Wednesday, March 30, 2016

What's That Humming Sound? Yep, They're Here

If you haven’t freshened up, or put up, your hummingbird feeders yet then you are LATE! As I predicted last week, there has been a smattering of ruby-throated hummingbird reports as of this writing. April second has been the date in recent years when the numbers of returning birds spike. So if you want to get in on the action you had better get the feeder up today.
Birds you will see right now will almost invariably be adult males. They arrive and pass through a couple of weeks before the females follow. And most of the birds will just be passing through. After an initial rush you may notice a lull in sightings as the hummers continue their flight north.

I have had several folks mention to me how they have noticed how vocal birds have been in the early morning. This is a real thing and it has a name; the dawn chorus. Well before dawn American robins, Carolina wrens, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees, Eastern bluebirds, Northern cardinals, Northern mockingbirds, brown thrashers, and song sparrows all wake up and begin singing. Then, just after sunrise the chorus dies down as the birds begin foraging for breakfast. As more local breeders return in the coming weeks they will add to the din. By mid-May it will be even more impressive in volume and diversity than it is right now. My favorite time of the birding day is a springtime dawn in rural farmland where the songs carry far through the open landscape.

Many of the winter feeder regulars will start to disappear over the next few weeks. I have already noticed a decrease in the dark-eyed juncos at my place, yet I encourage you to leave the feeders stocked with at least sunflower seed for the next month or so. Rose-breasted grosbeaks will start to pass through in mid-April with a peak around May first, and they love to sunflower seed. If you have been lucky enough to attract the spectacular males in the past then you know what I am talking about. You also have a good chance of attracting indigo buntings and blue grosbeaks too.

Male Ruby-throated hummingbird by Phil Fowler

Thursday, March 24, 2016

More Firsts of the Season

Things are really happening fast on the migration front. Last weekend brought in several firsts of the year as more breeders continue to come into the area from their more southern and eastern wintering grounds.

Sunday I had barn swallows and tree swallows at a couple of locations in east Charlotte, joining their cousins the Northern rough-winged swallows that had arrived about a week earlier in small numbers. Last weekend saw an explosion in their numbers though. It won’t be too long before the other two breeding swallows arrive; the cliff swallows and purple martins.

Blue-gray gnatcatchers arrived Monday; I had that species in four locations that day. I also had the first singing blue-headed vireo, a species that winters in the southern part of the county in tiny numbers but had somehow eluded me until I heard it sing and scold at the Reedy Creek Park Nature Center.

I always get excited when the migrants move in. Though by the end of May I will see probably a couple of hundred barn swallows and gnatcatchers it is the first ones that get the birding adrenaline really flowing. It’s a kick-start to taking in the spring migration, and sort of a game I play with myself; try to find each species on an earlier date than I have found them before.

By the time this column goes to print there will be other old friends that will have come back for the summer. I wouldn’t be surprised if the first ruby-throated hummingbirds will have already appeared at a few feeders. If they haven’t then it will be just a matter of a few days. White-eyed vireos almost certainly will be here by now, absent one day, common the next.

As fast as birds are moving into the area right now, we are not even near the peak of migration yet. That won’t occur until about May first. As we move into April even more of the breeding warblers, vireos, tanagers, buntings, and grosbeaks will surge north. Some will stay with us while others will head on up into southern Canada. It’s going to be a great spring migration and a great next six weeks for Piedmont Birding.

Barn Swallow by Jeff Lewis

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Swallows are Here!

 Swallows have arrived in the area and can be seen catching insects on the wing at area ponds and lakes right now. Here are some photos of our nesting swallows with a brief description of their habits:
Northern Rough-winged Swallow by Phil Fowler
 The Northern rough-winged swallow is typically the first swallow to come into the Piedmont. They are plain brown on the upperside and lighter on the under. They can be found at almost any pond during the warm months.

Tree Swallow by Lee Weber
 Tree swallows are the only swallow in our area that nests in bird boxes, readily accepting standard bluebird boxes. Look for them in open areas like pastures with a water source nearby.

Barn Swallow by Jeff Lewis
Barn swallows are perhaps the most graceful of the swallows in flight, and one of the most graceful bird species overall. Note the long forked tail, long slender wings, and slender build. I love to watch them coursing over lakes and open areas. They nest in small colonies under bridges and in barns.

Purple Martin by John Ennis
Purple martins are the most famous swallow that nests in large colonies; in gourds and martin houses erected by humans. The next species is not as well known as the martins, but cliff swallows build gourd-shaped nests under area bridges with numbers potentially reaching 100 nests in the largest colonies.
Cliff Swallow by Don Faulkner

Friday, March 18, 2016

The First Brightly Colored Warblers Incoming

The first spring migrant warblers have been reported from a couple of locations in the southern part of Mecklenburg County. A singing yellow-throated warbler was at Four-mile Creek Greenway, and a Northern parula warbler was at Six-mile Creek Greenway. Both were found yesterday. About a week ago the first black-and-white warbler was at McDowell Nature Preserve.

Birders look forward to the first warblers' arrivals; they are generally in full plumage splendor and in full song.

Northern Parula by Ron Clark
 Northern Parulas are tiny treetop warblers with persistent buzzy songs. They are fairly common in bottomland forests.

Yellow-throated Warbler by Ron Clark
Listen for the musical song of this wetland warbler along the Catawba River and major creeks in the county. you will be lucky to get a look at them in their pine and sycamore treetop haunts.

Black-and-White Warbler by Ron Clark
The black and white warbler probes crevices in tree trunks and major limbs. In nuthatch-like fashion they creep along the woody sections of trees, generally ignoring the leafy outer limbs where most arboreal warblers forage.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Night-herons Return to Nest sites

I made a quick run down Perrin Place in Myers Park a couple of days ago to check on the status of one of Mecklenburg County's rarest nesters, the yellow-crowned night-heron.

