Bird House On The Greenway
We local birders are fortunate to have access to a wide variety of habitats in which to pursue our passion. The mountains and beaches are just a couple of hours away, the nearby Sandhills offer opportunities to see several rare and threatened species. We are especially fortunate to have some large man-made reservoirs available that regularly attract species that are associated with ocean and more coastal areas.
I had the opportunity recently to join five other local birders on an evening boat ride on the main channel of Lake Norman. The goal was to find rare gulls that mix in with the huge ring-billed gull flock that forms each winter at the Davidson Creek confluence. An estimated 12,000 gulls gather to roost in the evening there, affording birders a close-up study of several gull and diving bird species.
We pulled out of the dock at 4:00 pm and immediately were rewarded with a fly-over adult bald eagle. Horned and pied-billed grebes were scattered throughout the cove, diving for the last catch of the day. Horned grebes are more common on salt water but a small number of birds winter each year on the lake. As we approached the main channel common loons, another big water species, became evident. We tallied perhaps a dozen of these charismatic divers.
The formation of the gull flock was well underway with thousands sitting on the water while thousands more were streaming in to join. It really is a sight to behold. Ring-billed gulls make up 99% or more of the numbers but smaller Bonaparte’s gulls and larger herring gulls are easy to pick out. Most of the herring gulls are first-year birds that are dark brown, making them easy to identify. The gulls pack in pretty tightly, while the grebes and loons scatter about the periphery.
There is always the potential for rarities when there is a gathering of that size, and the Lake Norman flock has brought in many over the years. Eight species have been tallied over the years and there is potential for more. On that evening no unusual or rare ones turned up but the experience, as usual, was exhilarating.
This past weekend marked the end of the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count season. Some of you may have participated in a Christmas Bird Count. It’s a citizen science opportunity that has been going on for 120 years. Birders survey a circle 15 miles in diameter, collecting data on the wintering birds within that circle. A database houses 120 years of information on the changing habits and numbers of wintering birds.
I participated in five counts this year, Gastonia on December 14, Southern Lake Norman on December 15, Charlotte on December 28, Wilmington on January 4, and Southport/Bald Head Island on January 5. Every year is different. Sometimes loads of birds, sometimes not so many. Some years are full of rarities, some are not.
Unfortunately, the consensus across the state this year was the season was lackluster, that bird numbers are down compared to recent times. Its hard to say why, it could be the birds have just not moved as far south as usual. The entire winter thus far has been more like spring. Birds are more active when its cold too. Those little dynamos burn a lot of energy in cold weather. No need to expend energy when insects are active and tree buds are swelling. The years has been a “perfect storm” to the negative. Winter finches, red-breasted nuthatches, golden-crowned kinglets, and waterfowl just haven’t budged from northern areas. The food crop was great in the northeast, and ice hasn’t locked up the open water. It could be totally different next year.
I still experienced many highlights however, just like any other year. At Gastonia I found what is the most surprising bird I have EVER seen in 40 plus years of Christmas Counting. I flushed a bobolink, a bird that should be in Argentina by now, out of a broomsedge field.
The next day at Lake Norman a total of 95 species was recorded, a 12-year low. The big news there was the numbers of blue-headed vireos and black-and-white warblers found. Those species were absent from local Christmas Counts a decade or so ago. A prairie warbler was a nice rarity.
As Lake Norman goes, so does Charlotte. Numbers of the same vireos and warblers were the story. A modest 90 species were recorded there.
The coastal counts proved to be even slower, relatively. There are more species to find at the coast but numbers were still down. The Wilmington Count had a morning washout, while Southport, though clear, was beset by high winds most of the day.
I’ll still look forward to participating in the same counts next year. As the years have passed, its not so much about the birds anymore anyway. Its time in the field with old friends and reminiscing about memorable counts from past years that keep me coming back.
The December 7 rescheduled Owl Prowl along the Four-mile Creek Greenway went from bust to boom in a matter of just a few minutes. For the first hour the greenway was eerily quiet, even for a cold December night. Usually if nothing is sounding off, there at least will be sounds of leaves shuffling as the nocturnal denizens start their night of activity. There was none of that though. The owls were not hooting and it seemed the mammals were sleeping in.
I played calls of barred owls several times all the way to the cattail marsh with no audio or physical response. Usually they fly in silently, a large shadowy figure gliding through the leafless tree canopy, silhouetted against the sky. Not so this time. I began to wonder if the resident pairs had relocated since the summer.
