Authored by Jeff Beane
On Saturday, 25 March, I led a field trip, “Ephemeral Ponds in the North Carolina Sandhills,” as a follow-up to my talk on ephemeral wetlands at the 14 March general meeting. Participating were Colleen Bockhahn, Genya Bragina, Chad Chandler, Carol Cunningham, Stephanie Horton, Annie Runyon, and Joanne St. Clair. We met at 9:30 a.m. at my Sandhills house near Hoffman and visited a variety of ephemeral wetlands (seven total) within the longleaf pine ecosystem in Scotland and Hoke counties. Sites ranged from large to small, from artificial borrow pits to clay-based Carolina Bays, and from completely dry to too-deep-for-hip-waders—well illustrating the nature of ephemeral wetlands. We turned up a total of 11 amphibian species (about four of them obligate ephemeral wetland breeders, and a few others heavily dependent upon ephemeral wetlands). We also turned up four lizard species, and saw three fox squirrels (a lifer for some trip participants) as well as many interesting plants, birds, and invertebrates. We made a few brief detours to look at a pitcher plant seep, radio-track a coachwhip, and visit the world champion turkey oak. The weather was beautiful—mostly sunny and 70s°F. We ended the enjoyable day with dinner in a Mexican restaurant in Aberdeen, and most folks headed back toward Raleigh at around 9:00 p.m. A good time was had by all, and everyone learned something.
Ambystoma mabeei Mabee’s Salamander (2 larvae)
Ambystoma t. tigrinum Eastern Tiger Salamander (1 dead, partially eaten larva)
Notophthalmus viridescens dorsalis Broken-striped Newt (2 adults)
Pseudotriton m. montanus Eastern Mud Salamander (1 adult)
Bufo [Anaxyrus] terrestris Southern Toad (at least 1 calling; eggs; 1 dead, partially eaten adult)
Acris gryllus Southern Cricket Frog (many seen and calling)
Pseudacris crucifer Spring Peeper (at least 3 seen; several calling)
Pseudacris nigrita Southern Chorus Frog (several seen and calling)
Rana [Lithobates] capito Carolina Gopher Frog (1 large tadpole)
Rana [Lithobates] clamitans Green Frog (a few tadpoles)
Rana sphenocephala [Lithobates sphenocephalus] Southern Leopard Frog (tadpoles; eggs; a few calling)
Anolis carolinensis Green Anole (at least 1 or 2)
Sceloporus undulatus Fence Lizard (1 adult male)
Eumeces [Plestiodon] inexpectatus Southeastern Five-lined Skink (1 adult)
Scincella lateralis Ground Skink (at least 8)
Authored by John A. Gerwin, Treasurer, Wake Audubon Society and
Research Curator, Ornithology, NC Museum of Natural Sciences
This is a final note from Finca Esperanza Verde, in the north central highlands of Nicaragua. I have included here a mix of birds we see on our excursions to this reserve and ecolodge, my home away from home. Some of the species shown are tropical residents which remind me of birds back home. Others are indeed migrants that bred back in the U.S. or Canada sometime last year and flew here for half a year. Others are just notable tropic-colorific. I hope you enjoy the images below and more so, I hope you get the chance to visit a tropical forest some day.
Lineated Woodpecker – this one looks very similar to our Pileated, and it
is in the same genus. We found a pair investigating a cavity and according to one of our local guides, they are beginning to breed now. Instead of offering suet, lodges here offer bananas to any interested birds.
Pale-billed Woodpecker – this species is in the same genus as the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. And this one will make a “double knock” bill-strike-on-wood that is similar to that described for the Ivory-bill. Vanessa found one at a nest cavity, apparently feeding young. We know little about the life history of this species in Nicaragua. The Costa Rica field guide indicates this one finishes nesting in late December so perhaps up here, a little further north, they finish in January.
Black-cheeked woodpecker – this species is in the same genus as our Red-bellied Woodpecker. They are normally found just east of here, at lower elevations. The property at this site is between 1000-1200 meters and this woodpecker is mostly below 1000m. But we see numerous “Caribbean slope” species up here – presumably due to the local geography. The sound of this woodpecker reminds me of the Red-bellied.
Woodcreepers. In the New World Tropics there is a group of birds called Woodcreepers. They are sort of in between a woodpecker and a brown creeper. They creep and probe in loose bark, mosses, and other epiphytes. Most of these species have stiff tail tips. They range in size from a Downy Woodpecker to a Flicker. They never stop moving
(except at night of course) so I can never seem to get a good shot of one,
except when I can hold it very still…….
The Spotted Woodcreeper in the photo shows the tail tips very well, along with an oversized bill.
Lesson’s (formerly Blue-crowned) Motmot – This is one of a few species of Motmot’s found in the humid forests, where we are working. The national bird of Nicaragua is a dry forest species called Turquoise-browed Motmot, and I have also included an image of that species. The Motmot’s are another new world tropical group of birds. They nest in cavities dug into mud banks. No one seems to know for sure where the word Motmot comes from, although I have read at least one interesting note about this. I just can’t remember where I read it, sorry. For now, enjoy the photos.
