Marking Time in the Southern Appalachians

Avian rarities abound across much of the US but things here in NC remain quiet.

That has been the story of this summer. I knew that NC itself was not a hotspot for rarities, but I had hoped that there would be some staked-out rarities close enough to chase during the last few months. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.

Meanwhile, back in the Rio Grande Valley (and nearby), three birds I still need have shown up, and farther west, even more; not to mention all the great finds throughout the summer in Alaska. Sigh! It has been hard to sit and watch without jumping up for a mad dash across the country.

Why not chase those far-away rarities? There are two main answers to that question. The first is that we are in the midst of selling our home in Texas and we have been waiting to clear up all the paperwork before we hit the road for any major trips. The second is that long-distance chasing is not in keeping with the main theme of my Eight Years to 800!? concept. That is, it is not in keeping with the Birding on a Budget philosophy.

Anyone can see lots of species in a short time if they have unlimited cash to spend on plane tickets and specialty guided tours, but that is not what I’m trying to do. I want to see if a “reasonable budget” can produce 800 species in a “reasonable time.”

So far, I have been a bit disappointed. But that is more because of my innate impatience than the actual results to date. I have added 20 species to my new life list this year; all in the first five months. In the last two-and-a-half months … nada. I had hoped for four or five rarities and specialties during trips from our NC base to NJ and FL. Instead, I missed the European Golden Plover in NJ by a full month and struck out completely on all the FL specialties I still need to see during our short visit there. There have been other possibilities, but none have been sure enough bets to justify the cost of chasing them.

So, here I sit in NC and wait until the promise of fall, when our house is sold and we are free to set off on a merry chase of more rarities across the US.

The Frustrations of the Chase

We just returned from a brief stay in Florida where we went ZERO FOR EVERYTHING when trying to find new birds!

To be fair, none of the birds we were trying to see was a staked out rarity. In fact, none of the reports we followed was even very recent, and all seem to have been one day wonders; no one other than the original reporter has reported the bird again. But it is still very frustrating to spend so much time and effort and come up completely empty.

After spending a few days visiting Renee’s mother in Sarasota, we decided to take a couple of days to look for a selection of Florida specialties that we missed during our Big Year. All of the birds we targeted had been seen in the past few weeks but none were being seen regularly. Indeed, some of the species are quite rare, so we had fairly low expectations. We were hoping to see two of the six target species. Instead, we saw none.

Our first target was Bahama Mockingbird. Several had been seen during the spring but the latest reports were at least 10 days old. Still, we figured that it was worth a shot, since these are notorious skulkers and they might be overlooked. The nearest report to where we were staying in Sarasota was a bird seen at Leffis Key near Bradenton Beach. We tried for that bird, but the weather was hot, hot, hot and we had no luck. The only birds we saw in the area were Northern Mockingbird, Fish Crow, and Laughing Gull.

Our next target was Smooth-billed Ani. This bird was seen near Belle Glade, about three hours from Sarasota, so we drove down to spend a day in that area. The search seemed promising at first, but again weather provided some obstacles, this time in the form of wind and rain. After getting soaked (despite my rain gear) I decided to call it quits and try elsewhere.

The following morning found us at Juno Dunes Natural Area, just south of Jupiter, FL. The target here was a female Bananaquit that had been seen about a week prior (with no follow-up reports). We found the area to be interesting and the birding was fun, but the “quit” did not make an appearance. It was a very long shot to begin with, so we were not too surprised or discouraged by the results.

For the rest of our stay in the area we tried multiple locations for the supposedly more common specialties: Purple Swamphen, Spot-breasted Oriole, and exotic parrots (with one long-shot stop to visit an area where flamingoes had been reported in the fairly distant past). At each stop, we were often encouraged by the habitat but always discouraged by the lack of birds. I did hear a suspected swamphen at one location (the pond at City Furniture in Tamarac) but was not certain of the id. In most cases, the needle in a haystack phenomenon as definitely at play.

Perhaps the biggest frustration was the fact that during our stay in Florida (and before that in North Carolina) rare birds continued to show up in the places we had left. We left Texas in April and Yellow-green Vireo and Green Violetear showed up in May and June. I had been in Arizona in April but the Buff-collared Nightjar and Yellow Grosbeak did not show up until May and June. (The grosbeak added insult to injury by being found within five miles of our place in Rodeo, NM!) It seems the rarities are only being found where we are NOT.

