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Archive for the ‘North Carolina Birding’ Category

On August 5, 2018, I went birding at Lake Waccamaw State Park.  The birds were more scarce than I’d expected, but I finally found Blue Jays and a few other common birds near the Visitor Center.  Why is this even worthy of mention?  Because the park is in Columbus County, the last of North Carolina’s 100 counties in which I have observed birds.  Yep, I’ve now seen birds in every county in my home state.  If you are not a birder, you may still think that this is not worthy of mention and you should stop reading now.

No, these particular birds were not my life Forsyth County Brown-headed Nuthatches, but you weren't going to keep reading without some cute photos, were you?

No, these particular birds were not my life Forsyth County Brown-headed Nuthatches, but you weren’t going to keep reading without some cute photos, were you?

County birding is my favorite of games birders play, but it took a while before I got serious.  In December 2009, eBird introduced county birding to “inspire people to go birding in places that don’t typically get much coverage.”  I am a huge fan of eBird, so I wanted to help with this effort.  I started birding the counties adjacent to Forsyth that didn’t have many checklists.  Sometimes I went alone, but frequently I enlisted friends Carol or Brent to go with me.  We had great fun on our outings and it wasn’t long until Carol and I found a county record Horned Grebe for Stokes County.  It was the first time that anyone had reported the species in that county.

In the County Birding "game," an American Robin counts just as much as a rare bird.

In the County Birding “game,” an American Robin counts just as much as a rare bird.

At some point I became aware that county birding was more than an eBird effort; it was almost a competitive sport.  I discovered that birders in Texas, Florida, California, and a few other states were obsessed with focused on county birding.  And then I met Derek, right here in Forsyth County, who had seen birds in all of North Carolina’s counties.  I started joining him occasionally for a day of birding as he upped his county ticks.  County ticks are simply the sum of one’s life lists for each county in an area (usually a state).  So, if I had seen 200 birds in Forsyth County and 100 birds in Guilford County, I would have 300 county ticks for NC.  It didn’t take many days of birding with Derek until I decided that I, too, wanted to see birds in all of North Carolina’s counties.

Cynthia and I spent a day with this Golden-winged Warbler in Watauga County

Cynthia and I spent a day with this Golden-winged Warbler in Watauga County

I also birded with other friends whenever I had a chance.  One of my favorite county birds was the gorgeous Golden-winged Warbler in the photo above.  My good friend, Cynthia, wrote a guest post on this blog, Golden-winged Wonders, about our experiences with “Andy.”

I am especially grateful for my friend, David, and my son-in-law, Jeff.  David is not a birder, but he understood my craziness and helped me in the western part of the state.  It can be hard to find birds in those small mountainous counties and I was happy to have the company and the help.  Jeff is only a casual birder, but he spent several days with me in the northeast corner of the state searching for birds.

A pretty Hermit Thrush that Jeff and I found in Chowan County.

A pretty Hermit Thrush that Jeff and I found in Chowan County.

I wish that I’d kept notes on every outing, every new milestone, but I did not.  Instead, I have only delightful random memories, like a stream of consciousness.  Please indulge me as I share a few of those memories.

Derek is an excellent birder with the energy that comes from being young.  And, he was willing to go birding with me – a woman with bad eyesight and old enough to be his grandmother.  The love of birds and birding that transcends all other differences is one of the things that I love about the birding community.  But, I digress.

A lovely Cedar Waxwing found on the Bakersville Creek Walk in Mitchell County

A lovely Cedar Waxwing found on the Bakersville Creek Walk in Mitchell County

A typical day of birding with Derek started with meeting around 7:00 AM and driving two to three hours to get to the counties we needed.  Derek is a great planner and he continued to watch bird alerts while I drove.  We birded until dark and then Derek drove on the way home.  Sometimes it was 11:00 PM when I pulled into my driveway.  But, we always had fun and we always got new county birds.

In January 2017, Derek introduced me to the idea of combining county birding and state birding, seeking birds not just new to a particular county, but new for the state.  A rare (for North Carolina) Anna’s Hummingbird had turned up on the coast, inspiring us to make a two-day trip to see this beauty.  We added several new birds for Dare County, including a surprise Brown Thrasher while waiting in line at the Nags Head KFC drive-thru.

