Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Local Rarities on the Southern Lale Norman Christmas Bird Count

 The Southern Lake Norman Christmas bird Count took place on December 14, 2014 with thirty nine participants tallying 101 species. Exceeding the century mark in total species is extraordinary for a piedmont count. It's a testament to the diligence and expertise of everyone who contributes to the census. You can't find 101 species without finding some unusual birds. Below are some of the ones we found Sunday

 Red-throated loons are common at the coast but are rare inland. This bird is in winter plumage. One red-throated loon showed up at Lake Norman.

Red-necked grebes are rare winter visitors to North Carolina. A single red-necked grebe was found on Lake Norman.

American wigeon are tough to find in Mecklenburg County. It had been a few years since I had seen one here.The male is on the left with a female on the right. A male wigeon was found at the Cowan's Ford Dam.

American wigeon by Phil Fowler

Blue-headed vireos are occasional here in the winter. I find them in mixed flocks of feeding passerines. this year one was found at the Davidson College cross country trails.

Blue-headed vireo by john Ennis

Black and white warblers are pretty rare in the winter piedmont. one showed up in huntersville this year.

Black and white warbler by Jeff Lewis

Orange-crowned warblers are more common at the coast but some linger into early winter here. One was found at Birkdale Golf Course.

Orange-crowned warbler by Jeff Lewis

Common yellowtroats brighten up any winter brush pile, especially the brighter males. A male was found at Cowan's Ford Refuge.

Common yellowthroat by Phil Fowler

Loggerhead shrike numbers have crashed throughout their range in the last few decades. formally a fairly common nester in Mecklenburg, they are all but gone now. One found near Wallace Farms is probably the only one in the county right now, and was a complete surprise on Sunday.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Band Information on American Oystercatcher

I received banding information on the banded American oystercatcher I mentioned in a previous post. The bird was banded as a chick on June 13, 2014 at Masonboro Island, just south of Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina.
During the summer it was re-sighted five times; all from the same location. On November 29th my birding group sighted it about 40 miles to the south at Saucepan Creek behind the west end of Holden Beach. That’s about 40 miles of coastline, not straight-shot. This oystercatcher would have moved along the immediate coast line.

So the bird is not a big wanderer, at least not yet. It’s young, having just left it’s nesting grounds within the last couple of months. I plan to keep checking the site at low tide through the winter to seeif they bird stays or moves on. Maybe some other banded birds will show up as the winter progresses.

This bird was banded as a chick in June 2014 at Masonboro Island, NC. It was re-sighted in November about 40 miles away.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Christmas Begins this Sunday for Area Birders

For thousands of birders world-wide, Christmas begins this Sunday December fourteenth. That is the opening day of The National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count period which runs each year from that date through January fifth. During those three weeks, birders will take to the field for a full day of counting birds and collecting bird population and distribution data. It is the longest running citizen science program; this year marks the one-hundred fifteenth anniversary of the Count.
Participants fan out within a fifteen mile diameter circle from a predetermined center to census all the species that they encounter. Over the years, the data has proven valuable for researchers studying changes in populations and population shifts. 

In North Carolina, forty-one counts have been scheduled this season, with eighteen already set in South Carolina. By the time the period is over, over fifty counts will have been conducted in North Carolina and close to thirty in South Carolina.

This isn’t a casual stroll through the woods and fields looking at birds. This is an intensive effort where the mission is to FIND birds. That means getting off trail, walking through thickets, wading through marshes and swamps, getting in the field before sun up and staying after sun down. The Count goes on rain or shine, cold or warm, wind or calm. I have done all-day counts in the freezing rain, deep snow, and single digit wind chills. This is serious business.
I will participate in five Christmas Counts this year; Southern Lake Norman on the fourteenth, Gastonia on the twentieth, Charlotte on the twenty-seventh, Wilmington on January third, and Southport / Bald Head Island on January fourth. There are some other area counts of interest as well; York/Rock Hill on December twentieth, Catawba Valley on December thirtieth, and Pee Dee Refuge on January third. 
What’s the payoff? I get to spend all day birding with other enthusiastic birders, I will see lots of good birds, there’s the potential to find a real local or state rarity, I know the data collected will go into a database that is constantly being tapped, and there is a free tally up supper at the end of each day.
For more information on the 115th Christmas Bird Count go to  and

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Helping to Track the American Oystercatcher

I spent the Thanksgiving holiday week at the beach, Ocean Isle Beach to be exact. I took full advantage of the change in venue and birds by doing a good bit of birding once the rain stopped midweek. On Saturday November twenty-ninth five other birders joined me for a day of birding the area. One thing I always check for is leg bands on certain species like American oystercatchers and piping plovers. I didn’t see any piping plovers but did encounter a nice flock of fifteen oystercatchers in Saucepan Creek; with one individual sporting some green leg bands with a readable code on each.
American oystercatchers catch the attention of birders and non-birders alike. They are large birds that have strong contrasting black, brown, and white plumage. The most prominent feature however is the bright red bill and bright red eye ring of the adults.
The American oystercatcher has been identified as one of several shorebird species where the population is low enough as to warrant special attention. In 2001 the American Oystercatcher Working Group was formed to gather information on the species and to come up with management plans. One initiative was to establish a banding program that has greatly increased knowledge of the species’ migration movements and wintering sites. With binoculars or scopes, the codes on the bands can be seen and reported to an online database. Within a few days a report is sent back to the observer letting them know where the bird was originally banded and locations of other re-sightings, if any.
By reporting re-sightings, even the casual birder can contribute to the knowledge of where important migration stop-over spots are, as well as important wintering areas. The Working Group can them come up with conservation strategies to help these favorite beach birds out.
I reported the banded bird from Saucepan Creek and the band code of “CJO”. You can just make out the band code on the accompanying photo that was taken at some distance. This appears to be a young bird as evidenced by the dark portions of the bill, different from the bright red bill that adults show.

