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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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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.

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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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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.

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Enticing the Baltimore Oriole

Red carpet treatment for an occasional guest

By Susan Campbell

Northerners who relocate to central North Carolina often ask me about birds familiar to them that seem absent here in our fair state. One that is close to the top of the list is the Baltimore oriole. Its striking plumage and affinity for sweet feeder offerings make it a real favorite among backyard bird lovers.

Male Baltimore orioles are unmistakable with bright orange under parts, a black back and head, as well as two bold white wing bars. Females and immature birds are yellow to light orange with the same white wing bars. They have relatively large, yet pointed, bills, which are very versatile while foraging. Males sing a very melodic song made up of several clear, whistled notes.

As it turns out, Baltimore orioles actually do nest in North Carolina — if you venture far enough west. In our mountains they can be found weaving their elaborate nests that dangle from high branches, often over water. Following two weeks of incubation, the young will spend another two weeks before they fledge. By mid-summer the adults spend their days in the treetops, looking for caterpillars and small insects to feed their growing families.

However, since these birds winter throughout Florida and all the way down into Central America, you might spot a few as they pass through in spring or fall. There is also a chance one or two might spend the winter in your neighborhood if you have the kind of habitat they seek out in the cooler months. Should your yard be to their liking, they may return year after year, bringing others (presumably family members) with them. I know winter oriole hosts in the eastern half of the state who count a dozen or more birds frequenting their feeders October through March every year.

Baltimore orioles will seek out areas with lots of mature evergreen trees and shrubs of which a significant portion bear some sort of fruit. These birds are relatively large and colorful so require thick cover for protection from predators — especially fast-flying bird hawks such as Cooper’s and sharp-shinneds. Without this, it has been my experience that they will not linger long even if food is plentiful. Should they feel safe, the odds are they will settle in and become a regular backyard fixture. Baltimore orioles will continue to consume any insects they happen upon but will switch to a diet of berries and whatever fruit or sweet treats they find at bird feeders. They are known to enjoy not only suet mixes with peanut butter but also orange halves, grape jelly and even marshmallows. They also will avail themselves of sugar water from hummingbird feeders they find still hanging. There are special, large sugar water feeders made for orioles that usually contain partitions for placing other solid treats as well. Baltimore orioles definitely enjoy mealworms, too, should your budget allow.

A few very lucky people have been treated to the out-of-place Scott’s oriole, as well as Bullock’s oriole, here in North Carolina. Interestingly, these mega-rarities have turned up at sites without any other orioles present. Keep in mind that we sometimes find western tanagers at feeders in winter. The females and immature birds of this species look very similar to female or immature Baltimore orioles, differing only in the shape of their bills and the color of their wing bars.

Personally, I have had Baltimore orioles show up for a week or so but then move on. In spite of setting out the red carpet (including suet, jelly, oranges, mealworms and sugar water), they have not been enticed to stay long. Maybe this fall will be a different story . . . PS

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photographs at susan@ncaves.com.

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Straying Inland

The great egret pays a visit

By Susan Campbell

’Tis the season of odd sightings: Birds are wandering in all directions. After breeding and ahead of fall migration, it is not uncommon to spot out-of-place individuals here in central North Carolina. One that gets reported annually is the great egret, or mistakenly referred to as a “white crane.” This is a large wading bird with all-white plumage, a long, pointed, bright yellow bill and black legs.

Although far more likely to be found along the coast, individuals or small groups turn up on inland ponds from late July through September. Egrets stalk small fish, frogs, crayfish and other small prey in the shallows. Occasionally they will snatch a snake, small bird or large insect as well. They will roost in thick, older pines over water, where ground predators are not likely to reach them. In coastal areas, they may join dozens or even hundreds of other individuals, finding safety in numbers.

During the breeding season, from March through June, great egrets sport long plumes along their backs. At the turn of the century, the species was nearly wiped out as a result of the millinery trade. Plume hunters decimated rookeries throughout the coastal United States. But, as with most of our wading species, great egrets have made a good recovery. On the verge of extinction, they became the symbol of the National Audubon Society, the oldest and largest bird conservation organization in the United States, originally founded to protect birds from being killed for their feathers.

