Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A Successful Bird Chase

It is a rare event when I get to add a bird to my North Carolina State List anymore, and even rarer when I add a bird to my Life List without some extensive travel. I was able to accomplish adding a species to both lists last Sunday when I made a run to Winston-Salem to check off the buff-bellied hummingbird I told you about last week. The bird had been seen at two feeders at houses across the street from each other. When I arrived the bird was sitting on a front yard feeder taking a leisurely drink. No waiting. That North Carolina species #411 is one accommodating and cooperative bird!

It is a nice adult male, which always makes identifications easy in hummingbirds. Check out some photos of the females of a few species and you will soon find many of them look pretty similar. I don’t know how many birders have made the trip to see the bird but it is not unusual for over a hundred folks to chase such a rarity. All have been successful as far as I know. I’m glad I was one of them. I feel fortunate the little guy has hung around for some weeks. Eventually it will depart when a strong cold front finally pushes through.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Hummingbirds Out, Hummingbirds In

I have gotten some questions recently about the movements of hummingbirds through our area. For the most part, the bulk of the ruby-throated hummingbirds have passed through the mountains and piedmont of North Carolina by now. There will be a few stragglers from now through the end of October, but watch as their numbers gradually dwindle with each passing day. Really, by mid-October they are almost all gone.

But that doesn’t mean that hummingbird action is over for 2016. To the contrary, the most exciting time to look for and attract hummingbirds is from now through the end of the year.
Notice I mentioned the ruby-throated hummingbirds will be gone by the end of October. But there are other species that will come into the Carolinas in varying numbers by species. Case in point, right now there is a buff-bellied hummingbird in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. That bird is only the second confirmed record of the species from North Carolina. Buff-bellied hummingbirds regularly occur in the United States in extreme southern Texas. The species will winter along the Gulf Coast in small numbers, with an extremely rare individual occasionally overshooting into neighboring states and regions.

Buff-bellied Hummingbird

At times of high bird movement; spring and fall migrations especially; there is an increased chance of a rarity being discovered. So, will you attract a mega-rarity hummingbird this fall? Almost certainly not. But you definitely should start taking a close look at any hummingbirds that are still hanging around or arrive in the next several weeks.

Your chances of attracting a less-rare species of hummingbird are increasing with every week however. Rufous hummingbirds will be arriving soon and some individuals will spend the entire winter right here in Mecklenburg County. Some of them are probably already here, blending in with the remaining ruby-throateds. So again, look closely at any remaining hummingbirds and note any differences from what you normally see. And try your best to get a photo to send to me if you think you see something different. piephoffT@aol.com

I will write more about wintering hummingbirds in a few weeks, but in light of the buff-bellied hummer in Winston-Salem I thought it might be worthwhile to remind everyone to keep a close eye on the feeders.    

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Listen for the Migration

Experienced birders will often use a bird’s calls or songs as a means of identification. Most everyone knows that each species has its own unique song; but birds’ calls consisting of single note chips, whistles, tweets, tseeps, and other sounds are also unique and can be used to identify the bird.

It is helpful to know the sounds a particular bird makes. It eliminates the need to see the bird, sometimes a tough task, unless you really want to get a look at it. It also gives the bird’s location away, which is very helpful if you want to see it.

I stepped outside one day a couple of weeks ago shortly before 6:00 AM and heard what sounded like spring peepers coming from the sky. Spring peepers are tiny frogs that give a high-pitched “peep” in early spring. I knew it wasn’t frogs but was instead the nocturnal call notes of migrating Swainson’s thrushes overhead. This past week I again heard the same sounds but mixed in were the rougher nocturnal call notes of three other thrushes; wood thrush, gray-cheeked thrush, and veery. I’m not the best at distinguishing nocturnal call notes but thrushes are among the easiest to differentiate. You can listen to the flight calls of various thrushes, and other migrants by visiting http://pjdeye.blogspot.com/2009/02/thrush-calls.html

Swainson's Thrush by Lee Weber

You can hear them too. If you are an early riser like me, step outside before dawn while it is still dark and listen for a few minutes. If it is a big migration night you may be amazed at how many travelling birds you will hear. You might hear warblers, sparrows, tanagers, orioles and other migrants.

