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

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
We watched several flocks of scoters and cormorants fly by and Ali's sharp eyes picked out one vee of Double-cresteds that was being led by a Razorbill (weird!).  And then Mike picked out a raft of 7 more alcids floating on the water. It was a picturesque end to a long day of birding. 
The next morning everyone was out of the house by 4:15 am to rendezvous with John Fussell and John Voigt, who would be taking us into the legendary private birding spot of North River Farms. 

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
We spent the rest of the morning searching in vain for Grasshopper Sparrows and I was hoping to find the Lincoln's Sparrow and Glossy Ibis that had been reported in North River Farm recently.  No luck there, but we did have a Peregine Falcon fly over us, which is always a thrill.

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!
Just as exciting as the birds was the assortment of young birders we had managed to assemble.  Most of the folks in this group are, on top of being sharp birders, actively studying birds/biology/conservation and represent Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, Western Carolina, NC State and Princeton.  I figure since we're in the business of listing things, I may as well spell out that impressive tally. 
Us and Fussell
Of course we owe the success of this trip to John Fussell. Without his extensive working knowledge of the Carteret County avifauna, we would have been stumbling around in dark (figuratively of course, we fulfilled the literal interpretation anyway). 
I should quickly add that we (me speaking for the group) take issues of birder/conservationist ethics seriously and I would encourage my readers to consider a few points before accusing us of violations or hypocrisy. While we certainly exerted some stress on a few Yellow Rails and patches of spartina alterniflora, we want these populations to persist and thrive. The disturbance caused by our search for these cryptic birds in a tiny portion of the region's marsh habitat for one morning, is sand on the beach compared to the impact that past hurricanes have had and that rising seas will have in the near future. None of these rail species are of special conservation concern federally or internationally and it is legal to hunt rails in many states, so, if nothing else, at least appreciate that we carried binoculars and cameras rather than shotguns! Ultimately we hope that our sparing visits to these marshes will make them more valuable (rather than less) and give people another reason to care about their conservation. 


  1. Interesting post. I was completely unfamiliar with that method for flushing rails. I also have never seen any of the sparrows that you saw.
    I did get a new bird yesterday here in Anchorage, Dusky Thrush. A great lifer.

  2. Great post, Scott. Hysterical and sober. . .not an easy thing to pull off with nature writing.
    Mark K.

  3. John,
    We did the same thing to get a Yellow Rail a year ago (http://www.birdaholic.blogspot.com/2011/01/yellow-rail.html) and apparently some folks in Texas do it regularly. The method is somewhat controversial because of the potential for overstress on the birds and habitat (see the comment at the end of the post linked above).