Great egrets are found in heronries, most often alongside great blue herons, throughout the Coastal Plain. Nesting habitat consists of sturdy trees usually on islands, free of mammalian predators. Simple stick platforms are constructed by the males and placed high in the canopy. Nests can be quite large, being up to a few feet across and a foot or so deep. One to six eggs are laid and incubated for almost four weeks by the female. The young are then fed by both parents for about a month before they are capable of flight. If there is a shortage of food, aggressive larger siblings are known to kill smaller ones. Fledglings may follow their parents for a few weeks or may become independent quickly, if food resources are scarce.

Both great egret adults and young of the year will disperse from their breeding areas to find new feeding areas. They are often seen in late summer on inland lakes, even in our mountain counties. In our area, they may use lakes, beaver ponds, creek or river floodplains, even water hazards on golf courses. They do not tend to stay in one place for very long so, should you come upon an egret this season, enjoy it because it likely will not be around more than a few hours — a day or two at most.   PS

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photographs at susan@ncaves.com.

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A Case of Mistaken Identity

It’s not a baby hummingbird at all

By Susan Campbell

I am waiting, just waiting, for the first call to come in from someone who has seen a “baby hummingbird.” Although this is the time when young ruby-throateds are appearing at feeders and flowers across the state, the first report of the year is usually from a very puzzled observer. Not only has he or she spotted a very small hummer, but it looks to be of another species: The color pattern is very different. So, what is it?

The answer is always the same: It’s not a hummingbird at all, but a moth. Indeed, these insects hover to feed from brightly colored flowers and appear to have a long bill, but they are insects. The giveaway is the long antennae but, on such a small, fast flier, the antennae and three pairs of legs are easily overlooked. The odd behavior and body coloration are what grab one’s attention. The confusion is so common that many bird identification guides depict these moths on the same page alongside the details for ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Here in the North Carolina Piedmont and Sandhills, we have at least three kinds of so-called hummingbird moths, all of which are in the Sphingidae family. Two are “clearwing” moths: the hummingbird clearwing and the hummingbird hawk-moth. We have white-lined sphinx moths in late summer as well. They are all exclusively nectivorous, feeding from many of the same blooms frequented by hummingbirds. With their long proboscis, they can reach down into the tubular flowers of impatiens, fuchsias and assorted salvias, to name a few.

The clearwings are named for the transparent midsection of their wings. The rest of the body is frequently reddish but may be a shade of blue. They are active during the day, flitting from plant to plant in search of a sweet meal. Typically clearwings are not intimidated by human activity, probably because four-legged mammals do not prey on moths in our area. That means one can usually approach these beautiful creatures very closely. If you have the patience as well as a fast shutter speed, you may be able to get some excellent shots of these very photogenic insects.

Sphinx moths are large, striking and interesting. Unlike the clearwings, they are creatures of the night. They can be abundant at the same flowers hummingbirds use during the day, but most people are totally unaware of their existence given their nocturnal habits. It’s the caterpillar of this group that is more familiar. Typically called a hornworm (given the yellowy head projections), they are voracious pests on a variety of plants such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and tobacco. However, not only are the adult sphinx moths eaten by bats and small owls but, as caterpillars, hornworms are sought out by tiny braconid wasps. The eggs of the wasp develop under the skin of the caterpillar. Once they pupate, they attach themselves externally and are mistakenly thought to be the eggs of yet more caterpillars. When the caterpillars are in this state, they have very little time to live and are no longer a threat to the plants.

Keep your eyes peeled around the yard this summer. You may be lucky enough to spot one of these “baby hummers” hovering among the blooms.  PS

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photographs at susan@ncaves.com.

