, croaking and flicking its tail.
Green Heron
Here's a video of the tail-flicking part:

I was happy to see the Green Heron, but I think it was upset I hadn’t brought the others.  Even if the birds weren’t spectacular, it was a gorgeous morning and nice to show the restoration areas and new board walks and platforms to the group.  For me it was also more data for my bird study and I learned some new wetland plant species from Jeff.

Check out that Dodo!
 A big thanks to Jeff and all the SAWS participants for making such a great day!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Phalaropes at "Phals" Lake

By many accounts the past couple weeks have been exceptional for shorebirds on the mudflats at Falls Lake.  No less than 20 species of shorebirds have been reported recently including some really unusual ones that can be tricky to find even in appropriate coastal habitat, such as Piping Plover and Red Knot.

I didn't get to see either of the above, but I happened to run into David Lenat in a kayak at the railroad trestle, who gave me a full report on the rarities present.  He graciously allowed me to borrow his boat to paddle out to one of the islands to get closer views (and photos) of some of the birds.

I wasn't too surprised to see a rare inland Red-necked Phalarope; one had been reported several times in the previous week.  But seeing 4 was a bit of a shock!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Birding Rachel Carson National Estuarine Sanctuary (Beaufort)

The Rachel Carson National Estuarine Sanctuary is a phenomenal birding spot and made for a great break from the August beach crowds.  At high tide all sorts of birds congregate at this isolated location and then forage over a variety of estuarine habitats that have been created by years of dredge spoil.  I had paddled through it several times in the past, but never in the summer. Yesterday I explored and birded the area by kayak during falling tide. 
High Tide at Rachel Carson National Estuarine Sanctuary
It is a haven for several species of wading birds such as Little Blue Heron...

Little Blue Heron

...and White Ibis, which were found all over the place; I encountered one huge flock of about 100 that scattered when helicopters flew over.  

White Ibis
An exciting and rare wader was present during my visit--a Reddish Egret (Lifer # 1529; NC bird #268)!

Reddish Egret (immature)
This species breeds in Southern Florida, but a few may regularly wander up into the Carolinas later in the summer.

They are quite comical when foraging.  Check out this quick video clip:

Rachel Carson is also a popular resting spot for gulls and terns.  I happened to visit during what I can only assume must be peak migration for Black Terns.

Black Tern

I counted 251 individual Black Terns in a single flock and found many smaller flocks in the area.  Add Least, Forster's, Sandwich, Common and Royal into the mix and you have a tern metropolis. 

But it is the abundant and diverse shorebirds that are often most alluring for birders.  I, for one, was excited to see about a dozen or so Wilson's Plovers (NC bird #269!), a relatively uncommon species.  

Wilson's Plover
 Alltogether I identified 15 shorebird species during the afternoon...
Spotted Sandpiper

Marbled Godwits
...hopefully all of them correctly!  Shorebirds can be quite confusing.

Least Sandpiper
Overall brown coloration, a short fine-tipped and decurved bill, plus yellow legs make this peep a Least Sandpiper.  Easy enough.

Western Sandpipers (with Sanderling)
 Long curved and fine-tipped bills, black legs and reddish scapulars should make these Western Sandpipers. I read somewhere that Western/Semipalmated Sandpipers are misidentified with regularity.  Hopefully I'm not screwing this up!

Short-billed Dowitchers
Ugh.  Dowitchers are another notoriously misidentified pair.  My assumption given the time of year (August) and the water salinity (salty/brackish) is that the dozens of dowitchers should be Short-billed.  The vocalizations I heard and recorded seem to fit this assumption well, but are Short-billed Dowitchers supposed to have this much reddish coloration on their bellies?  Could there be Long-billed Dowitchers mixed in?

Birding can be such a humbling experience at times.  There is always more to learn.  Be ready for some ambiguous fall warbler photos in a month or so!

To round out the day's birding, I made a quick stop at Fort Macon State Park, situated directly across the Beaufort Inlet from Rachel Carson.  My target here was a long overdue life bird: Painted Bunting.  

I was pleasantly surprised to find that a new informative trail had been cut through the scrub thickets at the end of the parking lot and my search ended quickly in success!  (Thanks to John Fusell for the tip)

Painted Bunting
A beautiful adult male (captured by a shockingly poor photograph) was foraging with a couple scruffy first year birds in a wet depression (lifer #1530; NC bird # 270).