Bushy-crested Jay – the tropics is full of some fun-looking jays. In addition, some clearly carry on the black and blue theme of a jay. This species has a rather small range – it is found from Guatemala to No. Nicaragua. I recently found a family of them just off the west edge of the Finca property which represents about the southernmost sighting for this species and what is essentially the first for the Finca. As you can see, a jay is a jay anywhere you go.
White-collared Manakin – Manakins are another new world tropical
group of birds. Males gather at leks to sing and dance and carry on, to try and attract a mate. You can search the Internet for some very amusing videos. Here is one of 4 species we find at the Finca property and this is one Olivia captured in a mist net, while trying to lure in a Golden-winged and/or a Brewster’s Warbler (we found both warblers occupying the same area).
Rufous-browed Peppershrike/Yellow-throated Vireo – The Peppershrike is essentially a tropical vireo. At our site we get this species plus a couple neotropical migrants, the Blue-headed (rare) and the Yellow-throated shown here.
Warblers – here, the most common warblers are some neotropical migrants: Chestnut-sided, Wilson’s, Tennessee, and Black-throated green; and many Golden-wings. This Tennessee Warbler is proof enough that one man’s trash is another bird’s treasure. Both coffee and Chestnut-sided’s migrate to the U.S. at some point. And then, we also find some resident warbler species, and this Rufous-capped Warbler is one of my favorites.
Common Pauraque – this is one of many nightjar species found in the tropics. It’s a cross between our familiar Whippoorwill and Chuck-wills-widow although more like the former to me. Fortunately, we seem to be able to find at least one each trip. Olivia Merritt photographed this one.
There are ~340 species of hummingbirds. Species diversity peaks in Colombia (~150), but Ecuador and Peru are not far behind. While Nicaragua has many fewer, it’s nice that 10 species of hummingbirds visit the feeders at this lodge. Some have only been seen at the feeders a few times over the past 7 years or so. The Crowned Woodnymph is a species more commonly found at lower elevations on the east/Caribbean slope – but a few individuals are regular in the forests and at the feeders.
One that is rare on the property (and elsewhere in the country it seems)
is the White-bellied Emerald. It looks like a female Ruby-throated. This individual has been visiting the feeders for almost a year. But up until now, we almost never saw it on site. I have captured 3 in 20 mornings of mist-netting, over a 10-year span. We don’t really know much about how it makes a living, at least, not in Nicaragua.
The Violet Sabrewing is named for the shape of the outer flight feathers, easily seen here. And the Rufous-tailed Hummingbird is, well, aptly named. Note the outer flight feathers of this Sabrewing.
And then here’s one that Vanessa spotted one drizzly afternoon, as the rest of us were looking in the other direction. I won’t print her initial reaction – but it got my attention. And I’m glad, because it was a new species to our list for this property (after some 20 trips) – called the White-necked Jacobin. It is another one that occurs mostly at lower elevations – we’re pretty much at the upper limit for this species, at the Finca. Vanessa Merritt regained enough composure to capture a nice memory.
Tanagers. We love our tanagers in North Carolina, and for good reason. Now, it seems, a tanager is not a tanager. That is, who is related to whom has changed with new genetic studies. In the meantime, one can visit the tropics and find some real jewels in the real tanager cohort. Included here are a few examples. Crimson-collared and Passerini’s tanagers are closely related and spend much of their time in the understory and along forest edges. The Golden-hooded Tanager is an example of the genus Tangara – a group of spectacularly colored birds that reaches its colorific peak in the eastern Andean cloud forests. The colors of this Golden-hooded Tanager are more electric in the sunlight…..
Summer Tanager – the Central American forests are full of migratory birds. This is a very familiar species to us all, although you may not have realized how much it loves bananas.
I just have to point out that the intrepid, adaptable House Sparrow is
found throughout Central and South America. In spite of what they represent, I find them rather adorable and I have to give them credit for being so adaptable. So, I couldn’t help but snap a few images when I found a small group of them just over the mountain in the small town of San Ramon. Who knows, these may be the only pictures of House Sparrow from Nicaragua……… here’s one.
Vesper Rat – there are many rodents in these parts. And sometimes,
those “parts” include a bedroom or kitchen. Here is one of the cutest little rodents around, trying to make a home behind a hanging over Vanessa’s bed. But this is only after it failed to finish a nest in her binocular case, and after chewing up one of her shirts for bedding material. In spite of these pesky events, I still find it mighty adorable – more so because it is in their room and not mine (it seems to come back each night……).
