The Year in Birding

We’re well into 2017, but before consigning 2016 to the dustbin of history — which is where, for most intents and purposes, it belongs — I want to look back on a few of the happier moments I found scattered among the ashes.

It was a historically horrible year, but no year, like no child, is all good or all bad. And even as my country took a disastrous course and we lost one brilliant artist after another … well, I’m almost ashamed to admit that I had a great time chasing birds all year.

Hooded Warbler

It’s possible my joy out there was even greater that it would otherwise have been because of the grim state of affairs. The worse things get in the world of men, the more precious become those moments that take you somewhere else. 2016 inflicted more bruises and burns than usual, and going into the woods was a balm.

I want to remember that. So, for my future self as much as anything else — some day ages and ages hence I’ll appreciate this reminder — here’s a look back at 10 of the birds and birding moments that gave me the most joy last year.

California Quail, male
  1. California Quail

Our family trip to northern California in April wasn’t a birding trip per se, but I got up very early every day to get in some exploring and birding before our other activities.

It was my first visit to the West Coast since I’d come down with this particular obsession, and I was giddy. The week didn’t disappoint. I added 32 life birds, and almost any one of them could make this list: the White-tailed Kite I watched kiting from a distance over the Santa Rosa de Laguna trail; the Black Oystercatchers and Western Grebes at Bodega Bay; the Nutall’s Woodpecker and Lesser Goldfinches I found at Foothill Regional Park.

But I was especially thrilled by the quartet of California Quail that crossed the trail in front of me one chilly dawn at Spring Lake outside Santa Rosa. They are exceptionally beautiful birds, for one thing, and I suppose they resonated with me because, now that I think about it, I’ve never seen any other quail. I remember hearing Bobwhites when I was a kid, but it’s been many years.

Barred Owl
  1. Barred Owl

Barred Owls are anything but uncommon around here; I see them regularly and hear them more often. But I’ve rarely had a more immersive experience than I had with a family of Barred Owls along Burnt Mill Creek in Wilmington one early summer morning. They paid me no mind and let me watch from very close range as they hunted crayfish in the creek, jostled for position on overhanging limbs, and shooed away an intrusive Yellow-crowned Night Heron. I was a fly on a tree trunk as they lived their owl lives all around me. Magic.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

8. Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Another California bird, another life bird, special to me for two reasons besides its exceptionally handsome appearance: one, before we even left for the West Coast Anne had gotten me a beautiful piece of tile art depicting two Chestnut-backed Chickadees, so they were special even before I ever saw one; and two, finding one required my powers of birding by ear, which are poor.

As I drove out to Spring Lake one morning, I played a recording of the Chestnut-backed Chickadee’s wheezy song until I had it down. An hour or two later, as I walked a trail, suddenly there it was, up high: the same scratchy tune.

Fox Sparrow
  1. Fox Sparrow

A big, beautiful bird, Fox Sparrow had been perhaps my most persistent nemesis bird until late January, when a big snowstorm socked everybody in. Fox Sparrows are widespread, but they tend to stay deep in the woods. Snow though, will draw them out, to forage around feeders. I saw a big bird on the ground in my yard, thought at first it might be a Hermit Thrush, and discovered to my great delight that it was instead a gorgeous, vivid Fox Sparrow.

Acorn Woodpeckers
  1. Acorn Woodpecker

My favorite of the California birds. I was astonished one day at Howarth Park to look up and see this crazy clown-faced, pale-eyed woodpecker on a branch not far above me. After that, I saw countless others: they are common, travel in flocks (unlike most other woodpeckers), and are extremely vocal, yakking among themselves with a loud, nasal call. They are goofy as all get out, and I never tired of finding them.

Iceland Gull
  1. Iceland Gull

I’m no more than a casual twitcher, if such a thing is possible: my life doesn’t allow for dropping everything to drive hundreds of miles to see an unusual bird. But this Iceland Gull, rare along our coast and almost unheard-of inland, was reported at Lake Townsend north of Greensboro, only an hour from home. So one rainy Sunday morning I drove over — stopping along the way to seek, and find, my first North Carolina White-throated Sparrow — to take up the hunt.

For two hours, checking one spot after another, I came up empty. I was on the verge of packing it in when I glanced at my email and discovered a Carolinabirds listserv report from just an hour earlier putting the gull at a remote causeway on one arm of the lake. I hopped in the car and hurried up there … and there the bird was, almost glowing in the dim foggy light.

  1. American Woodcock

No photo of this bird, but anyone who has ever stood in a field in the darkening light and had American Woodcocks erupt and spiral overhead in their extraordinary flight display will ever forget it. I had my first experience with that spectacle last spring at Mason Farm, with a handful of other birders to share it with. More magic.

Saltmarsh Sparrow
Nelson’s Sparrow
Seaside Sparrow

3. Nelson’s/Seaside/Saltmarsh Sparrow

It may be cheating to list three species as one entry, but they are linked by habitat, similarity of appearance, and in the extraordinary morning I had finding them at Fort Fisher. I’ve written at length about that experience, just days after the presidential election changed everything, in another post, so I won’t reiterate it here. But these birds hold a special place in my heart.

See that tiny Peregrine Falcon-shaped dot in the distance? That’s a Peregrine Falcon

2. Peregrine Falcon

I barely saw it at all. I was at the north end of Wrightsville Beach, peering through binoculars across the inlet at the gulls on the south end of Figure Eight Island, when a barely visible dark speck caught my eye. It was raptor-shaped, with what appeared to be a dark helmet, and I barely dared to hope. This was one of those cases where having a cheap superzoom camera came in handy; my 60x zoom gave me a closer look than my binoculars, allowing me to confirm that, yep, I’d seen my first-ever Peregrine Falcon.

Reddish Egret
  1. Reddish Egret

My favorite bird of the year. Again, I’ve written about this at length in another post,  so I won’t repeat all that here. But this was the first notable bird I’ve ever been the first one to find, and that made me feel a sense of pride and kinship with it. On top of which, what an exceptional bird it was: big and beautiful and prone, in the manner of its species, to erupt in crazy, flailing dances that are right up with the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen in the field.

