Tuesday, December 31, 2013

December 31, 2013 : Reflections on a Year of Birding

Blue-Winged Teal -- Magnolia Gardens, Charleston, SC -- January 1, 2013

          Here we are, December 31, 2013, and my day has begun correctly -- with birding right outside my windows here at Parc Perlière, our home on James Island.  With an overcast sky, I can keep the shades up on the windows of my south-facing office this morning .  The window is cracked open so that I can listen to the birds as I reflect, in a haphazard manner, on the birding this year.

          Other blogs, such as 10,000 Birds have posed the question -- what is your bird of the year and have requested reader submissions.  I read this post on December 28, the day that I acquired 2 much coveted year birds (probably my final two 2013 species -- unless someone submits a report of something great closeby today!) -- the elusive (for me) "Morris Island Lighthouse" Peregrine Falcon and the recently found Purple Sandpiper -- both spotted on the Lighthouse Inlet Heritage Preserve!

Just an ID photo -- Peregrine Falcon -- Lighthouse Inlet Heritage Preserve -- Folly Beacah, SC -- December 28, 2013

Purple Sandpiper -- Lighthouse Heritage Preserve -- Folly Beacah, SC -- December 28, 2013

That day, those 2 birds were my birds of the year.  I was so happy to get them both and to be able to add them this late in the game to my year list.  So, I must be a birder who very much lives in the  moment.  Eventually, I did think back fondly on the eleven wonderful life birds acquired this year, such as the Ross's Goose ...

Ross's Goose -- West Ashley -- Charleston, SC -- February 8, 2013

... the Cinnamon Teal in the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge ....

Cinnamon Teal -- Savannah National Wildlife Refuge -- February 9, 2013 -- Photo by Carl Miller

....  and the "Tybee Island"

Snowy Owl.  

Snowy Owl -- Tybee Island, GA -- February 9, 2013

What a fabulous weekend -- obtaining those 3 life birds in 2 days!  The Cinnamon Teal (a sight shared with several others) was the most frustrating as he was hard to find and the Ross's Goose (shared with Francie Cashman and John Cox) was hands-down the cutest!  And, yes the Snowy Owl (shared with Carl and Andy Harrison) was the best bird of that weekend!  Our most excellent dinner in the Mexican restaurant in Hardeeville allowed us to celebrate our day and our birds as we savored a scrumptious meal.

           On March 3, after hiking around the impoundment 1.5 times and scanning with scopes for 3 or 4 hours, four of us (Andy Harrison, Pam Ford, Chris Davies and myself) finally were rewarded with 1 minute views of another elusive life bird -- the Eurasian Wigeon at Santee Coastal Reserve WMA!  The sight of this duck was a brief, but beautiful moment in my birding year and it was great to share it with birding friends!  I regret to say that a photo was impossible -- he was so distant and momentary!

           The next 4 life birds occurred for me during our June vacation in the North Carolina mountains: Alder Flycatcher at Sams Knob (sorry no photo -- it was a fleeting view), the Cerulean Warbler located (with the fine aid of Birding Pal Steve Semanchuk) along the Blue Ridge Parkway north of Asheville (after Craven's Gap, I believe) ...

Cerulean Warbler -- Blue Ridge Parkway close to Cravens Gap -- near Asheville, NC -- June 11, 2013 -- Photo by Carl Miller

.... the feisty Golden-Winged Warbler (thanks to helpful hints from NC birders) along Max Patch Road ...

Golden-Winged Warbler -- Max Patch Road, close to Waynesville, NC -- June 12, 2013

....  and the very easy-to-find (this summer) Red Crossbills!

Red Crossbill -- Richland Balsam overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway -- June 15, 2013

       In July, the next life bird came in the form of a Wilson's Phalarope  in the Bear Island Wildlife Management Area.  This bird is so rare that it proved to be a life bird for multiple SC birders!  I tried twice for the bird.  The first time, I came up empty on the  bird but enjoyed perhaps my best solo birding trip all year -- nonetheless.  You can read (or re-read) about it here in this post, "Late July in Bear Island Wildlife Management Area -- Solo Excursion and Close Encounters."   On my second trip, Carl (aka hubby and best bird spotter) came along and, with his eagle eyes, found the bird.  

Wilson's Phalarope with Least Sandpiper -- Bear Island Wildlife Management Area close to Green Pond, SC -- July 26. 2013 -- Photo by Carl Miller

My final 2 life birds for the year come without photos.  At the Orangeburg Sod Farms on August 18, with the help of friends with scopes,  I was finally able to discern a bird different from the numerous Pectoral Sandpiper in the field.  Yes, indeed, we got 2 Buff-Breasted Sandpiper!   Then, at last, on November 28, I managed to nab another nemesis, the Lincoln's Sparrow, at the Fort Moultrie National Monument on Sullivan's Island.

