Brief History of Wake Audubon Society

“The Handbook of Bird Photography” A review by Bob Oberfelder

i May 7th No Comments by

Wake Audubon was contacted by Maggie Yates from Rocky Nook Inc. to see if anyone from the group was interested in reviewing a new book on bird photography, suitably called “The Handbook of Bird Photography” by Markus Varesvuo, Jari Peltomaki and Bence Mate. Ms. Yates sought someone with an interest in both birding and bird photography, so Gerry Luginbuhl suggested that I review this book. I shopped around to see if someone with more photography skills than those that I possess was interested in reviewing this book, but I found no takers. Once Ms. Yates sent me a free copy, and now that I have read this book, I am glad that I had the opportunity.
The purported goal of this book is to provide practical general tips for photographing birds with an emphasis on specific tips associated with photographing specific classes of birds, such as waterfowl, birds of prey (including eagles, hawks and owls) and fast flying, small passerines. Irrespective of the practical recommendations provided in this book, these three photographers have included a set of amazing photographs. The evidence is in and their techniques are clearly quite successful. The interesting poses, the exceptional clarity and the well-planned composition were all quite impressive. Unfortunately for me, the equipment that these photographers use to achieve these results runs in the 10s of thousands of dollars, an investment that is difficult to justify unless you are trying to make it a profession. It was, however, interesting to see how wide a variety of lenses were used successfully to take photographs with quite different perspectives. Bird photography often focuses on huge and extremely costly telephoto lenses but in this book they demonstrated very effective and engaging use of wide-angle lenses. Many of the photos shown in this book were taken in blinds and this is a technique that has permitted these photographers to achieve some awesome pictures. I did find it quite encouraging that they were also successful with using a car as a blind, a technique that I have also used successfully. Living and birding in North Carolina, it was a bit challenging for me to relate to the snowy conditions highlighted by some of their owl photographs.
In conclusion, I believe that this book deserves a look, if for no other reason than it has some spectacular photographs of birds. It provides good advice concerning strategies for successful bird photography. This advice extends to suggestions for specific locations around the world, advice about what the camera settings should be employed to achieve certain effects, and it describes useful strategies to employ to achieve certain kinds of photographs. The authors of this book clearly know their trade and have been successful in it. The book also succeeds both as a visual feast and as an instruction manual. One cannot learn to be a photographer from this book, but it certainly provides insights that will make you a better bird photographer.

April Showers Bring May Flowers

i Apr 17th No Comments by

By Annie Runyon

I found these longleaf cones (flowers) at Harris Lake this past week.

You can see the cluster of purple male cones (or catkins) above, and 2 female cones growing below the pointy growing tip of a new branch.

Our longleaf pine sprouted its first catkins in our yard this spring.

It has joined with all the other neighborhood pines, mostly loblolly and a few short leaf,

releasing clouds of bright yellow pollen into the air.

Now we know it is the tiny pollen grains from the oaks, red cedars and hickories that are likely causing our allergies … but the pine pollens are the bigger, showy ones that we notice. AND people are grumbling. POLLEN IS EVERYWHERE! This abundance assures these wind-pollinated trees that their cones will produce seeds, and that new tree seedlings will sprout.

Perhaps this generous dusting of protein-rich pollen seeping into the soil with April’s showers will also help to fertilize and nourish all of the surrounding plants. Perhaps pollen is a spring tonic for the whole forest.

2013 on the March

i Mar 8th No Comments by

By Jeff Beane

Holy cow—it’s March already.  If, like me, you’re wondering whatever happened to January and February, or to last year for that matter (or indeed, to the 1970s), you’d best get out there and start paying attention.  It may have been a cold month so far, but, speaking as one who has already lived through an embarrassingly large number of Marches, I can guarantee that it ain’t gonna stay that way for long.

Right now, Yellow Jessamine, Hepatica, and Trailing Arbutus are in bloom, Mink kits are being born, Great Horned Owls are feeding good-sized nestlings, and if the sun is shining you’ll see a Falcate Orangetip fluttering by if you’re not careful.  Purple Martins’ll be back any day now, Yellow-throated Warblers and Northern Rough-winged Swallows are already showing up, and as soon as there’s a warm day you’ll be seeing the first Eastern Tiger Swallowtails of the season.  Spotted Salamanders and most chorus frogs have already finished breeding, but you’ll still hear Spring Peepers on warm nights for the rest of the month.  American Toads and Pickerel Frogs started calling during that warm spell back in January, and they’ll finish their breeding as soon as it warms back up.  Several herring, shad, and sucker species have already begun their spring spawning runs.

In the Coastal Plain and Sandhills, the hardwood trees are starting to acquire leaves.  Tiger and Mabee’s salamanders have long since bred (in those places where there was enough water), and my telemetered Pine Snakes and Coachwhips will be emerging from their hibernacula any day now.  Southern Toads, Carpenter Frogs, and Southern Cricket Frogs are just about to start calling.  In just a week or two, Bachman’s Sparrows will be singing in the longleaf savannas.

