Monday, February 28, 2011

Twitching the Redpoll

This was my first real North Carolina “twitch,” a birding trip with the sole purpose being to see a single anomalous state bird.
In this case it was an easy choice to go after it. Common Redpolls rarely show up in North Carolina and when they do, they don’t often stick around to be seen for very long. Here was one staked out at a bird feeder just 40 minutes west of Durham. Plus Robert Meehan needed a ride.
For etiquette reasons I only took horribly distant photos. To approach a rare bird like this will lead to it instantly flush into the nearest window at deadly speed, or alternatively into the maw of a feral cat or talons of a Sharp-shinned Hawk, robbing fellow twitchers of a potential lifer. So you'll need to use your imagination to its full potential!
Boy I really need to get myself a digi-scoping setup! Mark Kosiewski got some great shots through his scope the following day.
If you squint hard enough you can make out the stubby yellow bill and black chin.

I hope lots of people got to see this bird. It stuck around for a few days, but as far as I can tell it is now officially MIA.
My last pure “twitch” was for a Virginia’s Warbler that showed up 20 minutes outside Providence while I was at Brown some four years ago. It was the first state record and a lifer for me.
Common Redpoll was not a lifer for me. I saw my first redpolls on Stewart Island in New Zealand (of all places!) back in 2009. But it was my 299th ABA tick and my 247th NC tick, so I’m rapidly approaching milestones.
I’ve miraculously survived the month of February in my bird-a-day challenge. But I’ve only got about 7 or 8 easy piedmont birds left, so I’ll probably kick the bucket just before or after Spring Break.
I really should have started one of these last year. My schedule was perfect to make it through 365 species: Three weeks of winter NC birds to start the year -> fly to South America in late January and tick nothing but lifers through early August -> return to NC to get summer residents in the piedmont and coast, then fall migrants through the end of October into November -> surviving through November and December would have been dicey as some winter residents would have been used up from the previous January.
Anywho, at least this way I’ll be setting a low bar to be bested repeatedly in years down the road. The list to date (birds in bold were life or state birds):
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Pine Siskin
Barred Owl
American Kestrel
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Purple Finch
Yellow Rail
Lark Sparrow
Piping Plover
Red-throated Loon
White-winged Scoter
Red-tailed Hawk
Cedar Waxwing
Eastern Bluebird
Black Vulture
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Brown Creeper
Dark-eyed Junco
Cooper's Hawk
Song Sparrow
House Finch
Pine Warbler
Eastern Phoebe
Field Sparrow
Hairy Woodpecker
Canada Goose
Pileated Woodpecker
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Short-eared Owl
Blue Jay
Fox Sparrow
Red-headed Woodpecker
Rock Pigeon
Brown-headed Nuthatch
American Crow
Mourning Dove
American Woodcock
Ring-billed Gull
Turkey Vulture
Hermit Thrush
Golden-crowned Kinglet
American Robin
Great Horned Owl
White-crowned Sparrow
Great Blue Heron
European Starling
American Goldfinch
Downy Woodpecker
Tundra Swan
Swainson's Hawk
House Sparrow
Brown Thrasher
Eastern Towhee
Common Redpoll
Fish Crow
White-throated Sparrow
Red-shouldered Hawk

My first trip to Hatteras

I tagged along with Jeff Pippen and 9 Nicnats (What's a Nicnat?) for my first ever trip to Cape Hatteras and my first North American pelagic birding trip.
We saw a Great Horned Owl fly across highway 64 around dusk on the ride down, which made the state list significance of my recent birding in Charlotte all the less.
So far so good.
Saturday morning we were up before dawn to meet Brian Patteson at the dock. We had tallied six gull species before even leaving the sound (the four you would expect plus Laughing and Lesser Black-backed). I knew our next gull would be a lifer for me.
I have a bad habit of whispering bird sightings rather than calling them out. And I mumbled to nobody in particular “hey check out this white gull…” Luckily Jeff was there to shout “ICELAND GULL!!!”
It turned out that there was really no need for urgency as there was almost always an Iceland Gull following the boat throughout the day and we saw four or five individuals.
Photographing a moving bird from a moving boat is not an art form I have perfected, so I took this video for those willing to brave the motion sickness.

