Birdwatch

Birdwatch

A Soaring Kite

The majestic swallow-tailed

By Susan Campbell

The swallow-tailed kite is, without a doubt, the most unmistakable of birds in our state — and perhaps anywhere in the world. This large raptor with a long, forked tail is capable of endless, highly acrobatic flight. The size, as well as the long, narrow wings, may cause one to think “osprey” at first, but one glimpse of that unique tail gives its true identity away, even at a great distance. This majestic bird is black on top with a white head and belly, as well as white wing linings. As with all kite species, the bill is stout and heavily curved, but the legs and feet, instead of being yellow, are a grayish hue.

It has only been in the last decade that this magnificent species has become a regular in the summer months in certain locations of southeastern North Carolina. Individuals were observed mixed in with Mississippi kites along the Cape Fear River in the summer of 2003. In 2008 a pair of kites seemed to be defending a territory along the river, but no concrete evidence of breeding could be found. Swallow-tailed kites were finally confirmed as a new breeder here when a nesting pair was located during an aerial survey by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission in May of 2013. Far more likely to be seen in coastal South Carolina and farther south, these birds have plenty of feeding habitat here, as well as tall trees for nesting. Their numbers are bound to increase in the years ahead.

Swallow-taileds are found in wet coastal habitat where their preferred prey — large flying insects — are abundant. Adults feed entirely on the wing. But, when foraging for young, this bird is so agile that it not only preys on bugs, such as dragonflies and beetles, it readily snatches snakes, lizards and even nestlings of other species from the canopy. Swallow-taileds are not at all choosey. Males forage for a good deal of the food for the growing family. The male will carry food items back to the nest in its talons, transfer to it to his bill and carefully pass it to his mate, who will tear it into pieces and feed it to their young.

This species is a loosely communal breeder like its cousin the Mississippi kite. Swallow-tailed pairs can be seen in adjacent treetops when they find a particularly good piece of habitat. Non-breeding males may also associate with established pairs. These individuals might bring gifts of sticks and even food to breeding females but, interestingly, these offerings usually go ignored.

Swallow-taileds have been found to consume a large number of highly venomous insects. Wasps and hornets are not uncommon food items, as are fire ants. This is possible because they have developed a much fleshier stomach than other birds. An adult kite may bring an entire wasps’ nest to its own nest and, after consuming the larvae, incorporate it into the nest. The motivation for this behavior is unclear.

In late summer, individual swallow-tailed kites can be seen almost anywhere in the state as a result of post-breeding dispersal. They may mix in with feeding or loafing Mississippi kites around agricultural fields or bottomland forest. Last July, I was fortunate enough to spot a soaring individual over Highway 421 adjacent to swampy habitat outside of Siler City in Chatham County. Should you spot one of these magnificent birds, consider yourself very lucky.  PS

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos. She can be contacted by email at susan@ncaves.com, or by calling (910) 585-0574.

Birdwatch

Birdwatch

Easy Listening

But the whip-poor-will is harder to spot

By Susan Campbell

If you live adjacent to wet woods well away from the city, I am betting that you have been treated to a loud, repetitive call at dusk — probably for some weeks now. The raucous, distinct vocalizations most likely originate from a medium-sized, extremely well camouflaged bird. Not surprisingly, the endless three-syllable chants of “whip poor will” are made by the Eastern whip-poor-will. But make no mistake: This bird is as hard to find as it is easy to hear. Its mottled gray, brown and white plumage makes it virtually invisible either perched on a low branch or, as it does more often, sitting on the forest floor.

Should you scare up one of these birds or catch a glimpse at dawn or dusk, you will see that little about their plumage really stands out. Whip-poor-wills have a distinct white throat patch as well as pale coloring on the corners of the tail but otherwise are quite dull. The outer tail patches on males are white but buff-colored on the females — otherwise they are identical. One other important difference is that only the males do the calling.

In early spring, whip-poor-wills make their way north from winter locations ranging from Central America to perhaps as far north as the Gulf Coast. Their overland route, which they cover at night, brings them up through the Southeastern states quite early in the season but, by the time they arrive, larger insects have already taken flight. This is critical given the fact that they dine solely on bugs. Their huge mouths scoop up a variety of invertebrates, including moths, beetles, grasshoppers, fireflies, and even wasps and bees. They are known to feed all night long if there is a full moon. Whip-poor-wills are versatile hunters, searching for prey items in leaf litter or, at times, rotting wood.