Spiders – no surprise, this area is full of them. It’s been fun to see some that are familiar, like this Aranea species – very similar to the one that we find in lovely webs on our front porches in late summer/fall. Another species both here and back home is this Orchard Spider. One this is also familiar, but for a different reason, is this Tarantula species. This one was climbing a post in the dining lodge (outdoor eating area). It’s been cold at night here, in January, and I wish I had more clothes like what this guy is wearing.
Three-toed Sloth – one can never get enough sloth pictures.
[photos by John Gerwin, except where noted]
Authored by John Gerwin
A significant element of the Nicaragua economy is based on coffee exports. Based on numerous surveys, a significant number of birds thrive among the vegetation found in traditional coffee farms and there are many such farms in northern Nicaragua. On a traditional farm, the coffee bushes are planted under the canopy of taller trees. Those trees can be a broad mix of native species, or a mix of native and fruit/nut bearing trees, or even a single species. Although a forest consisting of a mix of native species is preferred, even one of only a layer of the Flowering Inga can provide food and “lodging” for a suite of birds. And of course, coffee growing/harvesting/processing is a form of agriculture, and this suite of activities yields employment for many people.
One of those jobs is the “cortador”, or harvester; a.k.a coffee picker. Well, the person is not picking “coffee” but rather, coffee beans. And technically, coffee fruit, called a “cherry” because the typical fruit is a bright red color when it is mature. Finca Esperanza Verde is located in the north-central highlands of Nicaragua. In these parts, the coffee cherries mature between December to mid-February. Some bushes will continue to yield ripe fruit into early March, at higher elevations. The cherries on a given bush do not all ripen at once. Thus, pickers will re-visit bushes several times during the harvest season.
Another critical element of life here is the machete. In Spanish, the verb
“cortar” also means to cut. Here our Young Naturalists learn the importance of knowing homonyms (“twin” words).
On a traditional coffee farm, the cherries are picked by hand. In some places, the pickers cheat a bit and strip all the cherries off, discarding unripened ones. This is a bad technique for two reasons. It wastes those unripened fruits that would continue to ripen if left on the bush; and it damages the stem where the cherry had been attached and this can cause that part of the bush to not fruit again. So, on a farm that is designated, or strives to be, sustainable, pickers are not allowed to use that technique. Each farm employs a “coffee manager” who oversees how the picking is done and how it is proceeding each year, which ensures compliance. At FEV, a coffee cherry is picked, one by one. As you can imagine, this is a laborious process.
In this photo of coffee cherries, red are ripe, green or ‘reddish’ are still ripening.
To get a sense of just how laborious, I asked Vanessa and Olivia to give it
a try one morning. We set out with Luis, the resident coffee “mandador” on a bright sunny morning in mid January. Luis helped them attach the baskets around their waists that local pickers use. Two sizes can be found – the women got a size that holds about 15 pounds of coffee cherries. With baskets tied around their waists followed by a quick introduction to picking, it was time to get to work. Each spent the next hour tugging, pulling, and twisting away.
When a basket is full, a worker will empty it and return to pick more. At the end of a day, her coffee haul is weighed and she is paid for the day. In the Matagalpa region and provinces to the north, most of the pickers are women. Different folks have told me that the women have better dexterity and concentration. And as is the case in most cultures, their focus is on providing for the family. Pickers may move around a province, or remain in a smaller area, perhaps working a few farms. But the work is considered “migratory”. Often, women bring their children along (there is no school in January; also a Fair Trade certified farm cannot allow children at all). When a social cproblem arises among a group of pickers it tends to be testosterone-driven, exacerbated by alcohol abuse. Thus, overall, women are preferred.
Thus, I felt it was best to just have Vanessa and Olivia do the picking while I watched and took photographs……. I’m sure you would all agree.
Our Young Naturalists now hard at work (yet still smiling)
A skilled picker will pick enough coffee cherries to yield 130-160 pounds. In January of 2017, a picker will receive 200 cordobas (Nicaraguan currency) for 130 pounds picked, which is nearly $7 USD at this time. And so, after one hour, Vanessa and Olivia ended their coffee-picking session and it was time to weight the fruits of their labors.
So how did our industrious Young Naturalists fare? Will they earn enough to eat dinner tonight? More importantly, will they earn enough to feed their mentor Juancito dinner tonight?
Each picked about 3 ½ pounds. After doing some complicated math, we come to the realization that we will all be going to bed hungry tonight. They have each earned about $0.10 in one hour, so if they were to work a 10-hour day, they would each get $1 USD. Of course, with enough time, practice, and putting their deXXterity and concentration into play, I’m sure they would soon be up to the more livable $7 USD/day. That is livable right? Parents’ wishes notwithstanding, I ask each if they would like to come back and be a seasonal coffee picker, or go home and on to college – for now, they will go to college. It’s nice to have such choices.
