Sunday, April 28, 2013

Evening Grosbeaks in North Carolina

Somehow I ended up birding the NC mountains last weekend.

Evening Grosbeaks
I blame Mark K.  I had resigned myself to never see an Evening Grosbeak, but when he offered to do the driving and had a free place to stay, how could I say 'no?'

Evening Grosbeaks
What an awesome bird!

This was supposedly an irruption year for Evening Grosbeaks in North Carolina, the first since about 1996.  But other than a few flyovers and fleeting glimpses by feeder-watchers, the species all but eluded triangle birders.  Whether their scarcity was because the invasion was overblown or because of the species' troubling decline in recent decades, I can't say. 

Evening Grosbeaks
All I know is that four pairs (at least) showed up in Bryson City, NC this April and have been essentially the only ones to stay in place long enough for NC birders to see in the past decade or so. 
Mark and I with Andy Zivinsky, the Evening Grosbeak host and owner of Bryson City Bicycles

A big thanks to Andy Zivinsky of Bryson City Bicycles for being so generous with his time and yard!

Some notes for listing nerds:

This was North Carolina bird #340 for me.  I've still got a dozen or so reasonably target-able birds to find in NC, but after 350, the diminishing returns really kick in and it'll be mostly about having luck on Christmas Bird Counts and chasing down rarities to add state ticks.

Here's my prediction for the next 10 NC species that would take me to #350:

Willow Flycatcher - I'm pretty sure I've already seen one at Mason Farm, but it didn't call and so went down as Empidonax sp.  
Golden-winged Warbler - I should get this (and above) in a few weeks if I go up to the New River near Boone
Northern Saw-whet Owl - the last NC breeder I need as a lifer.  I tried for and missed it on this Grosbeak trip
Swallow-tailed Kite - I have a chance to find one with Ed Corey at the Cape Fear during Wild-a-Thon
Leach's Storm-Petrel - I've got plans to spot on some pelagics this summers, so I might get one or two of the four pelagic species listed here
Sooty Shearwater
White-tailed Tropicbird
South Polar Skua
Hudsonian Godwit - Mattamuskeet is supposed to be a good place to see them and fall and I'll be out that way doing field work
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher - A rare fall migrant I hope to stumble upon

With some luck, I'll get to 350 before next winter one way or another...probably with four of five from the list above.  Winter birds I need, like Western Kingbird, Glaucous Gull and Cave Swallow, should come in the next batch.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Why did the grouse cross the road?

The eternal grouse question for birders in North Carolina is more typically "why can't I ever see one?"  And for folks who don't live in the mountains, a grouse sighting is usually cause for some celebration.  Last weekend Mark K. and I enjoyed a bit of a grouse party along Clingman's Dome Road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

A Ruffed Grouse showing off its "ruff"

 We talked to some Appalachian Trail hikers, who said there was lots of drumming going on and while walking a trail looking for salamanders I noticed one a mere 20 feet ahead of me wandering along the forest floor.  I just missed getting a pretty stellar grouse shot (stupid twig).
Ruffed Grouse

Watching a grouse from such short range and then have it trot across the road like a chicken was quite a sight (and the inspiration for this post's title).
Ruffed Grouse crossing the road
I'm no authority, but for those Carolina birders still trying to find a grouse (and I know a few), it sure seems like checking out Clingman's Dome Road on an afternoon in April is the way to go!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Surveying a Snowy Plover

Counting Shorebirds for the International Shorebird Survey - photo by Mark Kosiewski
Bear Island is one of the few remaining undeveloped barrier islands along the east coast of the US.  Its wide open sandflats and dunes provide precious habitat for rapidly declining species of migrating shorebirds.

As part of the International Shorebird Survey, my fellow citizen scientists, Ed Corey, Mark Kosiewski, Natalia Ocampo-Penuela, and I, grabbed our scopes and counted hundreds of sandpipers, plovers and dowitchers. 

Of course it was a rare bird that enticed us to make the trip...

Snowy Plover
Snowy Plovers do not regularly appear on the Atlantic coast (and this was a lifer for me!), but over the years, a handful have turned up on various North Carolina beaches.  Ed Corey found this individual back in February.  I wonder how long it will stick around.

It seemed to be right at home (and was well-camouflaged) on the sand flats.  It would tilt its head at odd angles and zip around with remarkable speed making photography a bit of a challenge, but it did not seem particularly concerned about our presence.  Check out the video!

We found a whopping 5 plover species on the day (and 6 on the trip if you count the Killdeer we saw on the mainland), with plenty of Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, a couple dozen of the controversial Piping Plover and more Wilson's Plovers than I had ever seen...
Wilsn's Plover
 ...we counted about 80, which seemed like more than the island could support since they were constantly chasing each other around the beach.

I was too busy counting birds to try to digiscope any of the other species, but there were several of the rare Red Knot, a couple hundred Long-billed Dowitchers, and the ubiquitous Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones and Willets.  The most numerous bird was Dunlin--we tallied some 1700.

Hopefully our survey will in some small way help these populations.  It sure was fun counting them and the setting was beautiful!

Big thanks to Ed, for originally discovering the Snowy Plover and arranging the ferry, UTV and State Park barracks for us.