Sunday, January 24, 2016

Look What the Snow Blew In!

When ice and snow blow in to areas that do not regularly get such frozen precipitation there is a huge uptick in activity at feeders. No doubt those of you who stayed home last Friday during the winter weather event noticed this. Birders have long known the effects of inclement weather on the feeding habits of our winter birds.

Before noon that day I had already received photos of an adult male Cape May warbler and a probable immature male ruby-throated hummingbird from locations in Charlotte. Just a couple of days prior, a brilliant male painted bunting was discovered coming to a Charlotte feeder. The male painted bunting is arguably the most brilliantly plumaged songbird in North America. They winter along our coast in small numbers but their winter presence in the piedmont is extremely rare.

This male painted bunting showed up at a Northwest Charlotte feeder during the snow and ice.
Photo by Lee Weber. 

This Cape May Warbler near Freedom Park was a complete surprise. They should be in Florida or the Caribbean right now.
Photo by Cindy Lockhart

Ruby-throated Hummingbird by Brucie Harry

One excited feeder watcher photographed a nice Baltimore oriole, the first she had seen in four years.
I didn’t have anything near on a par with those species but I did notice a few birds that are infrequent visitors to my feeder set-up. The brown thrasher that lurks in the streamside shrubs spent most of the day under the feeders scavenging spilled seeds and suet crumbs. A pair of Eastern towhees joined the regular flock of white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos that scratch the soil under the feeders too. A lone yellow-rumped warbler pecked at the suet for most of the day.

A pair of pine siskins, the first I have seen in 2016, mixed in with a flock of American goldfinches. American robins and cedar waxwings opted for the running water in the creek. I don’t really offer anything they might want to eat. A pair of blue jays, always present in the yard but very infrequent visitors to the feeders, even gave in and came for some shelled peanuts.

I was hoping for a fox sparrow or two, another species that is notorious for showing up on snowy days, but they have been in pretty short supply all over this winter. A few purple finches have been reported from the area but they too avoided my yard.

Maybe you had some new or unfamiliar visitors to your offerings. If you did I am interested in hearing about them or even seeing some photos. Contact me at

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Brisk Morning Along McAlpine Creek

Monday I walked the entire length of the Lower McAlpine and McMullen Creek Greenways. These connected greenways pass beside and over wet floodplain bottomland forest. It was a cold morning with little warmup during the day. I love birding in those conditions; the birds are usually active and responsive to squeaky noises designed to bring them close in.

Sparrows; field, swamp, song, dark-eyed juncos, and white-throated were ever-present in the patchy weedy areas along the trails. A few other species were mixed in like brown thrashers, winter wrens, American goldfinches, ruby-crowned kinglets, and a single orange-crowned warbler. That species is very uncommon in the winter but apparently there are more of them around this year, probably due to the warm temperatures that have prevailed for most of the season.

There was plenty of mud exposed in the woodlands along the creeks and many American robins, brown-headed cowbirds, and common grackles foraged the muck. I was especially glad to find a couple of sizeable flocks of rusty blackbirds, a severely declining species. Large numbers of mallards were hanging out in the pools left by recent floods. I tried to find some wood ducks or other dabbling duck species but could not.

In the shrubs and treetops feeding flocks consisting of Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, yellow-rumped warblers, downy woodpeckers, Eastern bluebirds, and red-bellied woodpeckers were always within earshot. A pileated woodpecker called several times but I never got a look.  These greenways are good for blue-headed vireos in the winter but I could not come up with one that day despite playing recordings of their songs and calls.

A red-shouldered hawk flew in very close looking for whatever was giving a distressed squeaking call. It was me of course and after the hawk identified me it retired back into the woods. By mid-morning some soaring birds appeared; both black and turkey vultures, and a lone sharp-shinned hawk.

I finished with about 45 species for the hike, a solid number and a good representation of expected species in a lowland habitat. I recommend any of those greenways for a leisurely birding stroll. It is always birdy and the birds are generally cooperative.

Rusty Blackbird by John Ennis

The rusty blackbird population has crashed by over 90% in the last few decades. On a good day they can be found in swampy forests along creeks in Mecklenburg County. They are only with us in the winter.

Red-shouldered Hawk by Phil Fowler

Red-shouldered hawks are common along all of the county's greenways. They are generally unafraid of close approach by humans. Even if you don't happen to see one on a morning walk, rest assured they are watching you. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Mystery Oriole

I was reminded this past week of how hard it can be to identify birds. Field guides often show just a few plumages of most species, leaving inexperienced birders with the notion that identification is straightforward. Some gulls take up to four years to reach adulthood and each year of that gull’s progress from juvenile to adult has a very different plumage. Shorebirds have adult breeding, adult non-breeding, and juvenile plumages. Most field guides don’t have enough room to depict all of the various plumages that a birder may encounter within a single species.