Unfortunately there were no 8th, 9th, 10th or 11th gull species on the trip. We did see plenty of alcids including Razorbills (you’ll have to use your imagination) and Dovekies (you’ll have to imagine even harder as I didn’t get any pictures at all).
A steady wind kept us from getting out to the gulf stream, which was a real bummer. We missed a lot of reliable pelagic species: no Red Phalarope, Great Skua or shearwaters of any kind.
I did get three lifers out of the bargain (both alcids and the white gull), and I got to see my first breaching humpback whale (!), so I really can’t complain. I sure left myself with plenty of reasons to return for another voyage.
Sunday we started out birding Cape Point hoping for Western Grebes, rare gulls and Snow Buntings. Despite some generous help from Neal and his four-wheel drive vehicle we struck out on those targets. I later heard that others had found the Snow Buntings as well as Black-headed and Glaucous add those to my list of potential life and state birds missed on the trip. A consolation was a lone female Common Goldeneye at the pond which was NC bird #247 for me.
We birded our way up the banks through several spots over the next few hours seeing all sorts of ducks and shorebirds including a few dozen American Avocets at the Bodie Lighthouse pond. We also got some great looks at a cooperative Merlin in South Bodie.
No crazy rail sightings though. It seems like everybody has a ridiculous rail story for that spot.
We ended the day and our trip at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, which I had driven past several times but never visited. What a place!
Jeff Pippen was able to pick out a distant circling adult Swainson’s Hawk, which I was able to view for several minutes through my scope. Life bird #1458 (thanks Jeff!).
Jeff pretended to get lost on the network of gravel roads when he was really just setting us up for a dusk sighting of a Bobcat! No pictures unfortunately, but this was my first ever sighting of a non-captive non-domestic real wild cat.
On the whole it was a really fun trip. When the birding was slow, the group was there to pick up the slack. I’m already looking forward to next year!
Special thanks to Neal Moore for shuttling us all around Cape Point Sunday am, to Paul Chad for assisting Nicnats with funding and to Jeff Pippen for being a badass trip leader.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Recent winter birding in NC

Unfortunately this post is full of misses...
I went on a day trip down to the Pocosin Lakes region with NicNats and struck out on all my targets: we couldn’t find the Snow Goose flock to look for Ross’, I couldn’t convince Will to take us on a detour to Alligator River to look for a Swainson’s Hawk, and all the wigeon I saw were stubbornly domestic.
We found a flock of about 50 rather tame White Ibises in a random yard.
Interesting all here were adults. Later at Mattamuskeet all we found were immatures in the ditches. There seemed to be some interesting age segregation patterns occurring.
Consolation prizes were a Horned Lark and a Short-eared Owl (both new NC birds for me).

I continued my dipping streak on a trip last weekend down to Charlotte in search of Rough-legged Hawks at the airport with Mark Kosiewski, Robert Meehan and Matt Daw.
I don’t know what kind of plane that is but it certainly isn’t the hawk we were after.
We went after Ross’ Goose, but despite being at the perfect spot, came up empty.
Consolation prizes were Horned Lark and a Great Horned Owl (sound familiar?)
Added insult to injury (or illness to insult?) I began developing cold symptoms and was completely unconscious for most of the driving. Meanwhile Matt got himself about 300 county ticks by making us twitch house sparrows in Home Depot parking lots after crossing each county border.
To break my streak of missed lifers I ventured out and saw what was probably my easiest remaining in-state opportunity.
Life bird # 1554: White-crowned Sparrow. (1552 and 1553 came from taxonomic splits of Winter and Eurasian Wrens and a couple South American Trogons).
I should add a fair few species to my list this weekend on the Hatteras pelagic trip. I hope the weather cooperates!