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Rare and Mysterious

On the lookout for the unusual white hummingbird

By Susan Campbell

If you happen to look out the window and see a flash of white at your hummingbird feeder or flowers, you may not be seeing things. Late summer is when I receive at least a report or two from hosts who have glimpsed a rare pale-colored hummingbird. Given the number of people who feed hummers here in North Carolina, birds in unusual plumage tend to get noticed. And given the network of bird enthusiasts I am familiar with, reports of unusual hummingbirds find their way to my phone or computer pretty quickly.

White hummingbirds include both leucistic (pale individuals) as well as true albinos (completely lacking pigment). Gray or tan hummers are more likely than full albinos. Light-colored individuals have normal, dark-colored soft parts such as dark eyes, feet and bills. Albinos, on the other hand, are very rare. These snow-white birds that sport pink eyes, feet and bills have been documented fewer than 10 times in our state. Only three have been banded and studied closely here to date.

It is not unusual for people to think they are seeing a moth rather than a hummingbird when they encounter a white individual. They do not realize that these beautiful creatures are possible. As much as we now know that they do exist, we know very little about white hummingbirds. Opportunities to study these unique individuals are few and far between. What we do know is that they tend to appear in July or August as young of the year and do not survive into their second year. White feathers are very brittle and likely cannot withstand the stresses of rapid wing beats and long-distance migration. Another curious characteristic is that all of these eye-catching birds have been female. So it is likely that, for whatever reason, this trait is genetically sex-linked.

The first white hummer that I managed to band was a creamy bird in Taylortown  a number of years ago. She was an aggressive individual that roamed the neighborhood terrorizing the other ruby-throateds. The first true albino I documented was in Apex in Wake County, and that individual was even more aggressive; chasing all of the other birds that made the mistake of entering her airspace. For me to have a chance to study a white hummer, I must get word of it quickly before the bird heads out on fall migration. I have missed more than one by less than 24 hours.

The last white hummer I had the privilege to examine close up was an albino a decade ago in Washington, N.C. A mostly white hummingbird gave me the slip in Charlotte four years ago. So, I am way overdue to band yet another. Who knows who I might encounter this season? Each one is so unique. I simply hope to at least hear about another of these tiny marvels before all of the hummingbirds in the central part of our state have headed south.  PS

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photographs at susan@ncaves.com.

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Playing a Cheerful Tune

The Carolina wren sings from dawn to dusk

By Susan Campbell

“Chirpity, chirpity, chirpity, chirp.”  Or is it “teakettle, teakettle, teakettle, tea?”  Or maybe “cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheese?”  Regardless of exactly how it sounds, this bright, cheery song belies a small and drab bird — the Carolina wren. This diminutive critter is rufousy-brown with banded wings and tail. The thin, decurved bill is well-equipped to probe nooks and crannies for its favorite food: insects. Not only do they flit around in trees and vines looking for caterpillars, but they will clamber around on windows, doors and porch furniture for spiders and flies.

Common throughout the Piedmont year-round, Carolina wrens, the state bird of South Carolina, are frequently overlooked — until spring, when their songs can be heard echoing from forests and fields to neighborhoods here in central North Carolina. And a rarity among songbirds, both males and females sing, providing double pleasure. In fact, sometimes they can be heard in duets, advertising their territory, vocalizing repeatedly, any time from dawn to dusk.

At this time of the year, Carolina wrens are a common sight as they seek a protected spot to construct their nests. They frequently prefer houses, sheds or something else manmade over vegetated habitat. Though it may seem foolhardy to us, barbeque grills, bags of potting soil, an old coat or hat may actually provide a perfectly suitable nesting spot. The female will carry in small leaves, pine needles, grasses, moss or even feathers of other birds to create a large, bulky cup nest. She’ll finish it off with a partial roof to hide the eggs and young more effectively. Wrens don’t seem to mind people coming and going, a seemingly welcome trade-off for the protection humans provide from predators. Peek into one of their nests and more likely than not the female or brooding young will just stare back at you.

Sometimes nesting adults demonstrate great resiliency, or even cunning, in adapting to manmade structures. More than once, a Carolina wren female has chosen a nook on one of the trams that circle the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro as a nesting site. The nesting adults sit tight as the vehicle bumps around the property during incubation. Once the young hatch, adults who leave the nest to find food simply wait for the tram (and nest) to return to the parking area to feed their young.

