Birdwatch

Songster in the Shrubs

The Eastern towhee hides to survive

By Susan Campbell

“Drink your tea, drink your tea,” the loud, emphatic call comes from dense shrubbery right outside our front door. It is the voice of a common, but frequently overlooked, Eastern towhee. It is hard to imagine that such a persistent songster could keep so well hidden, but towhees’ larger size makes them a target for predators, and keeping hidden is the survival strategy they employ. Belonging to the sparrow family, they are short-billed birds found in brushy or grassy habitat. The bird’s name originates from its typical “tow-hee” call.

Many backyard birdwatchers in central North Carolina are rather confused when they finally catch their first glimpse of a towhee. Is it some kind of oriole? Perhaps it is a young rose-breasted grosbeak? Males are quite colorful with rufous or chestnut flanks set against a white belly with a black hood, back and wings as well as a long black and white tail. The bill, too, is jet black. Females sport brown feathers instead of black but still have rufous sides. Their legs are long and powerful: good for kicking around debris in search of insects and seeds. Towhee eyes, which are usually dark red, may be orangey in the Sandhills population. Farther east, individuals have irises that are a striking pale yellow.

Eastern towhees are found, as their name implies, throughout the eastern United States. Here in the Southeast, they are year-round residents, although we do have some wintering individuals that breed further north. Their diet is variable, consisting of a variety of invertebrates (insects, spiders, millipedes) during the breeding season. However, in colder months, towhees can also be found scratching for seeds dropped by other birds from feeders. Their heavy bill allows them to take advantage of a variety of seeds. The powerful jaw muscles associated with such a strong bill make it a formidable weapon. If attacked, a towhee can inflict quite a bite. Males will viciously attack each other during territorial disputes and may inflict mortal wounds from grabbing the head or body of an opponent. Conflict is not infrequent where food is abundant, so the potential for fights exists throughout the year in our area.

It is not uncommon for Eastern towhees to raise three broods in a summer. Each brood involves three to five young. Nests are simple affairs, in short shrubbery or even directly on the ground. As a result, nestlings often do not remain in the nest long after their eyes open and downy feathers cover their bodies. They will move around noisily begging from the adults. Young towhees instinctively run for cover if their parents sound the alarm.

A little known fact about this species is that it was first described by some of the earliest Europeans to arrive in the New World. The artist-cartographer John White noticed towhees during his visit to the English colony on Roanoke Island in 1685-86. It was this trip that documented the colony’s disappearance — the Lost Colony. White’s unpublished drawings of both males and females predated the famous work of Mark Catesby in Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands in the 1700s, since republished with a modern perspective as Catesby’s The Birds of Colonial America.  PS

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

Birdwatch

Nighthawks

But not the Edward Hopper kind

By Susan Campbell

The common nighthawk is neither “common” nor a “hawk.” Found in the Sandhills and Piedmont of North Carolina, these large birds feed exclusively on insects and actually do so at night. They use their large mouths to catch prey. Beetles and other insects are instantaneously intercepted and ingested by way of the birds’ oversized mouths. Nighthawks are unique in that they literally fly into large insects. Because their weak feet are designed purely for perching, they do not grab at them as true hawks do.

These medium-sized birds are active mainly at dawn and dusk when beetles and other big insects are also most active. Due to their terrific night vision, nighthawks hunt effectively in darkness, though they may even feed during the day, especially when they have young to provide for. In early summer, cicadas, grasshoppers, larger wasps and true bugs are abundant and, given their aerodynamic prowess, nighthawks are very successful predators at any hour.

As one of many survival tactics, common nighthawks spend the day perched horizontally on a pine branch. Invisibility is the goal during daylight hours. Although their vision is not compromised, they have a better advantage when light intensity is low. The mottled black, gray and white feathering is very hard to see regardless of the time of day, but their characteristic low “peee-nt” call and erratic moth-like flight is distinctive.