Because they spend most of their time flying in the forest, whip-poor-wills require open terrain like the open pine woodlands of the Sandhills region. Nests are simple scrapes on the ground made by females who typically lay two marbled eggs that are amazingly camouflaged in the leaf littler. Although it is the female who incubates, the male may perform a convincing distraction display at the nest site to lure would-be predators away. It is curious to note that nesting may be delayed so that hatching coincides with the full moon when the parents can spend more of the night hunting insects for their growing family. Young whip-poor-wills will move from the nest after hatching, perhaps to avoid predation.

Unfortunately in the East, many whip-poor-will populations have been in decline due to habitat loss. Woodlands continue to be replaced by both agriculture and, even more so, housing developments. Human activity has significantly reduced potential territories here in central North Carolina. But where they hang on, their summertime chorus rings loud and clear.  PS

Susan Campbell would love to hear from you. Feel free to send questions or wildlife observations to susan@ncaves.com.

Birdwatch

Birdwatch

The Hidden Hawk

Looking for the elusive broad-winged

By Susan Campbell

All of us are aware of hawks in the landscape — no matter where in North Carolina we may be. We are fortunate to have a diversity of raptors in our state. These birds are formidable hunters that use their talons to grab unsuspecting prey of varying kinds. The most noticeable are larger species such as red-tailed hawks that sit in the open on stout branches or snags, and in the absence of natural perches, can be seen on fence posts or telephone poles. But there are hawks that are more secretive and spend most of their time hidden. One of these is the broad-winged hawk. This species is smaller in size and is more likely to be found in swampy woods. Happily, they are now returning from their wintering grounds in Central and South America.

These birds seem to enjoy the diversity of prey in wetter habitats. Mind you, I do not see these diminutive but magnificent birds regularly but, as with so many species during the breeding season, I hear them advertising their presence. Their call is a high-pitched whistle, unlike any other bird in our area. Being heard and not seen may be a strategy for these birds, given their smaller size: close to that of a crow. Often living within the boundaries of other, larger hawks — such as a red-shouldered — being less visible is a distinct advantage.

Not surprisingly, given their size, broad-wingeds often go unnoticed. They are birds of the forest and, given their dark coloration, blend in well with their surroundings. But that doesn’t mean they’re drab. These stocky little hawks have reddish heads and handsome barred underparts that match their boldly barred tails. Only the keenest of birders will likely spot them unless they’re migrating, when they congregate in large numbers (even into the thousands) in certain locations. At these raptor “hot spots” the birds can be seen soaring in circles, forming large “kettles” on updrafts, gaining altitude early in the day. Broad-wingeds, like many other hawks, use upper air currents to make their long journey a bit easier. Unlike most of our local hawk species, these birds move back and forth between the eastern United States and central to northern South America during the year.

In the Piedmont, the species can be found in hardwood or mixed pine/hardwood forest. The courtship ritual is breathtaking, involving “skydiving” — circling high in the sky followed by a rapid dive. The pair will nest in the lower limbs of a mature tree, usually close to water or some sort of opening in the canopy. The parent hawks will feed their young everything from mice to frogs, lizards to large insects. Since broad-winged hawks are easily disturbed, they are rarely seen outside of rural areas.

Should you be out hiking at Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve in Southern Pines or at, say, Haw River State Park in Browns Summit, keep an eye out — as well as an ear — you just may spot an elusive broad-winged.  PS

Susan Campbell would love to hear from you. Feel free to send questions or wildlife observations to susan@ncaves.com.

Birdwatch

Birdwatch

Harbingers of Spring

Return of the red-winged blackbirds

By Susan Campbell

For some, the sound of spring is the song of the American robin, our melodious and most familiar songster. But for me it has always been the sounds of red-winged blackbirds. As a beginning birdwatcher in New York State, migration begins a lot later than here in North Carolina. And some of the first returnees riding the warmer winds back north are red-wingeds. The “chuck”-ing coming from the ribbons of birds as they passed overhead was the very first sign that winter was losing its grip. Not long after, I would be greeted by the first males giving their loud “konk-a-ree!” songs from the tallest of the cattails in the nearby marsh.

