Wednesday, February 27, 2019

5MR Month II: February Schmebruary

Several weeks ago I had an interesting exchange with a long-haul grain trucker. I was helping him unload fifty thousand pounds of wheat middlings out of a dump trailer in the rain (sucks), and inevitably we shot the breeze while working. He was a big guy, surly looking with only 3 or 4 of organic teeth left in his head after 40 years of dip, but still nice enough. As one does with itinerant strangers, we talked of traffic, local flavor, and, of course, the weather. 
'Chilly and often rainy' pretty much sums up winters here in east NC, not the worst if not the best seasonal dichotomy. It was here that the fellow threw me a curveball, stating matter-of-factly, "Yeah, it's been a weird winter...'course the government is controlling the weather you know."
This fellow was a chem-trailer.

Rain, wind or snow...Chipping Sparrows seem impervious to it all, much like mailmen

We've probably all been in this situation before, when somebody shatters the conventional window of discourse and in an awkward flash you have to recalibrate: Did they say that on purpose? Do they think I will be a sympathetic audience? Did they say it half seriously and are gauging reaction before commiting? How much longer am I stuck here? Is The Thing actually destroyed at the end of the movie, or has it just absorbed and transmogrified into Kurt Russell?

It's hard to unravel the 'how' and 'why' of something like ChemTrails (or The Thing). If the government is controlling the weather, why is it making the weather bad? Grange Man said it was to hurt farmers. Why? He wasn't sure about that part. Is it to increase support for environmental legislation that will increase federal powers? So Monsanto can eventually monopolize weather-proof seed production? Maybe the most practical question should be, "Do you really think that our government could orchestrate and execute something of this scale, in plain sight, without verified whistleblowers, when it spends 1 or 2 months each year straight-up shut down from budget gridlock?"

Creating artificial clouds or'd be awful hard to keep so many in the dark.

Why bring all of this up now? What has this got to do with bird-blogging?
Because despite all my dismissal, all the evidence and common sense to the contrary...I dunno, maybe the Grain Truck Philosopher was onto something. How else does one explain seven SIX weekends in a row of steady rain and wind??? The Government (Deep State) doesn't want me to win 5MR is why.

Look at this nonsense. So foggy it looks like an impressionist painting.

After a birdy January surpassing expectations, February has been a kick in the binoculars. I guess the universe abhors a vacuum--or maybe that's Big Gov. too. To be fair, I did get one day in February when it was only overcast and not rainy, and the birding was good. Very good.
The birds were eager to be birded, I was happy to oblige. This February wrap up shall be almost exclusively about that day.

Here is pleasant image of pines and vines almost ruined buy a coincidental YB Blurry-headed Vireo.

There have still been some ticks here and there, mostly from incidental driving, but it seems like for the season most of my little 5MR patches have peaked. However, the one where I saw the most potential for spring and summer has continued to grow and now surpassed the others in its own winter right. It helps that I pass through some farmland on the way and have picked up birds like Merlin, Harrier, Am. Pipit that I wouldn't otherwise know where or how to chase; you just happen upon them with time and luck.
The grassy tangles along the Bear Creek are great for sparrows, and the open woods have great promise for breeding passerines, maybe even Bobwhite or Woodcock. I dream of Woodcock. And in the jumbled mess of vines and younger growth between, there's usually something good hiding.

The first Black-and-White Warbler, fresh of its shift at The Footlocker was not just a 5MR bird, but also a county and even --eek-- a State bird. Another score for birding local. This is the only 5MR site where I've been enveloped in a good mixed flock. And in case you have not yet experienced this orgy of ornithological euphoria, being engulfed in the teeming swarm of a feeding mixed flock is one of birding's greatest and most important experiences. The BWWA was joined by both Kinglets, the Chickadee/Titmouse Hivemind complex, Downies & Redbellies, Pine Warblers, Jays, Cards, Towhees, and the Vireo. Eyes on the prize though.

And then there was another. And another. After seeing no Black-and-whites in Carolina before, I had 4 in about 2 hours. I also have not seen any since. I highly recommend watching these birds do their thing; the energetic foraging and beeping with their crisp black and white against all the ecru colors of lower canopy is, how you say, C'est Magnifique!? Plus it's A Warbler in Winter--much better than a lion.

