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

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