I'm cooking up some plans to search for black rails in Cedar Island next weekend.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

An Olive-sided Flycatcher in the Pocosins!

This week I have been down in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge working  on collecting greenhouse gas samples with the Duke Wetland Center for a US Fish and Wildlife project.  It has been hard work to say the least, with 100+ degree days and 100+ grotesque chigger bites all over my ankles. 
Allen Road, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge
Today was just one of those days.  It started with a flat tire. Then an ominous haze of smoke blew in from a nearby forest fire.  The pocosins were cruel and tore the left knee out of my pants, effectively opening the floodgates to more chiggers and any lyme’s disease-infested ticks.  Finally we reached our last stop of the day, an orange oil drum containing an automatic water-sampler.  My partner in crime began swearing when he discovered what should have been easy to predict based on the theme of the day: the device had failed.  

Since I could offer little help in trouble-shooting with this piece of hardware, I let my attention lapse to look up for a singing Northern Flicker I had just heard.  Sure enough one came bounding across the powerlines, road and canal to land in a dead tree joining another bird—most likely an Eastern Kingbird given their relative local abundance. 
Eastern Kingbirds are ubiquitous in the Pocosin Lakes NWR
 But wait a second.  Is that kingbird wearing a tuxedo vest?   

Kingbird dressed for a wedding?  Or an Eastern Phoebe?
The flicker seemed to sense something alien in his tree-mate and bolted.  

I grabbed my binoculars from the truck, took two steps, paused, and then doubled back for my camera.  My instincts and suspicions were confirmed: an Olive-sided Flycatcher!  An ABA first for me (my lifer was in a park in Bogota; lol).   

While this species is quite rare in Eastern NC, the pocosin habitat in which I found it actually makes sense to me.  The ecosystem of scattered loblolly bays in a shrubby bog are probably structurally and hydrologically not that different from the boreal bogs within which I assume Olive-sided Flycatchers must thrive somewhere up in Canada.  I was surprised to find so few ebird records (only two) of the species from the North Carolina coastal plain.

The bird chipped as if in happy agreement with my thoughts.  He/she took several long sallies out to capture insects and always returned to one of two tall dead trees.  
Yum! (ABA #313; NC #267)

I was still basking in the afterglow of my find when I turned my attention to a couple chipping blackbirds that flew in and landed several trees from the flycatcher’s perch.  Surely these were Redwinged Blackbirds, but I hadn’t noticed any red in flight.  Woah! Why does this one have such a yellow face and chin?  And what’s up with the pale chest? Could immature Red-winged Blackbirds possibly look this way? 

Turns out they can.  But that didn’t stop me from deluding myself into thinking they were my first ever Yellow-headed Blackbirds.  It took a quick google image search to convince myself I was full of it.  This is what I get for overlooking blackbirds—a common bad birding habit.
But blackbirds or not, it took just a few minutes of interesting birds to transform what had been a rather rotten day into one I’ll remember fondly.  Such is the magic of birding.  

Monday, July 11, 2011

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher!

Jacob Socolar found a nesting pair at Anilorac Farm in Orange County while I was out of the country.  As soon as I got a chance, I cruised out to see them.
Scissor-tails have been expanding their range, but are still quite rare in NC and this nest site is a significant find.  Another pair was recently found nesting near Charlotte. 
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Unfortunately these birds had molted their longest tail feathers and lost the reddish highlights they wear in breeding plumage.  I phone-scoped one from about 12 light-years away.

I had seen one in Nicaragua a few years ago, but this sighting brought my US list even with my Peru list at 312. 

Czech out these birds!

What?  Two trips to Europe in as many months?

Yes, it’s a tough life. 

A Society of Wetland Scientists conference brought me to Prague, Czech Republic where I told the top wetland scientists from 47 countries about how successful the stream restoration in the SWAMP has been for bird communities.   
 Check out my poster (give it a click)!

Now Prague is a city better known for castles than birds…
Great Spotted Woodpecker
…though Eastern Europe is a popular spot for British twitchers to visit in search of woodpeckers. 

I had some time for sightseeing over the weekend and after a heavy dose of Gothic architecture and Baroque art, I stole away to some of Prague’s many large and densely wooded parks.   