The lesson of this is, obviously, that I need to be more active at chasing the rarities, no matter where they may be. But that takes more time and money than I care to spend at the present time. Once we sell our home in Texas and can spend more time on the road, I’ll try to rectify that. Let’s just hope that the birds are there, somewhere, in the future.

A Brief Trip to Visit Family – No New Birds

We just returned from a short trip to visit our sons, Michael’s father and brother, and Renee’s brother along the east coast. We did some “recreational birding” but there was nothing around to chase for the Eight Years project.

Birding was good. There were lots of birds in the thick of breeding and still fairly large numbers of shorebirds making a late migration push up to the Arctic. We took the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel but there was nothing of note along the shore. We also took the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. We didn’t see any new birds but the captain of the ferry made a special effort to show us a humpback whale in Delaware Bay! One sour note: lots of ticks in the woods of NJ.

We are debating our next trip. We had planned to do a Florida chase but there isn’t anything left down there to chase. We’ll be visiting Renee’s mom around the 4th of July, so we’ll probably do at least a few days in FL.

It sure would be nice to have a rarity or two, though.

Cape Hatteras and Pelagic Birding (3 of 3 parts)

This last installment of our trip report from Cape Hatteras details the real purpose of the trip, two pelagic tours from Hatteras out to the Gulf Stream with Brian Patteson and his First Mate, Kate.

I had never done an Atlantic Ocean pelagic trip before and had only done a handful of trips out west, so I had high hopes for adding to my new Eight Years to 800!? list. I researched the best times of year for me to see new species and chose early in Brian’s  spring season as the best time for most of the regulars and some of the rarities. Indeed, the day before our first trip, while we were being blown about on the beach, Brian had braved the rough conditions with a group of birders and it had paid off spectacularly. They paid a price in seasickness in the rough weather but saw 12 different species of tube-noses, including the very rare European Storm-Petrel (Code 4).

The winds had died down considerably and had shifted more to the west but conditions were still fairly rough as we boarded the boat. Westerly winds are far from ideal. They tend to push some of the birds farther offshore but as Brian said, “If we have half as good a day as we did yesterday, it will still be great.” So, we had high hopes of reaching our goal of getting six to eight new species for the list.

The trip out was rough and wet. Neither of us had ever been seasick before but unfortunately our first Atlantic pelagic changed that. The first four hours of the day proved to be a real birding challenge, with seasickness and a pitching and rolling deck making it very hard to get more than passing looks at anything.

Fortunately, there were hundreds of birds around so even with just fleeting glimpses at many of them we still managed to learn to recognize most of what we were seeing. Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and Sooty Shearwaters were not new for the list but Black-capped Petrel and Cory’s and Audubon’s Shearwaters were. We had half of our minimum goal by 9 AM.

As the day wore on, conditions became more calm, and despite the lower winds, birds continued to stream by or come in to the chum behind the boat, including a Pomarine Jaeger and Arctic and Common Terns. Our seasickness had passed and I was able to start getting some pictures of our quarry.

Band-rumped Storm-Petrels joined the Wilson’s and we ticked another new species. A South Polar Skua (not new) followed along for a while as well, posing for some close photos.

But nothing rare had been spotted yet and Brian and Kate turned their attention to trying to find one of the Code 3+ petrels they had seen the day before. Their persistence paid off when a Fea’s Petrel (Code 3) made a couple of passes by the boat, adding our fifth new species of the day.

Soon it was time to start back. Conditions had grown very pleasant and the return trip produced no further seasickness problems, but also no further birds.

Overnight, a front was predicted to pass and shift the winds out of the north. It stalled out a bit to the north, however, and the morning dawned with almost no winds. The ride out to the Gulf Stream was very smooth and no sickness hampered the second day. Unfortunately, with calmer winds, there were fewer pelagic birds in the air. Pelagic birds love to ride the sea winds and more wind usually means more birds.

There were still plenty of the usual Wilson’s and Black-capped’s and the regular shearwaters, but I saw nothing new for most of the morning. Finally, just before noon, a Great Shearwater flew in to the chum and spent a couple of hours following the boat.

Much of the afternoon was spent with long periods of little activity. The north winds had finally arrived and conditions were getting better for seeing birds but the temperatures were warm and the sky was clear so that basking in the sun easily led to the temptation to take a little nap! But we all kept our eyes to the skies and eventually it paid off when a distant Trinidade (Herald) Petrel made an appearance. I was on the bird when Brian called it out but even he was unsure due to how far away it was.

