Monday, July 23, 2018

On The Virtues of Boardwalks and The Parula Who Couldn't Be Bothered

It is good to have a home away from home. Who doesn't want to have more homes? A diversity of domiciles? A collection of camps? A bricolage of bases? In this day and age, with Air BnB and relatively cheap travel, Cabin Fever is a preventable disease.
Team Butler's Birds recenty spent a weekend at Chocowinity Bay, where the Pamlico River and its tributaries are leave their offerings to the broken beginnings of the Atlantic. 

The small and tidy Goose Creek State Park is a nifty nearby hotspot, where you can find quarantined graveyards for victims of early 1800s Yellow Fever, pay-phones in the woods, and pretty good birds. It should be said that I have never seen any Geese at this creek, however a Carolina Wren does live in the entrance signage. 

GCSP is established as having good birding, and I feel it has the potential/unconfirmed actual of great birding, but I have not yet unlocked it. The site has coastal broadleaf and pine woods, brackish shorelines and inlets, cypress swamps, a little bit of open pasture, and parking lots (nothing pads a trip list better than the Starling/House + Chipping Sparrow/Pigeon/Grackle combo).

Ovenbird is one of the reliable species at GCSP. Fond of woodlands with decent undergrowth, they're vocal and visible around every trailhead it seems.

The brackish coastal portion of the park provides the greatest sense of potential, but also disappointment so far. It seems like a great spot for Rails and Sparrows, but other than an occasional fly-by Tern I have not had any birds of note in this area. 

Partially I blame circumstances; it is the farthest corner of the park and the park doesn't open until 8am (!!!), so I'm not flogging the bushes until 8:30am, but I still can't shake the sense I am doing something wrong with this opportunity. Birders...know the feeling? 

Did you know Purple Martins will repurpose old Osprey nests? You didn't? Me either. Because they don't. They're just perched nearby. Don't jump to conclusions.

Every time I have visited the GCSP I have hustled, even bustled, to the corner of brackish inlets, like a child running downstair at Christmas, eager and excited. Like the same child whose parents pawned their respective hair and watch-bands to buy each other gifts and forgot about me entirely, I am continually disappointed and left without. However it's a quick rebound, because GCSP also provides a constant of satisfaction with its boardwalk. 

During the most recent visit, looking for my customary recovery after my customary disappointment, the boardwalk was particularly good, no Magee Marsh or Anahuac, but excellent to scale. Even without birds, the herps are great and it is surprisingly not buggy, actually less so than the woods.

A buzzy NOPA was yelling into the void right at the start where the lichenous boardwalk runs aground. Parulas are typically gregarious, but after checking me out for a minute, perhaps staring into my bird-lusting soul and sensing the emptiness, things got beyond cozy. 

This NOPA had no filters, no scruples, and no sense of personal space. It became my favorite ever individual NOPA. May the gods have mercy on my soul for the crushing I did to it this day.


Portions of the boardwalk are closely hedged in with thick scrub, while others are shaded over with towering mossy oaks and cypress. In between are openings where storms raged through and snapped everything off at a certain height, leaving many convenient pedestals for swampy birds one might expect. 
Green Herons here are very sensitive, and will flush from their conspicuous perches, loudly and with great complaining, no matter how careful one is. Green Heron in NC is a bird of righteous indignation. I am still used to pond-loving Green Herons in Phoenix, which were largely inured to people and highly crushable. 

Bluebirds and Cardinals also enjoy the open perches, and apparently disregard any notions of compartmentalized aesthetics. They seemed out of place.
For shame generic passerines, you are not of the swamps, but of the yards, lawns, and fences.


Possessing both strong aesthetics and habitat integrity, the Prothonotary Warbler is boardwalk perfection.

There was a family group of 3 birds foraging back and forth across swamp. Too good. The GCSP boardwalk is the best place I know of for crushing Proths, and by extension it is the best place for crushing Proths that are crushing moths...or dragonflies, etc.