2016 Summary

2016 Year total: 250

North Carolina Year total: 238

New Hanover County Year total: 176 (15 life birds: Peregrine Falcon, Northern Pintail, Razorbill, Red Knot, Glossy Ibis, Lesser Yellowlegs, Reddish Egret, Gull-billed Tern, Stilt Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Franklin’s Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Blue-winged Teal, Saltmarsh Sparrow, Seaside Sparrow)

Orange County Year total: 131 (5 life birds: Fox Sparrow, American Woodcock, Bank Swallow, Blackpoll Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler)

Durham County Year total: 111 (3 life birds: Yellow-throated Vireo, Marsh Wren, Blue-winged Warbler, all the same day, April 24, at Brickhouse Road)

Life List at end of 2016: 309

Life Birds in 2016: 60 (first, Peregrine Falcon, Mason Inlet, Jan. 2; last, Iceland Gull, Lake Townsend, Guilford County, Dec. 4)

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Birding While Rome Burns

I felt vaguely ridiculous, even guilty, getting up to go chase birds last Friday.

Three days earlier, like millions of other Americans, I had watched the election results in anguish and disbelief. Like so many, I was shocked at the course the country had taken, terrified about what might lie ahead, and grief-stricken that my nation seemed to have abandoned its highest ideals and lurched instead toward hatred and oppression. Literally overnight, the world had taken a dark and dangerous turn.

Given all that, the thought of going out to look for pretty birds seemed absurd, almost surreal. What could possibly be more frivolous? Shouldn’t I be out looking for barricades to man, or at least petitions to sign?

But I went anyway. More out of habit than anything else. I was running on the sort of foggy autopilot that keeps you putting one foot in front of the other after a death in the family, and so I did what I normally do on the weekend: got up early, brewed some coffee, grabbed my binoculars and camera, and headed outside. I couldn’t save the republic, so I went looking for birds.

A pretty Savannah Sparrow
A pretty Savannah Sparrow

Besides, I thought it might help me find my feet again. Wandering around in a miserable daze wasn’t doing anyone any good. You’re supposed to put on your own oxygen mask first before helping other people with theirs, right? For me, the purest oxygen is going out where the wild things are. On top of which, I thought, if you give up the things you love, the bad guys win. Screw that. So off I went.

Into the Marsh

Federal Point at Fort Fisher is a broad peninsula that culminates in a sharp arrowhead of land pointing west into the wide expanse of the Cape Fear River. It’s superb for herons, egrets, and shorebirds, and at the very tip of the arrowhead lies a wedge of reedy salt marsh that is perfect habitat for the trio of coastal marsh sparrows: Seaside, Saltmarsh, and Nelson’s.

Looking toward the tip of Federal Point. Those reeds are higher than my head.
Looking toward the tip of Federal Point. Those reeds are higher than my head.

Of the three, I’d seen only one before: a single Nelson’s Sparrow, a few years ago right here at Federal Point. All three are notoriously reclusive; they stay hidden deep in the reeds. To find them, that’s where you have to go.

I set out along a little ridge of high ground — meaning about six inches high — into the soggy marsh. Very soon, my shoes sank into water up the laces, and reeds taller than my head closed around me. Visibility was terrible, but a flash of movement up ahead caught my eye, and then another. Sparrows?

A Common Yellowthroat flitted into view, doing a split as it straddled the reeds. A scolding chatter erupted, and a Marsh Wren peered out of the foliage.

Common Yellowthroat
Common Yellowthroat
Marsh Wren
Marsh Wren

And then, a few feet further, on, a hefty potbellied sparrow emerged from the forest of honey-colored stalks. Charcoal-gray, smudgy breast streaks, yellow lores behind a heavy graphite bill: Seaside Sparrow.

Seaside Sparrow
Seaside Sparrow

The swaying reeds made it impossible to get a clear look, but I snapped what photos I could, and then retreated. The water was too deep, and the way was too dense.

Back on dry ground, I circled the perimeter of the marsh and found a muddy footpath hugging the shoreline. Sparrows began to appear, popping up out of the thick growth and then driving right back in before I could get a decent look. Presently, though, I spotted a small bird clinging to the reeds, a lovely sparrow with a soft gray ear patch set in a butterscotch face, faint dark streaks painting a caramel breast: Nelson’s Sparrow, to my eye one of the prettiest of its kind.

Nelson's Sparrow
Nelson’s Sparrow
Nelson's Sparrow
Nelson’s Sparrow

On a little rise with a slightly better vantage point, I came upon a bird that at first glance appeared to be another Nelson’s Sparrow. But its bill was bigger, its streaks were crisper and darker, heavy pencil rather than watercolor, and its pale straw-colored bib contrasted with the darker gold of its face: Saltmarsh Sparrow, a life bird, the third and last of the marsh sparrows I’d come to find:

Saltmarsh Sparrow
Back Out of the Marsh

I realized, as I emerged from the marsh, that from the moment I’d entered it, I’d been purely and completely focused on what I was doing. All that other stuff — the election, the state of the nation, the battles ahead — had fallen away. My thoughts, my attention, and my senses were all attuned to where I stood on the planet at that precise moment, and nowhere else. I felt the cold water against my feet, the breeze on my skin. I heard the gulls calling, and the soft clattery rustle of the reeds brushing against each other. I saw the telltale flicker of movement in the grass, the color of a bird’s cheek.

Seaside Sparrow
Seaside Sparrow

Not to get too crunchy on you, but that sort of focused presence is deeply soul-filling. I have friends who draw their sustenance from yoga, or from running, or from going to church or playing punk rock music. In my case, for whatever mysterious reasons, few things fill me up more than  going out into the woods to look for birds.

It doesn’t last, of course. You have to keep going back to the well. And all the stuff I’d left behind when I walked into the marsh was still there when I walked out. The ugliness and uncertainty in the world certainly hadn’t gone away, and neither had my own sorrow and fear. But I felt ever so slightly revived, ever so slightly better able to stand up straight to meet it.

Nelson's Sparrow
Nelson’s Sparrow

It’s true, I think, that thing about the oxygen mask. You’re not much good to anyone if you can barely move yourself.  You have to give grief its time, and you have to take the opportunities, when they come, to do the things that calm your heart and clear your head, even in hard times. Especially in hard times.

As I headed back to my car, and all the troubles of the day came rushing back to mind like dark water filling a tub, a big part of me wanted to turn around. I wanted to go back into the marsh and just, you know, stay there. But that’s not how it works. I cast a look back at the reeds rustling in the wind and began walking back to the world.

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Among the Ghosts

It’s Halloween, and I find myself thinking about graveyards. I’ve always loved a good ghost story — when I was a kid I sat in my bed and wrote whole collections of them — and I’ve always been drawn to cemeteries. Some people, I know, find them depressing and even frightening — which is why they’re so often put to use in horror movies (I love those too) — but they’ve always struck me as places of quiet, deep power. They resonate with all the lives that have come to rest there, and with the echoes those lives leave, like the reverberations that linger long after a bell is rung. Every grave holds an entire life — all those moments large and small, all those joys and sorrows, satisfactions and frustrations, loves and losses, lessons learned and not learned — and they remind me not to take my short time here for granted.