Red-wingeds get their name from the bright red epaulets on the wings of the adult males. These patches are actually set off on the black wing by a patch of yellow feathers just below. Otherwise the birds are completely dark. Females, not surprisingly, are quite drab. Their brownish, streaky appearance is superb camouflage against the tall grasses in the wet habitat that they tend to inhabit. Young birds are also entirely streaked, which makes them harder to spot as they learn their way in the world, well into their first winter.

These blackbirds can be found inland in our state year round. However, in the winter months, they gather in large flocks so they are not widespread. Aggregations of thousands of birds can be found closer to the coast from late fall into early spring. But by now, they are returning to local bottomlands, lakes and ponds to breed. Red-wingeds are unusual in that they are a species that is polygynous. Males may have a harem of mates within the territory that they defend. Experienced males will pair with two or more females as early as mid-March. Females will create substantial nests in low vegetation by weaving wet leaves and shoots together to form a dense cup. They will add mud to the inside and then finally line it with fine grasses before laying two to four pale eggs with dark streaks.

Although blackbirds are generally known to feed on seeds, of both native and agricultural origins, in the summer they hunt mainly insects. They are known to probe at the base of aquatic plants with their slender bills and are very capable of prying insects from the stems. Young red-wingeds, like so many species, require lots of protein. It is the mother birds that forage for the family. Males spend most of their time defending their territories from high perches, singing throughout the day and fiercely chasing interlopers that venture too close.

As abundant as these birds may seem to be, their numbers have been declining for several decades. It is likely due to the continuing loss of wetland habitat throughout their range. Additionally, terrestrial predators are on the rise in areas where they breed — including cats. If you have red-wingeds in your neighborhood this spring, consider yourself lucky, and be sure to get out and enjoy their antics as well as that unmistakable song.  PS

Susan Campbell would love to hear from you. Feel free to send questions or wildlife observations to susan@ncaves.com.

Sporting Life

Sporting Life

Making the Fleet Shipshape

Taking advantage of a little downtime

By Tom Bryant

“Like the Old Man said, there is nothing like being alone on the water in a boat of your own to learn the value of peace, quiet, and responsibility.”  — Robert Ruark, The Old Man and the Boy

Linda and I call March the Bryants’ transition month. Toward the end of February, we would normally leave for Florida in the little Airstream, hoping to be far south before March roared like the proverbial lion.

We liked the west coast the most because it seemed to be more like the old Florida we used to know. Fishing was the put-up reason for turning into snowbirds, but really I think it was just escaping the fickle month of March, and enjoying a little warmth and salt water that really sent us on our way. Later, around the first of April, our wanderlust temporarily sated, we would hook up the compact camper, fire up the Cruiser and make a leisurely trip back to North Carolina, until it was time to head to the beach.

This year, though, was gonna be different. My right knee had given up the ghost, so I was to have replacement surgery and then be as good as new. Only problem was the time involved in getting everything back to working the way it should. So, what to do while healing and learning to walk again? I decided I’d do a little inventory, maybe get rid of some stuff that was outdated, if there is such a thing. Linda, my bride, accuses me of never throwing anything away. I disagree. If I’ve used it once, I’m liable to use it again, and there is nothing worse than needing an item and realizing I disposed of it long ago. So I always think long and hard before any of my stuff hits the scrap pile.

A good example would be my ancient, beat-up Grumman canoe resting in the backyard on a couple of sawhorses right up next to the fence. Now the great thing about an aluminum boat is it’s almost indestructible. To prove the point, just look at old SS Haw River. Every boat has to have a name, so I named the canoe Haw River. She saved a friend and me from drowning a time or two in deadly white water rapids on the Haw. Her very first adventure was on that river up in Alamance County where she proved her worth on a river at flood stage.

Three of us were on what Linda calls another misadventure. The plan was to float the Haw River until it merges with the Cape Fear and comes out in Wilmington. Good plan, except the misnomer float would be like comparing a bull ride to a soft canter on a well-disciplined Tennessee walking horse.

