Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Highlights of the Charlotte CBC

There were lots of highlights from the Charlotte Christmas Bird Count conducted last Saturday, so many in fact that the final count resulted in a record-high species count for this 75 year old tradition. Area birders were able to tally 98 species, besting the previous high of 96. Lingering semi-hardy species were responsible for the high count; those species that normally would be gone from the area if not for the near-record high temperatures that have dominated the count period so far.

My day started at Renaissance Golf Course off Tyvola Road.  For the first couple of hours I would not have guessed a record setting day was looming. Not an owl or American woodcock could be coaxed to sound off before dawn. Once the sun came up the birding remained slow and we had to work for everything we got. Some nice local finds like orange-crowned warbler and white-crowned sparrow put in appearances but those are reliable at that site. A fox sparrow, in short supply this warm winter, sang back in response to a tape playback.
It really changed mid-morning when we heard the unmistakable nasal calls of a blue-gray gnatcatcher, an abundant summer resident but rare in early winter. I gave a few squeaky calls back and the little bird flew right in. Since we were standing next to a small wetland, I clapped my hands loudly to try to entice any rails present to sound off. To my surprise a sora immediately gave its alarm squeak. That’s another common migrant that should have moved out by now.

Back towards the 18th green, a shrubby, weedy embankment produced the best bird of the day, a Lincoln’s sparrow. That’s a species hard to find at any season let alone early winter. They are skulkers but can be induced to come in to squeaky sounds, which is what this bird did. While we were enjoying the sparrow a common raven flew over, a permanent resident but sometimes hard to find.

Those were just my highlights. Others I have heard about from other groups included green heron, spotted sandpiper, rufous hummingbird, black-and-white warbler, common yellowthroat, and loggerhead shrike.
Spotted Sandpiper by John Ennis
Spotted sandpipers winter along the coast in small numbers but very rarely this far inland, and then usually are restricted to waste-treatment plants.

Green Heron by Ron Clark
Green herons are like the spotted sandpiper, present in small numbers along the coast in winter but usually not in the piedmont.

Sora by Ron Clark
Soras are like small chickens that live in marshes. In years where the local waters do not freeze regularly they can be found in appropriate habitat.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher by John Ennis
These tiny songbirds are insectivores so warm weather in early winter provides them a food source until the onset of cold.

Loggerhead Shrike by John Ennis
Shrike numbers have plummeted over the last few decades so that this once-common permanent resident is now a bona fide rarity in Mecklenburg County. I haven't seen one this year.

Common Yellowthroat by John Ennis
Another common breeding bird, the common yellowthroat lingers in wet areas in warm winters.

Lincoln's Sparrow by Phil Fowler
This species may be more overlooked in winter due to its similarity to other sparrow species. still, even if present it is in small numbers.

Black and White Warbler by Jeff Lewis
This warbler gleans insects from bark crevices so it can linger longer in winter than species that glean from foliage.

Rufous Hummingbird by Phil Fowler
This bird is wintering in Myers Park; the only hummer I know of in the county yet this winter.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Beautiful Little Brown Bird

To the uninitiated, sparrow identification can be frustrating endeavor. I suspect many a promising birder has been turned off by a day in weedy sparrow fields. They all are little brown jobs.

During the Charlotte Christmas Bird count I was able to locate a Lincoln’s sparrow, a species that is both often mis-identified and often overlooked. Swamp sparrows are often called Lincoln’s sparrows by the over enthused birder while the more laid back birder may actually call a real Lincoln’s a song, savannah, or swamp sparrow.

Lincoln’s sparrows are tough to find here at any season though. Too bad because they are subtle little beauties. Take a look at the photos below of a Lincoln’s sparrow and  its look-a-likes. 

Lincoln's Sparrow by Phil Fowler

Lots of sparrows are streaky little brown birds. the Lincoln's above combines common characteristics of streaky breast, a middle breast spot, and streaked crown. In the Lincoln's, note the nice buff wash across the top of the chest and the fine vertical streaking of the chest. The combination buffy and gray face makes this a Lincoln's sparrow. The species also has a slight crest which it will raise when alarmed, just as this bird is doing.

Savannah Sparrow by

Savannah sparrows are more heavily streaked on the breast, lack the buff wash there, and have white and sometimes a yellowish wash on the face.

Song Sparrow by 

Song sparrows are perhaps the most abundant sparrow in our area in winter. Note the even heavier streaking with heavier central breast spot. Compared to the daintier Lincoln's, song sparrows are much bulkier and overall much larger.

Swamp Sparrow by Jeff Lemons
Swamp sparrows can show alot of buff coloring and some diffuse streaking with a central breast spot on the underside. The buff is in the wrong place though, restricted to the flanks. and they never have the clearly defined streaking of the Lincoln's.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Lots of Red-headed Woodpeckers

Every winter brings subtle differences to the local populations of our wintering birds. Casual observers may not notice, but some species are more numerous in some years than in others. The reasons are complex and varied.

