Sunday, July 31, 2016

Summer Doldrums? That's Malarkey! Thanks Joe Biden for that Word. (23-30Jul2016)

Hot and Sticky?  I feel your pain.  The best thing to do when the weather hits over 90 for a week straight is to head to the mountains.  Of course I had 6 target birds in the mountains so that also helped motivate me.

But first some pics from earlier in the week during my kid's soccer practice.  A group of Mississippi Kites has consistently been foraging over these fields so I had my camera ready.

I could watch Kites for hours, such graceful fliers.

I also made a late evening trip during the week to Plantation Rd near the old Orton Plantation in Brunswick County to try for a reported Barn Owl.  No luck on that Nemesis Bird, but there was a ton of Common Nighthawks doing the "sonic boom" so that was worth the trip.

Common Nighthawk

Friday I took off from work and headed early to Catawba County to try a second time for Brown Booby and this time with a plan to get better pictures.  Some of you may remember the Limpkin from last year and some of you may have even rented a kayak from Island Water Sports near Catawba on Hudson Chapel Rd.  This Booby is only 20 minutes drive away so I went and rented a kayak, threw it in my truck bed with some tie-downs and then launched at the Booby stakeout spot.  I was not disappointed.

Taking a picture with a 400 mm lens from a moving kayak in a brisk wind is not easy.  I inched closer and closer hoping for a better shot and suddenly he took off.  Knowing this was my last chance to get a decent photo I quickly snapped a series of photos rapid fire and luckily a few focused ok.

Whew, that was lucky!  I am sure he would have come back if I waited but who knows how long I would have to wait and I had more plans for birds in the mountains.  Not to mention that at 10am it was already getting close to 90 degrees.

First stop in the mountains was a pee break on Curtis Creek Rd on the way up to Mitchell.

I was hoping this all yellow warbler was a Wilson's but the dark lores and white flashes in the tail feathers proved it to be a Hooded Warbler.

Up on the top, it was beautiful!!! 70 degrees and gorgeous.  I have to keep reminding myself I need to take some scenery pics for you all, but this time I totally was in the moment and forgot.  I love Mt Mitchell.  Being the highest point east of the Mississippi River, it obviously has very different habitat than most of the rest of NC.  This time it was tons and tons of Cedar Waxwings and butterflies so I started a little study of the butterflies.

I believe this is a Pipevine Swallowtail.  There was a ton of these.


Black-throated Green Warbler

Being a noob at butterfly ID, I didn't take a picture of the underwing which is kind of necessary for Comma ID.  However, I think this is a Green Comma.  Feel free to correct me.  I am using Jeff Pippen's website for ID as I don't have a guidebook.

Hiking the Commissary Trail I finally found a Red Crossbill, one of my target species.

Silver-Spotted Skipper

Later I found a couple more Red Crossbills at the Ranger Station.  Then things got a little freaky.

Red-Crossbill or Undead Crossbill?  This poor guy looked to be afflicted with Bumble Foot (avian disease) not to mention his molting feathers were covered in sap from the cones which are all oozing a ton right now.    Not a pretty sight but beggars can't be choosers so when an Undead Crossbill lands on the pavement in front of me I might as well photograph it.

Then a whole flock of them started landing on the walkways and eating grit.  Apparently they do this to aid in digestion of the cones.

Unfortunately the light wasn't great as it was almost 7pm and I might have had my camera on the wrong setting now that I think of it.  I was not prepared for a Crossbill party on the lawn.

This was just a small contingency of the 19 Crossbills I counted in this group.

Wow!  I bet I will not see something like that for a while.

On my way down the mountain driving towards Asheville I made a brief stop at Tanbark Tunnel to try for Cerulean Warblers.  I knew it was probably futile as the breeding birds were probably not singing anymore and finding a quiet Cerulean in a sea of green was a longshot.  As I checked all the high tree tops on the down slope, I spotted something strange.

Way up a tree where the Ceruleans should have been I something big and black climbing.

Magnifying a bit I saw this was no bird. These were iPhone pics.

A Black Bear!!

I snapped some shots with my 400mm but the fading light obviously took its toll on the pictures.

It was moving quick climbing the tree like an expert.

Lesson learned - don't try to run up a tree when being chased by a bear.  Actually I knew this already but I was floored by the height this bear was going.  It had to be 70-100 feet up.

Once she noticed me she quickly climbed down the tree and that's when I noticed at least one cub in another tree quickly climbing down too.  Unfortunately none of those pics came out.  Later this evening I found out that Mark S and Marilyn W had a Sow with 5 cubs near this very location.  probably the same family unit.

Very cool.

At that point it was getting late so I proceeded to my final destination which was the Mt. Pisgah Campground.  Of course as I arrived it started to pour..... Oh well, when a plan falls through, just do something else.  So I scrapped the camping plan and headed further South on the Parkway.

