Thursday, December 27, 2012

Two tyranids from out of town

Ed Corey spotted a Say's Phoebe this morning while covering his territory for the Pettigrew Christmas Bird Count.
Say's Phoebe - Washington County
 Luckily Kyle Kittelberger and I were already on our way there to do some birding around Lake Phelps en route to the Outer Banks and were able to refind it easily.
Say's Phoebe
This is only the 10th record of this western flycatcher for North Carolina (and a lifer for me!).  Ed seems to have especially good luck finding vagrant flycatchers.

After scoping a nice assortment of ducks, included a few Common Mergansers, on the lake we drove over to the "Park Office."  While Ed Corey and Kyle were fiddling with gear at their trucks I wandered down toward the water with my scope.

An odd low chup sound coming from the flooded wood edge caught my attention.  A Hermit Thrush perhaps?  But it didn't sound quite right for that...
Ash-throated Flycatcher
 ...and then I realized a Myiarchus flycatcher was staring me right in the face!
Ash-throated Flycatcher
Several years ago this was considered a Mega-rarity in NC, but they have become more regular recently (in fact this is the fourth Ash-throated found in NC this season!).  There are probably 25 to 30 state records, but this might be the first for Washington County.  I saw my first on the causeway at Lake Mattamuskeet.

Ash-throated Flycatcher
Kyle played some tapes and the call I heard sounded like his tapes from the Utah population (and not the Texas population).

It was a great day for flycatchers from out west; now we just need to find a Western Kingbird!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

An encounter with a 'Cling Rail?'

Last weekend I was down in Dare County, NC with Jeff Pippen and a group of Duke graduate students when we saw this bird in the pond at the Bodie Island lighthouse.

Definitely a large rail...either a King or a Clapper, but which one?  If watch the video with your volume up, you can hear us trying to figure it out.

Of course the harsh back-light makes the bird look like a silhouette in the video, but through binoculars field marks were discernible.  And with heavy cropping and brightness enhancement, they even come out in the photos.

 Jeff and I called this bird a King Rail in the field because of the rusty orange on the chest and neck.

But the more I have shared these photos, the more different reactions I have received.
 Both Clapper and King rails are known to inhabit brackish marshes, so the habitat may not be much help in sorting out the ID.  And there are plenty of records on ebird for both species at this very pond.
So I'm curious as to what YOU would call this bird if you saw it at this spot and why.  A King Rail?  A Clapper Rail?  A 'Cling Rail?'*

Please post your opinions in the comments below or email them to me (scott dot winton at gmail dot com). Hopefully we can all learn something!

*If you would call it a 'Cling Rail,' please be specific about what you mean.  The term 'Cling Rail' gets used in two ways: 1) To refer to rails that we can't ID beyond Clapper/King because we don't have enough information (essentially, 'I can't tell from your crappy photos'); and 2) to refer to Clapper X King hybrids, which have been documented along the Gulf Coast, though I'm not sure how well we understand the frequency and extent of hybridization.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Grasshopper Sparrow visits Krzyzewskiville

After watching Duke handle Winston-Salem State last night in an exhibition basketball game I was walking through Krzyzewskiville to meet my dad at the Sheffield Tennis Center when I noticed a small bird fluttering against a ground-level window.  I easily caught it by hand and brought it into the light...
Grasshopper Sparrow
...a Grasshopper Sparrow ?!?

I got my brother to snap a few iPhone photos and then let it go...
Grasshopper Sparrow
The bird was clearly trying to migrate. Perhaps it struck a window and then got against the northwest face of the building.

This was my first ever Grasshopper Sparrow on migration and an exceptionally late one at that.  There are only 3 prior eBird records of the species in North Carolina for the month of November.

Grasshopper Sparrow

Since birds are known to be portentous (Homer et al., ca. 700 BC), I'll go ahead and declare this to be a good omen for the Duke tennis teams this coming season.  

Monday, October 22, 2012

American Bittern in SWAMP

 Last week I was out in the Duke University SWAMP helping lead a field trip for the Wetlands Ecology and Management class.  I had just explained to the students how we are keeping track of bird sightings in the SWAMP using ebird when not a minute later we stumbled upon a new bird to add to our site list...
American Bittern my surprise an American Bittern was prowling around in the aquatic vegetation not 30 feet in front of the bird blind!
American Bittern
It's pretty rare to see one of these away from the coast. 

