Thursday, January 30, 2014

Snow Day Brings Backyard Birding

Cold, slow, and surprised are the three words I use to describe the past week and a half. Cold and slow where the two things I felt after birding Yates Mill and Mid Pines twice. This winter has been colder than usual for North Carolina with single digits temperatures overnight, and temperatures in the 20's during a few days in the past couple of weeks. However, slow birding does not always mean complete disappointment as the birds were slow enough for me to catch a few videos, like this Sparrow Sparrow, at Yates Mill County Park last Sunday(he catches a bug at the very end):
Monday and Tuesday did pick up a little bit faster. I was driving to pick up my brother, and saw a Cooper's Hawk fly over the road, then on my evening run I heard a Barred Owl calling it's famous call:"Who cooks for you?" on the greenway by my house. Tuesday, Wake County Public Schools' fear of the snow that never came, opted for another birding opportunity at Mid Pines Road instead of sitting in class. As usual, I met up with the two other members of the "Bird Nerd Herd", Sam and Lucas. Within the first few minutes of shivering in the wind under the foreboding clouds, a drab, robin-sized bird flew overhead chirping. It was an American Pipit, a passerine of open fields thats winters in the south, now it was year bird #142.
Wednesday morning I woke up to my yard completely sugar coated. 
I laced up my boots, zipped my jacket, and grabbed my camera for a little stroll with my dog to inspect the new look to my familiar yard.
I soon realized my dog, Castor, playing in the snow was scaring away to many birds.
The birds where going crazy over the feeders, so the majority of the two snow days I spent backyard birding because I wasn't able to drive anywhere to go birding in the places I thought were the best spots. This is the moment where I felt surprised, all the common birds were suddenly more intriguing to watch and photograph than previously out in the other hotspots were new birds were always the target.  
The first birds I always noticed are the Dark-eyed Juncos hopping on the ground below feeding on the seeds that fall from the feeder.
Dark-eyed Junco
 Then I turn up to my suet feeders that is always occupied by this one Yellow-rumped Warbler.

 Yellow-rumped Warblers have a better adaptive digestive system than the other warbler species that allow them to winter farther North. They are known to feed on the waxy berries like Wax Myrtle. There sheer numbers seen through out the South in the winter show that these are a tough species of warbler that can stand the cold, compared to the other warbler species that flock to the warmer South America.
The yellow rump.
Then I look the other direction and see all the other visitors at my tube feeder:
Male orange variant House Finch.
Red-bellied Woodpeckers are always my favorite bird to see at my feeder. There huge size and loud kiwrr call always make there presence noticeable.

Red-bellied Woodpecker with its bold, zebra-back pattern.
White-breasted Nuthatch
Carolina Wren in a still position from its usual energetic self.

Northern Cardinal and House Finch.
Male Downy Woodpecker saying a hello.
As I was focusing on the feeders, the small Dogwood tree beside me hosted a noisy bunch of Chickadees and Titmice. This one Carolina Chickadee was very curious:
Carolina Chickadee(this is not even cropped!)

Carolina Chickadee
In all, backyard birding was a nice little surprise to have during my snow day. A backyard is a great place to enjoy the common birds that are just overlooked in the field at any time of day. It's your personalized bird habitat to learn about the local birds.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Georgetown County, SC Big Day

I opened my eyes to Sam calling my name. I look down at my watch and it's 5:45 a.m. We slept in by an hour and fifteen minutes, whoops . . . I guess our alarms decided not to wake up either. But we made up for it, we were out pulling out of the gates of DeBordieu by 6:10 a.m. Our Georgetown Big Day had now began as we pulled through the causeway of Huntington Beach State Park, another prominent birding jewel in Georgetown, SC with over 300 species year round, and spotted  our first bird: Great-Blue Heron. We now began cupping our ears for Virginia and Clapper Rails calling in the tidal salt marshes from the boardwalk that stretches into the middle of the marsh. A few Clappers respond to playbacks and suddenly I spot, not just hear one, foraging in the low tide mud. Then on the other side we spotted a smaller rail with a slightly decurved bill actually swimming like a coot in the water, a Virginia Rail! These shy, chicken-like marsh birds often obscure themselves in the dense vegetation of marshes, only coming out at low tide to feed; it was a pleasure to actually see both species at the same time!

