Monday, July 13, 2015

The Last of Carolina: A Mélange at Goose Creek SP

Carolina is a great state for birding. It's not California or Texas, nor even Arizona in terms of diversity, but its mountains and its plains and its coast still offer some of the best birding opportunities in the lower 48, especially considering how pretty the surrounding country is (Texas and Arizona cannot always make similar claims). What makes my time birding there even more exciting is that many of the areas where I visit are relatively unestablished on eBird, and as such I can play out my Lewis & Clark naturalist explorer fantasies (the PG-13 ones) with great fulfillment. 

Goose Creek SP is the largest hotspot in my area with about 170 species recorded in total, including a very impressive Shiny Cowbird from 2006. However, in the last 10 years in June, this site had nearer a dozen species recorded. A big site like this? In June? It's a sure thing. There will be many species of bird there, and I can still pretend to be a helpful contributor to citizen science (by confirming what people already would have predicted). For example, nor June records of Common Yellowthroat in the last 10 year? Not any more!!

No June records of two squirrels sitting on a stump in June in the last 10 years? Oh. Well here are some more anyway. Anyhow you get the idea. It's rewarding to explore a place with that burgeoning sense of discovery again, not knowing what all one might find, but knowing one will find a lot, and not just of ticks crawling up the thighs. 

The GC SP is predominantly a deciduous/hard woodland preserve off of the Pamlico River mouth, but this means there's coastal marsh and brackish swamp habitat winding through the preserve. Are you thinking what I'm thinking? Prothonotary Warbler is the correct thought, the loud-singing face-melting I-don't-care-how-close-you-are-on-the-boardwalk Warbler. Icepacks and wardrobe changes were in order. 

PRWAs are superlative and typically accommodating, but their accompanying mosquito clouds really make a fellow feel unwelcome. Even taking into consideration the crevace-invading ticks one picks up in the grass, the woodland areas are more comfortable and not without certain quaint, atavistic amenities. 

The telephone is located adjacent to a designated graveyard for people that died from yellow fever in the early 1800s--make of that what you will.
The wooded areas, as one would expect, were teeming with Cardinals, Jays, and Robins, as well as Vireo species, Flycatchers, and Gnatcatchers. Downy Woodpeckers were both present and small, commensurate to expectation, as were Red-headed Woodpeckers correspondingly present and retiring.

It's still foreign, even a bit awkward, to stand on sandy coast and look up into pine trees, but that is much the experience in Carolina on down through Florida. Pines don't naturally grow below 3500 feet or so in Arizona, but I guess it's only appropriate that where they grow at sea level out east, they also bring bird species whose western counterparts are found in similarly higher elevation. 

Yellow-throated Warbler is the sexier, longer-billed, longer-winded counterpart to our pine-loving Grace's Warblers out west. Like Grace's Warblers and unscrupulous junkies, they simply go where the needles are, and out east that doesn't require the same elevation.

YTWA was one of my main targets for the area, knowing that it would be suitable habitat, this would be only the second time I saw the species, and I had no pictures from the first encounter. The 3 different individuals I logged this time were good sports about it, with one of them even singing/buzzing on territory in a mucho gorgeous way.

There were lots of Acadian Flycatchers around, as well as Eastern Wood-Pewees. Neither posed well nor had much good to say, so I shall return the favor.

Poking around the understory did turn up a few other good ones, including some goofy Ovenbirds. These birds were not quite skulk-meisters of the KEWA or SWWA variety, but they were still pretty withdrawn, and sometimes creepy. 

The Goose Creek SP opens up onto the Pamlico River with a small designated swim area, but enough shoreline to walk along the brackish tidal flats a good ways east and west. The offshore waters are littered with crab pods, and the near-shore tree skeletons are littered with Osprey nests, many of which are impressive in size. 

With their reeking cattail marshes, the tidal flats are also good for Rail species, although I arrived too late in the day for much luck beyond truncated audio. Indigo Buntings were good sports, continuing their excellent recent PR campaign with B's Bs. Great-crested Flycatchers continued their suspicious cold-shouldering, so to each their own.

