Waiting for Spring

Bottfly here- to make my debut after the blog’s winter torpor session. This February is weirding me out. I’m afraid it’s going to be freezing again this March. You know it’s been a particularly rough winter here in the mountains, and that’s because the birding has been a little slow and the budget has been quite tight. The Flammulated Beard and I still manage to get outside a little though. Unlike everyone else’s cool blogs that are famously up-to-date … ours entertains by highlighting the not-so-distant past of our local excursions. As the temperature rises, so does the desire to bird and the guilt of having an empty blog.

First, all of this crazy faux-spring action has the American Robins singing again and it reminds me a lot of the last days at Big Bald. From the middle of October through early November, the early morning thrushes that flood the nets are not the usual Swainson’s, they are their bigger cousins- Robins of course. These guys are actually almost too big for the nets we use. Left to their own devices and a little time, most of them roll their way to the end of the net and fly right out, but since they flock in decent numbers we still manage to band quite a few. Usually, they all get caught in the bottom 2 tiers of the net. These beautiful birds seemed to have flaky skin, and some had what we think was avian pox. Unfortunately some of our pictures have been lost… we each blame the other one… anyways here are a couple.

These guys are bulky and strong

Our latest and greatest adventure was spending some time with some fellow birders down at the NC coast. Here are a few pics we took (which pale in comparison the those of our companions: Robert, Mike, Nate, Scott, and Mark K.) This was a fun trip and we were able to see Harlequin Duck, Great Cormorant, Virginia Rail, Red Knot, and many others.

Looking for the Pacific Loon from Johnny Mercer's Pier

Flammulated Beard, Birding Bro, and CrazyBirdingFool scanning and scanning for Pacific Loon

Bloody shark remains on the pier.

Blurry Ruddy Turnstone...

Lastly, we are lucky enough to live near Beaver Lake Sanctuary in North Asheville. As much trash that collects in this place due to inconsiderate folks- in can actually be a nice place to see some birds. The renovations they are working on will hopefully improve the habitat that this area can provide. The Flammulated Beard and I were lucky enough to observe TWO red phase Screech Owls today in their respective roosting boxes.  Although the weather turned windy and rainy on us, of course it’s great to get out and hear the birds singing so much- and also know that there is always something unexpected to be discovered! Happy faux-spring everyone and may the bird gods bless us all with killer sightings for the new year!

Beaver Lake Sanctuary

Screech Owl!

The dismantled remains of a possible.. Blue Jay?

Photogenic garbage floating in Beaver Lake

Swampy trail


The End of the Figurative Fog

It’s been nearly 2 1/2 months since work at Big Bald Banding Station concluded for Bottfly and I, and I’m ashamed to report that we’ve done little adventuring or birding since.  Also, we have neglected (til now) to make the necessary updates and promised posts to Anywhere, Earth… 

You might say not one but two fogs have descended upon us; a figurative fog of frivolous distractions and endless job searches, and a literal fog of well…rain and fog.  I am happy to report we have come to the end of the figurative fog (though I’m still searching desperately for a job).  Unfortunately for the birding, it’s the literally rotten weather that continues.  In a way, it’s a continuation of the kind of weather that plagued Big Bald for much of October.

Looking at Little Bald from Big Bald one on of those cold, dreary, gusty October days.

SUNDAY – As soon as I read the post aloud to Bottfly we awoke from a fog and made ready to leave.  A loon at Lake Julian thought to be an immature Red-throated two days before turned out to be of the Pacific variety.  What better way to mark our glorious return to birding after a 2-month absence than picking up a Pacific Loon?  And only 20 minutes away?

We arrived and were immediately disappointed.  A group of recreators were already on scene, driving a loud, obnoxious RC boat in the general vicinity the loon had been seen in the day before.  Then the rain arrived; a sprinkle at first, growing to a light, steady shower that drove the recreators away.  A placidity was restored.  The lenses of our optics were grayed with moisture as we scanned the ripples of the lake, hoping to catch the loon as it surfaced.

We searched from various vantage points with nothing to show for it but a few blurry glimpses of distant Pied-billed Grebes, so we decided to try from the area where the remote control boat had been driven from.  Without getting our hopes up, we scanned the lake to the opposite bank and spotted a larger diving bird, accompanied by a smaller one, surface then submerge.  The smaller Pacific Loon was seen the day before in the company of a larger and bulkier Common Loon – our excitement began to cautiously rise.  The wet lenses, distance, lighting and our rustiness were preventing us from getting a positive ID on either bird.  The larger bird was definitely a loon; the smaller one had barely stayed up for a second before it vanished completely, but I was beginning to think it was another grebe.

