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 winter...is it too much to ask for one that will pose for a photo?


  1. I dunno, it may be easier to get a reputation as a loose cannon, but you can also get a reputation as someone who is careful with their IDs and doesn't make rash decisions too.

    Besides, you saw a Black Rail in a Spartina marsh. That's kind of where they're supposed to be, no?

    1. Yeah, the fact that John Fussell thought that Black Rails should be in there is probably pretty significant.

  2. Pics or it didn't happen bro!
    Easy does it Scott, easy does it. You don't want to start railing about all the rare birds you've found, people will think you're a Loon.

    Nah that's pretty stellar that you got a Black Rail, and is there any reason why you can't return to the area in the future?
    158 species...nice!

    1. Haha! I think there's already a consensus about my loon-acy!

      Yeah, I want to try to go back to the same spot in April/May and see if I can't get one to respond to tape.

  3. Good birding! We are in the area now staying at Pettigrew state park. Went to Mattamuskeet for the first time yesterday. Just did a blog post on our visit. did you see the Common Gallinule there?

    1. Hi Dawn! I'm leading about 20 master's students on a trip to Lake Mattamuskeet this Saturday. I'll share your excellent blogpost so they'll know what to expect.
      There are usually a couple Common Gallinules in the "entry impoundment." Cool that you found them!
      If you're still in the area you might want to see if you can track down the Say's Phoebe and Ash-throated Flycatcher that have been seen near Pettigrew SP. I'm not sure if they've been seen lately, but I don't know if anybody's been looking!
      I have a post about these birds: http://www.birdaholic.blogspot.com/2012/12/two-tyranids-from-out-of-town.html

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  5. Scott, my "best birds" are those I saw with you as our trip leader on Carolina Bird Club outings - Bald Head Island and Pea Island. Thank you for sharing your love and knowledge of birds so generously!

    1. Great to see you again Judith! Hope I can show you some more "best birds" at a future CBC meeting.