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Post Super Bowl Sunday

January 29, 2009

The day after the Super Bowl of Birding was cold. Cold like a CO2 fire extinguisher. Like that girl the Stones sing about. Like the hole where Dick Cheney’s soul should be. But we had birds that we’d missed the day before, birds that Christopher had tempted us north with, and we weren’t going to leave without making a concerted effort at them, an effort not impeded by a time strapped birding competition. Plus all of us wanted the opportunity to get some photos of birds we’d seen the day before. All of us, that is, but Patrick, who’d left his camera behind (sorry, man).

At a much more accommodating hour than the day before, Christopher picked us up and, following the obligatory Dunkin’ Donuts stop for caffeine and baked goods, we immediately booked out to Parker Island NWR to look for the Snowy Owls we’d missed just over 12 hours before. And let me tell you, it was a somewhat daunting task. The owls hung out on the sound side of the island, typically a expansive saltmarsh that winter had turned into a wide open tundra landscape. Now imagine trying to find a white owl-shaped lump in this landscape. And did I mention it was cold? Like the complete opposite of a sauna.

The wind kept us scanning in the relative comfort of the van, but when we drove for a while with little luck, we soon realized it would come down to braving the elements if we wanted to find the bird, and we wanted to find the bird.

So we walked up a boardwalk over the dunes on the other side of the road to get a better view and scanned the frozen marsh. It was then that Corey, by some magical power or divine providence, spotted a lump a half mile away that was slightly different than the hundreds of other lumps that dotted the horizon. Scopes were immediately deployed and we all watched the lump turn its head. A Snowy Owl, too distant to be an ideal sighting, but a lifer nonetheless. Success! And the first of what would end up being many birds we found on the day that we had missed the day before.

From there we traveled to the feeders where the Dickcissel stayed hidden in the House Sparrows, but this time the bird showed after only a few minutes and we got great looks. A winter Dickcissel is pretty unusual in North Carolina, so this Massachusetts bird was really screwed up. But the real fun started when we headed back to Salisbury Beach Campground to try to photo some of the Longspurs and Crossbills we’d seen the day before.

We pulled into the campground and soon spotted two guys with cameras longer than my arm craning up into a tree. We figured they had staked out some Crossbills but we couldn’t find any movement in the tree. When we got up next to them we looked up and saw this guy looking impassively down at us.

Yeah, my second lifer owl of the morning. A roosting Long-eared Owl that was, yet again, a bird we had missed the day before. No matter though, a good bird is a good bird on any day of the week. We ended up walking away from the owl as word got out and lots of people started arriving, the crossbills were the other big draw and we set off after them.

It didn’t take long to find the flock of birds, and it was only a matter of time before they perched in a nearby pine allowing for amazingly close approach and first-rate pictures, even for me (including one I posted previously). We joined a group of several photographers encircling in which the tree the birds were foraging. The crisp air was filled with shutters snapping. I joined in the fun, getting a couple nice shots but I think I like the one below the best.

It’s a little out of focus, just a split second before the bird was in the center of the field of view, but at the second I hit the shutter it hopped up and re-landed, apparently misjudging the firmness of the snow and falling forward on its face. I’ve never seen a bird make a mistake flying before, let alone got a picture of it. It’s not something you see that often. In the end we left with some incredible looks of a really great bird. So great that Quintus even dove into the snow in sheer joy.

We spent a good deal of time on the coast again searching ultimately in vain for the drake King Eider, one of my most wanted birds, but the coast around Cape Ann is really beautiful. I imagine any amount of time spent there could produce some really solid birds year round. Our time was short, though, and even though I spotted a soaring Rough-legged Hawk along the highway, we had no time to stop. There was one more mega bird to chase before it was all said and done.

We returned the rental van in the afternoon and caravanned down to Plymouth, where the more reliable of Massachusetts’ two(!) Ivory Gulls had been seen. I’m not going to beat around the bush here, I really wanted to see this bird. When, a week before we were scheduled to rendezvous, that bird, then a second, was reported, I was on the edge of my seat. So when Christopher took a call en route reporting the bird hadn’t been seen since 11:30am that day, I was disappointed, but hopeful. With the eyes we had at our disposal, we were sure to find our bird, right? Right?