It should not be surprising, then, that these resourceful birds will find their way indoors during spring. If they can, they will squeeze under a door or through a cracked window in order to use the corner of a shelf in a shed or mudroom of a house. When fledging day arrives, the parents simply call the young from the nest and show them how to slip outside. Be prepared for the whole brood to find its way back in and crowd into the nest to roost for days, or even weeks, thereafter.

Each winter I get calls about mysterious critters sleeping on high ledges or porches and carports.  Described as small brown balls, these unidentified sleeping objects almost inevitably turn out to be roosting Carolina wrens. After a yawn or two, wrens tuck their heads under their wings to roost, puffing themselves up and looking decidedly unbirdlike. They may also spend the night hunkered down in a potted plant or basket, frightening the daylights out of anyone who, next morning, comes upon them unaware.

Every year around the holidays, I’ll get a call or two about an unexpected Christmas guest. Seeking the warmest spot they can find, Carolina wrens often decide to huddle up in someone’s Christmas wreath. When subsequent visitors open the front door, the wren instinctively flies toward the brightest light — inside the house, occasioning merry and sometimes frantic holiday antics as everyone shares their favorite scheme for getting the bird back outside where it belongs.

So, if you have ever noticed these birds before, you should not have to go too far to find one — unless it finds you first.  PS

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photographs at susan@ncaves.com.

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Working Without a Net

The bold, acrobatic Carolina chickadee

By Susan Campbell

The chickadee is one of the most beloved feeder birds across the country. Central North Carolina is no exception, but “our” chickadee species is the Carolina chickadee, merely one of five different chickadees commonly found in the United States.

Chickadee species are quite similar, but the Carolina averages the smallest — less than 5 inches in length. It also has a range that extends farthest south: from central Florida, throughout the Gulf States and across to central Texas. The Carolina chickadee overlaps with the more widely distributed black-capped chickadee in parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois. Black-cappeds and Carolina chickadees are very challenging to separate in areas where they are both found. Subtle differences such as the coloration of the edges of the wing feathers and variations in the calls are used to tell them apart. Here in North Carolina, black-cappeds can be found at the highest elevations of the Appalachians.

Carolina chickadees reside in a variety of woodlands across the state, from the mountains to the Outer Banks. They feed on everything from insect larvae to seeds and berries. Their stout, pointed bill is a useful tool for both picking at and prying open food. And these little birds are quite the acrobats: They have very strong feet, which enable them to easily cling upside down when foraging. Carolina chickadees are regular customers year-round not only at our sunflower seed feeder, but on the suet cage feeder. They are very bold, driving off woodpeckers and wintering warblers to get at the protein-rich offerings.

Our chickadees are not migratory, so the same individuals are around from day to day. Family groups will associate from summer through late winter before the young wander away in search of mates of their own. If they are to do so, it has to happen quickly, because the breeding season starts early for these little birds. Carolina chickadees are looking for empty cavities or a small snag by the end of February. Nests of soft materials are built during the month of March. A thick outer layer of mosses or shredded bark is lined with animal fur or plant down. The nest conceals the eggs and insulates the young during the cool days and nights of early spring.

It is fun to watch female chickadees during their nest building. They are the busy architects with the males looking on, defending the territory from other chickadees or competing nuthatches. Clumps of fine cat or dog hair (puggle undercoat is very popular in our yard) will be gathered by the mouthful if available. Otherwise, chickadees will, believe it or not, seek out mammals such as raccoons and pick loose strands of fur to take back to their nests.

A pair of chickadees may raise four to six young in a year. If eggs are lost to predators or the weather, they may try again, provided it is not too late in the season. Often chickadees are replaced by bluebirds or titmice in birdhouses come May or June, once their young have fledged.

So keep an eye out. You may find you have a pair of these feisty birds that has set up housekeeping nearby, or perhaps you will see a new family of chickadees descend on your feeder like the Flying Wallendas. PS

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photographs at susan@ncaves.com.