Prairie Boy Does Durham, NC
- Thought some of you might be interested in the report of some birding I did during a recent trip to Durham, NC. At a couple of points I reflect on southern birds from the perspective of a Saskatchewan birder.
Prairie Boy Does Durham, NC
"It certainly looks like an avian wasteland," I muttered as I scanned the range maps in my field guide with Durham, NC in mind. I was planning to spend 6 days there, along with fellow birders Eric Friede (from New Haven, CT) and Lynn Berg (from New Brunswick, NJ), at the annual conference of the American Theological Library Association (ATLA), and the conference schedule was such that we'd have a couple of mornings of birding together.
After scanning the excellent weekly checklist of the Chapel Hill (a city just south of Durham) Bird Club, I found only a handful of life bird possibilities. Mind you, most of these were nemesis birds of a sort: I'd missed Kentucky Warbler a few years back at Great Falls, Va., (also during an ATLA conference), and had heard and almost seen one in May at Pt. Pelee; I'd missed Whippoorwill this year at both Pt. Pelee and in my native Regina (it showed up as a vagrant for a couple of hours one evening); and I'd had had a couple of almost-sightings of Fish Crow during the aforementioned trip to Virginia. Brown-headed Nuthatch, the only ABA-area nuthatch I've yet to see, rounded off the list. Via Birdchat, I got in touch with Will Cook, a biologist at Duke University (and compiler of the above-mentioned checklist) who graciously offered to take us to some local hotspots on the 21st and 23rd of June.
We rendez-voused with Will at the gate to Mason Farm near Chapel Hill. "This place looks like a rainforest!" I remarked on seeing the lushness of the vegetation. For me, at least, it was the first experience of a Carolinian forest in Carolina. Will's love of nature and his expertise as a birder became apparent from the moment he began to call out the names of the vocalizing birds: "Red-shouldered Hawk, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, White-eyed Vireo, . . . ." Stopping at the bushes from which the latter was calling, he gave a convincing Screech Owl imitation that brought the bird out into plain view.
"Common White-tail," he called out a little while later, but it wasn't a bird or a deer he was referring to (there were also plenty of the latter in the area) but a dragonfly perched on a nearby log. The next one we encountered stumped him; he wasn't up on his dragonflies, he confessed. Butterflies were another matter: "American Lady-and that's a Little Wood Satyr." Further along the trail he also helped us distinguish the birdlike vocalizations of tree frogs from the real avian thing.
"Acadian Flycatcher, Carolina Wren, and there's a KENTUCKY Warbler singing in the background, let's go in after it!" Following his lead we left the trail, bushwhacking our way through hurricane-strewn trunks and branches, to near where the sound had originated. I was having a hard time distinguishing the warbler's song from that of the wren, but finally got the difference in tone and cadence down.
After hearing no vocalizations for a couple of minutes, we concluded that our target must have flown off. "Maybe we would've been better to stick to the trail," Will mused. Then the singing began again, and Will spotted the bird singing on an exposed branch about 10 meters away and about 4 or 5 meters off the ground: "They sometimes sing from as high as 20 feet up." We all got great looks at its head, though it flew off before we could see the whole bird in profile. Everything else, including an Eastern Bluebird, a Brown Thrasher, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, and a deer that dashed across the path directly behind another group of birders, was gravy.
We had an hour or two left, and Will suggested we try for either Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and Red-headed Woodpecker or Fish Crow and Brown-headed Nuthatch. Realizing that we'd have a chance at the latter two on Saturday morning we opted for the former, since the Night Heron was another potential lifer for me, and since the woodpecker is always a delight to see.
We drove to a waterfowl impoundment about a mile north of the junction of Old Mason Farm Road and Highway 15-501. The Red-headed Woodpeckers were there-four in all, including two juveniles-as were Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, and a Green Heron. But scan as we might, we couldn't find a trace of the Night-Heron. We decided to head back, because it was getting on for 10:00 a.m. and our next conference session began at 11:00. Just then a crow perched atop a snag (i.e., a standing dead limbless tree trunk) went "cah-cah" and, unexpectedly, I had my life FISH CROW. Which was just as well because, as it turned out, the bird was a no-show at Jordan Lake on Saturday morning.
I woke up the next day with a sore throat. "Oh no, not a cold!" I groaned. But then I realized it had come from the Screech Owl imitations I'd been practicing during my roommate's absences the day before. That night Eric, Lynn, and I returned to the waterfowl impoundment at dusk, figuring we'd have a better shot at the mostly crepuscular Night-Heron. The sky was heavy and overcast in the aftermath of a thunderstorm, and the smell of smoke alerted us to the fact that one of the many snags in the impoundment had recently been struck by lightning. That, and the decreasing interval between lightning flashes and thunderclaps (combined with my wife's recent admonitions about messing with lightning), made me quite uneasy, and so the three of us stayed just long enough for a quick scan of the shoreline, netting only Belted Kingfisher for our trip list. We then headed for the Whippoorwill hotspot Will had pointed out to us that morning, but the trip was rendered fruitless by driving rain. Frustrated, though in good spirits, we headed back to our hotel. In the parking lot we heard a Common Nighthawk, a pretty good bird for these parts, as we later learned from Will.