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It helps that many cemeteries, especially older ones, are astonishingly beautiful places, naturally quiet and verdant, and often full of birds. Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington is one of those.

Eastern Bluebird
Eastern Bluebird

Spread over 165 acres, it’s a gorgeous old graveyard, chartered in 1852, where enormous live oaks and magnolias, draped with Spanish moss, stand above a maze bristling with every sort of headstone, sepulchre, and funerary statuary. The foliage is luxurious, the stonework includes everything from rough, tilted slabs to ornately carved obelisks and statues, and for a history buff like me, the place is an almost literally endless repository of fascinating stories.

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And for a birder, it’s a bounty of riches. It’s a North Carolina Birding Trail site, and it’s one my favorite spots in the Wilmington area. The habitat includes everything from deep woods to open lawns, and it’s full of hidden nooks and paths, climbing vines and impassable brush, small cover such as azaleas and dogwoods, and large trees like sycamores and poplars.

Oakdale is a haven for kinglets, vireos, flycatchers, orioles, thrushes, cuckoos, you name it; on New Year’s Day last year, I even found an out-of-season White-eyed Vireo.

Great Crested Flycatcher
Great Crested Flycatcher
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
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Eastern Bluebirds
A surprise winter White-eyed Vireo
A surprise winter White-eyed Vireo

In the spring and fall, it’s a natural magnet for warblers and other migrants. A stream runs between the historic, more gloriously unkempt section of the cemetery and a newer, more manicured quadrant, and along that creek you’ll sometimes find Hooded Mergansers, Wood Ducks, herons and other water-loving birds.

Brown Thrasher
Brown Thrasher
Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Phoebe
The first, and still the only, Grasshopper Sparrow I've ever seen
The first, and still the only, Grasshopper Sparrow I’ve ever seen

Raptors abound — especially Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks, but also accipiters and even the occasional falcon; I was walking along a footpaths one day and looked up to discover a gorgeous Merlin looking down at me with a ferocity that belied its small size.

Merlin
Merlin
Cooper's Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk

One family of birds reigns over all others at Oakdale Cemetery, though, and that’s the woodpeckers. Just within the past few weeks, the Northern Flickers have arrived. Red-headed Woodpeckers abound, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers chuckle and whinny overhead. Their smaller cousins, the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, scoot up and down the treetrunks.

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Red-headed Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Northern Flicker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker

And Oakdale is the surest place I know for the grandest of North Carolina’s woodpeckers, the prehistoric-looking Pileated Woodpeckers.

Pileated Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker

None of this is to say that Oakdale is always hopping. I had an hour to kill last weekend and went by the cemetery only to find it eerily — and, given the Halloween season, perhaps appropriately — quiet. The ubiquitous mockingbirds were out, and a Carolina Wren or two and a smattering of flickers, but that was about it.

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Carolina Wren
Carolina Wren
Northern Flicker
Northern Flicker

But it was an hour well spent anyway. Wandering among the gravestones, imagining the lives they marked, admiring the lichen-spattered stone sculptures, I considered that were worse ways to spend an hour. I turned my face toward the warm sun and drank in the gift of just being here to feel it.

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If Wishes Were Thrushes

I was excited to see a new life bird at Airlie Gardens in Wilmington last weekend — until I realized that I had no way of knowing exactly which life bird it was.

And, in a strange way, that’s the same as not seeing it at all.

Airlie is an almost ridiculously picturesque tract along Bradley Creek, which flows into the Intracoastal Waterway. Its stunning flower gardens are alive with butterflies. Footpaths wind through the woods, and cypresses draped with Spanish moss line two freshwater lakes.

The gardens at Airlie were Gulf Fritillaries
Gulf Fritillary
Long-tailed Skipper at Airlie Gardens
Long-tailed Skipper

It’s a superb place to look for birds. You can catch gulls, loons, and shorebirds on the creek. Osprey nest in plain sight, and herons and egrets gather in the mossy walls of foliage around the lakes.

A Tri-colored Heron hiding in the Spanish moss
A Tricolored Heron in the Spanish moss
A Pileated Woodpecker looks out the window
Pileated Woodpecker, looking out the window

I visited the other day hoping to find some warblers. I found a few — although, absurdly, not until I’d wandered over acres of woods and gardens, struck out, and returned to the parking area. There, I discovered that a row of little trees right in front of the visitor’s center was full of American Redstarts, Palm, Prairie, and Cape May Warblers.

A Palm Warbler strikes a pretty pose
A Palm Warbler strikes a pretty pose
Prairie Warbler
Prairie Warbler
I had a hard time getting this Cape May Warbler to come out in the open
Cape May Warbler, refusingto come out into the open

Earlier, on a shaded path, I had spotted movement low in a thicket. It was a thrush, I could tell, but the canopy was so dense that it felt like dusk, and the bird was deep in the brush. I got off a few dim shots and then looked up to nod a greeting to a couple walking past. When I looked back, the bird was gone.

I got only a couple of poor shots off before the bird disappeared
I got only a couple of poor shots before the bird disappeared
A Mystery Thrush

We have half a dozen brownish thrushes that can be tricky to tell apart. My bird didn’t have white eye-rings or big chocolate-chip breast spots, so it wasn’t a Wood Thrush. Its upperparts were a dull olive-gray, not the rich cinnamon of a Veery, and the absence of a reddish tail ruled out Hermit Thrush. No buffy eye-ring and spectacles, so not a Swainson’s Thrush.

Veery
Veery
Hermit Thrush
Hermit Thrush
Swainson's Thrush
Swainson’s Thrush

That left just one, I thought: Gray-cheeked Thrush. Sweet! Life bird.

But wait. When I started digging, I discovered that there was another candidate.

Bicknell’s Thrushes are rare and seldom seen. They breed only in a few remote wilderness tracts in the extreme Northeast and Nova Scotia, and they winter on four islands in the Caribbean. When they migrate south in the fall, most head out over the Atlantic before they reach North Carolina. But at least a few pass through our coastal plain.

Bicknell’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes look so similar that, until 1995, they were considered one species. Experts can distinguish them by vocalization, but, simply put, you can’t tell them apart by looking at them.

Which put me in a pickle. My bird was probably a Gray-cheeked Thrush — but it might be a Bicknell’s Thrush. Either would be a lifer. But without knowing which it was, I couldn’t count it as either one.