Picking coffee fruit is only the beginning of a very detailed, laborious, multi-multistep process in getting fresh beans to your local roaster. I won’t go into all those details (you can find a lot written and described online). Suffice it to say, to produce really good coffee beans requires a lot of hands-on work, with an eye towards minutiae. Good coffee is expensive and I understand why. I wish the people in Nicaragua were paid more, but that’s how the market works. In the end, I’m grateful for the opportunity to enjoy good coffee, and the birds I love (both at home and in the tropics). And once/year visit my second family here at Finca Esperanza Verde (Green Hope Farm).
John Gerwin is Treasurer of Wake Audubon and
Research Curator, Ornithology, NC Museum of Natural Sciences
All photos are by John.
Authored by John Gerwin, Treasurer, Wake Audubon
Research Curator, Ornithology, NC Museum of Natural Sciences
I have been visiting Nicaragua since 2005. It is a country with wonderful birds, coffee and lovely people. I was invited by Dave Davenport and John Connors, who had been co-leading some ecotours to Nicaragua since 2000. They had helped a group out of Durham (Sister Communities of Durham/San Ramon=SCDSR) to set up trails and cabins for a tourist operation at a restored shade-coffee farm, called Finca Esperanza Verde (FEV), near the town of San Ramon in Matagalpa province. I was asked to initiate some bird-banding and add to their bird-watching activities and I confess I was leery of going. But after just one visit, I was smitten. For the next 7 years we did 1-2 tours/year, during March, mostly with classes from North Carolina State University or Guilford College. In 2012 FEV was put up for sale. At that time, I had two new graduate students and decided to take them to another farm north of FEV to do some studies on Golden-winged and Wilson’s warblers – two species found to be fairly common in several coffee farms in northern Nicaragua. In 2013, FEV was sold to new owners but SCDRN remained active in supporting the local community and offering its own tours. Dave, John, and I have continued to bring tour groups down each year.
We have helped to train Humberto and Omar, shown below, to be nature guides & excellent birdwatchers. Donations from recent trip participants and a generous discount from Tracy at the Wild Bird Center in Chapel Hill, paid for the purchase of 2 new pairs of Nikon binoculars.
The Golden-winged Warbler (GWWA) is a species now quite threatened. Population numbers have declined dramatically in the past 20 years. As is often the case, we do not fully understand why – there are numerous factors involved. And like many (I suppose most) migrants, the Golden-wing spends 5-6 months in Central or South America. And so, to do effective conservation work, there is an International coalition of biologists who are working together to get, and share, as much data as we can about GWWA, across the species entire range (that is, breeding, migration, and non-breeding).
My now-former student and I returned to FEV in 2014 to continue our studies of the GWWA. We have continued tagging individual warblers with color bands/rings, radio transmitters, and in 2015, geolocators. The radio transmitters allow us to track individual birds over very short distances/areas – the radio signal transmits about 500 meters from the bird to our receiver. With this technology we can find tagged birds and observe behaviors, e.g. how they feed, where they feed, who they are with, how much space they use, and more. In 2015 we were invited to participate in a multi-country effort to put a different type of tag on individuals of this species, that would track and record their migration. These are called geolocators. The units are solar-powered and last for up to one year. The units are attached using degradable thread tied in a figure-8 harness. They take many measurements each day to record the length of daylight, the date and time of day. These data can be used to estimate the location of the bird at the time of the recording because daylength varies by latitude and of course, changes as the seasons do. The units record the data – they do not transmit it – so the device must be recovered in order to download the data. To do that, we have to return to where we first caught the birds and try to recapture them. We have documented that 30-50% of the GWWA’s banded in one year will return to the same site the next, which makes this species a good candidate for the use of geolocator technology. The geolocator technology is not perfect. The accuracy of the point locations is good but not great (about 50 miles). But when a bird is migrating from say, Nicaragua to Pennsylvania, a 50 mile accuracy is good enough. If the solar panels can get covered by feathers, or debris; or if the bird spends a lot of time in denser vegetation, these can negatively affect the data collection.
In 2015 we deployed 5 geolocator units. In 2016, I received a small grant to return with more help, and more units. Our work at Finca Esperanza Verde is part of a multi-country effort in collaboration with scientists at Indiana University at Pennsylvania (Dr. Jeff Larkin); Cornell University (Ruth Bennett, Ph.D. candidate); the American Bird Conservancy; Audubon NC; and Jaguar Reserve & Ecolodge north of here. In addition, Jeff and Ruth are working with scientists in Panama, Costa Rica, and Honduras to deploy geolocators as well.
In February of 2016, 4 of us went to FEV where we recaptured one of the birds from 2015 and deployed 18 more units on 17 GWWA and one Brewster’s Warbler (a hybrid between GWWA and Blue-winged Warbler). We also visited a coffee farm just north of FEV and put geolocators on 3 warblers. In November/December I sent two of my technicians back and they recovered 5 of the 18 at FEV – they did not have time to visit the other site. We received news that the unit from 2015 failed at some point in its life – the principle investigator of this project was unable to recover any data from the unit. This was disappointing news but is a typical event in the world if research – it’s always one flap forward and two flaps back. Jeff and Ruth are receiving units from the other countries. Hopefully a good number will provide data and by this summer, we will have generated a handful of migration maps, and we’ll know where the birds from each country went to breed.
