Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Birds are Giving Us Signs of Spring

I was greeted by the song of an Eastern bluebird during the big warmup on Monday. Though that species won’t start nesting until late March at the earliest, some local songbirds are starting to exercise their vocal chords as the season approaches. I have noticed some other signals that other species are sending as well.

Red-tailed hawks are paired up and can be seen in pairs along the interstates. Several times a day they will soar together, interacting all the while. I stopped by a likely looking habitat in Mint Hill at dusk one evening and was glad to observe two American woodcock engaged in their unique courtship display.

Brown-headed nuthatches have started the tedious process of chipping out this year’s nesting cavities. They have stout bills but need very soft, rotting pine limbs or trunks in order to be successful. Consider putting up a box made especially for them to help them save some energy.
Pine warblers are singing during warm days now. They may even sing on colder days if there is plenty of sunshine. I heard a Northern mockingbird singing at 5:30 am as I stepped outside one recent morning.

Red-winged blackbirds are appearing at feeders as they start to make their way north. Common grackles are pairing up too; breaking up the massive flocks that are formed in winter. If you are lucky enough to have access to a pond that hosts hooded mergansers you might catch the males doing their courtship “dance” too.

Great blue herons are back in their established colonies or are forming new ones at new sites. Check flooded marshes with numerous dead trees. If you know of an old colony, check the old nests carefully; a great horned owl may have moved in. They get the jump on all the other local species when it comes to starting up housekeeping but not by much; a pair of bald eagles is hanging around last year’s nest off Rea Road.

I suspect there is still some cold weather ahead of us but even frigid temperatures will only temporarily dampen those breeding hormones now. As February wears on it will be obvious that birds are starting to move around more.  That means new sights at feeders. Keep your eyes on them. 

Hooded Merganser by Phil Fowler

Though they are with us mainly in the winter months, hooded mergansers begin their courtship displays on their wintering grounds.

American Woodcock by Ron Clark

American woodcock are actively displaying now. Early nesters, I have found nests as early as mid-February.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Look What the Snow Blew In!

When ice and snow blow in to areas that do not regularly get such frozen precipitation there is a huge uptick in activity at feeders. No doubt those of you who stayed home last Friday during the winter weather event noticed this. Birders have long known the effects of inclement weather on the feeding habits of our winter birds.

Before noon that day I had already received photos of an adult male Cape May warbler and a probable immature male ruby-throated hummingbird from locations in Charlotte. Just a couple of days prior, a brilliant male painted bunting was discovered coming to a Charlotte feeder. The male painted bunting is arguably the most brilliantly plumaged songbird in North America. They winter along our coast in small numbers but their winter presence in the piedmont is extremely rare.

This male painted bunting showed up at a Northwest Charlotte feeder during the snow and ice.
Photo by Lee Weber. 

This Cape May Warbler near Freedom Park was a complete surprise. They should be in Florida or the Caribbean right now.
Photo by Cindy Lockhart

Ruby-throated Hummingbird by Brucie Harry

One excited feeder watcher photographed a nice Baltimore oriole, the first she had seen in four years.
I didn’t have anything near on a par with those species but I did notice a few birds that are infrequent visitors to my feeder set-up. The brown thrasher that lurks in the streamside shrubs spent most of the day under the feeders scavenging spilled seeds and suet crumbs. A pair of Eastern towhees joined the regular flock of white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos that scratch the soil under the feeders too. A lone yellow-rumped warbler pecked at the suet for most of the day.

A pair of pine siskins, the first I have seen in 2016, mixed in with a flock of American goldfinches. American robins and cedar waxwings opted for the running water in the creek. I don’t really offer anything they might want to eat. A pair of blue jays, always present in the yard but very infrequent visitors to the feeders, even gave in and came for some shelled peanuts.

I was hoping for a fox sparrow or two, another species that is notorious for showing up on snowy days, but they have been in pretty short supply all over this winter. A few purple finches have been reported from the area but they too avoided my yard.

