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


Going Batty

Flying friends of the night

By Susan Campbell

Fall is not only migration time for a large percentage of the bird species found across our state, it’s also when another group of fancy fliers are winging their way southward: bats!

Although we are rarely aware of it, each evening individuals or small groups of these little creatures leave their daytime roosts and, after a short period foraging, move out, headed to warmer — and hence buggier — surroundings for the cooler months. For individuals of certain hardier species, such as red, big brown, hoary and evening bats, central North Carolina may be their winter home.

Bats represent one-quarter of all mammal species worldwide. Like us, they give birth to live young. Bats are relatively long-lived mammals and can survive 20 to 30 years in the wild. Of the 17 bat species that occur in North Carolina, three are listed as federally endangered, and one is listed as federally threatened. Bats are primarily nocturnal, though they also forage in the early evening and early morning hours. Although most bats have relatively good eyesight, they primarily use echolocation to navigate and locate prey. Their maneuverability is phenomenal — bats can avoid objects as small as a string in total darkness.

Bats mate in the spring or fall and usually produce one pup per year. Many species form maternity colonies in the summer to raise their young, while others are solitary roosters. Some bat species migrate south for the winter, and others find local hibernation areas, called hibernacula. Bats prefer caves or mines for hibernacula, though they have also been known to use buildings and bridges, and they usually return to the same site every year. By educating the public, monitoring populations and protecting bat habitat, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) is working to sustain bat populations in our state.

Bats are integral to ecosystems worldwide. Tropical bats disperse large amounts of seed and pollen, enabling plant reproduction and forest regrowth, and are especially important in the pollination of cocoa, mango and the agave plant, which is used to produce tequila. North American bats have a major impact on controlling insect populations that are considered agricultural pests. They save the corn industry over $1 billion annually in pest control. A nursing female bat may consume almost her entire body weight in insects in one night. Recently a protein found in vampire bat saliva has been used to develop clot-busting medication to aid stroke victims.

Many bat populations in the United States have declined in recent years. Pesticides, persecution, and human disturbance of hibernacula and maternity colonies may have contributed to this decline. Furthermore, an emergent fungal disease called white-nose syndrome (WNS) has killed more than 5.7 million bats since its discovery in New York in 2006. This disease spread to North Carolina in 2011 and continues to spread to new states each winter. It is now found in 30 states.

To determine bat distribution and hibernation sites in North Carolina, track the spread of WNS and estimate population trends for certain species, our state biologists conduct intensive monitoring across the state. Through a variety of methods (including mist netting, trapping, banding, acoustic recording, roost monitoring and radio telemetry), NCWRC biologists, in cooperation with several partners, have surveyed and banded thousands of bats in North Carolina. All of this work helps to inform management and, in turn, conservation priorities.

There are several things you can do for bats on your property. An ever more popular endeavor is installing a bat box or two. Also plant native plants that attract insects that bats (as well as the birds) eat. It is very important to limit the use of insecticides and herbicides whenever possible.

Also avoid disturbing bat hibernation areas and maternity colonies. And you might want to consider joining a conservation organization to remain updated on bat conservation efforts such as Bat Conservation International (

Last, but not least, educate others regarding the importance of bats and why they are so beneficial.  PS

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


Swirling Birds

The return of the chimney swifts

By Susan Campbell

The approach of fall means many things to many people: cooler days, longer nights, the smell of pumpkin spice — all things that I love. But the much anticipated evening congregations of chimney swifts is also near the top of the list. Swirls of these long-distance migrants form at dusk for several weeks as the birds pass through North Carolina on their way south.

If during the warm weather you have seen small, twittering, fast-flying birds wheeling about high overhead, you are likely seeing chimney swifts. These “flying cigars” can be observed across the state, but given their affinity for human habitation, they are more abundant where people, buildings and, as their name implies, chimneys are found.

Chimney swifts are known to breed throughout North Carolina from the mountains to the coast. Historically, they were undoubtedly sparsely distributed, nesting in big hollow trees in old growth forests in the eastern two-thirds of the United States. But as settlers spread across our state and provided abundant nesting cavities in the form of chimneys, swifts became more common. Today they are virtually dependent on humans for their reproductive success. But, unfortunately, most modern chimneys with caps or extensive lining are unsuitable for the birds. If they can enter a newer chimney, the smooth substrate within the brick or stone prevents the birds from clinging and, furthermore, does not allow adhesion of the nest (built with small sticks and saliva) to the wall. As a result, recent declines in the chimney swift population have been documented across the species range.

