Thursday, November 19, 2015

Time for Winter Hummingbirds!

It’s the week before Thanksgiving and as winter approaches it is timely to discuss…hummingbirds. You might think hummingbirds would be a more appropriate topic for the early spring, but not necessarily so. The week of Thanksgiving is traditionally when the reports of rufous hummingbirds really start to come in from area feeders.

A few weeks ago I briefly mentioned the movement of some western species of hummingbirds; primarily rufous hummingbirds; into the southeastern United States. Well now is the time to really be aware of their presence.

Any hummingbird still patronizing area feeders after November first needs to be closely scrutinized. Superficially the female and immature male rufous hummers closely resemble the ruby-throated hummingbird females and immatures that were so abundant a couple of months ago. Those birds have moved on. Any remaining hummingbird is almost sure to be a species from the western United States. With a good look a casual observer can tell the difference. Look for a buff wash on the flanks and sides of the rufous hummer. Often there will be an area of dark pigmented feathers in the center of the otherwise pale throat. A good look at the tail, especially when spread, should show some brighter reddish brown color mixed in with the green.

If you still have a hummingbird let me know about it, and try to get a photo of it. If you have taken your feeders down, I recommend mixing some fresh sugar water and putting the feeder back up. If your feeder is still hanging, freshen it up and keep a close eye on it for activity or falling water level.
I already have heard of one bird that is still at a feeder in Union County. There will be more discovered in the coming weeks. I keep track of wintering hummingbirds each year; recording arrival dates, departure dates, and locations. Some years several dozen birds are brought to my attention. If a photo or a report sounds especially intriguing, as if it could represent a really rare species, I may want to come take a look.

The late fall season has already been notable for western species moving into the eastern United States, including North Carolina. There is no reason to think that trend will stop now.  

Note on the female rufous hummingbird below the dark area on the center of the throat and the reddish brown plumage on the sides of the tail and flanks. On females and immature females, the amount of red can be somewhat variable, so look closely.
Rufous Hummingbird by Richard Feudale

The reddish plumage is even more prominent on this immature rufous hummingbird, likely a male. 
Rufous Hummingbird by Will Stuart

The ruby-throated hummingbird female is even drabber. Note the unmarked white throat and no hint of red or brown from the side or back view. Both photos are of the same bird.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird by Phil Fowler

Ruby-throated Hummingbird by Phil Fowler

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Questions and Dilemmas from Readers

Every fall I get inquiries from backyard birders concerned about a sudden lack of feeder activity. Some of the reason for the decline in activity may be due to the migration out of our area of many birds. I think the main reason however is the abundance of natural food that is available right now. In the treetops, sweet gum and tulip poplar seeds attract finches, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, and brown-headed nuthatches.
Low to mid-level vines like poison ivy and Virginia creeper are important food producers for warblers, sparrows, thrushes, and mimic thrushes. In the weedy fields and hedgerows, fall-blooming asters have seeds that are maturing and thickets of pokeweed attract cardinals, mockingbirds, and sparrows.
Make sure seed in feeders is still viable too. Seed can go bad and become unappetizing to birds after prolonged periods of damp weather. Make sure seed is loose and dry on the interiors of your feeders.

This is not to say that feeding the birds now is a futile endeavor; periods of rainy and unsettled weather will still bring birds in to stocked feeders. But feeder activity may not peak in your immediate area for a month or so. It really all depends on how long it takes for the natural food to be depleted.

Other questions I often get are whether to clean out old nest material from nest boxes and whether to leave the boxes up in winter or take them down. Remember birds that nest in cavities and boxes also prefer to roost in cavities and boxes. By leaving a box up through the winter you can provide needed night time shelter. Old nest material can provide some added insulation on unusually cold nights too.

You may start to see a bully Northern mockingbird chasing birds away from your feeders now too. Mockers establish winter territories and vigorously defend them against seemingly every other species. If this happens to you, consider spreading your feeders around the yard. The mocker might still try to defend them but will eventually grow tired of the constant chase. You might even try giving the mockingbird its own private feeding area. Stock a station with suet, grapes, cranberries, and mealworms; foods mockers prefer over dry seeds. 