In the Mountains?  Well, it’s still freezing up there, but the Wood Frogs snuck in their quick-and-dirty breeding season back during those January and February rains; you’ll have to look for their egg masses if you want to see them now.  Once the snow melts you might see a Bloodroot already blooming and hear a peeper or two (or even a Mountain Chorus Frog if you happen to be in Cherokee County and get really lucky with the weather).

If you don’t get out there soon, you’ll miss Trout Lilies completely, Eastern Cottontails will already have had their first litters, peak shorebird migration will be past, and you’ll miss the first emerging Luna Moths and the first returning Chimney Swifts.  Gray Fox pups are being born, too.  Before the end of the month, you’re going to be seeing bluets and violets blooming, Palamedes Swallowtails flying, and Brown-headed Nuthatches laying eggs.

If you start hearing Whip-poor-wills, Chuck-will’s-Widow’s, White-eyed Vireos, and Fowler’s Toads, you’ve probably already waited too long.  It’s basically April, dude (or dudette).

Of course, if you happen to be a crappie fisherman (or –woman) or a Gopher Frog biologist, you’re already out there and you know all this already.

You have to get out early in the year, and get down low to the ground, to see and smell the tiny flowers of Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens).  But it’s worth it.

Trees in the Coastal Plain are festooned with the blooms of Yellow Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) this time of year.  Just look.  Don’t eat.

Upland Chorus Frogs (Pseudacris feriarum) breed in temporary wetlands in winter.  If you haven’t heard them yet this year, you may have already missed them.

Right now is peak breeding season for the Carolina Gopher Frog (Rana [Lithobates] capito).  With most of its habitat long gone, many biologists believe this rare Longleaf Pine specialist is doomed in North Carolina.

A clutch of Brown-headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla) eggs in a small dead snag.  This tiny, charismatic bird’s philosophy is breed early and avoid the rush.

The beautiful and familiar Luna Moth (Actias luna) can have three broods a year in North Carolina.  The first one emerges this month.

If you want to see Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) in bloom this year, it’s time to start looking.  Even in good years, the flowers don’t last long.

What Hummingbirds Can Teach You

i Feb 26th No Comments by

In these cold winter months, it is important to have a positive mindset. Many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder, and the lack of sunshine can really take its toll. Sometimes a change of perspective is all it takes to bring a person out of the winter doldrums. Being a bird lover, I often think about things from the perspective of the winged creatures. This may seem a bit weird, but can bring about some interesting enlightenments.

(photo by Michael Hogan, posted on Cornell website)

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about hummingbirds and how thinking like them could improve our lives. Here are some reasons why.
Cleanliness and Confidence
Hummingbirds are meticulously clean to the point that if they were human, they would probably all be considered OCD. This is important for them because diseases spread amongst birds very easily. Cleaning themselves after feeding and bathing in commonly visited areas is a means of self-preservation. Good hygiene keeps them alive.
Perhaps because they are so clean and good looking, hummingbirds are also extremely confident. They defend their territory mercilessly. They mate by puffing out their chests and making wild displays. Hummingbirds know what they want and what is theirs and they fight for it.
Though hygiene may not be as much of a life or death issue for humans, it is still important. By maintaining healthy habits, you ensure that you stay healthy. When you’re healthy you’re usually happier. You also look better, which is an automatic confidence booster. It is important to exude confidence (but perhaps not to the hummingbird level of cockiness), and protect what is important to you.
Hummingbirds know where they’ve gotten food in the past, how long it takes flowers to refill and who is responsible for filling hummingbird feeders They are not only observant, but they keep that information for future use.
Intentionally committing useful information to memory can save a lot of time in our daily lives. As someone who gets lost regularly, I’ve been surprised how much of my “directionally challenged-ness” can be solved by paying attention to landmarks, directions, and using a map. This encourages me to remember how to get somewhere rather than just following directions by rote, which usually results in me getting lost the next time I try to find a place.
Fight for What Matters
As mentioned previously, hummingbirds are very territorial. They don’t allow themselves to be taken advantage of. Hummingbirds are very friendly, unless threatened. Likewise, be agreeable, but not a doormat. Stand up for your rights and your possessions. This assertiveness will earn you respect and a sense of security.
Make the most of your sleep
Hummingbirds are smart even with they sleep. They are able to reduce their metabolic rate and enter a deep sleep. In this state, they burn very little energy and can keep their body temperature at a near-hypothermic state. This allows them to save energy for the days, as well as survive in low temperatures.
It is important to maximize your sleep. It is proven that different people get maximum from sleep at different types. Most people benefit more from hours of sleep before midnight, though some people’s cycles are different. It is also important to prepare for sleep efficiently, by allowing yourself to wind down and minimize electronic contact before bed. It is also important to eliminate as many lights and sounds from your bedroom. This allows you to get the most benefit from your sleep and conserve energy for the next day.

Hummingbirds are known to be smart and beautiful creatures. They are respected by their fellow creatures and by humans. By taking their example, you can do a lot to improve your life. Are there other animals that you feel like you can learn from in daily life?

