authored by Erik Thomas
On June 15, I conducted some bird counts at the Lumber River Important Bird Area (IBA), which the Wake Audubon Society monitors. Counting consists of stopping for ten minutes at designated spots and making a record of all birds seen or heard. All of the sites in the Lumber River IBA are wetland habitats. This time, however, I decided to do something a little different. I counted at six of the designated sites along Ashpole Swamp, which parallels the South Carolina border a few miles away, and six other spots at nearby upland sites that are not designated locations.
The contrast in birdlife between the bottomland sites and the upland sites was striking. Down in the bottomlands, birds of wooded swamps were plentiful. I heard Yellow-billed Cuckoos at several sites, Red-shouldered Hawks at a few, and various kinds of woodpeckers. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were easy to find, and I heard—but only occasionally saw—quite a few Carolina Wrens and some Acadian Flycatchers. Prothonotary Warblers, Northern Parulas, and Yellow-throated Warblers were actively defending territories. Here and there a White-eyed Vireo chattered. There was even a flock of Wood Storks passing overhead.
Just up the hill from the swamp, however, the birds changed dramatically. Three members of the icterid family—the Eastern Meadowlark, Orchard Oriole, and Red-winged Blackbird—appeared there. Indigo Buntings were singing at several spots, and Northern Mockingbirds guarded yards throughout. Mourning Doves sat on power lines or flew by nearly everywhere. Cattle Egrets were attending a group of steers at one site and a Chipping Sparrow was singing heartily at another. Most impressively, a congregation of Mississippi Kites—I counted nine, but there may have been more—was sailing over some fields.
If you’d like to see more details, I’ve uploaded all the counts I did to eBird. One additional sighting I had was a series of realtor signs in Ashpole Swamp. It seems that most of the swamp is for sale. It’s too wet to develop for housing (fortunately!), but logging interests may want to pounce on it. It would be desirable if the state or an environmental organization could acquire this valuable and extensive habitat, perhaps to be added to Lumber River State Park at some future date.
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.
Authored by Erik Thomas.
Two members of the Wake Audubon Society board, Colleen Bockhahn and Erik Thomas, conducted bird counts in the Lumber River Important Bird Area (IBA) on May 1 and 2. IBA’s are areas that provide especially extensive areas of prime bird habitat and may harbor uncommon or rare species. Audubon North Carolina has entrusted the Wake Audubon Society with monitoring the Lumber River IBA, which covers much of the eastern half of Robeson County. Designated points are established at which the counts take place. Counting follows a protocol in which counters record the numbers of each species they see or hear within a ten-minute period and approximately how far away each bird was from the point. WAS members have been monitoring the Lumber River IBA for the past nine years.
The primary goal of this trip was to find migrants. We found a few transient species during the trip: two Black-throated Blue Warblers, an American Redstart, several Black-and-white Warblers, and one Spotted Sandpiper. For the most part, however, we found local breeding species, in which the Lumber River IBA is notably rich. The bottomland forest warbler triumvirate of Prothonotary Warbler, Northern Parula, and Yellow-throated Warbler
was ubiquitous. Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Acadian and Great Crested Flycatchers, Pileated Woodpeckers, Barred Owls, Red-shouldered Hawks, and three species of vireos were frequent. We heard Swainson’s Warblers at three different count points. Even a few Wild Turkeys materialized. Perhaps our biggest surprise was a Wood Stork that was soaring overhead at one count point. One species that we did not find was the Red-headed Woodpecker, a bird that has appeared on many of our previous trips to the Lumber River IBA. Our total for the IBA on this trip was 73 species.
The records for all of the point counts are entered into a website that Audubon North Carolina keeps. Although this website is not publicly accessible, we also entered all the counts on eBird, so if you’re curious about what species we found at each site, just go to the eBird website (http://ebird.org/content/ebird/), click on “Explore Data,” and click on “Species Maps” to see any species or “Explore Hotspots” to see any of the individual points, which are designated as “Lumber River IBA D-01,” “Lumber River IBA D-02,” etc.
Authored by John Connors
The Raleigh Christmas Bird Count was held on December 19, 2015. It was clear and chilly…a marked change from what had been an extended mild autumn season. Sixty-seven participants were distributed in twenty teams scattered across the top birding spots in southern Wake County. Our Raleigh Christmas Bird Count has taken place in this same 15-mile diameter circle since 1937. The Count Circle center is at the Farmer’s Market along Lake Wheeler Road.