            Each one of these eleven 2013 Life Birds was special.  How do I chose one?  This brings us back to the question as to whether a Life Bird should be the Best Bird of the Year.  Why not a year bird in a special circumstance?  For example, "Princess Bluebird" who begged for mealworms at my dining room window this past Spring probably thinks she merits the title.

Mama Eastern Bluebird begged at the window daily during nesting season -- Parc Perlière -- Charleston, SC -- April 24, 2013

 Perhaps the essential question as to what really makes a great birding year should be qualified by the best birding excursion, experience or observation.  In that case, I again have several candidates.  I did already note that my best solo birding experience occurred at Bear Island Wildlife Management Area when I was in pursuit of the Wilson's Phalarope.  I found my close encounters with wildlife that day -- both the Marsh Rabbit and the Least Bittern -- to be incredibly rewarding and humbling.  I had found an acceptable way to become part of their environment without disturbing them!  I am still awe-struck when I think back to that day!

Marsh Rabbit -- Bear Island Wildlife Management Area -- July 24, 2013

Least Bittern -- Bear Island Wildlife Management Area -- July 24, 2013
Other large flocks of birds on this day also helped to make it extra special: the large flocks of Glossy Ibis, American White Pelicans, Roseate Spoonbills, Black Terns.  I also got my first looks at Stilt Sandpipers and a Pied-Billed Grebe in breeding plumage!

Stilt Sandpiper -- Bear Island Wildlife Management Area -- July 24, 2013

Pied-bill Grebe -- Bear Island Wildlife Management Area -- July 24, 2013

        At home, we watched a pair of Eastern Bluebirds take over a nestbox from the Carolina Chickadees.  Apparently, we need more nestboxes.  You have already seen the female in a photo above vying to be "Bird of the Year."  This year, we invited our friend Chris Snook, master bird bander, to come band our young birds while they were still in the box.

Banding a baby Eastern Bluebird -- Parc Perlière -- May 3, 2013

We missed watching the fledging event as we had to go to work.  But because Carl had a camera set up inside the box with a live feed to the internet, we were able to watch and record it while at work (and share it with the students!).  Unfortunately, the compiling of the video was delayed due to technical difficulties.  Still we were able to watch the youngsters come back to the yard after a couple of weeks to beg at the mealworm feeder.  Certainly, watching the wildlife in our own yard could qualify as a way to make your birding year memorable.
Eastern Bluebirds at mealworm feeder -- Parc Perlière -- Charleston, SC -- May 25, 2013
        Our entire NC mountain vacation in June qualifies as a birding experience extraordinaire.  Our excursions are all highlighted in several posts from June and July this year.  Please see the June and July posts in the sidebar for links to those stories.  Another phenomenal birding trip to the NC mountains, about which I have not yet blogged, was our mid-September  weekend trip to watch the warbler migration through the passes over the Blue Ridge Parkway.  During this trip, we chased birds and butterflies with our expert birding friends, Marilyn Westphal and Marc Simpson.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak -- Blue Ridge Parkway close to Craggy Gardens -- September 14, 2013

Tennessee Warbler -- Blue Ridge Parkway close to Craggy Gardens -- September 14, 2013

Cape May Warbler -- Mount Mitchell State Park -- September 14, 2013

Green Comma -- Mount Mitchell State Park -- September 14, 2013
Green Comma -- Mount Mitchell State Park -- September 14, 2013

Carl, Cathy Marilyn and Marc at Mount Mitchell State Park -- September 14, 2013 -- Photo by Carl Miller
During that weekend, we also participated in the Hawk Watch at Grandfather Mountain! Though I did not get any good photos of hawks that morning but the experience was fun and we enjoyed being on top of the mountain with fellow birders Brenda & Monty Combs and Lauren Lampley.  The Dark-eyed Juncos seemed quite interested in what crumbs we might drop from our lunch!

Dark-eyed Junco -- Grandfather Mountain, Linville, NC -- September 15, 2013

 A pair of Ravens hung out with us as well on Linville Peak.

Ravens on Linville Peak -- Grandfather Mountain, Linville NC -- September 13, 2013

Carl and Cathy on Linville Peak at Grandfather Mountain, Linville, NC -- September 15, 2013 -- Photo by Carl Miller
 I really should write a post about that weekend ... but here it is December 31!  We are just having too much fun and then we have too little time to develop photos and to write about the experience!  And thus, I continue this year end reminiscing about what makes a great birding year!

