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.