Without a doubt, these small birds are incredible fliers, more so than swallows and martins. They spend the vast majority of their waking hours on the wing, except while nesting. Even courtship and copulation occur in mid-air. Only at night do they descend to rest in a protected spot — which is almost always a chimney of some sort.

By late July, flocks of swifts begin congregating, feeding on abundant aerial insects, and roosting together in larger chimneys. These aggregations begin to move southward in August on prevailing northerly air currents to wintering grounds in the tropics. You may find hundreds swirling around in the vicinity of older schools, churches and office buildings that still retain substantial brick chimneys. Such chimneys are more spacious and year after year provide critical staging grounds for generations of swifts. It is an awesome sight to see thousands of individuals pouring into a roost site at dark.

Unfortunately, these unique birds have been misunderstood at this time of year and are often thought to be disease-carrying bats. As a result, significant numbers of sites have been capped for fear of being a human health hazard. Big old chimneys are lost across our state each year to such misunderstandings.

Additionally, changes in modes of heating result in large chimneys being retired: usually covered and rendered unavailable to swifts. Quite simply, there is a general lack of awareness of the structures as an important biological resource. Furthermore, across most of our state, we are still in the process of identifying major roost sites.

During the winter months, chimney swifts are found in loose aggregations throughout the upper Amazon basin of South America. There they loaf and feed on an abundance of flying insects until lengthening days urge them northward again. The return trip brings individuals, swirling and darting, back to their summer homes by early April.  PS

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


A Majestic Wader

Wood storks become a more common sight

By Susan Campbell

Believe it or not, although fall is still a way off, the summer solstice has passed, and for some of our birds, the breeding season is over. Many have begun wandering ahead of their southward migration. At this time of year, we have a few species that actually move in a northerly direction during mid-summer. The wood stork, one of North Carolina’s newer breeders, is one of these.

Wood storks are large, white wading birds, a bit smaller than great blue herons. They have heavy bills that curve at the tip. In flight, they are very distinctive. Not only do they fly with their head and neck outstretched, but their tails and flight feathers flash black. They are frequently spotted soaring high in the sky on thermals, not unlike hawks and vultures.

These birds forage not only for small fish, crustaceans and a variety of invertebrates, but also reptiles and amphibians, as well as occasional nestlings of other species. Wood storks are visual hunters that search for movement in the shallows. They also may sweep and probe with their bills in murky areas until they feel prey, and then they will snap their mandibles shut and swallow the food item whole. It is not unusual for them to shuffle with their feet and flick their wings to disturb potential meals in muddy water.

Unlike their European kin, storks here nest in trees — not on chimneys. Also, as opposed to legend, these birds do not mate for life but pair up on the breeding grounds each season. They can live a long time, however: The oldest known (banded) bird from Georgia was over 20 years old when it was re-sighted in South Carolina.

Stork nests are bulky stick-built affairs located over water, often in cypress trees. However, any sturdy wetland tree species may be utilized. Both parents are involved in construction. Grassy material will line the nest that is, quite uniquely, adhered together with guano. It will take almost two months for the one to five young to reach fledging. Not only will wood storks nest alongside others of their kind but they tend to be found in colonies with heron, ibis and egret neighbors.

The wood stork is becoming a more common site in the Carolinas, breeding locally in freshwater or brackish, forested habitat. They prefer locations with an open canopy, since they require a good bit of space in order to negotiate a landing. There are now two large nesting colonies of storks on private property: one at Lays Lake (Columbus County) and Warwick Mill Bay (Robeson County). These lakes have been home to nesting storks for less than a decade. I would not be surprised if pairs are using a few other remote sites in the southeastern corner of the state. Stork numbers have been growing rapidly as the bay lake habitat seems excellent for raising chicks. Following fledging, however, family groups may move away from the nesting area to wet habitat where food is plentiful. In dry summers, that movement may be significant — and in any direction.

