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Return of the Swamp Thing: pt 1

May 13, 2008
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There are certain birds that, for lack of a better term, can be considered “birder’s birds”. They may reach this distinction for a few different reasons. They may be common, but difficult to identify. The sort of birds that require close study to distinguish from one or more similar species, like Empidonax flycatchers in North America or Phylloscopus warblers in Europe or everyone’s favorite, the gulls. They may be severely range restricted and require great effort to see. Or they might be wide ranging, but typically difficult to find, either by virtue of a secretive nature or cryptic coloration or, often times, both. The common denominator for all these species is work. The amount of time, spent in identification, or travel, or stakeout, that one must put in in order to have the right, some might say honor, to list a given bird. Some birds are well-known as real “birder’s birds”. Yesterday I went to get one.

The Roanoke River bisects the North Carolina/Virginia line until it dips down to the sea at the Albermarle Sound. This time of year the river is best known for the Striper run. The Striped Rockfish are an important fishery in this part of the country. They’re life cycle is similar to the more famous salmon, who run up the rivers to spawn after spending their whole adult life at sea. The Roanoke River used to be full of rockfish this time of year. Numbers are down, but it’s still a large enough population to support the fishermen who make the trip to the little town of Weldon. I started at the boat ramp with them, but we were there for different things.


I was following the old canal trail along the river, or at least, what I thought was the canal trail and right off the bat I was inundated with singing birds. At least three male Blackpoll Warblers sang adamantly from the trees by the river, and a Magnolia hopped around the thickets. Vireos were even better represented. Along with the abundant Red and White-eyed varieties, I found a Warbling Vireo, whose swirly song belied its plainish plumage. And to top it off, Bank Swallows coursed over the water, closing the book on regular North Carolina swallows for the year (now if I can just pick up the Caves that show up on the coast in the fall…).

I began to wonder if I was on the right trail when the path began to narrow and the underbrush began to close in overhead. I had looked at the map, I thought I was going the right way, I knew I was going the right direction at least. And the thicker the underbrush, the better habitat for my target bird, so I pressed on. Until I reached a swamp in an arm of the river that had no way to cross. That can’t be right. Time for a little bush-whacking, and not the political sort. I managed to turn up on some train tracks that I followed to a sewage treatment plant (sounds great right?) where it appears the trail started up again. It dropped down towards the river, lush and green and not looking particularly manicured. I had avoided the copious amounts of Poison Ivy on the earlier parts of the trail. I don’t usually get the stuff, but better safe than sorry. On this little bit I realized I had gotten myself into something worse. My legs began to tingle, then burn. I had walked right into the middle of a batch of stinging nettle.

It was about this point I began to get frustrated. I had lost the trail. I would have to re-cross the nettle patch to get out. My ankle, injured last week in the mountains, was still tender. I don’t presume to know who is in charge or apportioning birding karma in the universe, but at this point I felt like I was in some serious debt. I had no choice but to put my head down, cross that nettle patch and reorient myself. There were still birds to see, and good ones too. Big Years are not for the faint of heart. Are you listening Gods of Birding? I expect some karmic retribution!

Will N8 find his way back to the trail?
Will the target bird finally show itself?
Will the Gods of Birding hear his plaintive cry?

Come back tomorrow. Same bird time, same bird station…

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One Comment
  1. Jochen permalink
    May 14, 2008 3:35 am

    Feed the Hungry!

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