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.
Dr. Hartman (sunglasses), our fearless leader, at Cedar Island NWR
Of course, Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge is worth mentioning on its own merits.  I don’t know of any other spot where one can drink in such a vast expanse of salt marsh. 
I could imagine dozens of Black Rails scurrying about through the thick grass, but the only marsh bird to be seen was a distant Northern Harrier.  

On the drive to and from Cedar Island I noticed several Caspian Terns and  later that same day I saw Forster’s and Royal Terns out over the lower Neuse River (where it looks awfully like a sound).
Bald Eagle
But our attention was stolen by an adult Bald Eagle that flew directly over the class while we were exploring the river shoreline, which even got the least bird-inclined of the group excited. 
Immature White Ibis and adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron with crab
On our way back to Durham we stopped at Cedar Point to walk the marsh boardwalks and talk about wetland biogeochemistry.  Here we saw a Sharp-shinned Hawk and a Merlin and stumbled upon a flock of White Ibis (all immature) and an adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron stuffing its face with crabs.  

There were Clapper Rails calling and I got to glimpse one flutter across a stream channel and disappear into a wall of Spartina grass.  It wasn’t a great look, but the first time (believe it or not) I had ever laid eyes on a Clapper which made it a life tick!  

One of our last stops was the Island Creek Forest walk, a unique spot in which an exposed bed of limestone raises local soil pH and allows northern hardwood tree species such as beech and elm to thrive.  Many plants here cannot be found anywhere else in the NC coastal plain (or so I’ve been told).
I had hoped to luck into a nice migrant flock here.  All I got was a Northern Parula and an American Redstart, but it turned out that Redstart had not yet been reported for Jones County on the Birds of North Carolina website.  This is another one of those silly “county first” records that aren’t really that consequential since the species is so common in the region.  I emailed Ali Iyoob anyway so he could include American Redstart in his official Jones County records.
More important than my silly-ish bird milestones, was the hands-on educational opportunity of the weekend.  The Masters of Environmental Management program at Duke works its students so hard, they rarely get to go outside at all it seems.  So I was glad to be able to share some of my bird fascination with some of them.  It made for a fantastic fall break that didn't feel like work at all!