Lost

I knew where I was … until suddenly I didn’t.

I’d been on the trail since early morning, and by now the sun was high in the sky. It was time to get back to my car and then home. I had chores and errands to do, and people waiting for me.

I picked up my pace, although I got distracted by a Summer Tanager ticky-tucking from high in a tree and spent a good fifteen minutes trying in vain to get a clear shot through the breeze-tossed leaves. I’d hiked this trail a couple of times before, although not recently, and I expected any time now to come to the spur that led to the parking area.

But the trail just kept going. Presently the terrain started to look wrong. A field, like a big bite taken out of the trailside woods, appeared off to the left where I didn’t remember a field being. The trail curved gently to the left where it should have curved right and then… ended. It petered out in a circular opening, a cul-de-sac, entirely surrounded by trees. I stopped and looked around: Where the hell am I?

Terrific birding country at Flat River Waterfowl Impoundment.
Terrific birding country at Flat River Waterfowl Impoundment.

The Flat River Waterfowl Impoundment northeast of Durham is one of the more remote and undeveloped tracts I’ve visited in this part of North Carolina: almost 250 acres of forest and field, with no facilities or significant manmade structures of any kind aside from a powerline easement that slices through the middle of it. It’s terrific birding country, with a great variety of habitats: deep woods, wetlands, scrub woods, and open meadows. I’ve never seen another soul out there, and because beyond its borders lie mostly more of the same — it’s part of the extensive Butner Gamelands — it’s about as close you can get around here to wilderness. That’s what I love about it.

Variegated Fritillary.
Variegated Fritillary.

Even so, it’s not exactly the Yukon, and the main trail is a straightforward loop; you don’t have to be Lewis & Clark to find your way around it. Last Saturday I got up got up early and made the half-hour drive to Flat River, hoping to find my first Yellow-breasted Chat of the year.

It didn’t take long. After parking in the otherwise empty gravel lot and heading up the spur that leads to the loop, I didn’t get more than fifty feet before a brownish bird flashed across the trail in front of me and dove into small tree to the left. Through the glasses, its bright yellow breast practically glowed in the morning sun. I wish every bird I looked for were that easy.

It took less than two minutes to find my first Yellow-breasted Chat of the year.
It took less than two minutes to find my first Yellow-breasted Chat of the year.

Flat River was alive with birds. Chats were prominent, skulking in the brush and uttering their weirdly syncopated repertoire of clucks, whistles, honks, and wheezes. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds buzzed from one tippy-top perch to another. Barn Swallows dove and dipped over the fields, and Yellow-billed Cuckoos kowlp-kowlped from the woods, occasionally giving me obstructed glimpses — glimpses of cuckoos seem always to be obstructed — through the foliage. A pair of Prairie Warblers chased each other from branch to branch.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

The sun rose, the day heated, and the trail continued on, through a long stretch of chest-high Queen Anne’s Lace. Occasionally a side trail split off — at one of these junctions I spent a long time trying to get a clear look at a Chat that taunted me from the trailside brush — but I stayed on what I took to be the main path.

As I started to think about the time, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo barked from behind me. I love cuckoos, and it’s rare to get anything like a good opportunity to photograph one, so I backtracked — and there it was, in the trees right beside the trail. It swooped across the trail to take up residence in dappled sunlight just above a little trailside stream.

An unusually cooperative Yellow-billed Cuckoo.
An unusually cooperative Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

For twenty minutes, I watched as it tracked down caterpillars among the brilliant green leaves. It was the best look I’ve ever had of a cuckoo, and as I tracked it from perch to perch and took shot after shot, I fell into that zone where you forget about the time, the outside world, everything except the bird in front of you.

But eventually it moved deeper into the woods, and the rest of the world seeped back into my consciousness like a sink filling with water. I resolved that it was time to stop birding — within reason — and start hoofing my way back to civilization. I broke stride only twice: once for a trio of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and again for that Summer Tanager.

An expressive Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.
An expressive Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

And then the straight way was lost and, like Dante’s narrator, I found myself alone in the woods.

I was in no danger. I was still on a trail, just not the right trail, and Durham County is hardly the outback; even if I were to bushwhack in the wrongest possible direction, I’d hit a road (or, possibly, the shore of Falls Lake) within an hour or two.

Common Buckeye.

Plus, cell phones exist. The map app on mine didn’t show trails, but it did pinpoint my location: I was way off to the southeast from where I thought I was. Sauntering along, distracted by birds, I must have inadvertently taken a long side trail off the loop. I thought I was circling back toward my car; instead, every step took me further away from it.

You can't see them, but this trail is full of ticks. Trust me.
You can’t see them, but this trail is full of ticks. Trust me.

I felt foolish, but at least nobody else was here to witness my ineptitude; I didn’t see another human being the entire time I was out there. Now it was just a matter of making the long slog back the way I’d come. When I reached the junction where I’d chased the Chat, I took the left-hand branch, which put me back on the loop and finally heading the right way.

Is it bad luck if a black snake crosses your path?
Black Rat Snake. Is it bad luck if a black snake crosses your path?

My goof had turned a three-hour walk into a five-hour one. The back of my neck was sunburned the color of rare steak. I was late, hot, hungry, thirsty, and crawling with ticks (which, during the drive home, I kept pulling off, flicking onto the top of the dashboard and dispatching with my pocket knife).

