Thursday, January 31, 2013

Target birds for 2013

Last January I posted these targets:

1. Golden Eagle
2. Black Rail
3. Florida Scrub Jay
4. Limpkin
5. Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Amazingly I found all 5 in 2012!

I saw #1 and #2 both on the Mattamuskeet Christmas Bird Count.

...and #3, #4 and #5 at Viera Wetland down in Florida.

I'll have to make up for a phenomenally lucky 2012 with a lackluster 2013 full of dips and failures.

Here are my 2013 targets:

1. Evening Grosbeak - This is the year to see one since there hasn't been an eruption in NC since the mid nineties.  Everybody keeps saying that February is when they'll start showing up at feeders in force.  I hope everybody is right!

2. Atlantic Puffin - my one chance is on the pelagic trip I'm signed up for on Feb. 16.  Given this year's unprecedented Razorbill eruption I'm foolishly optimistic

3. Northern Saw-whet Owl - I've been to all the right places in NC to find this bird (Roan Mountain, Bodie Island in winter), but just haven't!  That needs to change.  It's the last breeding species in NC that I haven't seen anywhere.  Owls are awesome.

4. Black-backed Woodpecker - It looks like I'll be going to Duluth for a conference in June and this might be a possibility

5. Gray Jay - another boreal specialist that I hope to see for the first time in Minnesota

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Top 10 birds of 2012

2012 was another great year of birds for me.  I saw 390 species of which 59 were lifers.  These numbers are down a bit from last year (405 species with 92 lifers), but that's a function of no travel to foreign continents and diminishing returns on local opportunities for life birds.  And I did significantly better in state, with 301 NC birds this past year compared 283 species in 2011. 

On an even more local level, I was finally able to catch Robert Meehan at the top spot for Durham County.  I'm sure we'll pass the lead back and forth as we each fill "holes" in our respective lists over the coming year. 

My main opportunity for exotic birds this year was a trip to the island of Hispaniola where I birded both Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  Haiti is an especially under-birded country; the 47 species I spotted there in a few days was enough to make me the second-most prolific ebirder for the country in 2012. 

Like the last two years, I'll celebrate its completion with a narcissistic look back at my 10 awesomest/best/favorite "self-found" birds of the year.  And again, it will be a challenge to see which of my loyal readers has seen the most.  Post your total in the comments below!  Win a prize!

The list...

#10: Least Bittern
This is not an especially rare bird (though it did not make the list of 340 species that Jeff Lemons saw in NC in 2012), but I had wanted to see a Least Bittern for awhile and I managed to cross paths with them on three occasions in 2012.

The first was at Brickhouse Road in Durham where one responded to tape.  This was bittersweet, was great to find this bird in my home county, but I had to place it on my "heard-only" provisional list...

Least Bittern, Viera Wetland, FL

...until a couple months later when I dropped by Viera Wetland in Florida where Least Bitterns are trash birds.

Of course this felt a bit like cheating and I still hadn't seen one in North Carolina...
Least Bittern, Lake Mattamuskeet, NC

#9: Long-tailed Jaeger

Now this is a bird I probably would not have even been able to identify (or at least without careful study of photos after-the-fact) if Brian Patteson hadn't called it for the boat.  But it was a special sighting for me because it was the best bird we found on my first ever pelagic trip as a spotter.  
Long-tailed Jaeger (immature), pelagic off Cape Hatteras, NC

It also closed out the jaegers for me.  Now if I can just find a South Polar Skua, then I'll have all the Stercorarius that occur in NC.

#8: Ash-throated Flycatcher
Ash-throated Flycatcher, Washington County, NC
This is the only bird on the list that wasn't a lifer for me, but it's probably the best bird I found without any help from Brian Patteson or John Fussell this year (and possibly my best ever for NC). 

Also I got pretty good digiscoped photos of it.
Ash-throated Flycatcher
This was immediately after seeing Ed Corey's Say's Phoebe, so it was a pretty good morning for odd flycatchers.

#7: Little Gull

I spotted one of these migrating north in a flock of Bonaparte's Gulls a couple days before my 27th birthday.  Not a bad present from the birding gods!  
Little Gull with Bonaparte's Gulls, Emerald Isle, NC

I was doing some experimenting with digiscoping at the time and managed this shot that captures the dark underwing.  Yeah it looks terrible, but I was happy to get any sort of record given the circumstances (distant bird over choppy ocean moving fast).

Little Gulls are pretty rare.  I guess I should mention that.