It was getting close to quitting time and I was debating with myself whether or not to count the Trinidade when my problem was solved. A second light morph Trinidade Petrel made a very close pass by the boat and we all were able to see it clearly. Unfortunately, it did not swing around for another look and I was unable to get any pictures.

The ride back to dock was as smooth as I have ever seen an ocean and there were no qualms about napping then. All told, my two pelagic trips produced seven new birds for my list, a very respectable total.

Cape Hatteras and Pelagic Birding (2 of 3 parts)

Cape Hatteras National Seashore Is the topic of this second of three posts about our first birding trip in North Carolina.

It is a long way from our summer place in Franklin to Hatteras, NC; almost 600 miles. The last 60, or so, of those miles, from Nags Head down to Hatteras, are within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Our introduction to the seashore was similar to our trip across the state; that is, we did not see as many birds as we had hoped. Most of the reason for that, it turns out, was that we arrived in the middle of afternoon and traveled only along the main Highway 12 corridor to reach our campground at Frisco. Once settled in at the campground, however, we made a more serious effort to find birds.

We were immediately rewarded by an unusual sighting, our only Northern Gannet of the trip. It was feeding very close to shore as we made our first visit to Frisco Beach. Normally, it takes diligent scanning of the horizon to spot gannets offshore, but this bird was cruising along the surf zone. Of course, I had forgotten my camera, but I immediately returned to the van to get it, in case other unusual birds followed.

And they did. Feeding in the waves was a nice assortment of shorebirds all decked out in their spring best. Usually, we had to be content to see shorebirds in their drab, winter plumage in South Texas, but here, the Red Knots, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings and Black-bellied Plovers, among others, were sporting their colorful breeding feathers.

 

The most interesting find of the day was a group of banded and color marked Red Knots that were in the flock of about 40 birds. All together, we found at least seven marked individuals in the flock. We don’t know, yet, exactly where they were banded but our search of the internet leads to a group of researchers in Argentina as the most likely source of the bands. Here is one example of the birds we saw:

As evening waned we heard Common Nighthawk and Chuck-will’s-widow calling over and within the brush among the dunes and listened to the final songs of the day from the mockingbirds, thrashers, towhees and others at the campground.

The next day was very windy. We ventured out to the beach at first light, but the wind was so strong that we could not keep our caps on our heads and I was afraid that my camera lens would be sand-blasted. The birds were still there, however, and I did manage to get some more photos to document the banded knots before deciding to call it quits. As we were leaving the beach we spotted our most unusual sighting of the seashore. An adult Lesser Black-backed Gull was feeding in the surf.

The rest of the second day was spent exploring the history and amenities of the islands and dropping our dog off at the boarding kennel so we could get ready for the first of our pelagic trips the next day.

After the pelagics, we spent one more morning birding the seashore. The winds had shifted around to the north after the passage of a weak cool front and many shorebirds were feeding on the beaches and mudflats. Mostly, there were Dunlins, Semi-palmated Sandpipers, and yellowlegs, but we did manage to find a White-rumped Sandpiper in the crowd. We also saw more herons, egrets, and ibises than we had seen before.

As the day wore on, it began to get more and more crowded. It was Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, after all, and the tourists were out in force. We left the barrier islands and headed home.

All told, we had a decent birding experience at the National Seashore, and the story of the banded Red Knots is very interesting, but we know we missed quite a bit. We definitely need to go back again … this time, NOT during a major holiday weekend.

Cape Hatteras and Gulf Stream Pelagics (1 of 3 parts)

We have just returned from our first full-scale birding adventure in North Carolina. We journeyed to Cape Hatteras National Seashore and took a couple of pelagic trips with the dean of Atlantic/Gulf Stream birding, Brian Patteson.

I’m going to report on the trip in three parts: the general birding to and from Cape Hatteras (There are a lot of elevation and habitat changes along the way.); the birding in the National Seashore; and the pelagic trips.

First, my general impressions of the birding on the trip to and from the Cape…

I wrote earlier on this blog about the lack of bird diversity in North Carolina compared to what we were used to in South Texas, and this trip only reinforced that impression. We spent seven days, drove over 1300 miles and visited at least 10 distinct habitats, but still only managed to compile a trip list of 113 species. (The Big Sit at Estero Llano Grande State Park’s deck in Weslaco, TX had more species than that in one day recorded from within a 17 foot diameter circle!)