My two technicians also discovered more disappointing news. Many of the areas where we had captured the other birds that we had tagged in February, were occupied by new birds (unbanded). We don’t know if “our” tagged birds had gone to another area after being “asked” to carry this device around for a year, or if they had not yet arrived, or just what. The devices weigh 5% of the birds’ body weight – studies of birds carrying different weights have determined that 5-6% is the upper limit for an individual bird (so we don’t exceed 5%). But there could be other factors that affect a given bird, using this technique, that we don’t fully understand yet. So to be thorough, I came down in January, along with two Wake Audubon Young Naturalists, Olivia and Vanessa Merritt, to double check the FEV site, and visit that one other site to the north.
Olivia and Vanessa are twin sisters who have worked with me for nearly 5 years, assisting with field and museum work. They are quite experienced at putting up the nets we use to capture birds, at tagging/measuring/releasing birds, and other field tasks as needed. They recently spent 10 weeks in Spain, where their grandmother lives. While there, they assisted with some migration/bird banding on Gibraltar island and during a 4-day period there were so many birds around that each of them removed ~250 birds from the nets – that’s a lot of birds in 4 days. So down we came, on January 3rd, to re-visit areas and assess the situation where the warblers hold territories. Another aspect of our study is to see if birds remain on territory during this non-breeding season. From similar work with Wood Thrush, we are finding that individuals seem to roam during the non-breeding season. And many do not return to the site where they were banded. I have banded many Wood Thrushes here at FEV but over the years, have not recaptured any. But in years past, a handful of our banded GWWA have returned and remained at least into March, so we’re trying to piece together this element of the species life history.
My first two field techs banded ~20 male and 3 female GWWA’s in Nov/Dec, but reported that there are still unbanded Golden-wings on the property. So we will now try to capture/band as many of those as we can. Another element of our research is to band and monitor these birds for as many years as we can, to learn what we can about which ones return, and for how many years (some migrants we’ve banded in NC returned up to 10 years). So far this trip (in two weeks) we have not found any more of the birds from last year. We will continue to tag with bands (rings, really) any new birds we can capture.
Vanessa and Olivia will also do some GPS (Global Positioning System) work to help create detailed digitized maps of the property (to outline the coffee plots, the forested plots, and other features on the landscape). We are also creating some educational documents that highlight the birds that visit the banana and hummingbird feeders. This farm has some nice cabins that can house up to 28 visitors and there are many tourists that visit between December and April of each year. So we are creating some educational material about both the resident and migratory birds that visit the feeders and are easily observed by the tourists.
Coffee is an important product for many people – those who grow it, those who export it, those who roast it, and those of us who drink it. Small “traditional” farms grow their coffee plants in the shade of taller native trees and those trees provide habitat for many birds. Thus, there are two strong connections between a place like northern Nicaragua and North Carolina: the coffee we crave, and the migratory birds we love. And now we have a third connection: a number of these coffee farms provide lodging and guides who are here to showcase the plants and animals, and the coffee process, to anyone who wishes to visit. Birdwatchers/nature lovers are a welcome addition to the economy of this region.
In subsequent posts, I will share a few adventures and discoveries during our time here. I will post images of some bird species that are local residents and which ar very much like some of our own residents, along with some familiar migrants. I will also describe the coffee-picking effort of Olivia and Vanessa and explain why they earned a whopping $0.25 (each) for their one hour of labor. So, make like our favorite local animal here, the sloth, and hang around.
Photos by John Gerwin except first photo by Dave Davenport.
Submitted by: John Gerwin, Treasurer, Wake Audubon; co-leader, Young Naturalists Club
I am writing this on Christmas Day, and I am staring into a cool fog drifting over the New River, thinking back on 2016. Recently, Wake Audubon hosted the Raleigh Christmas Bird Count. The day began with a chill, and cloud cover, and I was looking forward to a fine day of birding. In the past, cool and cloudy has usually brought us many more birds than warm with clear skies.
I took a small flock of Young Naturalists and some parents and other adults with me, to a section of Raleigh Greenway that begins at the Walnut Creek Wetland Center. Some of us met at 0545. I always begin my count day an hour before first light, to listen for owls. I never hear any but it’s a good excuse to drink coffee, eat some donuts and other Christmas goodies, and chat with whomever ventures out with me in that pre-dawn period. Two years ago, I thought I had heard the call of a Northern Saw-whet Owl in the privet bushes that are rampant behind the Wetland Center (and all along the Greenway). This owl species does roost in such hedges in the winter, especially in the coastal plain of NC. To be honest, we know very little about its occurrence in NC in the winter (most of what I know comes from salvaged specimens we’ve received at the Museum of Natural Sciences). We tried broadcasting Saw-whet calls from Emma’s smartphone (one of the Young Naturalist’s with me that year), to no avail. But, in the past, when I have used such playbacks to attract small owls, they seldom call back – if they respond, they approach silently – sometimes quite close!