        This year, Carl and I decided that we would visit and bird sites that we had never visited before within our state.  To that end, we chose to visit Lewis Bay Ocean Heritage Preserve with our friend Chris Snook.  We arrived in a downpour and waited it out in the car playing Scrabble on my tablet.  This preserve holds vast acreage of longleaf pine which allows a unique ecosystem that supports carnivorous plants.  Our best birds of the day were the incessant Indigo Buntings, the Chipping Sparrows, Eastern Bluebirds, Bachman Sparrows and Bobwhite Quail!  We also saw Black Bear tracks, but sadly no bears.  We do plan to return to this beautiful place to explore it further!

Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve -- May 19. 2013

Bachman's Sparrow -- Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve -- May 19. 2013
         Another new to us SC destination was our March visit to Yawkey Wildlife Center with the Charleston Natural History Society (CNHS).  Our tour leader was the delightful and informative Jamie Dozier, the preserve manager for SC Department of Natural Resources.  He drove us to different areas of the preserve and gave us the history lesson about the islands that make up the preserve as well as how it had been deeded to the state of South Carolina by Tom Yawkey as a nature preserve.  Accessing the islands that make up the preserve requires a ferry crossing and a 6th month wait for a tour.  We signed up as soon as we heard that CNHS had procured a reservation for a group tour.

CNHS Birders -- Yawkey Wildlife Center -- March 9, 2013

             We also decided not to miss out on one of the major SC birding events of the year -- the arrival of the 100s of Swallow-Tailed & Missippi Kites to the Allendale, SC agricultural fields (aka kite fields)  Every year, from mid-July to mid-August, Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites arrive en masse in this area which they use as a feeding and staging area prior to departing to destinations further south in the tropics.  Thus,in late July, we too headed to Allendale to stage ourselves and our cameras for the "kite show."  My blog post from that event will give you more details on our fabulous day watching the kites soar and swoop after the insects over the Allendale fields.  Again, this indeed serves as a qualifier for a top birding event for the year!  

Swallow-Tailed Kites in Allendale, SC -- July 28, 2013

         Carl and I also took advantage of the SC Department of Natural Resources Coastal Exploration Series  -- a series of field trips to teach SC citizens more about the wildlife conservation in our state -- to visit 2 sites that are difficult to access and to learn of the wildlife that use these areas.  The first field trip, I went without Carl, down to Harbor Island (just south of Beaufort and north of Hunting Island State Park).  Harbor Island is a private residential development with a great wildlife conservation ethic.  On a sandbar strip of beach, horseshoe crabs come up to spawn by the thousands on
Spring high tides.  Where horseshoe crabs spawn, shorebirds such as Red Knots await to feed on their eggs.  The goal of this DNR project was to engage the public in horseshoe crab tagging so as to track these creatures and to learn more about their movements and longevity.  I had seen video of this phenomenon but I had never seen it in real life.  It was indeed an incredible sight and a fun participatory event!  I took tons of photos and shot some video.  Again, with more time, this would have been (could still be) a good blog post!

Horseshoe Crabs and Red Knots meet on the Harbor Island Sandspit as the crabs come up to spawn -- May 25, 2013

Carl joined me the next day in Beaufort for us to explore the Port Royal Cypress Wetlands Park and Hunting Island State Park.  The Cypress Wetlands Park was new to us and we enjoyed watching the late-nesting Snowy Egrets and Little Blue Herons.

Snowy Egret family at the nest -- Port Royal Cypress Wetland Park -- May 26, 2013
         At Hunting Island State Park, we saw a cabin that we had stayed in 20 years earlier.  Once upon a time, this cabin had been behind the dune line.

Hunting Island Stae Park front beach cabin --near Beaufort, SC -- May 26, 2013

By midday, the heat had slowed the birds a bit -- except for this very feisty Northern Parula who must have thought I was hiding another bird under my hat when I phished at him.  After he nearly took my hat off, believe me, I stopped phishing!  Lesson learned:  Be careful who you phish!

Northern Parula -- Hunting Island State Park -- May 26, 2013

          In July, Carl and I visited Deveaux Bank on another SC DNR Exploration Series field trip.  I may yet be able to complete a blog post about this trip as I have edited most of the photos.  Deveaux Bank serves as a seabird creche (ie nursery or nesting colony).  We were able to observe young, not-yet-fledged Brown Pelicans playing on the beach.  The DNR education crew took us out to this sandy treeless island on their educaiton vessel to observe the birds via scope.  It was quite the experience!