Maybe you had some new or unfamiliar visitors to your offerings. If you did I am interested in hearing about them or even seeing some photos. Contact me at

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Brisk Morning Along McAlpine Creek

Monday I walked the entire length of the Lower McAlpine and McMullen Creek Greenways. These connected greenways pass beside and over wet floodplain bottomland forest. It was a cold morning with little warmup during the day. I love birding in those conditions; the birds are usually active and responsive to squeaky noises designed to bring them close in.

Sparrows; field, swamp, song, dark-eyed juncos, and white-throated were ever-present in the patchy weedy areas along the trails. A few other species were mixed in like brown thrashers, winter wrens, American goldfinches, ruby-crowned kinglets, and a single orange-crowned warbler. That species is very uncommon in the winter but apparently there are more of them around this year, probably due to the warm temperatures that have prevailed for most of the season.

There was plenty of mud exposed in the woodlands along the creeks and many American robins, brown-headed cowbirds, and common grackles foraged the muck. I was especially glad to find a couple of sizeable flocks of rusty blackbirds, a severely declining species. Large numbers of mallards were hanging out in the pools left by recent floods. I tried to find some wood ducks or other dabbling duck species but could not.

In the shrubs and treetops feeding flocks consisting of Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, yellow-rumped warblers, downy woodpeckers, Eastern bluebirds, and red-bellied woodpeckers were always within earshot. A pileated woodpecker called several times but I never got a look.  These greenways are good for blue-headed vireos in the winter but I could not come up with one that day despite playing recordings of their songs and calls.

A red-shouldered hawk flew in very close looking for whatever was giving a distressed squeaking call. It was me of course and after the hawk identified me it retired back into the woods. By mid-morning some soaring birds appeared; both black and turkey vultures, and a lone sharp-shinned hawk.

I finished with about 45 species for the hike, a solid number and a good representation of expected species in a lowland habitat. I recommend any of those greenways for a leisurely birding stroll. It is always birdy and the birds are generally cooperative.

Rusty Blackbird by John Ennis

The rusty blackbird population has crashed by over 90% in the last few decades. On a good day they can be found in swampy forests along creeks in Mecklenburg County. They are only with us in the winter.

Red-shouldered Hawk by Phil Fowler

Red-shouldered hawks are common along all of the county's greenways. They are generally unafraid of close approach by humans. Even if you don't happen to see one on a morning walk, rest assured they are watching you. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Mystery Oriole

I was reminded this past week of how hard it can be to identify birds. Field guides often show just a few plumages of most species, leaving inexperienced birders with the notion that identification is straightforward. Some gulls take up to four years to reach adulthood and each year of that gull’s progress from juvenile to adult has a very different plumage. Shorebirds have adult breeding, adult non-breeding, and juvenile plumages. Most field guides don’t have enough room to depict all of the various plumages that a birder may encounter within a single species.

Inexperienced birders may not recognize that and be misled into thinking all the different looks of a species can lie within the pages of their favorite guide.

Orioles can pose some exceptionally tough identification challenges. Baltimore orioles have adult male, adult female, immature male, and immature female plumages. But there’s more… there can be a tremendous amount of variability within each plumage, especially in the immature birds. Add another species into the mix, like a Bullock’s oriole, that does rarely occur here and can appear superficially similar to a Baltimore, and you can be presented with really tough identification challenge.

An oriole was photographed in Charlotte last weekend that presented just such a challenge. Very experienced and highly respected birders across the state were divided on the identity of this immature female bird. Some staked out in the Baltimore oriole camp while others thought it might be a much rarer Bullock’s oriole.. 
What complicates this identification is the overall drabness of the bird. There are some fairly bright yellow areas but these are restricted in size compared to a typical Baltimore oriole of the same age. Further, there are characters that suggest Bullock’s oriole and some that seem more suggestive of Baltimore. Sometimes the answer can come down to the shape of the wing bars or overall brightness of the yellow.  I suspect it is a drab Baltimore oriole immature. The odds favor it but we probably will never know for sure.

