Saturday, April 16, 2011

Spring Warblers!

Spring migrant warblers have begun to arrive in Fearrington Village.  The first species to get here from wintering grounds was the Louisiana Waterthrush, which builds its nest along Bush Creek.  This past week, the Yellow-throated Warblers and Northern Parulas arrived, along with the Common Yellowthroats (pictured above).  Many warbler species travel from as far away as Central America.  These first arrivals may stick around to breed, but others may simply pass through for a day or two, fueling up for the trip further north.
Warblers are not often seen by casual birdwatchers.  The birds are small and often shy, and as insect eaters, they don't usually come to feeders.  Wherever there is good forest habitat, however, especially in April and May, you can find these colorful birds with a little persistence.  Most avid bird watchers learn the songs of migrant warblers, to increase the chances of seeing them. I'll likely see ten to fifteen different species this spring, in the neighborhood alone.  I'm already up to seven.
Today, on my way out the door, I had a special treat. . .a new yard bird.  The Prairie Warbler is a little more comfortable than most warblers in open spaces like yards, so it's not a major surprise.  Still, it's bird number 60 for my yard, and number 103 for Fearrington Village.

Flying Squirrels

The Eastern Bluebirds are sprucing up neighborhood nest boxes, as are the resident Carolina Chickadees.  A House Wren arrived from wintering grounds last week, and is eying the nest box on our front porch.  Not all flying critters that inhabit our nest boxes are avian, however.  In Fearrington Village and throughout the Carolina piedmont, it's not uncommon to get nesting southern flying squirrels.
Despite good numbers in the right habitat, the Southern Flying Squirrel is rarely seen, due to its strictly noctural lifestyle.  On a camping trip to Lake Waccamaw State Park in March, my companions and I saw a flying squirrel just over the campsite.  Screech Owls were hooting nearby, and the bushbaby-like squirrel started chirping high up in a tree, a clear sign it wasn't going to be threatened by the owl.
Little did I know that I'd soon see one in my back yard!  As I was checking the nest boxes this afternoon, I had a little face stick out of one of them, then quickly retreat back into the box.  After running to get a camera, I opened the box fully, and managed to snap a few photos.  At first, the squirrel hid amongst the ball of nest material, surely terrified by the intrusion.  After a minute or two, however, it realized I wasn't a threat, and took a few peeks at me.  I'm unsure if this is a male or a female, but this squirrel certainly is ready for a mate.
Of course, flying squirrels don't actually fly.  They glide from treetop to treetop with the help of a highly adaptive membrane and a flattened tail.  Still, it's somehow appropriate that I'd find one in a home built for flying creatures.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


"Have you heard the lonesome Whip-poor-will?  His song's too blue to fly." That old Hank Williams tune is not quite accurate these days at Jordan lake, where these mythical birds of the night are busy finding mates. There was a time when the Whip-poor-will (caprimulgus vociferus) was plentiful in these parts, and throughout the eastern half of the U.S., in spring and summer.  Numbers have fallen over the decades, primarily due to habitat loss, but the right location can still yield several birds.  Jordan Lake, just outside of Fearrington Village in the NC Piedmont, just so happens to be one of the best habitats remaining.
Every year in early April, I go to a secret listening spot, just north of the appropriately named Whip-poor-will Lane in Chatham County.  Right at dusk, these members of the nightjar family begin their famous song.  Typically, I will hear a half dozen or more when conditions are just right (they seem to prefer well lit nights).  When the singing is especially emphatic, it seems to me that the birds are ready to mate.
Because birds of the nightjar family are insect eaters, they tend to frequent forest edges next to open fields or power line easements.  Forest edges allow them to fly out to catch their prey, before retreating back to the relative safety of the forest.  During the daytime, Whip-poor-wills may roost on a branch or on the forest floor.  Their coloration and patterning allows them to perfectly blend into their surroundings.
Because of their reclusive nature, the habitat they prefer, their patterning, and their ability to hunt at night, whip-poor-wills are very rarely seen.  In fact, I had only seen a handful over the years, and only briefly and at a great distance.  In each of these cases, the birds had been seen on or near a road, their eyes reflecting red in headlights or the beam of a flashlight.
On the night of April 8th, however, I was treated to something really special.  My friend Ken and I were out listening to the recently arrived "whips," when I happened to shine a strong spotlight on a bird flying through a field.  We watched it land on a fence wire, its eyes still aglow in the beam of the light.  We slowly approached the bird from 100 feet away, and the bird stayed still.  We got closer, the beam still on, and it still didn't move.  Before we knew it, we were five feet away, with point blank looks at a bird I never thought I'd see so close!  With the spotlight in one hand, I held up my Droid phone camera, and snapped off a few pictures, one of which came out really well.

