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!


  1. I have seen the Black-billed Cuckoo, Golden Eagle, and the Black Rail.

  2. I have all except the 2 Hispaniolan day soon , I hope but there's also Cuba coming soon as well!!
    Great photos, Scott and keep going! I am currently in south Africa on a great birding trip- 430 species so far!

    1. Awesome, Simon! I might owe you a T-shirt. I still need to give Norm his for winning last year's challenge and I don't think he wants 2.
      Can I come bird with you in South Africa sometime? sounds fun =p

  3. Though I have seen over 530 North American birds, I am sobered by the fact that I have only seen 2 birds on Scott's list; Ash-throated Flycatcher and Golden Eagle, and only the latter in North Carolina. This is not in 2012 folks... EVER. Well done Scott. Good luck in 2013.

    1. Paul, don't worry. I'm sure you could come up with a top 10 list that would leave me similarly devastated (hint: just put a lot of western species on it).

  4. I have seen six of those species Scott, with the misses being Little Gull, Black Rail, and the two Hispaniolan birds. Great job Scott, and congrats on all the birds you saw, especially the lifers! I think I have you beat though on 2012 birds as I had 748 species last year...

    1. That's quite good Kyle! Sorry about the Black Rail... I feel for you on that one.

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  6. Like Simon, I've seen all but the 2 Hispaniolan birds. I haven't seen the Black-browed Albatross in North America, but I have seen them almost at arms length in New Zealand--extraordinarily beautiful birds.

    1. Not many people have seen Black-browed Albatross in North America and it's certainly the crown jewel in my rather pathetic ABA list.
      It looks like you and Simon have won the prize this year and I think you won last year's challenge too. So I definitely owe you a T-shirt now (and your copy Marcus Simpson's book--sitting on my desk in front of me).

  7. I have seen seven. Missing are black rail and the Hispaniola birds. Black-browed albatross on an Antarctic trip. Saw only 2 of your list in the past year, although one of my lifers was yellow rail, and I was lucky enough to get white-chinned petrel on a CA pelagic trip. Coincidentally, your father was just telling me about your birding enthusiam at lunch yesterday. Good birding!