Great Spotted Woodpeckers were common and rather friendly. But this species is also a British resident (where I had seen it before).  Other woodpeckers proved to be far more timid and elusive.  I was able to spot a Green Woodpecker and a Middle Spotted Woodpecker (both lifers!), but missed out on Lesser Spotted and Gray-headed. 

Eurasian Treecreepers
Treecreepers, clinging vertically to tree trunks yet not woodpeckers, were all over the place (Eurasian ones were at least, though I was able to identify a couple Short-toed) giving me another couple life ticks.  

Also common and clinging, but not woodpeckers were Nuthatches.  I had been happy to see my first two in Croatia.  In the Czech Republic nearly every patch of forest seemed to be crawling with them. 

Other exciting new birds:

Crested Tit – a cute conifer specialist and my 10th tit species (including Long-tailed and three North American varieties)
Black Redstart

Black Redstart - Common, but cute and not at all like North American redstarts. 

Goldcrest - the European version of our Golden-crowned Kinglet

Common Cuckoo - A bird I had heard in Croatia, but never before seen.

We had a break from presentations to have a day of field trips.  I joined an excursion down to some wetlands near the town of Trebon.  The whole area was named a biosphere by UNESCO and has both ancient man-made fish ponds as well as pristine bogs.  Bird Life International also named it an Important Bird Area, so I had high expectations.

Unfortunately, this was far from a birding tour and we were visiting places not particularly suited for bird observation at the wrong time of year.  Red Bog, a wetland containing remnant boreal vegetation left over from the ice age, was promising.  But it was afternoon by the time we arrived and there was little bird activity.  

I was thrilled to catch a White-tailed Eagle flying over.  This is a rare breeding species I had hoped, but not expected, to see.   
Phyloscopus sp. (Wood Warbler?)
Better still was a Greenish Warbler on an exposed twig. This species’ range (according to my field guide) does not even extend into the region, but apparently it persists in this one bog alone where the anomalous ecosystem makes for appropriate habitat.   I got great looks at one actively foraging, but Phyloscpus warblers are essentially impossible to identify by sight for the uninitiated (i.e. me).  There are just too many confusion species, such as Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and Wood Warbler.  I perhaps saw all these others as well, but my Wood Warbler candidate was mute and even my decent pictures were inconclusive.  

Fortunately two or three Greenish Warblers were singing and I was able to match their songs with the recording on my phone.   There were three other birders on this trip, but they were far ahead on the path and never got to see what would have been a life bird for them.  

White Stork was another target for me on this trip.  I was happy to get to see two poking around in a field from the bus, but sad not to see any nesting on a chimney top, a habit for which the species is so famous.  

Black Stork and Purple Heron were my two most disappointing misses.  

Nonetheless, 15 life birds in a non-birding week in central Europe is pretty darn good and I'm already up to 1527 life birds with the recent milestone fading fast in the rear view mirror.  
Blackcap - one of Europe's more colorful Warblers
After my two recent trips to Europe, I can't say I'm all that impressed with the continent's mainland Avifauna.  To be fair, I haven't visited Spain nor any other real birding destinations, nor been out with guides.  And I am horribly spoiled by South America.  But even compared to the densely populated and equally temperate Eastern United States, European birds, with a few exceptions, just seem to be shyer, drabber and less abundant.

Eurasian Jay - One of my favorite European birds and it isn't as pretty as a North American Blue Jay
I have no data to back this up and it's just an impression, but I wonder if there aren't any evolutionary or cultural/historical phenomena that could explain this. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Birding the Blue Ridge Mountains

A plethora of fantastic birds, of course, inspired the trip, but it would have been worth it for the beauty of the landscape alone.  From a good vantage point such as Roan or Mitchel, ridges tinged blue by vegetable volatiles layer their way outwards for miles in all directions like waves on a still forested ocean. 
An Alder Flycatcher enjoying the view
Up close these vistas transform into majestic stands of northern hardwoods or coniferous groves straight out of some fairy tale.  And then of course there were the grassy balds with rhododendrons and azaleas in full bloom.

Until last weekend, I had not visited the North Carolina mountains in summer since camp some 15 years ago. The scenery gave me a pleasant nostalgia yet much of the bird life was exciting and new. Familiar birds were, of course, everywhere as well, but many species were ones that I'm only used to seeing in winter.  Juncos, for example, were signing...

Dark-eyed Junco
..and nesting everywhere.  