This large wader nests in loose colonies at several locations in the county but the numbers of sites and pairs has declined over the last couple of decades. On Perrin Place I saw one adult in the usual location in some tall pine trees. Typically there is one to two pairs here. Hopefully there are more present that I just missed that day.

Other sites are in Plaza-Midwood and the Mallard Creek area.

Yellow-crowned Night-heron by Ron Clark

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Nest Building in Full Swing

Last Saturday I watched several birds fully engaged in gathering nesting materials and in nest building. And why not? It was about 80 degrees outside. I wonder if some of them thought they had somehow missed spring entirely and we were getting into summer! 

Along Four-Mile Creek Greenway a pileated woodpecker was putting the finishing touches on a nest hole high in the dead top of a tulip poplar. Then the bird ducked inside the cavity and disappeared for a while, completing the interior renovations I assume.

Where the greenway passes under Elm Lane. An Eastern phoebe was refurbishing last year’s nest under the bridge. The female bird would hover at the bases of mossy tree trunks and pluck the moss into she had a bill full. She would then fly back to the existing mud nest plastered to the smooth, sheer concrete surface and begin to decorate the exterior with the moss. Later, she will use the same materials to line the soft cup where the eggs will lay.

Later, I noticed a very drab female pine warbler being followed by a bright yellow male as she examined the lower trunks of trees. Several times she stopped at thick poison ivy vines that were growing up the trunks and would pick off the hair-like tendrils that anchor the vines to the trees. She then flew off to a small stand of pines to add the material to the developing cup nest there. The male dutifully followed her every bit of the way but wasn’t allowed to participate in the gathering and construction. Every few minutes he would burst into song, so at least he was doing his duty of protecting the territory.

One great blue heron nest is visible from the greenway and it appeared there was a bird hunkered down on the large stick platform. Red-shouldered hawks were noisy and I’m sure they are building nests already too. I haven’t seen anything going in and out of my bird boxes yet but it should be any day now.

Pileated Woodpecker by Debbie Foster
Pileated Woodpeckers are our largest woodpecker; almost crow-sized. Their large nest cavities are used by owls, wood ducks, and mammals as nest cavities and dens also. This makes the pileated woodpecker an important creator of habitat for other wildlife.

Female Pine Warbler by Taylor Piephoff
Female pine warblers are much duller than their bright yellow mates. Notice only a yellowish blush on the throat and chest of this typical individual.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Not Your Typical Owl

Earlier this week I made a quick run down to the coast to try to add a bird to my State List. I’ve written about chasing birds before; it’s something some birders do to build up their life, state, or even county lists. This time the destination was the south end of Wrightsville Beach where I could scope over Masonboro Inlet to Masonboro Island to see my target.

The target was an owl that has been hanging out on the rock jetty on the south end of Masonboro Island. It’s not your typical owl, rather it is a tiny owl that spends a lot of its time not above ground but underground. Meet the burrowing owl.

Burrowing owls stand only less than 10 inches high. True to their name, the owls often occupy burrows excavated by prairie dogs in the western United States and gopher tortoises in Florida, but any appropriate burrow will be claimed by burrowing owls throughout their range. They are birds of open country, preferring golf courses, airports, prairies, pastures, or any similar habitats. There are only two previous records for North Carolina, both from the immediate coast. The birds that have occurred here have had to improvise their underground retreats, like choosing the crevices of a rock jetty, enlarging the burrow of a ghost crab, or occupying a section of abandoned dredge pipe.

I arrived at the site early Monday morning and with the aid of a spotting scope immediately found the owl perched on a rock across the inlet. It stood still but was pretty actively swiveling its head around to survey the area. For an hour that little guy did not move a step. What a neat little bird to see in North Carolina! It has been 44 years since the last burrowing owl occurrence; who knows when the next one will be found.

As is often the case with a chase, there were other really nice birds to see in the same spot. A long-tailed duck, five razorbills, six piping plovers, and two great cormorants all could be seen without moving one step. That’s a nice species list even before you add burrowing owl. And it’s a nice day when you can increase the number of your State List. 

Burrowing Owl by Sam Cooper

Friday, March 4, 2016

Ospreys Are Back!

Last time I let you know about the arrival of the first spring migrant / breeder into our area, the fish crow. Much more exciting is the arrival of returning ospreys to their local breeding grounds. Ospreys are more charismatic and awe-inspiring than fish crows, and are more eagerly awaited. Late afternoon on February 27th I heard the unmistakable calls of an osprey descending from the clear blue sky.  A few seconds later I was able to pick the circling bird out high overhead as it disappeared to the northeast. Since then there have been more reports from the county but I think I reported the first one of the year.

If you spend time on the waters of Lakes Norman and Wylie they will be familiar sights again in a week or so. 

Osprey by Phil Fowler

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The First Returning Nesters of the Year

Fish crows are not exciting birds to see but they are the first species to return to their local breeding grounds here from a winter absence. They are almost identical to the year-round American crows but their voice is noticeably different. I was roused last Saturday morning February 27 by at least three fish crows constantly complaining about something in the back yard. One day they are nowhere to be found, but one day in late February each year they materialize from nothing. They will be with us until sometime in October when they will go missing again for a few months.

Recognize fish crows from American crows by their short nasal "car car", usually given as a double note. The more familiar american crow gives a more raucous "caw caw caw".  You are also more likely to hear fish crows around area shopping centers and fast food restaurants. They will often perch on lamp posts and call constantly.

Fish Crows by Jeff Lewis