Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Parakeets Nesting in North Carolina?

Several times a year I may get photographs of a really odd bird at a feeder. Typically they are very ornately plumaged; such that they catch the eye of even the most casual of feeder watchers. Almost always the unknown diner turns out to be an exotic, non-native species that has almost certainly escaped from captivity. I have encountered some of these exotics in the field just a few times, and it always causes any birder to do a double-take upon first glance. 

Since wild birds are widely sold kept as part of the pet trade, the escape of some individuals is inevitable. Often they are tropical species that do not do well in temperate regions for very long. But in areas like Florida and southern California some species are hardy enough to establish themselves for at least a short period of time and actually reproduce and form small colonies.  The birds range from waterfowl to parrots to finches to gamebirds. Recently I got a report of a ring-necked pheasant from this area.

Some species are hardy enough to attempt a nesting in more temperate regions than Florida or California. Currently there is a pair of monk parakeets nesting in Newland, North Carolina, well to our west. Monk parakeets are one of the most frequently encountered exotics anywhere in the United States. Years ago I saw a nest in a power transformer near the site of the current Ray’s Splash Planet. There is also a pair that has nested just west of Wilmington, North Carolina for the last few years.

Such occurrences are interesting for their novelty but the chances are almost nil that monk parakeets will become established fauna in the North Carolina landscape. But the North Carolina Bird Records committee recently created a “Not Established” list where such sightings and records can be cataloged
and thus become part of the record in case the monk parakeet population explodes and they become an established species. I suspect that will never happen, and if it does it will take decades. So, birders are enjoying the parakeets in North Carolina but are not counting them on their official state or life lists for now.

Monk Parakeets by Caroline Bradford

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Cold Day on Four Mile Creek Greenway

Last Sunday afternoon I met six enthusiastic birders at the Four Mile Creek Greenway for an afternoon walk through the bottomland forests and open cattail marshes. It was a cold day with temperatures in the mid-30’s; perfect conditions to look for birds hurriedly foraging for their last meal of the day. I figured the top priority for most of them would be to find food and they would therefore be less worried about keeping out of sight. The birds did not disappoint. 

Immediately after starting out from the Piper Glen Shops an American robin was found sitting quietly in a bramble right by the trail. It made no effort to put any distance between it and the group of birders staring back. Just a short while later a beautiful red-shouldered hawk sat 20 feet off the trail, never even acknowledging our presence as it scanned the ground for a salamander or a slow-moving crayfish. We would go on to see three more red-shouldereds including one cozy pair celebrating Valentine’s Day side by side high in a cottonwood tree, clearly paired up for the approaching nesting season.

Recent floods have left the ground scoured and the vegetation washed away and flattened along that stretch of greenway. Three species of sparrows hopped around in at close range not caring about the joggers and bikers whizzing by. The most numerous were the white-throated sparrows but a few song sparrows and swamp sparrows mixed in enough to make it interesting. In the trees, foraging flocks made up of Carolina chickadees, downy woodpeckers, American goldfinches, red-bellied woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches, and brown-headed nuthatches showed up every 100 yards or so.

I was especially glad to find a few rusty blackbirds among the common grackles visiting a feeder in a backyard backing up to the greenway. Rusty blackbirds have really declined over the last few decades. Our group really enjoyed an Eastern phoebe that obligingly allowed close approach, constantly bobbing its tail in typical phoebe fashion. There wasn’t much soaring going on that day but we did have a fly-by great blue heron, turkey vulture, and some unidentified ducks.

After two hours of birding the group had tallied 24 species seen or heard, a tidy total for a leisurely stroll on a cold day. 

Red-shouldered Hawk by Ron Clark

Eastern Phoebe by Lee Weber

Thursday, February 11, 2016

A Visitor From Across the Pond

A weekend trip to the lowcountry of South Carolina produced an adult male Eurasian wigeon at Bulls Island. Bulls Island is part of the Cape Romaine National Wildlife Refuge. The appearance of the species at any time in the Carolinas is noteworthy.

Eurasian wigeons almost always are found associating with flocks of American wigeon in large impoundments in the eastern parts of North and South Carolina. The males are easy to pick out by scanning the flocks of wigeon. The females are much tougher to pick out and are almost never reported though I am sure they are present as often as males.

In the photo below, the Eurasian wigeon is the left bird with an American wigeon on the right. Note the red head and grayer body on the Eurasian. That is all you need in order to pick one out among large flocks of American wigeon.

In North Carolina, the Eurasian wigeon are most often found at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge.

Eurasian and American Wigeon by Jim Guyton

 In a bit better light, the handsomeness of the species can be better appreciated. This is the same bird as the upper photo.

Eurasian Wigeon by Jim Guyton

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Merganser challenge

Common mergansers often will show up among groups of red-breasted mergansers, especially when they appear in salt water. In the photo below, note the chestnut head with a well-defined white chin patch and well-defined contrast between the head and neck color on the common merganser, which is the top bird. Despite its name, the common merganser is the most uncommon merganser to visit the Carolinas. This bird has been present at Pawley's Island, SC for a few weeks.

Common and Red-breasted Mergansers by Pam Ford

The red-breasted female on the bottom lacks the definition of the chin patch and contrast between the head and upper breast. The plumage colors gradually mix and change from dark to light around the head and neck area.  The red-breasted also has a thinner bill and a longer, shaggier crest.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Birds are Giving Us Signs of Spring

I was greeted by the song of an Eastern bluebird during the big warmup on Monday. Though that species won’t start nesting until late March at the earliest, some local songbirds are starting to exercise their vocal chords as the season approaches. I have noticed some other signals that other species are sending as well.

Red-tailed hawks are paired up and can be seen in pairs along the interstates. Several times a day they will soar together, interacting all the while. I stopped by a likely looking habitat in Mint Hill at dusk one evening and was glad to observe two American woodcock engaged in their unique courtship display.

Brown-headed nuthatches have started the tedious process of chipping out this year’s nesting cavities. They have stout bills but need very soft, rotting pine limbs or trunks in order to be successful. Consider putting up a box made especially for them to help them save some energy.
Pine warblers are singing during warm days now. They may even sing on colder days if there is plenty of sunshine. I heard a Northern mockingbird singing at 5:30 am as I stepped outside one recent morning.

Red-winged blackbirds are appearing at feeders as they start to make their way north. Common grackles are pairing up too; breaking up the massive flocks that are formed in winter. If you are lucky enough to have access to a pond that hosts hooded mergansers you might catch the males doing their courtship “dance” too.

Great blue herons are back in their established colonies or are forming new ones at new sites. Check flooded marshes with numerous dead trees. If you know of an old colony, check the old nests carefully; a great horned owl may have moved in. They get the jump on all the other local species when it comes to starting up housekeeping but not by much; a pair of bald eagles is hanging around last year’s nest off Rea Road.

I suspect there is still some cold weather ahead of us but even frigid temperatures will only temporarily dampen those breeding hormones now. As February wears on it will be obvious that birds are starting to move around more.  That means new sights at feeders. Keep your eyes on them. 

Hooded Merganser by Phil Fowler

Though they are with us mainly in the winter months, hooded mergansers begin their courtship displays on their wintering grounds.

American Woodcock by Ron Clark

American woodcock are actively displaying now. Early nesters, I have found nests as early as mid-February.