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

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Shorebirds Galore! Well, Not Really.

Shorebirds galore! Well not really, but in Mecklenburg County you take what you can get. This county is shorebird habitat deprived. Usually only a severe drought that lowers pond levels significantly enough to expose a lot of mud results in large numbers of shorebirds being findable here. So when I visited a local wastewater treatment plant recently to look for shorebirds, I was pleased to find a whopping six whole species.
Killdeer are the common and conspicuous member of the shorebird clan in our area. They are with us year-round, and they were well represented at the facility. They have a diminutive cousin that is superficially similar in appearance, and it was present this day too. The semipalmated plover is a rare migrant through the county so I was glad to find one.
Not to be confused with the semipalmated plover is the semipalmated sandpiper. In appropriate habitat they are a fairly common fall migrant, and there were five at the facility. Their smaller cousin, the least sandpiper, was well represented too. They are very reliable at that site. I also was able to spot four lesser yellowlegs. I tried to make at least one into a greater yellowlegs but could not. To round out the shorebird tally, there were a couple of spotted sandpipers (without their spots since it is not the breeding season) walking around on the concrete pond edges.

I have written before of my quest to see two-hundred bird species in Mecklenburg County in 2014. In order to do that I will have to get a decent list of shorebirds. I added four species to my current tally that day so it was a productive outing but I need about three or four more shorebirds to stay on track. I have till mid-October to get them before they will all be passed through the area and gone. It’s been dry lately. Maybe some mud will get exposed and attract a few more than usual. If you know of a pond with shorebirds, let me know. 

Semipalmated plover by Jeff Lewis

Superficially this semipalmated plover looks like the much larger killdeer pictured below. When seen together, the size and voice differences are apparent. Killdeer are common in our area year round in fields, athletic complexes, and even large open lawns. 

Killdeer by Kent Fiala

Semipalmated sandpiper by Jeff Lewis

Semipalmated sandpipers differ from the similarly-sized least sandpiper by lighter plumage, darker and longer legs, and a straighter, stubbier bill. Note the least sandpiper's yellowish legs and thinner bill with a droop at the end.

Least sandpiper by Jeff Lewis

Lesser yellowlegs  by Jeff Lewis

Both the lesser and greater yellowlegs are aptly named. Both species are also very similar in appearance. Again, when seen together the size difference is apparent. The voices are different too. 

Spotted sandpipers in the fall look very different from the spring and summer birds. Notice the lack of spots in the fall bird below compared to the spring bird.

Spotted sandpiper by John Ennis

Spotted sandpiper by John Ennis

Monday, September 8, 2014

County Big Year is Nearing the Homestretch

I've written before about my quest to see 200 bird species in Mecklenburg County for the year 2014. My race against time is in the backstretch now, with the homestretch looming begining Oct. 1. Yesterday I spent about four hours on a boat on Lake Norman looking for unusual migrating terns and gulls.
The day started with promise, with black terns and Caspian terns seen early on. And then we saw more black terns, and then some more, and then more. Same for the Caspians. Our count of 13 Caspian terns is likely a one-day record count for Mecklenburg County; and our conservative count of 26 black terns could actually have been well over that number.
But nothing else showed. I did add Caspian tern to my list, giving me 176 for the year. It's gonna be close come Dec. 31.

Caspian Tern by Jeff Lewis.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Watch the Dusk Sky for Common Nighthawks

The peak time for viewing the common nighthawk migration is right now. I have already seen reports of these birds passing over people’s houses and thru the uptown Charlotte area. It’s easy to try to see them and it takes only a few minutes each evening.
Common nighthawks usually are seen from about 7:30 PM thru about 8:15 PM in the evenings, with the peak being about 7:45 PM. All you have to do is step outside and look up. If it is an active migratory night and the birds are in your area, you should see them. A vantage point that gives a wide view of the dusk sky is best.  Sometimes it will be just a couple of birds that you see, but there is potential to see congregations of dozens of birds. Such numbers used to be commonly seen but the common nighthawk is a declining species in the eastern United States, so the migration count numbers are lower now.  I used to see loose flights of over fifty birds in Mecklenburg County but it has been a while since I have seen that high a number. It is more realistic to expect to see a half dozen to a dozen birds nowadays.
Nighthawks are about the size of an American kestrel but their long, slim, pointed wings make the birds appear larger than they really are. Look for a white bar on the underside of the wings near the wingtips to clinch the identification. They will be flying in stiff-winged manner with a few twists and turns mixed in. They are not hawks at all either. They are members of the goatsucker clan, same as the whip-poor-will and chuck-will’s-widow. They hawk large flying insects while on the wing. Traditionally they nested on flat ground with sparse grass, and still do over much of their range. In the populous eastern United States they have adapted well to cities however and now are fond of using flat gravel roofs of buildings, especially in urban areas where city lights attract large moths and beetles.

