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Since heading west to Washington in 2015, what I miss most in Winston-Salem is birding with good friends in places like Bethabara, Salem Lake and Archie Elledge. So, I was pleased when Shelley Rutkin expressed interest in visiting Mary and me and seeing some of our western species. We settled on late August as a time likely to produce good weather and some of Shelley’s target birds. Little did we realize just how exciting our bird search would become.

Shelley’s late-night arrival called for a relaxed approach to bird finding on her first day. We headed to the Big Four Ice Caves about 45 minutes away in the national forest. It instantly became one of my favorite spots out here, and it was likely to produce a life bird for Shelley. Unseasonable heat kept the species count down. However, we were rewarded with good looks at several Black Swifts – Life Bird #1 for Shelley.

Shelley Rutkin finds Black Swifts at the Big Four Ice Caves.

The next day, we headed to Mt. Rainier National Park about three hours away. Mary and I have looked forward to going there ever since we arrived in the Seattle area, and it has some bird species that we do not see west of the Cascades. We stopped for a picnic lunch at the beautiful woods of Federation Forest State Park, where we saw our first Gray Jay of the trip.

A Gray Jay was looking for a snack at Federation Forest.

We arrived at our Crystal Mountain Resort lodgings by early afternoon, then drove to the park’s Sunrise Visitor’s Center. A Clark’s Nutcracker greeted us as we exited the car. A late afternoon walk along the Silver Forest Trail provided magnificent views of Mt. Rainier’s summit, Mt. Adams and the White River valley, along with sightings of Mountain Chickadees, Audubon’s Warblers and Common Ravens. Ominously, although it was clear above, we could see smoke plumes from nearby forest fires.

The White River flows with glacial melt from Mt. Rainier.

The next morning dawned bright and beautiful at the park. For our bird hike, we chose the Sourdough Ridge and connecting Mt. Fremont Trails. This route offered us the best opportunity for a Prairie Falcon and perhaps even some White-tailed Ptarmigans. At Frozen Lake, Mary headed back, but Shelley and I proceeded on our quest. Just as we turned the corner and headed up toward Mt. Fremont, we spied a pair of Mountain Bluebirds on a fence line.

A pair of Mountain Bluebirds were hawking insects at Frozen Lake.

“Moderate” soon became “strenuous,” at least in our minds, but there was no stopping us. We plunged ahead over treacherous scree toward the Mt. Fremont lookout tower.

We hiked past this stone figurehead on the Mt. Fremont Trail.

Shortly before the summit, we spied two raptors soaring over a far ridgeline. Our Prairie Falcons? Perhaps, based on their pale coloring, but more likely Red-tailed Hawks. Alas, we saw no ptarmigans either, but we did see Mountain Goats and a cute Pika. And we did conquer Mt. Fremont!

Pikas are cute little mammals most closely related to rabbits.

We persevered to reach the Mt. Fremont Lookout.

The next morning was serendipity, as we drove park roads before breakfast looking for another Rutkin life bird, Sooty Grouse, or at least a Ruffed Grouse. Nothing along the roads, so we headed toward a trail at Sunrise Point as our last best chance. Not 50 yards in, I spied a bird walking down the trail. “Shelley, there’s your grouse!” We snapped dozens of photos as the male Sooty foraged in the trailside vegetation.

Shelley’s Sooty Grouse lifer poses for our cameras.

Our morning wasn’t done. A mile down the mountain, I jammed on the brakes as two woodpeckers moved through the trees – American Three-toed Woodpeckers. We both had seen only one previously in our birding lives, but these were the first in Washington.

Shelley was able to get this photo of an American Three-toed Woodpecker.

Mt. Rainier was all it has been touted to be. Many wildflowers had passed their peak, but the meadow at Sunrise still was full of Pasque Flower, Newberry’s Knotweed, Cascade Asters and Magenta Paintbrush. Shadow and Sunrise Lakes reflected light from the valleys below. And always, Emmons and Winthrop Glaciers on the mountain glistened in the background. We also lucked out with the clear skies. A few days later, the smoke had moved in and Crystal Mountain was being evacuated.

Magenta Paintbrush was still in bloom on Sunrise Meadow.

Butterlies were surprisingly scarce, but this Hydaspe Fritillary was a beauty.

The first morning at Sunrise, we had encountered a birding acquaintance. She alerted us that Ryan Merrill, our area eBird reviewer, had found a Swallow-tailed Gull at a North Seattle park on Puget Sound. I had seen this species in its native Galapagos Islands off of South America, but “Wow!” The only two previous sightings in North America were in California. People on the east coast already were booking flights. Nathan Gatto texted that in our position he would check out early and head to the coast. We had demurred with fingers crossed that it would stick around.

This Swallow-tailed Gull is only the third one reported in North America.

But would it? The next day, when we were grousing, the gull had disappeared. We headed home as other birders searched the Seattle area waterfront. Joy! Mid-afternoon, it was located a bit to the north – on a refinery pier at the southern tip of my home Snohomish County. However, viewing access was limited, treacherous and likely illegal, across railroad tracks. We also were caught in brutal Friday holiday traffic. We would have to wait.

On Saturday morning, no Swallow-tailed Gull at the Seattle park, the refinery, or even along Edmonds beaches a mile to the north. The search was on again. We decided to go to Edmonds, anyway, while we awaited any news. The Swallow-tailed Gull may be the most beautiful gull in the world, but the gray-feathered, red-billed Heerman’s Gull belongs in the pageant and Shelley had seen few of this western species. There were dozens roosting along the Edmonds jetty.