Something I did not really consider until reviewing my 5MR species found vs. missing and expected (a steamy Saturday night, lemme tell ya), is how few woodpeckers are migratory. There is the Sapsucker group (4), then Red-headed and Lewis's. Some ranges expand or contract a bit with the seasons, but none of the picoides and only those two melanerpes migrate. I assume the Sapsuckers move because their diet and habits require warmer temps, whereas the larger genuses are more flexible with their diets. But what about those outliers then? 
Anyway, this all came up because I am waiting on Red-headed Woodpecker to complete my 5MR Woodpeckering. My first few visits to Bear Creek yielded little by way of the timber splitters, but now 3-4 species are reliable, and notably with PIWOs. 

Most conversations that transpire without mentioning and contemplating PIWOs are conversations wasted. Opportunities lost. Things that should be better done.
Part of their allure is the retiring humility juxtaposed with the striking plumage, size, and grace of these birds. Theirs is not a desire for the limelight. My NC experiences with Red-shouldered Hawks are quite the opposite.

Their conspicuous perching and "help I'm being softly murdered!" calls quickly establish presence here the coastal plain around all the woods and swamps, around neighborhoods and parks, in harvested fields and one time at the Dollar General. They are very good-looking, so this behavior is permissible. They're like the Kardashians I guess.

March will be interesting. I still have not solved my waterbird dilemma and am missing the likes of Wigeon and Coot-COOT-for crying out loud. But maybe when other birds start moving up from farther south, my little retention ponds will catch something cool. Until then, mostly just hoping to have a flock of Rusty Blackbirds crash into my window (but be ok). 

Monday, February 4, 2019

Joy Drive 5MR: Staying Alive in a Dead Week

It's a numbers game. Or at least, it's a game involving numbers. In the 5MR challenge, they're not all great finds, great shots, or even great looks, but championships are won with grit...or money. Grit will have to do.

Being one of few warblers to winter in the eastern U.S., it is fair to say PAWAs  have grit.

The doors of January are closed and with them the first month of the 5MR challenge. After seeing totals from across the country and comparing my own findings with those of Wayne county proper, I feel totally adequately satisfactory. Not as exultant as an Eagle, but neither as brooding as a Red-shoulder who has no cover and no frogs.

The last week of January was a good/lucky one for the Joy Drive 5MR. A trip to the dump yielded incidental roadside Sharp-shinned Hawk, and a female Purple Finch was waiting at the feeders upon arrival home. There were no cool Gulls at the dump though, just the angry attendant known as the Dump Grump. He works there because the baler lets him crush things.

  Photos courtesy of iPhone 6 through two panes of glass , f-stop 30, ISO 10,000, bird was baited and called at from inside the house.

The funny thing is, the weather and overall birding of the past week has been pretty poor. The weather vacillated between very cold and windy, or warm and rainy. It wasn't a polar vortex like in the midwest, but not ideal for bird ogling, and species totals were low. 
For high octane birding competition, it had the makings of a dead week, but giving up on higher totals and instead focussing on specific areas, for specific species, kept the Vultures at bay.

P.S. Does anyone else feel like the large volume of roadkill and large volume of TUVUs should make for plentiful sightings of Vulture-on-carcass-carnage? I find it to be surprisingly rare. 

The glaring weakness of my 5MR is the waterfowl and shorebird potential, or lack thereof. I'm very good at worrying, and my inability to turn up good shorebird habitat this far already has me dreading summer migration. As for fowl, there are several reservoirs in the area but they are hard to access and do not seem to sustain much by way of waterfowl populations other than Ring-billed Gulls and Cormorants. Nonetheless, persistent peeking and borderline-trespassing has turned up a little duck variety.


Plus some Mute Swans, which count for nothing. Nobody has told this to them apparently, as they still behave in the manner of royalty.