In our state, the largest concentrations of individuals show up annually at Twin Lakes in Sunset Beach (Brunswick County) by mid-summer. They can reliably be found in and around the eastern pond. The birds seem to like probing the flats on the back side of the pond, away from the golfers on Oyster Bay Golf Links. Also look for them loitering in the stout trees along the shoreline into early fall. But do not be surprised if you happen on one, or perhaps a small group, in any wet area from marshes to farm ponds or golf course water hazards in the Piedmont or Sandhills. Wood storks are unique and majestic waders that deserve a special look!  PS

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos. She can be contacted by email at

Her favorite book is the one she’s reading right now, How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island, by Egill Bjarnason.


Taking the Plunge

The belted kingfisher dives for prey

By Susan Campbell

Often heard before they are seen, belted kingfishers are a year-round fixture here in central North Carolina. Requiring water for foraging and steep slopes for breeding, they can be found along streams, rivers and ponds — of which there is no shortage in our area. Their long, rattling call is distinctive among our familiar birds.

One of three species of kingfisher found in the United States, the belted kingfisher’s range is extensive and year-round across most of the continent. Breeding birds from Canada may migrate southward in search of open water in winter. A percentage of the North American population winters in south Florida as well as Mexico. It is assumed that most local breeding birds simply wander to where the fishing is good in the colder months, not making any real migratory flight in the fall.

Belted kingfishers are top-heavy-looking birds with powdery gray plumage and a raggedy crest. They get their name from the swath of gray plumage across their breast. These birds are one of the few species in which the female has brighter plumage than the male. Females sport an additional band of chestnut feathers just below their gray “belt.” Otherwise, these birds have a characteristic large head, thick neck and heavy, long pointed bill. They are built for plunging headfirst into the water after prey. They often sit on a convenient perch above the water, such as a branch or electric wire, and then dive when they spot prey. However, they are also capable of hovering for short periods above potential food items before descending to grab a fish. They actually have a wide prey base, feeding on all sorts of aquatic organisms but also taking other types of food, such as small birds and even berries, if the opportunity arises.

Belted kingfishers require a steep, dirt slope for nesting. Although this is usually a riverbank, they may also use human-created habitat such as tall dirt piles, which can be away from water, if they are big enough, and have a sheer drop on at least one side. This type of nesting substrate makes it difficult for terrestrial predators to reach the kingfisher’s nest. The tunnel into the nest chamber is typically several feet long and is sloped upward, presumably to protect the nest from rises in water level along rivers and streams. The kingfisher’s tunnel opening is large, at least 3 inches in diameter. Also, there will be the characteristic fishy aroma from recent droppings, separating it from other bank dwellers, such as bank or rough-winged swallows.

In spring, the belted kingfisher pair will search out a nest site. The male will probe the dirt in suitable spots until he finds the right spot. Once he is satisfied with his choice, he will signal to the female by flying back and forth from her perch to the chosen location. After the burrow has been excavated, five to eight white eggs will be incubated in the nest chamber for almost a month. Once hatched, the young will be tended to by the parents for about another month before fledging occurs. While in the nest, the young kingfishers have highly acidic stomachs and will be able to digest scales, bones and other hard parts of what they are fed. By the time they leave the nest burrow, however, the birds will be regurgitating pellets made up of those typically indigestible parts, as adults do.

So, the next time you hear a loud rattling sound coming from on high, look up. You may just catch sight of one of these energetic, fast-flying fishers! PS

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


Hidden in Plain Sight

The secretive and elusive Eastern meadowlark

By Susan Campbell

Larks? Here in central North Carolina? Yes, indeed! But few folks are likely to notice them. Even during the summer, when their melodious songs can be heard on the warmest days and their yellow plumage is at its brightest, these birds tend to blend in with the large fields they inhabit.

Meadowlarks are not small birds, but they do have secretive habits that allow for survival in open areas. They are only found breeding in agricultural areas with plenty of large insects such as grasshoppers and beetles, as well as warm season grasses that produce a good crop of seeds by midsummer. The Eastern meadowlark is a jay-sized bird with long legs that spends the majority of the time on the ground searching for prey. The head, back and tail are streaked and blend in perfectly with the vegetation. Its chest, however, is yellow with a black “V-shaped” collar. Males actually display a somewhat brighter breast at prospective females and will even jump into the air as they puff out their chests in their attempts to impress potential mates.