Dozens of Heerman’s Gulls roost on the Jetty at the Edmonds Pier.

Still no word in the afternoon, so it was off to the Everett Sewage lagoons to look at Western Sandpipers and an assortment of ducks, including Cinnamon Teal. The water now was too high to add an uncommon Willet to my county list at Tulalip Bay, so we headed over to Everett’s Marine Park. At least there, Shelley could add California Gull and Ring-billed Gull to her Washington list.

The Swallow-tailed Gull seems to enjoy the company of California Gulls.

Sitting in the water with Californias just a few yards from the parking lot was a smaller gull with a chocolate-brown head, a bright red eye ring, black wing tips and a two-toned bill of black and silver with a prominent white spot at its base. And, when it fluttered, we saw red legs and a u-shaped tail. We had relocated the Swallow-tailed Gull about 15 miles north of where it was last seen. Gorgeous!

The Swallow-tailed Gull takes a brief flight in Everett.

Soon after we posted word on our local Tweeters listserv and on Facebook, other birders began to arrive. Suddenly, the gull hopped out of the water onto the edge of the parking lot not 20 feet away. Cameras clicked away from close range capturing this remarkably photogenic bird until it eventually returned to the water. The young man next to me turned out to be Amar Ayyash from Chicago and one of our foremost gull experts. Instantly, we had street creds in the birding community in Snohomish County and nationally. What an amazing end to the day!

Dozens of birders responded to our gull alert.

Needless to say, the next three days were anticlimactic. We canceled a planned return east of the mountains because of the smoke and continuing heat. Instead, we stayed around home and added birds to Shelley’s state list.

Shelley really wanted to see a Chestnut-backed Chickadee, and she captured one with this photo.

Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches visited feeders at a local park. Both yellowlegs and Short-billed Dowitchers foraged on Skagit County mudflats. Black-bellied Plovers and Caspian Terns rested on a sandy spit. Ospreys and Great Blue Herons fed their chicks at Marine Park. And, our adventure together ended with a Marbled Murrelet and Mew Gull at a nearby beach.

The Great Blue Heron rookery was still busy at Marine Park.

The mountain scenery was beautiful, the Swallow-tailed Gull was amazing, and Shelley’s state bird list now stands at 81. However, just as nice was taking it all in with a long-time friend.

Mary, Shelley and I walked the Silver Forest Trail at Mt. Rainier.

Addendum: More than a week later, the Swallow-tailed Gull is still here. So long as the squid are easy to find each night and Seattle’s infamous rain holds off, it just may be here awhile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Great Black-backed Gull. Photo by David Collins.

By Cynthia Donaldson

When I close my eyes, I can still see the owl.  I made sure my mind took a “photo” of its face: two, black squinted eyes on a white, solemn face; a small, sharp black beak punctuating the center; the sleepy gaze at our group.  When the Saturday, January 14, itinerary for the Forsyth Audubon 2017 Winter Trip included a long drive north from our headquarters in Virginia Beach to visit this beautiful refuge on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, we had little hope of seeing a Snowy Owl.  It hadn’t been seen for two weeks.  We stuck to our plan to visit, anyway, in hopes of seeing the visiting Black-headed Gull from across the Atlantic. We actually located two rare gulls:  the Iceland Gull and the Black-headed Gull.  Then, as we checked out a huge flock of Snow Goose napping at Tom’s Cove, a scan of the shore line produced a lone, white bird resting on a mound of sand.  The Snowy Owl!

Snowy Owl at Tom's Cove. Photo by David Collins.

Snowy Owl at Tom’s Cove. Photo by David Collins.

northern-harrier

Norther Harrier at Craney Island. Photo by Nathan Gatto.

Our wonderful group of birders enjoyed an awesome trip.  On Friday, we visited the Craney Island Dredged Material Management Area in Norfolk, Virginia.  Our caravan of cars was escorted along the western edge of the three chambers of the island by Shannon Reinheimer, an Environmental Scientist employed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  She monitors sea turtles and sturgeon habitat in the Chesapeake Bay waters as the dredging process keeps shipping channels open.  In the western bay, we observed Canvasbacks and many Buffleheads.  Twelve inches of snow had covered the area the weekend before making the perpendicular roads were impassable for cars, so we hiked up the ramps and scanned the ponds.

Watching the birds at Craney Island.

Watching the birds at Craney Island.

We saw hundreds of American Shovelers and other ducks.  We found a small flock of Snow Buntings that were quite camouflaged in the sand and low grass clumps.  For many in our group, it was a life bird.

Harbor Seal by Nathan Gatto.

Harbor Seal by Nathan Gatto.

Saturday morning broke on the cloudy, drippy side. What a sight to see Great Black-backed Gulls sailing along at eye level as we crossed the expanses of the awesome Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.  The bay was gray and choppy, but with careful observation, little rafts of ducks could be seen, bobbing along in the waves.  From our vantage point on the man-made islands, we saw Harlequin Ducks, Common Eiders, a lone Common Goldeneye, and all three scoters, as well as many Long-tailed Ducks, a Great Cormorant, and even seals.

 

Purple Sandpipers along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. Photo by Nathan Gatto.