Inexperienced birders may not recognize that and be misled into thinking all the different looks of a species can lie within the pages of their favorite guide.

Orioles can pose some exceptionally tough identification challenges. Baltimore orioles have adult male, adult female, immature male, and immature female plumages. But there’s more… there can be a tremendous amount of variability within each plumage, especially in the immature birds. Add another species into the mix, like a Bullock’s oriole, that does rarely occur here and can appear superficially similar to a Baltimore, and you can be presented with really tough identification challenge.

An oriole was photographed in Charlotte last weekend that presented just such a challenge. Very experienced and highly respected birders across the state were divided on the identity of this immature female bird. Some staked out in the Baltimore oriole camp while others thought it might be a much rarer Bullock’s oriole.. 
What complicates this identification is the overall drabness of the bird. There are some fairly bright yellow areas but these are restricted in size compared to a typical Baltimore oriole of the same age. Further, there are characters that suggest Bullock’s oriole and some that seem more suggestive of Baltimore. Sometimes the answer can come down to the shape of the wing bars or overall brightness of the yellow.  I suspect it is a drab Baltimore oriole immature. The odds favor it but we probably will never know for sure.

If all of our birds looked like adult males, identification would be easy and essentially non-challenging. Orioles would pose no ID problems between the two species, Baltimore and Bullock's.
The adult male Baltimore is unmistakable and is the most expected oriole species in winter here. 

Baltimore Oriole by Jeff Lewis
 The much rarer Bullock's is also unmistakable, but there is only one record from Mecklenburg County.
Bullock's Oriole by Jeff Lemons

Baltimore Oriole by Phil Fowler
Female Baltimores like the bird above are not as strongly patterned but can be very colorful. when dull individuals occur, then it gets interesting. Note the big difference in the intensity of the yellows and oranges in the subject bird of today's blog below.

Mystery Oriole by Jim Guyton

Mystery Oriole by Jim Guyton
This mystery oriole approaches the Bullock's in dullness of plumage and other details, but even this bird is brighter than Bullock's of the same age and gender in my view.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Unseasonable Weather and Local Birds

At long last it seems winter has finally arrived in the southern piedmont, but only after an unprecedented stretch of warm temperatures. I have seen temperatures in the seventies at Christmas before, but the period of time those temperatures held on this time was a first for me.

Locally, ornamental plants bloomed way early. Upland chorus frogs, southern leopard frogs, and spring peepers were vocalizing. Turtles were basking up the warmth and wandering from pond to pond like it was spring. At the coast blue crabs were still active in the waterways.

I fielded some questions about effects the unseasonable stretch had on area bird populations and diversity, and now that the Christmas Count season is over I think the answers are obvious. Most all of the rare and uncommon species found on piedmont and coastal counts were of lingering land bird species. Ducks and gulls, just two groups of birds that normally don’t arrive in big numbers until there is a freeze-up to the north, are at lower than normal numbers. And, in general it seems that overall numbers of all birds are just down this year. I think more are just lingering to our north.  Cold air arrived this week so maybe we will see an uptick in the numbers of birds in all habitats.

Lingering species that were recorded on Christmas Counts I participated in include Lincoln’s sparrow, gray catbird, common yellowthroat, Cape May warbler, Nashville warbler, cave swallow, black and white warbler, orange-crowned warbler, blue-gray gnatcatcher, sora, and green heron. All of these may be present in any given year but in tiny, undetectable numbers. The fact that so many of them were found this season indicates that there are lots of them out there. That’s an impressive list.

So do the late spring-like temperatures have an adverse effect on the birds that are here? I doubt it. Our winter birds experience the most survival challenges when there is prolonged extreme cold with frozen precipitation. This has been a stress-free start to the winter for local winter species. That makes them less susceptible to predators, which is why I think some hawk numbers are down locally. I have had to work really hard to find Cooper’s or sharp-shinned hawks; two species that prey upon small land birds. 

Green Heron by Jeff Lewis
Species that tend to linger in our area until cold forces them out, like the green heron above, are in higher numbers so far this season. Our winter resident species, like the fox sparrow below, are in much reduced numbers so far. I suspect they are they are lingering farther north until they will be forced down by weather.  

Fox Sparrow by Lee Weber