Monday, January 26, 2015

Checking Out the Gulls on Lake Norman

Yesterday I joined six other local birders for several hours of birding-by-boat at Lake Norman. Our primary goals were to look for a red-throated loon that had been seen recently; and to check out the huge evening gull roost in the Davidson Creek main channel.

Temperatures on land were at 60 F when we embarked at 2:00 PM, but it was soon evident that I would need the three layers of shirts, heavy coat, toboggan, and gloves that I wore.. It was cold out there on the water in a moving boat!

Immediately we began seeing common loons, not a rare sight on the lake in winter. We checked every loon carefully, but no red-throated turned up. A few ring-billed gulls had already started to form some small flocks resting on the water while some Bonaparte’s gull flocks hovered over the water’s surface.

We also started seeing large numbers of horned grebes on the open water. Their habits are similar to loons but they are much smaller. Some years they can be more challenging to find but this is apparently a good year for them here.

We boated around Nantz Cove and were treated to an adult bald eagle circling overhead. A few minutes later an immature bald eagle flew right by. By that time we noted increasing numbers of gulls heading for Davidson Creek so we turned to that direction. When we arrived at the roost site off Torrence Chapel Road there were already several thousand gulls massed up on the water. We carefully scanned the growing flock as more seemed to literally pour down from the sky. A few herring gulls started mixing in with the ring-billeds. Herring gulls make a up tiny percentage of the total gull numbers, but when there are 10,000 gulls it is easy to find a few herrings. It is also easy to pick them out because most are brown immature birds; quite a different look from the ring-billed gulls.

By 5:30 PM the fading light made viewing difficult so we headed in without finding the target loon or any rare gulls. We’ll check the flock again in a month or so. There are just too many birds out there for there not to be something really good. 

Below are some photographic comparisons of the three most common gull species on area reservoirs in the winter:

The ring-billed gull is the most common species. This is the gull you might see flying over any part of the county, sitting in parking lots, or pilfering french fries at fast food restaurants. The bird below is an adult in winter. Note the ring around the bill, gray mantle, white underparts, yellow legs, and yellow eye.

Adult Ring-billed Gull by Taylor Piephoff

Ring-billed gulls take two years to mature, so there are two distinct plumages. This is first-winter bird. Note the bi-colored bill, browner plumage, flesh colored legs, and dark eye.

First Winter Ring-billed Gull by Taylor Piephoff

First-winter herring gulls are easily picked out of the ring-billed gull flocks. Note the overall brown plumage, mostly dark bill, and flesh colored legs. they are also about one third larger than ring-billed gulls.

First-winter Herring Gull by Taylor Piephoff

Adult herring gulls rarely show up in winter at Lake Norman. Compare with the adult ring-billed gull. Note the more massive bill with no circling ring, and flesh colored legs. Unlike ring-billed gulls, herring gulls take four years to mature so there are four distinct plumages. Only two are shown here today. 

Bonaparte's gulls are small, dainty gulls that pick food off the surface of the water. Flocks of Bonaparte's gulls hover over feeding loons in hopes of scavenging some fish scraps. Note the long, thin black bill, and black spot behind the ear of the winter birds. The white leading edge of the wings is also a helpful identification mark.
Adult Bonaparte's Gull by Jeff Lewis

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Courtship and Nesting has Begun

It is only mid-January but already our local avifauna are giving us signs that the nesting season is not far off. Northern cardinals start singing this month. During bad weather they may be silent but on sunny days you should be able to hear the clear whistled peer peer purdy purdy purdy of the males. They know now is the time to set territorial boundaries and attract suitable females. Woodpeckers of several species are using different techniques to accomplish the same end. Last week I heard a pileated woodpecker giving its loud and distinctive drum roll along the Lower McAlpine Greenway behind Pike’s Nursery.
Great horned owls have already taken care of that business. If you have a pair in your neighborhood you should be hearing them hooting back and forth at dawn and dusk. The faster, higher pitched hoots belong to the males. The females give much a deeper, slower series of hoots. The nest sites are already picked out and there may be eggs already.
I have gotten a few recent reports of bald eagle activity around the Piper Glen area of Rea Road, and I have seen some adults there on a couple of occasions. Last year a pair produced a single chick in the area, and I suspect they are refurbishing the nest and will have chicks again this year. Like the great horned owls, they are early nesters and may already be on some eggs.
If you live near some open weedy fields bordered by hardwood or mixed pine forest try listening for the courtship display of the American woodcock. The males are in full display right now. At dusk and dawn, the males give a repeated nasal peent call, then launch themselves into the air, spiraling upward with a peculiar whirring sound of the wings. At the zenith of their ascent they give a chirping sound as they rapidly shoot back down to earth. After a few seconds the entire process is repeated.