#6: Hispaniolan Crossbill

This species is listed as endangered by the IUCN and is odd in that the rest of the members of the Loxia genus, to which it belongs, are found primarily at high latitudes.  These birds managed to persist in the mountains on the Island of Hispaniola and are found nowhere else in the world.
Hispaiolan Crossbill, Dominican Republic
It's a species that can be easily missed, but I was lucky to find flocks in high elevation pine forests in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

#5: Black-billed Cuckoo
Black-billed Cuckoo, Croatan National Forest, Craven County, NC
The bane of many an American birder, the Black-billed Cuckoo, is an enigmatic bird with breeding habits and behavior that are poorly understood.  I met John Fussell out in the Croatan National Forest in July where he had recently heard Black-billed Cuckoos singing. There we found an adult feeding a fledging; the first record of breeding Black-billed Cuckoos in the NC Coastal Plain in more than 100 years.

#4: Bay-breasted Cuckoo (Cua)

One of the coolest birds on Hispaniola is the endemic and endangered Bay-breasted Cuckoo.  It's also an easy bird to miss, so I was thrilled to finally see one in the Sierra de Bahoruco after hearing a few call, but not show themselves.  No photos unfortunately.

#3: Golden Eagle
Golden Eagle, Gull Rock Game Land, Hyde County, NC
One of the better birds I've ever "self-found" and a nice addition to the 2012 Mattamuskeet Christmas Bird Count.  This one was bullying on a Bald Eagle over a flooded field in Gull Rock Game Lands.  Golden Eagle had been on my target list for a couple years now.

#2: Black Rail

One of the most impossible-to-see of all North American birds flushed from my feet in the marsh at Gull Rock Game Land.  I think this was the first ever Black Rail found on the Mattamuskeet Christmas Bird Count.  And it was another species I've been hoping to cross paths with for quite awhile.

#1: Black-browed Albatross
Black-browed Albatross, pelagic off Cape Hatteras, NC
Definitely the most famous individual bird I've ever seen was the Black-browed Albatross that showed up for Brian Patteson's boat near Hatteras Inlet last February.  It was one of only a few records of the species for the United States and may have been the first adult of the species ever photographed in North America.  My photo made it into an edition of the American Birding Association's Winging It publication.


How many of these 10 have you seen?  How many did you see in the past year?  Let me know in the comments!

Free Brown Boobies T-shirt goes to the winner!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Rare birds for Christmas

When I was trying to come up with a Christmas wish list I jokingly included a couple birds I wanted to see: Evening Grosbeak and Golden Eagle.

No luck yet on the grosbeak, but I've crossed paths with a Golden Eagle twice since making the list!
Golden Eagle, Hyde County, NC
Both were in the Lake Mattamuskeet area, but this distant one I found and photographed down in the Gull Rock Game Land territory on the Mattamuskeet Christmas Bird Count.

And the previous day Ed Corey, Kyle Kittelberger and I were able to chase down this Lapland Longspur that Jeff Lewis found on the beach during the Bodie/Pea Christmas Bird Count.
Lapland Longspur, Dare County, NC
Lapland Longspur

And then during the Alligator River Count, we dipped over to Wanchese to see this Eared Grebe that Edmund LeGrande had found sitting right in the harbor.
Eared Grebe, Wanchese, NC

Eared Grebe

Horned and Pied-billed Grebes were in the same area for nice comparisons.
Eared Grebe and Pied-billed Grebe
Together over the course of 4 days and 4 Christmas Bird Counts we saw about 158 species.  Not a bad haul!

My best bird, however, was a Black Rail that I flushed in the marshes in the Gull Rock Game Land.  It was one of those lightning-strike birding moments, when you're just at the right place at the right time.  I wasn't expecting to cross paths with a Black Rail here (and this was the first I've ever seen), but fortunately in my brief view I was able to see white on the bird's back.  That field mark plus it's behavior, like a mouse with feathers and wings, left me without a doubt about its identity.

It was in a narrow strip of marsh bordered by the sound on one side and a channel on the other, so I gathered up the others in my party (6 people total) hoping that if we walked in a line through this area we might be able to flush it into the open.  But these attempts failed.  And we got no response to tapes when we returned at dusk hoping to hear it call. 

I found out later at the Mattamuskeet countdown dinner that John Fussell had surveyed this marsh for Black Rails for years and never found a one. 

This is one of those rare birds that birders hate to report.  There's no hard evidence and, in this case, not even any fellow witnesses.  Reviewing parties will be skeptical (as they should be) and it may not make it into the Christmas Bird Count records even though I submitted a detailed report (it would be a new species for the Mattamskeet CBC, I think).  Frequent reports like this, especially if they aren't accepted and made into "records," are liable to earn one a reputation as a "loose canon."

That's why digital cameras have become almost obligatory for birders and why so many people avoid reporting rare birds altogether. 

Now if I can just find an Evening Grosbeak this it too much to ask for one that will pose for a photo?

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Scope this Scaup

Here's an old-fashioned ID challenge:

Photos taken in Washington County on 12/27/2012.

What do you think?