The Triangle is served by two large reservoirs the newest, and largest, of which, Jordan Lake, was created only in 1973 from the damming of the New Hope River by the Corp of Engineers in one of those unclear projects that the Corp always seems to take on to stay busy. While a lot of fertile farmland was destroyed and one scenic river modified to create the lake Jordan Lake was something of a boon for area birders. More excellent vagrants have been seen at Jordan Lake than just about anywhere in the Piedmont, and because of strict regulations concerning water quality (more or less effective depending on Chatham County’s planning and zoning priorities), the forests surrounding the lake are protected as gamelands by the state parks department. So despite the fact that the lake is artificial, the end result is generally positive for birds.
When Jordan Lake was dammed, Congress authorized several waterfowl impoundments to mitigate the loss of habitat in the wetlands in the flooded river bottom. Those wetlands were turned over the NC Wildlife Resource Commission as spots for hunting, though as development has spread through Durham and Orange Counties, coming up against many of these impoundments, that’s less and less common. These days the flooded forests usually attracts fishermen and, because these little patches of man-made swamp are generally pretty good for waterfowl and wading birds, birders.
There’s one in south Durham, tucked right up against the sprawling shopping centers and rows of manicured townhomes, that consists of acres of swamped willow trees and the gnarled skeletons of trees left in place to die after the dam went up 40 miles to the south. These places are generally not maintained like a nature center or a state park. A concrete levee sits in the middle of a massive earthen dike that holds back the pond, where a manual gate waits for a WRC agent to come and maintain the levels in times of flood and drought. They never come except in emergencies though, and most of the time the gate sits graffitied and covered with broken beer bottles, and the earthen dike completely engulfed by invasive sericea lespedeza, an insidious exotic plant that makes blazing a trail practically impossible by June. It’s not a pretty place. It’s not a place you’d take a guest, but it’s not an altogether bad place to watch birds. And I’ve been there a couple times this week to look for stuff for my Big Year.
Thursday after work, I stopped by on my way home realizing only when I pulled into the parking lot that I’d left my binoculars at work. This was frustrating to say the least, the bird that was high on my list of targets was not one I expected to be able to find without scanning that forest of dead trees. I had my camera however, and though it wasn’t the best optical tool in my arsenal, I was able to use it to identify a flighty shorebird on a far log. Snap a photo and blow it up on the view finder to confirm my suspicion of Solitary Sandpiper. A new one for the year.
Without bins I was handicapped, but I could still pick out a Spotted Sandpiper bobbing away on a rock and two Great Egrets cuts a pretty definitive figure even half a football field away. Inadvertent birding without bins is not suggested (though I am told there are some people actually prefer it that way (.pdf)), and though I managed three new species for the year, my effectiveness was limited.
Fast forward to Sunday afternoon. Noah is napping so I suggest a quick run out to the impoundment for another looksie. My wife, not entirely happy that I’m cutting out on Mother’s Day, allows me this brief excursion. I arrive, immediately taken aback by a patchwork second year Blue Grosbeak. A lovely bird dressed this way so he can spend a year getting his feet under him without drawing unwanted attention from other, bluer, adulter males. But this one had chosen either a utterly fantastic or a completely terrible spot, as it was the only Blue Grosbeak in the immediate area. There were scads of Indigo Buntings though, which, in groups of four or more, can resemble one Blue Grosbeak. I have no insight as to how things will break for this young male, but if the poor excuse for a Grosbeak song he was singing is any indication, he’s got some work ahead of him.
I shuffled past the graffiti and walked out to where I could see a fairly extensive portion of the swamp. A smallish heron flushed from the base of a willow. My synapses fired as follows, “Green Her… wait… too gray… and big… and… what the… black and white… Night Heron!”.
These New Hope Impoundments are known to host Yellow-crowned Night Herons fairly regularly, but it’s such a large wetland and so poorly accessible and there are really no more than two to three birds at any one time (before they fledge a nestfull, of course), that they’re not often seen. I’ve been coming here and battling the broken glass and lespedeza for a few years hoping to come across a Night Heron. Finally, my long Durham County nightmare is over. County bird #170, and a nice one for my Big Year.
A trio of Great Egrets showed me off, sitting high in the snags like sentinels… or something. I think they’re just sticking it to their gray and black nocturnal cousins. Like they’re so great with their white feathers and their diurnal tendencies. Jerks.
Other Triangle Big Year birds this weekend include Eastern Kingbird at Schenk Forest in Raleigh (a very disappointing site that I never would have gone to if my Bobolink fields hadn’t been mowed to the ground), and Veery and Northern Waterthrush at Mason Farm.
158 down, 58 to go.