Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Waders Filtering Into the Area Now

One cool morning about ten days ago following a night of heavy storms I decided to check some local wetlands for dispersing long-legged waders. Herons and egrets are on the move in mid-summer and I was hoping the overnight storms had grounded a few moving birds. Days during and following unsettled weather are often productive for birders.

I stopped first at an extensive wetland behind Pike’s Nursery off Johnston Road. Immediately I saw a white heron hunkered down in the thick, choking vegetation. The small size and black-tipped bluish bill quickly identified the bird as an immature little blue heron. Not a rare bird necessarily but a species that may not show up every year here either. A loud high pitched keow caught my attention and I soon saw a green heron perched on a dead tree trunk clearly agitated by a pair of juvenile red-shouldered hawks on another dead tree. That little heron even successfully convinced one hawk to switch perches. Green herons are the smallest waders that we regularly see in the area.

I next checked a nice beaver-created wetland off Arrowood Road. Here I found not one but three little blue herons. Like the first they were half hidden by the thick aquatic growth. All three were slowly picking their way along, one slow step at a time. I soon realized they were patiently and successfully foraging for green tree frogs in the plant material. Nearby, an even smaller green heron sat perfectly motionless for over 10 minutes on a log, peering into the water perhaps to catch a minnow or tadpole. That provided a nice study in the contrasting feeding styles of the two species.

On to Walker’s Cove along the Catawba River where four great blue herons, two great egrets, and yet another little blue heron were hanging out. Great egrets, by virtue of their large size and longer legs, prefer to feed by standing relatively still in deeper water and waiting for a careless fish or frog to come close. Great blue herons employ a similar strategy.

So I considered the morning’s endeavor a success. There weren’t any big surprises or rarities but it is nice to find a total of five little blue herons at three separate locations anytime in Mecklenburg County.

Little Blue Heron by Phil Fowler

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Fall Migration Underway!

I spent the morning last Saturday checking some wetlands along the Catawba River in search of wading birds and shorebirds. At one stop I flushed a mid-sized shorebird from the shoreline that gave a few high-pitched calls and flew away in a distinctive stiff winged flight. It was a spotted sandpiper, not an uncommon bird at all but a significant find on that day. Though the date was July 16, it signaled the start of fall migration through Mecklenburg County. Spotted sandpipers do not nest here, they are only migrants.

It seems shorebirds are always on the move. It was less than 60 days ago that I saw a couple of spotted sandpipers at a local pond. Those birds were still heading north. Many shorebirds have a very short nesting window of time. Their young hatch already able to run and forage for themselves. Once the chicks reach a certain size and age the adults may go ahead and start moving south. The chicks lag behind until they are strong enough to move south too. Shorebirding aficionados know the earliest migrants to appear are adults. The juveniles come later. 

From now until early October it may be possible to find adults and juveniles of many species if good habitat develops. That is always a big IF. More than any other avian group that passes through our area, shorebirds are affected by weather conditions.

Shorebirds generally require exposed mudflats or muddy shorelines. Last year excessive drought resulted in low water levels and the resultant great habitat produced a shorebird bonanza along the river. We have had a lot of rain recently and water levels are high. Rainfall amounts over the next month will be critical to determine how good the shorebirding will be in the piedmont this year.

The fall migration period lasts much longer than spring. The sense of urgency that migrants have in the spring is absent from the fall journey. The travelers take time to fatten up, moving south only when conditions are conducive to travel. Most July and August days are too hot for this birder to spend in the field. There will be plenty of time to catch the fall migration, but that little spotted sandpiper definitely got me thinking about it. 

Spotted Sandpiper by Lee Weber

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Dispersing Herons Coming Into Our Area Now

July happenings for our local bird populations include dispersing herons from areas further south or further east where they breed. Two herons are common breeders in Mecklenburg County; the great blue heron and green heron. Yellow-crowned night-herons also nest here but are rare and very local.

Most often white herons like great egrets, little blue heron immatures, and snowy egrets are noticed but other less common to downright rare species show up. A large dispersing flock of great egrets was seen last weekend at Cowan’s Ford Refuge in Huntersville. 

Check out neighborhood retention ponds, apartment or park lakes, and any other wetlands for these large and conspicuous birds.  If you notice an odd or different wader, try to get a photo and send it to me. It might turn out to be something noteworthy.

Below are some of the most expected summer additions:

The great egret is the most common and conspicuous. almost as large as a great blue heron, note the long yellow bill in combination with long black legs.

Great Egret by Taylor Piephoff
 Little blue herons are much smaller, have light-colored greenish legs and a bluish gray upper bill. Only the juveniles are white.

Little Blue Heron Juvenile by Phil Fowler

The adults are blue and brown.
Adult Little Blue Heron by Lee Weber

Snowy Egrets are smaller still. Note the black bill and yellow feet.
Snowy Egret by Jeff Lewis