This year we had groups owling at Schenck Forest, Mid-Pines and Lake Raleigh; and one pair of intrepid birders took a pre-dawn paddle into the upper reaches of Lake Benson. Most groups assembled around 7 am and birded through the morning. For those who could make it, we got together for our mid-day Countdown at Yates Mill Pond County Park.
All told we tallied 99 species of birds for the Raleigh Christmas Bird Count- a pretty good count for our area these days. Years ago the Raleigh CBC would regularly top 110 species, but nowadays we hope for 100.
Highlights for this year’s Raleigh Count include:
1 Red-necked Grebe seen by boat at Lake Benson, 3 Redhead Ducks at Lake Wheeler, 1 Northern Harrier at Schenck Forest, 1 Horned Lark and 40 American Pipit along Mid-Pines Road, 2 Common Raven at Umstead State Park, 1 Blue-headed Vireo at Walnut Creek Wetland Center, and 1 Orange-crowned Warbler at Lake Raleigh. The American Bittern made an appearance at Prairie Ridge Eco-station, and an incredible 11 Bald Eagles were seen at various locations across the Count Circle. Other notable species which may have lingered in our area during the warm fall weather include: 2 House Wren, 1 Gray Catbird, 2 Palm Warbler, and 1 Common Yellowthroat. A total of 11 Fox Sparrow (mostly at Schenck), 3 White-crowned Sparrow, and 13 Rusty Blackbird were also seen. In addition, 12 Baltimore Oriole, most at Lena Gallitano’s feeders, were tallied. Winter finches were noticeably absent- only 3 Purple Finches were seen.
More worrisome were the low numbers for Loggerhead Shrike (1), and Eastern Meadowlark (7). Bobwhite Quail may have disappeared from the count circle entirely. Perhaps the oddest miss was for the Fish Crow- the first time in many years where none was reported. Of course years ago the species was very rare here. Not to worry, they are now a common breeding bird and as I finish writing this post I can hear some outside my office window.
Thanks to all those who participated and particularly to those who worked as site leaders. John Connors
All Christmas Bird Count data can be viewed at:
Authored by John Connors
Report from the Field
The Raleigh Christmas Bird Count was held on Saturday, December 19. After an extended warm spell, Saturday was clear but seasonably cold with early morning temperatures below freezing, and the wind picked up as the day advanced.
Twenty-one groups with more than 70 participants surveyed the same southern Wake County parks, reservoirs and farmlands that bird counters have been visiting since the Raleigh Count was initiated in 1937. As compiler, I organize the group leaders and assign participants before the count, and then I tally and submit the results to a national database afterward.
I haven’t received all the count tallies yet, but preliminary results list 95 species of birds sighted by our groups. Many counters reported low overall bird numbers, and some species were noticeably uncommon, for example, Goldfinch. But diversity and numbers for most species was comparable to other years.
Some highlights include:
Redhead Duck (2) at Lake Wheeler, Northern Harrier (1) near Schenck Forest, Horned Lark (1) and American Pipits (45) at Mid-Pines, Loggerhead Shrike (1) at Schenck Forest, Blue-headed Vireo (1) at Walnut Creek, Common Raven (2) at Umstead State Park, as well as singles and multiple sightings of the following: House Wren, Gray Catbird, Palm Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Fox Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Rusty Blackbird, Baltimore Oriole and Purple Finch.
The best bird of the day might be a Red-necked Grebe that was seen at Lake Benson by our paddling birding team of Kyle Kittelberger and Brian Bockhahn. This might be the first ever reported on our count.
Notable misses up to this point include: Northern Bobwhite, Eastern Screech Owl, Herring Gull, Red-breasted Nuthatch and Pine Siskin.
Have a happy, safe and peaceful Holiday season.
by Jeff Beane
Every holiday season, tens of thousands of volunteers, mostly in the U.S. and Canada, but also in at least 15 other countries, brave cold, rain, wind and snow to participate in the Christmas Bird Count. The data they gather are used to assess the health of bird populations and guide conservation actions.
What they are
Sponsored by the National Audubon Society, Christmas Bird Counts are held each year between December 14th and January 5th. Their basic purpose is to census bird populations. Each regional count covers a “count circle” 15 miles in diameter, or about 177 square miles. Participants divide into small groups, and each group covers a specific assigned portion of the circle as thoroughly as possible. They identify and count, to the best of their ability, every bird seen during their 24 hour count date. Participants may count birds all day, or for only a few hours. Some prefer to watch their feeders and report those results. Usually one person serves as coordinator, organizing participation, compiling data, and submitting final results to National Audubon.
