My Kingbird Highway – ten car pile-up
About three weeks ago a Western Kingbird was reported at a game land in the eastern part of the state. It’s a rarity, but a regular one. A few usually can be found in the state this time of year, and some of those even stick around for some time after they’re discovered. This is what I was banking on. The last few weeks since the initial report haven’t been conducive to making a multi-hour drive, it’s the great failure of my Big Year. As the record slipped further and further out of grasp, and with the discovery of another NC birder making a much stronger (possibly successful!) run at the record, I’ve been low on initiative.
But not so low that I don’t intend to at least crack 300, and the Kingbird was being seen at a place known to be pretty good for Sora, another as yet unseen bird, so, you know, I went.
Gamelands in North Carolina are plentiful, but not well-marked. I learned this the hard way as I turned into what seemed like the only open dirt road off the highway I knew to be near my destination. After driving through some mud that my little car probably had no business getting through until I ran into some hunters, who after clearly laughing at my expense from their 4×4 vehicles, advised me that I shouldn’t go any further. They were probably right, and after getting back to the main road one filthy car later, I realized that objects on google maps are often further then they appear. My destination was on down the road.
When I did find Futch Gamelands, I was greeted by the hum of a generator working to fill the impoundments for the upcoming waterfowl hunting season. It was clear that this was the sort of place that will be covered in ducks in a couple weeks, so it’s too bad the hunters will likely make it impossible for birders. Though Sundays, when hunting is prohibited in NC, are usually excellent days to get out even to heavily hunted areas.
But as of yet there were no ducks but the squealing Woodies in the flooded forest. I pretty quickly tracked down a pair of tooting Sora in a reed bed, though, but no amount of tooting back could pull them out of the grasses. I then followed the power lines, which were devoid of tyrant flycatchers to the spotting tower, a two story structure that allows hunters to scout the game land. From this vantage point I spotted a small flock of Ring-necked Ducks and was able to scan through the flocks and flocks of Tree Swallows coursing over the impoundment ponds for that odd vagrant Cave Swallow.
I think in the pantheon of difficult groups of birds (fall warblers, Empids, sparrows), swallows don’t get the attention they deserve. Maybe it’s because nearly every species is fairly common and easy to pick up in the right place, and once the book is closed on the Hirundids, birders may tend to write off flocks of swallows because the task of picking the one vagrant swallow out of the speeding, diving flocks can be damn near impossible. When you see those reports of vagrant swallows in places where common species are known to congregate, you know you’re dealing with a badass birder, with a serious amount of birder zen. It wasn’t that long ago that the ABA area’s first Mangrove Swallow was found in Florida from among a flock of Tree Swallows. That, friends, is some serious stuff.
No Western Kingbird though. Fail.
Not only were the swallows flocking, but the blackbirds are too. I don’t mean to turn this blog into a “blackbird flock blog” or anything, but I ran into some good sized groups. These flocks out east tend to contain more Grackles and fewer Cowbirds then the ones further inland. That’s weird.
As I panned through them looking for the Yellow-head that I’m sure is somewhere, I noted alot of birds with varying amounts of white in the plumage. That’s especially notable because that’s what I’m looking for the white patches in the wings as opposed to the yellow-head. The Yellow-heads we see out here are usually female or first year birds rather then the flashy males you see out west. Anyway, lots of Red-wings have white in their wings and tails and I even spotted one that was nearly entirely white but still had the red epaulets, which was cool. Notably, however, I only saw it briefly and then never again. Indicative of how even a obviously different bird can disappear in these flocks. What hope do I have for the subtly different ones?
So only one new bird, but as the reports of various rare birds are trickling in from last week’s Wings over Water nature festival on the Outer Banks, I’ll likely be making a trip back soon. After all, I still need at least 12 more species for the year.