Northern Mockingbird by Cathy Miller

Thursday, November 5, 2015

A Different Thrasher in North Carolina

For the second time in two months I made a chase for an ultra-rare bird. Last Wednesday I was off at 4:45 AM for Swannanoa, between Black mountain and Asheville, to look for a sage thrasher that had been found on the campus of Warren Wilson College.

There are only two previous records for sage thrasher in North Carolina, and none since 1975. This is a super-rarity anywhere in the eastern United States. The specie’s normal winter range is south and west Texas west to Arizona. They nest in the sagebrush of the western United States. As thrashers go they are very small, about eight and a half inches long. For comparison our local thrasher, the brown thrasher, is eleven and a half inches long. But all other marks clearly identify the bird as a thrasher; the streaked breast, yellow eye, long tail, and slightly drooped bill.

We arrived at the site, a weedy hedgerow with scatted shrubs and abundant multiflora rose and poke weed fruits, before 7:30 AM. Already there were four other birders from Winston-Salem present and as we approached they indicated the bird was in view and feeding intently. I raised my binoculars and ticked off state bird number 412. So easy it was almost embarrassing. Some birders had missed seeing the bird despite hours of looking, while others were catching intermittent brief glimpses during extended searches. Sage thrashers are skulkers, prone to disappearing into thick brush for much of the time.

The sage thrasher is an olive gray on the back instead of the bright reddish-brown seen on our familiar brown thrasher. Thrashers are first cousins to mockingbirds, and from the back this bird looked remarkably like a Northern mocker; just not as clear gay as that species.

As is often the case with these rarities, the number of birders who will make the trip to Swannanoa to see the thrasher will approach or even surpass 100. At least one birder came in from New York. It’s been forty years since the last occurrence in North Carolina so it is a new state bird for virtually every birder in the state.

Below is the actual sage thrasher currently being seen in Swannanoa, NC. Note the olive-gray upperparts of the sage thrasher in comparison to the bright reddish-brown of the brown thrasher pictured below the sage thrasher.

Sage Thrasher by Rob Van Epps

Brown thrasher by Lee Weber
Otherwise, the profiles and other markings are similar. The brown thrasher is much larger than the sage, by about 40%. The mantle color of the sage thrasher is actually closer to that of Northern mockingbirds. though the general shape of the closely related species is similar, with a good view it is easy to see the overall differences between the two. With only a rear view, an inexperienced birder could overlook the sage thrasher i suppose.

Northern Mockingbird by Cathy Miller

Monday, November 2, 2015

A Nice Bird for Mecklenburg County

I found a nice bird last Saturday when I played some marsh bird calls at an extensive wetland off Marvin Road in the southern part of Mecklenburg County. A Virginia rail answered a playback of the species's raucous grunting call.

I have located this species before at that location; I was even able to get a decent photo of one in April 2014. That's not easy to do. Virginia rails, like other rails prefer to stay hidden in thick marsh vegetation. The birds are inquisitive though and will readily approach a tape of their calls. the trick is to catch a glimpse as they creep through the grass.

Rails don't breed or winter here but they do pass thru in the migrations and may stay for short periods of time in a suitable location before moving on.

In the photo below of the bird from 2014 it is easy to see how getting a good look at one can be challenging. They know how to keep a sight barrier between themselves and a birder.

Virginia Rail by Taylor Piephoff

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Winter Finch Forecast is Out

North American birders got some anticipated news recently. The annual Winter Finch Forecast for 2015-2016 came out. The Winter Finch Forecast is a prediction of which of the northern finch species will move east, west, or south this winter; and which ones won’t. It appears purple finches may come south in small to moderate numbers, while other species such as pine siskins will stay put. That will be a relief to those of you who hosted hordes of siskins in recent winters and had to dole out extra seed money to keep them happy.