We all three left the boardwalk with the Virginia Rail as a lifer and made our way to the beach. After the mile walk down the beach the jetty was finally insight, we had a new companion on our big day team who was there to greet us: a curious Ruddy Turnstone, who we named Levi. Levi was not nearly as skittish as the rails and kept following us around on the jetty.
Levi, the curious Ruddy Turnstone.

After we filled up our memory cards with Levi, we got to some scoping. We walked up and down the jetty as the strong winds pushed waves over the side of the jetty spraying us. We quickly spotted all three scoter species: Surf, Black, and White-winged Scoter. 
Lucas Scoping Scoters

Sam checking out Loons
After the Scoter Grand Slam, a few Common Loons, and a Common Eider; we quickly got out of the way of the strong winds and made our way to a few trails behind the sand dunes. There was no success with spotting any Seaside or Nelson’s sparrows just Savannahs plus an American Kestrel. After the long walk back, we hopped in the car and drove towards the freshwater pond, Mullet Pond, to scope for more waterfowl. The pond had a nice variety from Blue and Green-winged Teal, Scaup, Shovelers, and even American White Pelicans feeding in a rhythmic motion each bobbing their heads in and out of the water one after the other.

Mullet Pond, filled with waterfowl
Our last stop in Huntington was at the feeders to see if any Painted Buntings; a cousin of the cardinal dressed in a beautiful plumage of red, green, and blue that is summer resident; might have stuck around for the winter. However, there were none, but as we were walking in the parking lot to leave, a small passerine with an olive colored back and blue head stuck out like a sore thumb in the never ending flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers. I brought my binoculars against my eyes, and a Blue-headed Vireo was hopping around in the tree limbs of a cedar tree. Then another warbler made an appearance in the cedar tree, a Black-and-White Warbler, two birds I thought we would miss. We left the park at 11:00 a.m. satisfied that we had quality views of all 72 species of birds.

We arrived at DeBordieu after treating ourselves to a nice lunch of hot dogs and milkshakes, ready to bird another 28 species strong, at least to break 100. I knew a perfect place to start, a dirt road that runs parallel to a small, shrubby canal that leads you out to the marsh. We saw an immature Wood Stork, Killdeer, a female Wood Duck, and a Seaside Sparrow that flushed out of the marsh. These were all birds we didn’t see for the rest of the day. However, there were some others that we encountered little to none, Woodpeckers. There is patch of beautiful Longleaf Pine forest in DeBordieu that just has woodpecker written all over it on the tree trunks, but we only heard a Downy Woodpecker call from a far distance. After our frustration with woodpeckers, we got another great photo opt. with this Anhinga:

 Once the Anhinga flew off, we sped the car down the road and checked a spot we knew was reliable for our 100th bird: Black-crowned Night Herons along with two Eurasian Collared Doves as 99th. By dinner, we had broken our previous record of 102 species that we set in the OBX of NC. We were munching on our pizza at 106 species for the day, with Least Sandpiper being a nice surprise and a Northern Harrier being our last bird seen in broad daylight. The day’s not over yet; we still had some nocturnal numbers to add to our list.

We returned to the dirt road running parallel to the pine forest where we had heard Eastern Screech Owls two nights ago. Three responded to our playback with their whiny, monotonic trill. By the end of the night Screech Owl was the only owl that decided to respond, and we were able to get another cousin in the Rail family to let out a quick call through the thick and grassy marsh later that evening, a Sora. Thus the climax of the weekend had ended once the Sora responded. The Bird Nerd Herd now has a new Big Day PR of 108 bird species and learned another step or two of how a big day should be done. The marshy jewel that has been the subject of many chapters in my birding stories, DeBordieu, did not disappoint as usual. It would not of been possible if we did not have the golf, perfect chasing birds in DeBordieu:

  Here is the chronological order of bird species we saw on our Big Day.(Thanks Lucas)