I'd put this encounter in the top five wildlife moments I've ever had!  Nightjars are so elusive that I had assumed I'd only ever see them from a distance in a faint beam of a flashlight.  This bird seemed to think it was well camoflauged, but the reflective eyes gave it away.  I felt like I'd made off with one of Mother Nature's crown jewels.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Owl Update

In a previous post, I documented an attempt to entice a resident Eastern Screech Owl into a nest box.  After several weeks of observation, I was finally able to find the owl's current roost.  Although the camoflauge was perfect, two very upset chickadees finally gave him away.
Sasha and I have spotted this owl in the Countryhouse V mailbox area on several occasions.  He can be heard making his distinct call right at dusk.  Since I don't want to discourage him from finding a mate, and settling down here in Fearrington, I won't divulge his secret hideaway.  Just know that he's quite content where he is.
I also did some reseach on the decline of Barn Owls in the piedmont.  Apparently, loss of good habitat, ingestion of rat poisons, and predation by Great Horned Owls are the primary culprits.  As farmland is converted to suburbs, and old fields begin to fill in with trees again, Barn Owls are forced out, and Great Horned Owls move in.  And yes, owls eat other owls, with the largest bird usually getting the spoils (Great Horned Owls are apex predators).  I plan on building a Barn Owl nest box in the near future, to help with a local recovery.  In the meantime, let's hope all our resident owls can get along, and that the little Screech Owl doesn't end up on a menu.

Rare Winter Visitors

I'm originally from Florida, so I'm very familiar with the term "snow bird."  Every year, millions of North Americans travel south, seeking respite from cold winter days and nights.  It's no different for our avian friends, the birds, who have been migrating north to south and back again since the age of the dinosaurs.
Unlike humans, however, birds aren't seeking warmth and sunshine in winter. Birds are typically unfazed by cold temperatures, due to the warming effects of their feathers.  What drives most avian species south is a lack of food supply up north. Snow, ice, and inclement weather can also make food gathering too much of a challenge.
Typical winter species in the piedmont of North Carolina include Yellow-rumped Warbler, White-throated Sparrow, Hermit Thrush, the two Kinglet species, Brown Creeper and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.  Most casual observers will notice an influx of ducks and geese in winter. There are some bird species that can hack winters further north, due to an ability to exploit a niche in the food supply. When even these food sources plummet, however, which can happen every few years, it forces hardy species southward in what is termed an "irruption." Crossbills, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Pine Siskins are a few of the irruptive species that can sometimes be found in the North Carolina piedmont.
Two years ago, I had a Red-breasted Nuthatch at my feeder for two or three months, along with Pine Siskins, a member of the finch family.  Last winter, because of plenty of food up north, I saw neither of these two species.  This winter they are back, especially the siskins.  All winter, I've hosted as many as 25 of these birds at my feeders.
Pine Siskins are close relatives of the goldfinches, and are often found within flocks of the locally common American Goldfinch.  Like their relatives, siskins are fond of thistle seed, and will find a feeder filled with this food in due time.  To the casual observer, it would be easy to confuse siskins with their cousins, since goldfinches are drab in winter.  Close inspection, however, reveals a thinner, pointier bill and heavy brown streaking on the breast.  Also, siskins are garrulous wherever they are, and can often be heard making their buzzy "zzzzrrrrrrrreeeeee" sound from way up in the trees.  Listen for them anywhere there are pines.  Two years ago, I had a flock of siskins at my feeders all the way up to early June!!
Pine Siskins are perhaps the most common irruptive species we have in this area. This year, however, I had the opportunity to drive a half hour west to Graham, North Carolina, to see a much rarer species.  Though the Common Redpoll lives up to its name in parts of Canada and Alaska, in the North Carolina piedmont a single bird can become a celebrity.  A fellow birdwatcher had one show up at her feeder this February, and soon the entire birding community was flocking to see it. Check out the red cap, which sets this sparrow sized bird apart from other species.  The Common Redpoll was a "lifer" for me, and I hold out hope that one day I'll see one in my yard, mixed in with an irruptive flock of siskins and my more typical winter friends.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Owl Season