Purple Sandpipers along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. Photo by Nathan Gatto.

Brandt on Chincoteague Island. Photo by David Collins.

Brandt on Chincoteague Island. Photo by David Collins.

After the two-hour tour, we headed back across the bridge to the north to one of the most visited refuges in the U.S.:  Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.  And it was here that we saw the Snowy Owl.  Some others on the beach did not understand the Snowy Owl’s predicament – being far from home and very possibly stressed and hungry.  When a woman approached the bird, it flew closer to us.  Cameras clicked as the paparazzi in our group took photos of the owl in flight!  We lingered as long as we could, basking in the joy of seeing this rare bird!

Lots of smiles after great look at the Iceland Gull at Chincoteague!

Lots of smiles after great look at the Iceland Gull at Chincoteague!

By Sunday morning at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, we thought we had reached our life bird quota for the trip, but were we in for a surprise!  After our four-hour tour of the beautiful impoundments that provide a great wintering habitat for hundreds of migrating birds, we enjoyed our lunches, warmed up, and then got back to birding. Then word came from our “scouting team” that they had located a King Rail.  We hurried to the locale and stared into a wall of reeds.  A little stream trickled along the edge of the reeds.  Here, we spent a long time searching for the rail that was long gone.  Rob had a quick look at the “rail” but his description did not match.  When all eyes finally found the bird hiding deep in the reeds, we were ecstatic to realize that we were looking at a Least Bittern!

Bundled-up birders enjoyed the 2017 winter trip!

Bundled-up birders enjoyed the 2017 winter trip!

The sightings of the Snowy Owl, Black-headed Gull, Iceland Gull and the Least Bittern – all birds that should not even be in Virginia at this time of year – made this an amazing trip! We each spent a long time etching the memory of these birds into our minds. These recollections will always bring smiles to our faces!

Where will our love of birds lead us next year? Photo by Ferd Crotte.

Where will our love of birds lead us next year? Photo by Ferd Crotte.

Counting the Birds

Christmas Bird Counts often start in the wee hours of the morning.  Nathan Gatto began searching for owls at Hobby Park at 4:00 AM.  Despite three hours of effort, he did not find any owls, but he did see an American Woodcock, the only one for the count.

Searching for owls at Reynolda. Photo by David Collins.

Searching for owls at Reynolda. Photo by David Collins.

Over at Reynolda, David Collins, a first-time Christmas Bird Count (CBC) participant, may have brought Jim Martin’s team a bit of “beginner’s luck.”  They started at 6:00 AM in the dark woods behind Reynolda House and soon heard the call of a Great Horned Owl.  Playing a recording of a Barred Owl call brought two owls into the trees above them calling loudly.  David was amazed.  And, hooked on birding, we hope.  Seasoned birders like to encourage new birders to participate in their first Christmas Bird Count.  It’s a bit like an initiation into the world of birding.

No screech owls answered repeated calls at Reynolda, but Brent Gearhart heard one at C.G. Hill Park.  This hit and miss birding is typical of CBCs and a big part of what makes them fun.  Birders love surprises.  It’s also the reason that we split up into teams, each covering a different area of our 15-mile diameter count circle.  This year we had fifty-four participants on twelve teams.

Emrys watching Peregrine Falcons on his first CBC. Photo by Kim Brand.

Emrys watching Peregrine Falcons on his first CBC. Photo by Kim Brand.

Another first-time CBC participant was Kim Brand’s young friend, six-year-old Emrys.  He and his mom, Mollye Maxner, joined Kim’s team mid-morning.  Earlier, Emrys had collected change to donate to the National Audubon Society and mailed it in.  By happy coincidence, his Audubon blanket (a thank-you gift) arrived while he was out birding on his first CBC!  The first birds that Emrys and Mollye saw on the CBC were a pair of Peregrine Falcons in downtown Winston-Salem.  They got great looks, and then went to Reynolds Park where they got good looks at a Barred Owl that was pointed out by people playing Pokémon Go.  Kim says that Emrys did not want to stop birding!  He was still hoping to see a Golden or Bald Eagle.

Northern Parula photographed by David Disher in early September.

Northern Parula photographed by David Disher in early September.

Kim’s team, led by Jeremy Reiskind, also had the most surprising bird of the count – a Northern Parula.  Doug Demarest and Kim spied a tiny bird in a Magnolia tree at the stone arch entrance to Washington Park.  It was hard for them to believe their eyes, but they got excellent looks at the little bird with a yellow upper chest, blue gray head and wings, white arcs above and below the eye, wing bars, green back, white belly and undertail coverts.  Northern Parulas are common here in spring, but, by December, most are in Florida, the Caribbean, or Central America.

Orange-crowned Wabler photographed by Nathan Gatto in 2015.

Orange-crowned Wabler photographed by Nathan Gatto in 2015.

Another very uncommon species in winter is Orange-crowned Warbler.  Heather Moir reports for the Miller Park team, “We moved on to Hathaway Park where the temperature seemed to drop, I swear I felt some snowflakes, but the bird activity picked up considerably.  There was so much activity in one area it was hard to know where to look.  “Phoebe” I heard Jane call out.  “There’s another Pine Warbler” I heard John say.  “Ruby-crowned Kinglet” from Laura.  Then – “I’ve got something different” from Craig McCleary, leader of the team.  The bird in question was just above eye level and we all got good looks at the Orange-crowned Warbler, calling out and confirming field marks (or, lack of field marks – this is a non-descript little bird!).  I was trying to get out my camera very quickly and quietly, but I wasn’t fast enough – our bird flew off to the top of a tree across the field.”

