Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Huntington Beach State Park

Birders are some of the few people who get up and appreciate a sunrise. 
I think everyone has their special spots that they love, like your local patch of woods or your favorite migrant trap. I think Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina, is one of those special spots for me.

It might sound cliche but it's true. I just really love that park. I would happily pay my $5 entrance fee each day to go. The place is just beautiful, with a large salt marsh and ponds for ducks, waders, and shorebirds, scrubby seaside forest for migrating warblers and passerines, and an untouched beach with a jetty on the northern edge. And like you might've guessed, it's downright birdy. The marshes hide secretive rails, and it's the only place I have seen Clapper Rail.

Clapper from 2013.
Bald Eagles are a common sight soaring above the marsh, causing the mentioned Clappers to go crazy. Merlin can be seen in fall migration, while most of the year you can find Painted Buntings, one of my nemesis birds. Wood Storks, classified as Endangered by some states, breed here as do a few pairs of Roseate Spoonbills. The birds aren't the only thing I love about the park, it's also the amount of birders there. Every time I have gone I've met birders in the field, which for me is rare. I either bird alone or in a group, and when it's in a group, it's always a pre-made field trip. (Nothing wrong with that, though!) But I hardly ever stumble across birders on my own. At Huntington, I've met a lot of great birders, which just reaffirms my love for birding and the sort of culture surrounding it.

The reason for this post was because over the long weekend, we went down to Myrtle Beach and I got to bird there. So here is Myrtle Beach Trip, Part I.

To start things off, just as we drove on the causeway a male Hooded Merganser swam next to the car. The morning was gray and overcast, but despite that I got a decent picture.

After parking, we checked out the main causeway. One side of the causeway is mud flats/marsh and the other is a freshwater/slightly brackish pond. On the pond, a large raft of Ruddy Ducks was the main highlight, with a smattering of Buffleheads, a covey of coots, a male Belted Kingfisher, and many Pied-billed Grebes. On the marsh side, Forster's Terns, a life bird for me, dipped and dove into puddles, snatching small fish from their watery home. They reminded me closely of another small tern, Black Tern, which I had observed in New York.

A few birders were also on the causeway, and as I talked, I spied a Tricolored Heron in the reeds. A few yellowlegs, some Lesser, others Greater, flew in on the mudflats, the Greaters whining 'dear, dear, dear!'

A yellowlegs of the Lesser persuasion.

I said goodbye to the fellow birders (one was named Frank... hi Frank! The other said he was going to the Carolina Bird Club meeting in a couple weeks. See you there!) and caught up with my dad (who is a non-birder) who said he had found a duck with a "woodpecker bill". I was confused for a bit until the bird revealed herself... a female Red-breasted Merganser!

This was actually a life bird for me, and nicely wrapped up all three North American mergansers for me. We saw another female later on.

A male Common Eider had been reported about a week earlier, and was continuing. We walked about a mile to the rock jetty were he had been reported. Along the untouched beach we spotted White-winged Scoters, Double-crested Cormorants, American Oystercatcher, and Brown Pelican. When we reached the jetty, the inlet it had formed was full of Bonaparte's Gulls and Common Loons. I saw a few birders headed our way (easy to see because of their scope tripod) and I hurried to ask them about the eider and they said he was headed out to sea, so I should hurry. And hurry I did! I raced down the jetty to find him.

Before I got to the end, I was distracted by a beautiful little duck. It was a female Long-tailed Duck, which the birders had mentioned as well. She was super cooperative and give me some stunning looks. Not bad for a lifer!

Alas, I could not find the eider. A male Black Scoter fly-by was a consolation prize, another lifer. (And now another favorite!) Another birder, Francine, and her daughter joined me and together we tried looking for the eider. We thought we had found it, and maybe it was it, but it was far too distant to check. Before I left, another birder stopped by. Hopefully Francine and that other birder found the eider!

A Piping Plover had been reported on the other side of the jetty, near some mudflats. I went to go check it out. As we walked to it, a Ruddy Turnstone seemed to follow us among the rocks as it flew next to us. A Sanderling decided to join it just as I took a photo.

As we reached the end of the jetty, I set up my scope and scanned. And luckily enough, I found the plover! It was lifer number 274! It was much to distant to get a good shot, but hey, I can call it a plover.

That small white dot in the middle is a bird.

To wrap things up, on the way back I got good pictures of a Least Sandpiper on the rocks and a Dunlin on the shore. I would say it was a good day of birding, with a lot of lifers and first of years!

Here is the checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/ybn/view/checklist?subID=S21401624

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Calliope Hummingbird!

To those Western birders out there, take your hummingbirds for granted. Out East we're stuck with one species, the Ruby-throated, which is an okay bird. It's pretty. But I want variety. Glancing at a feeder and knowing it's a Ruby-throated automatically because it's a hummingbird is boring. However, a birder once told me that while you guys have hummingbirds, orioles, albatrosses, etc. we have better warblers than you. Ha.