The Anna's Hummingbird that Derek and I drove to the NC coast to see

The Anna’s Hummingbird that Derek and I drove to the NC coast to see

Later that year in May, we couldn’t miss an opportunity to see this cooperative Mourning Warbler in Avery County, another state bird for both Derek and me.  This led to stops in Wilkes County, an Alder Flycatcher at a blink-and-you-would-have-missed-it bog on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Burke, and then multiple stops at under-birded hotspots in Mitchell, Yancey, and McDowell counties.  Our favorite location that we discovered that day was the lovely Bakersville Creek Walk in Mitchell County, which I made into an eBird hotspot.

Our lovely Mourning Warbler on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Avery County

Our lovely Mourning Warbler on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Avery County

In addition to finding notable birds, I enjoyed the quirkiness and little surprises of county birding.  Derek and I called it the “wavy road.”  It was as much in the middle of nowhere as any place in NC.  I think we were on a mission to find a Clay-colored Sparrow.  The road was completely level on the middle line, but the edges rose and fell like waves.  Driving the road felt like a ride at an amusement park.  We marveled at the oddity of the road and were happy that it didn’t last too long.  And, yes, we got our bird.

On a day of birding with Hop in Cleveland County, he pished up this Golden-crowned Kinglet.

On a day of birding with Hop in Cleveland County, he pished up this Golden-crowned Kinglet.

Plenty of mistakes were made in my search for new birds, mostly when I was birding alone.  I currently have only one bird for Halifax County even though I spent the night there.  I got confused about the county line and did not even realize where I was!  A more serious mistake occurred when I was birding alone in the Croatan National Forest and became totally lost.  Fortunately, I was able to use the eBird track on my phone to navigate back to my car.  Once on a trip with Derek to the Sandhills area in the middle of summer, I failed to take water on our walk.  When we were almost back to the car, I began to feel sick – very hot and nauseous – so I just lay down on the sand and sent Derek back to the ranger station.  I knew the ranger would come for me in his truck, which he did, and I learned a very valuable lesson.

This young Brown-headed Cowbird appeared to be hot, too, on that sweltering day in Cumberland County.

This young Brown-headed Cowbird appeared to be hot, too, on that sweltering day in Cumberland County.

But, the heat might have been responsible for the wonderful lizards we also found on that hot July day.  Derek and I considered all wildlife sightings a big bonus of county birding.

Eastern Fence Lizard at Carvers Creek State Park, a lifer lizard for me!

Eastern Fence Lizard at Carvers Creek State Park, a lifer lizard for me!

I made even more mistakes finding birds, again usually when I went out on my own.  Many these errors were my poor decisions about which birding hotspots to visit.  A State Recreation Area on a large lake was “Closed for the Season” when I got there in the middle of winter.  Some hotspots no longer had access and some were just about impossible to find.  One location with many great eBird reports appeared to be a road that no one would walk except hunters or crazy young male birders.  I’m pretty brave, but I was not going to park my car on the side of the road and walk alone into the wilderness in a remote, isolated part of the state.

A Great Spangled Fritillary that Derek and I found near Boone in June 2016. We frequently encountered beautiful butterflies while searching for birds.

A Great Spangled Fritillary that Derek and I found near Boone in June 2016. We frequently encountered beautiful butterflies while searching for birds.

As I have written this, more memories keep flooding back.  Looking for Swallow-tailed Kites with Nathan and Sarah.  The Person County Northern Lapwing with David S.  The Brown Booby with Jay.  The Allen’s Hummingbird with Phil and Carol C.  Transylvania County.  Forsyth Audubon and Piedmont Bird Club trips.  I can’t name them all, but I treasure every one of my birding adventures and I am grateful to have shared so many with friends.

My most recently photographed county tick is this Tricolored Heron, right here in Forsyth County, only the second of this species to be observed in our county.  But, I now have an even newer county bird, a Royal Tern that David Disher found at Salem Lake during Hurricane Florence.