Common nighthawks’ nests are well camouflaged. Females simply scrape a spot to create a nesting area. Their speckled eggs blend in well with the mineral soil and miscellaneous debris typical of native arid terrain. Females are known to perform a feeble “broken wing” display if they are disturbed. This act is the only defense they have to draw potential predators away from the eggs or young.

More likely, common nighthawks’ presence will be given away by males “booming” in the early morning over high quality open habitat. In the Sandhills those would include the Moore County Airport and the drop zones on Fort Bragg. The unique noise they produce comes from air passing over the wing feathers of breeding males — not vocalizations — as they move through the air.

Amazingly, nighthawks are one of a handful of bird species that will also nest on flat rooftops. As large fields become scarce, common nighthawks are more prone to using large artificial spaces. These birds can easily support a family on the associated abundant flying insects found in open foraging habitat such as agricultural fields or some athletic venues, so it’s not unusual to see or hear nighthawks at summer baseball games or early fall football games throughout the region. They are capitalizing on the abundant prey associated with the evening floodlights at stadiums and other outdoor sites.

The species is found in many open areas in the eastern United States in summer, and so it is no surprise that common nighthawks begin to move south in late summer in large flocks. They migrate long distances to winter destinations in Central America and northern South America. Large numbers can be seen feeding in the evening in August and early September, so there’s plenty of time left to spot a nighthawk before cooler weather sets in.  PS

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

Birdwatch

Rare Bird Alert

Keep an eye out for the roseate spoonbill

By Susan Campbell

With its bright pink body, the roseate spoonbill is certainly the most distinctive and garishly colored bird in North America. And what about that odd bill? Although their typical range does not include North Carolina, spoonbills do stray into the extreme southeastern part of our state in late summer into early fall. So, if you keep your eyes peeled at this time of year, you may be lucky enough to spot one.

Research indicates that breeding colonies are found in parts of Florida, Louisiana and Texas. Unfortunately, the birds there are not widespread, even where they are regular. Loss of foraging habitat has restricted roseate spoonbills to protected areas such as wildlife refuges. Water quality has also reduced prey, as sedimentation and chemical pollution have inundated bays and estuaries in the Southeast.

There are several species of spoonbills worldwide, but roseate is the only one found on this continent. Their name comes from the birds’ bright red-pink plumage and spoon-shaped bill tip. Their extremely sensitive mandibles snap shut around food items such as small fish, crustaceans and insects found in the shallow waters they probe. Roseate spoonbills swing their heads side to side as they slowly walk though brackish or saltwater. The types of foods they capture result in their bright feathers.

Those amazing pink feathers put the birds at risk of extinction during the 19th century when many spectacularly colored birds were hunted for their plumes. The wings of roseate spoonbills were, unbelievably, actually sold as fans as well as for hats and other adornments.

When these amazing birds are spotted in our state, they are almost always mixed in with other waterbirds such as herons and egrets. They are extremely gregarious year-round. The best place to scan along the coast beginning in mid-July is Twin Lakes, in the Sunset Beach area. However, individual roseate spoonbills have also been found at Ocean Isle and North Topsail, as well as in the mouth of the Cape Fear in recent years.

Last summer, there were many reports of roseate spoonbills, not only inland in North Carolina but well to our north, including immature birds with their size and unusual bill as well as their pale pink plumage. One roseate spoonbill was sighted in Pinehurst and up to four in Woodlake. If you catch sight of one of these distinctive birds anywhere in the Sandhills or Piedmont, please let me know. PS

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

Birdwatch

Stranger in Town

Mississippi kite finds new regions

By Susan Campbell

Seldom do we hear of good news when it comes to the status of our migrant bird populations. But there are species that are actually expanding their ranges as a result of human alteration of habitats. The Mississippi kite here in the Southeast is one. This is a handsome raptor of wooded terrain that feeds mainly on large insects. It was found breeding in the floodplain of the Roanoke River in the late 1980s. The next region where it was detected happened to be here in the Sandhills. And now it can be found in the Triad as well as other locations in the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain.