The rain storm abated a few miles down the BRP.  It was perfect timing for finding Saw-whet Owls at the Devil's Courthouse.  I came equipped with my spotlight and was excited to take some pics of some tooters.  Unfortunately again I was unlucky in that a large group of teenagers picked this Friday night to have a drunken party on top of the dome.  I could hear them all the way from the parking lot. They had even brought a boom box with them up there.  Some of them were hanging out down the rock face where signs explicitly said not to go due to nesting Peregrine Falcons.  Hopefully the falcons already fledged.  I spent about two hours waiting on the dark trails waiting for Saw-whets which never materialized.  Big bummer.  I did hear Barred and Great Horned Owls.  The night sky was truly amazing too so it was not all for nothing.

By the time I left it was 10:30pm and I was fading fast.  I didn't know the rules for sleeping in my car on the BRP so I headed down towards Waynesville, NC looking for a hotel.  Apparently all of my fellow Carolinians had the same idea because every hotel including the fleabag ones were chock full. I finally gave up at midnight and fell sleep in a highway rest stop and surprisingly did not wake until 6am the next morning.

My next target was Ruffed Grouse and the best way to find them is to get up early and drive the parkway before the rest of the crowds, checking the grassy sides of the road.  So back up I went, this time South towards the Great Smokies.

Sunrises and Sunsets on the BRP are consistently amazing if you find the right nooks.

Dawn the Rosy Fingered.

No luck on the Ruffed Grouse or any Elk for that matter. Bah Humbug!  So what better to salvage a couple disappointments than with a sure bet.  That sure bet is the Black-capped Chickadees of Clingman's Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail.  I always have had luck finding this species here which is normally tricky in NC.  The BC Chickadees at Clingman's seem to be a pretty isolated population being 200 miles from any other contiguous population.  They love the high elevation firs and Clingman's has that habitat.

I decided on taking the Forney Creek Trail loop up to the summit to avoid the crowds.  At exactly the same spot as last year's birds I found two BC Chickadees but they were not being cooperative.  They did not vocalize but I did clearly see the marks including the white nape and edging on the primaries. Unfortunately after getting my looks with my binocs in between branches they decided to become very skulky and did not allow any decent pictures.

If I was not so far from any kind of NC record for big years I would not have been happy with this photo, but at this point I am totally fine with it.  If I ever do get closer to the record for a Big Year, I will be more stringent about getting a diagnostic photo which this is not. The only thing I can say which points to BC Chickadee in this pic is the bib is large and does not have good clear borders.  Carolina Chickadees tend to have a smaller and neater black bib. However, the true field marks of the nape and primary edging is not evident in this photo.  I did hike around for another two hours looking for a better photo candidate but failed to find any more.

This juvie looking Red-breasted Nuthatch was a bit more obliging.

I love a winter plumaged Chestnut-sided Warbler.  I think they are better looking than the breeding plumage.

None of the photos were coming out great because of the cloudy weather.  True to it's name, the Smokies are usually in the clouds but that is what made it so nice and cool so I was not complaining.  You know who was complaining? The million other Carolinians and Tennesseans that were hiking the summit road.  I took this road on the way down to check on the hummingbirds I have seen here in the summer but quickly regretted it.  Every biker in leather chaps and overweight Couch Potato in NC was up there.  In any other country, if you were plopped down in a National Park it would take a little while to understand what country you were in.  In the USA, there is no mistake.  I guess I should have been pleased that these people were getting out in the great outdoors, but it was depressing none the less.  None of them seemed to care about their surroundings, they would labor up ten steps huffing and puffing and constantly checking their cell phones and shouting to each other.  When they saw me with my camera they would make sarcastic remarks about how I must be getting awesome shots (the view was socked in).  It would be too mind boggling to most of these people that someone would be enjoying the flowers and birds so I didn't try to explain.  I was trying not to be negative but this is a demographic of people that I really try and avoid and they all seemed to be concentrated in 200 yards of road.  Not to mention the cacophony of Motorcycles on the BRP and Clingman's approach road.  What in the world are people thinking when bringing those loud machines up on the BRP and Smokies?  It makes me think of a time when my family was on a flight to Costa Rica and some really loud and obnoxious people were seated across the aisle from us.  We were circling before landing in San Jose and one of these morons said "Wow look how beautiful it is down there...."  I thought to myself maybe these guys are not so bad.  Then he said "I wish I brought my quad down here so I could tear this place up".  Why?????  Sometimes I wish natural selection would be allowed to work it's magic more quickly.

So as not to leave on a bad note, I went back out again on the Forney Creek Trail and up to the AT and got to a point were I could hear nothing but the wind in the trees and the sound of water droplets as they condensed off the fir tips and landed on the ground.  Music to my ears.  If you hike down the AT away from the summit, the contrast between the loud and obnoxious crowds and the utter quiet and solitude is amazing.  The ridge somehow completely dampens any noise coming from the summit overlook. Perfect serenity....

There was tons of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds feeding on copious amounts of Bee Balm.  Is this Bee Balm native or someone planted it way up here?

Last bird of the trip was this empidonax flycatcher which looked to be of the Traill's complex (Alder and Willow).  I am guessing Alder based on habitat.  However, he/she never vocalized.

What a great escape from the heat in Wilmington.... I can't wait to go back.