I am sure there will be more cold temperatures and nasty weather that will temporarily halt these early season activities, but once the weather calms the activity will pick up stronger than before.  

Woodpeckers are starting to drum on noisy sources now. Hollow tree trunks, metal surfaces, etc. are all utilized. Birders can tell the species of woodpecker by the rhythm and volume of the drumming.
Pileated Woodpecker by Phil Fowler

Bald eagles will be nesting soon back in the Piper Glen area it looks like. This photo, taken through a spotting scope last year shows an adult on the right with the almost-fully- grown chick on the left.
Bald Eagles by Carol Jackson

Great horned owls are likely already on nests in our area. this photo  was taken a couple of years ago at Colonel Francis Beatty Park.
Great Horned Owl by Phil Fowler

American woodcock are giving their courtship displays in earnest right now, at dawn and dusk.
American Woodcock by Ron Clark

Northern cardinals are staring to sing and set up nesting territories now.
Northern Cardinal by Ron Clark

Monday, January 12, 2015

Weather Changes Bring Bird Changes

The Arctic blast that come into the area last week brought overnight changes to the avifauna at both the state and local level. Prior to the weather change, the generally mild and benign conditions had resulted in many birds lingering farther north or west than usual. Blue-gray gnatcatchers, a species I have seen but three times in Mecklenburg County in the winter, were found on two local Christmas Counts. The same goes for black and white warblers, found on two local counts. Waterfowl numbers had been pretty low with no really rare ducks showing up.

At the state level the winter had been notable only for there being no big rarities reported. Wintering hummingbirds are also down in number for unknown reasons.
By Thursday January eighth that all changed. Brutally cold and nasty weather to our north pushed birds into the southeast. Local eight degree temperatures flushed birds out of the frozen shallow marshes to more open environs. Birders checking Lake Davidson found three common mergansers, a pretty rare northern duck around here. With them were canvasback, greater scaup, and over 200 mallards. A white-winged scoter was found on Lake Norman, and I received a report of more gulls than usual on Mountain Island Lake.

The changes were not limited to water birds either. Feeder watchers reported Baltimore orioles at their offerings for the first time this season. Statewide, hummingbirds began appearing at feeders where absent before. I’ll bet many of you noticed a marked difference at your feeders after the blast. Always remember; unusual cold or winter precipitation drives birds from the woods to the feeders.

Even birders out in the field noticed changes. The numbers of reported rarities increased as the cold got the birds more active and moving around searching for food, water, and warmth.

So, for the feeder watchers out there; keep an eye open for new and unusual arrivals. Refresh your hummingbird feeders even if you haven’t seen any so far. And most importantly, remember to provide water for all birds in temperatures well below freezing.   

Below are some duck species that generally do not show up in our area unless there is unusually cold weather that freezes open water to our north. All of these species were found recently at Lake Norman.

Canvasback by Cathy miller

Greater Scaup by John Ennis

White-winged Scoter by Phil Fowler

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Meet the Photographers

Today I am going to tell you about a few people instead of birds, and introduce you to the photographers that supply me with most of the photos for my column and blog. I am immensely grateful to them for their gracious consent to allow me to use their photos to enhance my work. And they all photograph more than just birds. Check them out for butterflies, reptiles, plants, and mammals and more. Here they are:

Jeff Lewis, Manteo NC: Jeff is perhaps the most frequently featured photographer.  
Jeff has easy access to some of the best birding areas in North Carolina. Places like the Alligator River NWR, Pea Island NWR, Bodie Island, and Mattamuskeet NWR are his frequent haunts.
Check out his work at or

John Ennis, Leland NC: John spends his time documenting the birds of Brunswick and New Hanover Counties in North Carolina, and far beyond. He explores the roads and swamps of Brunswick County and spends a lot of time at Fort Fisher and Wrightsville Beach. John is a past Executive Committee member of the Carolina Bird Club. See more of his work at

Jeff Lemons, Charlotte, NC: Jeff travels the state photographically documenting as many species as he can, common and rare alike. The photo today is one of my favorite photos of his from Mecklenburg County. View his work at

Phil Fowler, Concord, NC: Phil always has his camera along on local field trips, ready to document any unusual species that might be discovered. Phil is a past Executive Committee member of Mecklenburg Audubon and the Carolina Bird Club.

