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Sometimes you feel like a Duck

October 21, 2008

In June, when I last traveled to Sunset Beach in the extreme southeast corner of North Carolina, I did so for a couple species of birds that are really only reliable found that close to the border, namely Wood Stork and Painted Bunting. When I returned last Sunday in October I had a couple different birds on my mind.

Back in the beginning of the year I had consciously foregone a pair of Mottled Ducks that had been hanging out on a suburban lake over the winter. When they left in the spring I kicked myself for missing the opportunity. Well, I must have done something to please the birding gods, because just last week the word went out that the Mottled Ducks had returned! I made plans to head back ASAP.

The sun was rising on the first really cool day of fall as I pulled up to a pond in the middle of what appeared to be a retirement community if the dog walkers on the street were any indication. A shallow marshy pond spread out in front of me, covered with Wood Ducks, Cormorants and Pied-billed Grebes, and in the middle, a pair of large, plain dabblers, my Mottled Ducks. I pulled out my scope to get a better look and a photo when the ducks flushed towards the back of the pond. While I missed an opportunity for a better look, their flight path drew my attention to a small group of Common Moorhens in a back corner. Not too shabby.

I stopped at a pair of golf course ponds on my way out. This was the place I found loads of Wood Storks last time I was here. The birds are still around, they seem to have done very well this year.

Not just the storks, but other birds were showing evidence of a successful breeding season. Lots of juvi White Ibis, Egrets of all three varieties, and both Night Herons covered the trees, huddled against the stiff wind. Can you find the four species of waders in the photo below?

There was no doubt winter was coming too, Grebes were on the pond in good numbers along with the first Coots of the year, and high in the sky I found a clearly migrating Northern Harrier. I didn’t have a whole lot of time, I had to really move to get to the ferry crossing over to Fort Fisher, making it just in time. The bridge went up as I pulled on, the last car on the boat. Timed perfectly.

When I arrived, the tide was coming in something fierce, and the wind was howling. I wanted to walk through the marsh for rails and sparrows but didn’t want to get caught out in the middle either. What I lacked in time I made up with waterproof shoes and a fearless attitude towards mud and marsh grass (essential for any Ammodramus hunt).

In the short amount of time I had before the water rose above my ankles I flushed up a couple Seaside Sparrows and several Sharp-tailed Sparrows. I still need Saltmarsh for the year, but the wind kept the birds down and the only one I saw well enough was a Nelson’s. I did however flush a couple Clapper Rails and one little Virginia Rail, equaling my best ever look at the species (back and wings disappearing into grass, nice).

There was a big group of shorebirds on the pier just beyond where the waves were making it too slippery for me to trot out there. Lots of Willets, Short Dowitchers, Marbled Godwits, Red Knots (back for the winter) and Pectoral Sands, all hesistant to fly in the breeze and allowing for pretty close approach. I especially like the Dowitchers towards the front in the photo below, sticking their long bill straight into the wind.

I had one more stop to make on my beach circuit, up to Wrightsville for more traditional beach birds. I was not disappointed, Sanderlings were thick and four species of terns (Least, Forster’s, Royal, Caspian) foraged in the surf. Seawatching turned up my first flock of Black Scoters of the year, but no Gannets or Loons that would indicate winter’s true return.

The beaches were busy with people and, to my dismay, dogs, all over the beach. The following statement may cause my vetrinarian’s daughter wife to instigate divorce proceedings but, geez, I have to get it out…

I’m not a dog person.

Oh, the relief! To finally get that monkey off my back! It should be noted that I have certainly known and liked individual dogs I’ve met, but in general, they tend to start with a few strikes against them in my book. Dogs on the beach is a major pet peeve, especially when the owners decide the rules don’t apply to them and let them off leash. This was the prospect I was faced with when I pulled up to my favorite birding beach on the north side of Wrightsville island, a veritable pack of dogs running the surf and scaring off any birds I had ideas of watching. In fact, I even watched a big retriever run off a flock of shorebirds I had my eye on just as I was getting close to them.

My only hope was that I could get ahead of them and find birds before the dogs round the corner. Fortunately, the wind turned the dog walkers off as they got close to the inlet, I saw my chance, as no birder I know is turned away by a little wind.

It was a fortuitous situation, as on the far tip I found the motherload of shorebirds apparently driven by the dogs. Mostly Sanderlings but also a couple Dunlins and Western Sands. And picking along with them, the bird I was looking for, a young Piping Plover, who had absolutely no fear of me. I was surprised at it foraged closer, and closer, and closer up to only about ten feet away. Even I can take decent snapshots at that range.

Four new birds in the bag, putting me much closer to my new goal of 300. And I’m actually beginning to think I can reach it.

  1. October 21, 2008 10:01 pm

    Great post, and awesome shot of the Wood Storks! I’m glad I’ll be visiting coastal VA later this week, reveling (I hope) in many of the birds you highlighted. Not holding my breath for Mottled Ducks or Wood Storks.

    Wader-wise, in your photo, I count 2 Black-crowned Night-Herons (I don’t think that’s a Yellow-crowned partially hidden behind the branch), one Great Egret, three Snowy Egrets, and a Cattle Egret. No guess on the duck, though.

    Good luck on the push for 300! I can’t remember, do you have siskin yet? They should be heading your way, they’re passing us in droves!

  2. October 22, 2008 8:05 am

    You got it! The duck is a Pied-billed Grebe though.

    300 should be doable, I can think of about 15 birds I can still get in the state and I know where I can find them, so that’s nice.

    I got Siskin last February when one showed up at my thistle feeder, but I’ll certainly have to keep an eye out for them and hopefully some other northern finches too.

  3. October 29, 2008 1:18 pm

    I AM most decidedly a dog person, but my trigger finger itches whenever I see a dog harassing waders on the beach. If I were suddenly put in charge of everything, I’d start by imprisoning, oh, 85% of dog owners in the US.

  4. October 29, 2008 1:29 pm

    @rick – I don’t actively dislike dogs, I’m probably more indifferent than anything. I think they have their place and people should be able to enjoy taking them places.

    But I can’t stand people that don’t follow leash laws. I like to enjoy the beach too and deserve the right to do my thing in peace. There are well-trained dogs and conscientious dog-owners out there, but they seem to be in the minority. 15% seems about right. : )

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