 And usually they do a better job staying hidden!
American Bittern
The bird seemed pretty unconcerned about curious birders and strolled out into the open to hunt crayfish.
American Bittern
 After gobbling a few small ones, it caught a huge bright red one that looked like a lobster
Blood red legs...
But it proved to be too much for this bird to handle and the bittern had to throw this one back...
a whopper!

 As of posting, this bird has been around for 8 days. It seems to be finding plenty of food and has already weathered some assaults from the resident Great Blue Heron. I wonder if it will stick around through the winter?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

More Mattamuskeet Birds: Egret Casting Call

Last weekend after a few days of field work at Lake Mattamuskeet, I squeezed in a bit of birding.  My partner in crime was a master's student from Duke, Holly Davis, who is working on a film about the Audubon Christmas Bird Count.  Since she plans to cover the history of the millinery (aka. hat-making) trade, which lead to huge declines in populations of wading birds, we were especially after a Great Egret willing to play a starring role.

Luckily egrets are migrating through this time of year and were rather plentiful around the lake.  After scaring off a good few stage-shy birds, we finally found a real ham with the potential to make it big.
Holly shooting an egret
While Holly was filming, I figured I may as well try out some digiscoping...

Great Egret
Not bad!

Great Egret
There were other egrets around as well including a rather brave Little Blue Heron that landed in front of me.
Little Blue Heron (immature)
These photos are taken with a point-and-shoot (not digiscoped).  The direct light made the white birds blow out, so I cranked down the exposure to try to compensate and ended up with these weird dark shots.  It looks like these were taken at night with a flash, but this was a bright early morning (I'm no photographer, but always open to suggestions!).
Little Blue Heron (immature)
There were loads of other birds around, of course.  At one point I felt like I was trapped in a tornado of thousands of Tree Swallows, there were 6 early Tundra Swans and a Mute Swan of unknown provenance.  Thousands of dabbling ducks were already back in town with all the Eastern species represented and despite rather high water there were some longer-legged shorebirds wading about at the east end.

American Avocets and a Greater Yellowlegs
 The most comical was a Dunlin trying to hang with a flock of Long-billed Dowitchers in water that was just a bit too deep.
Long-billed Dowitchers with Dunlin (3rd from left)

There was a cooperative Wilson's Snipe...

Wilson's Snipe
...and some curious Sedge Wrens...
Sedge Wren
I think Holly got some good footage and I'm looking forward to seeing her film!

Monday, October 15, 2012

What a bird in the hand is worth

Last weekend I went over to the Prairie Ridge Ecostation to try my hand at some bird banding.

I had not handled a live bird for five years, so this was a real treat.  I learned that cardinals can bite very hard and that a bird in the hand is a least worth a good photo opportunity!

Indigo Bunting
We banded nearly 50 birds (a lot!) of a good variety of flavors this morning

Palm Warbler
This was primarily a morning for student (mostly high school) volunteers from the Natural History Museum in Raleigh to see how banding birds works, but John Gerwin was nice enough to let me show up to learn as well (Thanks!).

a Prairie Warbler at Prarie Ridge!
A big thanks to Natalia Ocampo-Penuela for inviting me to come along and teaching me how to band!
Blue Jay
I can't wait until next time!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Carolina Bird Clubbing in Greenville, SC

Last weekend I went down to Greenville, SC to lead a couple field trips for the Carolina Bird Club's fall meeting.  Many migrants follow in Blue Ridge on their way south and I was hoping to find lots of birds bound for the tropics to show to my groups. 

Friday I led a dozen birders around parts of Pickens County, situated in the foothills of the Appalachians near the southern tip of their range.  We began at the Nine Times Preserve, a large swath of mountainside forest owned by The Nature Conservancy, and worked our way up to Sassafrass Mountain, the highest point in South Carolina (a modest 3,800 feet above sea level).
Cape May Warbler

Warblers were actually more scarce than I had expected, with this Cape May being one nice exception.  Over the course of a couple days we were able to identify 11 parulids, which isn't bad, but not something I can really brag about on a blog.

Thrushes made a very strong showing, with swarms of Wood and Swainson's covering various fruiting trees with the odd Veery or Gray-cheeked mixed in.  They were joined by other frugivores such as Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Scarlet Tanagers...