Whichever species it was, I wanted it. I wrestled with it. I pored over field guides and eBird reports and scoured the web, trying to nail down an ID. Come on, birding gods! I’m not even asking for the rare one! The common one will do just fine.

But it was no good. Based on the evidence I had, it was impossible to conclusively identify this bird.

Range Matters

That was due as much to where I’d seen it as it was to what I’d seen. If I’d come across this bird in the mountains, I’d be on fairly solid ground in calling it a Gray-cheeked Thrush.

That’s because range matters, especially with lookalike species. On my way to work this morning, I passed a meadowlark on a power line, its blazing yellow breast a miniature sun in the morning light. I know it was an Eastern Meadowlark and not a Western Meadowlark, not because I paused to check whether its malar region was more white than yellow, but because Western Meadowlarks don’t live around here.

Eastern Meadowlark
Eastern Meadowlark

I know the chickadees in my back yard are Carolina Chickadees and not Black-capped Chickadees for the same reason: we don’t have Black-capped Chickadees in Orange County.

Carolina Chickadee, in my back yard
Carolina Chickadee, in my back yard
A Black-capped Chickadee, from Cape Cod, not from back yard
Black-capped Chickadee, not in my back yard

That’s not quite absolute certainty. Black-capped Chickadees do live up in the mountains, and one could conceivably stray down here. It’s possible that the meadowlark wasn’t an Eastern but a terribly lost Western. But the odds of that are so remote that they don’t clear the bar of reasonable doubt. I can call it an Eastern Meadowlark with confidence. (On the other hand, if I thought I detected some reason to report it as a Western, I’d better come up with incontrovertible evidence.)

Unfortunately, range didn’t help me with the thrush. So far as anybody can tell, Bicknell’s migration route sticks to the coastal plain. Gray-cheeks tend to migrate further inland, but there’s enough potential overlap in eastern North Carolina to foil my list. The eBird checklist for that area has a box for precisely this situation. Reluctantly, I checked it: “1 Gray-cheeked/Bicknell’s Thrush.”

My mystery thrush
Gray-cheeked/Bicknell’s Thrush

I’d definitely seen one or the other. But officially I hadn’t seen either one.

Wishful Thinking

I could have fudged it. Odd are, my bird was a Gray-cheeked Thrush, and if I put it down that way, nobody was likely to challenge me. (eBird reviewers do flag rare or suspect reports, but Gray-cheeked Thrush probably isn’t unusual enough to spark an inquiry.) I wouldn’t be fined or flogged or kicked out of the club, because nobody would know.

But, of course, I would know.

I want to grow my list. I aspire to seeing 400 birds, 500, someday maybe 1,000. It can be tempting to give myself the benefit of the doubt. Wishful thinking is a powerful force. That warbler I glimpsed last month with a flash of yellow and black on its face? Oh, I wanted that to be a Kentucky Warbler! I think that’s what it was; one had even been photographed in exactly the same spot the previous day. But can I swear that it wasn’t a Hooded Warbler or a Common Yellowthroat? I can’t; I didn’t get a good enough look.

As much as I wanted to find a way to count my Airlie bird, I couldn’t. So I’ll just keep on going out there, still looking for that first Gray-cheeked Thrush.

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A Visitor From the North

I had planned to get up early and go birding Sunday, but I just didn’t have it in me.

On Friday night, I joined Anne in Durham for the Duke Lemur Center’s 50th anniversary celebration. She’s the DLC’s director, and she’s spent the past year and a half organizing a scientific symposium to mark the milestone: three days of talks and presentations, culminating in a big  dinner-and-dancing gala Friday night.

Afterward, we gathered with a small group for an after-party, and then with an even smaller group back at the hotel for an after-after-party. It was all a glorious good time with dear friends, but we didn’t get to bed until 4 a.m. (In hindsight, the bottle of rye that materialized at about 3 may not have been the wisest of all possible choices).

I’m decades past my party-til-4 a.m. prime. Saturday was a Bataan Death March of a day — just survive until it’s over — and that night I collapsed into bed desperate for a long restorative sleep.

Hence my failure to get up early Sunday to go chase birds. It’s the thick of fall migration, and I hated to miss it, but the body needs what it needs. I got up late, made some coffee, and took it out onto the deck, despite unsettled skies that threatened rain.

Northern Cardinal
Northern Cardinal
An Unexpected Arrival

At the deck feeder, the usual suspects — Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and American Goldfinches — came and went. But as I sat reading the New York Times on my laptop, something tickled the part of my brain that notices when something unexpected has entered the environment. I glanced up just in time to see a small bird zip up and away from the feeder and into the trees.

It was just a brief blur. Nuthatch-shaped. But within the blur I thought I detected black-and-white head stripes. What the hell? Only one nuthatch has that pattern, and it would be a surprise to find one in my back yard.

Of North America’s four nuthatches, two — Brown-headed and White-breasted Nuthatches — are common year-round residents here in central North Carolina. The third, Pygmy Nuthatch, lives only way out West. None of them have black and white head stripes.

Brown-headed Nuthatch
Brown-headed Nuthatch
White-headed Nuthatch
White-headed Nuthatch

The fourth, Red-breasted Nuthatch, is primarily a northerly species — so much so that they used to be called Canada Nuthatches. They breed mainly in New England and northward, although a  narrow tail of breeding grounds extends south along the ridge of the Appalachians and into the cool highlands of the North Carolina mountains. Down here in the Piedmont, though, they are normally no more than occasional visitors.

I’ve seen Red-breasted Nuthatches in Cape Cod, and I got a brief glimpse of one eccentric individual that summered in Durham two years ago. The last eBird record in Orange County, where we live, was from over a year and a half ago, in February 2015.

My glimpse Sunday morning wasn’t sufficient for a conclusive ID, but it sent me scurrying inside for my camera, just in case. And within about ten minutes the bird returned: a tiny, handsome fellow, with a blue-gray topside, caramel breast, and black cap and eye-line separated by a pure white eyebrow streak. Red-breasted Nuthatch.

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Red-breasted Nuthatch
A Good Sign

The active little newcomer hung around all morning. It fed like a titmouse: streaking in to grab a seed and then retreating to a nearby limb to hammer at it with its bill. When it was up in the treetops, I could hear it singing (although “singing” is generous; it sounds exactly like someone tooting a little toy horn).

