Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Winter Finch Forecast is Out

North American birders got some anticipated news recently. The annual Winter Finch Forecast for 2015-2016 came out. The Winter Finch Forecast is a prediction of which of the northern finch species will move east, west, or south this winter; and which ones won’t. It appears purple finches may come south in small to moderate numbers, while other species such as pine siskins will stay put. That will be a relief to those of you who hosted hordes of siskins in recent winters and had to dole out extra seed money to keep them happy.

The Winter Finch Report is based on the productivity of the food crops in the border states and Canada. It is usually pretty accurate. We may not know exactly how accurate until after the first of the year, but I’m pretty sure southeastern birders will not be looking for redpolls, crossbills, and evening grosbeaks this winter. Read the Winter Finch Forecast for yourself at

It appears that purple finches may be the only "winter finch" to come to area feeders this winter. Male purple finch by John Ennis.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Transition from Fall to Winter, Birdwise, in Full Swing

By now the birds that we commonly think of as Neotropical migrants have passed through. Gone are most of the warblers, tanagers, thrushes, and flycatchers that drew birders into the field from late August to mid-October. There may be a few individual stragglers and a couple of late-migrating species to be found but the transition is well under way from familiar breeding birds to familiar wintering birds.

I’ve been looking for some of the more uncommon sparrow species lately, without much success as yet. But I have come across some returning species just about every day out.

The first true winter bird I found was a swamp sparrow in a cattail patch at a pond’s edge. Swamp sparrows are pretty easy to find in appropriate habitat but are tough to get away from wet habitats. Later the same day the first white-throated sparrow was seen. The white-throateds are one of the more abundant of our wintering sparrows.

Swamp Sparrow by Jeff Lewis

White-throated Sparrow by Phil Fowler

Yellow-rumped warblers have replaced the multiple species of warblers I have enjoyed since August. The yellow-rumpeds are the most common winter warbler.

The extremely high-pitched calls of golden-crowned kinglets came be heard from pines now. The calls are so high that some birders cannot hear them at all. That makes them tougher to see; they are really tiny. Their equally small cousin the ruby-crowned kinglet is finally here as well.

Golden-crowned Kinglet by Jeff Lewis

Ruby-crowned Kinglet by Jeff Lewis

House wrens are fairly common breeders in our area but the species completely changes habitats from summer to winter. By summer they are a bird of large residential yards and gardens. During the winter they move into brushy fields. I suspect the winter birds are from more northerly populations.
Yellow-bellied sapsuckers, our only woodpecker that isn’t with us in the summer, have returned to their favorite sap trees by now. Hermit thrushes, our only winter spotted thrush, will be here soon if not already. The first sizable flocks of cedar waxwings are now being seen overhead.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker by John Ennis

I haven’t seen any winter finches yet, and I may not this year. Predictions are for a poor flight into the Southeast. The same goes for red-breasted nuthatches. They could yet come in though. Every winter is different and is sure to hold a few surprises.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Rainy Day Birding

If you remember last Saturday, the weather was pretty lousy for outside activity, or so I thought. I was scheduled to lead a bird walk at Four-mile Creek Greenway. To my surprise four people showed up, two very enthusiastic Middle School aged boys each accompanied by a supportive parent. Despite the steady rain and my bargaining attempts to reschedule the group was gung-ho to do some birding. 

I really thought we would be lucky to see anything at all, but I am not going to be out-weathered by anybody and besides, I remember how I was at their age. There were birds to see and rain was nothing more than a minor inconvenience. So off we went, and I am glad we did.

I soon realized that there were small feeding flocks of migrants every couple of hundred yards along the trail. The first stop yielded a just-arrived white-throated sparrow, brown thrasher, and a very inquisitive magnolia warbler that swooped right in for a closer look. That was a life-bird for everyone; a pretty good start.

A black-and-white warbler, palm warbler, and two gaudy American redstarts awaited us within the next flock. I walked right by a dozing barred owl, unfazed by us or the rain. As is often the case in birding groups, the last person in line spotted it.

At the large cattail marsh, a flock of four indigo buntings, a couple of swamp sparrows, a common yellowthroat, and another brown thrasher posed nicely for our party. We took a short break from birding to examine some green treefrogs and cattail caterpillars. Back into the woods, a couple of Eastern wood-pewees called to each other. The birds seemed really agitated at the next spot and soon we knew the reason why; a large immature Cooper’s hawk launched off its perch and flew right over. Woodpeckers put on a good show with multiple individuals of red-bellied and downy seen, with an individual hairy woodpecker and Northern flicker to boot. In all we ended up with about 34 species on a day when I thought we would be lucky to identify a quarter of that number.

And I was reminded that birds don’t come in out of the rain and adverse conditions are no match for youthful enthusiasm.  

Magnolia Warbler by John Ennis

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.

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.