Scarlet Tanager

...both of which were about as abundant as I have ever seen.

But the group that we did best with was surely the vireos...
Yellow-throated Vireo

On both days we found the four most likely species: Red-eyed, Blue-headed, Yellow-throated, White-eyed.  And on Friday along a stream behind a church we found the coveted Philadelphia Vireo:

Philadelphia Vireo

 It was my first for the United States and my first ever five vireo day!

After a Saturday morning at Table Rock State Park, we finally took a break from pishing up passerines and drove up to Caesar's Head for a hawk watch. 


We scored 60 or so Broad-winged Hawks plus a few Red-Tails and accipiters over the course of a couple hours.  It was quite a spectacle watching the hawks appear out of nowhere and spiral up into the sky, but I can only imagine what it's like on one of the 1000+ hawk days!

Check out Nate Swick's account of hawk-watching at Caesar's Head on 10,000 birds (he led a CBC field trip to Caesar's Head the day before me).

A big thanks to Jeff Click for inviting me down to lead, to Irvin Pitts for organizing a fantastic meeting, and to all my participants for being such great and gracious companions.  Hope to see some of y'all again next time!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Spotting on the Stormy Petrel II

While sweating it out in the marshes at Lake Mattamuskeet I got a call from Brian Patteson, Captain of the Stormy Petrel II and the preeminent pelagic trip leader in the state (if not the entire east coast).

I had inquired about space on his Saturday trip to the Gulf Stream before leaving Durham, so this call wasn't entirely unexpected.  "Here's the deal..." Brian began in his no-nonsense style.  "We've got a full boat,  but one of our spotters is having car trouble.  Would you be interested in wearing a walkie-talkie and helping us out?  You'll get a free trip."

I don't think I said "hell yeah!"  But that's what I was thinking.  Not only was this a big break in terms of cost savings, but spotting on Brian's boat is quite an honor.  His trips are world famous.  Every serious North American birder has gone on, or plans to go on, one or several of his trips.  It's  essentially the only place one can hope to see several pelagic species, such as Great Skua, Black-capped Petrel and Band-rumped Storm-Petrel.

Of course, the fact that I got invited to spot says more about how desperate Brian was than anything about my tube-nose identification abilities!  This trip was only my fourth out of Hatteras and only my second during the summer months.  So I was really lucky to be in the right place at the right time to get the call.  And coincidentally this was the second time within the week I had been called upon last-minute to help lead a birding tour (the first time was in the Dominican Republic).

It also turned out to be a fantastic trip!  The weather was pleasant and the pelagic birds were numerous, diverse and cooperative.  A few dozen endangered Black-capped Petrels paraded past the boat throughout the day.  This is the very species trying to persist through the catastrophic deforestation ongoing in Haiti that I witnessed recently, so it was nice to see that they are holding on somehow. 

I  focused on spotting birds and calling them in to Brian, so I didn't get to take many pictures (sadly I forgot to have somebody photograph me wearing the headset up on the bow pulpit), but when a Long-tailed Jaeger started on its third close inquisitive pass around the boat I raced for my camera.
immature Long-tailed Jaeger - fresh from the arctic

A tough bird to identify for sure!  Luckily Brian called it immediately so I didn't have to throw my hands in the air make excuses about it being my first day.

Other pelagic birds not previously mentioned were: Corey's Shearwater, Great Shearwater, Audubon's Shearwater, Wilson's Storm-Petrel, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, Red-necked Phalarope, Bridled Tern (lifer!), Sooty Tern (lifer!), and Pomarine Jaeger; a great haul.

I suppose this trip wasn't as significant bird-wise as "the greatest Hatteras winter pelagic of all time" that I was on back in February, but it was a trip I'll never forget for the role I got to play.  Hopefully I'll get a chance for an encore sometime soon!

A big thanks to Brian Patteson and Kate Sutherland for having me aboard. 

For a more detailed account of the bird life on this trip and much better photos, check out their seabirding blog.

To book a trip aboard the Stormy Petrel II, visit

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Distracting Birds at Mattamuskeet

Some of you may be aware that I've begun a research project on "bird biogeochemistry" at Lake Mattamuskeet, a site that just happens to be a fantastic for birding.