Anyway, North Carolina seems to be a good place for wintering hummingbirds. On the coast we have Ruby-throateds that overwinter, with the occasional Black-chinned or rarely, a Buff-bellied. Here near Charlotte, some of the hummingbird banders think that the city creates a heat island that attracts wintering hummingbirds. Whatever the cause, Rufous Hummingbirds are one of our most common wintering hummers, attracted to feeders.

But sometimes, we get an even better prize- a Calliope Hummingbird. These tiny little midges are pretty common out West, breeding even up in the Rockies, so like kinglets they're pretty cold hardy. Recently an immature male was discovered when the homeowners realized that the wintering Ruby-throated was growing a pink gorget! They called Dwayne Martin, one of the local hummingbird banders, and banded the little guy and confirmed the ID. I was very lucky to be able to see it! The homeowners are excellent people and they had a great backyard. While we waited for the little bird, we watched the variety of birds arriving at their peanut feeder (including Red-bellied Woodpeckers, White-throated Sparrows, and Eastern Bluebirds. The last two species are very unlikely to eat peanuts, but they did!) and in the back, a herd of white-tailed deer browsed. But when the hummngbird arrived, it was a barrage of camera shutters snapping away. The homeowners said that the bird had became wary of the shutter sound after being banded, but apparently he got over it.

Here is the bird himself. A dapper little dude who took his birding paparazzi in stride. 

Due to the overcast day it was hard to get a good picture of his half-grown gorget, but I managed.

Notice the silver band and puffy legs. The feeder was made for the larger Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, who are about an inch or so larger. He was so short he had to hover to feed!

Monday, January 5, 2015

A New Year

As many other blogs are saying, and unless you live in a cave, you know it's a new year for birding! Keeping a year list is a good way to track the birds you've seen and keeps those common birds a bit more special than usual- at least until you see them! It also makes you realize which birds have eluded you and reminds you of the dips (oh, Western Tanager, how I wish you were on my 2014 or Life List) but in the end it's always fun to compare to others! Here are some highlights from my year:

Total Species seen in 2014: 250 (Counting Italian birds)

Rarest Bird Seen (Population Wise): Red-cockaded Woodpecker or Florida Scrub-Jay, whichever is considered more rare. Both were lifers.

Florida Scrub-Jay- Merritt Island NWR, Florida.
Red-cockaded Woodpecker- Weymouth Woods Nature Preserve, NC
Rarest Bird (Locally): I didn't see any ABA rarities or megas, but I did see my fair share of uncommon birds around my part of North Carolina. White-winged Scoter, Red-necked Grebe, Dickcissel, and a late Kentucky Warbler (that I found!) were life birds and pretty uncommon around here. I also got to see a Baird's Sandpiper in South Carolina.

White-winged Scoters, badly digiscoped. Latta Plantation Nature Preserve, NC.
Red-necked Grebe- Concord Mills Wetland, NC.
Dickcissel- Union County, NC.

Total Life Birds Seen: 110 species were new to me last year. Mainly warblers, terns, shorebirds.

Best Hard-to-See Bird Seen: I think that would have to go to the Least Bitterns we saw at Montezuma NWR, New York, at the Young Birders Event. We counted 12 (!) flying around. This year my target skulkers will be Swainson's Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, and Bachman's Sparrow. Second place would be Kentucky Warbler.

Worst Rare Bird Not Found: Probably Ross's Goose or Western Tanager. For adult birders it's easy to hop in the car and drive to that easy-to-see rarity. But for a young birder with non-birder parents and sibling, it's HARD to convince them to drive anywhere to see a bird. So my two big misses were pretty disappointing.

For the goose, it was near the aforementioned Red-necked Grebe, so I was hoping to see both in the same day. I didn't have the exact address for it, so we were checking out ponds. We finally stopped at a large pond that seemed plausible, but I convinced myself it wasn't it. After finding the grebe and heading back home, it turns out it was the spot! But there are so many Ross's in NC right now I might have a second chance.

For the Western Tanager, it was reported two hours away, at Lake James State Park. I didn't have the exact address either so I didn't see it. Turns out we were on the wrong side of the lake. Oh well. I really wanted to see the WETO because it would be my last common tanager for North America (not counting Hepatic... a Hepatic in NC? Hah!) As of this post it's still continuing so hopefully I can try for a second chance.

Best Birding Trip/Adventure: Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Young Birders Event, hands down. Meeting other young birders, famed birders, and seeing some incredible birds was extremely fun. I highly recommend any young birders try for it- if I got in, you can too! Give it a shot!

2015 List as of this Post: 42 species, most recent is Red-winged Blackbird. I still have yet to do a 'real' walk but checking out some spots for ducks is always good. I got a SSV* of a Northern Pintail male in the scope preening in the sunset light. This picture really doesn't do the beauty of these ducks.

Here you can see my 2014 list. Google Docs is super helpful when you're traveling!

Happy 2015!