Heather continues, “Then it was on to the Children’s Home, where it was hard not to be distracted by the adorable miniature horses, goats, pigs, and one very curious llama.  Our birding highlight there was a flock of 125 Mourning Doves that we startled as we walked past a field.”

Miniature horse at The Children's Home. Photo by Heather Moir.

Miniature horse at The Children’s Home. Photo by Heather Moir.

This year’s Winston-Salem CBC set a record for species at 93 (with 13,016 individual birds), or four better than the record of 89 last year.  Yet several of us found it strangely quiet.  Heather reported that they had to work to find the Red-bellied Woodpeckers that typically seem to follow them through Miller Park.  I called Carol Gearhart at C.G. Hill Park mid-morning and she greeted me with, “Is it as dead there as it is here?”  Our team was thrilled when we finally had a flock of American Robins fly over at 3:00 PM, our first of the day.  But, Robins make it to the Top 10 list!  Again, evidence that the team approach to Christmas Bird Counts produces the best results.

Winston-Salem CBC compiler, Ron Morris, reports that the most numerous birds were:

  1. Ring-billed Gull – 5173
  2. Canada Goose – 728
  3. European Starling – 611
  4. American Robin – 579
  5. American Crow – 537
  6. Cedar Waxwing – 442
  7. White-throated Sparrow – 377
  8. Mallard – 328
  9. Mourning Dove – 314
  10. Rock Pigeon – 288
A Hermit Thrush at Reynolda, always a CBC favorite. Photo by David Collins.

A Hermit Thrush at Reynolda, always a CBC favorite. Photo by David Collins.

For a brief history of the Christmas Bird Count, see the Wikipedia article which begins as follows.

“Up through the 19th century, many North Americans participated in the tradition of Christmas “side hunts”, in which they competed at how many birds they could kill, regardless of whether they had any use for the carcasses and of whether the birds were beneficial, beautiful, or rare.  In December 1900, the U.S. ornithologist Frank Chapman, founder of Bird-Lore (which became Audubon magazine), proposed counting birds on Christmas instead of killing them.”

For more in-depth information about the CBC, see the official Audubon Christmas Bird Count website.

Plan to join in the fun next year!  Whether it’s your first CBC or your 100th, you never know what you might find.

“Guys… I’ve got some Broad-wings.  Above the Horizon…Near that white fluffy cloud.”  (White fluffy clouds covering 60% of the sky.)
“Oh Man!  Crap!”
“Guys… this is  looking good…”
“Guys…they’re starting to stream…OMG…Anybody else got them?  Oh my…. Guys…they should be viewable by eye now.”  (Birds still 10 miles out.)

Broad-winged Hawk. We did NOT get close views like this. Photo by Mike Stewart.

Broad-winged Hawk. We did NOT get close views like this. Photo by Mike Stewart.

It’s a slow year at the Pilot Mountain hawk watch when Scott “The Hubble” DePue has difficulty getting other spotters on the migrating birds.  Broad-winged Hawks comprise the majority of raptors observed during the hawk watch and this year counters tallied only 2,172.  Last year 5,654 Broad-wings were counted with 5,756 in 2014 and 6,057 in 2013.  Jean Chamberlain wanted to know “Where were the kettles?”

The tally board. Photo by Marty Hughes.

The tally board. Photo by Marty Hughes.

State Park Ranger Jesse Anderson was disappointed, too.  One day he exclaimed “I’m done with it! I got my fill for the year… I won’t be up there until next year.”  But the very next day he raced James Williams to Little Pinnacle overlook where the annual hawk watch takes place.

Hawks follow migration patterns, but they are not perfectly predictable.  And, certainly, the weather played a role this year.  During the peak stretch this fall, the mountain was fogged in every morning and only somewhat cleared in the afternoons.  Jean, who took over as compiler of the hawk watch after Phil Dickinson moved to Washington state last year, reported “We were ready, expecting to see many birds when the weather finally improved, but we were disappointed.  The kettles didn’t come.  It seems the birds hadn’t minded the dreary weather and came through when we couldn’t see them, or maybe they just flew around us.”  Another weather oddity this year was the unseasonable heat; some described it as downright hot.  And, there were almost NONE of the usual stink bugs…and nobody missed them.

All eyes on the sky.

All eyes on the sky.

While Broad-winged Hawk migration was much slower than usual, we had a good year for other species.  We saw more Osprey (60) and more Peregrine Falcons (20) than ever before.  They passed through steadily throughout the watch period from September 11 to October 5.  We saw a normal number of Bald Eagles (32), Merlins (6), Northern Harriers (6), and Kestrels (18).

But, this hawk watch is valuable for more than the raptors counted.  It may be one of the friendliest and most welcoming to visitors of any in the country.  Our Broad-wing numbers may have been low this year, but education was soaring.

Wandering Glider. Photo by Jay McGowan.

Wandering Glider. Photo by Jay McGowan.

