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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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If you start thinking that I’m crazy as you read this, I agree with you.  It started yesterday morning with a Carolinabirds post reporting that John Fussell had found a male Ruff in breeding plumage at Cedar Island.  I thought about it for a few minutes, posted a message to Forsythbirds asking if anyone wanted to go with me, and decided that I would go regardless of whether I could find a partner for this adventure.  My preparation consisted of making arrangements for my dog and collecting my binoculars, scope, camera, and toothbrush.  I forgot my books about birding the NC coast as well as food and water.  I was in my car at 12:20 PM for a drive that Google maps said was 5-1/2 hours.  But that’s not the crazy part; all that driving would only be tedious and boring.  The crazy part was having no plan whatsoever about where I would sleep.  I expected the closest accommodations would be in Beaufort, nearly 40 miles from Cedar Island, and had no idea if there would be any vacancies since it is summer season.  I was already on the road before I started to think about these practical matters.  Due to either maturity or denial, I decided that I’d worry about it later, after I’d seen the Ruff.  Bumper to bumper traffic slowed me down for half an hour, so it was nearly 7:00 PM when I arrived at the Cedar Island ferry terminal.  And what was right beside the terminal – a restaurant and motel!  Such experiences sometimes make me believe that there really is a birding god who keeps us safe on our crazy travels and occasionally blesses us with quality views of fabulous birds.  The motel had plenty of rooms available so I went off to find the Ruff.

It took me a few minutes to find the pond, but once that task was accomplished, I immediately saw the Ruff.  I may be biased because I really like shorebirds, but I thought that he was quite a beauty with his white head and neck and brown, black, and white mottled body. The Ruff was slightly larger, both taller and chunkier, than the nearby Lesser Yellowlegs.  He flushed when the Yellowlegs gave their alarm calls and took flight, but never went far enough that he was out of sight.  I enjoyed the Ruff and other shorebirds for nearly an hour, had a crab dinner, and went to bed feeling safe and comfortable and very grateful for my good fortune.

Ruff and Lesser Yellowlegs

Nate Swick has suggested that this Ruff is the same Ruff that was found at Jamaica Bay NWR in New York on July 1.  Andrew Baksh tells the story (with photos) of discovering that bird in Ruff stuff at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.  The timing works for a bird last seen in New York on July 5 to be found in North Carolina on July 8.  For good photos of the Cedar Island Ruff, see Harry Sell’s site.  The birds look identical.

There were also many other shorebirds at the pond, including at least 25 Spotted Sandpipers, the most that I’ve ever seen together.

Cedar Island Shorebirds

Most of the Spotted Sandpipers were in breeding plumage, but the one below is a juvenile.  Note the light-brown edging on the feathers of the wing.  Also note the distinct eye ring – something that’s not mentioned in most field guides, but is typical of juvenile Spotted Sandpipers.

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