The mountains, they call to me. Or perhaps to clarify, the birds there, especially the ones I’ve yet to pick up on this Big Year quest, call to me. Or perhaps to clarify even that, the birds taunt me. They stick their primaries in their ear holes and loose their tongues from their beaks, a collective jeer. Every warbled song is a raspberry to me, every chip a Bronx cheer. These birds are real jerks, I tell ya.
So, another trip west, this time to the far northwest of that state, a place I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting, near Boone, NC, just a stone’s throw from the the Tennessee border, but only if you have a heck of an arm. Those sports fans in the crowd may known Boone as the home of little Appalachian State University, whose Division II football Davids slew #1 ranked Michigan’s Goliath last year. Needless to say, it’s a tiny enclave of football fanaticism in a state that otherwise worships at the great altar of ACC basketball.
But it wasn’t for football that I was in town, it was for another somewhat ostracized group that, too, can only be found in this tiny corner of Appalachia. I was looking for a few “spur” birds. Those birds whose need for northern forests typically puts them out of reach in the summer, except for those altitude assisted acres that run a thin line along the eastern continental divide, a spur deep into the south. The locals call this area North Carolina’s “High Country”, we’ll see if the birds agree.
I had a hit list, and not only that, locations for each of my targets. Becky, my manager at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences bird lab had helped lead a museum birding trip to this very area in late May, an altogether better time of year to be looking for birds than late July, but beggers and choosers and all. She gave me rather specific directions to spots where they had found success for, among others, Cerulean and Golden-winged Warblers, and a few of my still missing Empids. All easily found, no doubt, because they were busy loudly vocalizing. I wasn’t going to be so lucky.
To keep it short, the warblers were a bust. The only warblers I heard vocalize the entire day, at all the places I stopped at, were Common Yellowthroat (lots) and Yellow Warblers (few). I did see many Black-throated Greens, many Chestnut-sides, a couple Canadas, and an Ovenbird, so it wasn’t that the warblers weren’t there. But finding them was entirely a matter of luck, as they weren’t vocalizing much at all. What birds I managed to get glass on were looking really worn, especially the BT Greens and Chessies. In fact, many of the second were looking like entirely basic plumaged birds with just remnants of yellow caps, slowly receding.
One target bird I hoped to have better luck with was Vesper Sparrow, which apparently nest in the high elevation livestock fields. But I had to work a bit. I pulled up to the field, a heavily grazed pasture with sporadic locust bushes, precisely where Becky had directed me, and began scoping for Vespers. I was certain I had a bird vocalizing, but when I got the scope on it, I found the bird below…
Definitely not a Vesper, but a ratty Song Sparrow doing a phenomenal Vesper impersonation. As I listened I noted the beginning of the song was a weak approximation of a Song Sparrow, easily missed when he got to the end, which had the same springy echo-y resonance of Vesper rather than the comparatively abrupt end of a Song, er, song. It was close enough for me to think I had my bird for sure, and somewhat frustrating.
I scanned for what seemed like another half hour before packing up and putting the scope back in the car when I heard a different chip, and turned to find a Vesper Sparrow sitting larger than life on a fence post. I was suddenly surrounded by pale sparrows picking up and flashing that white-outer tail all over the place (apparently they did breed this year, and did well). One of them aimed right for the usurper Song Sparrow and chased him off the perch, taking the spot instead and sitting while I unpacked my scope and got some poor, but diagnostic photos. One below.
One bird down, it was time to head to Valle Crucis, where a city park was supposed to hold my missing Empids, as all eastern varieties have nested here except the boreal Yellow-bellied. When I pulled in I wondered where these birds would be, the park was a bit too well manicured, with many picnicking families and an asphalt walkway running around the perimeter. I soon found the secret, inside the park were both a good sized pond and a clear running stream. Water, both still and running, means lots of flying insects which flocked to me as I began walking around. Fortuntely, they weren’t the biting kind, but the swarming kind, and they quickly found my eyes and mouth, which was a bit obnoxious.
On the back side of the pond I found a Least Flycatcher, which thankfully is the one Empid I feel comfortable IDing sans voice, cause this little guy was silent, but small-billed and big-eyed. The most active flycatching birds were the Cedar Waxwings, though, which were very active and in good sized flocks, a small sign of colder weather ahead, but little else as I was entering the bird doldrums of mid-afternoon. It was as I made one last circuit around the pond that I spotted my prize. A bigger flycatcher, plainer, square-headed, no obvious eye-ring. I had my Traill’s, but like the Least, it was quiet. I figured I had either a Willow, a bird I already had this year but good nonetheless, or Alder, a year and life bird. So I found a rock I could sit on next to the stream, leaned back on another rock and watched the bird sally out and back, waiting until it deigned to open it’s mouth and identify itself for me. After all, I had all day.
It took about ten minutes before, after several out and backs, it sat, preened for a time and opened its mouth. The moment of truth. From deep within the tiny bird came the answer to my question. I leaned forward. The clarion call was sounded.
Son of a…
So, there’s your lesson to take from this. If you’re looking for unusual Empids, perhaps especially if you’re looking for unusual Empids. Don’t forget about Pewees. It’s too easy to do.
After that, I cut my losses and headed home with two new birds in the bag for the year, and the feeling that fall can’t get here soon enough.