Admittedly, it was not all the birds’ fault. We were somewhat rushed at times and did not always give an area the time it deserved, but there were several times when we spent some time searching an area and literally did not see a single bird and heard just one or two. Of course, not all areas were that sparsely populated. We had good luck finding “all the usual suspects” in a fair number of places. It’s just that “the usual suspects” tend to be almost the same just about everywhere you go.

North Carolina is divided into three main ecoregions, the mountains, the peidmont, and the coastal plain. We began our trip from a fairly low elevation in the mountains (Franklin is about 2100 feet a.s.l.), drove over to the peidmont to spend the first night at Falls Lake State Park, just north of Raleigh, and dropped down to the coastal plain and over to the barrier islands of Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

We did only roadside birding along the way and at rest stops until the state park and did not see very much at all. The park was decidedly better. It is a large reservoir surrounded by mixed deciduous forest and some pines. Our campground was quite birdy and we saw or heard 35 species there in about two hours of birding. Nothing was rare or unusual, but it was the only place that we found Ovenbird on the trip.

From the park we dropped down through mostly farms and fields and into the forests and rivers of the coastal plain. Birding here was the most disappointing of the trip. It may have been that we were traveling through during late morning and early afternoon, not prime birding times, but we saw practically nothing in the wetland habitats we most expected to find birds. Even the trip across the causeways to Cape Hatteras was dull. It was a big deal when we finally saw a Great Black-backed Gull on a piling!

(I’ll write about the barrier islands and pelagic portions of the trip later, but now I’ll finish the general “travel birding” report.) Our trip back from Cape Hatteras was better. We spent several hours in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, and although we did not compile a big list, we had some great looks at Prairie and Prothonotary Warblers and added several more species to our trip list. Roadside birding was also better. We picked up more species at rest areas, including Cedar Waxwing and Dark-eyed Junco as we climbed back up toward the mountains.

The best birding, however, was when we decided to take a detour from the main roads and travel about 50 miles along the Blue Ridge Parkway. On this section of the road we climbed from about 3000 feet up to over 6000 feet. At these high elevations many of the birds that are more characteristic of the northern tier of states or southern Canada are found in Appalachian Mountain refugia. For example, we found Canada Warbler and Black-throated Green Warbler in a remnant stand of spruce-fir forest near the highest point of the Parkway and we added several other new species as well. Mountain birding was also good at lower elevations as we descended back toFranklin.

All in all, despite being spoiled by the high diversity of the Rio Grande Valley, we saw some nice birds during our “travel mode” birding, and we definitely want to spend more time exploring the higher elevations near us.

(Next up: Birding in Cape Hatteras National Seashore)

Sorry for the Silence

We have been so busy moving into our new place in Franklin, NC and getting our van outfitted for camping that I have not had time to write.

Unfortunately, now that I do have some time, there is not much to write about. Birding here has been rather slow so far. It is nice to reacquaint myself with all of the eastern species I grew up with, but bird diversity here is only about half of what it is in the RGV of Texas. I had a Valley list of about 356 species. (Over 500 have been seen there.) The local bird club lists 179 for Franklin and vicinity.

Still, birding has been fun. I have especially enjoyed hearing the local dialects. Yesterday, we heard Black-throated Blue Warblers singing a song that was nothing like the ones on our birding apps. It has also been fun to explore new birding haunts.

As we settled in I kept an eye on the rarities around the US. This spring has been nothing short of amazing! More rare birds continue to pop up all the time. It has given me hope that, despite all the time I have been stuck unable to chase, rarities will still be around when I do finally get more time.

That time is rapidly approaching. Next week we head to Hatteras, NC to take some pelagic trips with Brian Patteson. I have never done an east coast pelagic and I’m hoping to add between six (better than a 50% chance) and 10 (a long shot) new species to my Eight Years to 800!? life list. After that, we are going north to visit family in NJ. It’s not likely that I’ll find anything new, but a rarity may show up. Finally, we plan to visit family in Florida later in June and try to chase down some of the local specials we missed during our Big Year. If I am lucky, some of the rarities will still be around, too.

I’ll let you know how it all turns out. Wish me luck.

So Long, and Thanks for All the Birds!

Our final week in Texas epitomized how great birding there is!

Last week I wrote about how frustrating it was to be “stuck at home” preparing for our move to our summer place in North Carolina and not to be able to chase rarities. We finally left the home in the hands of the real estate agent and started on our way, spending four days birding up the Texas coast.

