Monday, June 20, 2016

Hummingbird Shortage? I Think Not.

I have been getting a lot of questions from concerned backyard birders about a perceived shortage of hummingbirds right now. The concern is that most of the folks have been enjoying good numbers of birds in past years but not this year.

Don't worry, there is no decline or crash in the ruby-throated hummingbird population, either locally or nationally.

I suspect those I am hearing from are remembering when seemingly dozens of birds were fighting over the feeders and providing entertaining aerial and chase sequences. You can expect the same thing in just a few weeks. Remember hummingbirds are territorial and will not tolerate intruders during the nesting season. Feeders may get periodic visits from a pair of birds if it is located in their territory but the constant activity of August and September will have to wait.

By late July nesting is pretty much over and the business of fattening up for the fall journey begins in earnest. Young and mature birds disperse and start to inundate feeders, providing non-stop activity. Nectar and sugar water becomes the major food source for fat gain instead of the protein dominated diet of the previous months.

So be patient and keep the feeders fresh and stocked, I can virtually guarantee it won't be too long before the feeders will be a-buzz with action.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird by Phil Fowler

Friday, June 10, 2016

One of the Area's Most Unusual Birds Ever

I have written about rarities that are attracted to large inland reservoirs but I never thought I would be writing about this one; a brown booby has appeared at Lookout Shoals Lake on the Catawba County / Iredell County line, specifically at the Sharon Boat Access area. I have seen the species only twice in North Carolina; both times at the coast.

Boobies are a family of mostly tropical, heavy bodied plunge-divers. They are found over the open ocean where they dive head-first for fish in tropical waters or along the warm Gulf Stream. Occasionally an individual of one of the several species will show up on a southeastern beach, jetty, or buoy marker.

The occurrence of this species between Charlotte and Hickory is absolutely astounding This bird has taken up on a favorite perch on a rock outcrop where it has been seen by many birders over the last week and a half. It seems content, and can be seen plunge-diving for fish in the larger portions of the lake.

Why this bird arrived in the North Carolina Piedmont is a mystery. Boobies are known to wander well north of the tropics but rarely inland. Maybe this is just a wandering bird, or perhaps it was influenced by the recent Tropical Storm that came in near Charleston. The true answer will not be known. And it is unknown when this bird will decide to move on, which it inevitably will. for now though, it seems entirely content to stay put.

Regardless, this is one of the rarest birds to ever be found in our area.

Brown Booby at Lookout Shoals by Lori Owenby
Here are details and directions from the Carolinabirds listserve:

To get to the Sharon Boat
access area, take I-40 to exit 141 and go north on Sharon School Rd for 1.4
miles and turn left onto Island Ford Rd. Follow Island Ford Rd for 0.4
miles and turn right onto Old Lion Rd and follow it to the end where the
boat access is. The Booby flew (presumably to feed) toward the Catawba
County side and out of sight. If you look for it from the Catawba County
side, the rock it is favoring is the smaller rock ledge to the left of the
large rock face that is most visible.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Highlights of My Breeding Bird Route Survey

Last Sunday I surveyed a breeding bird route from Camp Stewart Road in eastern Mecklenburg County through Cabarrus County, ending up at the Stanly County line. The North American Breeding Bird Survey is administered by the USGS (United States Geological Survey) and depends on volunteer support each year to gather the needed data. Data can then be analyzed to assess changes in bird populations with respect to habitat change, habitat loss, development, and changes in land use.
The survey consists of computer generated routes chosen at random. Each route is 25 miles in length, with a stop every half mile. Volunteer counters record every species and number of individuals for a period of three minutes at each stop. The same route is run every year, ideally by the same volunteer. The particular route I checked has the majority of stops in rolling farmland and rural state roads. A few stops are at bridges where thick deciduous forest lines the creeks.

Species typical of open country and regenerating clearcuts were then the most prevalent. Killdeer, Eastern kingbirds, indigo buntings, blue grosbeaks, Eastern meadowlarks, orchard orioles, yellow-breasted chats, common yellowthroats, chipping sparrows, and field sparrows were well represented. I was particularly glad to find grasshopper sparrows, a declining species, at multiple stops. At the bridges summer tanagers, red-eyed vireos, and great crested flycatchers ruled.

This particular route has been sampled for years, so it is pretty rare to add a species that has never been recorded on it. This year I was able to add four new birds: wild turkey, hairy woodpecker, Acadian flycatcher, and prairie warbler. The turkey is reflective of a boom in that species’ population while the prairie warblers were in regenerating clear cuts. That is an example of how habitat is created for certain species. The hairy woodpecker and Acadian flycatcher likely had been just missed in past years. Remember each stop is only for three minutes. If the bird doesn’t chirp or fly into view it will go missing. And I missed some species that are regularly seen most years too.
Still, I ended up with 62 species for the morning effort.

For more information on the N.A. Breeding Bird Survey go to 

Prairie Warbler by Jeff Lewis
Prairie warblers need regenerating clear cuts in the piedmont for suitable nesting habitat. Long ago this habitat type was provided by periodic fires. Now, human clear-cutting provides it. The birds can only use it for a relatively short period years until the growth becomes too tall and thick. Large power-line cuts where the growth is controlled now gives more permanent habitat to the species.

Wild Turkey by John Ennis
 Turkeys have exploded all over in the past couple of decades. They can be seen well within the city limits of large cities like Charlotte now.