Perhaps beckoned by the tooting, the bird’s cousins — a Brown-headed Nuthatch and a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches — soon showed up to join the party. Like most bird people, I love nuthatches, with their crazy upside-down ways and spirited energy, and I spent the whole morning enjoying their comings and goings.

Brown-headed Nuthatch
Brown-headed Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch

Among other things, the day was a sign that we may be in for a good Red-breasted Nuthatch winter. Red-breasted Nuthatches are the most migratory of the North American nuthatches, but they are erratic. Unlike most migratory birds, which move every year on predictable timetables along well-established routes, Red-breasted Nuthatches are mercurial. Some years they stay put near their breeding grounds. But every other year or so, when food supplies, especially conifer cones, fall short in their breeding range, they irrupt, sweeping southward in large numbers, sometimes as far as the Gulf Coast.

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch

As it happens, the people who keep track of this sort of thing (conifer cone counters?) report that cone production in the northeast is down this year. And the Red-breasted Nuthatches appear to be on the move.

So my bird on Sunday, and others that have popped up here and there across central North Carolina in recent weeks, may well be the vanguard of a wave of Red-breasted Nuthatches that will spend the winter with us.

They’re more than welcome in my yard. It may actually have been a blessing that I was too worn out to get up and go birding on Sunday. I probably missed some warblers, but I enjoyed the rare treat of a three-nuthatch morning, and an unexpected visitor from the North.

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch
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Making a List, Checking It Twice

I was stalled.

Ever since I started my life list in April 2014 — yes, I’m a late bloomer — I’d managed to add at least one species, and often many more, every month. After I hit 250 with a gorgeous Fox Sparrow in the snow in my backyard last January, I set my course for 300.

Fox Sparrow, life bird 250.
Fox Sparrow, life bird 250

A family trip to northern California over spring break covered a lot of that gap, netting 31 new birds. But then progress slowed to a crawl. After a Reddish Egret and a pair of Gull-billed Terns on consecutive days in late June for 297 and 298, everything sputtered to a dead stop.

Beautiful bird.
Reddish Egret, life bird 297

July, brutal with heat, came and went without a single new bird. I had high hopes on a trip to Cape Cod in August, but nope: everything I saw, I’d seen before. One morning I tracked down a Red-breasted Nuthatch high in pine tree and felt a brief, completely irrational flush of regret: Crap. I wish I hadn’t seen that one in Durham two years ago.

The climbing gets steeper once you’ve seen all the common birds in your area, of course, so it’s normal for progress to slow. But August ended as July had, and I seemed to have stalled completely, with 300 so tantalizingly close. Maybe that’s it, I thought. Maybe I’ll just sit here at 298, the magic number visible just up ahead but unreachable, forever.

Only A Little Crazy

Why did I care? On one level — and maybe more — this whole listing business can look a little silly.

Certainly, a lot of non-birders think so. Even those who understand the appeal of the natural world wonder why any otherwise rational human being would climb out of a warm bed before dawn and go slogging through the wet woods, feeding ticks and mosquitoes, all in hopes of catching a brief glimpse of some little brown bird just to check it off a list. A list that nobody else cares about. That will bring you no riches, rewards, or glory. That won’t help you advance your career, attain enlightenment, or lose weight. What’s the point?

I do it for lots of reasons, one of which is that it keeps the game perpetually afoot. Birding is like an endless scavenger hunt. It’s a challenge, a game that you can never really win, but at which you can always improve. It’s a competition with myself. Listing is how I keep score.

Baltimore Oriole, life bird No. 100
Baltimore Oriole, life bird 100

It also fulfills the human urge to collect. Something in our nature compels many people to seek out similar objects and gather them together. (One theory holds that we collect things in order to attract potential mates by proving our skill as providers. I’m pretty sure that birding has, if anything, the opposite effect.)

In any event, it’s thing we do. My dad collected stamps. My wife and I once stayed in an Airbnb whose owner collected tiny porcelain cats. I had a boss who collected anything eggplant-themed: dishes, salt and pepper shakers, ceramic pieces.

Birders collect birds — and, happily, we do it without disturbing them. Each sighting is another item to add to my collection. Listing is how I keep track of what I have and, equally important, what I still need. Crazy? A little, but at least my collection doesn’t clutter up the shelves.

American Kestrel, life bird 150
American Kestrel, life bird 150

Listing makes me a better birder. When a Warbling Vireo was reported at Lake Lynn in Raleigh last year, I listened to recordings to learn its pretty, burbling song with a cheery rising note at the end of each phrase. I drove over one morning, hiked in — and, right on cue, there was that lilting song with its little concluding lift, leading my eye straight to the vireo up in the branches. In seeking a specific life bird, I’d also added a new song to my small repertoire.

Blue Dacnis, life bird No. 200
Blue Dacnis, life bird 200

And, of course, listing is a way of recording my own little history. A life list is like a ship’s log, and each checklist an individual entry. Looking back over them jogs my memory and, in a small way, lets me relive times and places and experiences that might otherwise dissipate in time.

Magic Numbers

We went to Wilmington for Labor Day weekend, imprudently driving down into the torrential teeth of what had been Hurricane Hermine. The next morning, birders reported crowds of shorebirds in a flooded recreation field  at Fort Fisher.

The crowds had scattered by the time I arrived, but some stragglers lingered. Least Sandpipers scurried across the drowned grass and a carpet of tiny yellow flowers. Lesser Yellowlegs waded in the deeper water, and a trio of Solitary Sandpipers huddled in a loose formation off by themselves.

Lesser Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs

Then there was a medium-sized sandpiper that looked new to me. It had beautiful scalloping on the back and wings and a tapered bill with a bit of a droop to it. The breast was draped with fine, dense streaking that ended abruptly where the white belly began. Yes! Pectoral Sandpiper. Bird No. 299.

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Pectoral Sandpiper, life bird No. 299

I got ready to leave, taking note of a pair of Yellowlegs feeding in floodwater up their bellies. I looked away — and then looked back. One of those birds was not a Yellowlegs. It was too bulky, too pale. Soft gray, white eyebrow, long black bill. Could it be?

It could. Stilt Sandpiper. Life bird 300. The magic number.

And then, in the way of magic numbers, as soon as it appeared, it vanished, and another one materialized in its place. Four hundred, I’m on my way.

Stilt Sandpiper, life bird 300
Stilt Sandpiper, life bird No. 300
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When the Birds Aren’t Biting

It’s late August, and the fall migrants ought to be showing up, the first spattering of raindrops before the deluge. Migrating shorebirds have been moving down the coast for weeks now, but inland I think most of us are still anxiously watching the northern horizon, waiting for the waves of warblers to arrive.

