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]
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.
Many of us in Wake Audubon submitted comments on the proposals for the Bonner Bridge replacement and associated up-grades to the existing highway 12 route along the outer banks, several years ago. Our interests stemmed from the fact that highway 12 runs along the coast, and through a National Wildlife Refuge, and was constantly washing out. This has resulted in a lot of DOT funds spent over the years to repair the road, and thus, a lot of impact on the refuge and on local traffic.
This project affects the southern portion of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and the Rodanthe area. An Environmental Assessment was done in 2012 or so, and the first EA report released in December 2013. More comments were received and this month, a new report was released, indicating a new “preferred” alternative.
The original report recommended replacing the original bridge pretty much in the same place, but many of us and many folks in the Rodanthe area disagreed. The new recommendation is to build a new bridge in Pamlico Sound, to the west of the current Highway 12.
This new bridge location would minimize impacts to the wildlife refuge, the ocean/shore beach, the Rodanthe community and submerged aquatic vegetation in the sound. This new preferred alternative has the support of federal and state environmental and regulatory agencies and the residents of Rodanthe.
As proposed in this new plan, the part of Highway 12 within the current refuge would be removed, and that land returned to the Refuge management. Some of the original road would remain to allow access by local Rodanthe residents.
If you would like to read more, or see maps, about this project, please visit the following website:
During our last field trip to the outer banks we saw many birds. Here are photos by Bob Oberfelder.
Authored by John Gerwin
“Can you tell me what kind of bird nest this is?” Brian and I get that question a fair amount as part of our jobs as bird researchers and educators at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. The question usually comes with a photo. Recently, I received an email and photo of a nest in one of those typical “corner of the carport roof areas”. The homeowners could not get a look at the birds. But the nest was made with a lot of sticks, along with some colorful pieces of plastic. In our urban areas, birds have adapted well, or taken a real liking to, plastic of any sort, but the colored pieces stand out and always make me smile.
About a week ago, a neighbor flagged me down, and had the same question.
There are really four “usual suspects” that build a nest on our houses (the more rude ones just barge right in). These are: Carolina Wren, House Finch, American Robin, and Eastern Phoebe. On occasion, I hear of Mourning Doves building their clumsy stick nests on a window ledge (often with poor results).
In those housing developments, somewhere between urban and rural, we find yet another porch possibility – the Barn Swallow, which makes a nest mostly of mud. No sooner had I typed this, when I received an email from a homeowner in a new subdivision in Wake Forest, asking for advice on “controlling” a pair of Barn Swallows nesting on the small ledge overhanging their front door (advice: they need their own “mud room”).
The photo that started this note, of the nest of sticks and plastic, looked like a House Finch to me and when the homeowner was finally able to get some photos of the birds, my assessment proved to be correct (see photo).
Wren nests are bulky things of mostly dead leaves (pine or hard wood) lined with dead grasses. One image of a wren nest is included. There are variations! Robin nests are mud, wrapped in dried grasses.
Recently, a co-worker brought a nest to my office that was nothing but pink threads! An entrepreneurial bird had found a young girls’ sweater on a clothesline somewhere and figured a way to unravel quite a bit of it and make a nest. It had the size and shape of a chickadee nest. And chickadees are very fond of something soft and fuzzy – their nests are made mostly of moss. I had to attach an image.
I know a few other birds that use moss. One, the Northern Parula (warbler) will build its nest inside Spanish moss – wait, that’s a trick statement. Spanish moss is not a moss but a flowering plant in these parts (a bromeliad, actually). Parulas to the west of where Spanish moss occurs (e.g. in the Uwharries) will weave a moss look-alike – Long-beard Lichen – into the outer walls of the nest. This warbler is a forest bird and where water is present, it will often be found alongside it (and a couple folks reported some migrants this spring and I’ve had one in the garden out back in the fall).
Another urban bird that uses true moss, like the chickadee, is the Eastern Phoebe. This is a member of the flycatcher family, which is a mostly tropical group of birds. The name derives from its call, which to many sounds like “fee bee”, and to others, (like me), “Free beer”. Of course, accents vary across the range of any singing/calling bird. The Phoebe call is rather “gruff” or raspy sounding, whereas the Chickadee, which also makes a “fee bee” song in the spring, does so in a pure, clear tone.
And now let’s help my neighbor. I did not even have to look on her porch (but I did anyway of course). I had been scoping out her porch for the past few days as I mowed her lawn, because I had seen a Phoebe go back and forth from the bridge over our stream on Ravenwood, to her house. In the really old days, phoebes nested on rock ledges. In due time, they adopted bridges and these days pretty much any bridge over water, troubled or not, will host a phoebe nest. And today, many a kiosk and front porch are also host to a pair of nesting phoebes. To be honest, I had assumed the bird was nesting under the bridge but I was perplexed by its constant returns to the bannister of her porch.
