Outer Banks 2018: Birds

My wife and I have just returned from a much anticipated trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The trip was filled with beach time, fishing, family, seafood, and exploring. I’ll cover some of that (and some other nature) in a future post. Every trip is an opportunity for birding, though, so I will toss off a few keystrokes on that topic first. The Outer Banks, lying on the coast and a few hours south of home, hosts bird life a great deal different from what I’m used to. A trip there is always a good opportunity for a neophyte birder like me to expand life and year lists, and to get a little more practice identifying birds outside my usual range of experience. This year’s trip was no exception – I upped my life list by six and my year list by 39, notching 64 birds for the week.

Gulls

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A herring gull scolding a fish cleaner for not giving all the guts directly to its mouth.

I always think when planning a beach trip that I will have an opportunity to see a plethora of gull species. In all reality, during June only three species of gulls are particularly common on the Outer Banks – the laughing gull, the herring gull, and the great black-backed gull. I did see all of these (repeatedly) but didn’t spot any others. The ring-billed gull is reported on just over five percent of Dare County* checklists in June, and the lesser black-backed gull on about two percent, but all other gull species would be quite rare.

Terns

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Royal terns in the Florida Keys, Feb. 2014

By contrast, quite a few tern species are common on the Outer Banks in late spring and early summer. Ten species (lumping in the black skimmer – technically not a tern but closely related) are in the top 100 Dare County birds for June, according to ebird. Of those I saw eight on this trip – unsurprisingly the top eight: royal tern, least tern, black skimmer, common tern, Forster’s tern, Sandwich tern, gull-billed tern, and Caspian tern. Of those, the gull-billed tern was a life bird for me. The two I missed – bridled tern and black tern – would also have been lifers, but as the 91st and 99th most reported birds for the area I’m not feeling too frustrated over those misses.

Shorebirds

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Reusing an old photo of a shorebird I missed this time.

Shorebirds are another diverse group on the Outer Banks. Most of these I could nab on a closer trip to the Delmarva Peninsula, but the Outer Banks with its miles of uninterrupted beaches and Sound-side mudflats is an exceptional place to view these birds. This is probably the category where I was most disappointed in my results for this trip. I didn’t spend much time looking in the ideal spots, and when I did there were several groups I couldn’t get close enough to ID even through my scope. I did tally eight species but left a lot on the table. There are a total of 19 shorebirds at least as common as the “rarest” I tallied. Those I saw: willet, killdeer, American oystercatcher, semipalmated sandpiper, ruddy turnstone, sanderling, least sandpiper, and red knot. I suspect that some of those fuzzy groups at the edge of my sight included semipalmated plovers, short-billed dowitchers, black-bellied plovers, and dunlins but I just wasn’t quite able to say for sure.

Pelicans and Cormorants

Pelecanus occidentalis (12)
Pelicans from a previous OBX trip

This is quite simple: brown pelicans and double-crested cormorants are very common on Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands in June, and I saw many of both.

Pelagic birds

This is where I made some real progress on this trip, notching four species of pelagic birds on one fishing trip aboard the Miss Hatteras. Previously I had only seen one: the magnificent frigatebird. Other than the few species which can commonly be observed from land, I just haven’t had many opportunities to view these birds – and this was my first chance since I started “seriously” birding around the end of 2016. First I spotted a few Wilson’s storm-petrels on our way out to sea, and soon after I saw a couple of Cory’s shearwaters. While at sea the captain noticed my interest and pointed out a great shearwater, and on the return trip I got a good look at a sooty shearwater. Of course I also missed several fairly common species, including petrels, shearwaters, storm petrels, skuas, and jaegers, but for one trip (and that not really a birding expedition at all) I was quite satisfied.

Herons and allies

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Another cheat photo – snowy egret, Florida Keys Feb. 2014

On one moderate hike at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge I recorded seven species of herons, egrets, and ibis. None was a life bird, but all seven were year birds, and the two most common I missed (great blue and green herons) are abundant near my home and therefore not huge losses. It would have been nice to finally check off the glossy ibis as well, and I am certain there were some in my general vicinity. Still, one particular spot held a mixed flock of well over 50 great egrets as well as perhaps a dozen snowy egrets and as many white ibis, plus several tricolored herons. As a side note, I thought I spotted a pair of sandhill cranes flying from the sound side to the ocean side while driving home, just south of Oregon Inlet. The birds appeared too huge to be anything else, but we were cruising along pretty fast and I can’t even reliably report if they were the right shape. I haven’t found any recent reports of these birds in that area, so they were probably just some great blue herons or brown pelicans that looked oddly huge from my vantage point.