Dark-eyed Junco nest
Yellow Warbler
The mountains are known for their warblers and on that front they didn't disappoint (we had 16 species).

At a stop along the Parkway we heard 3 singing Cerulean Warblers and I got great looks at one as it belted out its song.  I had wanted to see this bird for ages (lifer #1511!)

Chestnut-sided Warbler
After a stop at the highest point east of the Mississippi we headed for our camping spot, Roan Mountain, on the Tennessee border. 

But on our way we spotted a Wild Turkey standing by the side of the Parkway and not 2 minutes later a Ruffed Grouse (NC bird #262!).  We would hear at least 3 bobwhites singing above Carver's Gap the next morning giving us a sweep of the native terrestrial game birds.

As we walked up the side of Round Bald, a grass-covered mound dotted with patches of spruce, azalea and rhododendron, Jacob Socolar unleashed "The John Fussell Method for Flushing a Vesper Sparrow."
Jacob hoping to flush a Vesper Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow
Not a single sparrow flushed, but a moment later we stumbled upon a Vesper Sparrow singing from a patch of short spruce trees (life bird #1512!).

We were surprised to see nearly 10 more actively singing and posturing at invisible territorial barriers along the Appalachian just after sunset.  It turns out this bird is well-named as the word "vesper" can be defined as:


of, pertaining to, appearing in, or proper to the evening."
I propose a name change from Evening Grosbeak to "Vesper Grosbeak."

I guess it is not a secret that these sneaky birds breed up here, but the following morning we saw one with food in its mouth that we assume it was planning on feeding to nestlings hidden somewhere in the grass. 
Vesper Sparrow with food

We also found singing Alder Flycatchers on the bald and down into Carver's Gap quite easily (NC bird #264).  We counted at least 10, some of which sang into the late morning. 

Alder Flycatcher
But we didn't hang around too long, because we had gotten a hot tip about a spot for Golden-winged Warblers over in Tennessee.

Hampton Creek Cove did not disappoint.  Not only was there a Golden-winged Warbler actively singing and foraging right near the entrance (though apparently too busy raising a family to stop for a photo) but there were also a couple Willow Flycatchers.

We headed back to Roan for the night and tried some Owling with John Hare, but completely struck out.

The next day we headed for Elk Knob Gamelands hoping to find more Golden-winged Warblers on the NC side of the border.  We found loads of perfect habitat, but as soon as we stepped out of the car a ferocious thunderstorm whipped up and blew away all the birds we were after.  Well that's not entirely true.  We did stumble upon a few Least Flycatchers (NC bird #264) and up at the gap got possibly our best bird of the trip... 

Evidence of a Loggerhead Shrike?
Yet it wasn't even a bird at all, just a beetle impaled on a barbed wire fence.  But the implications are that a Loggerhead Shrike must be in the area someplace and have plans to return and eat the beetle later.  This is a species that Simpson's The Bird of the Blue Ridge Mountains (1992) lists as a: "Rare permanent resident, more frequent from August through March, elevations below 3,000 feet; declining in numbers since 1970s."  So we found solid evidence of a rare bird at an unexpected time of year well above its expected elevation (4400+ feet at Rich Mountain Gap).

Other interesting finds for the weekend:

A Swainson's Thrush heard singing from near Jane Bald.  Simpson (1992) lists this as a rare summer resident on Mount Rogers summit (wherever that is).

A White-eyed Vireo heard singing at 5400 feet at Engine Gap (where we camped). Simpson (1992) lists this as ranging up to 4,000 feet until after late July when it can wander higher.

At least two singing Magnolia Warblers at Roan Mountain; "rare at Roan Mountain" (Simpson 1992).

A Yellow-rumped Warbler seen at Carver's Gap.  I had read someplace online that these are known to breed in the mountains albeit in very small numbers. 

Ali found about 700 salamanders.

Immature Brown-headed Cowbird (not a Red Crossbill)
We got all excited about this bird until we realized it was an immature cowbird rather than a crossbill.  A flock of what Jacob tells me were crossbills flew over us at Carver's Gap, but this wasn't a satisfactory look for me.

The biggest miss though was Mark Kosiewski and the Meehan brothers who we had planned to meet up with at Roan.  Chalk up another bungle to over-reliance on mobile phones (and more importantly, network coverage).

Plenty of bird species left to see up there to bring me back for another trip sometime.

But do I really need birds as excuse to make this kind of a camping trip?