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Posts Tagged ‘County Birding’

Life has kept me busy recently. It’s hard to believe that our Utah trip was three months ago. Finally, here is the rest of the story – my drive back to North Carolina. After dropping David at the Albuquerque airport, I wanted to stay close until his plane was airborne, so I chose an easy place to see lots of birds – Tingley Lagoon, part of ABQ BioPark. Well, there were lots of ducks, but I like ducks. There were also cormorants that breed on the little islands in the middle of the ponds – both Double-crested and Neotropic – but my photos all seem to show Neotropic Cormorants.

Here are a few other birds from this spot, a female Common Merganser, male Northern Pintail, American Coot, and Canada Goose.

After a pleasant hour at the Tingley Lagoons, it was time to head east. I got one more “life” New Mexico bird at the Pajarito rest area – a Chihuahuan Raven that I was able to identify only because I noticed its call sounded different from Common Raven and I recorded it.

At another rest area near Santa Rosa, I saw the Cholla on the right. Then I drove on into Texas where I spent the night.

The next morning, I found one more Texas life bird, Western Meadowlark, at the Donley County US 287 Safety Rest Area. I got photos of a meadowlark that was satisfactory for identification, but this Eurasian Collared-Dove was much more photogenic.

My major stops on the way back to NC were both in Oklahoma, first Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. It is a major birding hotspot, but is more well-known for its other wildlife, notably the bison, longhorn, and elk that roam the park’s 59,000 acres.

Nearly 100 years ago, a herd of Longhorn was established at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge to save the breed from extinction. Here is a detailed accounting of the story. Apparently, there are current debates about whether or not cattle belong on a wildlife refuge, but they are beautiful and I’d guess the desire to see these creatures contributes to making this one of the most visited wildlife refuges in the county.

The refuge also has several prairie dog towns and I never tire of these cute rodents. Did you know that they are related to squirrels and chipmunks? Yes, they are all in the family Scuiridae. These were black-tailed prairie dogs, the only one that I think I’ve seen of the five prairie dog species in North America.

I did see a few birds, too, like the Greater Yellowlegs below, although I’m sure there would have been many more birds later in the year.

My favorite bird at Wichita Mountains was a single Ring-billed Gull proudly standing in the middle of a prairie dog town on the side of the road.

The next day I toured another wildlife refuge, Sequoyah NWR, near Oklahoma’s eastern border with Arkansas. I received a nice welcome from a flock of about 40 American White Pelicans that flew over as I drove into the park. This refuge had only a fraction of the visitors of Wichita Mountains on the day I visited. However, I met a couple of birders at the entrance kiosk and we birded a lovely path in the woods together. The rest of the refuge was mostly open and the next birds I saw were a large flock of Snow Geese.

It was interesting to see so many dark morph birds in the group. Snow Geese winter on the coast of North Carolina, but we rarely see a “Blue Goose” here.

In addition to birds, I saw a new and interesting turtle. Unfortunately, I focused my camera on the wrong one, the larger pond slider, a common and widespread species that I’ve seen many times. After submitting it to iNaturalist, I learned that the turtle on the right is an Ouachita Map Turtle. It is not rare either, but its range is the south-central part of the US and I’d never seen one before. And, what a cool name!

I saw about 35 species of birds at Sequoyah, mostly the same species that I can see in North Carolina. My last bird there was a Bald Eagle that flew over a pond filled with ducks and then landed in a tree by the road. I enjoyed the hours I spent at this refuge and would love to visit again.

After Sequoyah, all that was left was the uneventful drive to North Carolina. This was definitely my least birdy road trip ever, but I did manage to get both my Oklahoma and New Mexico lists to over 50 species. I also added several new counties even though you can drive for miles and miles in the West and see nothing. The map below shows every county in which I have observed birds. Good county birders have maps with clear, continuous lines representing travels. My maps look like an advanced version of connect-the-dots, but I try.

But more important than the birds was the amazing landscape that David and I saw in Utah and the fun we had exploring that part of our country. Visiting Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and Dead Horse Point State Park made this a trip of a lifetime.