We walked as far as the cattail marsh, where I played calls of all the resident owls in Mecklenburg County; barred, great-horned, and Eastern screech. Then, seemingly in response to the great-horned owl juvenile call, something gave a loud, unidentifiable call back. I thought it COULD have been a great-horned owl but it was never repeated. After 15 minutes of silence, it was time for our group of 11 to head back. And then a barred owl gave a single hoo-aw. Out came the playback again, only to elicit no more vocalization. The birds were clearly just playing with us by now. They knew the game and they were winning.
It was really time to go now. As we headed back along the raised boardwalk over the marsh, I shone my light along the far tree line. A broken off tree trunk didn’t look just right. We put a brighter light on it, and with the aid of binoculars confirmed a barred owl perched, calmly looking back at us. No telling how long it had been sitting there, and it still was in no hurry to leave even with suddenly being in the spotlight. Everyone got a good look before it dropped off it’s perch to perhaps grab a crayfish or small rodent.
And as is typical for a nocturnal stroll along the greenway, we were able to locate foraging white-tailed deer and racoons by the reflections their eyes made when our lights were shined into the tree canopy and underbrush.
Nothing gets a birder’s attention like a bunch of spooked birds wheeling through the air blindly panicked by some unseen predator. That’s what I saw as I approached the beaver pond at McAlpine Creek Park this week. The usual mallard flock was airborne, along with two newly arrived Northern shovelers. A lone gull mixed in, then circled high in the air and drifted out of sight towards the south. A belted kingfisher gave excited rattle calls too, as it darted from perch to perch among the dead trees.
I immediately started scanning the sky for the expected Cooper’s hawk but I was taken by surprise when an adult bald eagle appeared, skimming right over the not-too-tall treetops. There are bald eagles around, but I had not seen one at this park before.
When bald eagles arrive on the scene all waterfowl, waders, and other water birds get super anxious. Eagles are usually looking for American coots, but any careless mallard or other duck will do for a nice meal. That eagle left hungry, maybe having to settle for a roadkill of some sort someplace else.
There is always action at the McAlpine Park beaver pond, just a few yards away from the main lake. There is always a flock of about 20 mallards, and sometimes some other ducks or grebes. A belted kingfisher is frequently there; if you miss it initially just wait a few minutes. It will show.
A great egret has been resident there year-round for about four years, unusual for this area in late fall and winter.
Beaver ponds offer unique wetland habitat that wasn’t part of Mecklenburg County just a few decades ago. Beavers were absent up until the mid-1980’s, but since then they have created wetlands that in turn attract great duck diversity, several species of waders, elusive rails, and fish eaters like kingfishers and osprey. They don’t just attract birds either; otter, mink, and muskrat are present too.
And what about that lone gull that drifted out of sight? Once things calmed down it reappeared in the center of the main lake. Ring-billed gulls loiter at the lake occasionally but this gull was a first winter herring gull; another species I have never seen at the park. It is quite unusual for herring gulls to hang out at a small pond. You must normally go to Lake Norman to see them.
I don’t keep a McAlpine Park List , but if I did I would have added two birds to it that day.
It was a beautiful day for birding last Sunday, November 10. A small group left the Bird House on the Greenway at 2:00 pm and immediately had good birds before we got out of the parking lot.
An initial scan of the sky revealed a large flock of double-crested cormorants flying over, headed for Piper Glen. But there were two different birds slowly circling too. A pair of bald eagles right over the Bird House boded well for the remainder of the afternoon.
Raptors were especially cooperative. In addition to the eagles, three red-shouldered hawks were very accommodating as they perched just yards off the greenway boardwalk. The red-shouldered hawks are ambassadors of the Four-Mile Creek Greenway; tame, conspicuous, noisy, and beautifully plumaged; even non-birder users of the greenway are fascinated by their
accessibility. Later, a sharp-shinned hawk circled overhead, giving the opportunity to discuss the differences between that species and its close relative the Cooper’s hawk. A soaring turkey vulture sparked a similar discussion on comparisons with black vultures.
From a birding standpoint, it is winter now. Migrants have for the most part passed through and are gone. Winter residents have arrived, and the afternoon’s checklist reflected this.
Winter wrens love Four-Mile Creek. We saw four foraging around small tangles and downed timber. Ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets both came close to check us out. Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, Eastern bluebirds, Eastern phoebes, and downy woodpeckers flitted through the treetops in loose flocks.
The weedy, open marsh areas provided an opportunity for sparrow study. White-throated, song, and swamp sparrows were all present. Many birders don’t get too excited about sparrows; they are small, skulking, and brown. I like them though. The identification challenges some present keep my skills sharp.
