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My Life’s Birds: #442-443

November 10, 2010
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January 7, 2008 – Fort Fisher State Recreational Area, NC Big Year. The term itself conjures up images of abject fanaticism to the birding cause, of dropping everything to make that one twitch on the far side of the state, or losing track of your personal life for 12 months to chase a seemingly impossible goal.  I suppose if those are the standards to which one must hold themselves to in order to accomplish this mad feat, then my 2008 attempt to do a North Carolina Big Year was doomed from the start.  First off, I didn’t do nearly enough planning to make sure I’d even come close to 349 species that it would take to top the state record as it existed at the time*. But honestly, while I may have talked big, breaking the state record was never something I considered to be a realistic endeavor.  I realize that one you make that admission your Big Year sort of ceases to be an actual “Big Year” as the competition is an important part of it, and becomes essentially just “A Year Where You Went Birding A Lot More Than Normal”, but that hardly rolls off the tongue.  So for all intents and purposes, I’m going to continue to refer to this romp through North Carolina as a Big Year, my Big Year.  Just because it’s more romantic that way, and I’m nothing if not a sucker for some schmaltz.

*Not for nothing, but there was a Carolina birder, Derb Carter, who did indeed break the record in 2008, ending the year with 351, and I like to think I had a contribution to that record because he broke the mark by two birds, and two of the birds on his final list where birds that I discovered; a Glaucous Gull at a Raleigh landfill and an Ash-throated Flycatcher at Croatan National Forest.  Not to say he wouldn’t have found two additional birds (and he did, in fact, pick up a second Ash-throated Flycatcher a week later if memory serves), but my stamp is on that record.  Or at least that’s the story I’m sticking to.

No, the primary reason for my Big Year was twofold; to provide my new blog with ample exciting content (that was back when I cared whether or not you all read about 3 trips to Mason Farm a month…) and to explore this state of which I had only relatively recently been a resident.  I have to say, that looking back I accomplished both of these goals in spades.  That it happened to be the summer of super high gas prices was a frustrating side note, but even though I fell well short of the record, it ended up being an incredibly productive birding year, one that I’ll be recounting in this spot for the foreseeable future.

The first trip I took of any substance was to Fort Fisher south of Wilmington.  The birding there in the winter is pretty good besides, but I was specifically interested in turning up some saltmarsh species, rails and the little sharp-tailed sparrows that spend the winter there.  I had worn my waterproof shoes and the plan was to march through the marsh trying to flush up any little birds I could.  I didn’t check the tides before I left (clueless midwestern boy that I was), so it was really nothing more than shear luck that they were receding rapidly by the time I pulled into the parking lot, making the marsh stomp more muddy than wet which, as any experienced marsh stomper knows is the the preferable alternative.  It wasn’t long before the Spartina two feet in front of me parted to reveal an agitated Clapper Rail who, instead of running, took to the air to get out the way.  My lingering impression is of the gawky chicken sized bird flying away, hunch-backed with long toes dangling and long bill leading the way.  This is, to this day, the only way I’ve ever seen this species.  One of these days I’m going to get a good look.

But the rail, appreciated though it was, was only the first of my targets.  I had my mind set on some Ammodramus and I would not be denied, so even though the temperature was starting to tick up and sweat was beading on my brow as thick as the mud on my shoes, I pressed on, weaving a pattern through the little patch of saltmarsh where the birds are regularly seen.  As it seems to go with all good bird stories, I had reached the last row with no sparrows to show for it.  I was ready to call it quits, head off to a couple more spots for birds that, while important for a Big Year, were not lifers, and then head home to Chapel Hill.  I was talking to my wife on the phone, walking along a sandbar that abuts the marsh, when a little bird hopped up in front of me to look around.  I dropped the call immediately, put my binoculars up and was rewarded with a sharp little Nelson’s Sparrow sitting splay-legged between two stalks in that way that Sharp-tailed Sparrows do.   Classic.  Two lifers down.

It would have been nice to get the Saltmarsh Sparrow too.  Perhaps the fact that I didn’t go back in and stomp some more marsh was indicative of the fact that my Big Year attempt was destined from the beginning to fall short.  I can’t help it, ultimately I’m more of a homebody without the stamina to drive the long distances I’d need to be truly competitive.  Maybe I’m not cut out for a Big Year, at least not one on such a large scale.  That’s entirely the benefit of hindsight though, at the time I was still loaded for Big Year with no plans to cut bait this early.

CLARAI by jerryoldenettel via flickr (CC BY-NC-SA-2.0)
NELSPA by flythebirdpath~} teddy via flickr (CC BY-NC-2.0)

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One Comment
  1. BirdTrainerRobert permalink
    November 10, 2010 2:01 pm

    I guess I should count myself amongst the lucky then – I’ve only seen one Clapper Rail, in California this summer, and it sat there walking, feeding, and preening not 20 ft from me. I dunno, for some reason there’s something dinosaur-like about Clapper Rails, like they belong to some era in the ancient past. Definitely one of my favorite lifers from that trip!

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