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On August 5, 2018, I went birding at Lake Waccamaw State Park.  The birds were more scarce than I’d expected, but I finally found Blue Jays and a few other common birds near the Visitor Center.  Why is this even worthy of mention?  Because the park is in Columbus County, the last of North Carolina’s 100 counties in which I have observed birds.  Yep, I’ve now seen birds in every county in my home state.  If you are not a birder, you may still think that this is not worthy of mention and you should stop reading now.

No, these particular birds were not my life Forsyth County Brown-headed Nuthatches, but you weren't going to keep reading without some cute photos, were you?

No, these particular birds were not my life Forsyth County Brown-headed Nuthatches, but you weren’t going to keep reading without some cute photos, were you?

County birding is my favorite of games birders play, but it took a while before I got serious.  In December 2009, eBird introduced county birding to “inspire people to go birding in places that don’t typically get much coverage.”  I am a huge fan of eBird, so I wanted to help with this effort.  I started birding the counties adjacent to Forsyth that didn’t have many checklists.  Sometimes I went alone, but frequently I enlisted friends Carol or Brent to go with me.  We had great fun on our outings and it wasn’t long until Carol and I found a county record Horned Grebe for Stokes County.  It was the first time that anyone had reported the species in that county.

In the County Birding "game," an American Robin counts just as much as a rare bird.

In the County Birding “game,” an American Robin counts just as much as a rare bird.

At some point I became aware that county birding was more than an eBird effort; it was almost a competitive sport.  I discovered that birders in Texas, Florida, California, and a few other states were obsessed with focused on county birding.  And then I met Derek, right here in Forsyth County, who had seen birds in all of North Carolina’s counties.  I started joining him occasionally for a day of birding as he upped his county ticks.  County ticks are simply the sum of one’s life lists for each county in an area (usually a state).  So, if I had seen 200 birds in Forsyth County and 100 birds in Guilford County, I would have 300 county ticks for NC.  It didn’t take many days of birding with Derek until I decided that I, too, wanted to see birds in all of North Carolina’s counties.

Cynthia and I spent a day with this Golden-winged Warbler in Watauga County

Cynthia and I spent a day with this Golden-winged Warbler in Watauga County

I also birded with other friends whenever I had a chance.  One of my favorite county birds was the gorgeous Golden-winged Warbler in the photo above.  My good friend, Cynthia, wrote a guest post on this blog, Golden-winged Wonders, about our experiences with “Andy.”

I am especially grateful for my friend, David, and my son-in-law, Jeff.  David is not a birder, but he understood my craziness and helped me in the western part of the state.  It can be hard to find birds in those small mountainous counties and I was happy to have the company and the help.  Jeff is only a casual birder, but he spent several days with me in the northeast corner of the state searching for birds.

A pretty Hermit Thrush that Jeff and I found in Chowan County.

A pretty Hermit Thrush that Jeff and I found in Chowan County.

I wish that I’d kept notes on every outing, every new milestone, but I did not.  Instead, I have only delightful random memories, like a stream of consciousness.  Please indulge me as I share a few of those memories.

Derek is an excellent birder with the energy that comes from being young.  And, he was willing to go birding with me – a woman with bad eyesight and old enough to be his grandmother.  The love of birds and birding that transcends all other differences is one of the things that I love about the birding community.  But, I digress.

A lovely Cedar Waxwing found on the Bakersville Creek Walk in Mitchell County

A lovely Cedar Waxwing found on the Bakersville Creek Walk in Mitchell County

A typical day of birding with Derek started with meeting around 7:00 AM and driving two to three hours to get to the counties we needed.  Derek is a great planner and he continued to watch bird alerts while I drove.  We birded until dark and then Derek drove on the way home.  Sometimes it was 11:00 PM when I pulled into my driveway.  But, we always had fun and we always got new county birds.

In January 2017, Derek introduced me to the idea of combining county birding and state birding, seeking birds not just new to a particular county, but new for the state.  A rare (for North Carolina) Anna’s Hummingbird had turned up on the coast, inspiring us to make a two-day trip to see this beauty.  We added several new birds for Dare County, including a surprise Brown Thrasher while waiting in line at the Nags Head KFC drive-thru.

