A Golden Warbler Weekend
My wife mentioned the other day that it seems like all I do on this blog anymore is complain about birds I don’t see. She’s not that far off, I guess. One of the unfortunate side effects of doing any sort of Big Year is that the misses seem to loom larger than the hits. It really shouldn’t be that way. By all accounts I’ve had a pretty fantastic year. I’ve seen Parasitic Jaeger in the Triangle. Buff-breasted Sandpipers too. I’ve increased by county lists in all four Triangle counties by a significant amount. Sure, there are a few birds I don’t have that I should, I guess. And sure, I tend to perseverate on those misses more than bask in the glory of the hits, but if I imply that I’m not having a good time doing this, or that my time in the field is full of gnashing teeth and flailing limbs, that would be incorrect. Case in point, this past weekend.
I’ve been working to try to fill in the the gaps in my warbler list for the year now that the shorebirds have mostly removed themselves from the Big Year playing area, and I have to say I’ve been pretty successful. Nearly ever species that I missed in the spring has fallen into place easy as pie in the fall. Cape May? Dozens. Black-throated Green? Why was I so worried? Blackburnian? No fire-throated spring males, but the subtler fall birds in comfortable abundance.
All that seem to be left are the slightly less common species. Your Canadas and Bay-breasteds and Nashvilles. Birds that I don’t see every year and that I’m pretty lucky to get in this part of the state anyway. The first couple weeks of October are peak time around here for many of them, and so long as the Yellow-rumps aren’t starting to swamp the warbler flocks, heralding the true end of fall and giving the bum’s rush to the flashier species, practically anything is possible. So bouyed by reports of excellent warbler diversity and numbers around the shores of Jordan Lake, I headed down to Chatham County both days this weekend to see if I could clean up on some Parulids.
Saturday I was with my son, which generally means I’m able to do less hard birding but thankfully the birds were so thick I didn’t need to move around much. The mature trees around the parking lot by the lake were crawling with birds, mostly Pine Warblers, but impressive numbers of Cape Mays, Tennessees and many others. The birds were constantly flying overhead from tree to tree and I was able to work on my flight calls while I watched my son run around on the playground (I generally try to chose a site with a playground when I’m birding with him). Notable this far inland was a small group of Blackpoll Warblers that I ran into several times over the course of the morning. Blackpolls usually migrate down the coast in big numbers, reaching the end of the Outer Banks before taking off straight south over the ocean to South America in one of those super impressive migrations you always hear about.
Blackpolls are great, and I always enjoy seeing them in the fall, but no amount of massaging some of the blurrier individuals into Bay-breasted Warblers would be successful. I had to be happy with what I had.
And speaking of confusing species, the local Pine Warbler population was out in force. I think fall Pines are under-rated as identification challenges. Sure, the burnished gold adult males are pretty obvious, but I’m constantly amazed at the diversity of plumages you can see in practically every other age. You can take your Baypolls and your young Cape Mays, but the the nearly featureless, gray, first year females are among the most confusing birds in North America. I will not be convinced otherwise.
I had run into another birder, one I see fairly often out and about, and we compared notes. We had both picked up the same species and neither had hope for much more when I slowly walked up and down a row of brushy woods near the road. Several birds were flitting around, and I busied myself picking out those I could while Noah, on my back by now, declared his desire to return to the playground. I was just about to call it a morning and finish up on the slide when the next bird I spotted showed that classic black and gray face that is distinctive even with only a second’s glance.
“Golden-winged! I’ve got a Golden-winged!”, I yelled.
The other birder, packing up into his pickup ran over and we spent a tense few minutes trying to get back on the bird. I could see it moving, but it didn’t want to come out into the open and so this poor birder was standing there trying to look where I was looking to see what, for just about anyone, is easily one of the most impressive in the warbler world, and an excellent bird for the state besides. I spotted it briefly again, but he never found it. I reported it to the listserv and planned to head out the next morning, sans kiddo, to try again. I still needed Bay-breasted after all.
I returned the next morning to find about ten birders poking around in the area where I found the Golden-winged. I was in the middle of a low-level twitch!
The wind was a little stiffer and out of the north, so I wondered if any birds had stuck around an extra day. The morning was pretty quiet with much of the numbers I’d seen the day before vamoosed. Once the wind died, however, things started coming out. I picked up a Ovenbird, new for the weekend, and started finding Black-throated Blues every which way. Definitely a smart bird, and one you shouldn’t even be able to get tired of.
With no Golden-wing stakeout necessary for me, and annoyed by all the loud pishers and whatnot, I walked around the peninsula looking for anything and everything. No new birds but an amazingly brave and beautiful Black-and-White Warbler came within about five feet of me in response to a little screech owl whinny. More on this bird later as I unpack some of the better photos.
I looped back around to hear that the group of Golden-wingers had turned up an Orange-crowned, a bird I need for the year. I couldn’t refind it, not for lack of trying, but I should be able to find one somewhere in the next week or so. At least I hope so, I wouldn’t want to be seen as complaining or anything.