Three days ago we had high temps in the teens, but today it hit 74 degrees. Nutso, but typical for this area I am told. You'd be tempted to think it spring time, especially with the Groundhog's prognosticating, but more than likely it will freeze over again, and many of the amphibians and insects mobilizing now will die.
Life is fleeting; life is faint. For final consideration, a Chickadee's butthole:

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The 5MR Challenge: January Beginnings

"Bro, do you 5MR?" This has been the dominant question, hash tag, and tweet of the past two months. In case you're wondering, 5MR is actually pronounced 'FI-MER' (rhymes with timer) when used conversationally. And just in case you're not fully up to speed, allow me to elaborate:
If a nosey birder asks you, "Do you 5mer?" you should know that they are asking if you regularly track bird species seen within 5 miles of your home. 
For example, here's a nifty little screen shot of Butler's 5MR, with yellow pins showing potential birding spots based on satellite imaging, and blue pins showing established patches. 

The 5MR concept was pushed into the national birding spotlight as a competition to log the most species, in total and as a percent of species seen in a county/counties, by notoriously competitive and productive birder and blogger Jen Sanford, who used her social media nous + the Portland Underground to spread this craze trans-continental. The appeal is broad and reaches those who have limited time, limited transport, limited budget, concern for environmental impact, and a either a current or rejuvenating interest in their local avifauna. Why spend so much time in the car when you could spend it finding cool stuff near home, and then go home and nap?

Alas, appeal and potential do not always translate into easy local birding. Here is that same Butler's 5MR radius, since updated, based on (un)availability of public access and habitat preservation. 

In my nook of Wayne, NC, there is precious little public land. There are two nice state parks another 8 miles away, but here is mostly farmland and reservoirs that have been enclosed by pockets of neighborhoods. The people are generally hospitable and kind, and also prodigious hunters, but they can also be a suspicious folk, encapsulated well by (one of many) local Baptist churches.

This means YOU, Andy.
Maybe it's a parable. Or a metaphor.

The first week/weekend was a lot of trial and error, driving and crossing spots off on the map without getting to do much birding--actually rather antithetical to the 5MR idea. It did yield some drive-by raptors and agri. birds. And it was good for citizen science...or so I told myself a lot.


If the first week was slapdash Lewis & Clarkin' it, the next couple have been more in the line of the 1800s ornithological exploration. There are *pending eBird acceptance* three hotspots in my 5MR now. The first is a tragically trashed cemetery with limited views of the adjacent, privately enclosed reservoir. It is also conveniently located next to an adequately mediocre Food Lion grocery store, and its trashy woods have contributed Brown Creeper, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and Golden-crowned Kinglet to the 5MR. 

Eastern Bluebird was not added to the 5MR at Old Mill; they are everywhere. They are legion.

The biggest weakness in my 5MR relative to the rest of the county is the lack of open water. The wastewater treatment facility 10 miles away is loaded with waterfowl and waders, but the little lakes in my radius are all enclosed by private development and, from cursory glances, have no ducky rafts at all. I was very grateful for the one Mallard pair I have found thus far. I ogled the crap out of this lonely, precious, Pied-billed Grebe. I dream of the day a Ring-necked Duck loses its way into my slough.

Hotspot #2 --officially dubbed Peter's Branch Reservoir, because someone named peter carved his name in a branch on a tree there--is pretty much my only hope for waterfowl numbers this year. It has good numbers of skittish Cormorants, which always scare away the good numbers of Gulls before I can scan them with my wee binoculars.

My first trip to Peters Branch was also noteworthy for what was going on above the water, where one immature light Bald Eagle was being chased around by an immature dark Bald Eagle (yes, I tried to make it into a Golden Eagle before sense returned). Their back and forth caused great consternation to the Cormorants bobbing below. These were 5MR birds, and also super cool to watch.

The brambly baby's-breath blackberry scrub stuff around the lakes has been fantastic for Sparrows. I am a big fan of Sparrows. Even when I was not birding regularly, I thought about Sparrows a lot. Peter's Branch contributed White-throated, Savannah, and Swamp Sparrow on first visit, added a couple Field Sparrows on the second, and coughed up a nifty family of White-crowns on the third. 

It's a pretty strong Sparrow species-per-acre ratio. At this rate and progression I should have Golden-crowned by March, Henslow's by June, and Five-striped by September. The tribe of locally uncommon White-crowns will do for now.