How they started
Attitudes toward, and appreciation for, wildlife and conservation in this country have changed drastically over the years. In the 19th century, before there were laws protecting migratory birds, “side hunts” were a popular holiday tradition. Contestants would choose sides and see how many birds and other animals a team could shoot in a single day. Frank M. Chapman, a young ornithologist and early officer in the newly formed Audubon Society, was outraged by this senseless killing and waste of wildlife. In protest, on Christmas Day 1899, he counted live birds for three hours, publishing his results in the newly created Bird-Lore magazine (which later became Audubon), and encouraged other bird lovers to do the same. The next year, 1900, the first national count was held, with 27 participants counting in 25 locations across the U.S. and Canada.
Each year since then, the Christmas Bird Counts, or CBCs, have grown. Well over 2,000 regional counts are now held, with over 70,000 participants. About 40 are held in North Carolina. This year’s 116th annual count promises to be the biggest yet. The Raleigh CBC, sponsored by Wake Audubon, will be held on Saturday, 19 December 2015. Contact John Connors email@example.com or John Gerwin firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to participate.
Why they’re important
CBCs are among the best data sources we have on bird populations. They can depict trends and population fluctuations over time. They are also the best-known citizen science projects in the world—allowing ordinary citizens to gather data that contribute to the overall body of our knowledge about birds. The counts certainly have their flaws and shortcomings. Not every part of a count circle can be covered. Certainly not every bird gets seen or identified. Large flocks can’t be counted precisely. It’s hard to be sure that some birds don’t get counted more than once. But the sheer volume of information and the consistency of holding the counts in the same places, during the same seasons, often with the same participants counting in the same fashion, year after year, make the data very valuable. Studies have shown that CBC data correlate closely with those gathered using more rigorous scientific methods. Hundreds of peer-reviewed articles have been published in scientific journals using analyses done with CBC data. State and federal agencies also use the information to make important bird conservation decisions.
Why they’re fun
CBCs are good opportunities to learn about birds from skilled and knowledgeable birders. They are also social events, where birders can make new friends, or spend time with old ones. These are the biggest reasons that many people participate. Many counts have special traditions, including lunches, dinners, and countdown parties during which data are compiled and stories are shared. Some even have their own T-shirts. The Raleigh CBC’s annual potluck dinner, the venison chili and pralines usually to be had at the Southern Pines count, and the Key lime pie and seafood featured at the tally rally following the Ocracoke and Portsmouth counts, will be enough to keep you coming back. But even better are the things you’ll see and learn, and the friends and memories you’ll make.
If you don’t know birds very well, you can still be placed with a team of good birders and help by spotting birds for them to identify, or by helping them keep their list. Birding with experts is one of the best ways to learn. Even if you don’t participate in an organized count or project, birding is fun and educational in its own right, and is one of the easiest outdoor activities to get interested in, because you can watch birds anywhere. A pair of binoculars and a good field guide are all you need to get started. And you have all year to learn and practice for those Christmas Counts!
Atlas of Wintering North American Birds: An Analysis of Christmas Bird Count Data by Terry Root, University of Chicago Press, 1988.
“Out for the Count” by Jeff Beane, Wildlife in North Carolina, December 2006.
National Audubon Society: Christmas Bird Count:
A group for bird lovers in the Carolinas:
Birding with a purpose—learn about bird citizen science projects:
An online checklist program to count, report, and keep track of birds anytime, anywhere:
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and information on many bird projects:
By Fred J. Eckert
One of the best places in the United States and perhaps in the entire world to see – and photograph — a bountiful variety of incredibly colorful ducks is an easy day trip from anywhere in or near Wake County – only about an hour-and-a-half drive.
It constantly amazes me that so few of even the most avid birders in our area are aware of this fantastic attraction that lies so near to us.
Right now through mid-May are the months to savor these ducks — more than 100 species of them from all parts of the world — at their peak color.
Sylvan Heights Bird Park, located in the tiny northeast North Carolina rural town of Scotland Neck, a bit east of Rocky Mount between Tarboro and Roanoke Rapids on NC Route 258, is the largest bird park in North America and largest waterfowl park in the world.