Active birders have noticed there are significantly more red-headed woodpeckers around this winter than in recent years. Unlike some of our local woodpecker species, the red-headed woodpecker is a highly migratory species. Some years they move south in larger numbers than other years. Many of the birds being seen right now are immature birds lacking the brilliant red head of the adults.

I have noticed an increase locally in the past couple of months. Every beaver pond and flooded low woodland has multiple birds chattering and quarreling in typical red-headed fashion. They are the hot heads of the woodpecker tribe.

Adult Red-headed Woodpecker by Phil Fowler

Red-headed woodpeckers love open country with scattered large oak trees; and flooded woodlands influenced by beaver activity. They are conspicuous both with their gaudy and highly contrasting plumage and constant noisy chattering.

Many of the birds in our area right now are immatures which lack the red head and solid black back. The white wing patches also have some black feathering unlike the adults.

Immature Red-headed Woodpecker by Mary Sonis

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Few Highlights From Last Weekend's Christmas Counts

Last weekend’s Christmas Bird Counts in Gaston County and Southern Lake Norman offered great birding weather, cold starts with gradual warmups through mid-afternoon, but I had to work pretty hard for everything I got. The numbers of birds just seem to be down so far this season. The activity in the brushy fields and thickets is a bit off.

That’s not to say there weren’t any highlights. Saturday in Gastonia I was surrounded by at least four American woodcock displaying at close range from 6:30 AM to about 7:00 AM. I even got to see some sitting on the ground in the beam of my flashlight. Later, an orange-crowned warbler and a palm warbler in a weedy field were nice finds. At Rankin Lake I found more red-headed woodpeckers than ever before; this is clearly a good year for that species.

I met some other birders for owling at 5:30 AM at the Davidson College campus on Sunday morning. A barred owl immediately let loose with a “hoo-aw” call, apparently startled by the slamming of a car door. An hour of playing playback of Eastern screech owl calls finally induced one of those little owls to answer. Well after sun-up a great horned-owl hooted twice to give us the owl trifecta at one spot.

But birding the rest of the morning was more challenging. I was happy to pick up two brown creepers and up to four pine warblers in a small flock but numbers were down. The same conditions continued at the Davidson Greenway where many species we usually find were just absent.

But there were some nice surprises as always. I mentioned the Cape May warbler yesterday. Other groups in other parts of the circle found seasonal rarities like common raven. greater yellowlegs, gray catbird, and rehead (a duck).

Redheads by John Ennis

Redheads are handsome ducks that are uncommon in our area in the winter.

Common Raven by Jeff Lemons

Common ravens are not so common here. There are a few pairs around here but they are infrequently seen.

Greater yellowlegs by John Ennis

Greater yellowlegs have usually moved out of the area by now.

Gray Catbird by Phil Fowler

Gray catbirds can persist in the western piedmont in years of mild weather, but generally move a bit east to the coastal areas.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Big Surprise on Southern Lake Norman CBC

While going through a feeding flock of small land birds on Sunday's Southern Lake Norman Christmas Bird Count I was caught completely by surprise by one little bird that flew in to within 10 feet of me on the Davidson College campus.

The bird was small and predominantly yellow at first glance. I immediately thought "pine warbler" but I quickly noticed the presence of sharp black streaking on the upper and mid breast. CAPE MAY WARBLER!!

Cape May warblers come through our area every spring and fall and are not too hard to find. But one in mid-December is astounding; so much so that there are very few winter records for the entire state. When they are found it is usually at a feeder where a constant source of protein can be gotten. That bird needs to find a suet feeder in Davidson before it turns too cold.

Cape May Warbler by Jeff Lewis

Compare the above photo to the one of a pine warbler below. Pine warblers are the only expected small yellow bird to be found in our area during the winter. Note the conspicuous black streaking on the breast of the Cape May. The species also has one large, thick whitish wing bar on the shoulder. Pine warblers are pretty clear-breasted except for some diffuse faint streaking on the sides of the yellow breast. Note also the two prominent wing bars on the pine. Both photos depict males of each species.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Christmas for Birders

Last Monday kicked off the 116th year of Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, the longest running citizen science project. Every year birders look forward to the Christmas Bird Count season that runs from December 14 to January fifth every year. It’s an opportunity to spend a day in the field birding alone or in an organized group and collect data that is actually used to analyze short and long term trends in bird populations.

I spend five days participating in Christmas Counts. Saturday I am in Gaston County. Sunday I am in Davidson for the Southern Lake Norman Count. Charlotte is the 26th, Wilmington, North Carolina is January second; and Southport, North Carolina is January third. That’s five Christmas Counts and there are many who participate in more than that. This is the most exciting and anticipated period in the birding year for many birders.
There are more local counts that I just cannot help out on; York / Rock Hill, Iredell County, and Pee Dee NWR.

Every count area is a 15-mile diameter circle. Groups fan out to check assigned birding hotspots in their assigned section, sometimes starting for nocturnal species well before daybreak and finishing at dusk. As a rule I get started by 5:30 AM for each count I take part in. It is an exhilarating experience to watch the day break on a cold, still December morning with the owls and American woodcock vocalizing. Add a bunch of Geminid meteors and it is truly special.