Where the habitat is good, males will defend territories containing more than one female. Polygyny is not uncommon for meadowlarks. This is more frequently the case for Western meadowlarks, found in the Great Plains and beyond. Actually, Eastern and Western meadowlarks are almost indistinguishable where they overlap in the Midwest and southern Plains. Their voice is really the only clue. Westerns are far more musical, having a song that is a rich warble. Not surprisingly, in the western part of the range, Easterns do sometimes learn the wrong song or even hybridize with their Western cousins.

Here you can find meadowlarks anywhere from larger hay fields to horse farms or airports. Males will be singing from elevated perches, such as fence posts, from dawn until sunset. They typically throw their heads back and emit a series of loud, clear whistles. In winter, you will more commonly hear their rattling call as a dozen or more individuals make their way through plowed fields in search of leftover corn, soybeans or slow-moving insects. Unfortunately, because they require very large openings, they are reluctant to come to bird feeders even in the coldest weather.

Females build a cup-shaped nest in a thick clump of grass in order to hide and protect their young from both aerial and ground predators. And, in our area, the season is long enough for two broods to be produced. However, the fact that they typically use large hay fields makes them very vulnerable to losing eggs and nestlings to mowing. The increase in ground predators such as raccoons, foxes and stray cats also has caused significant population declines here in the eastern United States. There are other grassland species that have been affected as well. Grasshopper sparrows, horned larks and bobolinks have become even more scarce — but their stories will have to wait.  PS

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos.  She can be contacted at


Catbird Seat

Spring return of a special bird

By Susan Campbell

Our area is home to scores of avian species during the summer months. One of which, the gray catbird, often goes unnoticed. A cousin of the northern mockingbird, it is also a mimic: a bird that learns the songs of others to advertise territory and to impress a mate. Catbirds have no melodious tune of their own — just a string of copied phrases. Nonetheless, this is a special bird, one that I anticipate each spring as the vegetation springs back to life and the days lengthen.

Although superficially resembling a blackbird given the overall dark grayish-black plumage, gray catbirds have a slender bill and a long tail. They have a velvety black cap as well as a striking rusty rump and, if you can get close enough, you will notice their deep red eyes. These are truly handsome creatures.

The bird’s name comes from the fact that, in between phrases of borrowed song, they utter a “meeew” call that is very cat-like. Some might say that their skulking habits seem very feline as well. Perhaps it is their relatively large size that requires a secretive lifestyle so as not to be grabbed by a predator. Catbirds’ bulky stick nests are a challenge to locate, usually well hidden in thick vegetation

Gray catbirds return to parks and gardens by early April. As with other long-distance migrants that spend the winter in the tropics, they journey northward on long, nighttime flights. Their destination is typically close to the spot where they themselves hatched. Once they arrive, although catbirds will instantly start to sing and display, they seem in no hurry to get down to breeding. It will be July before the first fuzzy youngsters appear. The adults remain quite aggressive throughout the season, chasing competitors such as mockingbirds, northern cardinals and American robins. They will even attack their own reflection in windows when they are nesting close to a home or vehicle.

These birds are generalists with a wide-ranging diet through the course of the year. During the summer months, they feed mainly on insects. Individuals are known to eat small lizards as well. This is yet another bird which requires an abundance of invertebrates to raise its young (typically two broods of three or four). Therefore, chemical applications, whether pesticides or herbicides, are a very real threat to the species’ breeding success. Gray catbirds will switch to eating fruit come fall as berries of all kinds become abundant. They may be attracted to feeders that offer suet or even oranges, apples or cranberries. These birds will readily consume mealworms as well.

Not all gray catbirds will return to Mexico or Central America in the winter. Some spend the colder months along the coastline of the southeastern United States. If you travel to the Outer Banks or Wilmington between October and March, do not be surprised if you hear that distinctive “meeew” emanating from thick maritime scrub. However, individuals overwintering in areas with human development are increasingly susceptible to hazards such as habitat loss, vehicle collisions and predation by cats. Distractions associated with foraging at a time of year when food is less plentiful are more likely to be fatal.

We certainly need to be aware of the threats that affect our avian friends such as gray catbirds. Too many species are struggling as a result of habitat alteration, invasive species and wide-spread chemical use. So please consider joining me: The seemingly small actions we can take in our own yards will add up to a significant improvement in the welfare of central North Carolina’s songbird populations. PS

Susan would love to receive your wildlife observations and/or photos at


Ruby Ready

Ladies and gentlemen, start your feeders

By Susan Campbell

It’s that time, folks! North Carolina’s smallest bird, those winged jewels that have spent the winter in the tropics, are now headed back our way. Ruby-throated hummingbirds will be returning to gardens and feeders by mid-April. So, it’s time to get ready!