Many of the pine and oak trees in Carolina are littered with Spanish moss, the zany moss that just won't quit. According to the wikipedia machine, Spanish moss--also known as the 'jellyfish plant' and 'Old-Man Winter's pit hair'--is neither lichen nor moss, but a species of bromeliad plant that populates both with tiny, inconspicuous flowers and by colonizing other trees when fragments of its chains drift onto other hosts. Other fun fact: it's often used by Brown-headed Nuthatches as drapery. 

There are a couple of bothersome things about my time birding in Carolina these last couple years. One is that I have still not seen Scarlet Tanager nor American Redstart (both birds that I first logged, inappropriately, in Arizona) and I am bereft of Orioles. A nifty Orchard Oriole helped assuage my disillusionment about these failings a bit, where are those Baltimores at?
I probably need to branch out with more habitats and hotspots, but it's hard to walk away from the diversity of a place like Goose Creek SP. Sometimes birding requires sacrifice. Sometimes it requires hard work. There are dark times ahead.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Carolina Patches and Unfinished Skulking

Winter and Summer visits to the coastal plain of Carolina have now become a regular part of my annual peregrinations, and apart from the major pains that come with flying out of the east coast, this has been a welcome thing. Bird-wise this opens up new state and county lists to lazily track, and a very welcome new cadre of potential life birds. Perhaps most satisfactorily, it provides regular opportunity for closer encounters with bird species that are relatively rare or even non-existent in my home state. Even with the humidity and the biting bugs, they are sweet days indeed when all of these factors coalesce. 

Purple Martin is a bird I do not yet have on my AZ list. This isn't exactly embarrassing, but it's unimpressive, a real signatory that I am not part of the inner circle nor a particularly dedicated state-lister. PUMAs are legion in North Carolina, and they are much harder to expose properly than they are to find and appreciate.

It's a crying shame that most of the eastern (and North American) PUMA population resides now in subsidized housing. Purple Martins must be encouraged to show aggression and malevolence commensurate to their size against the competitive House Sparrows and European Starlings. To move beyond their artificial housing they must become more...uncivilized.
We're all counting on your and your ilk, sub-adult PUMA. Grow into a territorial monster.

PUMAs might be better-served if they learned to construct their own nests a-la Cliff or Barn Swallows. Then they would not be competing for cavities with the aforementioned feral blight species. Barn Swallows practice such yeomanry with near-continental success. In fact they seem to have too much time on their proverbial hands, such that adolescent birds can laze around and stare vacantly off into space without the need of getting a job.

And PUMAs could perhaps learn a thing or two of aggression for their smaller, long-tailed cousins, who bare fangs, as it were, even at the mighty Helios himself.

Another Carolina staple is the Brown Thrasher. These birds are common but often skittish, so any time one gets a close and personal sight it makes for a very happy BRTH day. We're pretty spoiled for Thrashers out west and in Arizona; 6 of the 8 North American species occur in Maricopa County annually. But as much as I love Le Conte's, and as much as I make fun of the East Coast's one-Thrasher policy, I must admit that Brown Thrasher is probably the best looking one of the pack.

One can pick up PUMAs and BRTHs around the yard throughout most of Carolina. Every region has its yard birds, and those are good ones. Walking around the rural areas, just past the well-manicured property lines, one finds the woodland/farmland liminal spaces and the scrub that delineates them. These areas also have their residents, and while it requires a bit more endeavoring to get good looks at Field Sparrow or Prairie Warbler than PUMAs, the pay-off is that much sweeter. 
From my observations, PRWAs in NC are not yet adapted to using toilet paper like those in Maine. Perhaps not coincidentally, handkerchiefs are also very popular in NC.

The coastal plain also offers a higher delicacy of bird, species that can be found elsewhere in the state but almost never without substantial effort and/or blood sacrifice. Much to my chagrin when hiking in the Appalachians, Pops got looks at a Kentucky Warbler while I was distracted by a Canada, and a female at that. That KY bird should have been the one, but instead it was nothing (to me, and therefore by association the entire world), nothing at all.
As such I had to spend a much hotter, muggier, buggier time at Howell's Woods--a great birding spot to be sure--to track down KEWA, which is a leading avian proponent of facial tattoos. This bird was very shy and secretive, and also stayed up much higher than I expected. I was only thinly satisfied with the encounter, but we shall meet again.