Kent Fiala, Chapel Hill, NC: Kent maintains the wonderful website and photo gallery of the Carolina Bird Club;, and contributes frequently to it. He has traveled extensively to Central America. His website is accessed at

Ron Clark, Kings Mt: Ron leads birding trips all over the United States from right here at home to Alaska. He is currently on the Executive committee of the Carolina Bird Club.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

More American Oystercatcher Movements

A few weeks ago I reported on the wanderings of a banded American oystercatcher I had observed near Ocean Isle Beach in Brunswick County, NC. Over New Year’s I was again in that area and encountered a nice flock of 20 oystercatchers at the east end of Ocean Isle Beach, two of which wore bands.

I was able to read the bands on both. One wore dark green bands with “XI” on both legs. The other wore orange bands with “05” on both legs. New Jersey uses orange bands and North Carolina uses green.

The New Jersey bird was captured and banded at Little Egg Inlet in 2010. It was re-sighted twice in at the same location in 2011 but has eluded birders’ eyes since then until last week when I saw it.

The North Carolina bird has an extensive re-sighting record, with 28 records entered into the American Oystercatcher Working Group database. It was banded as a chick at Hatteras Island in 2007 and has been nesting as an adult at Ocracoke Island since 2009. The bird likes to spend its winters in the Holden Beach-Ocean Isle-Sunset Beach area; having been sighted at those locations several times. I have reported this bird once before myself, at the exact location in 2013.

For more information on the work being done on American oystercatchers on the East and Gulf Coasts, check out the American Oystercatcher working Group at:

Oystercatchers from New Jersey are adorned with orange bands.

Oystercatchers banded in North Carolina wear green bands.

North Carolina's bands are conspicuous on the birds. Note this one has a radio tracking antenna attached to it also.
American Oystercatcher by John Ennis

Thursday, January 1, 2015

End of the Year Birding

It has been a great year of Mecklenburg County birding for me. Last January I set a goal of seeing 200 species within the county. I figured that was a challenging yet realistic endeavor to undertake. So on January 23rd I recorded my first bird, a great horned owl in my back yard. On December 31st I recorded my last one, a Northern pintail along the Catawba River across from Mount Holly.
In between I saw 202 species. I saw the 200th on December 13th at Richard Barry Park off Beatties Ford Road, a Wilson’s snipe.
Many birders will attempt similar challenges for themselves. Some will search for birds in a certain state, or the whole United States, or North America. I was reminded that there are a lot of places to go and a lot of birds to see right here in Mecklenburg County.
I experienced much more than those 204 birds. I spent more time in field and incidentally found cool butterflies and moths, rare plants, reptiles, amphibians, secretive mammals and much more. I found out that local birders are exceedingly eager to help others find target birds. I received tips on the whereabouts of birds, was able to tag along on boat excursions on Lake Norman, crashed local field trips with no complaints from the leaders, and was granted access to some private and restricted properties.
I got to see the excitement in other birders when they saw something they had been looking for, or perhaps had never seen before in their lives. I grew to appreciate the incredible skills that area birders possess, and I was humbled to take advantage of their better eyesight and relentless enthusiasm.
I renewed and continued birding relationships established long ago. I get to bird with a handful of people only one time a year, usually during the just completed Christmas bird Counts. I am thankful those folks continued the tradition this year.

So what started as a quest to experience the birds of Mecklenburg County became an experience of the people who pursue this passion. So to the everyday birders, to the sometime birders, to the window watchers; Thanks for a great year!

Northern pintail was the last bird I recorded in 2014. The males are exceedingly handsome, with the females being more muted, as in most waterfowl. The bird I saw was a lone female, but she was beautiful to me. The bird on the right is a female Northern pintail.
Northern Pintail by Phil Fowler