First and foremost, in spite of what you may have heard, these tiny dynamos are mainly insectivorous. Bugs of all kinds make up the majority of their diet. Anything small enough to fit down the hatch will be consumed throughout the day — followed up by a nectar chaser every now and then. Therefore, it is critical to be judicious year-round in your use of pesticides and herbicides, so that the invertebrates hummingbirds depend on will thrive.

Consider planting for your hummers. There is a wide array of plants that are easy to grow that will get the birds’ attention. The best are obviously native species such as trumpet creeper, coral honeysuckle, cardinal flower, bee balm, columbine and even butterfly weed. There are loads of non-native perennials that are a wonderful (and not invasive) addition to your hum-garden, like many of the salvias, Mexican sunflower, sultan’s turban and lantanas. Do not be surprised if you see a hummer hovering around the vegetable garden when your okra starts to bloom or your basil goes to seed. Keep in mind that the thicker the vegetation is in your yard, the buggier it will tend to be — a good excuse to let things go wild in at least a section of the property. And dense vegetation will also provide the birds with necessary cover for roosting, as well as protection from the elements and potential predators.

Of course, many of us have augmented our yards with sugar water feeders that will bring the tiny birds into view. While there are many brands on the market — with more being added every season — they vary in quality and effectiveness. No matter what kind you choose, be sure it can be opened up for complete cleaning and that the ports are large enough (at least 3 mm) not to cause bill injury. Hummer feeders need to be cleaned with hot water (no detergent) at least every three days during the heat of the summer, so easy access for effective scrubbing and rinsing is critical. A 10 percent bleach solution is fine later in the season when mildew can be an issue. Just be sure to rinse all of the parts very thoroughly before refilling.

The best choice for offering homemade nectar is a saucer-style feeder, such as a HummZinger, that pops apart for easy cleaning and refilling. The beauty of these feeders is that they do not tend to seep or drip and, as a consequence, are less likely to attract the bees and wasps that reservoir-style feeders do. Also, many designs now have a built-in ant moat that creates an effective barrier to those even tinier sugar-loving critters that abound in our area during most of the year.

Please avoid store-bought mixes. They can contain additives and preservatives that may not be good for the birds. A simple mix of 1 part sugar to 4 parts water is all you need to use. Adding color to the fluid is not recommended, nor is it necessary. Red dye is usually a petroleum-based compound that the birds cannot digest. Besides, ruby-throateds have phenomenal color vision and can see the red components of your feeder from over a half a mile away.

Last but not least, although hummingbirds do not use conventional bird baths, they do need to keep their feathers clean. There are specialty fountains on the market that are very shallow and may attract them to bathe, though it’s more likely you will see a ruby-throated rinsing off by making passes through your sprinklers. You could even have a close encounter with an overheated ruby-throated if you happen to be watering with a hose during the heat of the day. PS

Susan would love to receive your wildlife observations and/or photos at


Hardy Hummers

Rufous hummingbirds are midwinter guests

By Susan Campbell

It may sound odd, but this is a good time to talk about hummingbirds. I have been fielding reports of these tiny, winged jewels for weeks. So far, I have banded 17 and have details on almost 100 more — and counting! Yes, even in the middle of the winter.

Here in North Carolina, hummingbird lovers can find or attract these amazing little fliers any month of the year. And this winter has been a particularly productive season for hardy hummers across the state. Predictably, the bulk of the hummingbirds I have encountered in the Piedmont have been rufous hummingbirds.

Annually, shorter days and cooler temperatures herald the return of rufous hummingbirds from points far to our north and west. The species breeds from the Rocky Mountains up into southern Canada and across to southeastern Alaska. They begin nesting when there is still snow on the ground and vegetation is sparse. In the cooler months, the majority of rufous can be found wintering in southern Mexico. However, it has been discovered in the last few decades that a wintering population exists in the southeastern United States. Across North Carolina, dozens of rufous take up residence between October and April. Many go unnoticed unless they appear at late-blooming plants or sugar water feeders. These are extremely tough little critters.