I've been busy this winter, so I haven't had much time to post.  One of the reasons I've been AWOL is that I've been chasing owls for the past several months.  During a Christmas bird count on the Outer Banks, I heard my first Saw-Whet and Long-eared Owls (the latter was truly hair raising).  On a weekend jaunt to Belhaven NC, I managed to see my first Short-eared owls, two distant specimens flying like bats in the twilight.  Last weekend, I made a trip to Charlotte with some birding friends, and we had outstanding looks at a Great Horned Owl. Nearer to home, I mimicked a Barred Owl under a winter full moon, and had one fly right over my head.
My favorite member of the order Strigiformes, other than perhaps the northern Snowy Owl, is our local Eastern Screech Owl.  The above individual was photographed in the middle of a road, near Santee State Park in South Carolina, in 2007.  At first, I thought it was a pine cone, but noticing it had ear tufts, I hit the brakes, got out of the car, and snapped this photo with a Nikon "point and shoot" camera.  I was within twelve inches of this little guy, when I realized he must have been hit by a car.  (Notice the two different pupil diameters. . .I'm not sure if I'm over-personifying, but he looks like he got sucker punched and isn't too happy about it).  He later flew off into the night, apparently OK.
Ever since that encounter, I've had a special affection for these fairly common, but elusive critters.  Like cute little stuffed animals from the store, Eastern Screech Owls come in two separate colors, one reddish brown, like our friend above, and a paler, grey morph.  Eastern Screech Owls belong to the genus megascops (big-eyes), which are widely distributed (I saw Pacific Screech Owls in Costa Rica).  Locally, they can be found almost anywhere, typically near dense woods, and being cavity nesters, they can be enticed to nest in owl boxes.
Three weeks ago, my partner Sasha had a dream.  In the dream, a Screech Owl came to her, as if to give her some shamanic guidance.  The next day, Sasha remembered the dream, and went for a walk along the edge of some woods near our house, right around dusk.  Lo and behold, she found her Screech Owl, sitting atop a telephone pole.
This was a significant event for us, not only because it confirmed Sasha's gift for animal communication (she also "found" the Short-eared Owls for me in January), but because we'd never seen a Screech Owl in Chatham County.  If you read the first post of this blog, you will see that Eastern Screech Owl was high on my wish list for Fearrington Village, where we live.
When we visited the location the following night, the Screech Owl was in the same general area, hunting moths, and after perching in the trees, doing its haunting trill.  "Screech Owl" is, in fact, a bit of a misnomer.  Of the two typical sounds the bird makes, one is like a neighing horse, the other is like a lilting, hypnotic love song in the night, a series of rapid fire hoots that will charm even the most casual listnener.  The Long-eared Owl, and the Barn Owl I heard last fall. . .those birds could screech!
In any case, once I found out this bird was in my neighborhood, I immediately set myself to the task of building it a home.  My friend Ken, who is handy with these kinds of things, agreed to help me.  So off I went to Lowe's to purchase the lumber and supplies.  Having spent way too much time and money, we took comfort that this home was built to last.  We dubbed it the "Hoot Carlton."

Now that the owl box was built, we had to put it up.  Since Fearrington has many prying eyes, and loads of rules, we decided to put it up in a clandestine manner.  Yes, this is a secret owl box, perfectly camoflauged, the whereabouts of which are known only by three people.  Once I get some permanent residents in the Hoot Carlton, I might let some of my neighbors in on the secret.  Maybe.
Here's Ken putting the box way up in a tree.  Nearby is a field, where the owl has been seen hunting on several occasions.
I will let you know if our little Eastern Screech Owl finds a mate, and sets up residence.  This is the third owl species I've seen and heard in Fearrington Village, along with the Great Horned and the Barred.  The only real remaining possibility is the Barn Owl, which would have perfect habitat near the main entrance, with an open silo just waiting to be utilized.  I plan on exploring why our Barn Owl population in Chatham is so poor, when there are plenty of barns to live in.  In the meantime, I take comfort in the fact that the cute little Screech Owl lives so close to home.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


     Mention "hummers" in the Research Triangle region of North Carolina, and most will conjure images of the maligned sports utility vehicle.  To birders,  however, "hummers" refer to the most remarkable of all bird groupings, the hummingbirds of the family Trochilidae.  In our region, we have but one species that is a true seasonal resident, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
     On a November trip to Costa Rica in 2007, I was delighted to see several species of wintering hummingbird, but I was most dazzled by our very own Ruby-throat, which winters in Central America and breeds in the eastern US.  It astonished me that these tiny birds, not much bigger than bumblebees, could migrate such long distances.  Even more remarkably, many of those Ruby-throats had made their migratory journeys over the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico!  The following spring, back home in Fearrington Village, I had developed an extra appreciation for these miraculous little creatures that suddenly appeared in April and May.
     In order to fuel up for spring and fall migration, Ruby-throats get busy by drinking lots of nectar.  Humans assist this process by placing outdoor feeders, typically filled with sugar water.  Around here, the feeders are mostly quiet during the summer, as Ruby-throats breed and gather nectar from flowering plants like Virginia Creeper.  But come late August and early September, as migration nears, feeders can be swarming with hummers, especially with juvenile birds just learning to fend for themselves.  Prime feeding spots, like outdoor feeders, can bring out fierce territorial behavior in these birds.
    Typically, one Ruby-throat asserts its dominance at a certain feeder, and spends much of the day chasing off other birds.  The defense of these feeding spots can be quite vicious, as many a gardener preparing his fall garden can confirm.  The reward for all this arial jousting is sugar, the ingredient that fuels the hummingbird's voracious metabolic engine.
     In a few weeks, most of the hummers will be gone from this area of the Piedmont, as they head back to Central America for the winter.  Successful birds will survive to attempt next year's spring migration, all for the chance to pass on genes to the next generation.  In the meantime, I will be appreciating these little gems at my feeder, wondering where "my" birds will end up come November.