This fascinating and fun park is home to more than 2,500 birds. Included among them are 18 endangered species; more than 30 species of very rare birds; all 8 swan species; 30 of the just over 30 species of geese and more than 100 species of ducks.
And it truly is a park as opposed to some tourist attraction that merely bills itself as a park. The pleasant, neat, well-maintained 18-acre park-like environment is well laid out in a double-8 clearly marked pathway and divided into sectors dedicated to each of the seven continents (except, because of climate, Antarctica) plus sections focused on exotic birds, finches, pheasant, flamingos and swans, geese and cranes.
There is no other place in the country quite like SylvanHeights Bird Park where visitors can observe up-close, and sometimes even interact with, such an amazing array of exotic and/or endangered birds, ducks, geese and swan from all parts of the world.
This great avian collection is the dream and culmination of a lifetime of work devoted to saving birds and waterfowl of Mike Lubbock who founded and directs this not-for-profit operation with his wife Ali and their son Brent and a small handful of staff and volunteers.
Widely recognized as the world’s leading expert on waterfowl, this farm boy from the Somerset area of England became fascinated with birds as a youth and began his career in ornithology at Britain’s prestigious Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust where he served first as a volunteer then as Curator and ultimately as Director of Aviculture. It’s also where he met his future wife, Ali, who was serving as a volunteer.
His rare talent for bird breeding — his successes where others had failed – became widely known and resulted in his being personally consulted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II who first turned to Mike for advice about her concern that the red-breasted geese among her bird collection at Buckingham Palace were reluctant to breed. The Queen followed his advice and one day she called Mike all excited about the change she credited him with bringing about. He became her go-to expert from then after.
Mike’s passion to preserve threatened waterfowl and other birds and promote conservation efforts has taken him all over the world and he has worked in this field he loves so much in both the UK and the USA. The International Wild Waterfowl Association, which inducted him into its Hall of Fame – they’ve also inducted Ali Lubbock — and bestowed upon him its most prestigious aviculture award, has said: “Mike Lubbock’s avicultural accomplishments on both sides of the Atlantic are legendary. He has brought many new species and new bloodlines in from the wild. He has accomplished many first breedings and he has been a source of bird and breeding advice to many.”
How Mike Lubbock path in life led him to realizing his and Ali’s dream of creating their own great avian collection park here in North Carolina is a long story and the subject of a recently released book, The Waterfowl Man of Sylvan Heights. What we Wake Audubon Society members need to know is that such a great birding experience that so few of us have been aware of for too long is so near-by and so well worth a visit.
The 18-acre park which is open to the public is an outgrowth of its adjacent 10-acre Breeding Center devoted to raising rare and endangered species of waterfowl. “The Park is designed to educate people about waterfowl and the importance of preserving them,” says Mike Lubbock. “Our goal is to tell visitors the story of every species–where it comes from, what habitat it prefers and why the species is important to our world. Visitors are also immersed into a wetland setting, so the feel and scope of a primary waterfowl habitat can be fully experienced.” Park generated revenue also helps fund the Breeding Center.
Among the many interesting facts about Sylvan Heights: It is credited with breeding 17 species of waterfowl for the first time in the world and 15 species for the first time in the North America and nearly one-third of the world’s once perilously endangered White-winged Wood Duck population reside here.
Naturally a place where visitors can come see waterfowl and other birds that include endangered and very rare species has to house them in a protective captive environment. For anyone who suggests that it is not a good thing to have birds in such a protected area, Mike Lubbock has a question: “Would you rather view an endangered species alive in a nice park-like environment such as Sylvan Heights Bird Park or dead in some museum?”
It is obvious that great thought and care have gone in to making Sylvan Heights the best possible experience both for those who visit it and for the birds and waterfowl who reside there. Besides being so pleasant and well-maintained the areas are extra good sized with exceptionally high nets. The water is very clear. The design is such as to insure maximum safety for the birds and waterfowl.
And here’s something truly smart that anyone who likes to photograph birds will appreciate: In places where otherwise you would normally expect to have to shoot through a wire fence, ruining any possibility of getting a very good photo, Sylvan Heights enables photographers to open an area in the fence that is wide enough to poke through a long lens and easily move it up or down and from side to side. You’ll need a key, which you can use while your driver’s license is held to insure its return – and there is a modest fee. I thought this was a fantastic plus but asked if it didn’t pose any risk of what was being photographed somehow escaping through the resulting temporary small hole in the fence. No chance – the design prevents such a possibility.