These are small, sleek raptors that are very maneuverable. Adults are a mix of gray and black with long, tapered wings, a relatively long, squared-off tail and a delicate, hooked bill. Immature birds are streaked brown with barred tails. They are birds built to catch rapidly moving, aerial prey. Grasshoppers, beetles, dragonflies and even bats are targets when hunting. They also feed low to the ground when small reptiles and mammals are abundant. In late summer, as they are preparing to head south, large flocks can be seen foraging over large open areas such as farm fields where flying insects are abundant.

Although they breed here, Mississippi kites winter in South America. As well-studied as the species has been in the United States, little is known about them after they leave. Although they collect in large groups in the south-central U.S. and travel to southern Brazil and northern Argentina, their ecology is a question mark. But we have good data on the Midwestern and Southeastern populations, both of which are expanding. Everything from increases in pasture lands, golf courses and parks adjacent to mature woodlands are providing opportunities for nesting.

An increase in nesting around human habitation means an increase in kite interactions with people. And this can actually be problematic. Mississippi kites are very aggressive when it comes to defending their nests and young. I have been on the receiving end of warning whistles given by territorial individuals a number of times. Furthermore, they will readily dive bomb perceived threats — and this includes humans. I was very startled one summer several years ago to not only observe a new family on the farm where I was living in Southern Pines, but to also be buzzed by one of the adults. I was shocked by how quickly I was attacked and how close the bird came to my head. A very effective defensive maneuver for sure!

Late in the summer, kites will amass at rich foraging sites before they migrate southward. These sites may be north or west of the breeding grounds. Dozens can be seen alternately soaring and wheeling around above farm fields where an abundance of large insects such as grasshoppers, locusts, and beetles are found. If you happen upon one of these locations, it is quite a sight to see. For whatever reason, few areas consistently attract kites from year to year. One spot that is reliable in the N.C. foothills (oddly enough, since they do not breed there) is Irma’s Produce fields in McDowell County —right along I-40. If you are passing in late July or early August, it is well worth a stop. Not only do the birds put on quite a show, but I hear that Irma’s fruits and veggies are a treat as well.

There is much interest in documenting nesting Mississippi kites here in North Carolina. Should you know of a nest site or see adults or immature kites in the next few months, please drop me an email. These are beautiful and fascinating birds and certainly worthy of special attention. PS

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

Birdwatch

A Rare Bird

Searching for the Bachman’s sparrow

By Susan Campbell

Photograph by Carl Miller

Although unquestionably the most sought-after bird species in North Carolina, the Bachman’s sparrow does not, at first glance, seem very special. But once you search for this incredibly adapted little bird, you will realize how special it is. One of a handful of endangered species in our state, you will have to find the right spot to get a glimpse of this cryptic little creature.

Endemic to pine forests of the southeastern United States, Bachman’s sparrows are only found in the frequently burned, open understory of the Sandhills and inner coastal plain. The best time to locate one is to visit in the spring, when males spend much of their time singing from low perches. Otherwise, the birds are down low, foraging in the groundcover and virtually invisible. A local species, Bachman’s sparrows do not migrate in the fall but rather become even harder to find. As insects become scarce, they subsist on a variety of seeds during the colder months.

Bachman’s sparrows are bland-looking brown and white with just a splash of yellow at the bend of the wing (which you will miss unless you are looking carefully with binoculars). Their song is a beautiful trill preceded by a single note. It carries a long way and is hard to pinpoint, in spite of the volume. And the nest, which is carefully constructed by the female, is an intricate cup of grasses at ground level. Often they will incorporate vegetation over the nest, creating a dome to protect the eggs  and young from predation.

These birds are also unique in that they run, not fly, to evade potential threats. They will disappear into thick vegetation and have also been known to evade predators by diving into burrows dug by gopher tortoises — another species restricted to the sandy pine forests a bit farther south. More than anything, they are closely associated with longleaf pine and wiregrass, a plant community type that has become very rare over the last century. Habitat conversion and fire suppression have reduced the forests that they commonly inhabited by over 90 percent.

