Saturday, June 28, 2014

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks have been showing up all over the place recently, with brief appearances in each of North Carolina's three physiographic regions: mountains, piedmont and coastal plain, as well as northern outliers turning up Massachusetts and New Brunswick all in the last several weeks.  So on the one hand, a record of this species at Mattamuskeet is probably long over due.  Yet prior to 2013 there were only two formally confirmed North Carolina occurrences, so the pair I stumbled upon on Monday is certainly worth some excited documentation. 

It all began innocently enough. With the recent discovery of White-faced Ibises hanging around the refuge (see this post and this post) I have been giving any Glossy Ibises I see a second look if I get the chance. The long days of late June meant that after 13 hours of field work there was still plenty of daylight and I somehow had the energy to scrutinize some distant ibises.  

I picked out a couple young of the year glossies showing some odd white markings on the neck and crown, which I've never before seen in photos of field guides.

freshly fledged Glossy Ibis, Mattamuskeet NWR
Glossy Ibis, Mattamuskeet NWR
I stopped as I was driving out and hopped out of my car planning to scope some distant ibis when I noticed this cute pair of ducks right in front of me. 

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge
The provenance question always comes up with vagrant duck species.  This pair shuffled away from me, but didn't take immediate flight, which gave me some decent photographic opportunities.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Mattamuskeet NWR
They dabbled among the marsh plants (looks like the invasive Alligator Weed) a bit.

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks Mattamuskeet, NWR
Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Mattamuskeet NWR
They seemed to be quite at home among the other impoundment denizens. 
Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks with Snowy Egret, Glossy Ibis, White Ibis
They eventually began to preen.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Mattamuskeet NWR
I'm not sure what to make of this 'dance.'

After about 30 minutes the Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks abruptly picked up.  I followed them with binoculars and then switched to my scope until they became just wiggling dots against the sky that disappeared below the horizon to the south-southeast.  I thought that perhaps they might have resettled in one of the refuge impoundments in that direction, but a half-hearted search the following day failed to turn any up.   It seems like these ducks do not frequently linger after being found. 

In between shots of the Whistling-Ducks, I noticed a male Northern Pintail that had foregone the standard northern migration. He was keeping company with what appears to be a female Mottled Duck, another southern duck species with a complicated local history of anthropogenic introduction and showing a trend of northward expansion.

female Mottled Duck (right) with Northern Pintail, Mattamuskeet NWR
All at once I've got two species of duck that could possibly be considered first records for Hyde County if the authorities can stomach provenance concerns.

What will turn up at Mattamuskeet next?  Perhaps a Purple Gallinule?  There have been plenty of those turning up in NC lately, but it would take a good bit of luck to discover one among the sprawl of habitat available on the refuge. 

Until next time...

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Mourning Warbler is a bird worth celebrating

The Friday-the-thirteenth full honey moon magic left over from our fledgling Northern Saw-whet Owl encounter continued into the early hours of the morning when I was awakened by the shrill, incessant calling of a Sora.  This is a little aquatic rail species that should be breeding in a wetland up in Canada by mid-June, but for some reason was some 5000 feet up in the mountains of NC near the Sam Knob trail head having some sort of shouting match with my tent.  Weird.

After decamping Johnny, Lesley and I ran into Marcus Simpson and Marilyn Westphal in the parking lot and following them up the Art Loeb trail to the spot where a Mourning Warbler song had been heard by Merrill Lynch (the naturalist, not the financial firm) on a breeding bird survey several days before.

Mourning Warblers are notoriously elusive skulkers and seeing one, even when you know it in a shrub right in front of you, is almost never easy.  Small numbers pass through North Carolina twice each year on migration and occasionally a male is found repeatedly singing at the same place in summer as if he is trying to breed, though there are no definitive records of nesting in the state.
Mourning Warbler spot, Art Loeb Trail, Shining Rock Wilderness
Once we reached the spot, we heard him singing almost immediately, but true to form, the little guy just didn't want to show himself.  Rather than sit on a tall perch, he seemed to prefer singing from the middle of dense bushes or shrubs.  Another problem was that he seemed to be utilizing a rather large area as his "territory."  One moment his ringing song would erupt from right in front of us and the next he could be heard barely audible in the distance and then not at all.

Alder Flycatchers, Least Flycatchers and Chestnut-sided Warblers kept us company while we listened to Marcus Simpson's stories of Blue Ridge natural history and for the warbler to return from interminable forays down slope.  After a couple hours Marcus and Marilyn left but were replaced by several other birders including a few members of the "Bird Police" (North Carolina Bird Records Committee).  At this point a cloud rolled in and the Mourning Warbler finally decided to perch up on a distant snag where he sat and sang for a couple minutes.
Morning Warbler, Art Loeb Trail
He was out of range of most of the cameras present, but I was able to get a few diagnostic shots for records purposes!

Despite the sombre name, to see a Mourning Warbler, especially a singing male, in North Carolina is definitely worth celebrating!

The Southernmost Saw-whet Owl

We arrived just in time to see the Friday-the-13th Full Honey Moon creeping up over the top of  Devil's Courthouse, one of North Carolina's most infamous of rock faces set beside the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The national park sign explained that according to Cherokee Legend the cave below the cliff is "the private dancing chamber and dwelling place of the slant-eyed giant, Judaculla."  It was a dramatic start to our nocturnal quest.  

Of course our goal was not to slay a giant, but spot the tiny Northern Saw-whet Owl, one of North Carolina's most elusive breeding bird species.  Our guide was Marcus Simpson's Birds of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which proclaims that the area around Devil's Courthouse is one of the best places in North Carolina to see this northern species.

My friend, "Johnny birder," needed to see one for his life list and his wife Lesley, though not nearly the psychotic lister, was happy to join us on a short birding trip to the mountains. 

Up on top of the Courthouse we were treated to a jaw-dropping moonlit view of the valleys, clouds and towns below. 
View of the Friday-the-13th Full Honey Moon from atop Devil's Courthouse
It was a bit windy and we hadn't heard any owls after about an hour and I was beginning to worry that it was too late in the season to hear them sing.  How many silent owls were we walking past in the darkness?  Eventually, Johnny and Lesley noticed a squeeking sound that we might have passed off for branches rubbing in the wind except that it was too regular.  Further investigation with lights revealed a nest box and a fledgling calling from a branch just in front of the opening!

Fledgling Norther Saw-whet Owl, Devil's Courthouse
 After some photos and much celebration we made a late camp for the night.  Who should we run into at dawn the next morning, but none other than Marcus Simpson himself, the very author of the bird guide that had led us to this cute baby owl.

Better yet was the back-story he shared with us.  Marcus had set up the nest box we had seen, which he has been monitoring along with 30 others in the North Carolina mountains for decades. Despite diligent annual checks, he had never found evidence that any of his boxes were being used by Saw-whets.  So the owl we found was very important!  It demonstrated that these little owls were using at least one of his boxes.  On top of that, it represents the southernmost record of breeding for this species!

I can only assume that the confluence of celestial and calendarial events led us to make this discovery.  Thanks to Johnny and Lesley for helping spot this little treasure and to Marcus Simpson for writing up the map for us (buy your copy now!).