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.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

A Colorful Morning at Cowan's Ford

I spent the morning last Monday at Cowan’s Ford Wildlife Refuge at the end of Neck Road in Huntersville. There is a viewing stand that overlooks two ponds surrounded by wide open fields. There is some edge habitat and isolated trees that supply needed perches for singing males of many, many species. It really is one of the best places in the county to observe some of the more colorful species that inhabit open habitat.

The birds were especially active in the slightly overcast cool weather. Orchard orioles, summer tanagers, indigo buntings, blue grosbeaks, and yellow-breasted chats flew back and forth from location to location, chasing each other off the most desirable perches. Once a perch was secured, the temporary victor would sit long enough for me to put him in my spotting scope before he got usurped himself. At one point a brilliant male indigo bunting was chased off by an equally brilliant blue grosbeak, which in turn was replaced by a handsome orchard oriole who gave way to an all-red male summer tanager. The buntings and chats put on the best show, with one chat actually sitting on a wire for several minutes instead of staying hidden in a thicket as is their custom.

Around the ponds red-winged blackbirds called to one another, Eastern kingbirds flitted from treetop to treetop while common yellowthroats and field sparrows sang from lower vegetation. A sedge wren, a very uncommon migrant but somewhat regular at Cowan’s Ford, sang from a blackberry thicket, preferring to keep out of sight.

In the deeper woods behind the platform a wood thrush sang its flute-like song. A brown thrasher, Northern waterthrush, pine warbler, gray catbird, and Northern cardinal all joined in.

On the way out along the entrance I stopped at a power line cut where I could survey a broad expanse of sky. From that one location I was able to count seven species of raptor; a bald eagle chick on a nest; an osprey attending a nest; red-tailed, red-shouldered, and Cooper’s hawks; and both turkey and black vultures.

I highly recommend taking a drive out to this site in the morning or later in the afternoon. Even if you are only a casual birder I think you will be impressed with how much you can see.

Orchard Oriole by John Ennis

Summer Tanager by Phil Fowler

Yellow Breasted Chat by John Ennis

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

A Cup Full of Field Sparrows

An agitated field sparrow let me know I was too close to her nest recently. Having found many field sparrow nests before, I figured it was in one of a few small pine saplings in a regenerating clear-cut field.

The second sapling I checked held the small cup; barely two feet off the ground and chock full of field sparrow. Take a look at the nest and nestlings below, and a shot of an adult.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Bluer Birds than Bluebirds

Eastern bluebirds are everybody's favorite it seems but there are a couple of common species just now arriving that are even more blue. Look for blue grosbeaks and indigo buntings in open country and along many of the county greenways where there is plenty of sunshine.

They may even stop in to check out a well-stocked feeder so keep a lookout.

Blue Grosbeak by Lee Weber
More purplish than truly blue, the blue grosbeak is still a striking bird when seen in full sunlight.

Indigo Bumting by Lee Weber
The indigo bunting male seems to actually glow blue in the right sunlight. They are common but small.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A Long Day of Spring Birding

I was out of bed at 4:15 am Sunday morning to take part in the Charlotte Spring Bird Count. By 5:30 I was at Renaissance Golf Course and ticking off the first species; American robins in full dawn chorus. It wasn’t long before things got more interesting though.

A pair of barred owls started hootin’ it up at dawn and the neotropics began adding to the chorus. Newly arrived Eastern kingbirds, orchard orioles, indigo buntings, and blue grosbeaks were all accounted for. Birders like to keep a separate list of how many warblers get tallied on spring outings and as usual, the golf course delivered. After three hours 18 species of warblers were tallied including Cape May, worm-eating, hooded, palm, American redstart, ovenbird, Northern parula, pine, black-throated blue, yellow, yellow-rumped, yellow-breasted chat, common yellowthroat, blackpoll, black and white, prairie, Northern waterthrush, and Louisiana waterhrush. That’s a healthy total anytime. Add scarlet and summer tanagers; and a stunning male rose-breasted grosbeak and it made for a great morning.

A marsh wren sang lustily from a small wetland, the fourth straight year that this uncommon migrant has been in that same spot.

Next I checked out an interesting looking field right off Tyvola Road at the new City Park development. I was very surprised to hear the distinctive insect-like buzz of a grasshopper sparrow and I was soon able to find the tiny sparrow perched at the top of a pine sapling. Grasshopper sparrows are tough to find nowadays in Mecklenburg County due to disappearing habitat. I didn’t see a female but I hope he will be successful in attracting one. A pair of killdeer went into a defensive display, obviously guarding and unseen nest somewhere in a gravelly patch of ground.

I checked some small ponds in close-by business parks and was able to locate up to five spotted sandpipers teetering along the shorelines. Those spotteds and the aforementioned killdeer were the only shorebirds seen that day, a little bit disappointing.

All the participants gathered for a tally-up supper at Winghaven at the end of the day. A total of 129 species were reported for the day, a very respectable number. It was a long day for sure but there are birds that must be seen. There’ll be time to rest after migration slows down

Marsh Wren by Jeff Lewis

Hooded warblers love shady damp lowlands. A few breed in Mecklenburg County but they are most numerous along the coast and in the mountains.

Hooded Warbler by Jeff Lewis

Grasshopper sparrows are declining nationwide due to habitat loss as small farms and pastures disappear.

Grasshopper Sparrow by Jim Guyton

Black-throated blue warblers nest in our mountains, but are one of the more common migrant warblers that pass thru. the piedmont. 
Black-throated Blue Warbler by John Ennis