Thursday, September 11, 2014

Vacation Birding sans Deracination: County Roots in Carolina

Automatic County Bird lists and the Top 100...two of eBird's greatest innovations in growing use and support for its admirable program. Every birder likes to watch his or her list grow (even if that's not the main goal), and some birders also like seeing their list grow in relation to other people's. There has always been that competitive element to birding. It's a very faint factor sometimes, and at others it is palpable. When one is birding with the local Audubon group there is seldom any Big Day-type competition. At the other side of the spectrum there is the World Series of Birding, Big Years, Big Day's, and Big Nerds, competitions over many timeframes and in many regions. EBird nicely keeps track of all of it for us. 

Gotta Catch 'em All!

Most birders have a life list, and many more keep national, state, and even county lists, in addition to yard or maybe work patch lists. The county listing is often the repast for very experienced birders, those who have seen just about everything they can in their state, or who do not travel very much outside of it. Seeing birds in one's home county, or every county in a state, provides new challenges with the same birds. EBird even solicits county moderators as the most local level of its information filtration. The longer you're in the birding circles, the more county listing seems to come up.

Truth be told, I never paid it much heed. There was still too much to do on the State and National level with the birdies (and yes, I realize this violates the sacred semi-libertarian principle of subsidiarity). In massive states like Texas it made more sense to me, but county lines seemed so arbitrary around Arizona I often found more annoyance than enjoyment in specified county listing. I had no county listing goals nor compared myself to other birders in Arizona. That being said, I kinda liked that eBird kept track of it for me anyway. This ambivalence changed for me this summer, when I spent a bit of time in Wayne County, one of 100 little boroughs in charming NC. 

As many other birders do before heading to a new area, I checked out the eBird data in this mid-state, coastal plain region. It was...unimpressive. In fact, it was paltry. There have been a total of 69 different eBirders in Wayne County, who submitted a total of 111 checklists. This is not a daily, monthly, nor even annual rate, as one might expect of counties in Arizona or California. Those are the All-Time totals. Wayne County NC (there are like 13 other Wayne Counties in the U.S.) has a total of 225 recorded species, with its All-Time leading eBirder standing at 96 species. To lend some perspective, a good day at the Tres Rios site in west Phoenix can yield over 100 species. There are hundreds of lists submitted in California and Arizona counties every day, and my home county, mid-state Maricopa, has over 400 recorded species. That being said, as mentioned in the comments below Wayne County does have some great birders and has played host to some great birds, but this doesn't carry over to a big presence on eBird.

I do not bring this up simply to dump on Wayne County. In fact, the relatively poor eBird numbers were not a deterrent whatsoever. It's not too far from the coast. There's plenty of water. There are some nice parks and plenty of forest, as well as farmlands and sewage ponds, lending some habitat variety even if there is little elevation. There are certainly birds in Wayne County, in fact probably not many fewer than in the heavily birded Research Triangle area around Raleigh/Durham. The stark reality is that very few people are eBirding in Wayne County (this is probably true, maybe even more so, for the identical counties around Wayne that have even smaller populations). Rather paradoxically, the very low eBirding done in Wayne County, the lack of recorded sightings and established information, as well as established feudal lords of the fief, was exciting for me. 
I've chased birds all over Arizona, but the county lists there seemed meaningless to me. There are so many people out birding every day, who have seen it all and seen it everywhere, so to speak. There wasn't many point in trying to compete or compare. But here in Wayne County I could be a pioneering eBirder again, I could accomplish something that was even relatively impressive for my low expectations. I could actually be a top county lister! I could be...NUMBER 1. In Wayne County NC, I could be the awesome guy on the far left, except with less bracelets!!!

This renewed enthusiasm was greatly helped by the fact that there were several possible lifers waiting in the vicinity, and bearing these things in mind I made sure to fit a few birding trips to the best-looking spots in the area. In early July and with limited time before returning to Phoenix, I knew the All-Time record was not yet in reach, but for the year..? 57 would win it. Since I would also be birding with birder-tolerant and bird-interested friends I could get away with the early mornings, but a visit to the local sewage pond was out. This meant that shorebirds, gruiformes, and their ilk would have to wait. The birds would have to come from the forest.

There are a couple of eBird hotspots listed in Wayne County, and seemingly the largest, most well-established is the Cliffs of the Neuse S.P. This sizable preserve has many different trails, paved roads, and even a small lake (with swimming kids, dogs, and almost no birds). I had the fortune of jogging here a few days before as a sort of preliminary scouting. Returning with all the birding gear, knew that the Spanish Moss trail would be the most productive, winding as it did through deciduous woodland, open grasslands, and recently flooded river banks. 
From the visitors center we scanned the lake for riparian birds and came up empty handed except for Kingfisher. We then walked to the less peopled, more overgrown section of the park, along the way recording chattering Titmice, Chickadees, picoides Woodpeckers, and hiccuping Summer Tanagers, one of which was uncharacteristically accomodating.