Yet another interesting feature of Sylvan Heights is that within the park you can also observe and photograph birds and waterfowl in the wild. At Beaver Pond Blind, which overlooks a wetland, as its name suggests you can observe and photograph looking out of one of its many blinds. The wheelchair accessible Treehouse is a large roofed viewing platform located over another, larger wetland.
The feature probably most popular with kids in the interactive Landing Zone, a good sized building where parakeets will fly to you if you have a seed stick and you can feed flamingoes out of your hand. Seed sticks for the parakeets and food for feeding to flamingoes cost $1 and are available in the Landing Zone or the Visitor Center gift shop. Besides a variety of parakeets and the American Flamingos inside The Landing Zone visitors encounter parrots, doves, pheasants, pigeons and the white-rumped shama, a small passerine bird.
Tours of Sylvan Heights Bird Park begin at the Visitors Center, where you can watch an introductory video and check out some displays, sometimes baby birds or waterfowl. Its Gift Shop is small but nice. Sylvan Park does not operate any food service – but this very-family-friendly attraction welcomes anyone to bring a picnic lunch and provides a playground for the kids and a couple of picnic areas. It’s only a few minutes’ drive to any one of several restaurants and fast-food outlets in town.
While anyone living in Wake County or close by can do Sylvan Heights as a day-trip, my wife and I opted to devote more time and were glad we did. Anyone who enjoys photographing beautiful birds, as I certainly do, really should devote more than just one day to this great experience and take advantage of being able to shoot different sections in different lighting conditions.
What we would not recommend doing is following the accommodations recommendations of some of the reservations booking sites. Most we checked recommended staying in Roanoke Rapids, Rocky Mount or Tarboro – and each place is a 30 to 40 minute commute to and from Sylvan Heights on small country roads that are pitch black at night and best avoided at night especially, say, during deer season.
We stayed in Scotland Neck at the Scotland Neck Inn which compares favorably to any of the recommend motels that require a long commute. It was comfortable, very clean, good service and it’s reasonably priced, offering a discount for Sylvan Heights visitors. It was hot when we visited the park and it was nice to be able to return to the motel and freshen up during our lunch breaks. There is also a bed-and-breakfast in town.
Not surprisingly there’s not much to do in a town so tiny that it does not have a single traffic light and which, except for a few familiar fast-food spots, looks pretty much as it did in the 1950’s.
What did surprise us, as it has others, is that tiny Scotland Neck has a restaurant serving such outstanding Italian food – LaCasetta. My wife and I know Italian food pretty well, having lived in Rome and having traveled throughout so much of Italy – and LaCasetta, operated by an Italian who hails from Sicily, is great!
For anyone who enjoys birds or anyone who just wants to try something different a visit to Sylvan Heights Bird Park is a wonderful experience. Pretty much everyone who visits it gives it rave reviews.
When’s the best time of year to visit? Anytime. Ducks are at their best colors right now, tropical birds during the summer months.
For more information about Sylvan Heights – including information about its hours, fees, events and its various educational programs – visit its website by clicking here.
Authored by Jeff Beane
On Friday-Sunday, 13-15 November, Wake Audubon held its Alligator River Adventure trip, a joint field trip between and Wake Audubon and the Museum of Natural Sciences, usually offered every two to three years. Trip leaders were Jerry Reynolds and Jeff Beane. Also participating were Herb Amyx, Pat Amyx, Betty Lou Chaika, David Chaika, Dan Harvey, Sue Harvey, Cindy Lincoln, Mary Martorella, Ann McCormick, Betsy McCormick, Betty Ann O’Brien, Adair Pickard, Louise Romanow, Mary Ann Rood, and Bill Swallow.
Our itinerary included Alligator River, Pea Island, and Pocosin Lakes national wildlife refuges; Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve; Cape Hatteras National Seashore; Pettigrew and Jockey’s Ridge state parks; and a few other stops.