It is also exciting because with so many birders in the field at one time some nice rarities are sure to be found. A top notch rarity or two always spices up any count. That is where you come in.
Some uncommon birds are easier to find at feeders instead of in the field. Hummingbirds, orioles, and some odd warblers develop site fidelity with their favorite feeders and become easy to see. If you are seeing any of those regularly at your feeders let me know and I can pass it along to the compiler for that area, if you happen to live within a count circle.  Even if you don’t live within a count area I still want to know what odd stuff you might be seeing.

For more information on the 116th Christmas Bird Count go to

Baltimore Oriole by Phil Fowler

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Wintering Waterfowl Pouring In

I joined some members of Mecklenburg Audubon last Saturday as they did some birding in the Concord Mills area of Cabarrus County. The main goal was to check area wetlands and ponds for arriving waterfowl.

The first stop proved to be the nest of the day. There is a vast wetland behind the HH Gregg store on Speedway Boulevard. This spot has proven through the years to be a waterfowl magnet. There is something out there virtually every month of the year. Adding to the site’s attractiveness to birders is the ease of access and relative close proximity of the birds.  Great views can be gotten with only a set of decent binoculars; a spotting scope can make for some killer looks. It is also good that the ducks are not skittish at this site.

Ironically the best bird of the day was heard and then seen as I walked up to join the group there. A blue-gray gnatcatcher, a rare bird in the piedmont by late November, was foraging in the brush right by the parking area. Attention to that bird was brief as it became evident very quickly that there were lots of ducks in the marsh.

Leisurely, beautiful looks were gotten of 29 northern pintail,  a big number of this locally uncommon duck. Other waterfowl included 4 gadwall,  12 Northern shoveler, 15 mallard, 4 green-winged teal, 5 hooded merganser, and two pied-billed grebe. The sun angle was perfect for exposing the colors on the male ducks. The green-winged teal drakes showed off their bright green wing patches and eye stripes. A mute swan has been present at the site for years; this is almost certainly an escaped ornamental bird instead of a wild one.

Non-duck birds included a hunting belted kingfisher, a statuesque great-blue heron, and a few red-winged blackbirds. A bonus siting was two river otters frolicking in the water just below our vantage point.

We then headed across Speedway Boulevard to the pond in front of the mall to add bufflehead, ruddy duck, American coot, and ring-necked ducks.

If you want to get easy looks at area waterfowl I highly recommend these two areas. They always produce and can provide some nice photographic opportunities with the right equipment.

Gadwallby John Ennis

Green-winged Teal by Phil Fowler

Northern Shoveler by Phil Fowler

Ring-necked Duck by Phil Fowler

Northern Pintail by Phil Fowler

Bufflehead by John Ennis

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Thanksgiving Birds From the Beach

I spent last week at Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina, where I spend every Thanksgiving. The birding is always great there at any season and offers a change of pace from inland piedmont birding.
Reports from the northeastern United States from a couple of weeks ago indicated eastern invasions of both Franklin’s gulls and cave swallows. Both are western species that show up in large numbers on the east coast every few years. I spent a good amount of time looking for both but I didn't find any. All the time in the field wasn’t for naught though. I was able to reconnect with a couple of shorebird friends that I have gotten to know over the years.
A flock of 17 American oystercatchers contained two banded individuals. Through a scope I was able to read the lettered code on each and determined both were birds that I have seen before. In fact, the bird with “XI” on each leg has been wintering at Ocean Isle Beach for years after spending the nesting seasons at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The other bird, “05” is from New Jersey and also apparently has adopted Ocean Isle as its winter retreat also.  “XI” seems to like areas where birders frequent too. That bird has been re-sighted 28 times since it was a chick in 2007. For more information on the work being done with American oystercatchers, go to
I get a feeling of contentment whenever I can report resighting a banded bird. It lets me know they are living their lives and doing OK.
One afternoon I had a pleasant surprise when an American golden-plover decided to drop in on the first fairway of Brick Landing Golf Course on its way to South America. Golden-plovers are regular but uncommon migrants through the Carolinas so it is always a treat to see one. I was able to study this bird at leisure as it picked insects off the short grass.
And there is news from back home too. I have reports of three hummingbirds coming to feeders from counties surrounding Mecklenburg , but none as yet from that county. I expect to receive some more this weekend. Remember to keep those feeders
up and fresh.

Oystercatchers are among the most striking of shorebirds. There is little chance of a mis-identification. 
American Oystercatcher by John Ennis

Note the green leg bands on the adult bird below. The color indicates which state the bird was banded in.
American Oystercatcher by John Ennis

American golden-plovers are uncommon migrants thru the Carolinas, and can occur from the coast to the mountains. The similar black-bellied plover is generally more coastal but may wander inland too. Goldens are a daintier bird than the black-belllieds. 
American Golden-plover by John Ennis

Note the heavier, thicker bill on the black-bellied below. The species is also larger and bulkier than the golden-plover.

Black-bellied Plover by Jeff Lewis