Birds of a feather flock together don't ya know. And as I was making up for lost time and lost sleep and lost blood (mosquitos) with the KEWA, his compatriot in skulk started singing from the other side of the trail. Swainson's Warblers are probably the most uninspiring warblers from a visual standpoint, but as is the case with most of the Old-World Warblers, this bird sings better than Andrea Bocelli, and also navigates much better in a shaded wood than the afore-mentioned maestro.

Swainson's Warbler was another semi-overdue lifer, one for which the blood-price had to be paid with a seemingly interminable wait in a dismal mosquito cloud for a mediocre photo. I have no regrets, but these sightings did still leave me longing for more and better time with eastern Warbler species.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Out of Town on a Rail (3:10am to Yuma)

The more money one has, the more expensive one's tastes often get. The more varied one's appetite, the harder it is to find something new and exciting. There's a reason Baskin Robbins had to come up with 31 flavors. The ice-cream bloated, Baby Boom generation market demanded it. So too is it with birding. The birding in Arizona has not gotten old nor stodgy nor dull, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to find new birds in the state, particularly new birds that are resident for part of the year and not whimsical code 5 rarities. Five-striped Sparrows and Ferruginous Pygmies still await at their respective locales, but there was one more loose end I needed to tie up.

I put off Black Railing on the western AZ border for a few reasons. It's a long, unpleasant drive. It's uncomfortable. It comes at the expense of other birding opportunities. It's a near-gaurantee one will get crappy-to-none looks and photos of the bird. Turns out that all of these negatives cannot outweigh the downsides of a torrid Tuesday in Phoenix inbetween two 10-hour workdays when no one else is in the office. As such, Butler's birds finally headed west to Mittry Lake, which is accessed through the Imperial Dam area and ubiquitous desert Army base. Here at the YPG, birders, Euclidian geometrists, and coming-of-age adolescent boys who have troubled relationships with their fathers all convene for their various and sundry needs. 

Truth be told I had additional business here as I have recorded exactly 0 ebird lists in Yuma, so before debasing myself after the Rails I took some time to check out other areas along the Mittrry lake watershed. Typcial raptors stayed hidden in shadows, and Indigo Buntings did not.

Indigo Buntings are gorgeous right? This is something that everyone would admit, and yet I still get the impression that we (myself included) do not hold them to be of the same pulchritudinous caliber as many Warbler species. They're certainly not prized in the same way, and some of this can be explained by the fact that is a pretty quotidian bird in open fields and riparian areas around most of the country in summer. But here's my adjoining theory: INBUs are a brilliant blue, and they're entirely blue. It's like eating a piece of double fudge flourless cake--delicious but you can only have a small amount of it because it's so rich and so homogenous. It's harder to appreciate and sustain without some variety. Cardinals and Summer Tanagers suffer from this syndrome as well--again, not that anyone dislikes them or casts aspersions on their aesthetic, but they'll never occupy the highest levels of bird beauty pageants.    

Mittry Lake has its share of open water, but most of the territory is a forest of 5-to-6 foot reeds and rushes. Considering that Black Rails are about 6 inches long and super secretive, and that most dudes have a hard enough time finding their own weeners in a public restroom, it seemed a daunting task.

Walking around the reeds and rushes was fine, but it was pretty clear that doing so would yield little, and certainly no actual sightings. This is where the birding got unapologetically terrible. As I was determined to get some thin sighting such that Black Rail wouldn't languish on the dreaded 'heard-only' list, I decided to take off the sneakers and walk right through/over/under/around the flood plain...for hours. It is a rare thing indeed for a birder to un-ironically utter something along the lines of, "Fan-freaking-tastic it flushed away!" but that's almost the operating goal with BLRAs.
"Much like a public restroom toilet, BLRAs will flush if stepped on." -- Magill Weber
I eventually lucked into a spot where a couple of the birds where calling, and with only a modicum of shame I can also say that after recording the vocalizations I sloughed around enough to eventually flush one of them. It was an even more glorious 1.9 seconds than that time after Junior-year prom, and just as then there are no pictures to prove any exploits or allegations, absent sound recordings. Enjoy the grass video.