My Forsyth County Tricolored Heron

My Forsyth County Tricolored Heron

My eBird map for NC is below.  As you can see, I don’t have many birds in most counties, so I’ll be able to continue the county birding game for quite a while as I add new birds.  I hope to keep birding in North Carolina for a very long time.

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Cynthia Donaldson and I spent a day with Golden-winged Warblers near Boone, North Carolina, in May.  Here is Cynthia’s story.

The vista from the Audubon NC research site at 4000’ is breathtaking!  The air is clear and clean.  Pale purple hills below roll to the horizon a hundred miles away.  The cool, crisp breeze carries the spring songs of the resident birds as well as the newly arrived migrants.  Shelley and I had the privilege of visiting this beautiful place and observing the intrepid researchers who give their time and talents to a steadily declining jewel of the eastern forest: the Golden-winged Warbler.

View from the Sunalei Preserve clubhouse

View from the Sunalei Preserve clubhouse

Our day began very early on May 13, 2014.  We met in the New Market parking lot in Boone NC at 5:30 AM. Four young people in their early 20’s greeted us with sleepy cheerfulness: Anna Tisdale (Audubon NC’s Graduate Research Assistant at Appalachian State University and field crew leader), Alex Dawson (returning for his second year of working with the warblers), Lee Williams (coordinator of the Forsyth Audubon Brown-headed Nuthatch nest box project and new addition to the NC Audubon team) and Jennifer Tucker (on day two of her internship).

Our first stop was a country market for coffee.  The second stop was at a NC game land. Anna played the Golden-winged Warbler tape at a possible habitat, but no one answered. She did not get a response at a second site either, but as soon as we got out of the car at Sunalei Preserve, near the summit of Snake Mountain, we could hear the Golden-winged Warbler bee-buzz-buzz-buzz coming from three different directions!

The vision of Sunalei Preserve is to develop a community of homes, each on several acres, within a nature preserve.  It’s 1,000 acres straddle the North Carolina and Tennessee border near Boone, NC.  Because of the recession, most of the land is undeveloped and prime Golden-winged Warbler habitat.  The owners of the preserve have graciously given Audubon access to this area for research.

"Andy," a male second-year Golden-winged Warbler

“Andy,” a male second-year Golden-winged Warbler

On this beautiful May morning, Anna told us about the three Sunalei males who were busy defending their newly defined territories.  Anna is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University and is currently a graduate student at Appalachian State University.  The important data that she is gathering will be used for her own master’s project as well as North Carolina’s Golden-winged Warbler work in a regional study with other members of the Golden-winged Warbler Working Group.  The work involves gathering data about the demographics, genetics, behavior, productivity, and wintering distribution of the species.  Curtis Smalling, Director of Land Bird Conservation for Audubon North Carolina, directs North Carolina’s Golden-winged Warbler work.  Beginning her second year on this site, Anna is an expert on anything golden-winged.  Her passion for her work was apparent as she explained each step of the sometimes tedious, usually grueling, but always rewarding job.

Shelley and I wanted a taste of field work, so Anna gave us some assignments and then led us to the field of Golden-winged Warbler #2.  Pink tape and Sharpie in hand, we followed her to the territory of this second-year male.  He was new to Sunalei meaning he had never been banded.  Our job was to spot map his territory (define the boundary) with a goal of making 10 marks or points.  Our intrepid leader then left Shelley and me to our assignment.  Shelley recorded perch time data from the upper slope near one of the Golden-winged Warblers’s favorite tulip poplar perches.  I followed him around, recording song type and perch time info on the pink tape, and then tying the tape to each tree that he visited.  The hill was covered with horrendous briars, so I stuck to deer trails as much as I could!  When I first met Anna, I wondered why her arms were completely covered with scratches…..

Recording the song type was easy because he sang his typical song for the hour or so that we studied him.  Anna returned around 9:00 AM from her census of the other territories to check our work.  Content with our points, she began setting up the mist net.  She shared her future hopes and plans for the project as she pounded the poles into the ground (with a rock) and then stretched the net.  The net was carefully assembled on a flat area in the shade of the favored tulip polar.  Hopefully, the grays of the shadow would disguise the folds of the net gently rippling in the breeze.

