Way back when I used to update this blog somewhat regularly I may have mentioned that I’m doing some work for North Carolina State Parks. Before I moved to Greensboro this work was done from the downtown Raleigh offices which, proximity to the wonderful Museum of Natural Sciences aside, was a fairly conventional place to work. But now that I’ve moved, I’ve taken my assignment west to one of North Carolina’s fine state parks, Haw River State Park in southern Rockingham County. This means that every day I work there, I get to spend a little time walking the trails and looking for birds. It turns out that Haw River State Park is a pretty great hotspot. In the 4 months that I’ve been working out of there I’ve seen 90 species. My only grievance is the fact that all of these birds count for Rockingham County and not my new home county.
I should probably write about all that at some point. It’s all well and good, but this past week working in Rockingham County turned out to be pretty convenient when a quartet of Sandhill Cranes were reported not more than 15 minutes from where I was sitting. It took me about two minutes to make the executive decision to take a long lunch and shoot out the door.
A short time later I had pulled off the side of a rural route staring out the window into a corn field where the cranes were lounging. Sandhill Cranes not uncommon in North Carolina, but they can be hard to predict and nearly impossible to twitch. Large numbers of the birds winter over the border in eastern Tennessee and the few annual offshoots that find their way into rural North Carolina probably end up mostly in places that birders are unlikely to find them. Away from major population centers and hotspots. To find one you either have to get lucky and stumble into it, or get on a quick chase. I hadn’t ever been fortunate to manage the first.
Because I was not geared up for birding, my camera was sitting at home. I did have my phone, however, and I was able to snap off a few photos through my binoculars. No great shakes, as they say, but sufficient for documentation at least.
With that overdue but unexpected state tick, I’ve managed a total of 7 for the year. My pretty productive 2013 is coming to an end one bird closer to 350 than I expected, my new goal for the near-term.
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.