If all of our birds looked like adult males, identification would be easy and essentially non-challenging. Orioles would pose no ID problems between the two species, Baltimore and Bullock's.
The adult male Baltimore is unmistakable and is the most expected oriole species in winter here. 

Baltimore Oriole by Jeff Lewis
 The much rarer Bullock's is also unmistakable, but there is only one record from Mecklenburg County.
Bullock's Oriole by Jeff Lemons

Baltimore Oriole by Phil Fowler
Female Baltimores like the bird above are not as strongly patterned but can be very colorful. when dull individuals occur, then it gets interesting. Note the big difference in the intensity of the yellows and oranges in the subject bird of today's blog below.

Mystery Oriole by Jim Guyton

Mystery Oriole by Jim Guyton
This mystery oriole approaches the Bullock's in dullness of plumage and other details, but even this bird is brighter than Bullock's of the same age and gender in my view.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Unseasonable Weather and Local Birds

At long last it seems winter has finally arrived in the southern piedmont, but only after an unprecedented stretch of warm temperatures. I have seen temperatures in the seventies at Christmas before, but the period of time those temperatures held on this time was a first for me.

Locally, ornamental plants bloomed way early. Upland chorus frogs, southern leopard frogs, and spring peepers were vocalizing. Turtles were basking up the warmth and wandering from pond to pond like it was spring. At the coast blue crabs were still active in the waterways.

I fielded some questions about effects the unseasonable stretch had on area bird populations and diversity, and now that the Christmas Count season is over I think the answers are obvious. Most all of the rare and uncommon species found on piedmont and coastal counts were of lingering land bird species. Ducks and gulls, just two groups of birds that normally don’t arrive in big numbers until there is a freeze-up to the north, are at lower than normal numbers. And, in general it seems that overall numbers of all birds are just down this year. I think more are just lingering to our north.  Cold air arrived this week so maybe we will see an uptick in the numbers of birds in all habitats.

Lingering species that were recorded on Christmas Counts I participated in include Lincoln’s sparrow, gray catbird, common yellowthroat, Cape May warbler, Nashville warbler, cave swallow, black and white warbler, orange-crowned warbler, blue-gray gnatcatcher, sora, and green heron. All of these may be present in any given year but in tiny, undetectable numbers. The fact that so many of them were found this season indicates that there are lots of them out there. That’s an impressive list.

So do the late spring-like temperatures have an adverse effect on the birds that are here? I doubt it. Our winter birds experience the most survival challenges when there is prolonged extreme cold with frozen precipitation. This has been a stress-free start to the winter for local winter species. That makes them less susceptible to predators, which is why I think some hawk numbers are down locally. I have had to work really hard to find Cooper’s or sharp-shinned hawks; two species that prey upon small land birds. 

Green Heron by Jeff Lewis
Species that tend to linger in our area until cold forces them out, like the green heron above, are in higher numbers so far this season. Our winter resident species, like the fox sparrow below, are in much reduced numbers so far. I suspect they are they are lingering farther north until they will be forced down by weather.  

Fox Sparrow by Lee Weber

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Highlights of the Charlotte CBC

There were lots of highlights from the Charlotte Christmas Bird Count conducted last Saturday, so many in fact that the final count resulted in a record-high species count for this 75 year old tradition. Area birders were able to tally 98 species, besting the previous high of 96. Lingering semi-hardy species were responsible for the high count; those species that normally would be gone from the area if not for the near-record high temperatures that have dominated the count period so far.

My day started at Renaissance Golf Course off Tyvola Road.  For the first couple of hours I would not have guessed a record setting day was looming. Not an owl or American woodcock could be coaxed to sound off before dawn. Once the sun came up the birding remained slow and we had to work for everything we got. Some nice local finds like orange-crowned warbler and white-crowned sparrow put in appearances but those are reliable at that site. A fox sparrow, in short supply this warm winter, sang back in response to a tape playback.
It really changed mid-morning when we heard the unmistakable nasal calls of a blue-gray gnatcatcher, an abundant summer resident but rare in early winter. I gave a few squeaky calls back and the little bird flew right in. Since we were standing next to a small wetland, I clapped my hands loudly to try to entice any rails present to sound off. To my surprise a sora immediately gave its alarm squeak. That’s another common migrant that should have moved out by now.