"Andy" sporting his silver US Geologic Survey band and the light blue color band selected by Cynthia. Hot pink and purple bands adorn his other leg.

“Andy” sporting his silver US Geologic Survey band and the light blue color band selected by Cynthia. Hot pink and purple bands adorn his other leg.

Her plan worked beautifully.  In less than a minute of playing the recording of a Golden-winged Warbler song, our male flew right in.  Anna was quick to untangle him and put him in a drawstring bag for a little rest.  After laying out all of her banding equipment, she took him out of the bag and we got our first up-close look at this tiny creation!  This .28 ounce male tried to wiggle free every chance he could, but he did not have a chance in Anna’s trained hands.  She expertly measured his beak, wings, and tail.  His silver band bears a 10 digit number that I wish I had written down.  Shelley and I got to choose colors for two of his marker bands:  Shelley chose purple and I chose light blue.  All of Anna’s birds have a hot pink band.  The combination of colors on the legs will identify this male for the rest of his life.  The retrieving of a few feathers and some blood for scientific analysis was (I like to think) more painful for Shelley and me than for him!  When the process was over, I got to hold him and put him in the plastic cylinder for weighing.

Cynthia and "Andy," a second-year male Golden-winged Warbler

Cynthia and “Andy,” a second-year male Golden-winged Warbler

As soon as Anna tipped the cylinder, he flew out, landed for a millisecond and then dove into a thicket.  We tried to find him to assess how he had fared in his ordeal, but he was nowhere to be found.  Lightly concerned, we had no choice but to pack up and return to our cars.  By then, the sun was high on this unusually warm day and we were ready for some refreshment.

After lunch, I went with Anna to a site on the opposite side of the hill to see if we could find a Golden-winged Warbler nest.  The project goal is to find 50 nests!  The male of this territory had a mate, so it was possible that they could have a nest.  Through binoculars, we could see the band color pattern that identified him.  We observed the pair for about an hour as they foraged on the Cherry trees.  Anna marked each tree as we followed them around their territory.  A “new” male flew in for a look-around.  Anna went after him into a lower field and returned excited that this un-banded male might be a new “neighbor.”  She considered catching him, but decided to save him for another day.  Since we did not observe any nesting behavior, like nest material gathering, Anna called it a day.

Shelley and I were allowed to give our bird a name.  As we followed Anna in our car to our next destination, which was the gorgeous club house for the property, Shelley and I came up with the name Andy.  “An” was for Anna and for me, Cynthia “Anne,” and “dy” was for Shelley “Dee.”  Perfect.

Just then, Anna jumped out of her car, doing a dance of joy!  We stopped our car and hurried to find out what she was so happy about.  We were passing the north edge of Andy’s territory, and he was singing!  Just to be sure it was him, Anna played the Golden-winged Warbler song.  He flew in for a moment, singing his warning song, and then flew back down the hill to one of his favorite perches.  As he flew, we had a great look at his pink, purple and light-blue bands!  He was going to be fine.

Perched atop a tulip poplar near the summit of Snake Mountain, Andy, “our” Golden-winged Warbler, scans his briar-covered slope and the smoky-hazed North Carolina and Tennessee mountains below.  Hopefully he will find a female, raise a brood and then leave to fly to warm South America in the fall.  Will he return next spring?  Time will tell.  Anna promised to let us know.  For now, this golden-winged wonder will spend the summer here, in the idyllic setting of Sunalei Preserve.

"Andy," a male second-year Golden-winged Warbler

“Andy,” a male second-year Golden-winged Warbler

Many thanks to Cynthia for writing the above story and allowing me to publish it. Golden-winged Warblers populations have declined sharply (estimated at over 75%) since the 1960’s and it has been petitioned for placement on the Endangered Species List.  The Golden-winged Warbler Working Group is the umbrella organization for conservation efforts.  Cornell provides some interesting facts about this bird.  And, read about the Audubon NC work that Curtis Smalling is heading up here and here.

 

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