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The (Fort) Fisher King

January 8, 2008

While I certainly could be described as an avid lister and take most opportunities to add to whatever list needs adding to at the time, I suppose I would consider myself somewhat lasseiz-faire about the whole thing. I mean, if I miss a bird that I’m targeting sure I’m disappointed, but there’s always that voice in the back of my head that says, “You know? I’ll get it eventually”. Be it next month or next quadrennial, no bird will stay forever out of my grasp. It’s this sort of attitude that makes the misses I noted at the end of my last post acceptable and tolerable. No worries guys, I’ll catch you next time.

But this Big Year is a different animal all together. There’s a feeling in the back of my mind that if I miss it now, there will be no next time. I have 51 more weeks to nail down those little buggers, even less if they’re seasonal visitors. If I can’t get it early in the year I’ll be scrambling in November trying to catch up. So the “come what may” attitude I usually embody in my everyday birding is replaced by the single-minded obsession to dig out very specific birds. With that in mind, I intend to hold North Carolina up by its ankles and shake every last little dicky bird I can out of its pockets. I’m the bully, Carolina’s the nerd. So let’s see what you got, Poindexter.

The old Civil War era Fort Fisher south of Wilmington is known for its marshes that have historically been very good for rails and sparrows. I arrived there around 9:00am as the tide was receding and walked out a long stone groin that bisects two of these marshy areas. I was quickly distracted in my sparrow quest though, by the sight of several hundred shorebirds further out on the stone jetty. Because it was early on a weekday the fisherman who usually cover the rocks were gone, replaced thankfully by American Oystercatchers, Marbled Godwits, Dunlin, Ruddy Turnstones, and Short-billed Dowitchers. Even though the Oystercatchers wouldn’t shut up, they allowed for pretty close approach. Apparently they figured that if they could see me, I wasn’t a threat, and honestly I wasn’t. I nearly went down on the slippery rocks a couple times, the shorebirds had nothing to worry about. The Dunlin even got within five feet of me at times which was very cool. Photos of varying quality follow, the camera’s battery eventually went dead on me sadly (my fault for not recharging after Sunday) but you can find the birds in there pretty well. I’ll catch you after, there’s more to the story…

So I left the shorebirds and headed back towards the aforementioned marshes. I was looking specifically for either (preferably both) of the Sharp-tailed Sparrows. Ammodramus’ are fun for me and I’ve always missed the Sharp-tails in the past here. I hoped that had more to do with that fact that I tend to give the Fort Fisher area the short shrift in favor of Wrightsville Beach when I’m down there. I came here first because I wanted to work on these birds. It was low tide, I had waterproof shoes, so into the marshes I went.

It’s somewhat overwhelming to be looking solo for a four inch bird in several acres of marsh. I just hoped to be lucky. To top it off, it was hot, 71(!?!?!) degrees in January, I was sweating. I could hear birds in the grasses, tiny metallic chips that taunted me but also provided some sort of pattern to my swamp stomp. At some point I just decided to pish, why not? Up popped an angry Seaside Sparrow. Not bad, a handsome dark bird with a giant schnoz of a bill. Right genus and all, but no cigar.

After over an hour with only that single Seaside Sparrow to show for, I was ready to call uncle. I was hot, hungry, tired of walking in the mud, and frustrated that the Sharpies had once again eluded me. I decided to give one more shot to that original smallish patch of marsh grass that I had checked very first thing, even before the shorebirds. I walked into the grasses in a haphazard way (to keep em off guard you know?) when suddenly two chicken sized birds rocketed out of the grass next to me. Clapper Rails! Lifer! Nice! Maybe this was worthwhile after all. I followed the closest chip and a palish sparrow flushed into the taller grass. It was a remarkably similar experience to my recent Le Conte’s Sparrow search, a good sign. Unfortunately I didn’t have three other people to surround it and get it up on the grass this time. I headed towards the tall grass to give it a shot, maybe use the water as a second person. Suddenly…. my phone rang.

It was my wife to let me know something funny she had heard. I told her about the Clapper Rails, she said congrats on the lifer and then a little sparrow flew to the top of a clump of grass. Uh… gotta go. The Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow sat for nearly a full minute surveying the surroundings. He turned around a couple times to show me the buffy breast, the gray median head stripe, the orange face. He chipped and disappeared into a particularly dense stand of marsh grass. Nailed it, I could move on.

The rest of the day was comparatively uneventful. I picked up several of the good birds of the area, missed a few others but not many I won’t be able to add in the next month or two on the Outer Banks. Saltmarsh ST Sparrow may end up being tough, but after the work I put in on the Nelson’s I was ready to give it another day. The most interesting experience came later in the afternoon came while I was scanning the ocean. There was very little wind so the Gannets and Red-throated Loons (hundreds of them) were relatively close to shore. I was particularly looking for White-winged Scoter when I spotted a tiny black and white bird among a loose group of Loons. Dovekie has been seen lately off the coast of North Carolina as far south as even the other Carolina (Brian Patterson took a photo last week off Hatteras that if I didn’t know any better I’d say the bird was sitting in his bathtub). I’m about 85% sure I had one yesterday, but when I moved up the beach to try and get better light, I couldn’t refind it. And subsequent stops at other beach access points failed as well. It will have to be the bird that got away. A frustrating way to end the day, but such are the birds. I’m looking at taking a pelagic in February. If this truly is a good year for Dovekie, I’ll have a good shot at it then.

See? I’ll just catch it next time.

One Comment
  1. Mike permalink
    January 9, 2008 10:08 am

    Sweet! This promises to be a entertaining year for those of us following along.

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