I realize, like any good American, that I’m supposed to spend the day after Thanksgiving at the local electronics superstore, standing in a line at 4 AM waiting for that great deal on a pair of iPhone earbuds or a camera memory card. But when the alarm went off at 3:45 AM the Friday after Thanksgiving I wasn’t hopping in the car to head to Circuit City (assuming those exist anymore), I was heading east. Way east. To experience the southern tip of the 2013 Snowy Owl-splosion.
It’s about 5 1/2 hours from Greensboro to Hatteras Island, a long twitch by any stretch of the imagination. But I was able to break up the monotonous drive by picking up a few companions along the way. In Chapel Hill I nabbed Mark Kosiewski and NC Big Year aspirant Ali Iyoob. An hour later in Rocky Mount it was Josh Sims and David Howell who jumped in the increasingly packed Prius to continue the journey. I realize road stories are fertile ground for a narrative, but the trip was pretty uneventful. We talked about eBird, about county listing, and other birds and other birders – the sorts of things birders always discuss on a twitch these days.
When we arrived at Hatteras Island, we rolled into the campground and walked over the dunes, barely even giving a cursory look to the generally productive Salt Pond to our left. We were men on a mission. And when we got to the spot, some other friends were already there. As rewarding as it is to find a rare bird on your own, there’s something refreshingly simple to walking up on a line of scopes all trained on the same white spot on the beach. Birds are rarely so easy, or so worth a 10+ hour round trip.
This is hardly the first Snowy Owl ever seen in North Carolina. There are a surprising number of records from the 50s and 60s, but the last one to grace our fair state was in 2001. With things getting generally warmer, it was considered to be a serious blocker. But with the recent Snowy irruptions in the west and midwest in the last years it has been on the radar for Carolina birders too. Cape Point is a good a place as any for one to occur, as they seem to prefer beaches this far south. It has been suggested that this is because beaches are the most tundra-esque landscape available to them down here, but I’m convinced it’s because this is the first point of land they came across when flying in off the ocean. With hundreds of Snowy Owls piling up on the coast of Newfoundland these days, it’s a practical certainty that a few of them head out over the sea. Once out there it’s not much more of a turn to the right before you hit NC, and at that point Hatteras, with its tasty rats, gulls, and rabbits, must look pretty inviting. These birds do well over the ocean, as one in Bermuda this week suggests.
Our increasingly large group of owl spotters enjoyed the view from about 200 meters away. The owl knew we were there, turning its head towards us periodically. We crept a bit closer behind the dunes until she got a little nervous and we backed off. All in all, it was a pretty great experience.
Because Cape Point is such an inaccessible beach we took the opportunity to explore a bit. The gull flock was present near the point itself, and close scrutiny failed to turn up anything but the regular four species and a lingering Royal Tern. Snow Buntings that had been reported in the area went unfound by us leaving our attempt to see all the “snow” birds in the area stillborn.
Oh well, it’s hard to complain about any day you see a Snowy Owl.
My Thanksgiving resolution is to attempt to be better about writing here. There have been times in the lifespan of this blog that I’ve had much to say having despite having not been birding much. Thing is, I’ve been birding quite a bit these days. Between days working from home, which usually open with a brief walk around some nearby hotspot, and days working for North Carolina State Parks at my new location, which just so happens to be a functioning state park with excellent birding opportunities, I have been rolling in county ticks.
100 in Guilford County was merely an appetizer. The last couple weeks have seen me blow by that milestone and push ever closer to 150. There is an outside chance I might hit it by the end of the year at the rate things are going. Guilford County is turning out to be hella birdy.
The aforementioned state park, Haw River, is just across the northern border in Rockingham County. My days working there usually start with a quick stroll around a short loop. Since I started there in September, I’ve pulled in 88 species, including some excellent fall warblering. It’s a shame that these won’t count for the new home county, but the Carolina Century Club numbers are increasing in leaps.
So I’ve turned my sights to surrounding counties as well, and the recent report of wintering ducks next door in Forsyth County had me slavering for that next century. I was sitting at 87 yesterday morning, and with a little luck I could leave this one in the dust as well. The site was Archie Elledge Water Treatment Plant, one of the most popular birding locations in Winston-Salem and, thankfully, one of those friendly facilities that is pretty open to birders coming in and poking around. I checked in at the front desk, received a key card emblazoned with the words “NATURE OBSERVER” and headed for the settling pools where all the waterfowl had been congregating.
