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The lake in winter

January 18, 2010
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Quick, what’s the worst thing you can do the night before a big birding trip?  I mean, that’s your own stupid fault.  Because of course you could get into any number of accidents that would prevent you from going on said trip, but along the lines of fairly innocuous acts that can have a big effect on solely your birding experience forgetting you binoculars has to rank right up there. Which is why, the night before I left on an early morning trip with the Young Naturalist’s Club I sort of panicked when I realized that I’d left my precious Zeiss binoculars on a shelf above my desk at work, having come in early to bird before clocking in.  I considered making the late night run, braving both alarm and security guard, to retrieve them, but that was foolhardy.  Especially as I had a perfectly serviceable pair of back-up binoculars to take advantage of in just this situation.  but still, you know?

So, the trip started on something of a low note (for me), but that just means that the only direction left to go is up, and with an absolutely beautiful day for mid-January on the horizon we left Raleigh before dawn to head east to Lake Mattamuskeet NWR, the largest natural lake in the state of North Carolina and one of the best places on the continent for observing wintering waterfowl, all of which is a given of course. What, you think we take our kids to the local landfill?  No way, man.

I love to watch people’s eyes when they arrive at Mattamuskeet for the first time. If you only get one first shot at this place, it’s great to take it in the winter.  The instant you step out of the car you’re aurally assaulted with the low roar of tens of thousands of vocalizing Tundra Swans, and until you leave the refuge, no matter where you are on the refuge, the bugling never once abates.  It’s like the world’s worst white noise machine.

But it sets the mood for your first opportunity to pull out the scope at a waterfowl impoundment on the wildlife drive, not even on the massive lake itself, and quickly pick out every one of the regularly occurring dabbling ducks.  The evil-eyed Shovelers and the dapper Pintails and the block-headed Gadwalls with Wigeons and Black Ducks and Mallards, and even a few Ruddy Ducks to make sure the divers are represented as well. Then you turn around and on the other side of the road are Blue-winged Teal and a stunning Great Egret, coming into its elegantly plumed breeding plumage.

Hidden in the reeds below were a pair of juvenile Black-crowned Night Herons, the first of nearly a dozen and a half we’d see throughout the day.

That was scarcely all, while scanning an enormous flock of Pintails I spotted four Canada Geese pass by overhead.  One of them, however, was about half the size of the rest.  The birds passed behind a row of Cypress trees, and we quickly high-tailed it up the road to have a look, hoping to find something good on the other side only to find a flock of nearly 300 Canada geese that our birds had disappeared into.  Excitement gave way to disappointment as we started scanning the flock, only to find, and fairly quickly too, a pair of little Cackling Geese tooling along with, and being dwarfed by, three drake Pintails.  These are some small geese, sir, and as rare as they are in North Carolina, our best bird of the day.

But it wasn’t just birds, this is he Young Naturalist’s Club after all people.  We spotted some Nutria with pups in the middle of January, and some really cool herps like a basking River Cooters, a small Brown Snake and a cool Carolina Anole, the native Anolis lizard of the southeast.  Who needs binoculars, right?

photo by Greg Swick

But it wasn’t long until the birds took center stage again, and we were not the only bird group out in the refuge that day.  Running into Harry LeGrande, the head of the NC Bird Records Committee, was a fortuitous turn of events as he picked a fairly distant Eurasian Wigeon from a flock of Americans, allowing decent looks for everyone.  It was not my first Euro Wigeon, but it was a nice opportunity to learn that the gray body is as distinctive a field mark as the rufous head that I’d always looked for in the past.  The is especially true when the bird spends the vast majority of its time with the aforementioned rufous head tucked back into its back.

The bird was far too distant to get a photo worth anything, but in lieu of documentation of the bird, here’s documentation of birders, including yours truly, watching the bird.  Good enough, no?

photo by Greg Swick

I could go on and on about the great birds we saw, the Bittern we spooked from a marsh, the scads of Yellowthroats and Marsh Wrens, the Eagles, the surprise Snowy Egrets, but the true tenor of the day is probably summed up by the fact that even though we were already running about an hour late and the light was fading, we very nearly walked an hour out on a far levee to pick through the five to six thousand strong flock of Snow Geese for Ross’s Goose. It was hard to leave, but leave we had to.

It was a great day anyway.  Thanks to my co-leaders Ed Corey and Jeff Beane and to the enthusiastic kids that came out to share one of my favorite places.  I didn’t even miss my good binoculars.

Not much, anyway.

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4 Comments
  1. January 18, 2010 11:04 am

    I love that photo of the BCNH. Love love love.

  2. January 18, 2010 11:49 am

    Hey, I forgot my binoculars for the Christmas Bird Count last year, and they were at home. I only realized halfway out to the count. Did the whole day birding by ear and telephoto lens (note that I did remember my camera). Fortunately that’s a bit easier in the winter.

    I remember reading a story, perhaps last winter, where Bill Thompson III couldn’t find his passport and Julie Zickefoose had to go on the trip to Panama or wherever it was without him (he ended up managing to get an emergency passport issued after she left and joined her as a surprise three days later or something).

    Glad you at least had a back-up pair at home. Sounds like it was a good outing regardless of what you were carrying. 🙂

  3. Nate permalink*
    January 18, 2010 12:07 pm

    @Carrie- Thanks!

    @Seabrooke- It was, and while there were a couple times I wished I could take advantage of the superior light-gathering ability my good bins, for the most part I was fine. My back-up bins are perfectly adequate.

  4. Becky permalink
    January 18, 2010 8:25 pm

    I am so glad you guys had a good trip! When I was there last week we also spooked a bittern closing the car door! Those are such neat birds. As far as the night herons go, we were so psyched when we saw one, but by the 8th were like, eh, another night heron! Congrats on the great day, and thanks for leading the trip!!

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