Slow times for hawks gave Jesse the opportunity to have some fun teaching about and counting migratory dragonflies.  That’s right, dragonflies!  This year we added a new aspect to our hawk count and included counting numbers of four dragonfly species that are relatively easy to identify in flight.  Through the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership, hawk watchers can identify, count, and submit these numbers along with the daily hawk results.  Jesse’s favorite dragonfly to share with visitors and hawk watchers was the Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens).  This brightly colored large yellow skimmer is easy to identify in flight and it happens to have quite an interesting natural history.  The Wandering Glider is considered to be the most widespread dragonfly on the planet, and it exists on nearly every continent!  Also, it is the highest flying dragonfly, recorded at over 20,300 feet in the Himalaya!  So, next year, before the large kettles of Broad-winged Hawks start moving through, come test your binocular skills and help count our zipping dragonfly friends, too!

Jesse showing a group of girl scouts how to look for raptors.

Jesse showing a group of girl scouts how to look for raptors.

Jesse also led over 40 educational programs for more than 2,600 visitors including local and visiting boy scout and girl scout troops, 4-H clubs, school groups, and other visitors.  Jesse brought extra binoculars that were recently purchased by the park for visitor use.  They were a big hit with the crowd, especially with the kids, enabling everyone to join in the fun.  There could have been a future hawk counter infected with raptor fever due to his efforts.  A special kick-off event was held for Grandparents Day (September 10th /11th) when visitors of all ages, both the young and young-at-heart, could earn their badge as a Junior Ranger at Pilot Mountain.  Other programs included a live-raptor presentation from Jean (a Wildlife Rehab Inc. volunteer), Binocular-use 101, and Raptor Yoga.  Visitors were given introductions to raptor migration, identification of different species, and a brief conservation plug on easy ways we all can help.

Phil Dickinson, previous compiler for the count, was greatly missed this year, but Jean Chamberlain demonstrated excellent leadership and proved herself to be a worthy successor.  Jesse Anderson’s passion for all things that fly and his in-depth knowledge are taking education to new levels.  Volunteer hawk counters James Williams and Alan Firth contributed significantly by their presence on many days.  Thanks to these and all our other volunteer counters and visitors for making 2016 a memorable year.

Thanks to Jean Chamberlain, Jesse Anderson, and James Williams for their contributions to this story.

For a little history of the Pilot Mountain hawk watch, see Phil’s post Merlins Join Other Migrating Raptors at Pilot Mountain  And, if you want even more hawk watch stories, see Flights of Fancy at Pilot Mountain and Recapping the 2014 Pilot Mountain Hawk Watch.

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By Cynthia Donaldson

My cell rang at 3:20 PM: Tommie and Fran had relocated the Mourning Warblers on the Crane Creek Estuary Trail!  By the time I got there, the birds were gone!  Our group was scheduled to bird Estuary Trail at 4:30 PM, so with many eyes searching, I hoped that we could relocate the birds.  Just as we began the walk, another call came in that one of the two Mourning Warblers had been relocated.  As the group hurried down the trail to find it, again it disappeared.  We continued along this beautiful trail, scanning the edge of the water near the southern side of the dike.  Mourning Warblers typically skulk along the ground so they are tricky to detect.  Finally, we got word – again  – that the bird had been found.  The group lined up along the dike, trying to catch a glimpse, but it was hard to see him.

Photo by David Shuford.

We followed the movement east and then west along the water’s edge of the dike until everyone got satisfying looks at this little olive and yellow bird wearing his black mourning hood.  This bird was one of the 26 warblers that our group enjoyed on our recent trip to Magee Marsh – a Spring birding paradise – along the southern shore of Lake Erie, Ohio.

Wednesday:  Most of us used Tuesday, May 17, as a travel day, so by Wednesday morning, we were standing at the west entrance to the Magee Marsh boardwalk, ready to take the walk that beckons birders from around the world.

A favorite photo spot is under the west entrance sign to the Magee Marsh boardwalk.

The West entrance is the best starting place.  Within moments, 20 species can be added to the daily tally.  We spent the morning leisurely walking the boardwalk, slowly heading east.  Warbling Vireos sang from the branches above.

A crowd enjoyed watching the Yellow Warbler and Prothonotary Warbler parents working on nest building.  We even enjoyed some time checking out the two Bald Eagle nests in the parking lot area.  They provided the paparazzi with many photo ops!

Photo by Gail Crotte.

Our daily lunch meetings were such fun!  Thanks to my husband, Pete, who set up the canopy and extra chairs so we could gather and gossip about our birds of the morning.   Swainson’s Thrush and Baltimore Orioles were seen right from our camp chairs as we ate our lunches and watched the color changes of Lake Erie.

Photo by Don Adamick.

After lunch the first day, a reported Wilson’s Phalarope led us to the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Boss Unit on the south side of Route 2.  Here we enjoyed seeing the target bird as well as Trumpeter Swans, a Mute Swan, many Dunlin, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and Northern Shovelers.  We celebrated our find with ice cream sundaes from the Barnside Creamery!

Chestnut-sided Warbler. Photo by Gail Crotte.

Wednesday night must have been good for flying over Lake Erie because Thursday, May 19th, was a bit more quiet.  We were not deterred!  Even when the rest of the boardwalk was “slow,” the “Cypress Trees” remained the place to be!  Most of us had great looks at Blackpoll, Canada, Chestnut-sided, Bay-breasted, Yellow, Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Tennessee, Nashville, and Magnolia Warblers and Northern Parula by just standing in this one “hot” spot.

Red-headed Woodpecker. Photo by Gail Crotte.