These tiny birds that spend their summers at high latitudes are well adapted to cold weather. They can forage in below-freezing temperatures, searching thick vegetation for insects with little difficulty. At night and during colder, wet periods, they will seek out thick evergreen cover and use torpor, a nighttime hibernation, to conserve energy. The pines, cedars, hollies and magnolias in central North Carolina make excellent winter habitat for rufous hummingbirds.

The male rufous is very distinctive, having rusty body feathers in addition to a coppery iridescent gorget. Females, however, are a different story. Their size and shape are not very distinctive. Aside from reddish-brown color at the base of their tail feathers, and perhaps a smattering of brownish feathers around the face and flanks, they appear much like immature male ruby-throateds. They also look very similar to a few other species of Western hummers such as the Allen’s, broad-tailed or calliope hummingbird. For those with a good musical ear, the vocalization — a loud series of “stick” notes — may give a rufous away.

It is interesting to note that some of these tiny marvels return to the same feeder from one winter to the next. In fact, some individuals are faithful to the same location over their lifetime, which can be seven years. To date, we have had three females that have done just that, proven by the tiny aluminum bands I placed on their legs the first year. Some individuals choose to overwinter in different locations in the Southeast. This year we have two “foreigners.” One of them was originally banded by a colleague of mine outside Mobile, Alabama, two winters ago.

Furthermore, there have been some extremely lucky folks, including hosts in both the Sandhills and the Triad, who have hosted not one, but multiple rufous over the course of a single season. Last November, both a hostess in Asheville and another at Riverbend County Park outside Hickory each had three female rufous coming in for sugar water. A friend and research colleague who runs that park is investigating a fourth female rufous who turned up on February 1.

And no need to worry: Winter sugar water feeder maintenance is straightforward. Hang it in an open location and simply rinse and refill every two weeks or so. In our area, a feeder hung close to the house will be protected most days and many of the nights. The regular solution (4 parts water; 1 part sugar) will not freeze unless the air temperature drops below 27 degrees.

So, go ahead and hang a feeder any time. It is absolutely never too late to get noticed. Who knows? It may be found by a passing rufous hummingbird or two. PS

Susan would love to receive your wildlife observations and/or photos at


Unexpected Guests

The red crossbill makes an appearance

By Susan Campbell

This winter has been quite a season for birders across the Eastern United States. Here in North Carolina, it has been incredible with a variety of unexpected species scattered across the state. A few of them, like the snowy owl on the Outer Banks, were only around for a day. But others have been surprisingly widespread, are persisting and are being found in numbers. One such species is the red crossbill.

This feisty little seedeater with the oddly crisscrossed bill is native to the boreal forest, where conifers are abundant. They are uniquely adapted to pry open the sizable cones of spruces, firs, pines and even the small, compact cones of hemlocks. Crossbills are after the oily, nutrient-rich seeds found within. With short legs and strong feet, they cling easily to not only the bark and branches of the trees they forage on, but to the needles and cones as well.

The challenge for these birds of the North is that the cone crop that they depend on, especially during the colder months, is not predictable. Some years there is more than enough food to sustain them. But in seasons such as this one, red crossbills are forced to migrate much farther south than usual to find enough seed to make it through the winter.  They may appear at feeders, especially those with hulled sunflower (referred to as “hearts” or “meats”) that the birds can easily consume.

Red crossbills often give themselves away, since they travel in noisy flocks. Their distinctive “jip” calls are unlike any other vocalization you might hear in the winter in central North Carolina. Although the adult males are a bright red-orange color, the females and immature birds are more muted. They may get overlooked as one of our more common finches or sparrows. The streaky brown plumage of a female crossbill might cause confusion: They look very much like our familiar female house finches. So, be sure to look very closely at the bills of all the “little brown jobs” that show up at your feeder. And if you get lucky and spot a crossbill or two, I would love to hear about it.

Interestingly, we do have a small population of red crossbills that breed in the northwestern corner of our state. The habitat on Mount Mitchell is the equivalent of the boreal forests of Canada and northern New England. So, if you don’t happen upon any in the coming weeks, should you find yourself at elevation in the mountains this summer, you may, nonetheless, catch a glimpse of one of these unusual birds. PS

Susan would love to receive your wildlife observations and/or photos at