I have worked closely with several of our Young Naturalists, both in the field and the Museum’s bird collections. Several of them have become proficient at catching/tagging birds (“bird banding”). Thus, given that these small owls generally respond by approaching quietly, I thought it would be fun to let them put up a couple nets, try some playback calls, and see what happens. Of course, it’s now years later but as the saying goes, you don’t know till you try.
We were joined by two new Young Naturalists and a few adults! Quite a party at 0600. Emma, Olivia and Vanessa and I put up 2 nets and began the playback – after 20 minutes, we also tried the other “normal” owls. We did not get any response from any owls. This is comforting in a way since, after many years of doing owl “surveys” and not having heard one owl, I have grown accustomed to the s-owl-nd of silence……. Not unlike those college football teams who have grown so accustomed to, and celebrate, their long losing streak. For me, the hot coffee on a cold morning with the donuts and great camaraderie yields priceless memories.
At 0700 we were joined by a few more folks and thus began our morning walk/count. In contrast to what I had anticipated, it turned out to be a fairly quiet morning with few birds overall. We did, however, encounter two mixed species flocks and those two alone boosted our numbers to “near-normal”. For the rest of the time it was a bit dull, so we’re grateful for those two flocks that kept us busy. In the second flock, Emma spotted a small songbird and asked “Could this be a Orange-crowned Warbler?”. That is a rare Christmas Count species and thus, always a great find. Fortunately, a number of us were able to find it in the flock that included many kinglets of both species! Along with a couple Pine Warblers – it could not have been a more challenging situation. But indeed, Emma was correct and there we enjoyed some good views of what would be our “best” bird of the morning. Last year, one of our other Young Naturalists, Olivia, had found this species. These two are the only two I’ve ever seen on the Raleigh Christmas bird count in all my years participating.
Although it was a bit slow for birds, we saw just enough and as always, enjoyed the company of each other. It’s a great way to get our new Young Naturalists introduced to the idea of a survey and, have time to go over the finer points of bird identification and natural history. We had 7 Young Nat’s (that I’m remembering, ha ha). We were delighted that one fellow from John Connor’s Neighborhood Ecology Corp program also joined us – a program that John conducts at the Wetland Center for residents in the southeast Raleigh area. I had help from a few adults, which I really appreciate, especially when we hit those mixed species flocks and birds are all around us. For the past few years I have integrated a “work break” midway through the morning, which includes a different hot choc-concoction that I invent each year. This year, due to the damp cold, we stopped a little earlier than “midway” and broke out the hot chocolate, cookies, brownies, etc.
As we enjoyed our snack break, one of our adult participants, Robert, spotted a Red-shouldered Hawk in large tree but in the open and just back from where we had come. The hawk was having a break of its own, munching away on something whose identity we could not ascertain. Another highlight included one of the more gorgeous Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot as I co-led a 3-year study of this species up in our higher mountains. This male had such intense colors – everyone commented on it. I was unable to get a photo – instead, I’ve included another lovely example from up along the Parkway. Note that the bird in the photo is fairly white underneath whereas our Xmas Count bird was very very yellow – more yellow than I’d ever seen.
Par for the course, White-throated Sparrow topped the list of most abundant on our walk. Although I am not a fan of the non-native privets in our area and all over Walnut Creek, I applaud the resilience of those lovely little sparrows. They seem to inhabit a bit of every woodsie habitat. Another common denizen of this area is the Red-bellied Woodpecker, and it’s one I can still hear from a fair distance, for which I am grateful. This year, we counted a few extra White-breasted Nuthatches, than in years past. It’s hard to explain any year to year variation but that is why we conduct this survey every year. Over time, scientists of various types can analyze these data, and discover patterns and sometimes come up with explanations. It’s a great way to contribute to the bigger picture.
We returned to the Wetland Center parking lot by noon, and there we added our final birds to the list along with more hot chocolate provided by staff at the Center. We really appreciate the help of the Wetland Center staff, for allowing us access to the bathrooms at 0700 (they normally open at 0900) and for coming along on our walk. We spent a fine morning watching birds, telling stories, looking back at 2016 and ahead to 2017.
Authored by Harry LeGrand
It is with great sorrow that I report the news that John Finnegan, a long-time birder/biologist based in Raleigh, passed away November 10th after a 7-8-month bout of cancer. I had lunch with John only 8 days earlier, and though weak (after much chemo and pills) and in an easy chair at home, he was quite responsive and talking freely with several of us. Thus, even though he was expected to live only a handful of weeks or a month or two longer, the news of his passing so quickly came as a shock to his friends.
