Friday, August 22, 2014

Rain Crows are Calling Now

I have been hearing lots of yellow-billed cuckoos lately. These large birds are hard to see but become more vocal in mid to late summer. Listen for a rhythmic coo coo coo or keow keow keow. It can be repeated up to a dozen or more times, and can vary in cadence. It may start off slow and pick up speed. It may even call at night.
If you are lucky enough to see one, you will notice a large, very slim bird moving sluggishly through the tree canopy often pausing to sit completely still. In flight the very long thin tail is noticeable.
They seem to like to call on more humid days, hence the nickname "rain crow".

Yellow-billed cuckoo by Phil Fowler

Monday, August 18, 2014

Things I Found While looking for Other Things

I was concentrating on butterflies yesterday while participating on the Southern Lake Norman Butterfly Count. Three of us were on a shaded trail through a damp thicket at Cowan’s Ford Wildlife Refuge trying to sort out pearly-eye butterflies when a loud, rich, chip note; like the sound of loudly kissing the back of your hand; snapped me back into birding mode. “Did I hear that right?” I wondered. I really needed to hear it again, and in a few seconds it was repeated. I was ninety-five percent sure of what I was hearing but I needed to see that bird to be sure.
I quit searching for Kentucky warblers in Mecklenburg County around mid-June. From mid-April until then I figured I had spent around ten hours exclusively devoted to finding that species in the county. I visited all the traditional nesting sites, both recently known and from up to twenty-five years ago with no success. It was a species I had counted on in my quest to see two-hundred and five species of birds in the county in 2014, but I had conceded defeat on that one.
All three of us scanned the thick underbrush, me frantically, for movement. “I see it” someone said. “It’s a yellow bird.”  I knew then it was my Kentucky warbler, and then the bright yellow chunky warbler hopped up on a tangle, turned its head perfectly for me to see the black mustache, and then was gone. Thank goodness butterfliers use binoculars.
I had never seen a Kentucky warbler in fall migration until that day. They leave the breeding territories by August and slip through most areas while it’s still too hot for most birders to be out looking for migrants.  It served as a reminder that migrants are coming through right now, and to add emphasis to that point, we saw a female hooded warbler and a worm-eating warbler in the close proximity.

Kentucky warblers are one of my favorite birds and I have lamented their decline in Mecklenburg county as a breeder. This individual may have come from somewhere far away but it does give me hope that perhaps it was from an unknown local territory. What is certain is that it was present in Mecklenburg yesterday and I got to see it. 

Kentucky warbler by Phil Fowler

Female hooded warbler by Jeff Lewis

Worm-eating warbler by Jeff Lewis

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Nice Tern of Events at Lake Norman

I’ve been waiting for mid-August, a time when some unusual waterbirds start to show up at some of the larger area reservoirs. Some of the more locally rare gulls and terns can often be found from now through the end of September. You might not associate those types of birds with inland locations, they are of course much more common at the coast, but some species do come through in fairly good numbers when conditions are favorable.

Last Tuesday August twelfth I was intrigued by reports of laughing gulls from Lake Hickory. Hoping that these birds might be part of a larger movement of gulls along the Catawba River system I headed for Lake Norman late in the evening. My goal was to scope out the lake from Torrence Chapel Road, a vantage point where lots of great birds have been seen over the years. Gulls congregate and roost here in the winter so I was hoping the area would be as attractive to them that evening.

I arrived with just a few minutes of viewing light left at dusk. I really was expecting to see some gulls or terns flying around or sitting on the water but was disappointed to see nothing initially. Then after the passing of a boat through the channel, the sky suddenly was filled with a flock of sixteen terns that had been spooked off the water. As far as I could tell in the fading light they were all black terns, a somewhat expected species but one that must be pursued in a relatively tight window of time in late summer if you want to see one in Mecklenburg County. There are three other species of terns that may occur here through September; the Caspian, Forster’s, and common.

If you are out sailing, boating, or fishing on Lake Norman, Lake Wylie, or anywhere in between, keep an eye open for these graceful birds. They are often in small loose flocks so they may attract your attention. Identification will be challenging in all likelihood but let me know if you see something. By the way, black tern was number one hundred seventy-four on my Mecklenburg County Year List. Thirty-one to go to reach my goal. 

Molting black tern by Phil Fowler

Monday, August 11, 2014

Keep Watching for White Wading Birds

 I visited a nice wetland off Arrowood Road over the weekend and found a couple of different white herons / egrets. Identification of these white waders can be challenging at times. Here is a brief primer on what to look for if you encounter one. Pay attention to the leg /bill color combinations on these birds. It can help you clinch identifications.

Great egret by Taylor Piephoff
This is the most likely species that you might find, the great egret. Note the combination of yellow bill and black legs. This is also a very large wader, approaching the great blue heron in size. Currently there are up to three of this species hanging out at the beaver pond at McAlpine Park in southeast Charlotte, off Monroe Road.

