Thursday, July 19, 2012

Top 10 birds of 2011

Yes, this is coming out 6 months late.  And it is on a much lower plane compared to my top ten from 2010 (it’s what I get for visiting Europe instead of the Neotropics).  But better late than never!

In 2011 I saw 405 bird species, of which 92 were lifers (way down from 907 with 649 lifers in 2010).  About two-thirds of these lifers I found on a couple trips to Europe, with 48 coming while exploring Greece and Croatia and 15 more from a later trip to Prague to attend a Society of Wetland Scientists conference. 

Making a top-10 list is a highly subjective (not to mention silly!) exercise.  Last year every bird I listed was a life bird from the tropics and listed by the IUCN as a species of concern. Also most were endemic and thus could only be found in a relatively small geographic area.  

This time around I didn’t see nearly enough endangered, impossible-to-find birds, so I’m mixing in some somewhat mundane birds that were significant because of where I found them.  But I’m only considering including birds that I found (or co-found); chases don’t count.  So the Allen’s Hummingbird in Catawba Co., NC and the Franklin’s Gull at Jordan Lake, for example, won’t make this list despite being fantastic birds for North Carolina.  Other people (Dwayne Martin and Thierry Besancon) did the hard work of finding and identifying these out-of-range rarities.  

Otherwise I’m making selections based on rarity, difficulty to find and/or identify, and to a lesser extent on charisma/looks.

In keeping with last year, we’ll make this a challenge.  I’m sure many folks have seen many of these birds, but has anybody seen them all?  Send me your total out of ten and whoever has the most will win a prize: an original Brown Boobies t-shirt in the size of your choice (S M L XL). 

On to the list!

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10. Olive-sided Flycatcher

Olive-sided Flycatcher - Pocosin Lakes NWR

This is a declining species that is a pretty rare migrant through North Carolina.  It is especially rare in the coastal plain where there have only been a dozen or so records.  I found mine on August 11 in Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.  

Nice tuxedo jacket! A rare sight in coastal NC
*bonus point if you have seen one in the coastal plain of NC*

9. Eurasian Bee-eater

Eating bees! (I think)

Also not particularly rare, but perhaps the most colorful European bird (a relatively unimpressive accomplishment in a continent that has nearly cornered the market on Little Brown Jobs).  I saw hundreds of these (quite a spectacle!) migrating through the Greek Isles while I was Island hopping my way from Rhodes over to my brother’s wedding on Paros. 

Lot's of Bee-Eaters!

8. Greenish Warbler

Greenish Warbler and its genus–phyloscopus—are prime example of the uninspiring plumage and identification challenges that the European birder faces.  It wouldn’t even matter if I had a decent photo of it…it would still be a drab bird and there still would be lingering identification doubts.  Luckily it was singing in the Red Bog I visited on a field trip as part of my conference in the Czech Republic. This wetland we visited has relict boreal vegetation from the Pleistocene and may be one of the southernmost refuges for this high-latitude species.  

7. Anhinga
Anhinga - Durham, NC

Tom Krakauer and I found this bird at a housing development pond in Northern Durham County, which was the first record of the species for the Durham Christmas Bird Count. 

It was a mild enough winter I guess

These are trash birds in Florida, but very rare in Durham...especially so in winter. 
Anhingas in Florida are hard to miss
*bonus point if you've seen an Anhing in Durham*

6. Citrine Wagtail
Citrine Wagtail (female) in Rhodes, Greece - rare this far west

I found a female in a creek bed in Rhodes Greece in May.  It was flagged as "rare" by ebird's filters and apparently it does not frequently stray this far west on its migration.  Unfortunately it was not the colorful male, but I was lucky that it was keeping company with a couple Yellow Wagtails, which made it much easier to identify. 

*bonus point if you've seen a Citrine Wagtail west of Asia*

5. Eleonora’s Falcon
Eleonora's Falcon - light morph

This is a really cool raptor with a relatively small breeding range that covers some Mediterranean Islands.  I saw dozens on the Greek Island of Tilos, which is thought to support 10% of the world's population.  It comes in two color morphs.

Eleonora's Falcon - dark morph

4. Short-toed Eagle

I'm not sure how rare a bird this is, but a woman from the Hellenic Ornithological Society on Tilos told me that it had not been previously recorded on the island.  So it was completely unprecedented  here at least!

Short-toed Eagle - a first for Tilos, Greece

I wrote up a formal description and sent them links to my video, but never heard anything back from any ornithologists or bird records people. 