The individuals of the species were first noticed by one of the country’s most famous early ornithologists, John James Audubon. He chose to give them the name Bachman’s sparrow after his local host for the expedition, South Carolina clergyman John Bachman (pronounced BACK-man). Indeed, many birders have followed in Audubon’s footsteps, searching for this unique, secretive little survivor. Should you do the same, you just might be rewarded with a brief look at one of our state’s most prized inhabitants.  PS

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife photos and reports. She can be reached at susan@ncaves.com.

 

Birdwatch

Knock, Knock

Who’s there? Red-bellied . . .

By Susan Campbell

Here in central North Carolina, we are fortunate enough to share the landscape with six different species of woodpeckers. With pileateds being the largest and downys being the smallest, the red-bellied woodpecker is about in the middle. Often it is possible to identify these feisty birds without the aid of binoculars. And once you recognize their loud, rolling calls, you will likely realize how common and widespread the species is.

Found in mixed forests of the Piedmont, pine forests of the Sandhills, and into the flooded bottomlands of the Coastal Plain, red-bellieds are adaptable birds with a rather broad diet. They require sizable dead trees, referred to as snags, for both roosting and nesting. Their heavy chisel-shaped bills are the perfect tools for drilling a new home when need be. Typically, a new cavity is constructed each spring before nesting begins.

Interestingly, both the male and female will take part in creating the new nesting space. However, birds may take advantage of exiting cavities in live pines (created by red-cockaded woodpeckers) in the Sandhills, if the entrance is large enough for them to squeeze through.

Although adult birds do have a reddish wash on the belly during the spring, it is their red head feathers that get people’s attention. The males have bright feathers from their forehead all the way down the back of the neck, whereas the red on the females is limited to the nape. The back, as with many species of woodpeckers, is covered with black and white barring. Young of the year are easily identified by mid-summer — they have gray heads with no red appearing until early fall.

Given their size, red-bellieds are most often seen hitching along the trunks and larger branches of trees, searching for food. They both look and listen for insects of all kinds on, or even in, the bark. They can pry the wood away or will pound on the outer bark to uncover prey hidden underneath. However, they will take advantage of fruit or nuts later in the season. Since they are opportunists, it is not surprising that they also take advantage of bird feeders. Not only will you see them eating suet but also black oil sunflower seeds. Sugar water feeders may even be attractive to them. The birds can become a nuisance if they become too vigorous and break the feeding ports on hummingbird feeders in their attempts to reach the nectar inside.

Red-bellieds are readily identifiable in flight, given the translucent white patches near the wingtips. Their size and undulating flight style also aid in identification. The fact that they tend to be vocal when on the wing at this time of the year also gives them away. So keep an ear out and an eye to the sky — one of these handsome birds may just get your attention sometime soon.  PS

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife photos and reports. She can be reached at susan@ncaves.com.

Birdwatch

Cleanup on Aisle 2

The vulture’s role in the ecosystem

By Susan Campbell

Vultures: All of us have seen them. Maybe it’s been passing a group feasting on a recently killed animal by the side of the road. Or, more likely, you have spotted an individual soaring overhead on long, outstretched wings. These odd looking birds are too often misunderstood and even disliked — for nothing more than their appearance. In actuality, they are fascinating creatures that perform a vital role in the ecosystem: They are Mother Nature’s cleanup crew.

Often referred to generically as “buzzards,” vultures are part of a family of birds found worldwide with dozens of species, including South American condors. Here in North Carolina, we have both turkey and black vultures year-round. Individuals from farther north significantly boost flock numbers in the cooler months. These large black scavengers lack feathers on their heads: likely an adaptation to feeding almost exclusively on carcasses. Turkey vultures are the more common species from the mountains to the coast. Soaring in a dihedral (v-shaped profile) on long wings with silver linings, they have red heads and long tails for steering.

Black vultures, however, have gray heads and white patches on the under-wing as well as somewhat shorter wings and tails. As a result, they soar with a flatter profile and fly with snappier wing beats. This species has really expanded across the Piedmont in recent years, perhaps due to development, increased road building and the inevitable roadkill that results.