John and his wife Stephanie Horton did a considerable amount of birding and herping in the state, especially in Wake County and in the Sandhills. His good friend Jeff Beane was with him on many of these trips, including several decades of participation on the Ocracoke and Portsmouth Islands Christmas Bird Counts. He participated in the Wake County bird counts for several decades and was a very active member of the Wake Audubon Society as well as the NC Herpetological Society. He conducted two Breeding Bird Survey routes in the Sandhills for a number of years. He, Jeff, Stephanie, and one or two others conducted a Wildathon Big Day each May to record the number of species of vertebrates in a single day, with contributions based on number of species going to NC Audubon for conservation purposes.
He observed and identified the first inland Gray Kingbird that was confirmed by photographs (later in the day by another birder), just south of Raleigh. He also identified the first inland spring Arctic Tern in NC, at Lake Waccamaw, confirmed by photos from Jeff Beane.
He was the Data Manager for the NC Natural Heritage Program for around 25 years, where he worked several rooms or cubicles from me during that time; I was the Terrestrial Zoologist. Though his job was not one that got him in the field often, he and Stephanie were afield on most weekends.
He will be sorely missed on several Christmas Bird Counts, on many birding and herping outings,and at Audubon and Herp Society meetings. His departure leaves a great hole not only for the Natural Heritage Program to fill, but to his numerous friends and fellow biologists.
On Saturday, August 27th, Wake Audubon and the Museum of Natural Sciences co-sponsored a workshop to learn some of the finer points of bird identifications for a variety of challenging species. Twelve folks ventured out and into the murky world of “little brown jobs” which actually included some big brown “jobs” and a few other types added for good measure.
Three of most active Young Naturalists provided tremendous support (one is a former Museum Junior Curator who has been affiliated with the YNC program the past 2 years). These 3 helped to pull ~75 bird specimens from the Museum’s ornithology collections, to represent some of the more challenging plumages of species found in North Carolina, and often in Wake County. These included various species of warblers (fall, immature plumages), sparrows, raptors (“all immature raptors seem to be brown on the back and streaked underneath”….), and some of the finch/bunting types. There were others and as the saying goes, you just had to be there.
Specimens were arranged on tabletops in their respective groups, and John Gerwin and the 3 assistants held court at the resulting tables, where they could go over each specimen/species and compare and contrast with others that look so much alike.
Olivia and Vanessa Merritt, and Edward Landi, have assisted John with numerous bird banding events over the past 3 years, which includes 4 projects. They have spent many hours handling live sparrows, buntings and warblers in the Fall at both Prairie Ridge and a grassland/shrub site in the Uwharries, as part of ongoing bird banding studies at each site. They also assist with tasks in the Museum’s ornithology collections. So these three have gained quite a bit of experience with these more challenging species (some of our other Young Naturalists have been participating as well but were unavailable to help on Saturday).
In addition to the specimens, John showed a few dozen images of the species of interest, during which time we were able to discuss the field marks, and see how things might look through optics (versus a specimen in your hand!). This gave folks a chance to guess at identifications, which is always a combination of fun and internal strife!
By the end, we were all sufficiently overwhelmed by the many shades of browns, grays, olive greens, but we agreed that in spite of their more “quiet” look, they are really quite lovely once you see them up close the way we did.
Attached are a few of the species we covered – click on the image to enlarge it. See which ones you can ID (then look at the end of the blog for the answers).
John Gerwin, Treasurer, Wake Audubon and Research Curator, Ornithology, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
Upper left: Palm, western subspecies
Upper right: Cape May, female
Lower left: Blackpoll
Lower middle: “Yellow”, or Eastern Palm
Lower right: Prairie
Lower left: Cooper’s, immature female
Upper middle: Sharp-shinned, adult
Upper right, Sharp-shinned, immature
Lower right: Cooper’s, adult on Starling
Right: White-crowned, immature
Ammodramus: this slide shows the underside of the two species of what were once considered one: Sharp-tailed Sparrow. Now known as: Nelson’s, and Saltmarsh, sparrow. The specimen labels reflect this current taxonomy.
Authored by John Gerwin
I went outside this week, on a couple afternoons, to check out the butterflies. A number of butterfly-attracting plants are now blooming nicely (New York Ironweed, Cup Plant, Smooth Oxeye, Green-headed Sneezeweed/Coneflower, Summer Phlox). And, as I’d expected/hoped, a number of Skipper butterflies have now appeared to feed at these flowers (I saw 4 Skipper species that day, in an hour of looking around).
The Skipper group of butterflies is a large, worldwide group. The common name derives from the flight of many of them, a flight during which they “skip” through the air. Species in this group have some of the strongest flight muscles and are some of the fastest flying Lepidoptera – they bounce erratically through the air, and are often tough to visually follow. Indeed, they appear to come and go in a flash. And some are territorial, so they attack anything that walks or flies by – anything.