There are relatively few species of birds where one can actually view their migration so take advantage of this opportunity to see an interesting and declining species.

Common Nighthawk by Don Faulkner

Friday, August 29, 2014

Check Out Mecklenburg Audubon's "Lost Bird Project" screening.

Below is a release detailing Mecklenburg Audubon's screening of the Lost Bird Project, a film detailing some North American bird species we have lost forever.

MAS presents – Special film screening of The Lost Bird Project
When  - Thur, Sept 4th at 7:30 PM (Refreshments begin around 7:15 pm)
Where - Tyvola Rd Senior Center, 2225 Tyvola Rd, Charlotte, NC 28210
More info -

Welcome back to a new birding season of programs with MAS! We will begin this
season with a powerful film to inspire and reignite our spirit of stewardship
and preservation. MAS will host a special screening of the film The Lost Bird

“Gone and nearly forgotten, the Labrador Duck, Great Auk, Heath Hen, Carolina
Parakeet and Passenger Pigeon have left a hole in the American landscape and in
our collective memory. Moved by their stories, sculptor Todd McGrain set out to
bring their vanished forms back into the world by perma-nently placing his
elegant, evocative bronze memorials at the location of each bird’s demise.
“These birds are not commonly known and they ought to be, because forgetting
is another kind of extinction,” McGrain said. “It’s such a thorough
erasing.” The film tells the story of how these birds came to meet their
fates and the journey that leads McGrain from the swamps of Florida, the final
roosting ground of the Carolina Parakeet, to a tiny island off the coast of
Newfoundland, where some of the last Great Auks made their nests and where the
local towns-people still mourn their absence 150 years later. The Lost Bird
Project, directed by Deborah Dickson and produced by Muffie Meyer, is a film
about public art, extinction and memory. It is an elegy to five extinct North
American birds and a thoughtful, moving, sometimes humorous look at the artist
and his mission.” For more info:

The Carolina Parakeet was once abundant throughout the southeastern United States, but was hunted to extinction for its plumage and for its propensity to raid crops.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Get Ready for the Fall Migration Rush

The cooler mornings this week heralded in the fall passerine migration as far as I’m concerned. Cool late summer and fall fronts with northerly components to the winds bring the warblers, vireos, and tanagers into the southern piedmont.
I took an hour or so last Tuesday to walk around the beaver pond at McAlpine Park with the sole intent of finding a few migrants.  It soon became evident that it was a birdy morning with several flocks of noisy Carolina chickadees and tufted titmice working along the wooded margins. Migrants like to hook up with the chickadee flocks so I always head right for them when I hear them.
I found a large birch tree fairly alive with birds flitting through the canopy. Four or five blue-gray gnatcatchers were conspicuous, flying in and out of the tree. A sharp chip note revealed a nice male Northern parula warbler. A soft chattering call let me know a vireo was in the tree, but which one? Shortly a bright yellow bird with yellow spectacles around the eyes appeared; a yellow - throated vireo, a bird I’m always glad to see. Soon another showed up right next to it.
I took a brief break from scanning treetops to checking the beaver pond itself. Two great egrets and a belted kingfisher were patiently waiting for a careless fish or frog to serve themselves up for lunch. While watching these birds I noticed a red-shouldered hawk noisily flying over and an immature Cooper’s hawk flying silently just over the wetland shrubbery.
The next wooded margin produced a female plumaged hooded warbler and an immature chestnut-sided warbler. The chestnut-sided looks nothing like the adults which sometimes causes confusion in some casual birders.

So there were four species that I would call true migrants that morning. A small number but an encouraging start to the fall songbird migration. In another three or four weeks I would expect that number to triple or even quadruple. And the potential for some more interesting or uncommon species will increase too. It’s time to start looking so grab your binoculars and check out the chickadee flocks or any small bird you see  foraging in your shrubs or small trees.  

Chestnut-sided warbler by John Ennis

Warblers in fall plumage can look nothing like the breeding plumages. this is a fall-plumaged chestnut-sided warbler. Note the bold eye ring, bold wing bars, and bright green crown and back.

Chestnut-sided warbler by Phil Fowler

This is the breeding plumaged male chestnut-sided warbler. Note the bright colors and bold patterns.