Grasshopper Sparrow by Jim Guyton
Grasshopper sparrow are dependent on old grassy fields, often associated with old farms, for nesting habitat. The habitat is fast disappearing nationwide

Eastern Meadowlark by John Ennis
Eastern meadowlarks are found in the same areas as grasshopper sparrows

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Some Confusing Plumages for Some Common Birds

In my column last week I mentioned my birding group at Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge enjoyed views of a first-year male orchard oriole. I received several inquiries as to how I knew how old the bird was. Many sandpipers have distinctive juvenile plumages that the birds hold through the fall migration. Gulls can take from two to four years to reach maturity and may have a distinctive plumage for each year of their immaturity. Each spring, area birders see some summer tanagers that are in the process of molting into adult male breeding plumage from immature plumage, but those birds are rapidly coming into the adult plumage.

The orchard oriole is somewhat unique among our common breeding birds in that it has a first-year male plumage that is very different from the adult plumage. The young birds arrive in the spring along with mature adult males, sing the same song, and establish territories. But where two year-old males and older have a familiar oriole pattern of black and chestnut the younger birds are lemon yellow with a prominent black bib. It can be extremely confusing to an inexperienced birder. It looks like a completely different species, and though most field guides depict the younger male plumage it is often overlooked when thumbing through identification references. 

Though the younger birds are able to reproduce they have difficulty in finding a mate because females usually will pick an adult male to maximize nesting success.

Another songbird that causes similar confusion is the American redstart. Like the orchard oriole, the one year-old males do not attain the black and orange plumage of adults until they are two years old. These males closely resemble females and will sing the American redstart song during migration and through the breeding season, but also are less unsuccessful at breeding for the same reasons as the orchard oriole. 

For both species, it may be a strategy to enable females to readily identify the younger, inexperienced males in order to pick a male that is better able to select and defend a territory; and help with parenting duties. 

First Year Male Orchard Oriole by Lee Weber

Two + Year Old Male Orchard Oriole by John Ennis

First Year Male-plumaged American Redstart by Jeff Lewis

Two+ Year Old Male American Redstart by John Ennis

Friday, May 20, 2016

A Perfect Cup of Field Sparrows

While scanning the sky for soaring raptors recently at Cowan's Ford Refuge, some nearby agitated chip notes grabbed my attention. It was an adult field sparrow with a beakful of caterpillars, or grasshoppers, or some insect.

From experience I knew I was close to a nest. It took about two minutes to locate it in a waist-high pine sapling in a power line right-of-way. Close examination revealed four nestlings big enough to fill the open cup. Below is the nest.

Field Sparrow Nestlings by Taylor Piephoff

Adult Field Sparrow by Phil Fowler.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Magic Mulberry Trees

Last time I mentioned the attraction that Latta Park's mulberry trees have for migrating thrushes...but thrushes aren't the only group of birds that find the berries irresistible. On a recent walk through that park, cedar waxwings, gray catbirds, and scarlet tanagers were all vying for a favorite perch in most of the trees.

The catbirds and tanagers would fly out and snatch a berry while on the wing and return to the perch to gulp it down. The waxwings were even more greedy; staying put and gulping down every one within reach.

It was quite a show.

Gray Catbird by Jeff Lewis

Cedar Waxwing by John Ennis

Scarlet Tanager by John Ennis.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Seeing Spots at Latta Park

Every spring migration stands out for one reason or another. For me, this spring was memorable for the show the spotted thrushes put on at Latta Park. While the warblers were somewhat lackluster (some area birders may disagree) the thrushes showed up not only in numbers but in fine voice as well.

When I say “spotted thrushes” I am referring to the species that sport varying numbers and intensity of spots on the breast. In our area those are the hermit, wood, gray-cheeked, and Swainson’s thrushes; and the veery. All are renowned for their singing abilities. All of those species’ songs have been described as flute-like with some exhibiting a downward spiraling ethereal quality. The wood thrush is at the top of my favorite list as the best singer.

At Latta Park, the numerous mulberry trees and their ripening fruits attract all species of thrushes every spring. Most can be seen in dependable but small numbers each year but this year the trees, creekside brush, and lawn were filled with them; especially the last couple of weeks. Normally there would be a few whispered songs that often would be drowned out by other species’ notes, but for several visits this year the thrush songs were loud and ringing, coming from all areas of the park.
Hermit thrushes are the only species that is with us through the winter, and the wood thrush is the only one that nests in our area. The others are spring and fall migrants that nest in the Canadian Life Zone.

The wood thrush is the most russet on top and has the most boldly spotted of the group. The veery on the other hand has very faint spots, sometimes appearing to lack spots at all. The others, in descending order of spot intensity are the hermit, gray-cheeked, and Swainson’s.

As I said before, the thrushes are among the finest of avian singers. Next to the wood thrush, I rate the veery as the most accomplished songster, followed closely by the hermit and Swainson’s. The gray-cheeked song is thin and wiry; obviously coming from a thrush; but not on a par with the others, in my opinion.    

Wood Thrush by Phil Fowler
The wood thrush, above, is larger and bulkier than the other thrushes on this page. Note the russet upperparts and the heavy black spotting on the breast and sides.

Hermit Thrush by Lee Weber

The hermit thrush is the only spotted thrush that winters here. When seen in migration with other similar thrushes, the bright russet tail that contrasts with the back is evident in most individuals.

Veery by Jeff Lewis

The veery has the most ethereal song of the thrushes mentioned here. Note the reduced and much fainter spotting in comparison to the wood thrush.

Gray-cheeked Thrush by Lee Weber
 The gray-cheeked thrush above and the Swainson's below are very similar. Note the buffy eyering on the Swainson's. The overall color is warmer brown than the colder gray of the gray-cheeked.
Swainson's Thrush by Lee Weber.