Reader reponses

My inflammatory goshawk post received a massive response and my blog has never seen so much traffic!

The consensus was, of course, that the bird on my picture is not a goshawk. That’s a relief! Interestingly though the crowd was pretty evenly split between Cooper’s and Red-shouldered. To be fair this is likely more of function of the poor/distant shot than any pervasive identification problems.

A big thanks to all for chipping in, especially to Mike Tove and Harry Legrand, for providing extensive identification tips and information about goshawk occurrence history in NC and behavior.


While I’m on the topic of acknowledging reader participation…

I received seven replies from readers who have seen birds from my 2010 top ten(err… eleven) list. Thanks so much to all who responded!

The biggest surprise was that Harry Legrand (for once) didn’t win. He was eclipsed by Orange County’s Derb Carter, who saw an impressive 9 out of a possible 11. I promised a prize to the winner…more on that later.

Here are a few interesting notes on the responses:

Lists ranged from 2 to 9 with a high average of just over 5-and-a-half.

Banded Ground-Cuckoo was the only bird that nobody seems to have ticked and thus deserved its spot at #1.

Only David and Judy Smith have been lucky enough to make it to the Galapagos and see Flightless Cormorants.

Below is the list rearranged by the number of responses that included each species in its list:

#10 Toucan Barbet: 5 (plus one “heard-only”)

#9 Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan: 5

#5 Andean Condor: 5

#4 Giant Antpitta: 5

#3 Waved Albatross: 5

Honorable mention Wetland Petrel: 4

#8 Coppery-chested Jacamar: 3

#6 Long-wattled Umbrellabird: 3

#2 Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager: 2

#7 Flightless Cormorant: 1

#1 Banded Ground-Cuckoo: 0


And finally on to Derb Carter’s prize…

Unfortunately I’m out of pairs of Swarovski binoculars, so hopefully this shout-out will suffice:

I happened to see Derb Carter quoted in an article published in The Independent on the OWASA logging issue. For those of you unfamiliar with the case, I’ll briefly and crudely summarize: the organization charged with stewardship of Orange County’s water supply has publicized a plan to log portions of the Cane Creek Reservoir watershed and use herbicide to prevent regrowth of undesirable plant species.

Obviously this was met with some pretty fierce opposition from local residents including Derb Carter who was quoted as saying: “Overmature forests...This is purely an economical term and it has no basis in science or ecology at all," Carter said. "What we have here is a plan that's driven on the lowest priority — money.

What I like even better is this quote from some guy named “James,” who has a similar opinion and puts it a bit more bluntly on his blog: “[Derb Carter] is cautious and circumspect in every way. When he says something is stupid, you can be confident that he's right. What OWASA is proposing to do around the Cane Creek Reservoir is spectacularly stupid.”

OWASA is in the process of revising its plans, but there haven’t been any updates since December that I am aware of. If anybody hears any news on this topic or finds any other instance of Derb Carter standing up for the public good, please share them with me.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Goshawk hysteria

There have been a few recent reports of Northern Goshawks in the Carolinas holding varying degrees of credibility and attracting appropriate skepticism. These posts made me aware of a bird I had considered so rare as to never even consider when identifying hawks in North Carolina.

After looking at several dozen google images identified (correctly or incorrectly) as "goshawks," I couldn't help but see a resemblance to a hawk I saw just last week in Durham.

It was a long, but very distant look and as much as I wanted to wait for the bird to fly, I was out collecting data in Duke's SWAMP and had to move onto the next site.

The detail captured in the photo isn't really any worse than the binocular views. No tail pattern was visible. The bird never turned, flew or vocalized. The slight fork in the tail struck me as odd; I had never noticed this in any hawk before.

The eyebrow, vertical brown streaking and size all seemed consistent with Red-shouldered Hawk, a common species in this area and the obvious choice. But is there any chance I overlooked an immature goshawk right in my hometown? Is there anything in this photo that rules out one species or the other?