To keep a long, almost deadly, story short, somewhere down close to Pittsboro, old Haw became lodged between two massive boulders, where she promptly tossed her passengers out in the raging current, luckily close enough to a narrow island to be able to scramble up the bank.

We saved what gear we could that evening and spent the night on the little spit of land. The next morning, we swam off to safety. All the little adventures that happened during our rescue is another tale, one that was picked up by the local newspapers. But I diverge from the real point: Old Haw was rescued, and her broken keel was fixed, almost good as new. She ushered us down many more rivers, lakes and bays.

So during this time of rest and recuperation, I’m going to dig her out from under the persimmon tree vines, dust her off (well, it’s gonna take a little more than dusting), and get her recommissioned in the fleet.

The fleet is what the bride calls an accumulation of watercraft resting in our backyard. There’s the old SS Haw River. Then a 16-foot aluminum skiff that my dad gave me early in my fishing days; and resting right close is a 12-foot, wide-beamed, low-to-the-water duck boat named the Widgeon. There is also a Keewaydin canoe designed especially for whitewater. I bought this canoe late in my whitewater paddling career when it seemed as if I was “determined to kill myself” — a direct quote from the bride.

I did spend a lot of my outdoor time on rivers, creeks, lakes, bays, and even the ocean, but mostly on waters that would not be too much for a canoe to handle. If I was to blame anyone for my obsession with a love of rivers and creeks, it would have to be my grandfather.

Granddad’s place in South Carolina has been in the family for generations. It’s a working farm that is still part of the family, and its borders ranged from the banks of Black Creek to the dark waters of the Little Pee Dee River and all points in-between. In a youngster’s mind it was a lot of land. And with Black Creek and, more importantly, Little Pee Dee River, there were lots of opportunities to paddle.

There was one adventure on the Little Pee Dee where I was able to help Granddad add to his own personal watercraft. It was a day like many others on the river. We were up and at ’em early, motoring up the river 4 or 5 miles, then floating back down to Granddad’s river shack, fishing all the way.

Late in the day and a little over halfway back to our put-in point, we decided to take a side trip and investigate a small pond in a cut off the main flow of the river. There are a lot of those in some stretches of the Pee Dee, and now and then we would check them out, sometimes catching a boatload of redbreast fish. This one, though, proved to be a disappointment, and Granddad said, “One more cast there, Bubba, and then let’s head to the barn. It’s getting late and we’ve got to clean these fish for supper.”

I threw my favorite lure under a low-hanging cypress limb, started reeling in and got hung up on something solid just under the surface of the black water. When we paddled over to where the lure was hooked, I could see that my favorite lure was securely snagged to what looked like a log.

Granddad checked it out after I dislodged the lure and said, “I’m gonna get help from your uncles and we’re coming back to get this thing. If I’m not mistaken, son, you’ve hooked a dugout boat.”

Sure enough after my Uncle Hubert and Uncle Tommy helped Granddad drag the ancient dugout boat back to the fish camp, it proved to be an amazing vessel. It was 16 feet long and about 5 feet in the beam, and carved out of an amazingly old cypress. After sitting on dry land for an entire year, it was as seaworthy as the day the long-ago Indians carved it from a felled tree. My uncle’s children still have the prehistoric craft resting in one of the outbuildings on their farm.

Having boats is a tradition in our family, and during this down time, I’m determined to get my fleet shipshape.  PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.

Birdwatch

Birdwatch

An Unlikely Visitor

The rare sight of a western tanager

By Susan Campbell

In the Sandhills and beyond we occasionally find western wanderers soaring overhead, perched in the treetops, or even at a feeder. Birds have wings and so they can (and do) end up anywhere. One of the most exciting parts of watching birds is that you never know who might show up.

Some birds are quite prone to vagrancy. Whether this condition is a result of wandering, getting lost or blown off course, we cannot usually say. Species that are long-distance migrants are, not surprisingly, at risk for mishaps en route. Though studied a great deal, very little about migration is understood. The fact is birds do migrate and most individuals are successful at it, allowing their genes to be passed on to the next generation.

This is not to say that those birds that end up off track are bound to stay lost forever or perish as a result of a wrong turn along the way. In fact, it’s believed that these out-of-place individuals, in some cases, represent the beginning of a range expansion for their species. Records have been kept long enough that we have documented bird populations moving into new areas of the United States.