In some ways listening to nocturnal flight calls can give a better picture of how many birds are passing through and may even help with population estimates. Migrating birds seem to constantly sound off at night. Even simple recording devices can pick up the sounds. The recordings can then be analyzed at leisure at a later date to determine which conditions are optimum for movement, which species were moving when, or to gauge the presence of rarer species. Information gathered is often more accurate than visual information gathered during the daytime. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Shorebirds Just Keep Coming

Everyone who goes to the beach has noticd the tiny sandpipers that run along the beach, chasing the waves as they wash out, then retreating as they crash back in to shore. Those very common birds are sanderlings.

What an odd sight last week when four sanderlings were found on a mudflat on the Catawba river near Belmont, for only the second local record in over twenty-five years. Seeing birds so far out of their preferred or normal habitat can make even serious, experienced birders do a double take.

Birders ticking off the sanderlings for their county or year lists were also treated to another extremely rare local shorebird, a buff-breasted sandpiper. This species typically is found in short-grass habitats, but there one was on a mudflat with a flock of killdeer.

It is going to be very interesting to see how many species of shorebirds end up getting tallied in Mecklenburg in 2015. there are several species whose occurrence here is a real possibility.

Sanderling by John Ennis
 Even non-birders have noticed sanderlings rapidly scampering along the ocean's edge, but their occurrence inland is  much rarer.

The buff-breasted sandpiper is more commonly found in short grass areas, as pictured below.

Buff-breasted sandpiper by Phil Fowler

Monday, September 21, 2015

A Striking Surprise in Mint Hill

Ezell Farm in Mint Hill delivered some nice, locally uncommon birds after the passage of the cold front last weekend. 

I was excited to be greeted by a beautiful adult red-headed woodpecker; the first time I have seen that species there. The adults are striking, as pictured below. The species is an uncommon nester in Mecklenburg County, preferring open country with scattered large trees. Migrants enter the area from the north in fall and winter, increasing the species' numbers.

Red-headed Woodpecker by Phil Fowler

 Family groups of blue grosbeaks and indigo buntings flushed out of the hedgerows. They might have been migrants but could be local breeders that haven’t departed yet. By now, the brilliant plumage of the adult males has given way to the drab brown characteristic of females and immatures. A few blue feathers may persist into late fall.

Blue Grosbeak by Phil Fowler

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Cold Fronts Bring the Migrants

The cold front that came through last weekend was the stuff that birders live for. Fall fronts such as that one promise to bring loads of migrants on the winds that follow them. Some fantastic birds were found in the area on Sunday but I was out of town. The next day, Monday the 14th, was the day I spent in the field hoping to find my share of good migrants.

One stop was a section of Mallard Creek Greenway in the University Research Park. The first bird I got a good look at was a nice yellow-breasted chat that sat up nicely in a most un-chat like way. Chats can be really tough to see sometimes. 

Yellow-breasted Chat by Lee Weber

The migrant list rounded out with black and white warbler, magnolia warbler, Tennessee warbler, and American redstarts. An adult male American goldfinch feeding three begging fledged juveniles was a highlight. Goldfinches are very late nesters.

American Goldfinch by Lee Weber

American redstarts are one of the most common migrant warblers that pass thru our area in spring and fall. Immature birds like the one pictured below outnumber adults. 

American Redstart by Jeff Lewis

Black and White warblers are common too. They forage along the trunks and limbs of trees gleaning insects from bark crevices; unlike most other insectivores that glean from the foliage.

Black and White Warbler by Jeff Lewis

Magnolia warblers are pretty numerous too. Like most species, the immatures like the one below, outnumber the adults,

Magnolia Warbler by Jeff Lewis

Tennessee warblers are relatively drab compared to most other warblers, even in fall. This species is far more numerous here in the fall than in the spring, when they are very rare.
Tennessee Warbler by John Ennis

Friday, September 11, 2015

More Shorebird Look-A-Likes

I was lucky to find three semipalmated plovers this week along the Catawba River near Belmont. Plovers are small to mid-sized shorebirds. The semipalmated is one of the smaller species. The birds i encountered were immatures, much like the bird pictured below.

Immature Semipalmated Plover by Jeff Lewis

In breeding plumage, the adults are more boldly marked with a solid black neckband. They superficially resemble the killdeer, another larger plover that is common in the Piedmont pretty much year-round. Adult spring semipalmated plovers are shown immediately below.

Adult Semipalmated Plovers by Taylor Piephoff

Killdeer, shown below, are about twice as large. they have two bold neckbands and are extremely noisy most of the time, especially when startled or when birders get too close. The seem to alert other birds in the area to potential danger by their racket.

Killdeer by Ron Clark