SC DNR Discovery --off of Deveaux Bank -- July 30, 2013

Sign on Deveaux Bank -- July 30, 2013

Young Brown Pelicans at play -- Deveaux Bandk -- July 30, 2013

Young Brown Pelicans with a few adults -- Deveaux Bank -- July 30, 2013
            Another kind of birding experience which helps to make a great birding year for me are my opportunities to volunteer with the Charleston Natural History Society (this year it has been primarily about the bird counts and blogging) and out at the Kiawah Island Banding Station (KIBS).  This year, while helping there, I learned about sweet-smelling vireos and helped the team to deduce the item in the birds' diet that was causing the bubblegum aroma -- magnolia berries!  In the Spring, I enjoy helping Aaron Given, wildlife biologist on Kiawah Island and chief bird bander at KIBS, with Marsh Sparrow banding.  I did not blog about Marsh Sparrow Banding this past Spring but I did help there again this year.   In the photo below, Aaron and I are discussing the subtle differences between 2 Saltmarsh Sparrow subspecies.

Cathy & Aaron discuss the subtleties of 2 subspecies of Saltmarsh Sparrows -- Kiawah Island, SC -- March 10, 2013

One of the highlights of banding birds is releasing them.  It is a happy moment though difficult to capture digitally.  The birds are so fast and your eyes (and thus the camera) cannot follow them as they take off!  One of those times that I helped out, a group of students from Clemson had arrived  to help and to learn. It was great fun watching and shooting the changing expression on the college interns' faces as the birds flew off.  I do not have their contact information to request permission to publish their pictures so you readers are stuck with a series of me.

Series of Cathy releasing Saltmarsh Sparrow after banding -- Kiawah Island -- March 10, 2013
Spending a morning outdoors slugging as fast as you can through the marsh during a Spring high tide herding sparrows into a net -- I LOVE it!  It takes me back to my childhood when I played in the marsh behind our home.  Yet, this is better still as I am able to play a citizen science role --  helping to band birds so that scientists can follow the relative success or decline of bird populations in an area of increasing human encroachment.   One of my favorite moments this past Spring in the marsh sparrow banding was removing a Clapper Rail from the net!  These secretive birds are so hard to spot so I was thrilled to be holding one!

Cathy with Clapper Rail -- Kiawah Island -- April 7, 2013

          Other birding events which must not be discounted in a summary of a great birding year include fundraising events, such as SC Audubon's Wine and Warblers and Storks and Corks, as well as birding meetings by the Carolina Bird Club and other birding festivals, such as the Santee Birding and Nature Festival!  We have attended the Wine and Warblers event faithfully since its inception.  This summer, we attended our first Storks and Corks, which was simply delightful.  The Silver Bluff Audubon Center is beautiful.  We regret not having more time to explore it more. 

Wood Storks at Silver Bluff Audubon Center close to Aiken, SC -- August 10, 2013

Finally, we participated for the first time in the Santee Birding and Nature Festival at the Santee National Wildlife Refuge along with Carl's father.  The field trips were superb and both Carl and I placed in the photo contest!  Carl walked away with 2 first place prizes -- he has become a rather impressive photographer!  You can see all the winning entries -- including ours --  by clicking on the link above. 

         At last, as this year ends (in 34 minutes), I would be much remiss if I did not name my favorite month of the year for birding -- it is December -- because of the Audubon Christmas Bird Counts, of course!  The 2013 Season for the Christmas Bird Count is not yet over.  I have completed 4 counts and have 2 left to go in January.  These counts will merit their own blog post.  Let's just say that I am indeed having a blast meeting up with fellow birders and going out into the field to find the birds.  This is a service that I eagerly and enthusiastically embrace every year.  You may look forward to a summary blog post of our counts from 2013 by mid- January.

         And now, my fellow bird and nature lovers, I hope that you, like me, have enjoyed a productive and educational birding year in 2013.  I finish this year with 246 SC year birds, 265 US year birds and 11 new life birds.  But to evaluate a birding year, you simply cannot look at your best bird of the year or your bird numbers.  Look beyond and appreciate the experiences, the birds, the places and the people that you have encountered. Know that by birding and that by recording your counts that you are making a difference.  Learn, observe, bird, count and share!  That is how I appreciate this year 2013 (26 more minutes) and how I will plan and enjoy my future birding adventures in the New Year 2014!  Tomorrow, we will bird at Magnolia Gardens -- just as we did last year.  It is a great place to start a New Year and a New Year Bird List!  Happy Birdy New Year my friends and Bird On!

PS:  To end this year and this day, I am now listening to the a Great Horned Owl hooting from the yard.  If he continues, he will be my last bird of 2013 and my first bird of 2014!  This is indeed a cool way to end the old year and to begin the New Year!

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