A species that has been observed in the winter more and more frequently, well outside of its normal range, is the western tanager. This small but colorful songbird is found in the warmer months throughout most of the western U.S. in a variety of wooded habitats. They head for Mexico and Central America come fall. However, in the early ’90s, one showed up at a feeder in Wilmington and stayed — not just one winter but returned for two more. It fed on suet, shelled seeds and fruit. Since then, more than a dozen other individuals have been documented along the southern coast of North Carolina. What does this mean? It is probably too soon to tell. But bird lovers in our southeastern counties are keeping their eyes out for westerns each year.

It has been more than a decade since the first western tanager appeared in the Sandhills. But this winter, a male western tanager once again turned up in a Pinehurst yard. The hosts, being bird people, realized they had something out of the ordinary at their feeders. It was tricky seeing the necessary field marks on him given his secretive nature. All tanagers molt twice a year and happen to be drab from early fall through early spring, so identification is a bit tricky when these birds do appear in the East. Unlike our more familiar summer and scarlet tanagers, westerns have noticeable barring on their wings and are brighter yellow on their underparts. 

Interestingly, there was also a western tanager in Apex (outside Raleigh) this season. It, too, was a male, but he arrived with lots of orange and red on his head and face already — clearly an adult bird. Like the Pinehurst tanager he was rather shy at first, but within a few weeks, settled in and began strutting his stuff several times a day, enjoying mealworms and bits of fruit from the big platform feeder.

Though sightings of western tanagers are rare, it pays to be prepared with binoculars and a good field guide should something “odd” show up. The unusual is always possible, whether you are visiting a large wildlife refuge, local park, a McDonald’s parking lot or even in your own backyard.  PS

Susan Campbell would love to hear from you. Feel free to send questions or wildlife observations to susan@ncaves.com.

Birdwatch

Birdwatch

A Rare Winter Visitor

Keep an eye out for the snow bunting

By Susan Campbell

No bird in North America conjures up an image of midwinter like the snow bunting. These open country birds of the North are well adapted to cold and snow, as their name implies. The species is migratory and so may be found in the northern half of the U.S. in winter. Individuals are not at all a common sight this far south. However, they may show up here and there during the colder months. So, it is good to be aware — and know what to look for.

Snow buntings breed in rocky areas on the tundra during the late spring and summer. They nest in crevices between rocks, using moss and down to create a soft cup. In the fall, when temperatures plummet and the days shorten, these birds take off in a southerly direction for more hospitable locations. Typically, they show up in weedy fields and along lakeshores, but they can also be found at the coast on sandy beaches.

These birds typically have more white plumage in the summer — especially the males. This is the result of feather wear (not different feathers) during the cooler months after a post-breeding-season molt. Males are white with black backs, wingtips and tail tips. Females are grayish but even they have white bellies and flanks. In winter, their plumage contains brownish hues such that they blend in well with the vegetation, as well as the sand or soil in their preferred feeding habitat. They are truly birds of the ground and so are rarely seen perched in trees or on wires. In flight, they are quite distinctive year-round with large white wing patches and white rumps. And if traveling with others, they will produce an array of odd, loud noises: They may rattle, buzz and/or twitter.

Single snow buntings may be easily overlooked. They do not tend to flush until the last second. Between the fact that they are so well camouflaged and that they tend to be silent, they are often missed even at close range. Furthermore, they are not typically found at feeding stations, preferring larger natural areas to backyards.

Although there have been no reports of these special little birds sighted in central North Carolina yet this season, there has been a flock of up to two dozen on the Outer Banks this winter. They have been observed feeding on the seeds of sea oats and other dune grasses since early December on the south side of Oregon Inlet. If you happen to be out that way in the next several weeks, you may be able to find them. Flocks may move around frequently, leapfrogging over one another as they search for their next meal. Simply stroll the dunes watching for movement around the vegetation, and be sure to listen for their raspy calls. The group sticks together by frequently vocalizing. Keep an ear out and you may be rewarded with a glimpse of this rare winter visitor. PS

Susan Campbell would love to hear from you. Feel free to send questions or wildlife observations to susan@ncaves.com.