The Anna's Hummingbird that Derek and I drove to the NC coast to see

The Anna’s Hummingbird that Derek and I drove to the NC coast to see

Later that year in May, we couldn’t miss an opportunity to see this cooperative Mourning Warbler in Avery County, another state bird for both Derek and me.  This led to stops in Wilkes County, an Alder Flycatcher at a blink-and-you-would-have-missed-it bog on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Burke, and then multiple stops at under-birded hotspots in Mitchell, Yancey, and McDowell counties.  Our favorite location that we discovered that day was the lovely Bakersville Creek Walk in Mitchell County, which I made into an eBird hotspot.

Our lovely Mourning Warbler on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Avery County

Our lovely Mourning Warbler on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Avery County

In addition to finding notable birds, I enjoyed the quirkiness and little surprises of county birding.  Derek and I called it the “wavy road.”  It was as much in the middle of nowhere as any place in NC.  I think we were on a mission to find a Clay-colored Sparrow.  The road was completely level on the middle line, but the edges rose and fell like waves.  Driving the road felt like a ride at an amusement park.  We marveled at the oddity of the road and were happy that it didn’t last too long.  And, yes, we got our bird.

On a day of birding with Hop in Cleveland County, he pished up this Golden-crowned Kinglet.

On a day of birding with Hop in Cleveland County, he pished up this Golden-crowned Kinglet.

Plenty of mistakes were made in my search for new birds, mostly when I was birding alone.  I currently have only one bird for Halifax County even though I spent the night there.  I got confused about the county line and did not even realize where I was!  A more serious mistake occurred when I was birding alone in the Croatan National Forest and became totally lost.  Fortunately, I was able to use the eBird track on my phone to navigate back to my car.  Once on a trip with Derek to the Sandhills area in the middle of summer, I failed to take water on our walk.  When we were almost back to the car, I began to feel sick – very hot and nauseous – so I just lay down on the sand and sent Derek back to the ranger station.  I knew the ranger would come for me in his truck, which he did, and I learned a very valuable lesson.

This young Brown-headed Cowbird appeared to be hot, too, on that sweltering day in Cumberland County.

This young Brown-headed Cowbird appeared to be hot, too, on that sweltering day in Cumberland County.

But, the heat might have been responsible for the wonderful lizards we also found on that hot July day.  Derek and I considered all wildlife sightings a big bonus of county birding.

Eastern Fence Lizard at Carvers Creek State Park, a lifer lizard for me!

Eastern Fence Lizard at Carvers Creek State Park, a lifer lizard for me!

I made even more mistakes finding birds, again usually when I went out on my own.  Many these errors were my poor decisions about which birding hotspots to visit.  A State Recreation Area on a large lake was “Closed for the Season” when I got there in the middle of winter.  Some hotspots no longer had access and some were just about impossible to find.  One location with many great eBird reports appeared to be a road that no one would walk except hunters or crazy young male birders.  I’m pretty brave, but I was not going to park my car on the side of the road and walk alone into the wilderness in a remote, isolated part of the state.

A Great Spangled Fritillary that Derek and I found near Boone in June 2016. We frequently encountered beautiful butterflies while searching for birds.

A Great Spangled Fritillary that Derek and I found near Boone in June 2016. We frequently encountered beautiful butterflies while searching for birds.

As I have written this, more memories keep flooding back.  Looking for Swallow-tailed Kites with Nathan and Sarah.  The Person County Northern Lapwing with David S.  The Brown Booby with Jay.  The Allen’s Hummingbird with Phil and Carol C.  Transylvania County.  Forsyth Audubon and Piedmont Bird Club trips.  I can’t name them all, but I treasure every one of my birding adventures and I am grateful to have shared so many with friends.

My most recently photographed county tick is this Tricolored Heron, right here in Forsyth County, only the second of this species to be observed in our county.  But, I now have an even newer county bird, a Royal Tern that David Disher found at Salem Lake during Hurricane Florence.

My Forsyth County Tricolored Heron

My Forsyth County Tricolored Heron

My eBird map for NC is below.  As you can see, I don’t have many birds in most counties, so I’ll be able to continue the county birding game for quite a while as I add new birds.  I hope to keep birding in North Carolina for a very long time.

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