In addition, as a group, Skippers are known as dull, drab, difficult to identify butterflies. Even when graced with some spots/blotches, there can be several species whose spots are so similar that they are still tough to ID. Many show sexual dimorphism (males and females look different) – so different you’d think they are two species. And to make matters more fun, the sex of one might look like one of the others. They are, in essence, the “sparrows, or gulls, of the butterfly world”. Few people subject themselves to what can be a torturous experience – identifying a Skipper.
But, there are in fact a number of species who are quite wonderfully marked, and/or show some fine coloration. So, to those trying to learn some new species out there, I say take a look for, and at, these more elaborately colored species. As always, I encourage anyone to go along with a simple point and shoot camera and take plenty of shots. You can then go home and put a name to your butterflies later (or you can ask some of us on this list).
For now, let me show case a few that I see in the yard, or nearby in some neighbor’s yard.
Zabulon, Clouded, Fiery Skippers
One of the brightest skippers I see out in the yard is the male Zabulon Skipper. But, in a slightly more subdued way, the female is no snoozer either. So the Zabulon show sexual dimorphism and “interestingly” enough, the Clouded Skipper (either sex as they are nearly identical) looks much like the female Zabulon. And as you’ll see from the pics, the two sexes of Zabulon are wildly different-looking. If you find one that looks like a female Zabulon, a great way to tell which species it is, is if you see the fine white line on the upper (leading) edge of the hindwing. You may think “I’ll never see that tiny bit of white! Gerwin’s crazy!” But in fact, it is pretty noticeable (notwithstanding that Gerwin can still be crazy).
I find the chestnut coloration of the female Zabulon quite beautiful – in this species, this color shows best when fresh and when the light hits it just right. I also appreciate the “dusty” or “frosted” appearance of the Clouded Skipper, which is on the underside of this species. I might have named this one “Foggy” Skipper, as that is how that marking appears to me, when I see it. Although grayish-white may not seem like an appealing coloration, it looks quite lovely to me, set against the dark background.
The Fiery Skipper is also fairly bright, as you can see. And it is a dimorphic species. The male is a brighter yellow-orange with small spots, whereas the female is a quieter yellow-orange, with larger brownish spots. Unfortunately, I somehow managed to photograph the undersides of only male Fiery’s. I will be on the lookout now! The Fiery Skipper is one of the most abundant skippers I see out there, and it is particularly fond of Lantana. I know Lantana is not native to these parts, but it produces some good nectar and I confess, I grow some in a pot or two around here, and many many butterflies are attracted to it. The butterflies have spoken.
Many Skipper larvae feed on a variety of grasses. Two of the kinds that the Zabulon will feed on are Poa and Eragrostis species. I am particularly fond of Eragrostis, one of which is the Purple Love Grass (I love purple so this circle is complete). I have planted some (Purple Love Grass) in the front yard. Poa’s are common everywhere and Poa annua is considered a real pest, and many folks spray a lot of herbicide to try and control it. Poa glauca is an ornamental Bluestem that is commonly planted.
Clouded and Fiery Skipper larvae feed on St. Augustine Grass, another common ornamental, and Fiery’s will also feed on Bermuda Grass, yet another non-native.
Take a walk around the neighborhood this month and enjoy the challenge of identifying some of these butterflies sipping and skipping into autumn.
First published on the Wild West blog site: wildwestavent.wordpress.com
A poem by Jill Walsh ~ August 9, 2016
A little bird came hopping by, foraging for seeds
Enchanted I sat witness to, his dance amid the trees
A tail of white-tipped feathers splayed, head bobbing up and down
The subtle sound of shuffling feet, as he scratched the fertile ground
He waltzed through dappled waves of light, with wings of brilliant hue
While rays of glistening sun unveiled, opalescent shades of blue
A triumphant chirp did soon resound, when grasped within his beak
The treasured prize uncovered, beneath the fallen leaves
Authored by Bob Oberfelder
In early May 2016, the fields next to Mid Pines Road were alive with a huge flock of Bobolinks. There were at least 150 Bobolinks in total with the flock breaking up into two or more flocks periodically and then joining together to form one really large flock. This Bobolink flock was the largest flock I have ever seen at one time in one place, and it doubled the number of Bobolinks I have ever seen. The first photo shows a very small part of the flock in flight. According to Harry Legrand, it is not unusual to see even larger flocks migrating along the coast. Since we only see these birds as spring migrants, a sighting in any given year in the area around Mid Pines Road is a hit or miss proposition. In breeding plumage, the males are quite showy as seen in the second photo. In contrast to the showy breeding plumage males, the females resemble an Eastern Meadowlark without a bib or some strange sparrow. The final photo shows one of the female Bobolinks. The contrast between males and female is quite striking. This flock attracted lots of attention from the local birding community and cooperated by staying in the area for at least 2-3 weeks. Although frequent rain showers accompanied the flock during the first week it was present, the latter part of their stay permitted better pictures.