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To see rare birds, move quickly

Adult common gallinules have bright red bills and a horizontal white stripe along their sides.
Adult common gallinules have bright red bills and a horizontal white stripe along their sides. Don Faulkner

It has been more than a year since I was able to add a bird species to my Mecklenburg County list. When I got word that a common gallinule was at a pond just off the Catawba River, I figured adding that bird to the list was a slam dunk. The reports I got indicated the bird looked relaxed and happy to be there. No good reason to leave, you would think.

Common gallinules are very similar to American coots. The adults have bright red bills and a horizontal white stripe along their sides, whereas coots have the white bill and no stripe. They are birds of swampy lakes with lots of shallow and floating vegetation. They can be common sights at the coast but inland they are pretty rare. There are only a handful of records from Mecklenburg County.

I could not run right out to the site when I got the report, but I was out there early the next morning. My confidence quickly diminished after I scanned the 80 or more coots along the shores with no sight of one with a red bill. Three passes around the pond didn’t help. This is the problem when chasing rare birds: They have the ability and often the will to fly away, and they aren’t afraid to exercise it.

So I didn’t see the target bird. But there was plenty more to see while I was there: brightly plumaged wood ducks and blue-winged teal, lingering ring-necked duck, lesser scaup, and ruddy duck, pied-billed grebes, several singing palm warblers of the eastern yellow race, a pair of nesting osprey carrying large sticks to the platform nest site, belted kingfisher, white crowned sparrows, singing savannah sparrows, and a singing white-eyed vireo.

Later I stopped at the N.C. 27 bridge over the river to check on the huge cliff swallow colony underneath. That colony is continuing to grow, it seems.

I shouldn’t complain, I guess. I have a pretty good success rate overall in chasing rarities. But the hooded oriole a couple of months ago was a disappointing miss, and now the gallinule miss does have me off to a slow 2015. It’s all about percentages, though. I’m sure the next chase will be fruitful.

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