But I’m glad I took the wrong trail. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have encountered that cuckoo that let me watch for a long while at close range as it flitted and fed up in the trees. And, as many people have noted over the years, there’s a certain freedom and a bit of a thrill in being a little lost. Sometimes, not knowing exactly where you are is exactly where you ought to be.

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Owls in Mid-Stream

I hadn’t really planned on birding last Sunday morning. It was going to be an especially hot and sticky day in Wilmington, and mid-June is a slow time of year. It seemed like a good morning to try to make up a little bit of my perpetual sleep deficit. But I woke up around 8:30, made some coffee, and figured, what the hell, may as well go out for an hour or two. I might see something interesting.

So I picked up my camera and binoculars and headed up Market Street. I wanted to try a new site, the woods adjoining the UNC-Wilmington campus, but as I passed Port City Java, on the spur of the moment I changed my mind and decided instead to check out the stretch of Burnt Mill Creek that runs behind the coffee shop.

I’ve had a few wonderful days along the more northerly reach of the creek, which is reliable for Yellow-crowned Night Herons, but I’d never walked this particular stretch, and a family of Barred Owls had been reported there.

A Yellow-crowned Night Heron having salad with its seafood.
A Yellow-crowned Night Heron having salad with its seafood.

I turned around, parked in the PCJ lot, and set out to hike north along the west bank. Burnt Mill Creek is a small, slow-moving stream, full of turtles and big carp that have a habit of noisily catapulting themselves two or three feet out of the water (the carp, not the turtles). It was already steamy in the sun, but a grove of massive oak trees cast some welcome shade along the wide grassy course. A trio of Great Crested Flycatchers chased each other from one leafy branch to another. A raptor high up caught my eye, and as it turned I caught a good look at its white head and squared-off tail: Mississippi Kite, my first of the year. As I watched through the glass, it tucked its wings and plummeted dramatically toward the treeline.

A pretty Great-crested Flycatcher.
A pretty Great-crested Flycatcher.

The usual suspects showed themselves on the walk north: a grackle or two, the ever-present cardinals, chuckling Red-bellied Woodpeckers. No owls. But as I turned around to head back, a couple walking a dog told me they’d seen an owl on the other side of Chestnut Street. “It was there just now, on a branch over the creek,” the man said.

I thanked him and made my way quickly back to that section of the creek. I didn’t see anything immediately obvious, but as I paused — I always see so much more when I stop for a while and just wait — a Barred Owl suddenly launched itself from a hidden perch and plunged down on something at the water’s edge.

You lookin' at me?
You lookin’ at me?

And then another, and another, and another. Within a few minutes, three immature owls and one adult were at work in the trees and the  creek along the muddy bank, hunting crayfish. The youngsters were full-sized and equipped with big-boy flight and tail feathers, but their rounded heads were still covered in pale fuzz, and they had about them that discernible but difficult-to-define quality of youth: a bit of wide-eyed innocence, a certain lack of dignity and grandeur. Gorgeous, stunning even — but a little goofy. In the way of kids, they chased each other here and there, shooing their siblings off their perches.

Siblings.
Siblings.

They were aware of me, certainly, but they were not shy and paid me no heed. I huddled up against a tree trunk and snapped shot after shot. The morning sun was behind the birds, so the light wasn’t ideal, but they were extraordinarily cooperative subjects. One of the youngsters snatched a crayfish out of the muck and flew straight toward me, landing on a limb not 15 feet away to pluck the unfortunate crustacean apart.

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I watched and photographed them for 45 minutes as they ranged up and down the creek. At one point I heard a raucous cry and saw that a Yellow-crowned Night Heron had joined the owl party.

This Yellow-crowned Night Heron crashed the owl party.
This Yellow-crowned Night Heron crashed the owl party.

Something stirred in the foliage above it:  to my surprise, it was one of the Barred Owls, perched just a few feet further up the same limb. The heron glared at something off to the right, bristling and flaring its crest feathers — and then the object of its attention, another of the owls, rushed toward it and chased it off its perch.

This is a terrible photo — the damn leaves wouldn't stop blowing in front of my face — but I was struck by how close these two big birds were on this one branch.
This is a terrible photo — the damn leaves wouldn’t stop blowing in front of my face — but how often do you see two good birds this big on one branch?

Most mornings when I’m able to go birding, I hustle out the door in a rush: I plan my trip and get my coffee set up the night before, throw on my clothes, let the dogs out, grab my binoculars and camera, and bolt. There is often, to be honest, a certain amount of frenzy to it: Gotta get out there! If I dally, I might miss something!

Profile of a young Barred Owl.
Profile of a young Barred Owl.

On this morning, though, I didn’t even decide to go until I’d lazily gotten up, poured some coffee, surfed the web for a few minutes, hemmed and hawed. And once I did go, I was on my way to one site when I had a last-second change of heart and pulled a U-turn. I wasn’t expecting to see much of anything. It was all about as un-planned and un-prepared as a trip can be.

But it turned out to be one of the most memorable mornings of birding that I’ve ever had, an up-close encounter with a family of owls as they hunted. It was a reminder that, while planning and preparation are all well and good, it’s not a bad thing on occasion to just relax and make it up as you go.

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