I try to be disciplined, keep my head down, and focus on the task at hand as much as possible while out doing field work, but when I notice a Least Bittern clinging to a phragmites stalk not 50 feet away... 
Least Bittern
...well then it's time for a quick break!
my first seen in NC
In the same area I got several great looks at a King Rail (lifer #1603!) that was sharing the marsh with me for the day (though using it for much different purposes). 

There were a few warblers around: Prothonotary, Yellow and some very friendly Prairies:

Prairie Warbler
I was surprised to have a flock of 99 dabbling ducks (mostly Blacks with some Green-winged Teal and possibly others mixed in) assemble near my site one evening. But I suppose this is just a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of thousands that will arrive in November.

Toss in a flyby Sandhill Crane, a flock of 50 Boblinks and a couple early Sedge Wrens and I would say this lake has plenty of distracting birds!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Birding the Dominican Republic

This is part 2/2 of my Hispaniolan birding series. For part 1, see birding Haiti.

I had high hopes for the Dominican Republic after an exhilarating, but somewhat bleak impression of Haiti.  The Lonely Planet guidebook I picked up points birders in the direction of the Sierra de Bahoruco and a camp owned by Kate Wallace of

So after clearing the border at Malpasse I deserted my first class bus bound for Santo Domingo and hopped on the back of a motorbike.  While being whisked into the dusty border town of Jimani I spotted my first Dominican bird in a rather putrid-looking roadside puddle: Black-necked Stilt.  Not a bad start!

In Jimani I caught a gua-gua (the Domnican version of the Haitian taptap) to Duverge.  I marveled at the large, relatively clean, pleasant, shady plaza in the center of town. Within a few minutes of striking up a conversation with some locals a motorbike was conjured and I was being blasted up into the countryside.

At Kate Wallace's camp in Rabo de Gato I was given a warm welcome by the Dominican host family, but was quickly distracted by the birds flitting around.  It was my first Hispaniolan broadleaf forest and it seemed to be teaming with activity despite the afternoon hour...

Broad-billed Tody or barrancoli (endemic)
Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo or Pajaro Bobo (endemic)
Stolid Flycatcher (the only Myiarchus around thankfully)
Palmchat (endemic; the national bird)
Hispaniolan Pewee (endemic)

I set off along the nearby trail that follows a riparian strip and at the lagoon was pleasantly surprised to find a couple families of nesting Least Grebes. 
Least Grebe
And then I had a surreal experience with a Key West Quail-Dove that tottered up to within about 25 feet like a feral pigeon!
Key West Quail-Dove
Hispaniolan Parrots (endemic), White-necked Crows (endemic and vulnerable), Olive-throated Parakeets (introduced from Jamaica) and Scaly-naped Pigeons were all heard and/or seen flying overhead in this area.

The next day I arranged to wake up early and have "El Capitan" drive me up to "La Placa," a dry forest area that rises up into a moist/dry transition zone and has fabulous bird habitat.

Hispaniolan Spindalis is rather common here.

Hispaniolan Spindalis (endemic)

After hiking up toward the higher wetter end, I found a pair of Green-tailed Ground-Tanagers, that resemble and were, until a recent genetic study, thought to be warblers.
Green-tailed Ground-Tanager
 And in a mixed flock I found my only Antillean Piculet (an endemic) of the trip.

Antillean Piculet (endemic)
Somewhat disconcerting were the several truckloads of Haitian farmworkers that passed me on the road.  Farmers in a national park?  I thought that problem was restricted to Haiti!

deforestation in Sierra de Bahoruco
Basically Haitians, desperate to do anything to improve their lot, have pushed across the border into the DR where Dominicans gladly exploit them as a source of cheap labor (or worse, execute them and take whatever life savings they may have brought along).  It's a tragic situation that somewhat resembles the US-Mexican border relationship. Americans and Dominicans bemoan the lack of border security, yet unwittingly rely on cheap illegal immigrant labor to deliver the food they consume.

The big loser is the Sierra de Bahoruco National Park, which is being cut for charcoal and then farmed for potatoes and beans.  This goes on despite the significant military presence in the area (I probably passed through two dozen checkpoints in the DR).  The (probably poorly paid) soldiers apparently have little incentive to enforce the rules of international and park borders and prefer to be bribed to do nothing.
The view into Haiti from the aguacate military post
Clearly this cannot continue or the Dominican Republic will eventually look like Haiti--denuded and depauperate.

