Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Winter Finch Forecast is Out

Every fall serious birders, both field birders and backyard feeder watchers, wonder what the coming winter will bring in the way of migratory and irruptive northern finches. The movements of northern finches such as pine siskins, purple finches, common redpolls, and crossbills can vary widely and wildly from year to year. For example, in some years pine siskins may dominate feeders even as far south as the Carolinas. In other years they may be completely absent.

Movements tend to be based on the availability of food produced by northern conifers. The better the yield of seeds the more likely the birds are to stay to the north. Poor yield or crop failure results in birds moving around more. And it really isn't limited to just finches. Other species like red-breasted nuthatches, waxwings, and blue jays are affected too.

Ron Pittaway released his Winter Finch Forecast for 2014-15 recently. Though predictions are generally for the northern and northeastern United States, some insight can be gained into what species we might expect to encounter here in the piedmont of the Carolinas.

Check out the full forecast here:

Maybe some pine siskins, shown here with a lone American goldfinch, will put in appearances at local feeders this winter.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Last Night a Big Night for Migrants Moving

Stepped outside this morning at 5:30 AM and was greeted by the sounds of numerous nocturnal migrants passing overhead. Most dominant were Swainson's thrushes, gray-cheeked thrushes, and rose-breasted grosbeaks. There were others but I am sorely out of practice deciphering the short, variable calls of the migrants.
Try it yourself. If you are an early riser, listen outside for just a few minutes around 5:30-6:00 AM. You can also hear them anytime after dusk through the night. You will know pretty soon if its a good migration night. You will hear birds. If you don't hear any after just a minute or two, try again the next night.
Below is a link to hear some thrush calls; as well as some other migrant grosbeaks, warblers, and tanagers.

Gray-cheeked Thrush by Jeff Lewis

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Out with the Old, In with the New

The strong cold front that moved in last weekend was of the stuff birders live for. Since August serious birders have been waiting for the first strong front of the season. Oh, there have been some mini cool downs that caused some birds to move but the season had been notable for the absence of cold fronts with northwest winds. Such fronts sweep out migrants present prior to the passage and sweep in new ones. The birding landscape can change literally overnight. Birders well know this phenomenon and take advantage.
Last Saturday I was on the shores of Lake Norman off Exit 30 at Davidson. At daybreak I saw tightly packed flocks of both blue-winged and green-winged teal, some numbering over sixty individuals, flying high and low over the lake. For about an hour a flock of teal was never out of my sight. These hundreds ducks were pouring into and through the piedmont as a result of the stiff northwest winds. I also saw my first pied-billed grebe of the season and four common terns blowing around in the winds, also a season first.
The next day even more changes were evident. Winter birds appeared in the feeding bands of migrants. Yellow-rumped warblers, yellow bellied sapsuckers, and ruby-crowned kinglets replaced species that had departed. The front ushered in the first wave of sparrow migrants too. At Veteran’s Park I found the season’s first sizable chipping sparrow flock, a group of about twenty-five birds.
For weeks Eastern wood-pewees had been a numerous and conspicuous migrant. Eastern phoebes had been present in small numbers. After the front passed the numbers of these two species switched. Pewees became scarce while the phoebes became the dominant flycatcher seen. This fall I have seen more white-eyed vireos than any other year that I can recall, yet they were totally gone by Sunday. Small migrating flocks of blue jays could be seen winging slowly and steadily overhead, while migrating chimney swift numbers increased dramatically too.

There are still a few ruby-throated hummingbirds hanging around but their numbers took a nosedive too. I expect the numbers to have further declined by this weekend. Next, the sparrows and winter hummingbirds will arrive. More on that development in a few weeks.
Blue-winged Teal by Jeff Lewis

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Find a Berry-laden Dogwood Tree and Enjoy the Show

When I was growing up we had a large dogwood tree in the backyard that produced a good crop of berries almost every year. I remember just watching that tree for extended time periods and being amazed at the diversity of birds that visited to dine on the berries. Last week I was reminded of how attractive a productive dogwood tree can be when I visited Sheffield Park and Idlewild Road Park in search of migrants.
At Sheffield, a flash of orange caught my eye as a female or immature summer tanager hovered to pluck a berry from a large dogwood. Stopping to see what else might be around, I soon observed two Swainson’s thrushes, several American robins, a gray catbird, brown thrasher, and a rose-breasted grosbeak partaking of that tree. I was reminded that the woods of Idlewild Road Park have a large number of dogwoods and have been very productive in the past. I drove on over and headed down a trail to a nice hardwood forest with dogwood understory.
Immediately I saw a scarlet tanager in the dogwoods; then another, and another. A total of six scarlet tanagers and an additional summer tanager were all there.  A group four Eastern bluebirds flew in, another three Swainson’s thrushes, a wood thrush, some American robins, a red-bellied woodpecker, a Northern flicker, and downy woodpecker; all made for constant in and out action in the dogwood canopies.
Birds are attracted to the berries because of their red color. It is well know that hummingbirds like red, but clearly many bird species have the same affinity. Spicebush, a common lowland shrub, has red berries that are favored by birds, as does magnolia.