Little blue heron by Phil Fowler
The next most likely species found in our area in summer is the little blue heron. Immatures are white, quite unlike the adults. Immature birds are most commonly seen here. Notice the combination of greenish yellow legs and a slight downward curve to the bill. The bill is usually darker at the tip than at the base. At least one of these birds was present at Arrowood Road

The most uncommon small white wader you might encounter is the snowy egret. Notice here the combination of black legs, yellow feet, and straight black bill. This is an adult bird. the immatures will sometimes show greenish backs of the legs but the front of the legs is black. Little blue heron never shows that leg color. At least one of these birds was present at Arrowood Road.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Updates on Past Topics and Some New Developments

Local birds are fledging and moving now so an update on several topics that I have written about in the last month or so seems appropriate.
The Mississippi kite pair off Alexander road has successfully fledged at least one chick. There have been reports of a possible second chick but that has not been confirmed yet, to my knowledge. There have also been reports of additional adult birds, suggestive of other nesting in the same area.
Recent heavy rains have raised the water levels of area reservoirs and smaller ponds, effectively eliminating shoreline and exposed mud. Consequently habitat for shorebirds and dispersing larger waders is virtually non-existent right now. Accordingly reports of the larger waders have been meager with only one report of white ibis and little heron received thus far. The area will need a lapse in the rain for a few weeks to allow for better habitat to develop. Don’t forget to let me know if one turns up in your local area.
Let the hummingbird wars begin! Numbers of hummingbirds at feeders is fast on the rise as local and migrating individuals stake out easy food sources. At my home I am hearing constant chattering chase calls and seeing dueling birds spiraling into the air. It doesn’t seem anyone is getting to the feeder but they must be since they are hanging around. Look for numbers to grow through this month and into September.

Two times turned out to be the charm in my chase for the Eurasian collared-dove. I returned last Saturday to the residence in Starmount and after a one hour wait was rewarded with two doves cautiously coming into the feeders. Over two visits I had logged about one-hundred five minutes in a chair on the deck that is normally not occupied. I finally moved to a chair where the hosts normally sit and the birds showed in less than five minutes. Sometimes a deviation from the norm is enough to spook wildlife and I think that may have been the case here. I also received photos of Eurasian collared-doves from a residence off Archdale Road so there are more in the area.
Male ruby-throated hummingbird by Phil Fowler

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Sometimes Luck is the Key to Birding Success

I generally consider myself to be a lucky birder when it comes to chasing rare of unusual birds. I’ve had some misses over the years but the successful chases outnumber the unsuccessful. All birders know that in order to see the really good, unusual, and rare ones a certain amount of good luck has to be attained. But birders also know that there will be those times when it’s just not your day to find what you are looking for. Last Saturday was a painful reminder of that for me.
I have a list of birds that I designated as possible or even likely misses this year in my quest to see two-hundred and five species in Mecklenburg County. One of those is the Eurasian collared-dove. This large dove is scarce in Mecklenburg County. Over the years there have been just a couple of dependable spots to find them. Unfortunately those sites are no longer reliable so I knew finding one was going to be a challenge.
I heard reports that up to three doves were being seem sporadically at a feeder in Starmount, off South Boulevard. I contacted the hosts who said that the birds had not been seen in a few days but I was welcome to come take a look. I did, and waited about forty-five minutes with no success.  Fifteen minutes after departing I received the phone call. All three birds had appeared and were at the feeders. By then I was down South Boulevard in Pineville but hastily turned around to head back. In the short time that I had passed over I-485 going south and turned around back north a wreck had occurred and had traffic backed way up. I had to figure out how to get around the backup, and did so by going back to Pineville, catching Downs Road over to Westinghouse Boulevard and then over to South Boulevard. In all it slowed me down only about fifteen minutes, but plenty long enough for the birds to eat their fill and depart a few minutes before I arrived back at the site.

I feel pretty good that eventually I’ll get that species if it keeps coming to the feeders, but I haven’t heard back from the hosts that the birds are still around. Keeping my fingers crossed on this one.
Eurasian collared-dove by Jeff Lewis

Monday, July 28, 2014

First Documented Nest of Mississippi Kite from Mecklenburg County

Exciting news about Mecklenburg County's breeding birds. The active Mississippi kite nest has been found in a residential front yard near the intersection of Alexander and Providence Roads. Though breeding has been suspected from past years, this is the first documented nest for this species from the county, and likely the westernmost site in the state. Check out the photos of the adult and chick interacting below.

Adult Mississippi kite  by Phil Fowler
   The adult here appears to be holding a dragonfly, a favorite food of kites. The dragonflies are caught on the wing, often high in the sky.

Adult and juvenile Mississippi kite by Phil Fowler
    Here the adult kite is feeding the juvenile bird.

Photo by Phil Fowler

Here the adult departs the nest after delivering the dragonfly.

Juvenile Mississippi kite by Phil Fowler

This is a pic of the chick waiting patiently for the next meal to arrive. Notice how the juvenile plumage differs from the adult plumage.