Somehow, despite a power outage during the night, all three of us managed to wake up in time for a 4:15 a.m. departure for a 5:00 a.m. rendez-vous with Will in Wilsonville, which lies due south of Durham. Will had invited us to join him for a breeding bird survey on the west side of Jordan Lake near Pittsboro. After picking picking him up and piling into Lynn's rented car, we made our way to the first stop. On the way, we spooked a medium-sized owl perched by the roadside, which we concluded (by the process of elimination) could only have been a Barred Owl.
The survey consisted of 20 stops along a pre-determined route at half-mile intervals. At each we were to close the car doors gently, so as not to wake farm dogs, and spend three minutes recording whatever birds we could hear or see. At one of the first stops we heard the loud, unmistakable call of a WHIPPOORWILL, which was followed a few stops later by that of a Chuck-Will's-Widow, giving the three of us a caprimulgid triple-header for the trip.
Other significant birds that we saw or heard included Summer Tanager, Hairy Woodpecker, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Cooper's Hawk, and Scarlet Tanager. I missed a couple of the sightings, since I was the scribe and the keeper of the timer (it had to be paused every time a passing truck prevented us from hearing bird vocalizations), but I had fun birding by ear, and especially at one point when a Chipping Sparrow and a Pine Warbler each sang within seconds of one another. I got so that I could tell the richer song of the warbler from its more staccato sparrow counterpart. Which may come in handy one day, because I'd like to see a Pine Warbler in Saskatchewan. Our very small breeding population (in the southeastern part of the province) is poorly known because of the difficulty in distinguishing its song from that of the abundant Chipping Sparrow.
Our route necessitated stops at odd locations (which generated odd looks from the locals) along the narrow country road we were following. Once, the driver of a passing pickup asked if we were broken down; on another occasion, while we were parked in the driveway of a local dairy, a Mexican-American security guard, mistaking our binoculars for cameras, admonished us not to take photos; and near the end of our route a burly, surly, early (7:00 a.m.) denizen of a barbershop hailed us with a menacing "S'appenin'?" He rolled his eyes in disgust and disbelief when I responded "We're counting birds." (And what were you doing, buddy?)
As soon as I'd finished tallying up sheet number 20 we made for a boat-launching ramp at the end of a campsite on Jordan Lake. A few owl whinnies by Will brought some very cooperative BROWN-HEADED NUTHATCHES close enough for some good looks. They were accompanied by Pine Warblers and, on a tree at the shore, a stunning singing male Yellow-throated Warbler- my favorite bird of the trip. Over the water we saw an Osprey and, in the distance, its nest on the top of a partly-submerged snag.
A brief hike down the abandoned road to the valley that was (in 1983) flooded by newly-created Jordan Lake produced great views of a Hooded Warbler. Two more were singing nearby, as was a Northern Parula. "Have you ever done a big day here?" Lynn asked Will at one point. "Yeah, my best total was 100 species I got on a big day in May," he responded. I restrained myself from saying "Why don't you come to Saskatchewan; you could get . . . ."
Our next stop was a trail that Will thought might harbor the southern race of Blue-headed Vireo. It was marked with newly-posted private property signs. We vacillated about going further. I had visions of being shot at by shotgun-toting good ol' boys. However, on seeing that the signs had been signed by the local water authority (and that the worst we could therefore expect was a fusillade from super-soakers) we decided to proceed. We came up empty, except for the ticks I managed to acquire. "Lone Star Ticks," noted Will, "they won't give you Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, but they will give you . . . ." and he proceeded to list a number of chronic debilitating diseases that I could acquire from these, well, yes, "life bugs".
Will left us at the parking lot of the Indian Point nature trail, mentioning that a stop at the lake via nearby Stagecoach Road could produce Prothonotary Warbler. After thanking him profusely for his generosity, hospitality, and expert guidance we headed off down the trail. Hearing a Yellow-throated Vireo call, I tried to draw it into view by imitating a Screech Owl, but the vireo evidently recognized my prairie accent. We had fun, though, comparing its burry call with that of a nearby Red-eyed Vireo. Making our way down to the wildlife viewing platform on the lakeshore, we picked out an immature Bald Eagle that was lurking near the Osprey nest on the near shore-as well as the Osprey itself. On the walk back I noticed a small yellow warbler foraging on a stalk at ground level. It turned out to be a stunning male Prothonotary Warbler that ended up entertaining us for a couple of minutes with its singing, hawking, and gleaning.
We ended up with 76 species heard or seen for the trip (78 if you count the Red-winged Blackbird that I missed and the Eastern Meadowlark that only Will heard). Not bad, considering that Will had warned us at the outset that this was the worst week of the year for species diversity, that we saw no gulls or terns (too far from tidewater) and no shorebirds except Killdeer-and that we'd seen all of our target species (and pretty well all the breeding warblers). Some avian wasteland!
Great Blue Heron
Great Crested Flycatcher
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
H.D. Sandy Ayer (Mr.)
Director of Library Services
Canadian Bible College/Canadian Theological Seminary
4400 4th Ave.
Regina, Sask., Canada