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The Sparrowing Fields

February 21, 2011
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My parents are in town for a couple months, to visit with the baby birder himself while my dad takes a substitute teaching gig in nearby Hillsborough. This means that much of my birding will be in tandem going into the next couple months, which is great for me, as a second pair of eyes makes it more likely that I’ll pick up birds for my Triangle Big Year, it’s just a shame that February and March are the slowest time of year around here. Ironically, for the Big year birder, this slow time of year is a stressful one. The winter birds are moving, and those few species I’ve missed become more difficult as the weather starts to warm and winter starts to ease. For me, the last few weeks of winter are spent trying to find raptors, namely the mysterious and weirdly elusive Sharp-shinned Hawk and the locally uncommon Northern Harrier, and waterfowl, especially the three regularly occurring species I’ve thus far missed, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, and Northern Pintail.

The place for these, in my mind, was the Butner Gamelands in northern Durham County on the far reaches of Falls Lake. The gamelands are vast expanses of waterfowl impoundments and a mix of thick scrub and pasture managed for Turkey and Quail. It’s all public lands, but generally crawling with hunters six days a week. Thankfully, North Carolina has a ban on Sunday hunting, and while I think the reasoning for the law is archaic and probably even unconstitutional – it’s one of the old Blue Laws that prohibit various activities on Sundays for religious reasons – but it’s nice to have one day during the weekend to bird on gamelands where you don’t have to worry about whether you wore bright enough colors or whether the birds will be scattered to the four winds. Butner Gamelands is definitely one of those place you visit on a Sunday.

It’s also a hot spot for Sparrows, with acres of brushy lowlands. I had my eye out for anything unusual, but that meant picking through dozens of Song Sparrows, easily the most abundant species we had all day.

Most of the Songers were the melodia ssp that breed here, but it was clear that there were others too. Even since I started paying attention to the differences among the Song Sparrows at my own feeder, I’ve been seeing variety everywhere. The variation makes it difficult for the birder looking to pull a Lincoln’s or a Vesper Sparrow out of the masses, an endeavor I failed at, but finding rare birds shouldn’t be so easy.

Field Sparrows were common too. They’re still one of my favorites, though. Easily the cutest sparrows with wide-eyed expressions and pink bills and we got our fill, including some singing individuals.

Best bird of the morning, and a testimony to the added benefit of a second birder, was the American Woodcock my dad flushed from a row of old corn stalks. The bird circled us before settling in a particularly dense stand of brush. Not only a new bird for the year, the second of the weekend after a Hairy Woodpecker on Saturday, but one I thought I’d have to make a special trip for. It was also a new county bird for Durham County, number 162.

The area in the gamelands has plenty of dead snags in the flooded forests, which naturally makes for good woodpeckers. The pair of Pileateds were nice – any day with a Pileated is a good one – but I was partial to the Red-headed Woodpecker than camped out not more than 30 feet away. Truly this bird is the epitome of economy of color, three shades in big flashy blocks. Definitely one of the nicest birds in North America. I realize this makes two weeks in a row I’ve had Red-headed Woocpecker photos on my blog, but when one tees up in front of you how can you insult it by failing to take it’s photo?

The day ended with just over 50 species, not too shabby for a February morning. One new county bird and two new species for the year. Still no Sharp-shinned Hawk though. I have a bad feeling that one is going to keep me waiting until the next fall…

97 down, 119 to go.

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One Comment
  1. February 22, 2011 4:12 pm

    Though it started as a blue law, the ban on Sunday hunting could probably still be justified on nonreligious grounds, namely giving both hunters and non-hunters access to public lands throughout the year. Non-hunters help fund the purchase and maintenance of public lands through their tax money, so they should be able to use it.

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