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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