First thing I saw was not ducks, but a flock of young Wild Turkey poking around on an island in the middle on the pool. Not an entirely expected find, particularly not far out of town, and an even less expected situation. But a county bird nonetheless, and one that could conceivably be tough to find. Maybe things are different this little bit farther west.
On to the ducks! The majority of the flock was Mallards, not unexpectedly, but a quick scan through found nearly all of the expected winter dabblers. American Wigeon, Gadwall, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, and a pair of Black Ducks all fell before my scoped eye, and all were added to my burgeoning county list. This was going to be easy.
A handful of perching birds were new species for the county as well, but not as many as I had expected. Though I came in needing 13 species to cross the century mark, I only ended up with 10 after a couple frustrating dips (Yellow-rumped Warbler? Really?). So I’ll have to return to Forsyth County at some point this winter to put me over the top, at which point I can concentrate on another neighboring county.
A couple other unrelated issues before I disappear for another week or so (though hopefully not). I was asked last month to serve on the North Carolina Bird Records Committee, so now I’m an officially licensed bird policeman for the state of North Carolina. I have some thoughts on what I feel are some pretty obviously needed reforms for the committee, but it’s probably in my best interest to not rick the boat to much for the first few months. In any case, this year I’ve managed to accomplish my two biggest North Carolina birding goals, to serve on the BRC and to be a spotter for Brian Patteson’s boats. Done and done!
Now the only thing left to do is to continue this county century quest. And then, profit?
I don’t know if it works that way…
Sure, it was only a matter of time, but that doesn’t make the actual accomplishment any less satisfying. Moving to a new part of the state was guaranteed to allow me to make real progress on my Carolina Century Club project, in which I attempt to pass the 100 species threshold in as many NC and SC counties as I can. After all, even though the number 100 holds some manner of symbolic value, any real birder knows that 100 in a given county is really nothing more than spending a certain amount of time in the field. With minimal effort you can probably do it in three trips, provided you do them in three different seasons.
I moved to Greensboro – in Guilford County – this summer with a bit over 50 species in the bag. I figured I’d get 100 by the end of the year. It turns out I underestimated myself; I had time to spare. Between the regular fall migrants and the recent arrival of wintering species I hit and passed the century mark at the end of October after a trip to Country Park, a site near my home I’d been trying out as a new patch (not gonna pan out, actually, but that’s a story for another time). I arrived with 98 species and a small flock of chittering passerines drew my attention soon after I got out of my car. I began to pick through them. 99 was Golden-crowned Kinglet. 100 was its Ruby-crowned cousin. It was just that easy.
Here’s another thing about 100 species in a county. That milestone species is almost never anything unexpected. For most counties, particularly in the east or those without an ocean-view, I’d consider 100 to be the minimum to consider it “well-birded”, for the reasons I alluded to above. You’ll either need to visit it multiple times over the year, or you’ll have covered it thoroughly in a short time*. 100, then, is par. Until you have 100, you’ve just been passing though.
*For instance, I recently returned from San Diego, California, which is easily the birdiest county in the country**. I racked up nearly 160 species in only four days, but we covered that county like a fitted sheet.
**You could make an argument for Los Angeles, but I’d still put money on San Diego just because there seems to be more resident birds, whereas LA’s nearly equivalent list consists of a greater percentage of vagrants.
I ended the morning with an additional 5 county birds putting me at 105. I’ve since upped it to 110. Like I said, most of these birds are winter residents. Nothing I’ve seen in the run-up to 100 and beyond has been particularly unusual and it probably won’t be till I hit 150 or so that things begin to slow down and I have to work a bit harder for it. 200 will be tougher though this is undoubtedly a county with the potential for 250+.
So that’s 8 counties now with 100+ species. Only 92 more to go.
Family specific guides are hot right now. And why not? The North American field guide in textual form has arguably reached its apex, and it seems there’s very little anyone can do to upset that paradigm in any significant way. Those that continue to wade into that saturated marketplace have to content with a species list rapidly closing in on 1000 once vagrants, splits, and exotics are added to the fold. As such, these books seem to get more massive with every edition, making the idea of a true “field” guide something of an anachronism anyway.
