When the storm is over
When we last left our intrepid hurricane birder, he had just returned from a mostly fruitless trip to the beach where seemingly against all odds he had missed any semblance of hurricane related birds. He was somewhat frustrated. But a late arriving message to the listserve stated that Sooty and Bridled Terns had been seen not more than a few miles away at the local reservoir. The birder cursed…
As early as I could Sunday morning (the lake access points open at a maddeningly late 8am) I was at Ebenezer Point looking out on the heart of Jordan Lake. A storm had clearly just passed through, the water was higher than I’d seen in a long time, and in the center of the lake there was a field of debris, both natural and unnatural, that had washed in from all around the watershed.
I set up the scope and began scanning. It wasn’t long before I spotted a large group of terns in the middle of the lake, put up by the boat traffic increasing as the sun rose higher in the sky behind me. The birds were distant, but clearly white-backed Sterna birds, not at all what I was looking for, and my initial ID was confirmed as a flock of Forster’s Terns winged closer, alternately swooping and diving at the debris field.
My pulse quickened for that split second as a small group of dark-backed terns crossed my view, but closer inspection revealed them to be short-tailed, dark-underwinged Black Terns, a new bird the day before but already fraying my tropical tern tuned nerves. I watched each Black Tern closely as they moved among the debris, picking little morsels of something or other off the surface, just in case I was missing something, but they were clearly Black Terns.
A third group of terns passed overhead, this time three Caspian Terns and a following Royal Tern, a pretty good bird for this far inland. The Caspians were very vocal, squawking like herons as they passed by. The Royal tried to answer but his whistley yelp sounded like a foreign language. I though it interesting that in lieu of other terns to associate with the Royal preferred its co-geners to being alone. But maybe it was just confused. It was the only sign of a hurricane related bird that I could manage in my time there. So after a couple hours watching the same three groups of terns fly back and forth, I headed home.
I admit I was more than a little ticked at the amount of time that passed between the original sighting and the report of said sighting. If the report had gone out earlier I would have had time to get to the birds the same day. As it was, it looked like one night longer was one night too long. The birds appeared to have flown the proverbial coop.
The afternoon I stayed at home, helping my wife clean the house and thinking about dinner when a second message popped up in my inbox. The birds had been re-found by a birder that very evening, not more than a half hour before. I yelled, “I gotta get to Jordan Lake!” and barely had time to grab my gear and hear my wife’s, “ok” before I was in the car and heading south.
I arrived at the lake in the early evening and immediately began scoping. Once, twice, three times I passed over the lake with no luck. I began to think I was too late again when I spotted a group of terns waaaaaaay over in the middle of the lake. They looked a great deal like the Black Terns I’d seen this morning, and there were clearly some Black Terns in the mix, but there were a couple birds that were longer with white underwings. I couldn’t get a good look at them until a pair of them landed on a piece of debris. I was able to pick out at least one first year Bridled Tern and one adult Sooty Tern.
I even managed one terrible terrible awful photo through my scope at 60x. Be forewarned, as bad as the photo is, I saw the birds better. And you can kind of make out the head pattern on the Bridled on the right, and the dark back of the Sooty on the left. Also note the long white tail that is at least as long as the wings on the Bridled. That alone is enough to know it’s not a Black Tern, which definitely were in the area and can be tricky at a distance. Anyway, enjoy?
Two pelagic birds in the bag without needing a pelagic, I headed home. Thanks definitely to Nick Anich, a Durham birder whose quick reporting got me the birds. The question of what a listserve is may still be in limbo, but I definitely use it for rare bird reporting and a quick trigger is worth it’s weight to that end. The more people that are able to get the birds in question, the more robust the sighting, the better for area birders.
So even though my trip to the beach was a bust, I found sometimes the best birds are right in your backyard.