Back towards the 18th green, a shrubby, weedy embankment produced the best bird of the day, a Lincoln’s sparrow. That’s a species hard to find at any season let alone early winter. They are skulkers but can be induced to come in to squeaky sounds, which is what this bird did. While we were enjoying the sparrow a common raven flew over, a permanent resident but sometimes hard to find.

Those were just my highlights. Others I have heard about from other groups included green heron, spotted sandpiper, rufous hummingbird, black-and-white warbler, common yellowthroat, and loggerhead shrike.
Spotted Sandpiper by John Ennis
Spotted sandpipers winter along the coast in small numbers but very rarely this far inland, and then usually are restricted to waste-treatment plants.

Green Heron by Ron Clark
Green herons are like the spotted sandpiper, present in small numbers along the coast in winter but usually not in the piedmont.

Sora by Ron Clark
Soras are like small chickens that live in marshes. In years where the local waters do not freeze regularly they can be found in appropriate habitat.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher by John Ennis
These tiny songbirds are insectivores so warm weather in early winter provides them a food source until the onset of cold.

Loggerhead Shrike by John Ennis
Shrike numbers have plummeted over the last few decades so that this once-common permanent resident is now a bona fide rarity in Mecklenburg County. I haven't seen one this year.

Common Yellowthroat by John Ennis
Another common breeding bird, the common yellowthroat lingers in wet areas in warm winters.

Lincoln's Sparrow by Phil Fowler
This species may be more overlooked in winter due to its similarity to other sparrow species. still, even if present it is in small numbers.

Black and White Warbler by Jeff Lewis
This warbler gleans insects from bark crevices so it can linger longer in winter than species that glean from foliage.

Rufous Hummingbird by Phil Fowler
This bird is wintering in Myers Park; the only hummer I know of in the county yet this winter.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Beautiful Little Brown Bird

To the uninitiated, sparrow identification can be frustrating endeavor. I suspect many a promising birder has been turned off by a day in weedy sparrow fields. They all are little brown jobs.

During the Charlotte Christmas Bird count I was able to locate a Lincoln’s sparrow, a species that is both often mis-identified and often overlooked. Swamp sparrows are often called Lincoln’s sparrows by the over enthused birder while the more laid back birder may actually call a real Lincoln’s a song, savannah, or swamp sparrow.

Lincoln’s sparrows are tough to find here at any season though. Too bad because they are subtle little beauties. Take a look at the photos below of a Lincoln’s sparrow and  its look-a-likes. 

Lincoln's Sparrow by Phil Fowler

Lots of sparrows are streaky little brown birds. the Lincoln's above combines common characteristics of streaky breast, a middle breast spot, and streaked crown. In the Lincoln's, note the nice buff wash across the top of the chest and the fine vertical streaking of the chest. The combination buffy and gray face makes this a Lincoln's sparrow. The species also has a slight crest which it will raise when alarmed, just as this bird is doing.

Savannah Sparrow by

Savannah sparrows are more heavily streaked on the breast, lack the buff wash there, and have white and sometimes a yellowish wash on the face.

Song Sparrow by 

Song sparrows are perhaps the most abundant sparrow in our area in winter. Note the even heavier streaking with heavier central breast spot. Compared to the daintier Lincoln's, song sparrows are much bulkier and overall much larger.

Swamp Sparrow by Jeff Lemons
Swamp sparrows can show alot of buff coloring and some diffuse streaking with a central breast spot on the underside. The buff is in the wrong place though, restricted to the flanks. and they never have the clearly defined streaking of the Lincoln's.