The winter brings vultures together in what can be impressive roosting aggregations that are known as “wakes.” These groups can build to 100 or more individuals of both species that will roost close together in a particular spot: night after night during the season. Late in the day, they will gather in mature trees with larger branches capable of holding significant weight. It is easy to spot them on tall snags or sitting side by side on communication towers. Given the human tendency toward neatness, there are fewer and fewer dead trees for the birds to utilize — so they have been forced to use manmade perches. They may choose rooftops and this can, believe it or not, include people’s houses.

It is not obvious as to why they choose the locations that they do each winter. Given the ease at which they roam in search of food, proximity of their next meal seems rarely a concern. They are capable of gliding and soaring many miles each day. No doubt they require a location with a substrate that warms readily in the morning sun to provide the updrafts they require to reach cruising altitude. Vultures do need a perch that is open enough to allow them to spread their wings on takeoff. This is likely why they are found roosting in more open environments.

For those living near a vulture roost site, be aware that the birds seldom use the same location for more than one season. This could be for reasons of cleanliness or to perhaps reduce the chances of predation — but we really do not know. Also, do not expect that the wake will persist beyond early spring. The group will break up and head off to their breeding grounds by late February or early March. Using prevailing southerly breezes, they will be carried back north in short order.

Although we do have small numbers of breeding vultures in the Piedmont and Sandhills of North Carolina, they are widely dispersed and are quite secretive during the nesting season. Unless they are on the wing, sniffing out (yes, they use their noses more than their eyes) their next meal, they may go completely overlooked.  PS

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos. She can be contacted at susan@ncaves.com.

Birdwatch

Love, American Woodcock Style

There’s hope for the pudgy and short-legged

By Susan Campbell

February is the month for love and, for the American woodcock, this is certainly the case! By mid-month this pudgy, short-legged, long-billed bird of forest and field is in full courtship mode. However, most folks have no clue since their unique singing and dancing occurs completely under the cover of darkness.

American woodcocks, also called “timberdoodles,” are cousins of the long-legged shorebirds typically found at the beach. Like plovers, turnstones, dowitchers and other sandpipers, these birds have highly adapted bills and cryptic plumage. Woodcocks, having no need to wade, sport short legs that they use to slowly scuffle along as they forage in moist woods and shrubby fields. This behavior is thought to startle worms and other soft-bodied invertebrates in the leaf litter and/or just below the soil surface. Their long, sensitive bills are perfect for probing and/or grabbing food items. And camouflaged plumage hides woodcocks from all but the most discerning eye.

Speaking of eyes, American woodcocks have eyes that are large and very uniquely arranged on their heads. They are very high up and far back, allowing them to see both potential predators above as well as food items in front and below them.

Beginning in late winter, male American woodcocks find open areas adjacent to wet, wooded feeding habitat and begin to display at dusk. They alternately do their thing on the ground and then in the air. A male begins by walking around in the open area uttering repeated loud “peeent” calls. He will then take off and fly in circles high into the sky, twittering as he goes. Finally, the male will turn and drop sharply back to the ground in zigzag fashion, chirping as he goes, and then begin another round of vocalizations.

In the Piedmont and Sandhills of North Carolina, displaying begins on calm nights in December. Some of these males are most likely Northern birds that have made the journey to the Southeast for the colder weather. They may just be practicing ahead of their real effort — in early spring back up North. Regardless, females visit multiple spots where males are known to do their thing before they choose a mate. So, it behooves the males to display as often as possible to impress as many females as possible during the weeks that they are on the hunt for a mate.

Although long hunted for sport, it was Aldo Leopold, the renowned conservationist, who implored sportsmen to better appreciate these little birds. They are well adapted for a forest floor existence, hidden from all but their mates come this time of the year. And, on rare occasions, from birdwatchers keen on getting a glimpse of the American woodcock’s antics.  PS

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos. She can be contacted at susan@ncaves.com.

Birdwatch

A Tree of Delights

Decorating can be for the birds, too

By Susan Campbell

This season, why not create a gift for your feathered friends and consider “decorating” a holiday tree just for them? Although a hearty evergreen would be best, anything from a leafless sapling to a young longleaf pine will work. Better yet, a younger American holly or other berry-laden variety would be a terrific choice!