There are plenty of other species that love dogwoods too. I have seen gray-cheeked thrushes, veeries, red-eyed vireos, red-headed woodpeckers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and even pileated woodpeckers on dogwood. Dogwoods are clearly an important fall food source for hungry migrants. If you have a nice dogwood on your property, or know of a nice grove of multiple trees, take some time to watch for activity. You might see some unfamiliar species. 

Scarlet Tanager by John Ennis
All scarlet tanagers in the fall are greenish yellow with contrasting black wings. They look quite different from the brilliant scarlet and black males from the spring.

Summer Tanager by Phil Fowler
Female and juvenile summer tanagers are a more orangey color with less contrast between the wings and rest of the plumage.

Summer Tanager by Phil Fowler
Adult male summer tanagers in fall retain their bright red plumage year round. If you encounter summer tanagers, the majority will be female or juvenile plumaged.

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Nice Day in the Mountains

Hawk watching at Milepost 235 on the Blue Ridge Parkway (Mahogany Rock Overlook) September 21st produced birds, butterflies, and beautiful weather. Brisk northerly winds kept the smaller landbirds hunkered down, but made for good raptor migration conditions. By 11:00 AM the group had counted 95 Broad-winged hawks, 2 Osprey, 3 Sharp-shinned hawks, and 2 American kestrels. You had to be fast for many of the birds; the winds were zipping them past the counters at a fast clip for a while.
Ten birders from Charlotte made the drive to the watch site. Other birding groups from the state were represented too, with a total of around thirty people leisurely observing the show.
The winds died after lunchtime, and the migration action died with it. that gave us an opportunity to do a bit of butterfly ID. The warming temperatures allowed us to count 13 butterfly species just on the overlook lawn.
Counting will continue thru mid-November on good-weather days. If you are driving the Parkway in the next few weeks, drop in and check it out.

American Kestrel by John Ennis

Osprey by Phil Fowler

Sharp-shinned Hawk by Jeff Lewis

Broad-winged Hawk by Phil Fowler

Friday, September 19, 2014

Broad-winged Hawk Migration Peaking- Check it Out

If you are along the northern stretches of the Blue Ridge Parkway on Sunday September 21, pull in to the overlook at Mahogany Rock to try get a glimpse of the Broad-winged hawk migration. This overlook has long been known for the viewing accessibility it affords. Hawk watching is easy birding. You stay still and the birds come to you. I, and several other birders plan to be there most of the day. 
Conditions look good for there to be bird movement. Potentially hundreds of hawks can be seen under the right conditions. There will also be opportunities for short trail excursions to look for fall passerine migrants which should be abundant too.
The overlook is at milepost 235, five miles south of the intersection of US 21 and the Parkway.

Broad-winged Hawk by Phil Fowler

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Good Birding Spot is Good at Any Season

Each spring I write about the wonderful birds that can be found at Latta Park in Dilworth, not far from uptown Charlotte. It draws birders in droves for three weeks or so every year during April and May. This birding hotspot is pretty much forgotten for the rest of the year, even though another full migration takes place in the fall. Occasionally however a local birder will take a look in September and usually will come away with a pretty decent list of birds.
I had heard that a nice list of warblers was found there earlier this week so I ran over there one afternoon during lunch. It was very quiet at first but soon some activity picked up. Eastern wood-pewees started softly calling and soon I could pick them out flying out from their perches on dead twigs to grab insects. They are a common and conspicuous breeding and migrant flycatcher, but do not possess plumage that is eye-catching.
A small warbler darted out from a shrub and made some acrobatic sorties in pursuit of insects too. It was an American redstart, easily identified at a distance by the large yellow patches on the fanned tail. Another warbler crawled along the larger limbs of the oaks, an immature black and white warbler. A bird with lots of yellow on the underside rustled some leaves at the end of a branch. With a little patience I was able to tell it was a magnolia warbler. A drabber bird appeared near it, an immature chestnut-sided warbler.
More flycatchers put in appearances, a nicely colored great-crested flycatcher and a smaller flycatcher of the genus Empidonax.  The members of this genus are notoriously hard to identify to species; and despite a pretty good look I had to mark this one down as “unidentified Empidonax”. I heard a rush of wings close to me, turned, and found that a red-tailed hawk had landed on the ground just a few feet from me. It was undoubtedly trying to surprise one of the many gray squirrels there.

So I was again reminded that if the birds come in spring, they will come again in the fall. I recommend you too should check out this accessible and easy stroll through an uptown oasis.

American Redstart by Jeff Lewis

Eastern Wood-pewee by Phil Fowler

Magnolia Warbler by Jeff Lewis