A feeble “cold” front about a week ago knocked a few degrees off our upper-90s norm for a few days. So, hoping some fall migrants might be surfing the crest, I took a morning last weekend to go out to Mason Farm.

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As I approached, a Great Blue Heron was perched regally atop a tall dead tree overlooking the intermittent marsh. It looked majestic up there, like the lord of all it surveyed, and I thought maybe it was a good sign to see such a magnificent bird before I’d even gotten out of my car.

Squadrons of dragonflies parted as I drove into the parking area. On the trail, the air was still and warm, and, even this early in the day, moving from shadow into sunshine felt like opening the oven door.

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As I made my way around the trail, it became apparent that the heron had not been a harbinger of great harvest after all. Little in the way of bird life made itself apparent. I heard a couple of distant Yellow-billed Cuckoos. Two Downy Woodpeckers chased each other through the trees, and a ragged Indigo Bunting watched me from one patch of woods.

One of the fields yielded a Blue Grosbeak and a few whistling Eastern Wood Pewees. I did manage to find two American Redstarts and a pair of Northern Parulas.

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A patchy-looking Blue Grosbeak insists on staying between me and the sun.
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Eastern Wood Pewee.

But that was about it. For a Mason Farm morning, it was a lot quieter than I’d hoped. A bird or two here, then long stretches of nothing.

When that happens, generally I just enjoy the walk. You’re on the trail, breathing the open air, out there in the beauty. What’s not to love? I understand many people even do this without looking for birds at all.

On this particular morning, though, it was impossible not to notice something else going on. Butterflies were everywhere.

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Female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (above) and the male, plus a mostly hidden Pearl Crescent.
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Black form Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.

Most obvious were Eastern Tiger Swallowtails — big, conspicuous butterflies of yellow and black — wobbling over the trail and the fields in great numbers. The males, and most of the females, wear their tiger stripes over a buttery base coat, but some females come in all black, with lovely iridescent blue highlights.

Hordes of less ostentatious butterflies filled the air. Delicate Cloudless Sulphurs the color of pollen traced quavery courses though shoulder-high grasses. Lower down, crowds patterned in Halloween orange and black — Pearl Crescents, I learned later — jostled for space. A perfect Red-Spotted Purple scorned the flowers for the leaves overhead, and on the last leg of the trail I came upon a Viceroy, a mimic of the more familiar and apparently foul-tasting Monarch. Tiny skippers — I know only the common Silver-spotted Skipper and the bright orange Fiery Skipper by name — drifted through the air everywhere like flecks of ash.

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Red-spotted Purple.
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Pearl Crescent.
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Cloudless Sulphur.
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Viceroy.
Silver-spotted Skipper
Silver-spotted Skipper

As I walked, I found my gaze shifting from the trees earthward to the flowers and brushy shrubs. I only know a handful of butterflies, but by the end of the loop, I was butterflying at least as much as I was birding: watching, identifying the ones I could, taking pictures and resolving to learn the ones I couldn’t.

On the drive out, I was brought up short by one last, spectacular creature working in the flowering brush beside the gravel drive. A Zebra Swallowtail, it had been through some stuff — it had a tear in its left hindwing, and its long spear of a tail on that side was gone — but it was still here, moving from blossom to blossom with a singular focus, doing what butterflies must do.

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Zebra Swallowtail.

You never know when you set out what you’re going to find. The birding this day was a bit of a bust, but the further I went, the more I found the air pulsing with life and color, with what Darwin called “endless forms most beautiful.” How could you feel anything but gratitude to be able to walk through the world for a few hours surrounded by all this?

And sometimes you don’t even have to go looking for it. The next evening, Anne and I were sitting out on the deck talking and having a glass of wine when a tiny winged fleck suddenly appeared, fluttering into the midst of our conversation. Brown and faintly lined, it looked like a nondescript bit of dead leaf — except that, on the outer edge of its hindwing, nature has given it an astonishing little patch of opalescent blue set with what looked like four tiny sapphires.

That striking flourish gives the species its name, as I learned later: Gemmed Satyr. This one kept us company for quite a while. It danced in the air between us, occasionally coming to rest on the table, on my sleeve, on the rim of my wine glass, as we talked and listened to the cicadas and watched the evening fade.

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Devil Bird

I got up early last Sunday to go to the airport. Not to catch a plane, but to try to find an Upland Sandpiper.

Upland Sandpipers, long-necked shorebirds that prefer grasslands to the actual shore, have an affinity for airports. They migrate through eastern North Carolina during the steamy days of late summer, and in July and August of most years birders report a few in the grassy fields that surround the runways at Wilmington International Airport, northeast of downtown.

I am not one of those birders. I’ve never seen an Upland Sandpiper. But several have been reported at the airport in the last few weeks, so I went out Sunday to try to add one to my life list.

The Wilmington airport has an outdoor observation area where you can park, sit at a picnic table, and watch the planes land and take off. (Apparently this is a thing.) I held my binoculars up to the chain link fence that prevents distracted birders from wandering out onto the runway and scoured the green expanse, sweat rolling down the back of my neck under what was, even before breakfast, already a sweltering sun.

Zip. Grasshoppers made feeble parabolic flights as if they were wearing underpowered jetpacks. A few dragonflies clung to the tips of wheaty stalks. But not a single visible bird interrupted the treeless plain. Not a Killdeer, not a grackle, not a robin. Definitely not an Upland Sandpiper.

Maybe the birds were out there but hidden, as grassland birds so often are. Maybe I was looking in the wrong direction; it’s a big place. I did score a trio of Eastern Kingbirds, my first in New Hanover County this year, patrolling from atop the fence, but after baking to a crackly crunch for a while I conceded. Someday maybe I’ll see an Upland Sandpiper. It won’t be today.

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That white tail fringe gives it away: Eastern Kingbird on the hunt.

Plan B

But the day was still young, so I activated Plan B: Operation Anhinga.

The reptilian waterbirds are not terribly difficult to find along the Southeastern coast, if you know where to look. I’ve seen several of them in and around Wilmington, but when I looked over my year list, I was surprised to note that I didn’t have one yet in 2016. So I left the airport and headed for Greenfield Lake.

Greenfield Lake
Greenfield Lake

Although it’s an urban lake with a paved trail around its five-mile contour, an amphitheater, playgrounds, and a boathouse, most of the shoreline is a scribble of quiet coves and shady bays lined with cypress trees dripping with fringed curtains of Spanish moss. Alligators raft its quiet surface, and most of the year it’s a terrific place to look for birds.