As soon as we approached the trailhead we were assaulted with the songs of Carolina Wrens and even more enjoyably, those of the Wood Thrush. This had been a 'heard-only' bird for me, and while the dense foliage and semi-cloudy skies didn't make for great photos ops, finally getting good looks at this bird was somewhat cathartic. Not Veery sighting cathartic, mind you, but still pretty good. 

True to the trail's name, the pine, cyprus, and oak woodlands were sufficiently overgrown with Spanish moss. Acadian Flycatchers and Northern Parulas maintained a formidable cacophony above the spooky paths, joined occasionally by inquisitive Yellow-billed Cuckoos and one very persistent, upset Red-shouldered Hawk. The Wayne County ticks were coming thick and fast; I was feeling I might have a place on the podium, when everything suddenly froze. Everything, that is, except for the larger, brownish and barred bird that flushed from near the trail. Finally...FINALLY...lifer Barred Owl was obtained. 
The Owl tarried but for a minute, allowing for the sort of blurry photo that would make Bigfoot proud before making direct eye contact, as if to say, "Alright, we're square," and departing.
Knees buckled, expletives were uttered, and there might have been excitement vomit too. Years of living in central Texas, birding in south Texas this summer, multiple attempts in Pennsylvania, and even a few days in Florida where these birds seem to grow on boardwalk trees...none had yielded the Barred Owl, none but for beloved Wayne County.

Hooded Warblers and Great-crested Flycatchers arrived just in time to stave off mosquito/tick-onset depression, and we emerged into a grassy clearing that provided Field Sparrow along with Indigo Bunting and Blue Grosbeak, always solid birds to find first time on a new site.
I had regressed well down from the point of specifically hoping or expecting to see Barred Owl--I just figured it would happen one day when I was 88 years old--and yet even this bird didn't quite steal the show. For Cliffs of the Neuse S.P. is itself a well-maintained park, but the Neuse River itself, or at least the Wayne County portion, well, it's flattered and appreciative when people only call it "icky."

Plenty of agri. and hog farm run-off, silt, and the normal gunk of lowland rivers all accumulate along its lazy, snaking course. It often floods its banks and leaves behind stinking mudflats pierced by mighty cyprus trees and their ambitious roots, with sagging willows bending obeisantly to gravity's demands in between. Yes Yes...pause to smooth the hair on the back of your neck--I must as well--for we have just traipsed through ideal Prothonotary Warbler habitat.
The bird that melted a thousand faces, the bird that undid Alger Hiss, the bird that convinced bananas to cease being green and turn to yellow...sing ye proud, Prothonotary Warbler.

This bird is "sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet"

I had seen one briefly--the original lifer--from across the closed gates of the Anahuac preserve in Texas (the aggravation of arriving here on a Tuesday and finding it closed shall not be mentioned in further detail, for sake of the children), and few more immature birds in Croatan N.F. on the inner banks. The earlier sightings were of an unsatisfactory nature at beautiful places. These Wayne County sightings were supremely satisfying, and took place along the banks of the gnarly Neuse River. The Prothonotary Warbler is a bird of supreme aesthetic, but it is not a snooty britches. 

Faces were cobbled back together and ice packs were applied. The Proths just did not care. They perched and sang like young Pavarottis. Absolutely no record, milestone, or other quantifiable goal was achieved by seeing this bird--it's expected and recorded in Wayne County already, by the way--but bar none it felt like the best bird of the day, even over the lifer BAOW, and one of the best birds of the trip.

Swinging through some larger-scale farmland produced Blackbirds, Meadowlarks, Grackles, and a few other list-buffers to round out the day. I finished my time in Wayne County on 57 species, the highest total at so far in 2014 with no waterfowl, herons, egrets, or shorebirds yet recorded. Perhaps this Christmas, and for sure by next summer, there will be a new (and only) birder in the Wayne County century club, and he will make T-shirts telling people about it. 
Does this fill me with an unwarranted, frankly embarassing sense of excitement and hubris? Yes.
Does this encourage down, dirty and thorough birding next time I'm in WCNC? Yes.
Is this county listing business outside of my own home state, with its much more heavily and skillfully birded counties (relative to Wayne County, not all Carolina Counties), a sign of insecurity and cowardice on my part? Yes.
Is this perhaps papering over an early-onset mid-life crisis? Yes.
Is all of that secondary because, Hell Yeah, Ima' be Number One at something birding-related? Yes.
Plus, I'll be bale to post up some useful eBird data for ornithologists and hobbyists alike to also use. The world must be eBirded!

*Please, any North Carolina birders reading this post, do not go wrack up crazy birds in Wayne County and ruin my dream. I have the eye of the tiger and the heart of the lion but they just couldn't take it. Incidentally, I am now forever banned from the San Diego Zoo, but that is another story...