I was also treated to the thick and resonant percussion of a Pileated trifecta. Upon hearing the unmistakably drumming I waited with uncharacteristic patience until they worked their way closer to the boardwalk. Large, powerful, transitionally ornithischian...Pileated Woodpeckers have a powerful impact on trees and people alike. 

I know PIWOs inhabited/inhabit areas that Ivory-billed could not, as well as similar old swamp. It's still curious to me that Ivory-bills are all but gone entirely and Pileated are doing decently well. Is that because most swamplands now are the result of preservation since the 1960s, after it was too late for IBWOs? Did IBWOs have other reproductive difficulties? Why didn't Teddy Roosevelt save them?

With crushy Warblers, big Woodpeckers, a snapping turtle, anoles, and other goodies, the boardwalk at GCSP is it's own micro hotspot. With the exception of a few migrants, the expected species here is pretty set and limited, but until I can get the skills and strategy up to par for other habitats of potential, it's Boardwalk 4 Tha Win.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

North Carolina Chronicles: Settling In and Getting Out

Butler's Birds is now broadcasting definitively from Wayne County, North Carolina. After a much needed and much relished pause in the mountains, the last several weeks have been all about getting up and running at work and up and filing lost or damaged claims with the moving company (seriously, the worst). 
On the bright side, we have a proper yard now, which can start generating a proper yard list. Other than some fervent lawn mowing and ferocious weed-whacking, I have not been able to tend it and make it more birdacious, but all the same there have been a few good pulls.  

Between the generic sounding name and their generic use on logos, Blue Jays have little aura about them. To be fair, they are a quotidian yard bird as well, but they're still gorgeous and not often crushable, in my prior experiences.

The best yard bird(s) so far came under odd circumstances, with 3 Mississippi Kites waiting out a heavy morning shower in the large dead pine across the street. My understanding is that any bird seen from one's yard is still countable. Luckily these birds also flew directly through our airspace when departing, so, double good.


As well as the incidental yard birds, we've had some cool moths and 'phibs. The first one below, a Cecrophia Silk Moth I believe, was on its last legs. The Luna Moth, like all Luna Moths, was actually an extraterrestrial. The Fowler's Toad (?) lives by our garden hose. Most evenings I watch it hunt with great success.


The main mission for local birding, other than upping the rookie county numbers, is to photograph Barred Owl well. True to form, last time I saw one at Cliffs of the Neuse it was flushed and didn't stick around. So too this time. Fortunately there were still vocal Prothonotaries around then, as now, to console and to covet.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Birding Appalachia Part II: Better Quit While You're Ahead

Driving back down from the Heintooga Overlook, we got enough cell-service to receive the text that Butler's Birds Jr. was still asleep for his first nap, and there was much rejoicing! There was also time, as a part of this rejoicing, to pull over and appreciate the Plott Balsam overlook. We squinted from the grandeur, and almost immediately I recognized a much more familiar song. 
The first sighting is always the hardest isn't it? It wasn't even great BLWA habitat but sure enough, with only the most minimal of effort (and getting snagged by some bikers to take their picture near the overlook sign).

Butler's Birds Jr. is an early riser, pretty much 5:30am on the dot. However, with the daylight savings change he was technically sleeping in until 7:30 or 8:00am (!!!). As such I planned on sneaking out before sunrise to hit up the trails around the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center (like the Southwest Research Station in the Chiricahuas, except much nicer and less busy) where someone had reported Golden-winged Warbler. I would get out, get a couple hours' birding, and get back in time for our schedule departure, based on his anticipated wake up from the 3 days previous.

I checked the maps and website. I made my plan. I packed extra socks. My kicks were pumped.
The access gate at mile 7 of 9 was locked. WTF!? WHY DID YOU NOT SAY ACCESS IS RESTRICTED ON YOUR WEBSITE!? I had to cover that last two miles from the station and trailhead on foot. Uggghhh. 

Time was not on my side, nor was the sun, but this portion of dirt road was actually very birdy and I logged many newer birds for the county/area, like Wood Thrush, Hooded Warbler, and Grosbeaks. The best spots were the occasional clearings along the woods, where Chestnut-sided Warblers were numerous, noisy, and nom-nom-noming away.