By Friday, things were hopping again.  We headed back to the Estuary Trail on Friday morning.  We saw 33 species and 14 of those were warblers. One non-warbler that a few lucky birders saw was a gorgeous Red-headed Woodpecker.  The weather was pleasant with clear skies – perfect for being outside enjoying the amazing beauty of the creation.  In one little patch of woods, we enjoyed watching two pairs of Bay-breasted Warblers searching the trees for bugs and larvae.  Wilson’s Warbler peeked through the leaves as he busily searched for his lunch.  A lone Ovenbird sang a few times, but was all business as he pecked through the dry leaves on the forest floor.  Prothonotary Warbler zoomed in and out of the thicket – definitely on a nest building mission.  All the while, Tree Swallows sailed and chattered above our heads.  Canada and Chestnut-sided Warblers and American Redstart flitted through the trees before us as they foraged.

Prothonotary Warbler. Photo by Gail Crotte.

After this, we enjoyed the boardwalk for the rest of the day.

One highlight of the day for three lucky members of our group was a look at the illustrious Kirtland’s Warbler!!  There was a (quiet) stampede of birders who tried to get there in time to see it, but a little Yellow Warbler chased it well out of the area before we could get there.

That evening, six of us enjoyed watching the day quietly come to an end as we sat in camp chairs behind the Black Water Swamp Observatory.  While we waited, we had some great looks at the Eastern Kingbird hovering over the field.  As darkness came, the songs of the Yellow Warbler, Field Sparrow, and Baltimore Orioles came to an end and the Wood Thrush picked up his flute.  Then the American Woodcock flew in – peenting and heading to the sky to begin his whirling and twirling courtship song and dance!  What a show!

A Common Nighthawk was perched in view from the boardwalk for several days and most of the birders in our group were lucky and saw this bird.

Common Nighthawk. Photo by Gail Crotte.

Saturday morning began with a drizzle, so we donned our rain gear and headed to Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge.  Using walkie-talkies as we drove along Wildlife Drive was a help for reporting birds to the other cars.  One stop revealed a Sora foraging along the edge of the marsh.  It was quite shy, but with much perseverance, we got to see it!  Many of us enjoyed adding the Marbled Godwit to our life list.  This large, long-billed shorebird was hanging out with Semipalmated Plovers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Least Sandpiper, a Caspian Tern, and many Dunlin.  Seeing the Sandhill Crane chick was the highlight for many of us!

Dunlin. Photo by Don Adamick.

That evening, we enjoyed a delicious dinner at 1812 Island House Restaurant in Port Clinton.  I do not think we have ever had such a raucous count-off, though.  I felt like I was in a shouting contest with the table next to us as I read the list to our group who was struggling to hear me!  Somehow we totaled the trip at 138 species!  Good-bye hugs ended the evening.

On Sunday, it was very quiet… Most of the gang headed home in the morning.  It was also quiet on the boardwalk when Pete and I did one last survey.  We also did one last survey on the Ottawa National Wildlife driving tour. We saw 5 White Pelicans, 2 Short-billed Dowitchers, and 1 Kenn Kauffman.

Overall, it was an awesome trip.  The best part of the trip was spending time with the people in our group!  And it was unanimous: we will be going to Magee again next year!!

 

By Cynthia Donaldson

This may have been the rainiest Forsyth Audubon trip I have ever attended. The rain started as we traveled south on I-95 on Friday, January 15, heading toward Santee National Wildlife Refuge. By the time we all arrived, it was raining in earnest. The inside of the beautiful visitor center was a great place to enjoy our picnic lunches. Many were enjoying the covered deck and scoping the Bonaparte’s Gulls, Forster’s Terns, and Double-crested Cormorants that were flying around Lake Marion. Loons and grebes were floating about, not seeming to be bothered by the steady rain. By 1 o’clock, the rain had stopped and, according to the radar, the front had passed. We hiked the Wright’s Bluff Nature Trail though a quiet pine forest to the edge of the impoundments where the birds find refuge in the winter.

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From the observation tower, we enjoyed Wild Turkeys, Sandhill Cranes, Eastern Meadowlarks, Harrier and Cooper fly-bys, as well as Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped, and Pine Warblers chattering behind us in the forest. Another quick rain shower divided the group: most headed back to their cars. The rest stayed for another hour watching the parade of ducks and passerines – just glad to be outside and not at the “office.” The rain continued off and on until evening.

Tony’s Famous Pizza chef served up some yummy pizza to our group; then we headed to the Hampton Inn at the Georgetown Marina to try to get a good night’s sleep before our greatly anticipated day at Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center.

This group is prompt. We pulled out of the hotel parking lot at 8:25 am on the dot on Saturday morning, drove the 10 miles to the end of the road at the Estherville Minim Creek and met Jamie Dozier, Wildlife Biologist and Project Leader for the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center.  Jamie was our wonderful tour guide for the day. He ferried us across the creek in a pontoon boat, depositing us on the other side at a nature lover’s paradise!  Jamie’s assistant was unable to come, so Howard volunteered to drive the other van. Those of us in his van survived to tell…

We were privileged to see, although in a somewhat dormant stage, a newly discovered species of Hedge-nettle named Stachys caroliniana. Here is a link about the plant: New Species of Hedge-Nettle Discovered in South Carolina.

Our lovely stroll through a Live Oak grove was memorable. These massive trees housing moss and ferns have withstood many storms over their one hundred years.