Another birder had showed up; a middle-aged woman whose name I forget had started to scan the same area and was having little success getting on the birds, which both seemed for the moment to have disappeared.  Another birder arrived, scope in arms: a sophomore from Western Carolina named Mike.  After a few minutes of attempting to relocate the birds in question Mike suggested we try scanning from the dam access road, which could provide a more favorable viewpoint.  Minutes later, our small convoy arrived and we immediately spotted a Common Loon.  As Mike exited his truck he informed us of a post he had just received – the birder that originally found the loon had searched that same morning for the two loons, but found instead a Common Loon entirely different from the one seen 24 hours previous.  It appeared that both loons had departed and that we were looking at a new arrival.

We searched a while longer then admitted defeat.  We had scanned much of the lake and saw only the one Common Loon and many Pied-billed Grebes.  It didn’t look like the day would be ours after all.  We said goodbye to our fellow birders, happy to have met and to have shared the search with them, happy to have gone birding again – even if we didn’t find the birds we were looking for.

That’s all for now.  Sometime over the next few days we will be traveling to Hiwassee Refuge to attempt the Crane Trifecta…A Hooded Crane, which breeds in Siberia, has somehow shown up in Eastern Tennessee and has been seen in the company of thousands of Sandhill Cranes and even a few Whooping Cranes for about a month now.  Also in the works is a trip to the OBX possibly later this month, maybe the beginning of February.  Keep checking back, as we’ll continue with (at least) weekly updates on our past trips or posts about Big Bald. For now, I’ll leave you with a couple pics of some sweet Big Bald birdage.

Blue Jay - what a handful! Blue Jays, though notorious for being loud and bullish, are quite docile in the hand. Amazing bird.

Hatch-year scarlet tanagers. Notice the difference in coloration of both wings; the male (left) shows a darker wing even at this early age than the female (right). These birds were caught side by side in the same net. Could they be brother and sister from the same nest?

Yepoh searching for contrast in the wing of a Hairy Woodpecker. The station had a nice diversity of woodpeckers this season, including Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Downy Woodpecker, and Pileated Woodpecker.

Bottfly with a Blue-headed Vireo. I can't recall the age or sex of this individual, though most Blue-headed Vireos we catch tend to be younger birds. One of my favorite birds of the Southern Apps! Such sweet songs!

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, hatch-year if I'm not mistaken. Pulling this species out of the nets can be a painful experience if you aren't careful. They can bite! Additional caution was needed with this individual - the new (pin) feathers coming in on the wing (to the right of the large white patch) are full of blood vessels and if caught in the net they can break, resulting in injury to the bird.

Yepoh examining a Wood Thrush. Another one of my favorite birds. Thrushes are quite arguably the best songsters.

Snow in the Forecast…again!

Hey everybody!

Just a quick and dirty post before the cold, wintry mix rolls in early tomorrow morning (At least one inch of snow expected!).  We’ve got a houseful of dedicated Big Bald volunteers and plenty of firewood, alcohol and food to keep us sane while the wintry weather takes its toll.  I figure its a good time to post a few memories of early September, when the weather and selection of birds was a little more desirable.

Bottfly banding a Tennessee Warbler, the most commonly captured Passerine (songbird) at Big Bald Banding Station. This hold is called the "bander's grip," the safest way to hold a bird while its banded.

I suppose it would be a good idea to explain the whole mist-netting process that we follow here at Big Bald Banding Station (BBBS) for those of you who don’t know.

In the previous post, I mentioned that we operate 18 mistnets, placed along the Appalachian Trail in various orientations and arrangements.  Normally, we open these nets at sunrise and keep them open until 1 or 2 PM, so that we get in a minimum six hour sample.

Why do we start at sunrise?  Passerines, or songbirds, migrate at night – primarily to avoid being predated by raptors (birds of prey) which migrate during the day.  Once the sun comes up, the songbirds descend from the sky, sometimes in huge mixed flocks, to forage and build up fat reserves so they can continue their southward journey.  For many of these songbirds, it’s a journey of thousands of miles from their breeding grounds in Canada or the Northeastern US, all the way down to the Southeastern US, Gulf Coast, Caribbean nations or even as far as Central and South America.  It’s a spectacularly amazing journey, but to be honest there is a high rate of mortality among migrating birds.  Hence our precautionary protocols which serve to minimize harm to these birds we capture.

Bottfly examining the wing of a Hooded Warbler. Contrast in color between various feather groups on the wing can help us determine molt limits and therefore the relative age of the bird (hatch-year or after hatch-year)

We check the mistnets at least every 30 minutes; if its really windy, or cold, or hot we may check the nets more often so that if a bird is in one of the nets it isn’t getting blown around, frozen or roasted to death.  It is the responsibility of the “net leader” to keep track of net check times and to assess conditions to determine if certain nets need to be closed.  Each time the nets are checked, the “pickers” (they pick birds out of the nets) carry a stick (to lower or raise the net as needed) and a bucket with paper bags and marker.  When a bird is extracted from a net, it’s placed inside a paper bag (to calm it down) with the species, net #, and time extracted written on the bag.  This prevents a bird from idling in a bucket for too long at the banding table.

The Flammulated Beard learning about "buffy tips" from Yepoh, bird banding extraordinaire. "Buffy tips" refer to the light, buffy-colored streaks in the greater coverts of this Veery's wing (visible to the left of the pencil point). This indicates a hatch-year bird.

At the banding table, the birds are removed from the bag and a variety of different characteristics are examined. Wing chord (or length) can determine sex of the individual if the species doesn’t exhibit sexual dimorphism (meaning male and female look different).  We also check for molt, which helps with aging, fat, which helps us assess the bird’s health (if its been eating well or not), and we also examine the skull – the more developed the skull, the older the bird.  Any other helpful information that we need to know we usually can find in “The Bander’s Bible,” the black book visible in the photo above.

After all characteristics have been looked at, the bird is weighed then released.  Most birds are completely processed in less than 5 minutes.

Bottfly getting ready to release a recently banded male Sharp-shinned Hawk. Notice how her lower hand is safely and effectively controlling the legs and talons, while her upper hand is controlling the wings, thus preventing any injury to the bird or to Bottfly.

Occasionally, we will capture Sharp-shinned hawks in the Passerine mistnets.  These small hawks are incredibly adept at hunting songbirds, so it is no surprise that they will sometimes get caught while chasing flocks of warblers through the woods.  If you’ve ever fed birds in your yard then you may have seen these bite-sized super predators terrorizing the birds at your feeder.

Well, that’s all for now.  Be sure to check the “Adventures Past” page for pics and info about the amazing, awe-inspiring birding trips we’ve taken in the recent past.

More to come!

An Introduction to Big Bald Life

Well, after much pressuring from our family and friends, we’ve officially boarded the blog bandwagon.  Our first post would have coincided with the first day of the season (Sept. 1), but a series of unfortunate events and crippling bouts of laziness prevented this from happening.  Now, with the majority of the season and the peak of migration behind us, we will try and summarize as best we can, through our next few posts, the plethora of cool shit that’s occurred up here.  Sincerest apologies to our biggest fans who have eagerly checked our bare-bones blog hoping for updates; From here on out we’ll try not to keep you waiting so long.   Without further ado, here’s the first entry: a whole month and 17 days late.
View of Big Bald from Little Bald – The Hawkwatch is conducted from the summit of Big Bald; Big Bald Banding Station is actually located on Little Bald, along the Appalachian Trail.

Stuff you should know about Big Bald and the lands surrounding it:

– Elevation: 5,510 ft.

– It’s really close to the TN border.

– It’s a mountain bald. Meaning it lacks vegetation (except it has grasses and other laterally spreading, low vegetation, like most balds).

– There’s a nice 360-degree view from the top.  You can see Erwin, Johnson City, I-26, Mt. Mitchell, Table Rock, Roan Mtn., Unaca Mtn., Mt. Pisgah and sometimes Max Patch (another mountain bald!), or maybe you can always see it, but I couldn’t point it out to you.  We do the hawkwatch from Big Bald because it affords such a great view (on days it’s not totally fogged in).

– The banding station is right off the AT on Little Bald.  And when I say “station” I mean an old wooden table w/ banding supplies and an assortment of 18 mist nets.  It’s what we use to catch songbirds (and sometimes Sharp-shinned Hawks).  They are called mist nets because they are hard to see unless they are in direct sunlight.  Everything we do is with the utmost safety for each bird.

– Access is via the Appalachian Trail, or through the gated ski community of Wolf Laurel.  You have to be on a very elite list of visitors to be granted access to this illustrious, high class resort/community.  Sarcasm? Yes. It’s an alright community, but let’s face it.  Anyone should be able to enjoy the vista from Big Bald’s top.

For more info about the station itself, go to http://www.bigbaldbanding.org

A typical nylon mist net. For us, it's net #9. Each one has several rows of pockets called "trammels," which the birds fall into when they hit the net.These are positioned along the Appalachian Trail in various locations and orientations.

And…now for a few bird pics.

Red-eyed Vireo. One of 2 vireo species we've caught this season. Taken Sept. 1

Cape May Warbler. Soooo gorgeous. One of our most common warblers. Taken Sept. 1

Ok, well I hope the first entry was worth the wait.  Botfly and I have to go chop firewood so we can prepare for the oncoming threat of snow (yes, SNOW) that could come in sometime this week.  Fires, bourbon and memories of September shall keep us warm!

PS – Happy Birthday, Amy!