There were also Least Flycatchers hanging out and vocalizing on the reg. Sometimes they were prominent, and sometimes they were very shady, like nocturnal.

Keeping on a pretty quick pace, I reached the Learning Center (from which point I had a notion of the Golden-winged Bailiwick farther past) around 6:45am. It was a pastoral scene, where the Catbirds sang, the Bluebirds blued, and the Flicker foraged with the Towhee. 


...and then I got the phone call. Butler's Birds Jr. had NOT slept in as expected, but was awake as of 6am. Given his nap/grumpiness schedule and that we still had to cover 6 hours that day to get to our new home, this meant we needed to leave immediately, that I had to leave immediately, in order to leave immediately. There was much immediacy. And the Chestnuts played on.

Cedar Waxwing cares not for the problems of hurried parents. Cedar waxwing cares only for berries. 

Takeaways and reminders from the morning:

I love my son very very much and love being his parent. Parenthood often sucks though.
Least Flycatchers behave weirder than other Flycatchers.
I can jog 2 miles with camera and other gear in under 15 minutes, albeit down hill.
If you go huffing and puffing with heavy feet down a dirt road with lots of blind curves, you may scare a small park ranger lady into thinking she's about to be mauled by a bear.
Chestnut-sided Warblers are great.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

On the Move: Getting into the Good Stuff

By end of May everything was packed up, vacated, discontinued, etc. We were essentially homeless, jobless, and heading across country in our pod-topped Outback with an 11 month-old, hoping to go 6 to 7 hours a day. We puddle-hopped in 2-hour stints from McDonalds to Chik-fil-A, or anywhere else that had a "Play Place" along the I-10, I-40, or I-20.
P.S. Ball pits don't exist anymore, sad but understandable.

The light at the end of the tunnel was not our final destination, but western North Carolina and the mountains, where we rendezvoused with grandparents to recoup for a few days in Maggie Valley. The view in the evening was pretty good. The view in the morning was even better.

...if you're into the Great Smokies and what not

Like fancy hotels and aggressively advertising crappy apartments, the NC mountains offer many amenities, though the montane amenities are of a much more natural and holistic aesthetic. For the grandparents, it was all about the bucolic drives and quaint roadside stands toting knick-knacks and mountain honey. For B's Bs Jr. it was just about comfortably being outside, in general, for once. For Mrs. B's Bs and I it was all about the critters and the fungi, and of course, The Birds.

Now is the time for Wild Turkeys and chicks. 

We dallied in the Great Smokies in mid-June, and as such we had missed the larger concentrations of birds one might catch during migration (and many birds were much higher in the canopy now, if still very vocal), but we still experience an fantastic variety of fauna. The mountain ponds contained outrageous numbers of tadpoles. A couple of cool mystery newts/salamanders were basking as well.

Internet identification has been typically ineffective for these guys. I'm not sure if it's my own poor searching or if these are some intermediate stage of salamander species and I'm only seeing mature phases.

Pre-pubescent Eastern Newt and Slimy (Dusky?) Salamander made for easier IDs, and at the other size of the Great Smoky size spectrum, we had roadside looks at Elk while traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway just after sunrise. 

Such majesty...

There was also plenty of cool flora to appreciate, such as this super water-logged disintegrating vine. I had never noticed nor appreciated the structure of the vine as it came apart, revealing sheet-layers of fiber. There were also some enterprising vines that, tired of a life of parasitism and living in the hardwoods' shadows, seemed to be making a tree unto themselves.

Mrs. Butler's Birds and I recently listened to some very interesting podcasts about the subterranean communication and exchange networks between fungus and tree roots, with fungal networks exchanging minerals for sugar with tree roots, facilitating flow from tree to tree, and even seeking out organic life--little bugs and such--and ensnaring it to be processed. 
Also, emerging evidence is that some plants can sense the presence of water from vibration alone and they can learn to react or not react to certain stimuli over time. In other words, if the AI or the octopi don't come for us, the trees will finish us off. M. Night Shyamalan was right all along...but the first prophets are always stoned. It's best to play it safe.

