Monday, January 9, 2017

The Eternal Flame: Wayne County and Economy of Scale Birding

North Carolina is a land of many wonders, wonders that are horizontally spread. The outer banks and sites like Cape Hatteras are famous for their getaways and pelagic birding, while the inner banks offer their own liminal brand of beach life. The coastal plain and Piedmont areas are marvelous watersheds of agrarian life, and some of the best stretches of Appalachia just through the western border. Time spent in the Great Smokies is among my favorite, and I yet pine for a trip to the outer banks. Most of my time with family in Carolina is spent in Wayne County, in the heart of the rural plain.

Eastern Phoebes can be found throughout pretty much all of this various habitat in the southeastern states. This commonality is more appreciated in winter, perhaps, as there are few Flycatchers then and one should never go too long without.

Wayne County is wet. It is woody. It echos with firearm discharges on Christmas morning when everyone and his mother tries out their new presents. It is also the site--and maybe you've heard about this in Legendary Magazine, ABA Smack-down, or simply hovering in the ether above Lake Michigan--of an epic struggle for eBird supremacy. For the last few years the coveted-if-not-heavy crown of 'By Species Leader' in Wayne County rested upon the ordained head of one Matthew Daw. His infamous reign rested on a cunning and cruel record of 96 species up through 2011. As county leader, Matthew Daw was cold. Some say he didn't even bother to bird in Wayne anymore, that he was once green and good but turned up his nose for the lascivious bird-scene in the Triangle area. Others say he was cruelly meticulous, a veritable Sheriff of Nottingham in Wayne County determined to spook and flush all the birds away before anyone could approach his record. 
*(Author's acknowledgment: Matthew Daw is probably, in actuality, a super nice guy).

The people needed a hero, even if most of them didn't realize it when I asked or introduced myself. By way of reigniting my own lackluster birding, much less birding leadership, it became my pre-New Year's resolution to usurp the crown, free the land, and impose a much better form of county listing tyranny in Wayne: one that recognizes me, Laurence.

Golden-crowned Kinglets are of little concern to most listers on anything grander than a Day or Site list. This is not because they are not cool birds--they're golden--but rather because they are common as hell.

Wayne is a pretty small county in a state made up of 100 relatively small counties. It has neither coast nor mountain nor desert, but one large river, a few lakes and reservoirs, and one State Park. Birding in Wayne County is thus largely restricted to a few elements by virtue of good and accessible habitat: birding Cliffs of the Neuse State Park, birding the Goldsboro Wastewater Treatment area and adjacent constructed wetlands, and then cruising the farmland and fallow fields with their border-woods that surrounds all the rest of it.
Sitting on 92 species, my endeavor was to bird the hell out of all these areas in between cramming biscuits and collared greens into my face and then having to hustle it off at the Goldsboro YMCA, and also finishing up Christmas shopping. The first two settings, Neuse SP and Water Treatment, provided the best numbers of new county birds. The third element, random rural birding, probably provided the most satisfying.

Before we go any further though I must share this image of Tufted Titmouse. This bird was not a county bird nor in any way relevant to this story, but somehow I have never photographed/posted TUTI on this website before. I did not even realize this at the time or I would've tried harder.  In my humble opinion all Titmice should be Black-crested or Bridled.

For picking up waterfowl, there's no place better (or, really, much at all) than the water plant and nearby run-off wetlands. This really should be scope-birding, considering the areas are gated off, but I had neither scope nor bolt cutters, so distant binocular views it was! Finding some species of duck was tricky; I still don't have Gadwall here. They're much more skittish than in Arizona, and I suspect this corresponds to the preponderance of hunting in the area. Redheads and Scaups were ticks from this raft.

Flying over the wetlands were lean-looking Turkey Vultures, which were not new, and stocky-looking silver-fingered Black Vultures, which were.

The wetlands also offered up petting opportunities for North America's most vitamin & mineral laden rodent, the Nutria. As I understand it, they were introduced for fur farming and are a destructive invasive species given their propensity for burrowing and eating delicate water plants. With those large orange teeth it's also a mug only a mother could love...and momma still makes them move out of the house.

In a way I've been talking down WC birding, which is not my intention objectively but just a result of comparative resources and space. These restrictions actually make one focus and maximize resources; it's essentially patch-birding highs strung together.
That being said, it was also with humility and foot-in-mouth that I logged a County Bird AND Lifer at the ponds. Palm Warbler. How did I not have Palm Warbler? Unhook your trailer and GO man!
Anyway taking photos with a foot in one's mouth is tricky business but PAWAs are cool birds, seemingly comfortable tail-bobbing and feeding in a variety of settings.