Our first stop was Goose Island State Park to visit with our friends Larry and Judy Geiger, who were the bird hosts there for the month of April. The birding started out slowly but as the day wore on overcast skies and north winds provided a mini fallout of migrants. The highlight was a six-pack of vireos; six species (White-eyed, Red-eyed, Yellow-throated, Warbling, Blue-headed, and Philadelphia Vireo) for the day! The next morning was even better, with over 15 species of warblers and a variety of other migrants joining the vireos.

As great as the migrant show was, I had an even bigger birding goal in mind and left Goose Island to head a bit farther up the coast to Mad Island Marsh in search of a White-cheeked Pintail. The bird was first located during a Texas Ornithological Society field trip a week before, but because the area is normally closed to the public, I had to wait to chase it. Fortunately, Brent Ortego, an employee of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (who manage the Mad Island Wildlife Management Area), arranged for a special bird-finding tour and I was lucky enough to be on the list of participants.

After about an hour of checking in and driving through the management area, it only took Brent a few minutes to find a flock of ducks on the marsh and the pintail was in the group! The views were fairly distant but the bird was unmistakable.

Fresh from this birding success, our next stop was Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge to look for a lingering Ruff (or Reeve). Again, the bird had been around for a week or more but we couldn’t drop everything and head up to see it. It was easily accessible from our travel route, however, since Anahuac NWR is only about 30 minutes from Interstate 10, our route east out of Texas.

True to its previous pattern, the Ruff was easily found foraging a few dozen yards from the observation platform on the road to Frozen Point. The bird appears to be a female, so her plumage was quite subtle, but still readily differentiated from other species in the marsh.

So, after bemoaning my inability to find rarities, I found two in one day. Thanks, Texas! We’ll certainly miss birding there, but we’ll be back next fall.

Getting Close to Moving Day!

I have been so busy preparing to put our Texas home on the market and move to our summer place in the Great Smoky Mountains that I have not been able to chase some fantastic rarities that have shown up.

Fortunately for my sanity, most of the rarities that I have missed have been one-day wonders and I can at least rationalize my inability to chase with the “It wouldn’t have been there anyway.” excuse. But the string of rare birds has been impressive, and impressively frustrating, nonetheless.

Since returning from my trip to North Carolina (and missing the Texas flamingo pair along the way) there have been the following rarities:

  1. Marsh Sandpiper in CA – too far to chase
  2. Common Crane in NE – too far to chase
  3. Slate-throated Redstart in AZ – not refound
  4. Northern Wheatear in NM – too far to chase
  5. Thick-billed Vireo in FL – not refound
  6. Flame-colored Tanager in AZ – too far to chase
  7. Black-vented Oriole in TX – not refound
  8. Slate-throated Redstart in TX – not refound
  9. Bahama Mockingbird in FL – too far to chase
  10. Fork-tailed Flycatcher in FL – too far to chase
  11. Tufted Flycatcher in TX – not refound
That’s an amazing list for such a short time (12 days)! But it is depressing to think that I was unable to get away because I had to paint or clean something to get ready for selling the house! The activity that kept me stuck in the RGV instead of chasing birds was just too mundane!
This experience illustrates an important point about my Eight Years to 800!? project. I need to be patient. I still have over six years to reach my goal and if 11 rarities can show up in just 12 days, then that gives me hope that I will have many more chances to chase birds once we have made our move and I have the freedom to drop whatever I’m doing and head out after a rarity.
You’ll also notice that I have labeled all of the birds as “too far to chase” or “not refound.” The definition of what is too far to chase will change once we have sold our home and we are traveling more. Then, we can travel farther in search of rarities if we were heading that way or can make an excuse to head that way. But, I’ll still wait until a rarity is confirmed and is found to be fairly reliable before chasing. My budget won’t allow chasing if the bird turns out to be just a one-day wonder. I’d be out of funds very quickly with nothing to show for it that way.

So, patience is the word of the day. Yesterday, we listed the home and our move is just 10 days away. I think I can wait that long to chase rarities … unless some of those TX birds are refound!

Update on the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

San Miguelito Ranch is OPEN and they have owls in the yard!

In my post about finding pygmy-owls I mentioned San Miguelito Ranch and indicated that the website was not working and the ranch was for sale. That is true. The owner, Letty, is no longer using the website (Look for the ranch at San Miguelito Ranch Birding on FaceBook instead.) and the ranch is up for sale. But, after last year’s horrible drought chased away her birds, this year’s wetter weather has brought them back! So NOW is the time to go see them.

Don’t wait. Letty’s season is a brief one. Call her at 956-369-3118 and arrange a visit. The cost is $30 per person. (That’s a BARGAIN!)