From here we came out into open at the impoundments where we enjoyed seeing 99 American Avocets!

Avocets

We always kept an eye looking up, because the clear, blue sky was full of surprises: Wood Stork, Black and Turkey Vultures, Bald Eagles, and a flock of White Pelicans delighted us by appearing over our heads.

Wood Stork in flight

The highlight of the morning was an adult Roseate Spoonbill flying overhead. It landed out of sight behind the wooded edge. The photo below is a juvenile that was in the same area. Several members of the group did the dance of joy for this long sought-after life bird. I heard someone say, “We can go home now.” In reality, none of us wanted this gorgeous day to end.

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After several hours exploring these impoundments, Jamie shuttled us back to the vans. We picnicked in the warm sun under some Live Oaks. With sandwich in one hand and binos in the other, we watched Harriers skim the marsh and we listened to American coots “cooting.”

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After lunch, we visited an impoundment where a huge alligator was napping with one eye on us.

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Our next destination took us through a long leaf pine forest. All the eastern woodpeckers can be found at Tom Yawkey. We almost scored a home run for Mr. Yawkey: we saw them all but the Hairy! The Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center hosts many colonies of the protected Red-cockaded Woodpecker. The Red-cockaded Woodpecker was a life bird for many.

The rest of the day was spent on yet another impoundment. Here, several saw Mottled Ducks to add to their life lists. A bobcat ran across an open field. He stopped at the edge and looked back at us before disappearing into the edge. A Marsh Wren trilled at us from his cover in the reeds. A small torpedo whizzed over our heads, changed elevation to a few inches above the trail ahead – traveling straight down the center, then veered sharply to the right into the marsh. Like a flash. Merlin.

The afternoon sighting-of-the-day was a little ventriloquist; we could hear him but could not find him…at first. He was so much closer that he sounded. In this photo you can see our group mesmerized by the sight of this little bird. Another life bird for most of us: Sedge Wren.

The only thing that could tear us away was the fact that our dinner reservations were at 6 PM. We tried to end the day with another Red-cockaded Woodpecker, but happily settled for a Red-headed.

Since the tide was in, Jamie drove the swing bridge into place and we walked across the creek back to our cars.

 

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Everything about this day had been perfect. Jamie was a very knowledgeable guide who patiently answered all our questions about this amazing refuge. The weather was warm and sunny. The people in our group were helpful and eager to teach. It was unanimous: we will return to the Tom Yawkey Nature Center! The sooner the better.

The dinner at Eddy Chacon’s was good. This restaurant was right beside the hotel so we walked over. Some of us stopped at the marsh behind the hotel on the way to see the Clapper Rails.

Sunday morning was cold, breezy, and rainy.  Here are a few words that I used to describe the group that went birding that morning: nutty, crazy, diehards, optimists. The rain let up around 1 pm when a few more joined the ranks at Huntington Beach State Park.  By then, it had improved to only cold and breezy. We hiked out the north beach trail to the jetty where we saw Least Sandpipers, Black Scoters, several hundred Dunlin, one Purple Sandpiper, and some very friendly Ruddy Turnstones.

Another interesting sight was a small flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls “pattering.” Their feet were barely touching the water as they hovered right above water along the jetty, plucking at unseen food from the tops of the waves. Ron told us that Storm Petrels feed in this same way. The name “petrel” is a diminutive form of “Peter,” a reference to Saint Peter; it was given to these birds because they sometimes appear to walk on the water.

The sun was lowering in the sky as we headed back to our cars. Most went back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. Four of us remained to continue searching for at least one of the sparrows that live near the sea. No luck.

Our count dinner at Pasteria 811 was delicious. When we did the count down, we came up with 131 species for the trip!

A few more hours of birding on Monday morning helped us to add a few more birds to the list. Several birders stopped at a hammock shop at Pawley’s Island to see what they could find and spotted a female Painted Bunting. Around 10:30 am, we found (thanks to Frank Lawkins) the reported female Common Goldeneye at Mullet’s Pond at Huntington Beach State Park. Killdeer were also added to the list. A final count of 135 was fantastic!

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Even though we probably endured a few inches of rain and fairly low temperatures on two of the days, it was a great trip.  I agree with Heather; our memories of our Winter Trip 2016 will always make us nostalgic.

Photo credits: Gail & Ferd Crotte, Cynthia Donaldson, Gregg Donaldson, Heather Moir

Birders love surprises and 2015 was full of them. Adding to last year’s fun was our Forsyth County 2015 Photo Big Year. Surprises included birds rare to Forsyth County, birds rarely photographed, and birds rarely photographed so beautifully.

The rare birds started on New Year’s Day with this Cackling Goose photographed by Susan Disher at Cornerstone Living Center ponds, on Reynolds Park Road near Salem Lake Road.

01-01 Cackling Goose SPDisher

Another rare goose quickly followed, a Ross’s Goose at Lake Hills in Pfafftown on January 5. Here is my photo of that bird.

Ross's Goose

Wayne Petel was one of the lucky few who had wintering Baltimore Orioles at his feeders.  His photo of this gorgeous male is one of my favorite photos of the year, taken on January 12.

01-12 Baltimore Oriole Wayne

Rare waterfowl continued with a Surf Scoter found and photographed at Swann Water Treatment Plant in Lewisville by Mike Conway on January 24.  This is only the fourth county record.  The Swann Plant hosted another rare bird the following month, a Red-throated Loon found and photographed by Nathan Gatto on February 18.  The loon was also the fourth county record.