The last "hotspot" in my 5MR, dubbed Bear Creek Thoroughfare, is a thin strip of land between plots of private property. It follows the creek and provides state access to different flow points. It actually has the lowest species total of my 3 patches so far, and this is not likely to change soon. But unlike Arizona, NC actually has seasons. With woodlands on one side and thick riparian vegetation along the creek, I think it will be an excellent migrant trap come spring.

How do Cardinals even survive in the wild?

Almost a month in, the Joy Drive 5MR has 65 species for the year, out of a total 87 species recorded for the county this year. The best pick up has been this pair of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (admittedly would be common later in the year; just trying to steal some of the 5MR Portland peep's thunder) or the Bald Eagles at Peter's Branch Reservoir. 

Mostly importantly, I have been out birding over a dozen times, never for more than 2 hours at a time but never more than 5-7 minutes away from home. This is still more than I have done with the birds than in all of 2018. 
I probably should not admit that on a public bird blog--damages my personal brand you know--but let's be real, if you're reading it's only because you're here to try and glean some personal information about me to crack my Amazon password or something. 
Friggin' Russians.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Local, Organic, non-GMO: Birding

Ah, to be young and unencumbered again...those halcyon days when I could go birding any day of the week and crank out 160+ blogposts a year. Of course, being poor and de-facto celibate wasn't great during all the non-birding time (not that Butler's Birds is rolling in dough now--still waiting for the big Bird Blog corporate sponsorships to come through...err hem...Swarovski...), but it did have its appeals, not a perpetual weekend so much as a perpetual casual Hawaiian-shirt-and-jeans Friday.
I reminisce now, with a 45+ hour-a-week job and a full-blown toddler, another on the way. These are all things for which I am grateful. These are all things that make the birding pastime a bit complicated, and bring in to sharpest relief the appeals and the necessities of patch birding. They say necessity is the mother of invention. Case in point: scarce insects in winter necessitate normally insectivorous birds feeding on the ground like Towhees.  

When it comes to birding and balancing other obligations, necessity is also the mother of appreciation. Over the Holidays I followed other's exciting starts to 2019's 5MR Challenge while visiting family back in Arizona, unable to kickstart my own local birding but increasingly jazzed about doing so. It also kept me engaged in Phoenix, just around the neighborhood, to get the most out of what was there. I walked the dog; I walked the toddlers: I walked the grandparents; I walked the great grandparents; I feigned indigestion and walked myself. (Ok...I feigned nothing). I birded light, and without much depth or promise but I birded often. Hummingbirds stay busy in the same bailiwick and they seem pretty laid back, right? Right??

I also managed to get out proper for a few hours one morning and hit up an old haunt with Pops. At the Riparian Preserve in Gilbert we logged 67 species by 10:30am. This is not to brag about anything--for one that's a usual day and, for two, bragging about bird numbers is pretty lame. It is to--only for a moment--bemoan that in my 5MR I'm at 53 species, total, for the year.
Highlights were finding Fox Sparrow and Cedar Waxwings at the site, which are uncommon in the valley, and of course reminding myself how Good it is to be out doing dedicated bird-sleuthing on a crisp morning.

But the most satisfying experience from this here-and-there birding (How's that for a blog name: Here and There Birding?) was actually a neighborhood find of my Dad's. 

There's been an Acorn Woodpecker wintering a few houses down, in some out-of-the-way royal palms where there is ample storage space. In case you're wondering yes, I did walk backyards 130 yards down the street while maintaining steady eye contact (couldn't risk a Gila running it off and exchanging places, obvi) so as to claim this bird, officially and legitimately, from the yard list. 

I wouldn't think of royal palms as being any sort of vagrant/migrant trap, but another traditionally northern woodpecker from years before would says otherwise. They have their, err hem, niche.

At any rate, hopes springs eternal and I am now back in action in Wayne, NC, leaving no stone unturned in a quest to post the biggest, best, baddest 5MR I can --and also, most of all, enjoy regular birding. 

P.S. Leaving all stones overturned, has, thus far, a 0% correlation to finding birds.