You have to pay the piper...if you want to dance. My beautiful dancer's legs got scraped straight to hell and I do not believe that my shoes will recover (there's stinking tar-mud and standing water underneath all the pretty grass) but hey lifers is as lifers does. It was tempting to stick it out for an hour or two of nocturnal birding, especially as the Rails became more active, but the bugs were also becoming intolerable and, since this is Arizona, there was still plenty of spiky thorny stuff even in the marsh areas, so much like any mal-adapted creature that finds itself caught out at nightfall, I chickened out.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Thank You for Smoking: Birding Appalachia Part II (Getting High)

The foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains offer much by way of diverse flora and fauna. So much greenery and water makes one feel transported to a rainforest more so than the Tennessee/Carolina border, and yet there still is something lacking. A good birder and a good American desires more, he or she desires not only the lush, but also the hard and craggy. One must climb ever upward, to the Appalachian balds and the hardy spruce/fir forests that dwell there. It's like Caspar David Friedrich's ideal picnic. In the early mornings these primordial mountains exhale deeply, linking earth and sky with an intoxicating timeless mist and blurring everything in between.
P.S. It's super tricky to bird in said mist. 

This is the sort of place one can get lost. This is the sort of place one hopes to get lost. This is the sort of place one loses oneself. This is also the place one finds some birds.

With those who were willing and able, we went on an 9 mile hike along the Charlie's Bunion portion of the Appalachian trail, moving between 4,500 and 6,100 feet, up from the deciduous forest to the ancient evergreen peaks. Sunlight was a rare thing and dryness rarer still. From the bowels of heavy growth and pervasive mist, Veeries chimed and Black-throated Green Warblers buzzed in a perpetual homage to the smoking mountains. Once above 5,500 feet, I was reacquainted with a recent lifer and what I believe to be one of the most aesthetically successful Warblers.
There was also an actual lifer in the form of this Blue-headed Vireo, but it's best not to dwell on that.

The Black-headed Blue Warblers were still defining and defending territory, and their periodic outburts also tended to stir up other birds including Canada Warblers, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and the inevitable hordes of Dark-eyed Juncos. Black-throated Blue Warbler is so damned good-looking I want to tear my face off and put it back on upside down. Yeah, you heard me.

Rather surprising to me was the abundance of amphibians, given the altitude and temperature (but less surprising given the moisture). Apparently this area, the southern Appalachians, has more Salamander diversity than anywhere else in the world, or so sayeth wikipedia. The Southern Two-lined Salamander was about two inches long and skinnier than a pencil. The Appalachian Red was about double that, and equally shy, while the mighty and better-armored Northern Dusky Salamander adults (the most common species in mountain streams) dwarfed them both.

There were times hiking along the ridge when we'd pause and look out into straight nothing. The low-stratus clouds emanating from the mountains were so thick we could not see the range on either side of our trail, but as the morning drew on eventually the smoke gave way and shapes took form.

The termination of Charlies's Bunion was supposedly named by one surveyor in honor of his accompanying buddy's gigantic toe affliction that he revealed upon resting in that area. Given the heavy vegetation it was hard to tell exactly the to-scale dimensions of said bunion, but the tree-line birds did not pay that ambiguity much mind. 

The dour weather dampened the birding overall, but Black-throated Blues would have been compensation enough. Chestnut-sided Warbler was another potential lifer for others in our group however, and I had been puzzling at their absence all morning, since in previous experience at this altitude they were the most common behind Black-throated Green. 
All worry was put to rest on our descent, perhaps when the birds were more confident their parades would not be precipitated upon. Upon hearing their calls at long last I ran down the trail to catch up with Pops, only to hear him likewise calling back that he was, "Surrounded by singing Chestnuts and in danger." Indeed. Awesome.

Unfortunately we did not have enough time for further exploration and pursuit of Blackburnian, as well as Ruffed Grouse, but the hike was gorgeous It was like that level of totally comprehensive, soul-shaking gorgeous that sticks with you weeks later and sustains you through torrid summer working conditions...