We left from the Museum’s Research Lab at 10 a.m. Friday morning, and returned at about 6 p.m. Sunday evening. We had good weather—sunny to partly cloudy and somewhat unseasonably warm. We identified 107 vertebrate species, including at least 83 birds, nine mammals, seven reptiles, five amphibians, and three fishes. A few other species were glimpsed but not positively identified. Highlights included good looks at several black bears, at least a dozen species each of waterfowl and shorebirds, good looks at American white pelicans and bald eagles, a few late-season reptiles basking, and a fresh road-killed mink. Bill glimpsed a short-eared owl, but he was the only one to see it. We stayed at the Comfort Inn in Nags Head, where some of us could see many species from out our motel room windows, and we enjoyed picnic and fast food lunches and fine dinner dining at Basnight’s Lone Cedar and La Fogata Mexican restaurants. Good times were had by all.
* = observed only as dead-on-road (DOR) or otherwise dead specimens.
Not all species were seen by all members of the group; some may have been seen by only one or two people.
Strongylura marina Atlantic Needlefish (at least 2)
Cyprinodon variegatus Sheepshead Minnow (many)
Gambusia holbrooki Eastern Mosquitofish (many)
Ambystoma opacum Marbled Salamander (4 adults)
Bufo [Anaxyrus] [cf. americanus x terrestris] “American/Southern Toad” (1 adult female)
Acris gryllus Southern Cricket Frog (at least 2)
Hyla cinerea Green Treefrog (a few)
Rana catesbeiana [Lithobates catesbeianus] American Bullfrog (at least 2 or 3)
Chrysemys p. picta Eastern Painted Turtle (several)
Clemmys guttata Spotted Turtle (at least 1)
Pseudemys rubriventris Red-bellied Cooter (many)
Trachemys s. scripta Yellow-bellied Slider (many)
Nerodia erythrogaster Red-bellied Water Snake (1 adult)
Nerodia fasciata Banded Water Snake (1 adult)
Thamnophis s. sauritus Eastern Ribbon Snake (1 small adult male DOR) *
Aix sponsa Wood Duck (at least 7)
Anas acuta Northern Pintail (several)
Anas americana American Widgeon (many)
Anas clypeata Northern Shoveler (many)
Anas crecca Green-winged Teal (many)
Anas discors Blue-winged Teal (at least 1)
Anas platyrhynchos Mallard (many)
Anas rubripes American Black Duck (many)
Anas strepera Gadwall (many)
Branta canadensis Canada Goose (many)
Cygnus columbianus Tundra Swan (many)
Lophodytes cucullatus Hooded Merganser (a few)
Oxyura jamaicensis Ruddy Duck (many)
Colinus virginianus Northern Bobwhite (at least 6-7)
Meleagris gallopavo Wild Turkey (at least 27)
Podilymbus podiceps Pied-billed Grebe (many)
Morus bassanus Northern Gannet (many)
Phalacrocorax auritus Double-crested Cormorant (many)
Pelecanus erythrorhynchos American White Pelican (many)
Pelecanus occidentalis Brown Pelican (many)
Ardea alba Great Egret (many)
Ardea herodias Great Blue Heron (many)
Egretta thula Snowy Egret (a few)
Egretta tricolor Tricolored Heron (a few)
Eudocimus albus White Ibis (many)
Cathartes aura Turkey Vulture (many)
Coragyps atratus Black Vulture (several)
Accipiter cooperii Cooper’s Hawk (at least 1 or 2)
Accipiter striatus Sharp-shinned Hawk ( at least 2 or 3)
Buteo jamaicensis Red-tailed Hawk (many)
Circus cyaneus Northern Harrier (many)
Haliaeetus leucocephalus Bald Eagle (several)
Falco sparverius American Kestrel (many)
Fulica americana American Coot (at least 1)
Rallus limicola Virginia Rail (several heard; at least 2 seen)
Charadrius semipalmatus Semipalmated Plover (at least 1)
Charadrius vociferus Killdeer (many)
Pluvialis squatarola Black-bellied Plover (many)
Haematopus palliatus American Oystercatcher (at least 2)
Recurvirostra americana American Avocet (many)
Arenaria interpres Ruddy Turnstone (several)
Calidris alba Sanderling (many)
Calidris alpina Dunlin (many)
Calidris canutus Red Knot (1)
Tringa flavipes Lesser Yellowlegs (many)
Tringa melanoleuca Greater Yellowlegs (many)
Tringa semipalmata Willet (many)
Chroicocephalus philadelphia Bonaparte’s Gull (several)
Larus argentatus Herring Gull (many)
Larus delawarensis Ring-billed Gull (many)
Larus marinus Great Black-backed Gull (many)
Leucophaeus atricilla Laughing Gull (many)
Sterna forsteri Forster’s Tern (many)
Thalasseus maximus Royal Tern (several)