*bonus point if you've seen Short-toed Eagle on Tilos*

3. Long-billed Dowitcher

Long-billed Dowitcher - Falls Lake, NC

I saw a lot of rare shorebirds on Falls Lake at the end of last summer, but this is the only one that I "discovered."  I was surprised later when I couldn't find any previous records for Durham, so as far as I can tell, this bird was a Durham County first. 

A first for Durham (?)

Perhaps others have had 'dowitcher sp.' at Falls Lake that were suspected of being Long-billed that were never confirmed.  Mine was kind enough to vocalize so there wasn't any doubt.

*bonus point if you've seen Long-billed Dowitcher in Durham*

2. Audouin’s Gull

Audouin's Gull is the only bird on this list that is currently experiencing any sort of extinction risk according to the IUCN which declares it to be 'near-threatened.'  In the 1960s it was one of the rarest gulls on Earth with only some 1,000 remaining.  Now the population is some 10 times the level of its low point, and stable thanks, no doubt, to some diligent effort by conservationists.  Despite the recovery, Audouin's Gull is still a rare bird that is pretty strictly pelagic, so tough to see.  I saw mine from a ferry near Nissyros, Greece.

1. Yellow Rail

I actually went on two successful Yellow Rail trips in 2011. Both were in Carteret County in sections of North River Marsh, one was in January and the other in December. This is one of the most difficult to see of all breeding North American bird species. Our (now infamous) method for finding them is documented here and here.

* * *

So leave your score in the comments below (the bonus points are to break a tie) and take your shot at the prize!  

Hopefully somebody can top Derb Carter (last year's reigning champ).  I haven't gotten him his t-shirt yet, but I'm sure he doesn't need two!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Breeding Black-billed Cuckoos in coastal Carolina

Black-billed Cuckoos are tough to see anywhere.  Even in the mountains of North Carolina, where they breed, there is no reliable method for tracking them down.  They vocalize sporadically and spend most of their time perched in dense vegetation scanning their surroundings for caterpillars or large insects.

Until a few days ago Black-billed Cuckoos were known only as rare migrants in the eastern part of the state, with the most recent breeding record a specimen collected from Bertie County in May, 1896.  Observations made by John Fussell (who wrote the book on birding coastal NC) of birds singing in the Croatan National Forest and in nearby North River Farm seemed to suggest the potential for breeding, but this needed to be confirmed.

And since I also needed this bird for my life list (I had heard one in Vermont five years ago during a softball game), I woke up early and went out with Fussell himself on June 28 to Catfish Lake Road in the Croatan to some spots where he had heard cuckoos coo-coo-coo-ing 10 days prior.
Black-billed Cuckoo habitat? - Catfish Lake rd., Croatan National Forest
At first we heard no cuckoos of any kind.  John said that when he has heard Black-billed Cuckoos singing in June, they usually stop by the beginning of July.  And after a fruitless three hours, I was ready to accept the null hypothesis: that these cuckoos were just late migrants.  After all Black-billed Cuckoos are weird birds that often defy conventional bird wisdom: they shed their stomach linings to expel caterpillar spines; their young leave the nest faster than any other bird (17 days from egg lay to fledge); and they are just so cryptic and elusive.  Perhaps they could migrate through coastal areas on occasion in late June with the intent to breed later in July at some caterpillar hotspot somewhere else?

But we finally heard a cuckoo sound...(turn your volume way up)

We heard this call regularly for the better part of an hour, but couldn't coax a bird into view.  And the source of the sound didn't seem to be moving at all.  Perhaps it was sitting on a nest?

We moved in closer, pinpointing a dense vine-tangled bush. Then John finally spotted a cuckoo, but it looked pretty dingy... a fledgling!  Then an adult popped out of nowhere to feed it.  Wow!

I filmed the ensuing scramble made by the youngster as it tried to hide itself...

If you don't like videos, here are a few stills I extracted...
Fledling Black-billed Cuckoo
showing the short tail while scrambling away
This was the last we saw of the fledgling.  At one point we heard a fledgling call from another bush 20 feet away, so we suspect there were at least two young. As we worked our way out we saw one adult pop up out of a ditch and cross the road. And then we flushed a second out of some rank vegetation.
This one was incredibly cooperative, sitting up on exposed twigs in the power line cut.  We even had time to get scopes on it!

From the road we saw one of the adults working the edge of the powerline cut and then disappearing into the bushes to feed its brood.

What a successful and "historic" morning!  The handful of Swainson's Warblers we heard singing seem hardly worth mentioning.

This is my second significant encounter with a bird that begins with "Black-b." this year (the first).  So I've got high hopes for stumbling upon a Black-bellied Whistling Duck or Black-bellied Storm-Petrel in North Carolina sometime in the next 6 months!