Phil Dickinson’s photo of a Red-shouldered Hawk in his Winston-Salem front yard on February 7 was another favored photo.  Phil watched the hawk catch a chipmunk and then fly to a close-by tree to enjoy its meal. We called this photo “What’s for breakfast?”

02-07 Red-shouldered Hawk Phil

An Eastern Screech Owl photographed by Matt Cuda on February 23 in northern Forsyth County was a surprise of another kind.  Screech Owls are resident breeding birds here, but I never expected that we would get a photo of one.

02-23 Screech Owl Matt

On March 25, we were surprised with a photo of an American Woodcock, another common bird, but one extremely difficult to photograph. This bird was apparently the victim of a window crash and was photographed by Lesa Dowell on the roof of a downtown Winston-Salem office building.  Fortunately, the bird seemed to recover and was able to fly away.

03-25 Woodcock Lesa

While rarities are fun, the Photo Big Year helped us get many wonderful photos of our common birds.  Leesa Goodson shot this photo of a White-eyed Vireo at Tanglewood on April 5.

04-06 WE Vireo Leesa

It wouldn’t be spring without warblers and we got photos of most of them.  Here is Nathan Gatto’s lovely Prairie Warbler, photographed at Reynolda on April 25.

04-25 Prairie Nathan

Another favorite was Heather Moir’s Pileated Woodpecker, also photographed at Reynolda, on April 30.

04-30 Pileated Heather

On July 13, Jean Aldrich found an Anhinga flying over Bethabara Parkway near the former Johanne’s Restaurant ponds. This was the first report of Anhinga in the county.  No photo was taken, so the bird was added to our official Forsyth County bird list in a provisional status.

The next big surprise of the year occurred on August 14 when Cynthia Donaldson found the first Western Kingbird ever reported in Forsyth County.  The normal range for this bird is Western North America, just as its name suggests.  They do wander a bit in the fall, showing up mostly along the coast, but there are very few records for inland North Carolina.  Here is Cynthia’s photo taken on Kapp Road in Pfafftown.

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The kingbird was followed by another unusual sighting just a few days later on August 20, a Baird’s Sandpiper found by David Disher at Archie Elledge.  There are only a handful of county reports and this was the first since 2007.

Exactly one week later, on August 27, Hop Hopkins found a Cerulean Warbler at Bethabara Historic Park.  This bird was unusual in that it stayed for several days allowing quite a few birders to see it.  Hop got the beautiful photo below.

08-27 Cerulean Hop

On September 22, Kim Brand received a phone call from a friend, Mindy Conner, with a report of an unusual hummingbird in her Winston-Salem backyard.  Later that day, the bird was identified as a Buff-bellied Hummingbird. This was what birders call a mega-rarity. It was not only a county record, but only the second time the bird has been seen in the state!  Mindy welcomed birders to her yard and this jewel has been seen by hundreds of birders. Here is Hop Hopkins’ photo.

09-22 Buff-bellied Hop

Fall waterfowl migration brings us back to Lake Hills, this time for a Greater White-fronted Goose, on November 6.  This is only the fourth time this species has been reported in Forsyth County.  David Disher’s photo is below.

12-07 Greater White-fronted Goose Disher

During the Forsyth Audubon Second Saturday bird walk on November 14 at Muddy Creek Greenway, we added another county record bird, Golden Eagle.  The bird was initially identified as an immature Bald Eagle.  But, new Audubon members Tony and Cara Woods were on the walk and Cara got a photo with enough detail to change the identification to Golden Eagle.  Amazingly, this was the fourth county record for 2015.

Another surprise for the year were two Northern Bobwhites that visited David and Susan Disher’s Winston-Salem yard.  Bobwhite are becoming increasingly difficult to find in Forsyth County with only a few scattered reports.  The Dishers’ visitors stayed for a couple of days.  Here is Susan’s photo.

11-25 Bobwhite Susan

Four Forsyth county records made 2015 an outstanding birding year.  So many folks seeing those birds made it even more special.  We are lucky to have a generous community of birders who love to share.  That group spirit was exemplified by participation in our Photo Big Year.  We published images of 193 species by 28 photographers.  Thanks to everyone’s quick-thinking, skill and talent we were able to beautifully document our Forsyth County birds of 2015.  Six people had over a dozen photos each that we used – Hop Hopkins, David Disher, Nathan Gatto, Leesa Goodson, Phil Dickinson, and Wayne Petel.  Every person who contributed made a difference, but these six folks deserve special recognition and thanks.

We were able to publish photos of all the “expected” species except Wilson’s Snipe, Chuck-will’s-widow, Eastern Whip-poor-will, Swainson’s Thrush, Blackpoll Warbler, and Yellow-breasted Chat.  We missed photographing seven “likely” species – Broad-winged Hawk, Virginia Rail, Black Tern, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Canada Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, and Bobolink.  Remember, those chances represented our expectations of the birds being seen in any year, not the ease with which they could be photographed.  We published photos of 18 “possible” species, those are are not guaranteed to even be seen in any particular year.  Three of the four county record birds were photographed, allowing these birds to be added to our official county bird list as “accepted.”

See the Photo Big Year page for links to the species pages displaying all the images and photographers’ names, dates, and locations.