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Off and Running, kind of

January 7, 2008

Yesterday was the first day off of the year for me without obligation. There were still some good NC birds in the triangle area so I might as well stay close to home to get them. First stop was Jordan Lake to nab a pair of Eared Grebes that had been reported near the end of the last year. Will they still be around? Man, I hope so…

The best place to start on Jordan Lake is Ebeneezer Point, from which you can get an excellent view of the heart of the lake. That, and this was where the birds had been seen last. There was practically zero wind coming off the lake, which was very weird, and made the surface flat and glassy. This is apparently a good situation for boaters and fishermen (I don’t do either so I really don’t know for sure), but they become important later on. Anyway, practically all the gulls were on the water which made for many many swimming bird from which to scope, good and bad I guess. None of them were grebes though, which was very odd. It was mostly Ring-billed and Bonaparte’s Gulls (though I did spot a couple 1st cycle Herrings earlier that morning) and lots and lots of Double-crested Cormorants.

After scoping the entire 270 degree lake front I was beginning to get frustrated. Not only had I not seen any Eared Grebes, there weren’t even any Horns or Pied-billed. I went back over the lake again to make sure I hadn’t missed anything when I spotted what appeared to be a Horned Grebe on the far side of the lake. Success! Kind of. The Ears were supposed to be hanging out with Horned Grebes so if I could just find the Horns, maybe I’d get the Ears too. The birds were out there. I’m rather good at approximating distances so I’d say they were more or less “way the hell” away from me. I needed to get to another lake access point, and I spotted one with my scope close to where the birds were, now I just had to get there.

For Hannukah this year, I got my chronically directionally challenged wife a GPS gadget that tells you what route to drive to given destinations. It also shows current maps of wherever you happen to be, very useful. I had, um, “borrowed” it this morning and following the purple line and soothing voice, I found Vista Point, which is close to where I had originally spotted the grebes. They were still there, thankfully, but no matter how often I scanned the 40 or so Horns present, not one magically turned into a Ear. Drat. There was a Common Loon quite close to shore though.

In the time I was there, the Grebe flock began moving away from me towards another access point. Why not try it? So I began my last ditch effort to find the missing Eared Grebes at Seaforth point. I walked through the woods to the very tip of the point to scan the water, noting with interest a few scattered grebe rafts when a boat flew past out of nowhere and put all my birds in the air, leaving me with a pair of Bonaparte’s Gulls, which are most definitely not Eared Grebes. What’s interesting is that the driver (pilot? captain?) noticed me on the shore and waved, a nice gesture I guess. I fought the urge to let him know he was #1 in my book, if you catch my drift. Oh well, back to the car.

On the way out I ended up spotting an out of season Black-and-White Warbler foraging along the bank. Certainly a bird I would see later in the year anyway, but the unexpectedness of it was nice given my abject failure on the Eared Grebes. The light was quite good and I tried to take a couple photos. Those suckers are tough to catch, especially using the “holding the camera up to the scope and praying” mode of digiscoping. These two pictures represent my best attempts. The bird finally stopped, giving me time to take the second one, but as its not doing anything and obscured by the branch, well, not so great, but fun to try.

I wanted to make a stop at a local landfill to try to find the Iceland Gull (Kumlien’s type), that had been seen at the Falls Lake Bird Count, but I guess I’m still not used to this birding on Sundays thing as I found the landfill closed. I hope it sticks around for another week so I have an opportunity to find it on a Monday, but given my luck chasing rarities that might be a tall order indeed.

Which is a point to bring up in closing. I am probably the worst rarity chaser in the world. I don’t think I’ve ever actually gotten a staked out bird, with the possible exception of my recent Red-necked Grebe. In the last year I’ve missed a Say’s Phoebe in Goldsboro (stood in the rain for 5 hours!), a Black-headed Gull at Lake Mattamuskeet (he’s back this year so I might get it yet), Eurasian Wigeon at Pea Island NWR (supposed to be a gimme!), Ross’ Goose in Greensboro and Pocosin Lakes, Northern Shrike in Missouri, and countless other less notable birds. My track record is horrible. So why do I think I can do an NC Big Year? Who knows, it may just kill me. I’m heading to Wilmington today for some seabirds and about my 5th time looking for Sharp-tailed Sparrows at Fort Fisher. Wish me luck, I’ll probably need it.

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