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A hitchhiker catches a ride on alligator cruising Greenfield Lake.

During the cooler months, American Coots sail in black flotillas, and Pied-billed Grebes dive near the shores. Double-crested Cormorants crowd together on the branches of tiny mid-lake islets, and there are times when Great Blue Herons and Great and Snowy  Egrets spangle the trees like Christmas ornaments. In migration season, warblers, vireos, and other passerines flit along the wooded shore.

Great Blue Heron
A Great Blue Heron basks in the trees overlooking Greenfield Lake.

 

Belted Kingfisher
A Belted Kingfisher surveys the pickings.

The dead of summer, though, is, if not quite dead, at least drowsy. When I got there on Sunday, everything was eerily still. From my vantage point, not a Mallard or a Canada Goose stirred the mirrored surface. Even the cormorants were gone. Nothing feathered moved except for a Northern Mockingbird hunting in the grass and a pair of Carolina Chickadees chasing each other in a pine tree. The odds of finding an Anhinga, or anything else, didn’t seem all that promising.

Still, I was here. I gathered my binoculars and camera, skirted the amphitheater, and walked down to the water’s edge. As I stood and scanned the distant treeline, the lake looked as barren as the airport fields.

Something caught my eye right in front of me, a solid form breaking up the feathery leaf edges. My eyes shifted from distant focus to near, and — well, look at that. A Green Heron, motionless in a tree growing out of the water not thirty feet out.

Green Heron
A Green Heron catches my eye.

At the same moment, I noticed a sound, a soft guttural croaking. The sound drew my gaze down the tree trunk and — and there, smack in front of me, its white wing patches blazing (how on earth did I miss them in the first place?) was an Anhinga.

Anhinga
How did I miss that big white wing patch?

Relatives of the cormorants, which they superficially resemble, Anhingas are striking but strange, prehistoric-looking birds; I can imagine them perched on crooked limbs above oozy primordial swamps. They’re sometimes called “snake birds” for their habit of swimming completely submerged except for their heads and serpentine necks. Apparently I’m not the only one who finds something vaguely spooky about them; the Tupi people of Brazil considered them evil spirits and gave them the name we still use for them:  Anhinga, meaning “devil bird.”

Anhinga
The call of the Anhinga.

This one extended its long neck, opened its spear of a bill and uttered another few raspy croaks. I watched for several minutes before it spread its wings and launched itself toward the far side of the lake.

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Preparing for takeoff.

The Bear

Most days when I can go birding, I go into the field without a specific target in mind; I go to see whatever I can see. Occasionally, though,  I go out in search of a specific bird — or, as on this morning, two of them.

One, the Upland Sandpiper, remained completely out of my grasp. The other practically flapped into my lap.

That’s how it goes, I thought. As often happens, a line came to mind from that guide to enlightened living, The Big Lebowski: Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.

Sometimes both on the same morning.

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Old Birds Made New

I had high hopes for Salt Pond, but it was a slow morning. Aside from the ubiquitous Gray Catbirds scolding me with wheezy meows from every shadowed thicket and a pair of Downy Woodpeckers chasing each other up the trunk of a dead snag, there was very little going on.

Gray Catbird
In southwest Cape Cod, it seemed to me that Gray Catbirds might outnumber all the other species put together.
Downy Woodpecker
A Downy Woodpecker scoots along a dead limb at Salt Pond.

I wasn’t discouraged, exactly, but after 90 quiet minutes I didn’t see much point in lingering, especially since the mosquitoes were as active as the bird weren’t, swarming out of the reedy brush to attack my arms and legs whenever I paused. I picked up my pace.

Suddenly a bird streaked low overhead from behind me and swooped up to light on the tip of a bare branch.

Eastern Kingbird
Whoosh!

Handsome fellow in a dark charcoal suit, with a narrow strip of bright white at the tip of the tail. Whoa, I thought. That’s an Eastern Kingbird!

Eastern Kingbirds, bold tyrant flycatchers fond of surveying their surroundings from open field fence rails and the tops of trees, are not uncommon. Back home in North Carolina, they’re not everyday birds, certainly, but I see them fairly often.

Eastern Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird, a handsome flycatcher in a dark suit.

But I wasn’t in North Carolina. I was in Massachusetts, and I’d been birding there every day for a solid week. I’d seen lots of birds, but not, until now, an Eastern Kingbird. To be honest, the possibility of Eastern Kingbirds hadn’t even crossed my mind.

So when this one appeared literally out of the blue, it gave me a little shot of surprised delight. It was like bumping into a friend from home in a faraway place. It reminded me that much of birding is about context; it’s not only what you see, it’s when and where and how you see it.

Thickets Thick With Birds

We were spending the first week of August in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, the most southwesterly point on Cape Cod. The rocky shoreline, coastal thickets, and deep forests that surround the village are thick with birds.

Along the waterline, Spotted and Least Sandpipers pick their way among thick brown ribbons of beached seaweed and pebbles the size of hen’s eggs. Imposing Great Black-backed Gulls float overhead.

Double-crested Cormorant
A Double-crested Cormorant performs its sun salutations looking toward Martha’s Vineyard.
Spotted Sandpiper
A Spotted Sandpiper tiptoes among the rocks on the shore of Vineyard Sound.
Least Sandpiper
A Least Sandpiper forages at the tide line.

Further inland, in the reeds and woods around the “kettle” ponds scooped out by ancient glaciers, mobs of Black-capped Chickadees flit among the branches. American Goldfinches hurry from one perch to the next, their “per-chicory” flight song trailing in the breeze, and Yellow Warblers shimmer as if they were made of sunflowers.

Black-capped Chickadee
Irrepressible foragers, Black-capped Chickadees move in little gangs through the foliage.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler
Some of the thickets are full of Yellow Warblers, which are nice things for thickets to be full of.

And everywhere are Ospreys. Sailors of yore named the body of water to the west after these plentiful and beautiful raptors, using a distinctly unbeautiful term: Buzzards Bay. Nesting platforms offer great looks, and Ospreys on the wing cut through the blue sky above. They’re as common here as Turkey Vultures are back home.

Osprey
One of the many Ospreys that nest on the southern reaches of Cape Cod.

Birding by Bike

Perhaps the best way for a visitor to bird this part of the cape is to rent a bike and use the Shining Sea bike path to get from one site to another.

Shining Sea bike path
The Shining Sea bike path cuts a straight line on an elevated causeway over the Great Sippewissett Marsh.

