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Loony Tunes

March 18, 2008

With winter getting run out of the game faster then a bidirectional school in an ACC gym. And the clock is winding down on the winter birds I still need for the year, I have time for one last halfcourt fade-away jumper before the iron clangs on the end of the season. Too many basketball metaphors? Sorry, March Madness and all…

Yesterday I picked up and tried my second shot this year at Fort Fisher and Wrightsville Beach. The first trip was largely successful, but I missed some important birds, going only 1 for 2 on Sharp-tailed Sparrows and dipping completely on sea ducks. So bright and kinda early I arrived ready to could kick up some new birds.

I stepped out of the car and was greeted by new arrivals. No, not Saltmarsh Sparrows, but something a bit easier to come by. Laughing Gulls, already black-hooded in their finest summer regalia immediately flew over to see if I had some tasty morsels to throw their way. I did not, and the birds, quickly realizing my worth to them, settled back on the docks with some American Oystercatchers and Marbled Godwits. I set out into the marsh, realizing quickly that the recent rains, while not drought-busting, had been enough to saturate the swamp. It was tough going and I realized how lucky I was two months ago, not only with regards to weather, but also with regards to birds. My stomping was to no avail, no rails and no sparrows save a couple Savannahs.

Next I checked the marshes behind the menacing Fort Fisher (menacing in the way a only a Civil War era fort can be, which is, of course, as menacing as a mound of dirt). The myrtle trees that surround the maintenance building for the fort were appropriately filled with Myrtle (Yellow-rumped) Warblers. It was here I heard an odd sparrow like song coming from an especially thick clump of marsh grass. I crept closer as the soft rattly song continued. I’m not familiar with the songs of the Ammodramus sparrows, but this sounded good for one, and the habitat certainly fit. As I walked onto the boardwalk, however, the song abruptly stopped. I wasn’t going to let a potential Saltmarsh Sparrow get away, so when I walked to the end and back and the bird had still not vocalized again, I sat down to wait.

It wasn’t all bad. I sat at the spot, watching the Myrtle Warblers in the trees, picking up a pair of my first Barn Swallows of the year over the marsh, cleaning the sand out of my shoes, and waiting waiting for the mystery bird to sing again. 45 minutes passed with not a peep from the reeds, and eventually I had to move on, missing my potential lifer and year bird. (Flash forward to home when I played my bird song tapes, turns out it was a Seaside Sparrow so no worries about missing it…)

So the Fort Fisher leg of the trip was largely a dud, it was time to check out Wrightsville Beach. After a short jaunt north I walked out to the beach on the south end of the island where almost immediately I spotted a lone cormorant sitting atop a sign post near the rocky pier. I was struck by the stocky square-headed impression of the bird and put my scope on it.

The wind was blowing hard and while the bird was facing into the wind its head was turned 180 degrees towards its back. It wasn’t very cooperative, but when it turned towards me and flashed that big white cheek patch I knew I had something good. Not a Double-crested Cormorant this (which at best is only pretty good), but a Great Cormorant. I had been scanning the big flocks of Double-crests all day looking for something different in their midst, I should have known that the Great would be alone (with clear knowledge of its greatness) in the very spot I’d seen one two years ago. Bar none, the best bird of the day, and likely the only one of its kind I’ll see this year.

Bouyed with the Cormorant sighting (and not only because it was on a bouy) I decided to check the inlet for anything else interesting. There were several flocks of Bonaparte’s Gulls, some showing traces of a dark head, but no Littles. But the inlet was full of loons, both Red-throated and Common, many of them close to shore. So I got some photos, like the one below of a winter Red-throat.

As a birder in the south I’ve come to grips with the fact that I’m never going to see certain birds unless I travel north. Birds like Irrupting winter finches and owls are likely out of the question for me. I figured I’d never see a Common Loon, for instance, in breeding plumage unless I headed north like some sort of birding carpetbagger. But I found a bird on the sound side of Wrightsville Island that is likely as close as I’m going to get. Get ready, you guys up north, this is what you’ll have in your neck of the woods very soon…

On the north end of the island, where I usually find interesting shorebirds, I ran into a large flock of Semipalmated Plovers, Least Sandpipers, and Dunlin. I decided to walk out on the beach for a shot of Piping Plovers. However, as I hit the sand I noticed ahead of me a couple letting a pair of dogs run the beach off their leashes, so my chances for Piping Plover just went right out the window. Some Sanderling and Willets fed in the surf, though, and provided an appropriate bookend to the shorebirds I saw when I first arrived. I decided to head home.

So three new birds for the year, one of which was a good one I’ll be unlikely to get again. Saltmarsh Sparrow and White-winged Scoter still elude me though, birds to aim for when the weather turns cold again. Oh well, I’m more than ready for the spring anyway.

One Comment
  1. Greg permalink
    March 18, 2008 9:57 am

    Nice photos! I wish I’d been with you.

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