Other notable (to me) birds

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A juvenile barn swallow on Ocracoke

I didn’t see anything rare on my trip, but I was treated to one nice surprise. In our campground on Ocracoke, when night fell, I began to hear songs from several Chuck-will’s widows scattered among the marsh bushes. This was technically a life bird for me (because I had previously only heard them before I was recording sightings) and was something I was absolutely not expecting, although it turns out they are locally common in a few spots on the Outer Banks. Other year ticks for the trip included: boat-tailed grackle, purple martin, American black duck, brown thrasher, yellow-billed cuckoo, prairie warbler, and Eurasian collared-dove. While not “notable” in any real sense, I am always surprised by the preponderance of swallows at or near the beach. I shouldn’t be – they’re quite common – but there is always something incongruous to me about their appearance with the sand and waves.

What I missed

The single most abundant bird I did not see was fitting, as it is probably also the most common eastern North American bird missing from my life list: the eastern meadowlark. It’s a point of irritation for this East-coaster that I’ve ticked the western meadowlark but not the eastern. I also didn’t see any Carolina chickadees, which was odd but not that odd given the environments I frequented. Other than the shorebirds mentioned above the only other big miss is probably the prothonotary warbler, another bugaboo for me that always seems like it should be an easy add.

 

*Note: I am using a Dare County list as a proxy, but some of this vacation was on Ocracoke Island, which is in Hyde County (whose list is similar but different).

2017 Birding Goal: Achieved!

This will be a quick (and possibly boring to many of you) post. I am writing today simply to affirm a personal achievement. I decided early that 2017 would be the year I got better at birding. As a part of that ambition, I set the goal of compiling a 2017 year list of at least 162 birds. Why 162? As of 12/31/16, my life list stood at 161 bird species. As I learned more about birds I questioned some of those records enough to reduce that total somewhat but chose to retain the original goal. On a day trip to Assateague Island last Saturday, two new year birds put me over the top.

Pelecanus occidentalis (18)The first of these was a brown pelican spotted from the car as we crossed one of the small bridges on the Eastern Shore. Once we arrived at the beach I saw a couple dozen more. There’s nothing particularly special about this bird, except that I hadn’t seen one yet in 2017. Brown pelicans are large, unmistakable, and common so therefore an extremely easy box to check provided one spends a little time in their habitat.

The second was a least tern. Again, it’s a fairly common bird and marking it off is only a slightly higher bar to clear than the pelican. Still, I have only recently learned how to separate terns (and am as yet not great at it), so this one felt more significant. During strolls up and down the beach I spotted 4 or 5 more of these small birds. The other birds I saw this day were repeats, but I was struck by how much easier they were to identify than when I began this focused effort. More importantly than the list is the seeming success of the method of self-instruction. It seems, at least for me, that intense focus on one subject is a better way to build my knowledge of the natural world than simply studying whatever I find.

I suppose now is the time to get the list itself out of the way before I ramble on too long. If you’re interested in seeing the first 104 entries on my 2017 year list, they are enumerated in three previous posts here, here, and over there. New life birds are in bold.

105. broad-winged hawk
106. Baltimore oriole
Icterus galbula (5)
107. wood thrush
108. green heron
Butorides virescens (9)
109. purple martin
Progne subis (1)

110. ovenbird
111. eastern wood-pewee
112. indigo bunting
113. solitary sandpiper
114. chimney swift
115. cedar waxwing
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116. orchard oriole
117. veery
118. common yellowthroat
119. red-eyed vireo
120. yellow warbler
121. eastern kingbird
122. northern parula
123. Swainson’s thrush
124. American redstart
125. bank swallow
126. blue grosbeak
127. great crested flycatcher
128. boat-tailed grackle
129. ruddy turnstone
130. laughing gull
Leucophaeus atricilla (2)
131. dunlin
132. red knot
133. sanderling
134. semipalmated sandpiper
135. short-billed dowitcher
136. willet
Tringa semipalmata
137. common tern
138. snowy egret
139. American avocet
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140. semipalmated plover
141. black-bellied plover
142. least sandpiper
143. wild turkey
Meleagris gallopavo (2)
144. white-eyed vireo
145. yellow-breasted chat
146. ruby-throated hummingbird
147. scarlet tanager
148. field sparrow
149. prairie warbler
150. acadian flycatcher
151. willow flycatcher
152. cliff swallow
153. spotted sandpiper
154. little blue heron
Egretta caerulea (4)
155. yellow-billed cuckoo
156. pectoral sandpiper
157. lesser yellowlegs
158. horned lark
159. black-and-white warbler
160. least flycatcher
161. brown pelican
162. least tern

Reflecting on the full list, a few things are apparent. First: given how many very common and distinctive birds are new to my life list, I had a pretty pathetic life list going into this year. Second: given the total number of new-to-me birds (55), it would really be better for me to tack on at least a handful of additional species to be really certain I’ve hit the mark. I’m not self-assured enough to believe that all 162 birds are 100% certain. I tried to set a very high bar for counting a bird, but I’m far from perfect and still honing my skills. Third: I never would have gotten close without ebird.org and Cornell’s all about birds website and Merlin Bird ID tool. I know I have plugged these things unrelentingly, but for good reason.

