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.
We began day one at North River Marsh, just upstream from where Robert Meehan, Jacob and I had managed to flush a Yellow Rail last winter.
We called for Black Rails while stumbling around in the marsh pre-dawn, both with tapes and with Elisa’s incredible vocalizations, but never got a response. I guess John Fussell was right: Black Rails just don’t seem to vocalize in the winter anymore.
So right off the bat we were down to only five possible rails. But we heard three before dawn: several Virginia’s and Soras and a few distant Clappers. Once we had light we rigged up an 80-foot rope with an assortment of juice bottles weighted with rocks and went trundling out into the marsh. We quickly flushed three Virginia Rails, giving Jacob an overdue lifer look, but our main target here was Yellow Rail so we focused our efforts on the short prairie areas, running in formation with our rope as fast as we could.
But it was tiring fruitless work. Mark, the only one in the group older than 26, feigned a leg injury and some of us got distracted by sparrows. Wilson’s Snipe, Marsh and Sedge Wrens and the odd sparrow were flushing all over the place. Of course getting good looks at these birds is next to impossible since they inevitably vanish into the tall grass. The best strategy we found was to search along the canals lined with bushy shrubs that give the sparrows a prominent perch.
We get great looks at a few Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows this way (and I got a few weak photos) and we soon flushed a couple Salt Marsh Sharp-tailed Sparrows and a couple larger longer-tailed dark sparrows that had to be Seaside. With our ammodramus sparrow possibilities successfully exhausted we refocused on efforts on the elusive Yellow Rail.
|Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow|
We took turns sprinting with the rope across the prairie and then would stop, panting to gaze out across the expanse of grass and needle-rush wonder wither these mouse-like birds might be lurking. Then another pair of us would take up the ends of the rope and make another dash across the marsh. It reminded Mike of football practice.
|North River Marsh|
Finally at the end of one of these runs a small bird flushed from the end of the rope and fluttered into a tall patch of needle rush. A Yellow Rail! But only Ali and I caught fleeting glimpses of it. So we regrouped and continued dragging the vicinity of our sighting, this time at a more deliberate pace. Surely there had to be others out here! After about 15 minutes, we flushed another and this time we got a much longer view and everybody was shouting with excitement…except for Mark and Elisa, who were off filling Robert Meehan’s shoes and falling into ditches and getting injured. Who said birding wasn’t a sport?
Finally, John Fussell arrived with a few other birders who were after Yellow Rail. So we dragged some more and flushed a third one, that fluttered around landed and then flushed again up within the group and fluttered away. Ali was so close that he could have reached out and caught it!
And that’s as far as we got with rails: 4 out of 6 possible species with Sora and Clapper being heard only. I knew we didn’t really have a chance for Black or King, but would have liked to see a Sora, which still cryptically avoids my life list.
So with rail options exhausted and the day‘s ammodramus targets found, I convinced Mike, Ali and Mark to join me on a visit of the largest agricultural operation east of the Mississippi, the 40,000-acre Open Grounds Farm.
|Open Ground Farm|
After a bit of patience we were able to find our quarry, a single female Brewer’s Blackbird around the silos (lifer #1542!).
|Open Ground Farm silos (Brewer's Blackbird spot)|
We ended day one with a bit of sunset sea-watching at Atlantic Beach.
|Atlantic Beach sunset|
Almost immediately Fussell was able to call in a Barn Owl, which Ali spotlit giving us all great long looks of an amazing nocturnal predator (lifer # 1543!). There are several theories, but nobody is quite sure why Barn Owls have declined precipitously in North Carolina.
The main target for the day was Le Conte's Sparrow, of which I had seen several with John Fussell three weeks prior at this very site, so I was pretty confident about our chances.
And sure enough we ended up flushing at least six Le Conte's Sparrows, the first of which, just after dawn, sat up in a shrub for us for unusually excellent views and photos.
|Le Conte's Sparrow|
I had to dash back to Durham to make a family dinner while everybody else went to the power line cut where Mike and I had staked out a Henslow's Sparrow. So we ended up with five out of six ammodramus sparrows and the four rails. All together, we scored at least 20 lifers for the group. Not bad at all!
|Us and Fussell|