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My Life’s Birds: #405-410

July 21, 2010
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December 30, 2006 – Wrightsville Beach and Fort Fisher, NC – As the year 2006 was coming to an end I began looking back at what was my first full year of birding since I was a teenager and counting up the new species I’d added to my life list in that calender year.  With two days left to go in the year I was up to 22.  What was significant was that it was one fewer than the last year I had been birding when I was a teenager when I ended 1995 with 23 new species.  (Yeah, I keep track of life birds seen by year and state.  It doesn’t add any species to my total, but it’s a fun way to sort the data. Don’t tell me I’m the only one who does this. )  I was bemoaning this fact that after a pretty hard year spent discovering the birds in my new state I was so close but ultimately destined not to overtake that old year mark to my in-laws when my father-in-law, who’s hardly a birder said, “Well, why don’t you just go beat it?”.  So I thought, why not?

It just so happened that very week down Wilmington way a bizarre sea duck duo was making waves among the state birding community not only for their Carolina novelty but for the ease in which one could see them.  Both would have been lifers for me so with the prospect of not one, but two new additions to the ole list my decision was hardly a difficult one to make.

Wrightsville Beach is a long slip of sand just off of the mainland north of Wilmington, North Carolina.  At the center of the island a concrete pier, a sturdy replaced for a wooden predecessor destroyed by a hurricane, sticks a couple hundred meters out into the ocean.  The pier is a popular fishing spot for locals and at it’s base sits a bait shop and diner where you pay one yankee dollar for the privilege of hauling your stuff all the way out to the end.  That’s quite a deal even for a birder, especially when waiting at the end are a juvenile Common Eider and a juvenile Harlequin Duck circling the concrete pylons together like a regular Abbot and Costello.  Why these two vagrants from farther north would stick together like that is anybody’s guess.  Maybe it’s like going to a party full of strangers and hanging with the one guy you met and pleasantly talked about baseball one time.  I dunno, but the bird’s two man routine continued for several weeks and several Carolina birds got the photos to prove it.

After enjoying the dynamic duo, I was feeling pretty good.  So I headed up to the north end of the island to look at the inlet where wintering shorebirds are often found.  A pale spot on the mud turned into a Piping Plover.  I was suddenly up to three for the day and in no mood to stop.

Where to then?  Why not Fort Fisher?

A cool 20 minutes later I was pulling up to an artificial stone outcropping just across from the old Civil War era fort to scope a raft of Buffleheads diving into the waves.  One pass through and I realized that these were not all Buffleheads, but an equal number of juvenile Black Scoters.  This was turning out to to be quite the sea duck-stravaganza.  Closer inspection netted a single juvenile Surf Scoter in the crowd as well, all big billed and spotty headed and not wasting time diving with spread wings.  As I considered my luck at the leisurely way in which I was able to observe these ducks not more than 20 feet from the shoreline and thinking wouldn’t it be something to pick up the scoter slam, I lifted my head from the scope to catch out of the corner of my eye two additional ducks, larger ones this time, slowly making their way down the shoreline towards the birds I was watching.  The scope pivoted, the focus knob turned, and suddenly I was staring at two White-winged Scoters slowly integrating into the rest of the flock.  A Scoter three-peat to put a ribbon a pretty remarkable sea duck day in the southeast.

What are the odds of this?  I’ve birded the south coast of NC in the winter several times since then, including this precise rocky outcrop, and while I’ve seen Black Scoters often and Surf Scoters slightly less often, I’ve never found White-winged Scoters in this spot since.  I did, however, end the year with 28 life birds, blowing 1995 out of the water and ready to break it again for 2007.

COMEID and SURSCO from wikipedia

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One Comment
  1. July 21, 2010 3:47 pm

    Sounds like a great sea duck day!

    Interestingly enough, Surf Scoters were my spark bird. I found some on my first real birding trip (to Huntington Beach) and until that point they were a species I’d only seen in books and photographs. They ignited a ferver in me I didn’t know I had, one that’s still going strong today!

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