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One closer to 10,000

January 20, 2009

We all know that often the quickest way to rack up birds on your life list is to travel. And the opportunity to get to different places almost always means that you get to increase that magic number in a big way. And if you know someone, a friendly face who can lead you to your targets with a minimum of effort on your part, it’s a bonus. Searching for birds on your own can be a bear, and only occasionally do you end up successful. It’s a lesson I learned even in my own state during this Big Year thing I took on. I have no doubt I would have found more birds, “better” birds, had I been more plugged in to the local birding scene. This sort of thing is well acknowledged, well, at least by me.

But there’s a second, more insidious, side of the story. That of the individual whose task is to show the bird, whose knowledge is being tapped, on whose shoulders rides the possibility of new lifers. I’ve only rarely, and informally, been in such a situation. But with the estimable Mike Bergin of 10,000 Birds and my colleague at the Nature Blog Network in town for the ScienceOnline science blogging convention, suddenly I was faced with the such a possibility.

North Carolina has some excellent birding, as I hope I’ve imparted to regular visitors to this little corner of the web, but we have little in the way of endemics that can’t be found elsewhere across the eastern US. There are a couple birds, however, for which North Carolina is a particularly suitable, and lucky for me, Mike hadn’t seen them. So really early on Sunday, before obligations to the Sciblogging convention we headed down to Weymouth Woods, where I’ve been many times before, to search for those Carolina specialties that someone from out of town might find interesting, particularly the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

We arrived well before dawn on an overcast mucky day. I had hoped that, as in times past, the Woodpeckers would be up and at ’em, squeaking and foraging and generally easy to find. That’s always the hope for the potentially bird show-er. But when they’re not? Well, that’s when the self-doubt sets in, when the fear that you’ve just wasted the time of someone whose time might not be there to be wasted. When you forget the cardinal rule of birding, the yin to the twitcher yang, that the best intentions of the birder sometimes don’t match the reality of the bird. And most of all, the fear that all my big talk about woodpeckers might prove to be unjustified.

So we waited near the feeders, where two family groups of RCWs are known to hang out. And when that didn’t work, we walked a short loop through the pine barrens that wound through suitable habitat, finding only a used nest hole in a long dead longleaf pine. And the birds were no shows, and I was getting more worried. Mike, for his part, never seemed to lose enthusiasm that the birds would eventually show up, even when the time we had set to return had come, and then long since passed.

I don’t mean to imply that there weren’t interesting birds around. As a regular southeast birder I forget that Brown-headed Nuthatches, Carolina Chickadees and Pine Warblers are species a northerner like Mike doesn’t see often, if at all. So while he turned his attention to the feeders in an attempt to get some good pictures of those species to, I assume, salvage a blog post from a day that had, up to this point, been something of a disappointment, I craned my ears and tuned to the slightest hint of a squeak that might lead us, finally, to our quarry.

Pine barrens birds squeak, it’s a odd characteristic that I’ve often pondered on. A typical morning sounds like a rubber duck convention with Brown-headed Nuthatches and wintering Pine Siskins squeaky chirps. We’d heard those on the day, but I heard then a chattery call that was music to my increasingly worried ears. Back at the feeders where we had started our morning, in a family group working their way up a dead pine snag, were three, then four, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. Success!

Mike tried to snap some pictures, though the weather wasn’t particularly cooperative for that he still got some recognizeable images, far better than I could have done. As I watched the birds all the anxiety I’d felt in the prior hour spent in fruitless search sloughed off. I have to say, the experience was nearly as good as when I saw my first Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. As any birder knows, getting someone else a life bird is nearly as good as getting one yourself. And that moment, when the birds were hitching up that tree, calling, and basically being awesome, almost made the fact that we’d missed the Nature Blogging session at the convention worth it (though in retrospect, what were the convention planners doing scheduling a nature blogging session first thing in the morning? That’s when the nature’s out, man!)

In the end, we watched the birds for a while before hitting the road. We just missed the session and instead got some breakfast at a Durham diner. I took Mike back to the airport one life bird richer so that my reputation as a birder and blogger remains, thankfully, intact.

  1. Mike permalink
    January 20, 2009 8:24 am

    The entire experience was awesome! Sometimes a bird is that much better when it’s hard to find. Thanks again, Nate. Maybe next time we’ll get the sparrows.

  2. Kelly permalink
    January 20, 2009 8:48 am

    Interesting story and inspirational too. I slowly want to get out into the Cincinnati Birding scene to start learning from the masters around here. I guess the sheer energy and enthusiasm of the hunt adds to the experience, helping to eliminate self-doubt in the less experienced field observer. There are always so many aspects for growth…and many, many years to learn (no rush to get there). I guess it truly is the never-ending story.

  3. Jochen permalink
    January 20, 2009 10:42 am

    Nate, one species is easy. Wait until I visit NC one day and totally expect you to show me all three coastal Ammodramus sparrows in a single morning’s excursion before breakfast. And a Black Rail, too.


  4. January 20, 2009 10:57 am

    @Mike- Come in March or April. We’ll get Bachman’s Sparrows. I’ll use a tape, I’m not messing around this time.

    @Kelly- There’s always room for growth in birding. There’s always more to learn and more birds to see. That’s part of why it’s so great.

    @Jochen- I can get you the sparrows, but Black Rail? I haven’t even seen Black Rail!

  5. Jochen permalink
    January 20, 2009 11:04 am

    Well, we found a common goal then, haven’t we?

  6. Christopher permalink
    January 20, 2009 11:21 am

    As a potential bird show-er, I am starting to feel just a bit of anxiety that we’ll miss on some of the birds I’ve been talking up here in MA. Fingers crossed that all our target birds are as cooperative as your nuthatches and woodpeckers (eventually) were!

  7. January 20, 2009 11:29 am

    @jochen- That’s true, I do know a place where people hear it. I’ve never been there though.

    @christopher- I wouldn’t sweat it, if we see even half of what is up there right now, it’ll be a pretty successful trip.

  8. Owlman permalink
    January 20, 2009 11:40 am

    Great post oh show-er of great birds. Don’t cut Christopher any slack – we want em all 😉

  9. Jochen permalink
    January 20, 2009 11:43 am

    I suppose the problem with Black Rail is that people are not using the right method.
    I say: just grab a folding chair and some sandwiches (a beer or two will help, too) and sit down quietly and motionless in a coastal swamp for – say – a week or so and I am sure a Black Rail will walk by eventually.
    You knwo the site, I’ll bring two folding chairs, so I suppose we have a plan.

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