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Two days, two lakes

March 7, 2011

I try hard to put together some sort of compelling narrative when I write these “trip report” posts.  I am well aware that it would take a person pretty bizarrely fascinated in the fairly banal nature of birding in a not terribly notable place like the North Carolina Piedmont to even consider reading these things from a I-went-there-and-saw-this perspective.  You can get away with that in some parts of the world, even in this country, but nothing I really see on a week to week basis is the sort of thing that would have people feverishly booking tickets to Raleigh to find a handful of species that can be easily observed practically anywhere on the east coast of the continent*.  In fact, I’m pretty sure it really only appeals to the handful of local birders who read this blog.  This is my curse.

*And not to be too unseemly, this is part of the reason I’m so glad to be the only real regular bird blogger covering this area.  If someone else moved in, like, say, Robert from Birding is Fun (who almost actually did move to the Triangle), I would have been totally sca-reeeewed because his photos are so much better than mine…


March is slow birding.  There’s no two ways about it.  Being in the south is a salve to some extent – we’re probably not more than a couple weeks away from the first trickle of spring migration and stuff like Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Yellow-throated Warblers will be here shortly –  but it’s worse than you may think.  The big onrush of neotrops doesn’t happen here appreciably sooner than it does in parts north, so we just have a longer period of waiting.  And let me tell you, the period of time between the first Louisiana Waterthrush and the first Blackpoll Warbler feels like an eternity.

Water birds are definitely moving though, but they’re nearly impossible to predict.  The larger bodies of water can be productive but the difference between a flat empty lake and a duck-travaganza can be a matter of hours.  Here one day and gone tomorrow is the name of the game.  But ducks seemed to be the best risk vs reward for the weekend, so off I went to the major lakes.

Saturday was Jordan Lake in Chatham County.  The hoped for Loons never materialized as most of the lake was covered in speedboats on a pleasant Saturday morning.  The bird count was practically nil, and even the 60,000 odd gulls that had been wintering on the lake in response to the opening of a new landfill not more than ten miles away, had beat it back northward.  There were fewer than 100 individuals of the three regularly occurring species on the water, a pittance in the wake of the massive gull year we’d had.  There were a handful of Herrings that made things interesting, both first year birds and nappy adults, the first group in various stages of molt that made things a little interesting.  Other stops on the lake to check for the Common Mergansers that had been reported earlier in the week were fruitless.

Sunday, though, was overcast with the constant threat of rain.  A worse day that the day before by nearly every objective standard.  I went the other way, to Falls Lake east of Durham in the hopes that the boats that seemed to have kept the birds away at Jordan would be less of a problem.  My first stop was at Hickory Hills boat ramp, a place that always seems as though it should be better than it ever is, where I quickly picked out a small flock of distant Lesser Scaup.  That’s great enough, as Lesser Scaup was a new Durham County bird, but closer inspection revealed a pair of Redhead in the mix.  Even closer inspection revealed a female Red-breasted Merganser tucked in behind them.

I say it was a Red-breasted now.  I spent a fair bit of time on this bird trying to turn it into a Common Merganser, a much better bird for the area and not one on my expected list of 200 species for the Triangle, by sheer force of will.  This was not to be, but never let it be said that distant female Mergus mergansers are not one of the more underrated ID challenges.

So that’s two new county birds, and one new year bird (the Merg).  Already this day was shaping up to be better than before.  A stop at Rolling View, with a view of the deepest and widest part of the lake, promised to be even more fun.  I quickly picked up a handful of Horned Grebes (Durham County bird #3 for the day) and went to work on a tight flock of what appeared to be uniformly Lesser Scaup, finding nothing of note.  I finished a scan of the lake and returned to the Scaup, but this time the flock had spread out enough to note a single male Northern Shoveler in the mix.  Score!

Gulls and Cormorants, nearly absent in numbers from Jordan the day before, where all over the place.  A large feeding frenzy attracted the attention of a young Bald Eagle, and I watched it chase Ring-billed Gulls to no avail.  It was like a Cadillac El Dorado chasing a motorbike.  The Eagle was faster in the flats, but the gull twisted and turned away until the raptor headed off to poach easier prey.

Last but not least was the first Osprey of the year.  A true sign of spring if there ever was one.  Lest I get excited though, I should remind myself it’ll be six more weeks before the first Broad-winged Hawk.

101 down, 115 to go.

  1. David permalink
    March 7, 2011 8:43 am

    Actually, I`m from Ontario and your blog is appointment viewing. I always enjoy reading about places far enough away that what you get is not quite what I get up here but there is overlap. It makes for interesting reading.

  2. Nate permalink*
    March 7, 2011 9:22 am

    @David- Thanks! I’m glad to know these posts manage to find an audience. It would also help if I had a slighter stronger photographer’s mentality. The Osprey flew right over my head, but I had left my camera in the car…

  3. March 7, 2011 12:19 pm

    I can relate to your “not great” birding location blog blues. I live in a county with a similar non-claim to fame. Just one county to the east produces so much more in the way of birding excitement. And my time for birding even in this non-exciting county is limited by spending most Saturday’s taking care of my 85 year old dad and the occasional need to actually do some housecleaning on Sundays when I can’t ignore it any longer. You’re not the only one who isn’t birding daily in, say, Cape May or Tanzania.

  4. Amanda permalink
    March 11, 2011 6:06 pm

    I love your blog, and it is so helpful for me as a new birder. I’m in Charlotte, so I come here to see what kinds of birds I could be looking for in my area!

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