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The Black Hole of Birding

January 17, 2012
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Inspired by a recent message from the folks at eBird encouraging birders to get out and do some mid-winter birding in some counties where there are some gaps in the data, I decided to throw caution to the wind and head to the eBird frontier.  My destinations were the twin counties of Caswell and Person, north of the triangle only 30 miles or so, but the point at which eBird data collection drops off a cliff.  There were possibilities there.  Possibilities of good birds, unknown hotspots, eBird top 100 championships and the fame and fortune that comes along with that.  Or there might be a dearth of data for these counties for a good reason.  Neither of the counties had any eBird hotspots, though a little searching produced a couple locales that birders have visited before, if not in the very recent past.  Besides, the birding around here is pretty slow this time of year, even the regular birds would be new.  What did I have to lose?

It's the white one in the middle north

Nothing but time, apparently.  The first stop was Caswell Game Land in Caswell County where I found the 25 or so species you’d expect to find just about anywhere in the southeast United States in the winter.  The so-called “Wildlife Road” was mostly quiet pine-hardwood forest with a couple logged over grassy areas where I found sparrows, including a Fox, which was a nice surprise.  Despite the fact that I was less than an hour from home, I quickly found myself out of cell phone range so my plan to follow my iPhone’s map function to find little ponds and marshes was a bust.  So out came the DeLorme map which led me, well, back to the highway, but not before a stop at a fishing pond netted me a Pied-billed Grebe and a Swamp Sparrow for my burgeoning county list.

I was intrigued, the whole time I was up this way, by a massive swath of blue over by the Person County line.  We all know that open water in the winter is the key to a good day list, and I had hoped that a little lake action was just what I needed to pull in some serious numbers. You know, like 35.  It was labeled Hyco Lake, and I saw no reason why it wouldn’t be the centerpiece of this impressively average day in the field.  The back parts of the lake, however, were surprisingly bereft of life.  A single Pied-billed Grebe at the first, a couple crows at the second.  No gulls, no herons, no ducks of any kind.  There was no apparent reason for this until I got closer to the main part of the lake and saw, towering over me, the largest power plant I had ever seen.

Not my photo, but this is what the Roxboro Plant looks like

It was truly massive, with twoenormous (and I later learned, 800 foot tall) smokestacks belching the effluent of West Virginia’s finest into the cold, blue winter sky.  It turned out, once I’d returned home and done a little research, that this plant, officially called the Progress Energy Roxboro Steam Electric Plant, is the 10th largest coal-fired power plant in the United States, and one of the dirtiest, with a laundry list of broken regulations and a Wilt Chamberlain sized carbon footprint.  In fact, the entire lake was created specifically to be a cooling reservoir for this power plant.  Whether or not that had anything to do with the absence of birdlife, I don’t know, but I’d be surprised if didn’t.

I ended with a total of 27 species for Caswell County, and a whopping 16 for Person, and a total of 8 eBird checklists between them.  As I said before, it was amazingly average.  However, one of the nice little side effects of birding an under covered county is that, even among those 16 species, I had 5 “county firsts”, including such hard to find species as House Finch, Ring-billed Gull, and Red-tailed Hawk.  Truly, I’ve contributed crucial data to the scientific community.

Thank you, eBird.

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7 Comments
  1. January 17, 2012 7:37 am

    I know the feeling. I work in a under-birded county and it is tough to find places that simply have no data yet worthwhile birds. Still fun though.

  2. Joshua Phillips permalink
    January 17, 2012 10:49 am

    It’s funny you mention this- I almost emailed you to inquire about good places to bird in Alamance and Caswell Counties. I recently visited some family in the Pleasant Grove area and stopped into that same fishing pond. That’s a pretty good spot! There were geese, a heron, and a grebe, along with the typical assortment of winter passerines and woodpeckers.

  3. January 17, 2012 11:38 am

    You are true eBirder! Nice work.

  4. Eddie Owens permalink
    January 18, 2012 1:59 pm

    There must be interesting birds in these counties. It’s just that we don’t know where to look. Google Earth helps for locating interesting habitat but privately held land is inaccessible. Efforts to discover hot spots will be largely unrewarding until you lucked up and found one.

  5. January 19, 2012 4:18 pm

    We should all be checking out more underbirded areas like this and submitting the data to eBird.

  6. January 19, 2012 9:23 pm

    Cool Nate!… I had been thinking about doing something like this, but never actually taken the time to get out to Person and bird.

    I have a friend who has swam in Hyco Lake (parts of which are quite warm from cooling the plant). I don’t think the lack of birds is necessarily a sign of pollution. Falls Lake was pretty devoid of bird life last time I checked (not that it’s exactly a pristine body!).

  7. Nate permalink*
    January 19, 2012 11:03 pm

    @Derek- Too true, the thought that, even though the day was pretty normal, I was still accomplishing something, kept me going.

    @Joshua- I would have sent you to Caswell Game Lands, or Cedarock Park in Alamance County, which I think has a lot of potential. You had more luck than I did at that pond!

    @Robert- Coming from you, that means a lot!

    @Eddie- I agree, there almost has to be some productive spots in there. But it requires a lot of time and effort to turn them up, and since it’s a long drive, i don’t know if I’m the person for it. But I will go back in the spring, I think. Things should be better then.

    @Chatterbirds- Indeed!

    @Scott- Yeah, I didn’t think the plant would have that much of a direct impact, but there’s something up there. I saw two grebes, one gull (ring-billed) and zero cormorants. Seems like those, at least, are always present at Falls or, especially, Jordan. Maybe we’re just super lucky in the triangle.

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