So, what’s next? There is still plenty of time in 2017 to expand this list. I have an upcoming trip to the Rockies which should yield new opportunities, and the bulk of the Fall migration is yet to come. Juveniles and winter-plumage birds are more of a challenge than their adult and spring counterparts, but there’s no reason I can’t pick out at least a few more. Can I reach 200? That seems like a nice round number to aim for now.

Final note: photos above are not necessarily the same individuals identified this year, but all are my own.

 

12 Months of Nature: May

Breeding Horseshoe Crabs

May’s adventure marked a return to the same general location as my February trip, but with a different target in mind. This time I was making my way to the shores of the Delaware Bay to observe breeding horseshoe crabs and the related food web in action. On the surface, that may not sound like something worth a two-hour drive, but I was lured by a mental picture of a thick blanket of horseshoe crabs covering sandy beaches while shorebirds greedily feasted. After all, up until this trip I had almost exclusively seen horseshoe crabs singly or in small groups, and post-mortem. Their otherworldly appearance fascinates me. So, I took an extra vacation day I had in my pocket, rose early, and headed for the DuPont Nature Center and Slaughter Beach.

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scoped view of a black-bellied plover amid some dunlin

“Come for the crabs, stay for the shorebirds,” should be the tagline. I was a little early for the peak activity – my schedule would not permit otherwise – but still there was enough for me to understand why this phenomenon has an accompanying festival and generates quite a bit of naturalist buzz. The basics are that the Delaware Bay provides optimal conditions for horseshoe crabs to breed in late Spring, supporting more of the crabs than anywhere else. Migratory shorebirds, particularly red knots and ruddy turnstones, have in turn learned to exploit the predictability of this cycle, timing their Spring migration to include a stop on the Bay’s beaches on their northward journey. These birds are following a particularly long migratory path and thus arrive often near starvation and always in need of energy. Without this food source most would not be able to complete the trip.

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I obeyed the rules, though admittedly sometimes pushing them as far as these swallows.

My first stop was at the DuPont Nature Center, which is a renowned spot for viewing shorebirds. There was a birding group who arrived around the same time I did, and the leader was kind enough to point some birds out for me and include me as a sort of de-facto member. With her help and the aid of my scope, I was able to pick out dozens of dunlin, ruddy turnstones, sanderlings, and short-billed dowitchers. There were also a smattering of willets and semipalmated sandpipers and of course hundreds of “shorebird x” birds. What was a little surprising was an apparent shortage of red knots – the poster child for this whole thing. There were some, but not the numbers I’d expected. The Nature Center staff assured us they were around, though – they reported counting hundreds in a banding project just days before. Of course the shorebirds were not alone. laughing gulls, herring gulls, and common terns shared the beach and skies with them, as did several osprey and a small flock of barn swallows. Seemingly every post supported a double-crested cormorant. I spent about an hour and a half here and could tell this was going to be a successful day.

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A crab I thought was dead waves its appendages frantically to disabuse me of this notion.

Next up was Slaughter Beach. This was the spot where I expected not to be able to move without treading on horseshoe crabs. That would prove to be an unfounded assumption, but the crabs were abundant – living and deceased. Every few yards was a live crab, or a carapace, or a pile of discarded crab guts. Trails in the sand told the story of their journeys after being deposited ashore by the mild surf. The birds were far less plentiful here, and I got the impression that so were the crabs. The action seemed to mostly be taking place on sandbars and sheltered flats, as well as beachheads less accessible to the public. Still, I enjoyed every moment of the stroll and came upon some unexpected bonuses. For example, I was definitely not expecting the large numbers of purple martins swooping and diving over the sand. I also had to do a double-take at several skates swimming in the shallows, and at the eastern diamondback terrapins peering cautiously from the waters. At first I put the two together in my mind, thinking I was spotting sea turtles. I may have nerded out extensively before I figured out the truth… but this was OK, because I was fine with nerding out over the truth anyway.

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This particular terrapin was unlucky.

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Having already checked off the two big purposes for the trip, I still had a few hours to kill. So, recalling a great experience from a few months ago I returned to Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Once again this proved a rewarding choice. This was a second great opportunity to check off some shorebirds on my year and life lists, and included the highlight of the trip: a pair of American avocets. These were a first for me and are among the coolest-looking birds I have ever seen. The thin, upcurved bill, upright posture, and white stripe just makes them look so elegant.

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An American avocet

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Prior Months of Nature

January – Bald Eagles
February – Winter Beaches
March – Tundra Swans
April – Early Spring Wildflowers