I wish I had happier news. We scanned the harbor over and over for it. We waited and it never came back. We went to the restaurant, the back parking lot of which was the spot where the gull had been seen, sat by the window and had clam chowder, an appropriate closer to a great weekend, while watching for any signs of excitement among the birders still scanning the water. There were none, and soon enough Corey, Patrick, and Quintus had to head south, and I had to get to the airport.

I had nine lifers on the weekend, including three owls, which are always cool, but no Ivory Gull. That aside, the weekend was a wild success. Great birding, great company, and a great location. Who knows, maybe one of those Ivories will make it back next year. I know I’d sure like to.

  1. Jochen permalink
    January 29, 2009 8:43 am

    I almost fell backwards off my chair laughing after seeing your pic of a WWCrossbill fall face-first into the snow!! What an amazing snap shot!!!
    And that owl picture is remarkable, the contrast between the sharp markings on the face and the soft breast pattern – beautiful.
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. January 29, 2009 10:18 am

    @jochen- Totally lucky, I was actually focusing on the snow behind it where it was only a moment before.

    That owl was remarkable.

  3. John permalink
    January 29, 2009 10:23 am

    This winter has really been remarkable for snowy owls – it’s the best I have ever seen, anyway. Just a couple days ago I saw my third snowy owl of the month. Either there is a real food shortage or the owls were very prolific breeders last summer.

    I can’t say that I have ever seen a bird fall on its face. Hilarious!

  4. nishiki_85 permalink
    January 29, 2009 10:33 am

    Great capture of the W-w Crossbill face-plant! Congrats on the 9 lifer weekend. My last two lifers have been owls as well, Snowy & Eastern Screech.

  5. January 29, 2009 1:08 pm

    @John- I suspect it’s both and that the first (lack of food up north)is a direct result of the second (prolific breeding year last year).

    @nishiki_85- Thanks! I haven’t seen Screech Owl in forever but I hear them all the time. I need to make an effort to get my eyes on one.

  6. Owlman permalink
    January 29, 2009 1:54 pm

    Great post N8, you even managed to slip in two 8 point zingers:

    “The day after the Super Bowl of Birding was cold…Like the hole where Dick Cheney’s soul should be”.
    “We pulled into the campground and soon spotted two guys with cameras longer than my arm craning up into a tree”.

    That Long Eared was incredible. Only after looking at my pics did I realize how much of the owls tail was hidden in the foliage. I kept saying it looked small, but in all the excitement I got tunnel vision… Fantastic experience and a great lifer wrap up for you mate!

  7. Patrick Belardo permalink
    January 29, 2009 4:17 pm

    Jeez, if I wasn’t there, I would have said you visited Alaska based on those cool landscape shots.

  8. January 29, 2009 7:17 pm

    @Owlman- Thanks, I wish I’d taken some time to watch the bird a little more rather than immediately trying to get photos of it, but I’m pretty satisfied with the experience.

    @Patrick- I know, right? I think I could photoshop a Polar Bear into the first one.

  9. Jochen permalink
    January 30, 2009 4:15 am

    N8: Exactly! Sometimes I also find it extremely difficult to find the “Golden Centre” (as we say in German) between photography and watching. It really is a thin red line…

  10. corey permalink
    January 30, 2009 8:21 am

    Even though I saw the pic you got when it was still in your camera it made me laugh today…

    And those Ivory Gulls. Grrr…

  11. January 30, 2009 9:27 am

    @corey- Thanks for the link! Don’t even get me started on Ivory Gulls. They come back every year, right?

  12. Mike permalink
    January 30, 2009 2:39 pm

    That crossbill photo is classic! What a shot. Excellent report, N8. Too bad about the birds you missed.

  13. slybird permalink
    February 7, 2009 8:09 pm

    Hahaha, I had the same reaction as Jochen to that crossbill picture. 🙂

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