And so it seems that the only low-hanging fruit available in the 21st Century are these books that turn the other way, focusing solely on families, or multiple families of closely related birds. In the last few years we’ve seen guides to shorebirds, seabirds, sparrows, gulls, and several devoted to diurnal birds of prey. Each one free from the limitations of the rest of Canada and the United States’ avifauna, and taking advantage of all the new ideas about bird identification and, increasingly, a glut of full-sized, high-resolution, posterized images that show every field mark of every bird at every conceivable angle.
I don’t mean to make it sound as though any of this is unwelcome. These new offerings may be low-hanging fruit, but this fruit is delicious.
The most recent offering may be the most succulent yet. Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle’s superb The Warbler Guide fills a gap in the North American birder’s library that they may not have even realized was present. I’ve used the Jon Dunn and Kimball Garrett guide from Peterson for some time, and it doesn’t take anything away from that excellent guide to say that what Stephenson and Whittle have done here is a quantum leap forward in the field of putting together a group-specific guide.
Comprehensive barely begins to cover it. Not only are there the amazing photos, which we birders are increasingly spoiled for, but there are superb maps, separate ones showing spring and fall migration routes. There are bar charts that lay out migration timing. There are simple icons for every species that lay out in general terms pattern, undertail, range, posture, and location in vegetation. And there are vocalizations. My God. There are vocalizations.
The artwork, photography, and layout for this book is exceptional, but it is in including warbler songs and calls where The Warbler Guide truly shines. I’ve often wondered why few field guides grabbed on to what was, in my personal view, the killer feature of the old Chandler Robbins Golden Guides. This was, of course, the inclusion of spectrographs for selected bird vocalizations. For anyone who can read music, and a great number of those with an intuitive eye for pitch, this was revelatory. Broader awareness and interest in of bird songs and calls have always been held back by the fact that textual descriptions of bird vocalizations are inherently objective and often subject to the individual human variation in auditory ability. I find them often frustrating and more than occasionally useless. Alternately, one of the first bird vocals I learned, and one of the first birds I identified on my own, was White-eyed Vireo, largely due to Robbins’ inclusion of spectrographs. They’ve always made sense to me. I “saw” the sound, and I was instantly on the right track.
In one of the more exciting aspects of the guide, Stephenson and Whittle have thankfully resurrected the spectrograph and used it liberally throughout. In flipping through this book, I took great pleasure in “reading” the vocals of birds I knew, studying those with which I annually have trouble with, and imagining the songs of birds for which I have no experience. Even more, the authors have included extensive vocalizations of contact and flight calls, as well as common non-warbler confusion species. There is scarcely a sound made by a warbler that isn’t included in this book, and we’re all so much the better for it.
And because it’s nice to have the actual audio too, all the vocalizations in the book are available from the Macauley Library for $5.99. That’s a pretty sweet deal for those who prefer to learn through their ears rather than their eyes.
If I have any complaints about this book, it’s that there’s so much information that the layout seems a bit crowded at times. I wish some of the small blocks of images, packed three across at about 2″ wide, were larger, but I understand that this likely means a larger book or fewer photos, so it’s a tradeoff that was clearly considered. The pages of spectrographs are a bit difficult at times, but the editor has done a fine job mixing the font size and style to prevent them from being too eye-crossing. But that’s really it, this is a remarkably well put together book.
And all this without going too much in detail into the myriad little features that make this book so fantastic. There are the beautifully laid out Quick Finders (including the undertail plate which is, dare I say it, much better than its also very good equivalent in the Dunn/Garrett guide). There are the cool little ovals for every species that break the plumages into broad component colors. There are the little reminder phrases for each species – Common Yellowthroat is “Only in Wichita do common folk wear yellow bows on their throats” – that deftly straddle the line between cute and useful. This is a truly great book. And more, it’s a truly fun book. Comprehensive without being overwhelming.
I don’t know how many more of these family-specific guides will vie for a spot on our groaning bookshelves. I can probably come up with a few families that could use the treatment before the genre becomes stretched to the breaking point. But if The Warbler Guide is indicative of the kind of book we’ll continue to see, I don’t mind picking this crop of low-hanging fruit completely clean.
Thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy.