Our trip to Asheville last weekend was conceived with the intention of spending the afternoon on Saturday at Chimney Rock State Park hiking and exploring the wintering birds of the North Carolina mountains. As luck would have it, the snow fell just hard enough that afternoon to keep us off of the trails and confined to the car. We tried to do some walking at the North Carolina Arboretum, which was just down the road from our hotel, but the gusting wind proved too much for Mandi to take. Plan C was to leisurely drive the Blue Ridge Parkway for a while, but it had been closed down due to the weather. Certain that a failed day of bird watching was upon me, we made a last ditch effort and pulled in to a small park that was right next to the fast-flowing French Broad River. We sat for a few moments and watched as the White-throated Sparrows flitted about on the ground, when in the distance on a branch that reached out over the water Mandi spotted an unusual shape. We pulled forward through the mud puddles and got as close to the bank as we could without Mandi having to dig us out with a shovel, and through the lenses of our fogged-up binoculars we spied an Eastern Phoebe quietly picking through the leaves for his lunch. What I'd almost written off as a failed day of birding had just produced success, and we were able to head back to the hotel with a sense of unexpected accomplishment.
Later on in the weekend, after we came home to Concord, we ID'ed the Canvasback I'd been tipped to diving in the pond in front of the Concord Mills Mall. Mere minutes later we saw a Cooper's Hawk hiding in the low branches of a tree between an apartment building and the strip mall where our local Wild Birds Unlimited store is, as well as a Sharp-shinned Hawk circling high above. As difficult as the identification of these two species is usually said to be, these two particular individuals showed all of the clues to their identities with surprising accommodation. Four new species in one weekend added to the Big Year list was honestly more than I had hoped for, and I still had a walk on our Nature Trail planned for later that afternoon.
While this trip to the Trail didn't produce any new species for the list (it was a really bad time of day to go, but I couldn't help myself), it did yield one of the best photos I've ever taken of a bird in flight. This Great Blue Heron flew right past me at a distance of about 15 feet, and my camera responded perfectly as I snapped shots in rapid succession. While these herons are relatively common, their slow flight and striking size continue to provide some of the most amazing photos. I am planning on heading to the Coddle Creek Reservoir later this morning to try to identify some of the ducks and geese that I see frequently as I pass by. My instinct tells me that I'll see Ring-necked Ducks and perhaps Lesser Scaup, although I'm hoping to be surprised by others as well.