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Duck Hunt

January 24, 2011
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In a state-wide Big Year, the first month is spent getting out to the coast as often as you possibly can in the hopes you can quickly pickup an entire year’s worth of water birds in as short a time as possible.  North Carolina’s coastal plain is covered in ducks, grebes, loons and the like from November to late February.  A successful Big Year depends on not missing any of the expected birds as much as picking up the unexpected ones, and even though I’m only concentrating on the four counties in the Triangle, my strategy is much the same. January is for waterfowl.  Everything else will come later.

So I’ve been spending a lot of time at Falls Lake recently, not least of which because every regular species of duck is likely to be found there throughout the winter, but because a pretty remarkable run of local rarities has been camped out there.  Birds that any statewide Big year would have picked up on the coast, but inland birders have to work harder for.  Scoters mostly, and Long-tailed Ducks as well.  Throw in an on-again, off-again Red-necked Grebe and you’ve got an enticing array of Anatids that any local birder would be pleased to pick up.  All you need is time.

Which is where the problem lies with me.  My wife isn’t yet sold on the idea of a Big Year, even a local one, and it’s difficult to pick up and chase birds when you have an equal stake in the raising of an energetic child.  I have to take it when I can get it, which is difficult when the best parts of Falls Lake lie about half an hour from home, leaving me precious little time to scope a lake, especially when lake-watching success depends largely on staying in one place and catching the birds that shuttle by.

But you can catch a break occasionally.  On a Saturday morning Noah nap break, I booked out to Falls Lake to take a stab at the White-winged Scoter and Red-necked Grebe.  I had about 10 minutes at each site and little luck, ultimately dipping on both of my targets.  But it wasn’t a total loss.  Off the Highway 50 Boat ramp looking out into the Beaverdam Reservoir arm of Falls Lake, I picked up a sharp male Common Goldeneye among the Scaup, Hoodies, and Buffleheads that usually mingle in the area.  This was a better bird than either of the two I’d missed, and only the second I’d seen in the state (the first was in the same pond as North Carolina’s first Tufted Duck bizarrely enough).  Definitely one of the better birds I’ve seen recently.

Common Goldeneye was the first rare bird I’ve had in my Big Year thus far – not on the list of 200 species I should be able to find on a regular year – and certainly made up for the misses.  But I wasn’t done yet.  The next day I returned to the same section of the lake to take another swing at the Scoter and Grebe while I had a blessing from my wife to devote a little more time.

Beaverdam Reservoir still hid the Grebe, but I did manage to find a big flock of Mallards and Black Ducks with a few Green-winged Teal mixed in, the latter two year birds and the last one a Wake County bird. The regulars were still there though, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser and a couple hundred Ring-billed Gulls sitting on the ice.  I even picked up a solo Wild Turkey on the far shore, a nice bird I won’t have to worry about making a special effort for going forward.

Hooded Mergansers especially were the most prevalent species, with nearly 200 of them bobbing their heads and making the weird bullfroggy display vocalization.  They were so thick I could hear I could hear it from several hundred meters away.

Better was my side trip to Rollingview park, on the Durham County side of Falls Lake.  The White-winged Scoter that had been teasing me again failed to show, but a small flock of ducks on the Durham side of the lake (important for county listing purposes) contained Canvasback, Redhead, American Wigeon, Gadwall, and Green-winged Teal.  All county birds for Durham and, especially in the case of the Canvasback and Redhead, easy to miss species in the triangle.

I ended the weekend with 6 new Durham County birds (all ducks), 4 new Wake County birds and 7 birds for the year bringing me to 82.  I would have liked to have gotten to 90 by now, there are still a handful of easy birds I’ve yet to find that would do it, but beggers can’t be choosers. .

With the Superbowl of Birding coming up I’ll have to take next weekend off of the grind, but I’ll be back soon enough.

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4 Comments
  1. January 24, 2011 8:57 am

    Waiting for those ducks to come back north!!!!!

    Thanks for the update!

  2. BirdTrainerRobert permalink
    January 24, 2011 12:55 pm

    Yikes, you spiked in Durham there, Nate. I’ve gotta get on it!

  3. Nate permalink*
    January 24, 2011 1:34 pm

    @Laurent- Soon enough. For my own reasons, I’d prefer they stay down here a little longer.

    @Robert- Game on! 😉

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