And the day ended just as it began. Nestled in with a flock of chickadees and kinglets was an orange-crowned warbler. This species is an uncommon winter resident in our area, easily overlooked by casual birders. Our individual was especially curious and gave great looks. It was even a Life-Bird for one participant. It is always a good birding day when you add to your Life- List.
My ramblings this week consisted of visiting McAlpine Creek Par, Chantilly Park, and Ezzell Farm in Mint Hill. As is typical for mid-October, the birds observed were a mix of outgoing neotropical migrants and incoming winter residents. It’s a time of transition to the residents that will be with us until April next spring.
White-throated sparrows, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, ruby-crowned kinglets, and yellow-rumped warblers confirmed the switch was on at Chantilly. Birders usually associate the arrival of the yellow-rumpeds with the end of the neoptropical migration that started in August. They haven’t
On the warbler side, adult male hooded, adult male black-throated blue, adult male American redstart, bay-breasted, and Tennessee made up a tidy feeding flock at Ezell Community Park. In the mowed pastures bobolinks, blue grosbeaks, and indigo buntings lingered at least for a few more days.
At McAlpine Park, the first incoming waterfowl, two blue-winged teal mixed in with the resident mallards.
Just a couple of white-throated sparrows foraged in the field edge thickets but their numbers will boom, along with other sparrows like swamp, chipping, and song once the cooler air moves in. Birders will switch their attention to searching for the rarer sparrows and waterfowl for the next month or so.
The winter arrivals may take a while to move to the backyard feeders this year. Reports are there is even more natural food to be found than in a normal year. It’s been a good year for tree and shrub fruits; and fall blooming wildflowers have performed well too. Don’t worry, your favorite feeder birds will be back by end of December.
At long last some nice cool air moved in over the weekend, bringing with it the wave of migrants area birders have been waiting for with increasing impatience. Now is the time to start paying close attention to water sources and food sources in your yard; especially berry-producing plants.
A favorite tree for tanagers, thrushes, and wood peckers is the American dogwood. That plant’s large, nutritious, red fruits really bring the birds in. If you have a small grove of them it can be very entertaining to just sit and watch the show for a while. Look for scarlet and summer tanagers; Swainson’s and gray-cheeked thrushes, veeries, Northern flickers, and yellow-bellied sapsuckers.
The plump red fruits of southern magnolias are a favorite of the vireos; red-eyed, blue-headed, and yellow-throated. The purple fruits of Beautyberry attract a variety of warblers, thrushes, and gray catbirds.
Water is always a big draw for any migrant species, plus our local resident birds. It has been so dry of late (with no real relief in sight) that birds are even more dependent on water features and old-fashioned bird baths right now. Just remember to change the water at least once a day, maybe more if the action is heavy.
I took the opportunity to walk the Six-Mile Creek Greenway off Marvin Road in south Charlotte recently. It was non-stop action; with constant movement thru the upper and mid-level canopy, and my favorite, the low shrubby scrub. American redstarts were the most abundant; I counted at least a couple of dozen individuals. Black and white warblers put in a nice showing too. Northern parulas mixed in, some even still trying to sing their springtime songs. Summer tanagers outnumbered the scarlets by 2:1 that day. All were the orangey female plumaged birds.
Red-eyed and white-eyed vireos still sang their characteristic songs, the former from the treetops and the latter from the shrubs. Sprinkled in were common yellowthroats, chestnut-sided warblers, and a lone Canada warbler. The Canada is always a nice bird to find in the county.
You don’t have to get off trail to see the birds now. A casual stroll around a nicely landscaped yard or along a greenway will produce something to see. Don’t forget your binoculars!
Birders here in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties are fortunate to have a nice variety of habitats to choose from when planning birding outings. One unique habitat is the large open water Lakes Norman and Wylie provide this far inland. These large reservoirs tempt migrating gulls, terns, shorebirds, jaegers, pelicans, and more to drop down and check them out, and perhaps even stay for a day or two.
Lake Norman is especially large and some of the most locally rare species are attracted to the widest expanses of the lake. To adequately cover those areas a boat is an absolute must. Last Sunday I was lucky to be part of a small group that took a pontoon boat out on the lake for some late afternoon birding. I had hopes of checking out flocks of terns and maybe a stray gull or two but it was soon evident after pushing out into the main channel that birds were going to be scarce this day. The weather was not unsettled enough, and the large amount of boat traffic didn’t help things either. Still, we were determined to check the areas that have been productive in the past.
A large bird was spotted sitting in the water on a sandbar from about a quarter mile away. At that distance the underparts appeared white and the upperparts dark. There was brief excitement that we might have a rare gull but as we drew near our “gull” became an osprey warding off the heat by chilling in the water.