Huntington Beach State Park

  1. Great Blue Heron
  2. Clapper Rail
  3. Hooded Merganser
  4. Sedge Wren
  5. Snowy Egret
  6. Little Blue Heron
  7. Greater Yellowlegs
  8. Virginia Rail
  9. Tricolored Heron
  10. Tree Swallow
  11. American White Pelican 
  12. White Ibis
  13. Ring-billed Gull
  14. Double-crested Cormorant
  15. Forster's Tern
  16. American Crow
  17. Boat-tailed Grackle
  18. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  19. Carolina Chickadee
  20. Mourning Dove
  21. Northern Cardinal
  22. Tufted Titmouse
  23. Carolina Wren
  24. White-throated Sparrow
  25. Dunlin
  26. Willet
  27. Semipalmated Plover
  28. Northern Gannet
  29. Sanderling
  30. Red Knot
  31. Bonaparte's Gull
  32. Brown Pelican
  33. Pied-billed Grebe
  34. Herring Gull
  35. Horned Grebe
  36. White-winged Scoter
  37. Black Scoter
  38. Ruddy Turnstone
  39. Red-breasted Merganser
  40. Surf Scoter
  41. Common Loon
  42. Common Eider
  43. Red-throated Loon
  44. Savannah Sparrow
  45. Great Egret
  46. Black-bellied Plover
  47. Short-billed Dowitcher
  48. American Kestrel
  49. Belted Kingfisher
  50. Lesser Scaup
  51. Brown Thrasher
  52. Blue Jay
  53. Northern Mockingbird
  54. Northern Flicker
  55. Mute Swan
  56. American Wigeon
  57. Gadwall
  58. Redhead
  59. Northern Shoveler
  60. Green-winged Teal
  61. Blue-winged Teal
  62. Lesser Yellowlegs
  63. American Coot
  64. Ruddy Duck
  65. Greater Scaup
  66. Bald Eagle
  67. Turkey Vulture
  68. American Robin
  69. Golden-crowned Kinglet
  70. Osprey
  71. Blue-headed Vireo
  72. Black-and-white Warbler

Debordieu Colony

  1. Black Vulture
  2. Wood Stork
  3. Eastern Towhee
  4. Wood Duck
  5. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  6. Chipping Sparrow
  7. Red-tailed Hawk
  8. Red-winged Blackbird
  9. Song Sparrow
  10. Killdeer
  11. Seaside Sparrow
  12. Common Gallinule
  13. American Black Duck
  14. Brown-headed Nuthatch
  15. Eastern Bluebird
  16. American Goldfinch
  17. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  18. Pine Warbler
  19. Common Grackle
  20. White-breasted Nuthatch
  21. Fish Crow
  22. House Finch
  23. European Starling
  24. Cedar Waxwing
  25. Eastern Phoebe
  26. Anhinga
  27. Eurasian Collared-Dove
  28. Black-crowned Night-heron
  29. Mottled Duck  
  30. House Wren
  31. Great Black-backed Gull
  32. Downy Woodpecker
  33. Least Sandpiper
  34. Northern Harrier
  35. Eastern Screech-Owl
  36. Sora

A "Big" Weekend in Georgetown County, SC Day 1 & 2: Western Kingbird

Day 1:
The sun was dropping over the marshy pond full of Widgeon and Redheads feeding and as Sam, Lucas, and I piled our scopes in the golf cart; I began to reminisce on how visiting DeBordieu helped me find my interest in birds. This small, private beach club community has always been a marshy jewel nestled on South Carolina's coast in Georgetown County filled with endless coastal marshes, beaches, and pine forests. My family has been coming here all my life, and my grandparents have a perfect sized villa. This beach is where I caught the case of the "birding bug". I started chasing birds here, literally, on bike from Ospreys plummeting into the water, to spotting my first hooded merganser, and identifying my first bird using a Peterson Field Guide in 7th grade: a Great-crested Flycatcher.  As I got older and my interest grew, DeBordieu became more than just an annual beach trip destination, but a birding destination. For my 16th birthday last year, I asked my Dad for my present to be a trip to DeBordieu, and invited my two friends, Sam and Lucas. This was the first time the bird nerd herd birded together, and it was a success with 91 species for the weekend. Our first rarity chase too, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, all the way to Charleston.

