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My Life’s Birds: #388-391

April 28, 2010
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February 19, 2006 – Lake Mattamuskeet and Alligator River NWRs – I’ve long harped that one of the best things about this hobby are the connections, often unexpected, that you make with fellow birders and nature enthusiasts.  Having a blog certainly increases those opportunities and that circle, but there something to be said for the old-fashioned face to face encounters that turn out to be long-lasting birding friendships.  When I began tagging along on Chapel Hill Bird Club field trips I was usually the youngest person there by a significant margin.  Even though I was on the short end of 30 and not exactly young by any objective standards, the vast majority of folks on bird walks are closer to retirement age.  Not that I didn’t enjoy birding with them, because birding is one of those great experiences that transcends something as inconsequential as age, but there’s something to be said for finding a birding companion who shares the same generational touchstones, who’s not too tired to have the occasional beer in the evenings and who can contribute to an informed discussion on the merits of Nirvana versus Pearl Jam (because it’s clearly Nirvana and I don’t think an argument can be mounted otherwise).

When I met my friend Nolan at a bird walk held by a local bird supply store, we quickly hit it off.  He had shared many of the trials and tribulations of being the token young birder most of his life and managed to come through it all with his passion and sanity intact.  In Nolan I found a kindred spirit, a fellow bird-nerd who could hang in with conversations about fall warbler identification and which raptor was the coolest (Merlin, no doubt), and we ended up birding regularly and heading farther and farther afield to do so.

On a Sunday morning in February I met Nolan at his place at around 5:30 am and we headed out to the eastern refuge and winter birding mecca of Lake Mattamuskeet NWR.  Neither of us had been there before, and I distinctly remember my first experience with the tens of thousands of Tundra Swans, fully a quarter of the world’s population, that winter there.  To this day I can’t get over how completely surreal it is to see them in the air.  A 30 pound bird should not be able to fly so well, and they look like they should be suspended with strings lest they crash to the ground like a trumpeting meteor taking out cars, boats and innocent bystanders with them.  We picked up a ton of other waterfowl but the Swans were, likely because of the new lifer sheen, the obvious early highlight though a flock of White Ibis that included a handful of Glossy Ibis, a lifer I really should have had earlier, was a close second.

As good as all that was, however, the best was yet to come.  We got a tip from a fellow birder that nearby Alligator River NWR had a hot spot for Short-eared Owls and as the day wore on with dusk on the horizon we made the half hour drive to a gravel road that ran through a vast field covered, and I mean covered, in Northern Harriers.  There were no less that 40 in view at any one time, mostly young birds but a handful of the stunning gray adult males.  Nolan picked up a Sedge Wren just off the road that provided us with great looks.  It was a lifer for both of us.

Then, as the sun went down the show really started.  The first Short-eared Owl came out of nowhere to join the Harriers hawking over the fields.  In the golden light we saw the bird well as it ducked into the tall grass and was joined by a second, then a third.  Then, as the light quickly got a way from us, the shadows of Owl after Owl came purposefully towards the field from a row of cedars on the far end of the road.  In the end we counted 24 individual owls that we saw before the darkness took over and the owls were alone in their element.  It remains one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had as a birder in North Carolina, heck, just about anywhere.

With the end of a long, fantastic day in the field we made the journey back to the triangle yesterday with a total of 83 species for the day and a new appreciation for a fantastic part of my new state.  Not bad at all for a winter day.

TUNSWA from wikipedia
SHEAOW by omarrun via flickr (CC BY-NC_SA 2.0)

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4 Comments
  1. tinag46 permalink
    April 28, 2010 9:31 am

    Sounds like an absolutely fabulous boys day out! Nirvana v. Pearl Jam – hmmm… tough call. I’d have to go 50/50, unless it’s The Toadies, then definitely The Toadies. May I suggest another excellent local San Antonio favorite that is great road music – Sexto Sol. Bluesy, Chicano rock. CD Baby has their music, and they’ve got MySpace and Facebook pages, but “The Man” blocks them from my work computer, so no links available.

    http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist/SextoSol

    Anyway, back to birds and birders. Finding a compatible, fun, birder your own age with roughly the same skill level and hardcore commitment is tough. I’m 48 but my tastes in music, outlook and edge aren’t similar at all with the 50’s and 60’s crowd. It’s also significantly harder to find those same qualities in a woman birding companion, which means I often bird alone. I’m looking for someone who isn’t out to have a nice walk in the park, but serious, all out birding. If you’re going to be stuck in the car travelling with another birder for long periods of time, you better have more in common than your age. (And the only reason to turn down the volume is if you’re driving slow down a back road listening to songs and chip notes, otherwise crank it up.)

    Tina G
    San Antonio TX
    http://thebirdsoftheair.wordpress.com

  2. April 29, 2010 5:41 am

    Yeah, amongst the two, it is Nirvana. Iron Maiden, on the other hand…

    Good looks at a Sedge Wren?
    Wow, that’s lucky. I remember listening to two singing on the UP of Michigan in very low sedges merely 20 m away from me without catching as much as a glimpse of a moving sedge. I did, however, see one sing near St. Louis, but considered that one of my finer observations there.

    And Short-eared Owls rock.
    Although in an informed discussion on the merits of SE-Owl versus Sedge Wren it’s clearly Sedge Wren and I don’t think an argument can be mounted otherwise.

    And about those 40 “Northern Harriers, mostly young birds but a handful of the stunning gray adult males:
    Sorry to break it to you, mate, but those were Ring-billed Gulls, mostly young birds but with a handful of the stunning gray adults.

    Come on, 40 Harriers?
    No way!
    Give me a freakin’ break!

  3. Nate permalink*
    April 29, 2010 11:57 am

    @Tina- It was great, and the importance of having shared generational touchstones is amplified by those long drives. As an aside, I do like Chicano music. It reminds me so much of driving to the Rio Grande Valley to visit my snowbird grandparents in high school. For long stretches, it’s the only thing you can get on the radio!

    @Jochen- You are absolutely out of your mind. There’s no way Sedge Wren is better than Short-eared Owl. None.

    And there were 40 Harriers. Hand to god. And that’s conservative. Apparently I still need to sell you on the avian wonders of eastern Carolina. It’s the middle of nowhere, but the birds are fan-freaking-tastic.

  4. April 30, 2010 8:21 am

    Well, that depends. My ratio Sedge Wren (seen) / SE Owl is roughly 1 / 100+

    Which might explain things.
    Seriously, seeing 40+ harriers in one field would be worth a trip alone, not to mention the beers.

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