At times they seemed to be doing fly-catcher behavior, as do Yellow-rumps, but also foraging on the ground like Pipits or Larks--both behaviors unbecoming of many other Warbler sp. Truth be told I had kind of forgotten about these birds being here in the winter. Winter warblering just isn't really a thing. I am ashamed, but I'm also operating on a pretty low level of bird-awareness anyway. Most importantly, it was great. Birding is goddamned great.

Cliffs of the Neuse, where I had logged lifer Barred Owl and crushed Prothonotaries in summer months, was also productive. This stretch of the Neuse river itself is pretty gnarly and with disappointing to no water birds. The surrounding woodlands are great, both in terms of scenic easy walking and avifauna. Blue-headed Vireo was a solid CB, as was a weirdly high-perching and stationary Fox Sparrow. That bird stayed treed, silent, and still for like 10 minutes until I moved on. Weird.

Fracking is still a hot topic of environmental and economic concern, but drilling sap wells is largely unregulated. This suits Yellow-bellied Sapsucker--the most cowardly of woodpeckers--just fine. YBSA was another CB, one of those birds common enough to be found in the right habitat on any given day with some time and perseverance, but not necessarily found on any given walk in the park.
Other CBs here included PIWO along with White-breasted and Brown-headed Nuthatch (: ::sigh:: : yes, I know).

Those photos weren't very good though, so here is a Carolina Wren, perhaps one of North America's most crush-able bird species in general. I have no other way of fitting this bird into the narrative anyway, but it's good to have more Carolina flavor.
CAWRs are dapper, loud, curious, and largely unafraid. They are a true staple and lynch-pin of southeastern woodlands, and even if they go unappreciated at times, life would be sad without them. A Top 3 North American Wren? One could argue.

Somehow, Carolina Chickadee did not end up as the state bird for North or South Carolina. To be fair, South Carolina does have the Carolina Wren in lieu, but how was this not snagged by NC?? Clearly that election was hacked by Russians to boost the chances of Red Red Cardinal.

Living in a rural area, one often drives through open land, some of which is undeveloped and some of which has development since run to ruin. A derelict homage to the tobacco industry and its declining relevancy, there are many old tobacco barns and other abandoned buildings dotting the farmland. 
Apparently, having never learned my lesson from horror movies, "Deliverance," or common sense, these seemed like great spots to check for owls at dusk. To my surprise I checked near two dozen tobacco barns and found nothing, not even whitewash. On the upside I was not killed. With all their rafters and openings in the ceiling they seemed ideal, but many also smelled strongly of their former wares so, I dunno, maybe that's a turn-off to Barn and Great-Horned Owls.

After good work at the aforementioned sites I was up to 104 species. Eclipsing Matthew Daw and all but erasing him from the history books. Already the land of Wayne County seemed a bit brighter, a bit more fecund, a bit safer. But shoot, a difference of 8 birds? All it takes is one judiciously smuggled bag of 8 imported species from out west released and then photographed in one's backyard to catch up. Who would do or even think of doing such a thing? Matthew Daw would, obviously.

Thus the quest continued and nothing less than a distance of 10 species would be acceptable. A happenstance flock of Purple Finches supplied #105, which put me within striking distance on Dec. 29th. Traditionally, one strikes gold with a rich shining vein in the rock, typically a granitic or quartzite compound. Sometimes one strikes gold from the depths of a river bed. In my case, I struck gold here, not in a stately tobacco barn with history and tradition behind it, but a lean-to shed with old vacuums, toilets, and maybe a meth lab in it.

Who else is into that sort of stuff, apparently? This Eastern-screech Owl, who was grumpily perched in the left corner of the shed upon entering. There's a sub-theme in this post, as readers have no doubt wryly noticed, of logging birds either as lifers or CBs that are probably overdue. This EASO was a CB and only not a lifer by virtue of hearing one outside of Kerr WMA in Texas a few summers ago. From that initial exposure onward (and in that case, I was the one exposed) I never experienced EASO again, not even with the help of birder friends and a very reliable stake-out in Austin.

I'm probably not the only bedraggled fellow to enjoy catharsis in that dingy shed, but Specialness is not an exclusive place or feeling. It's been said many times but it holds: Owls are the best.
Relatedly, in addition to setting a new record for Maricopa County, Arizona legend Tommy Debardeleben also completed his quest in 2016 to see every North American owl. I highly recommend reading about it HERE for great story and great owling info.


I was also able to pick up a few more species--grassland types and a Sharpie--at the now-created birding spot of Walker Family Cemetery between La Grange and Goldsboro. For any Wayne Co. birders who might be reading this, check it out; It's a good little spot with lots of relative variety.

Thusly into the new year do I sit, mighty on my throne of 111, eminent in Wayne County and indigent in most other things. There is still much work to be done and I do not know when next I shall do it, but in the mean time Wayne County, be at peace.