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Birdwatch

A Winter Visitor

The handsome yellow-bellied sapsucker

By Susan Campbell

Woodpeckers abound in central North Carolina, even more so in the Sandhills. On a given day, you might see up to eight different species. Only one, however, is a winter visitor: the handsome yellow-bellied sapsucker. This medium-sized, black-and-white bird is well camouflaged against the tree trunks where it is typically found. It also sports red plumage on the head, as so many North American species do. The female has only a red crown, whereas the male also sports a red throat. And, as their name implies, both sexes have a yellow tinge to their bellies. However, young of the year arriving in late October to early November are drab, with grayish plumage and lacking the colorful markings of their parents. By the time they head back north in March, they too, will be well-patterned.

There are four sapsucker species found in North America. The yellow-bellied has the largest range and is the only one seen east of the Rockies. Sapsuckers do, in fact, feed on sap year round. They seek out softer hardwood trees and drill holes through the bark into the living tissue. This wound will ooze sap in short order. Not only do the carbohydrates in the liquid provide nourishment to the birds, but insects also get trapped in the sticky substance. Holes made by yellow-bellied sapsuckers form neat rows in the bark of red maples, tulip poplars and even Bradford pears in our area. Pines, however, not only tend to have bark that is too thick for sapsuckers to penetrate but rapidly scab over, rendering only a very brief flow of sap.

The injury caused by sapsuckers is generally not fatal to the tree, as long as it is healthy to begin with. Infection of the wound by fungi or other diseases may occur in older or stressed trees. Although the relationship is not mutually beneficial, sapsuckers need the trees for their survival. It is also interesting to note that others use the wells created by sapsuckers. Birds known to have a “sweet tooth,” such as orioles and hummingbirds, will take advantage of the yellow-bellied sapsucker’s handiwork.

The species breeds in pine forests throughout boreal Canada, the upper Midwest as well as New England. We do have summering populations at elevation in western North Carolina. It is not unusual to find them around Blowing Rock in the warmer months. As is typical for woodpeckers, sapsuckers create cavities in dead trees for nesting purposes. They use calls as well as drumming to advertise their territory. The typical call note is a short, high-pitched, cat-like mewing sound. They use more emphatic squealing and rapid tapping of their bills against dead wood or other suitable resonating surfaces to warn would-be competitors of their presence.

In winter, yellow-bellieds quietly coexist with the other woodpeckers in the area. They will seek out holly and other berries in addition to feeding on sap. These birds will feed on suet, too, and may be attracted to backyard feeding stations. Generally the yellow-bellied does not drink sugar water, since feeders designed for hummingbirds or orioles are not configured for use by clinging species. Of course, as with all birds, it may be lured in by fresh water: another reason to maintain a birdbath or two — even if you live on a lake.

Seeing a sapsucker at close range is always a treat, so keep an eye out for this unusual woodpecker.  PS

Susan Campbell would love to hear from you. Feel free to send questions or wildlife observations to susan@ncaves.com.

Birdwatch

Birdwatch

Wintering Waterbirds

Ducks, geese and swans, oh my!

By Susan Campbell

The arrival of cold weather in central North Carolina also means the arrival of waterfowl. Our local ponds and lakes have been documented to be the winter home to more than two dozen different species of ducks, geese and swans. Over the years, as water features both large and small have been added to the landscape, the diversity of waterfowl has increased significantly. Although we are all familiar with our local mallards and Canada geese, a variety of aquatic birds frequent our area from November through March.

Certainly the most abundant and widespread species is the ring-necked duck, flocks of which can be seen diving for aquatic invertebrate prey in shallow ponds and coves. The males have iridescent blue heads, black sides and gray backs. They get their name from the indistinct rusty ring at the base of their necks. The females, as with all of the true duck species, are quite nondescript. They are light brown all over and, like the males, have a grayish blue bill with a white band around it.

The most noticeable of our wintering waterfowl would be the buffleheads. They form small groups that dive into deeper water, feeding on vegetation and invertebrates. The males have a bright white hood and body with iridescent dark green back, face and neck. They also sport bright orange legs and feet, which they will flash during confrontations. The females of this species are also drab, mainly brown with the only contrast being a small white cheek patch. Interestingly, bufflehead is the one species of migratory duck that actually mates for life. This is generally a trait found only in the largest of waterfowl: swans and geese.