The Winter Finch Report is based on the productivity of the food crops in the border states and Canada. It is usually pretty accurate. We may not know exactly how accurate until after the first of the year, but I’m pretty sure southeastern birders will not be looking for redpolls, crossbills, and evening grosbeaks this winter. Read the Winter Finch Forecast for yourself at

It appears that purple finches may be the only "winter finch" to come to area feeders this winter. Male purple finch by John Ennis.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Transition from Fall to Winter, Birdwise, in Full Swing

By now the birds that we commonly think of as Neotropical migrants have passed through. Gone are most of the warblers, tanagers, thrushes, and flycatchers that drew birders into the field from late August to mid-October. There may be a few individual stragglers and a couple of late-migrating species to be found but the transition is well under way from familiar breeding birds to familiar wintering birds.

I’ve been looking for some of the more uncommon sparrow species lately, without much success as yet. But I have come across some returning species just about every day out.

The first true winter bird I found was a swamp sparrow in a cattail patch at a pond’s edge. Swamp sparrows are pretty easy to find in appropriate habitat but are tough to get away from wet habitats. Later the same day the first white-throated sparrow was seen. The white-throateds are one of the more abundant of our wintering sparrows.

Swamp Sparrow by Jeff Lewis

White-throated Sparrow by Phil Fowler

Yellow-rumped warblers have replaced the multiple species of warblers I have enjoyed since August. The yellow-rumpeds are the most common winter warbler.

The extremely high-pitched calls of golden-crowned kinglets came be heard from pines now. The calls are so high that some birders cannot hear them at all. That makes them tougher to see; they are really tiny. Their equally small cousin the ruby-crowned kinglet is finally here as well.

Golden-crowned Kinglet by Jeff Lewis

Ruby-crowned Kinglet by Jeff Lewis

House wrens are fairly common breeders in our area but the species completely changes habitats from summer to winter. By summer they are a bird of large residential yards and gardens. During the winter they move into brushy fields. I suspect the winter birds are from more northerly populations.
Yellow-bellied sapsuckers, our only woodpecker that isn’t with us in the summer, have returned to their favorite sap trees by now. Hermit thrushes, our only winter spotted thrush, will be here soon if not already. The first sizable flocks of cedar waxwings are now being seen overhead.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker by John Ennis

I haven’t seen any winter finches yet, and I may not this year. Predictions are for a poor flight into the Southeast. The same goes for red-breasted nuthatches. They could yet come in though. Every winter is different and is sure to hold a few surprises.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Rainy Day Birding

If you remember last Saturday, the weather was pretty lousy for outside activity, or so I thought. I was scheduled to lead a bird walk at Four-mile Creek Greenway. To my surprise four people showed up, two very enthusiastic Middle School aged boys each accompanied by a supportive parent. Despite the steady rain and my bargaining attempts to reschedule the group was gung-ho to do some birding. 

I really thought we would be lucky to see anything at all, but I am not going to be out-weathered by anybody and besides, I remember how I was at their age. There were birds to see and rain was nothing more than a minor inconvenience. So off we went, and I am glad we did.

I soon realized that there were small feeding flocks of migrants every couple of hundred yards along the trail. The first stop yielded a just-arrived white-throated sparrow, brown thrasher, and a very inquisitive magnolia warbler that swooped right in for a closer look. That was a life-bird for everyone; a pretty good start.

A black-and-white warbler, palm warbler, and two gaudy American redstarts awaited us within the next flock. I walked right by a dozing barred owl, unfazed by us or the rain. As is often the case in birding groups, the last person in line spotted it.

At the large cattail marsh, a flock of four indigo buntings, a couple of swamp sparrows, a common yellowthroat, and another brown thrasher posed nicely for our party. We took a short break from birding to examine some green treefrogs and cattail caterpillars. Back into the woods, a couple of Eastern wood-pewees called to each other. The birds seemed really agitated at the next spot and soon we knew the reason why; a large immature Cooper’s hawk launched off its perch and flew right over. Woodpeckers put on a good show with multiple individuals of red-bellied and downy seen, with an individual hairy woodpecker and Northern flicker to boot. In all we ended up with about 34 species on a day when I thought we would be lucky to identify a quarter of that number.

And I was reminded that birds don’t come in out of the rain and adverse conditions are no match for youthful enthusiasm.  

Magnolia Warbler by John Ennis