As we again navigated back to the main channel two large white birds came into view and started diving to pick something off the water’s surface. Caspian terns they were; the largest tern in the United States; as large as a medium sized gull. The species is an annual migrant on Lake Norman, but I am always glad to see them in the county. They are not a sure thing at all for any trip on the water. We watched them for a while hoping something else would be attracted by the activity but nothing else showed.
These birds were my first Caspian terns of the year in Mecklenburg County so I was happy with the trip. Regardless of what is seen, the trips are always pleasant and provide a nice change of pace from the usual birding routine.
I’m starting to get really antsy about the fall neotropical migration. This unseasonably hot weather has just about put the halt to birding. Not that it matters, there are no flocks or waves of migrants around anyway. By mid-September there has usually been at least a couple of cool fronts to change the air and the birds that ride the winds of fall. Not so this year. Forecasts call for a record high of 96 degrees soon. I’ll tell you, 96 in mid-September is way more uncomfortable than the same weather in July. The humidity is so oppressive.
Oh, there are some warblers around. They trickle through but the majority are likely still to our north, backing up. Trouble is, there is no real break in the weather for a couple more weeks.
On September 10th I ventured out late in the afternoon, early evening really, just to see what I could find. I chose Ezzell Farm off Matthews-Mint Hill Road near Mint Hill. It’s old pastureland with a community garden, old cow pond, hedgerows, and a full view of open sky.
The first birds I noticed were dozens of chimney swifts cavorting through the sky. It was so quiet that the only sound was the swifts high-pitched twittering, quite relaxing really. The stagnant air held loads of gnats. I’m guessing that’s what the swifts were after.
An Eastern meadowlark flushed from the tall grass, and a small flock of blue grosbeaks nervously fed in a stand of wingstem at the field edge. These fields can hold up to 70-80 Eastern bluebirds after fall fronts, today there were just a handful.
The planted zinnias in the garden, so attractive to butterflies two months ago, are now attracting good numbers of American goldfinches that relish the seeds.
A great blue heron flew out of the cow pond while a red-tailed hawk shrieked its displeasure at having me around. As dusk fell, the number of swifts continued to grow. I started to notice moths and grasshoppers flying around and right on cue two common nighthawks flew by, always a treat to see in Mecklenburg County. I think they are attracted to the larger flying insects at dusk.
A stand of large mature oaks hosted a feeding flock of Carolina chickadees and tufted titmice, but no migrant warbler hangers-on.
It was an enjoyable if not exciting stroll. I won’t expect too much excitement until some new air gets in here.
I was excited yesterday to hear of a report of a loggerhead shrike just inside Mecklenburg County near the Charlotte Motor Speedway. There were supporting photos so I jumped in my vehicle and went on up to look. Alas, I didn’t see it but I was still happy that a shrike was around.
The steady decline and apparent disappearance of the loggerhead shrike from Mecklenburg County ranks right up there with the decline of the Northern bobwhite and Eastern whip-poor-will on my list of Most Depressing Bird Declines in the county. It has been a few years since I have seen one here.
It hasn’t always been that way. Shrikes, while never common here, were numerous enough to be found in appropriate habitat just a decade or two ago. Problem is, there is almost no habitat for them anymore. Shrikes are open-country birds, perching prominently on wires, tip tops of shrubs, or fence posts like small raptors. Old rural farmland was perfect for them but the small farms and rural openness is fast disappearing.
Shrikes are fascinating to me in that they are really a predatory songbird. Cardinal sized, shrikes can and do prey on large insects, mice, and even small birds. They have the hooked bill of a raptor to aid in tearing apart flesh. A nickname is the “butcherbird” because of its habit of skewering its prey on barbed wire or thorny trees and shrubs.
The decline of the loggerhead shrike has been apparent throughout most of the eastern United States. They have almost disappeared completely from the northern, northeastern, and mid-Atlantic regions of the United States. To our south they are much more common but it is clear the decline is widespread. Certainly, habitat loss is a big part of it, but pesticide use has been mentioned also. I think collisions with vehicles play a part. With more cars on the roads the low-perching and low-flying shrike is particularly vulnerable. Their penchant for perching on low fences which often line roadsides is a recipe for disaster.
Shrike plumage is not gaudy but is neatly practical. I think they are right dapper really. White underparts set off by blue-gray upperparts give a classy look. The most notable mark is a black facial mask that helps cut down on glare in the open country for a hunting shrike.
So, I will try again to find that bird. I suspect it nested in the area and won’t leave anytime soon. It may very well be the only nesting shrike left in the county.