There are several types of aquatic birds similar to ducks that can be identified if one can get a good look, which usually requires binoculars. Common loons can occasionally be seen diving for fish on larger lakes in winter, and even more so during spring and fall migration. Their size and shape are quite distinctive (as is their yodeling song which, sadly, they do not tend to sing while they are here).

Be aware that we have another visitor that can be confused with loons: the double-crested cormorant. This bird is actually not a duck at all but is (along with its cousin the anhinga) more closely related to seabirds, e.g. boobies and gannets. It is a very proficient diver with a sharply serrated bill adapted for catching fish. It is not uncommon to see cormorants in their “drying” pose. Their feathers are not as waterproof as those of diving ducks, so they only enter water to feed and bathe. Most of their time is spent sitting on a dock or some sort of perch in order to dry out.

Two other species of waterbird can be found regularly at this time of year: pied-billed grebes and American coots. Pied-billed grebes are the smallest of the swimmers we see in winter, with light brown plumage, short thick bills and bright white bottoms. Surprisingly, they are very active swimmers. They can chase down small fish in just about any depth of water. In some years, American coots can be quite abundant. These black, stocky birds with white bills are scavengers, feeding mainly in aquatic vegetation. They can make short dives but are too buoyant to remain submerged for more than a few seconds. Given their long legs and well-developed toes, they are also adept at foraging on foot. You may see them feeding on grasses along the edge of larger bodies of water or even on the edge of golf course water hazards.  PS

Susan Campbell would love to hear from you. Feel free to send questions or wildlife observations to susan@ncaves.com.

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Birdwatch

Flying Under the Radar

The rarely noticed double-crested cormorant

By Susan Campbell

Overlooked by many, the double-crested cormorant is a waterbird found alone or in small groups across our state during the cooler weather. This large, black, gull-like bird has few admirers. It only gets noticed when sitting with wings outstretched, drying in the sun, on an exposed perch such as a low snag or bulkhead. Although cormorants are less waterproof than most, their lack of buoyancy makes it easier to swim after prey in deep water. They can be found in a variety of bodies of water, from retention or farm ponds to larger lakes and reservoirs. However, if you are at the beach during the winter months, you may see them in the open ocean, often foraging together by the thousands.

This bird is hardly a striking waterbird. Cormorants actually look odd — somewhat like a cross between a loon and a goose. Although it seems to be a dull black bird with a long neck and pointed wings, should you see it at close range it actually does sport some color. The bright orange-yellow facial skin and shockingly aquamarine eyes of adult birds are apparent. Furthermore, breeding individuals have two black and white tufts as well as a blue mouth from early spring through mid-summer.

Double-crested cormorants are widely distributed across North America. They breed on rocky outcroppings off the coast of Canada and Alaska as well as on islands in wetter portions of the Upper Midwest. They place bulky nests in stout trees or on the ground in colonies. Flocks migrate inland across the United States to coastal wintering sites. Some cormorants can be found farther away from the coast in wetter habitats of the Southeast.

Given that this species primarily feeds on a variety of fish, and can congregate in large numbers, it is sometimes considered a nuisance by fish farmers and fishermen. Double-crested cormorants have strongly hooked bills which, along with their strong, webbed feet, definitely make them good fishers. More often than not, however, their foraging goes unnoticed, especially here in North Carolina. Moving from place to place, like so many species of birds, they form skeins or V-formations. Significant flocks have been known to show up during the fall in the Sandhills. Flying low, they appear in the afternoon to drop in to feed on one of our larger lakes. Just before dark they will fly up into an older pine to roost.

It is hard to believe that double-crested cormorant populations were once imperiled. Widespread use of pesticides in the 1960s and ’70s impacted the breeding success of many birds, especially those high up on the food chain. Compounds such as DDT caused eggshell thinning and thus, a precipitous decline in breeding productivity until it was banned in the U.S. in 1969. Recovery was swift, however, and numbers remain high in spite of increased human activity throughout the species’ range.  PS

Susan Campbell would love to hear from you. Feel free to send questions or wildlife observations to susan@ncaves.com.