Drizzling. Overcast. Foggy.
The Saturday morning I woke up to this past weekend was exactly the sort of day that, had I not had a Big Year to attend to, I would have probably rolled right over and decided for a morning with the family around the house. But attend I needed to. It is late September, after all. The late summer weekends obsessing over shorebirds haven’t exactly come to an end now that the official beginning of fall has come and gone, but the passerine migration has more or less snuck up on me. Reports of migrating warblers are once again piling in, and here I was trying to pick up one or two more plovers on the messy mudflats of Falls Lake. Why wade through mud when little birds in the treetops are practically begging for my attention, and offering opportunities to make significant inroads into my Big Year list? I know, the question seemed stupid when I asked it of myself too. Lake Crabtree County Park in Wake County had been putting up some good numbers and variety lately. So there I went.
It’s a shame, though, that the morning wasn’t more like those crisp fall days you imagine for epic fall waves. It was overcast, as mentioned before, and so humid that I felt like I needed box cutter to slice my way through the air. And early morning fog conspired to leave most of the warblers in the very tops of the trees unidentified, members of that most reviled wood-warbler genus, Sillhouettia, whose members include the confounding Cape Maybe-not Warbler, the frustrating Hide-ed Warbler, and the nigh on maddening Tenne-can’t-see.
Trying to dodge the rain and figure out the birds was difficult to say the least, especially with respect to the metric ton of Pine Warblers of every conceivable plumage in the immediate area, but I managed at least one Cape May Warbler early on (completely expected), and a Tennessee Warbler (less expected) that perched low enough that I didn’t have to risk the bane of all rain-birders, the infernal drizzle specks on my binoculars. A bird that I really wanted to make into a Philly Vireo set up on a bare branch but the rain prevented me from getting the look I needed before it slipped away. Too bad, that one would have been a state bird for me.
Once things began to dry out, the bird activity began in earnest. I came across a couple good little flocks containing the expected species: Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, Cape May, Black-throated Blue and multiple Redstarts. A Black-and-White Warbler peered into some dead leaves, a Yellow-breasted Chat burst out of a Sweetgum thicket, a Summer Tanager responded to pishing and headed off upon discovering it was only me. The birds slowly came out as things began to dry. A walk down by the lake itself produced a male Blackburnian Warbler and a flock, albeit loosely defined, of Northern Parulas that were ridiculous responsive to a little thin pishing and came crashing down on top of me not more than a few feet away. I had at least 15 in one small oak tree at one time, more than I’d ever seen.
And once I had my camera out, the feeding flock continued to swirl around me. A Black-and-White paused.
Chickadees led me to another feeding flock, this one farther from the lakeshore and containing some more woods-loving species, particularly this little female Cape May Warbler, a bird I almost never seen more than 20 to 30 feet of the ground, hopping around in a fruiting dogwood. Finally! Confirmation of the day’s new birds!
A total of 12 warblers for the morning, a fair total, including three new species for the year. I sit on the precipice of 200 for the year which, I don’t think I’m bragging too much, would be a pretty good total for a guy with a full-time job and a toddler at home. If that sounds like equivocation in the face of failing to match my pre-Big Year goal of 216, you bet it is. I need to be better about setting the bar lower so that I can clear it guilt-free. 200 is the new 216.