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Sweet Home Chapel Hill

January 28, 2008

Before this year I’d never done a serious Big Year, or even a non-serious one. After three straight weeks of pretty intense birding and even more intense driving (with the accompanying guilt from money spent on gas) I decided I needed to take a week or two off. I’m taking a chance somewhat with this strategy, running the risk that the Mottled Ducks down at Sunset Beach and the Calliope Hummingbird over near Charlotte won’t stick around. I suspect they will, ducks and hummers are sedentary types, but more than that I hope they will, they’re both excellent birds and the hummingbird, in particular, would be a lifer. But I was feeling run-down and needed some time at home to recharge the batteries before a push in February that would take me out to Lake Mattamuskeet and on a Hatteras pelagic in consecutive weeks.

Still sticking close to home has it’s own advantages, not least of which is making it clear to my dear wife, who allows me this ambitious undertaking, that I’m not a complete nutjob, but only halfway there at most. There were also a few birds that I could still add around here, and I headed off Sunday morning to the old standby, Mason Farm, to see if I could dig them out.

While I tried to time my arrival to coincide with the warmth of the first rays of the sun after what had been a chilly night, I missed and got there a bit early. The birds were still sluggish and everything was covered in a thin layer of frost. I was looking specifically for Fox Sparrow, a bird I have had some trouble finding in the past. I’d seen them occasionally at Mason Farm before but they’re hardly regular and it would be a great bird to get close to home without having to travel further west later in the year. With this in mind I began picking through the seeming hundreds of White-throated Sparrows that blanketed the ground underneath the bushes lining the trail. The air was thick with the sound of birds scratching through leaves, but every bird I put glass on turned out to be either a White-throat or a Towhee.

It wasn’t until I turned down a side trail that I usually ignore that I spotted a much larger bird about 20 feet up a tulip tree. It was big and as it was facing away from me I originally wrote it off as Brown Thrasher due to the longish tail (appearing foreshortened) and the heavy streaking on the sides. I went back to working through the White-throats when I decided to give this bird, still perched above me, a second look. It was then that it turned its head. In my defense, it had been a while since I’d seen a Fox Sparrow and I’m always kind of amazed at how big they really seem. Just goes to show that you can’t take anything for granted when you’re looking for a particular bird, I learned that lesson again nearly to my detriment.

The rest of the morning was not particularly special. I again came across the Red-headed Woodpecker family group I usually see here, new birds for the year though. I had at least six separate juvenile birds so they must have had a very good year. The lower, wetter back of the park contained several Swamp Sparrows, like it usually does, but also a few Field Sparrows, which I was surprised to note I hadn’t had anywhere else this year (or at least, I had forgotten to record them).

I did come across a sort of woodpecker turf war before I left, however. A second group of Red-heads were actively calling along with some Northern Flickers. I didn’t know what the cause of the issue was at first, I was hoping for a sleeping owl or something similar. Turned out it was a dispute over a large dead tree, probably used as a larder by the Red-heads but raided by the Flickers. It was a fierce, and especially loud, battle. The Red-heads looked to drive off the Flickers mostly with their superior numbers and eventually succeeded for the time being, it was cool to watch.

But I ended with three new birds for the year practically just around the corner from the house. Can’t beat that.


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