The path’s southern stretch hugs the shore, where the white sails of both boats and terns ride the wind between Cape Cod and the soft green ridge of Martha’s Vineyard across the sound. The course then passes through cool stretches of dense forest, across an elevated causeway above the vast Great Sippewissett Marsh, past ponds and former farmlands and even a historic cranberry bog. All along the route, foot trails and opportunities for side excursions intersect the path.

Great Sippewissett Marsh
The Great Sippewissett Marsh, looking from the causeway toward Buzzards Bay.
Red-winged Blackbird
A Red-winged Blackbird at Great Sippewissett Marsh.

I rented wheels for the whole week, and spent part of every day bike-hiking, pedaling out and then disembarking at various points and hoofing it along the beaches, around the kettle ponds, and up and down the wooded trails.

It was a glorious way to bird; the bike allowed me to move quickly from one place to the next, maximizing my birding time, and gave me access to areas that a car couldn’t reach.

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My trusty steed.

At the Great Sippiwisset Marsh, an immature Little Blue Heron tried to blend in with a dozen Snowy Egrets, while Green Herons raised their periscope necks above the marsh grass. My spider sense tingled when a sparrow fluttered into a patch of flattened reeds close by, but all my wishing couldn’t turn it from a Song Sparrow into a Saltmarsh.

Yellowlegs
These Yellowlegs at Great Sippewissett Marsh were too far off for me to be able to differentiate in the field. When I got back to the cabin and looked at the photo, I realized I’d gotten both species in one shot: Lesser on the left, Greater on the right.

In Beebe Woods, I found a deep pine and oak forest, with mazes of trails that traced the contours of a bumpy terrain. I saw more Hairy Woodpeckers there than I’ve seen all year back home, and a flash of red high in an oak tree revealed a preening Scarlet Tanager, impossibly vivid amid the green.

Hairy Woodpecker
A Hairy Woodpecker climbs a tree in Beebe Woods.
Scarlet Tanager
A Scarlet Tanager still growing into its full scarlet glory in Beebe Woods.

Context Matters

One of the great pleasures of travel is finding new birds. I didn’t see many on this trip. Almost all the birds I saw were species I fairly regularly see back home. But seeing them in a new place was a different sort of pleasure. Birding is about appreciating not only the birds, but the environments in which they live. Seeing familiar birds in new surroundings almost made them new birds.

So when that Eastern Kingbird flashed by over my shoulder, it gave me an extra little jolt. The same thing happened when a rustling near the top of a trailside tree one morning turned out be a trio of Cedar Waxwings.

Cedar Waxwing
A trio of Cedar Waxwings surprised me at Salt Pond one morning.

These weren’t transcendent sightings; it’s not as if a Cerulean Warbler or Snowy Owl had suddenly materialized. But they were small moments when something familiar turned up  in an unexpected place, and each time it gave the day a little extra sparkle. It reminded me that one of the joys of birding is the possibility that something surprising and wonderful — even something you know well — might at any moment streak past your shoulder.

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The Spark Bird

I had just left the first long open stretch of trail and started a dogleg through the woods when a bird flashed through the trees to my right. Out of the corner of my eye, all I could tell was that it was dove-sized and long-tailed. Mourning Dove.

The bird lit on a branch in deep shade just off the edge of the trail, and I got a better look. Wait a minute. Maybe not Mourning Dove. I lifted my binoculars on a two-toned bird, upper parts the color of shoe leather, underside creamy white. Long, curved bill. Whoa, I thought. That’s a cuckoo.

Black-billed Cuckoo
Definitely not a Mourning Dove.

Outside of a field guide, I had never seen a cuckoo. I’d never seen a lot of things. This hike was my very first solo bird walk, the first time I ever went into the field by myself with the express purpose of looking for birds.

I knew a little bit about birds, but what I knew was dwarfed by what I didn’t know. I didn’t know what kind of cuckoo it was; I don’t think I even knew there were different kinds. I didn’t know how common they were or whether it was unusual to see one here.

And I didn’t know this bird was going to change my life.

When I got back to my car and checked my few quick photos against Sibley, the ID became apparent: Black-billed Cuckoo. What wasn’t apparent to me then was how unexpected this bird was in this place.

Mason Farm Biological Reserve in Chapel Hill is one of the best and most popular birding sites in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. Managed by the North Carolina Botanical Garden, it’s a wonderful 367-acre tract with open fields, expansive brush, deep woods, and wetlands, all of which abound with birds.

Mason Farm
A foggy morning at Mason Farm.

But not Black-billed Cuckoos. Yellow-billed Cuckoos are regular at Mason Farm, but Black-billed Cuckoos are unusual anywhere in the Piedmont, and sightings there are very rare; aside from my bird, in fact, eBird still has only a single undated historical report.

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The more common, but still elusive, Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

For a brand-new birder, the thrill of finding an even slightly unusual bird was heady stuff. The sum total of my dedicated birding experience up until then was a Bird ID 101 class and field trip offered by the New Hope Audubon Society. That was fun and fascinating, and it warmed my interest.

But it was that Black-billed Cuckoo that lit the fire. Somehow, with that one bird,  all the joys of birding suddenly snapped into focus:  the tranquility of the quiet walk, the thrill of the hunt, the puzzle of identification, the urge to collect, the artistic challenge of photography, the exciting possibility of discovering something unusual — and above all, the wild beauty of the birds.

That Black-billed Cuckoo was my gateway bird, my catalyst bird, my spark bird, what Corey Finger at 10,000 Birds calls a “trigger bird.” It was the bird that made me a birder. I’ve been a happily obsessed one ever since.

black-billed cuckoo
The bird that changed everything.

I’ve seen only one other Black-billed Cuckoo. The following spring, two much better birders invited me along on a stretch of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail near Falls Lake. I was the weak link, but near the end of the morning I spotted a bird silhouetted against the lake off to our right. Somehow my brain instantly recognized it, and the words were out of my mouth before I even had time to think: “Cuckoo! Black-billed Cuckoo.” And so it was.

I may never see another one. They are famously elusive. In the meantime, through a sort of fondness-by-association, their more outgoing cousins, the Yellow-billed Cuckoos, have a special place in my heart too. (One is calling insistently from the woods surrounding the deck where I’m sitting right now, in fact.)

Yellow-billed Cuckoo
A Yellow-billed Cuckoo peeks out from its hiding place.

I don’t know whether most other birders have a particular bird that lit the fire in them. For me, it was a Black-billed Cuckoo that appeared out of nowhere beside the trail one morning and opened up a whole world.

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Rambles of an Evolving Birder