Consider this a project for the whole family, just like hanging ornaments or setting up lights in the yard. Keep in mind that, especially when using an evergreen, you are providing not one, but two, basic needs that all our wintering birds have: food and shelter.

To “decorate” your tree:

— Drape with traditional strings of popcorn and cranberries or other dried fruits for the bluebirds and the blue jays.

— Hang homemade suet on pine cones for the chickadees and nuthatches.

— Nestle shallow cups with sunflower seed or millet on the thickest branches for the cardinals and titmice.

— Smear peanut butter on the bark to attract woodpeckers and wintering warblers.

Last, but certainly not least, your tree will invariably attract natural food in the form of tiny insects. It will take no time for Carolina wrens or ruby-crowned kinglets to find them between the leaves or needles, or under the bark.

It may be that you create your gift to the birds just after Christmas — when your indoor tree is finished providing joy for the family. This is about the time that natural foods are waning and the birds are foraging in earnest. No doubt, bird species large and small will find your arboreal creation before long. Keep track of which ones you see using the tree. It may be a longer list than you might think.

Of course, other wildlife will love this holiday gift, too. In addition to gray squirrels and perhaps a fox squirrel, southern flying squirrels may glide in at night for a snack. A raccoon or opossum may sniff it out. Even a white-tailed deer or two will probably take a nibble. But then, who doesn’t appreciate a treat during this special season?  PS

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos.  She can be contacted at susan@ncaves.com.

Birdwatch

Turkey Time

A surprisingly wily wild bird

By Susan Campbell

Shorter days and cooler nights have many of us thinking about the holiday season. Thanksgiving is not that far off — and that means turkey. Most of us look forward to feasting on the tender meat of this domesticated, large member of the fowl family. But its wild ancestors are a far cry from the bird we prepare on the fourth Thursday of November each year.

Anyone who has had the opportunity to taste a “real” turkey will tell you that there is no comparison. But hunters who pursue the wild birds are far more often skunked than successful. Turkeys seem to have a sixth sense when being called or decoyed in. Fooling one of these birds to get it within range is one of the biggest challenges bird hunters (or photographers, for that matter) face.

The wild turkey was very nearly our national bird. It is, in fact, the only bird species native to the United States. Benjamin Franklin nominated the turkey for this honor but it lost in Congress, by only one vote, to the bald eagle back in the late 18th century.

Although the cultivated variety is completely white, skittish and not very bright, forest-dwelling turkeys are glossy black, wary and rather agile for a bird with a wingspan of over 5 feet. They are typically found in mature forests with clearings but take advantage of open fields as well. Turkeys forage on a variety of food, including insects, small berries, seeds and buds. Interestingly, one of their favorite fall foods, acorns, are often abundant in our part of the state.

Individuals are well known to associate in large flocks of 50 or more birds. In the early spring, older males will attract and attend to and defend a flock of several females. At this time, they can be heard gobbling and strutting in their characteristic puffed-up posture. Only during the early part of the breeding season, in April and May, are the birds solitary. Once the chicks hatch and reach about 4 weeks of age, hens will gather together with their young and form new aggregations.

In the early 1970s, there weren’t many more than a million turkeys on the landscape. Persecution and habitat alteration had resulted in dramatic reduction in the population. Now, throughout not only the United States but parts of southern Canada and northern Mexico, there are seven times that many.

Here in the Old North State, turkeys can be found in almost every county. In recent years, both the Triad and Triangle have experienced an influx from the Uwharrie Mountains in the west as well as from the inner Coastal Plain to the east. It is not surprising that these big birds show up to take advantage of seed around bird feeders and forage in grassy vegetation along our roadways, as well as looking for tender vegetation and insects in agricultural fields across the area. So, keep your eyes peeled — you, too, may spot one, or more, of these majestic birds here in central North Carolina.  PS

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos.  She can be contacted at susan@ncaves.com.