We all three return back to DeBordieu for another weekend, this time we'll be doing a Big Day in Georgetown County on Sunday. Now I pull the golf cart off the paved road onto the dirt road that leads to the boat ramp offering a better view of a marsh. We started playing rail calls and a few Clapper Rails chattered back, a secretive marsh chicken-like bird. Then Sam and I turn for a moment away from the marsh and a suspicious mockingbird sized avian flutters from a bush. I shrugged my shoulders thinking it was just a mockingbird, but Sam and Lucas bolt to catch a better look the bird perched on a wire over the road. Wait, mockingbirds don't have a yellow belly? That's no Mockingbird, it's a Western Kingbird!
A lemon yellow belly and ashy gray head. Photo by Lucas Bobay.
A tyrant flycatcher that breeds in the grasslands out West. Western Kingbirds are known wanderers on the East Coast during Fall and Winter. With our first afternoon and only about 45 minutes of birding, we already have a self-found, random rarity in the bag and my 100th specie of bird this year! Lucas was able to snap a picture before the kingbird quickly flew out of sight. We headed back towards the villa and heard a small and secretive Sedge Wren calling from the marsh, the second lifer for us all. We ended our day over a plate of spare ribs with satisfaction in our stomachs and on our life lists. Before we went to bed, we took the golf cart to call for owls at a nearby pine forest. Two Eastern Screech Owls responded with their famous trill. The screech owl was an owl that I missed last year, so I went to bed with three lifers. What a perfect first night.

Day 2:
The next morning we would start our day just in DeBordieu to scout for good places on our Big Day, starting with a walk on the beach out to a nearby inlet. However, we wake up to an uncharged golf cart from a storm that zapped the houses fuse box. Luckily, I have plan B: a supportive Dad who is willing to drive his son and two friends at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday! Finally we arrived at the entrance of the path. The path meandered through a shrubby, maritime forest and with patches of prickly pear cacti that always get stuck in our shoes. We started our 2-mile hike down the beach and came across a large congregation of Sanderlings, mostly Dunlin, Short-billed Dowitchers, Black-bellied Plovers, and a Red Knot. The Red Knot was a lifer for the whole group and is a species known for concentrating in large numbers in the Delaware Bay to feed on horseshoe crab eggs during spring migration and winters father south. We made it to the inlet to meet large gusts, strong enough to burn your face. Next was a flock of American White Pelicans across the inlet and a flock of American Oystercatchers that just landed on the beach.
A noteworthy shorebird with a boldly, patterned plumage.
After the Oystercatchers flew off, we left the sheltered sand dunes and headed back down the beach to escape the strong gusts. Once the inlet trip was over and after lunch we went and explored a patch of beautiful Long-leaf Pine Forest for Red-cockaded woodpeckers or a Bachman's Sparrow.
Longleaf Pine savanna is a disappearing habitat that used to span across the southeast, only 4% of its historic range remains.
I've birded this patch of woods before and found a Red-cockaded woodpecker on Memorial day weekend. We followed a dirt road that meandered through the forest and followed it. As beautiful as it was, it quickly yielded no success. We ran into Brown-headed Nuthatches, Towhees, and a House Wren no new birds unfortunately.

After the pine forest, we drove in our golf cart to a roosting spot for Black-crowned Night Herons we saw last year. We pulled the golf cart to the side of the road, and as we walked towards the edge of the pond, two Eurasian Collared Doves, an introduced species of dove that has been expanding its range throughout the Southeast, flushed out of a tree. We then caught a glimpse of the Night Herons hunkered behind dense shrubs. The rest of the scouting day we picked out Mottled ducks and a Red-breasted Merganser from a pond. We came home to a pot of shrimp and grits and hit the haystack shortly after and set our alarms for 4:30 a.m. We had places to be and birds to see. Let's hope we have a "Big" day.