Columba livia Rock Pigeon (many)
Zenaida macroura Mourning Dove (many)
Asio flammeus Short-eared Owl (1)
Megaceryle alcyon Belted Kingfisher (at least 2)
Colaptes auratus Northern Flicker (several)
Melanerpes carolinus Red-bellied Woodpecker (several)
Sayornis phoebe Eastern Phoebe (a few)
Corvus brachyrhynchos American Crow (many)
Corvus ossifragus Fish Crow (at least 1)
Cyanocitta cristata Blue Jay (at least 2)
Tachycineta bicolor Tree Swallow (many)
Poecile carolinensis Carolina Chickadee (several)
Cistothorus palustris Marsh Wren (at least 1)
Thryothorus ludovicianus Carolina Wren (several)
Troglodytes aedon House Wren (at least 1)
Turdus migratorius American Robin (several)
Dumetella carolinensis Gray Catbird (a few)
Mimus polyglottos Northern Mockingbird (many)
Sturnus vulgaris European Starling (many)
Bombycilla cedrorum Cedar Waxwing (several)
Setophaga coronata Yellow-rumped Warbler (many)
Melospiza melodia Song Sparrow (a few)
Passerculus sandwichensis Savannah Sparrow (many)
Zonotrichia albicollis White-throated Sparrow (at least 1 or 2)
Cardinalis cardinalis Northern Cardinal (a few)
Agelaius phoeniceus Red-winged Blackbird (many)
Quiscalus major Boat-tailed Grackle (many)
Sturnella magna Eastern Meadowlark (many)
Carpodacus mexicanus House Finch (a few)
Didelphis virginiana Virginia Opossum (many DOR en route) *
Ursus americanus American Black Bear (at least 6-7)
Procyon lotor Common Raccoon (several DOR) *
Mephitis mephitis Striped Skunk (1 adult DOR en route) *
Neovison [Mustela] vison Mink (1 adult female DOR) *
Urocyon cinereoargenteus Gray Fox (at least 1 or 2 DOR en route) *
Sciurus carolinensis Eastern Gray Squirrel (several alive and DOR)
Odocoileus virginianus White-tailed Deer (many alive and DOR, mostly en route)
Megaptera novaeangliae Humpback Whale (remains of 1 dead on beach) *
Fishes: at least 3
Amphibians: at least 5
Birds: at least 83
Mammals: at least 9
Authored by Curtis Smalling, Audubon North Carolina. Referring to Audubon North Carolina’s campaign to help the Brown-headed Nuthatch. Thanks to Wake Audubon members and friends for doing our part to make this happen.
We did it!
Together, we have put up 10,000 new Brown-headed Nuthatch nest boxes!
In 2013, we asked for your help to provide a good home for Brown-headed Nuthatches near you. Today, thanks to YOU, North Carolina has 10,000 more nest boxes to support this priority species.
This was a tremendous goal, and we met it in just two years! When Audubon North Carolina’s network comes together, we are able to make significant strides in bird conservation.
With amazing collaboration from individuals, Audubon Chapters, the Eastern Bluebird Rescue Group and bird stores across our state, we’ve been able to help this squeaky, southern bird find more places to call home and raise the next generation of nuthatches.
We met this amazing goal, but our work doesn’t stop at 10,000. As bird lovers, we need to create even more places for this squeaky little bird to call home as our state faces the growing impact of climate change.
During our campaign to put up more homes, we learned from Audubon’s Birds & Climate Change Report that 95% of the Brown-headed Nuthatch’s current summer range could be highly stressed by climate change by 2080. From 2 to 200 to 2,000 – every nest box installed helps build more bird-friendly communities across our state and helps this tiny southern bird find a home as our climate changes and their ranges shift.
Thank you again for welcoming the Brown-headed Nuthatch to your yard. Our southern hospitality is evident for this charming little bird.
DON’T REST NOW! We’ve still got more to do!
Now we need to monitor how all those nest boxes are being used. The next important step is to share your data! If you haven’t entered your nest box location online already, visit www.nestwatch.org. As breeding season gets going, enter data for any birds that nest in your box — House Wrens and Carolina Chickadees as well as Brown-headed Nuthatches. Even if you have only one or two observations to report, please share them so we can get a better idea of how our birds are doing. If you have trouble getting your data in, contact Kim Brand at email@example.com.