But there it was, in the porch corner (see photos). On April 29, the nest seemed nearly complete. On May 1, it was still empty and if it were complete, that’d be no surprise. Often a female bird will finish building a nest, and then spend several days fattening up in order to have all the nutrition she’ll need to lay 3-5 eggs– imagine! (Fattening up that is, on purpose).
The Phoebe is both dull and adorable, which I guess, makes it Adullable. I really can’t stress enough how “quiet” the plumage is. I have attached some pictures for you to see for yourself (both an adult, and a young one just a few weeks old, and some nestlings about to take their first flight). It is similar in shape/size/appearance to another (dull) flycatcher called the Eastern Wood Pewee (which also gets its name from its call). I have also attached two pics of that species. The Pewee is a forest bird, either pine, hardwood, or mixed, but you need a good-sized patch to find one during the breeding season (like Umstead Park).
The Phoebe is a short-distance migrant, if one migrates at all. If the water in its feeding area does not freeze, many of them will hang around all winter. During hard freezes, they seem to have the ability to move to open water areas, and survive. We do not understand how this occurs (Robins do the same thing). What is interesting is that many flycatchers, including phoebes, become frugivorous (fruit-eating) in the fall and winter. But because they still seem to like to have some open water around, they must be eating some bugs as well. Each fall we find one helping itself to some of the Beautyberries in our front yard over here.
An interesting tidbit is that the phoebe was the first “banded” bird. John James Audubon tied some silvered thread to several birds on his property in Pennsylvania in 1804 and the next year, one returned.
Pewees are a long-distance migrant. They head to South America for the most part. And they remain insectivorous.
If you are interested in hosting a “ledge”-nesting bird, you can try building a nest shelf, with the plans I have included. There are numerous websites devoted to attracting and identifying birds these days, but one very useful one is www.allaboutbirds.org .
Finally, one other urban, and house-inhabiting flycatcher is the Great Crested Flycatcher. This is one of the “rude” ones. If you have an exhaust pipe for say, your dryer, and you don’t use the dryer much in late April/May when these birds return, one might build a nest in it. But this and other species that may nest within our homes, are fodder for another article.
By Bob Oberfelder
How good do your bird photos need to be? Yes, I know this is a topic for endless debate and it is a debate I constantly have with myself. This blog will NOT definitively answer this question, I am writing merely to define the issue a bit more clearly. It is important to decide what the purpose of your picture will be. If you want a crystal clear photo that can be made into a poster size print, you had better have first rate camera equipment, plenty of mega pixels, lots of time to engineer the perfect shot and good light so you can shoot with low ISO settings. This kind of perfection is available to only a few with the requisite time, money, interest and incentive. Now it is time to set realistic goals. Crisp 8X10 inch pictures are readily accessible with a decent camera (some point and shoot cameras will do just fine) a bit of skill finding the subject of choice, and decent light conditions to make an appealing photo. Many of us, myself included, are capable of achieving this level of success. The real purpose of this blog is to advocate for a different level of photographic success.
Many of us are competent birders for common species and for bright and distinctive spring plumages. The problem comes when you see something that is a rare bird, an immature bird, or a bird with a plumage that is between the plumages shown in the guidebooks. This is perhaps one of the most useful arenas in which to use photography. Photography can be used as a critical tool for improving your identification skills and for documenting rare or unusual species. For these objectives, first-rate photos are often not necessary (desirable, yes, essential, no.)
A recent trip to Mid Pines Road illustrates this point. This road is surrounded by North Carolina State University land and it often harbors rare and interesting species. (Mid Pines Road connects Wheeler Road and Tryon Road and it is near Historic Yates Mill County Park.) I spent a bit of time taking photos of the Wake Audubon Bird of the Year, the Field Sparrow and Horned Larks were present there as well. Neither of these species is particularly unusual for Mid Pines Road. I did, however, encounter a bird that was clearly a falcon, and I was uncertain about the identity of this bird. The most reasonable options for that area were an American Kestrel, a Merlin, or Peregrine Falcon. It was very far away, perhaps 1000 feet from where I was standing and I had no opportunity to get closer. I decided that the only option was to take some crummy pictures and forward them to my go-to local experts Erla Beegle and John Gerwin. A couple of crummy photos were enough for Erla and John to both proclaim it a Peregrine Falcon. This kind of photo may not be worth a thousand words, but you might be able to get a bird ID out of it. John says that it is often possible to identify a bird with one or more crummy photographs (good photos are always better) so he advocates taking pictures, even lousy ones, of unusual or hard to identify birds so you have a chance to identify them. This is an approach I have sometimes used and perhaps should use more often. It is a way to learn to identify challenging birds and may even be sufficient to document truly rare birds.