"The fields have eyes and the woods have ears" --Chaucer

Anyway, there were plenty of cool Appalachian fungus (they may be less socially evolved than more metropolitan fungus, but are much more wholesome and down-home).We have a guide book now, but have not even begun to climb the first slope of the learning curve.  I will have to work on IDs for these at a later time and provide some proxy IDs until then.

Orange-capped Bark Propper

White-scaled Trunk-stacker

Fulminating Slime-Piler

On the auditory scale, the birding was great. There were many species, including wood warbler varieties, singing on territory. However, unless one could find a ridge, road, or trail portion that elevated up to canopy level, the visual logs lagged far behind. 
Northern Parulas are always gregarious though and we did have a couple that weren't too busy to check us out in various poses.

This reminds me of a Cuckoo posture

Dark-eyed Juncos were everywhere. They were at every elevation, in every habitat, making all manner of varied calls, chips, and songs. It was kind of frustrating to be honest, but one can't help but admire their success. So here's an acknowledgement, one such individual of many hundreds. Respect, Junco. Please try to sound less like other birds. I swear they're mimids sometimes.

Keeping excursions balanced with the rest of the crew's wants & needs, we made a couple of forays on Black Balsam Mountain in pursuit of an overdue lifer, a buzzy flash of orange up high in the mixed hardwoods. The first few days were actually pretty crummy weather, overcast and windy. We dipped on the first of our three attempts at Flat Ridge Trail. We did pick up a pretty adorable consolation prize, so no complaints.

On Day 2 we hiked from the Black Balsam Campground to a little higher elevation, actually where the previous day's trail would end as well, had we time to finish. The morning 'smoke' burned off to an unusually clear day, and near the Heintooga Overlook we heard that much lusted for buzzy warble. Alas, when we looked up, there was only a Waxwing being weird.

Our quarry was high, and small, and flighty as all get out. It was also an astounding combination of bold oranges and blacks, and we chased the flashes of flame through the verdant canopies for a while in search of the SSV (soul satisfying view).

We had two males and a female near the terminus of Flat Ridge and Balsam Mtn. Nature Trail, be the Heintooga Overlook. I thrashed and crashed around like a 3-legged Elk (but even less majestic) while Mrs. Butler's Birds opted to recline and stay put. Obviously she's the one who had a male BLWA foraging like 10 feet away from her face. Good thing she had the wherewithal to snap this photo shortly before her face melted. 

Insert caption to make this an REI advertisement for boots or a fleece or something: "Wherever you go, go with comfort."

Sweet, sweet lifering. It has been a while, and I have missed the feeling in all the ways and means. What a crippler. A Top 10 Best Looking North American Bird? Most probably.

Maggie Valley is about as close as you can get to the Great Smokey NP, but it's still 20-30 minutes of single-lane mountain roads to the nearest trailheads (albeit on beautiful stretches of Blue Ridge Parkway). The drives are loaded with scenic vistas, but between the early morning fog and the roadside elk, it can be a little nerve-racking as well. Having some Black-throated warblers near our lodge was thus both convenient and wonderful. The Greens stayed in the highest strata but the Blues would forage within view. I bore witness to a geometrid holocaust every afternoon while poking around the local woods. 

All different birds (presumably) with all different worms (even more presumably)

Between the steady overcast and heavy shade, conditions were never great for photos, but they were great for observations, and I saw many the cute little inch worm snatched and thrashed to pieces by the voracious and appropriately re-classified setophaga (moth eater).

I don't know what sort of moth the inchworm larva become, but this impressive specimen was hanging around the lodge the first two nights, and then hanging around dead the third day. He was almost BTBW-sized himself. 

I snuck out for a couple hours on the day of our departure, planning to bird a little lower in less specialized but more birdy habitat. Butler's Birds UNLEASHED coming up next time (although it got cut short because the kid woke up early, we had to hit to road, re-leashed pretty quickly).