Sunday, April 24, 2011

Spring has arrived!

This is my first spring in North Carolina since 2003 (long before I started birding) and boy am I excited!

It is, of course, the time of year for finding singing spring migrants sporting their best breeding plumage, but also the time of semester when school work piles up at an alarming rate.  I have been lucky to be able to steal myself from the office for a few mornings to get outside and see what's around.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Last weekend I went out to Butner Game Lands with Robert Meehan and Mark Kosiewski.  Along Brickhouse Road trails we found all sorts of spring migrants.  The place was littered with Blue-gray Gnatcatchers.

The best bird was probably a Northern Waterthrush, one of nine warblers we found. 

More surprising than the new arrivals were the amount of singing winter species that still lingered.  We heard two Hermit Thrushes and Ruby-crowned Kinglets singing away and watched a Sharp-shinned Hawk just miss nabbing a Morning Dove.

We ended our morning at Flat River where we found a couple Green Herons and a Palm Warbler to make it an round 10-warbler day for a total of 67 species.

Six species turned out to be birds I had not previously reported seeing in Durham County.  This was partly due to sloppy reporting in the past.  All this birding with Matt Daw and Robert Meehan has made me focus more on county lists.  My 136 Durham species puts me at 6th on the ebirder rankings; more birders really need to get on the ebirding boat! 

Kentucky Warbler
Yesterday I went out birding, again with Robert Meehan and Mark Kosiewski, but this time on a longer trip to Howell Woods in Johnston County.  We were hoping to find a Swainson's Warbler, which Norm Budnitz had reported seeing at this spot a few days ago.  Unfortunately by the time Robert and I were able to talk to Norm about more specific instructions we were already on our way home.  Mark, who had gotten a later start and stuck around for a bit more afternoon birding, was able to see the bird where Norm had indicated. 

Dang!  Another missed opportunity to see a life bird.  Robert is still cutting himself over the miss, but it really shouldn't take anything away from what was a phenomenal morning for birds.  We found 14 warblers, best of which was a Kentucky Warbler that sang in the open for great views.

Loggerhead Shrike
In fact by the time we sat down for lunch there were very few boxes left on our checklist to tick and we had one write-in species, a Common Raven that we saw being chased by a couple American Crows.  We also found several Loggerhead Shrikes (NC bird #248!) perched on power lines along the road coming in.  Shrikes have been declining over recent decades to the point of relative scarcity and this species had eluded me all winter. 

Me and Robert ended the day stuck on 79 species; one Swainson's Warbler away from essentially what would have been perfect day (15 warblers; 80 species; a life tick).  Instead we had to settle for merely an excellent day.

Meanwhile every serious birder in the state has been flocking to the South Carolina border to see the state's first record of a Cassin's Sparrow.  It's hard for me though to justify the time and gas consumption (it's a 3.5 hour round trip from Durham) required to go see what is such a classic example of a Little Brown Job (LBJ).  And as far as I know there wouldn't be much else to do or see nearby, so it would be a full "chase" with a miss representing a total failure and waste.  That said if anybody from Durham is going and wants to carpool, let me know!
Prothonotary Warbler

My next scheduled birding activity is a bird count I'm organizing for the Duke Wetland Center's SWAMP this coming Wednesday.  In scouting the area a few days ago I found a couple singing Prothonotary Warblers, a new species for the SWAMP list!  I also saw a pair of Eastern Kingbirds and a House Wren, two species I had not personally found at this site in the past.  Hopefully more bird milestones will come for SWAMP this wednesday.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A new state list: South Carolina

 The ‘Across the Carolinas’ fieldtrip last weekend took me deep into South Carolina with my soil resources class.  We visited sites and camped in two main areas: the Santee River in the coastal plain and the Calhoun Experimental Forest in the piedmont. 
Now a soils field trip doesn’t exactly lend itself to birding.  It’s all about digging holes and getting hands dirty.  But I brought my binoculars along anyway and did my best to spot some early migrants.  It was my first time in South Carolina in years and the perfect opportunity to start a new state list.  
I ended up spotting five warbler species: this Black-and-white Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow-throated Warbler, Pine Warbler and Yellow-rumped Warbler.  Plus I heard a Prairie Warbler singing in a swamp near the Santee River.  Not bad for March. 
My South Carolina list reached a modest 46 species and it will probably stay there for quite some time.  If it hadn’t been so cold and rainy Saturday and Sunday, or we had run the trip in April instead of March, then the list would surely have been well over 50. 
My classmates tried to make up for the limited birding opportunities by doing some sort of chicken dance.  
Allan was too busy constructing us an impervious shelter...
...under the fastidious supervision of Prof. Richter.

I neither danced like a bird nor helped and instead wandered off into the woods looking for warblers and kept nearly getting left behind.  It was really fun trip despite the bad weather.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

SWAMP birds: my first academic presentation

Did you know that there are wetland scientists who care about birds?  I had assumed I was the only one.  

I gave a talk a couple weeks ago at the Society of Wetland Scientists (SWS) South Atlantic Chapter regional meeting, at the US Geologic Survey Headquarters on some bird data I have been collecting in the Duke Wetland Center’s Stream and Wetland Assessment and Management Park (SWAMP).  I thought wetland scientists were all too busy worrying about biogeochemical cycles to care much about birds, so I mostly packed my presentation with sweet bird pictures and laugh lines, but I got a lot of great questions and feedback.

I’ll be collecting more data in June and if I can afford to make the trip, share my SWAMP bird findings with the world at the SWS international conference in Prague in July!  
Anybody interested in offering me a grant to cover travel expenses? =) =)