As of this writing I have not received a report of where this bird was banded or where else it has been spotted. I will let you know when I hear something. 

 Here is the subject bird of today's blog. It was taken at some distance, but with the aid of a scope the band code was able to be seen. Note on all the birds below that the bands are all the same color green. This indicates all were hatched and banded in North Carolina. Each state has its own unique band color and scheme.
Am. Oystercatcher, Saucepan Creek, Brunswick Co NC 

The photo below shows another young banded bird from Wrightsville Beach area of NC. Note the dark tip to the bill indicating a 1st year bird. The bird on the right is a juvenile laughing gull.

A. Oystercatcher; by John Ennis

The photo below shows an adult banded oystercatcher from Cape Hatteras. Note the adult has a completely red bill and prominent red eye ring.

Am. Oystercatcher; Cape Hatteras NC 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Birds Use White Feathers to Communicate Warnings

While looking at some sparrows recently I noticed a few flashing white outer tail feathers as they flew away from me. I used this feature to identify dark-eyed juncos and vesper sparrows in that flock. A little later I startled a Northern flicker off the ground and watched it flash a conspicuous white rump as it again flew away. Still later, a Northern mockingbird flew close in to me as I made some squeaky noises to attract some birds. It perched close and slowly raised its wings to expose large white wing patches. When it finally identified me, it flew away flashing bright white outer tail feathers too.

White is a color that is often used in nature to communicate danger or a warning to anything that may be paying attention. Think about when a cottontail rabbit or a white-tailed deer is startled or runs away from you. They too flash bright white as they depart.

In the case of the mockingbird, the slowly raising of the wings to show off the white patches is a defensive sign and a warning to other birds that they are intruding on its territory. The sparrows and flicker flashing white while they flee are communicating to other members of their flock that there is an imminent threat. It also provides a beacon for the other birds to follow as they all try to escape the threat.

There are many other local bird species that have varying amounts of white in the tail. Eastern towhees, American pipits, Eastern meadowlarks, pine warblers, horned larks, and longspurs all have it. Many waterfowl, woodpeckers, white-rumped sandpipers, greater and lesser yellowlegs, black-bellied plovers and loggerhead shrikes, to name just a few more; show white wing or rump flashes. Again these white areas are best seen when the bird is flying away from you.

For the birder, these white marks are useful field marks that aid in quick identification. A glimpse of a flash of white in a flushed sparrow flock quickly confirms the presence of vesper sparrows or juncos. Birders use white rumps and white wing patches to quickly identify birds in flight, sometimes at great distances.

Northern Mockingbird by Phil Fowler

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Orioles Can Brighten up a Winter Feeder

Baltimore orioles can be occasional winter visitors to area feeders. They like a variety of foods; suet dough, sunflower chips, shelled peanut, orange slices, and especially grape jelly are very good at attracting them if they are in the area. And there is potential to attract a rare species of oriole too.

Baltimore orioles occur in a wide variety of plumages based on molt, age, and gender. Below are some frequently encountered plumages.

Male Baltimore Oriole by Jeff Lewis
Male Bullock's Oriole by Jeff Lemons

Identification of adult male orioles is pretty straightforward. the more commonly see Baltimore male has the complete black hood.

The adult male Bullock's oriole is extremely rare here, but this photo was taken near Southpark  two winters ago. Note the orange face and black eyeline and "goatee."

Female Baltimore Oriole by Jeff Lewis

Female Baltimores lack the extensive black of the males. Note the strong stripes on the wings and the orange plumage, especially on the upper breast.

Female Baltimore Oriole by Phil Fowler
In this bird, note again the orange tint to the breast. Also note the long, thin bill in both birds.

Immature Male Baltimore by Jeff Lewis
In this immature male Baltimore oriole, the black hood is just now molting in. This bird is not as orange as some but some orange feathers can be seen coming in on the chest. 

And always be aware of the possibility of a Western tanager visiting your feeder. As in orioles, the adult males are strikingly colored and identification is usually easy. There will be at least a hint of red in the face. This photo was taken in Mecklenburg County a few years ago. 

Adult Male Western Tanager by Wayne Forsythe

The more likely to be seen females and immatures may resemble this duller bird below. Note the greenish yellow plumage and two wing bars, the upper one being yellowish, the lower being whiter. Also notice the bill is shorter and thicker.

Western Tanager by Jeff Lemons.

In this immature male below, note again the yellow upper wing bar, brighter greenish yellow plumage, and a hint of red coming in around the face.

Immature Male Western Tanager by Jeff Lewis

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Water is Just as Important in Winter for Birds

We have gotten off to an early start for really cold weather this winter. As freezing mornings get more frequent, it is important to remember that our area birds need water as much as they need feeder food, maybe even more. Heated bird baths are great, and if you are thinking of investing in one you should not be disappointed if you opt to purchase. But just supplying water in a shallow pan or conventional birdbath during the winter can be just as rewarding, especially during bouts of snow and ice.

You might also attract species that may not normally visit feeders. American robins and cedar waxwings are frequent patrons of provided water in the winter. Check out the photos from our area and see for yourself. 

Cedar Waxwings and Robin by Billy Vaughn

Cedar Waxwings and Robins by Jeanne Davis