Well I suppose that will make the Kestrels happy.

American Kestrel (endemic subspecies)

On the way back down to camp I finally got my Hispaniolan Trogon.  Its near-threatened status per the IUCN seemed all the more justified. 

Hispaniolan Trogon (endemic; near-threatened)

That afternoon Kate Wallace arrived with a client, a career army man in the Pentagon who I'll just refer to as "Captain America."

The three of us set off on a little stroll down the same path I had taken the day before.  We were having a great time looking at both tody species in the same tree, finding surprisingly early Louisiana Waterthrush, and ogling the multicolored snails that apparently are abundant enough to encourage Limpkins to wander around in upland dry forest (a bizarre sight!).
Limpkin food

Then just when we were about to turn back Kate got badly gouged in the eye by a stick as we were moving a branch from the trail.  Luckily Captain America was there to apply first aid and she avoided getting an infection.  Despite unimpaired vision she prudently declared herself unfit for driving and deputized me as Captain America's driver and guide for the following morning (wahoo!).

So up we rose at 0400 hours the next mourning to head up into the prime cloud forest with a local guide, named Raphael. Along the way we flushed four Burrowing Owls from the road (endemic subspecies) and stopped to hear both Hispaniolan Nightjar (endemic) and Least Paraque (endemic).  I played some tapes and shined my light around, but we weren't able to see either caprimuligid in the little time we wished to spare.

On we went ascending until we reached La Selle corner.  Here we were given a wonderful predawn serenade by Rufous-throated Solitaires and La Selle Thrushes (endemic; endangered), the latter which once we had some light, could be seen out feeding in the road.
La Selle Thrush (endemic; endangered); note terrible predawn light
Up here we heard several White-fronted Quail-Doves (endemic; vulnerable) calling to each other, but were never able to see one. Green-tailed Ground-Tanagers were locally abundant here and we saw a couple Hispaniolan Highland-Tanagers (endemic; Vulnerable), Hispaniolan Emerald (endemic) and several other previously mentioned species.

Hispaniolan Emerald (endemic)
Hiking onward and upward the forest became monotypic pine and I noted for the first time epiphytic vegetation growing on pine trees.

Pines and bromeliads?  A first for me
In this area we found Antillean Siskins (endemic), Pine Warblers (endemic subspecies) and Hispaniolan Crossbills (endemic; endangered).

Hispaniolan Crossbill (endemic; endangered)
Captain America was especially excited about the crossbill since it was his first Loxia and he had searched for them diligently across several continents.

But the best bird for me was the Bay-breasted Cuckoo or Cua (endemic; endangered) we saw on our way back down near La Placa. It's the bigger badder brother to the Lizard-Cuckoo and quite a tough bird to get. I had already been tantalized by calling birds that refused to show themselves on three separate occasions the day before.

Our final endemic was a pair of Flat-billed Vireos we had shortly after the cuckoo.

Flat-billed Vireo (endemic)
 And then we had to hurry back to camp to check on Kate's wounded eye and make the trip back to Santo Domingo so Captain America could catch his flight home the next morning.

I had one last day, so I went out to bird the botanical garden, which mostly was loaded with common species
Greater Antillean Grackle

Common Ground-Dove
But the reason I went was to see Hispaniolan Parakeets (endemic; vulnerable) and West Indian Whistling Duck (vulnerable), my 1600th life bird!

West Indian Whistling Duck
It was fitting that I should hit that kind of a milestone at the end of such an amazing and eventful trip. I ended up seeing 37 life birds and 24 of the 31 Hispaniolan endemics with 3 others heard only.  The remaining four that escaped me were Ashy-faced Owl, which I never had a method to try for; Gray-crowned Palm-Tanager, which is endemic to southwestern Haiti; Ridgway's Hawk and Eastern Chat-Tanager, both of which cannot be found in the areas I birded. 

So I would highly recommend getting in touch with Kate Wallace (her eye is fine) and booking yourself a Tody Tour.

If South America is the all-you-can-eat buffet of endemic birds, then the Dominican Republic is the fast food joint that's a bit closer, quicker and easier to get to.  The birds and forests could certainly use your patronage before they disappear!