Submitted by Ernie Allison. Ernie loves nature and more specifically, he loves birds and wants to teach others how to appreciate them, too. In the winter, Ernie participates in several citizen science projects, mostly focusing on hummingbird migration patterns.

Pine Island Trip Report

i Feb 14th No Comments by

February Blog – Pine Island Trip Report
Our chapter’s first field trip to the North Carolina Outer Banks was a great success. Thirty-seven chapter members and friends attended the January 4-6th trip. The main building at the Pine Island Audubon Sanctuary is an old hunting lodge. Several participants stayed at the lodge and enjoyed the rustic but comfortable setting. Others stayed at a hotel across the street and drove over to the lodge for the Friday evening wine and cheese social (thanks to all who contributed food and drink). Saturday morning we again met at the lodge to hear about the history of the Pine Island Sanctuary property and about Audubon’s plans for modest upgrades to the lodge, parking and trails. The property will be a place for research and education focusing on the birds of the marsh.

A coyote loped across the lawn, ending our talk of plans for the lodge and sending us outside. We walked down to the marsh where Kingfishers and Great Blue Herons watched the serene beauty of the winter marsh landscape. After a short tour to the rest of the sanctuary we headed south to explore Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, the Bodie Island Lighthouse and adjacent pond, the Bonner Bridge area and the ocean, via the beach and pier.

A group went to the Pocosin Lakes Wildlife Refuge to view the Snow Geese and Tundra Swans coming in from their day of foraging in neighboring fields. On Sunday, some folks stopped at Lake Mattamuskeet. A great variety of ducks, thousands of Tundra Swans, an American Bittern, and White-crowned Night Herons were the highlights. Here is a list of the birds seen on Saturday.

Loon, Red-throated
Loon, Common
Grebe, Pied-billed
Grebe, Horned

Gannet, Northern
Pelican, Brown
Cormorant, Double-crested
Heron, Great Blue
Egret, Great

Egret, Snowy
Heron, Tricolored
Ibis, White
Swan, Tundra
Goose, Canada
Goose, Snow
Duck, Wood
Teal, Green-winged
Duck, American Black
Pintail, Northern
Teal, Blue-winged
Shoveler, Northern
Wigeon, American
Scoter, Black
Merganser, Hooded
Merganser, Red-breasted
Duck, Ruddy
Vulture, Black
Vulture, Turkey
Eagle, Bald
Harrier, Northern
Moorhen, Common
Coot, American
Avocet, American
Yellowlegs, Greater
Sandpiper, Purple (Oregon Inlet)
Gull, Ring-billed
Gull, Herring
Gull, Great Black-backed
Tern, Caspian
Tern, Forster’s

Dove, Mourning
Pigeon (Dove, Rock)
Kingfisher, Belted
Crow, Fish
Crow, American
Chickadee, Carolina
Wren, Carolina
Wren, Marsh
Kinglet, Golden-crowned
Robin, American
Mockingbird, Northern
European Starling
Warbler, Yellow-rumped
Warbler, Palm
Yellowthroat, Common
Cardinal, Northern
Sparrow, Chipping
Sparrow, Savannah
Junco, Dark-eyed
Blackbird, Red-winged
Meadowlark, Eastern
Grackle, Boat-tailed
Finch, House

Thanks to Bob Oberfelder, one of our Wake Audubon trip participants, for sharing some of his photographs. To view more of his photographs from this trip, see the Wake Audubon Meet-up site, past trips.

Gerry Luginbuhl, President, Wake Audubon Society

Birthday Adventure of a Perpetual Wanderer

i Sep 20th No Comments by

Having been in the area just short of four years, I have spent much of my spare time exploring what North Carolina and Southern Virginia have to offer.  This year, for my birthday weekend (the big 3-5), I decided to venture a little farther North to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.  This choice resulted in one of the best trips of the year and in finding one of my new favorite places!  A fellow member of my hiking group accompanied me on this trip to unchartered territory, but we were well researched; armed with countless trail maps and trip reviews from the internet, and a very full agenda!  Our home for the long weekend was Big Meadows, right off of Skyline Drive.

Unbeknownst to me, Skyline Drive is a continuation of the Blue Ridge Parkway and is every bit as beautiful.  While there seem to be less sweeping views of the mountain ranges, there are still a lot of overlooks where you can pull off.  Despite the fact that it was late August, the wildflowers were still plentiful as well.

Perhaps due to the heavier canopy, I saw far more wildlife in three passes on Skyline than I ever have on the BRP.  We certainly learned quickly why the maximum posted speed is 35mph.  Aside from the twisting and turning of the road itself (which is in great shape with fabulous rock walls lining much of the drive), seemingly suicidal deer are plentiful.  These four-legged friends are quite tame, likely due to exposure to tourists like ourselves, and did not spook easily.  This was sad to us, but great for photo ops and entertainment at the campground.

While the deer were our most frequent sightings (and hazards) along the drive, particularly in the fog and at dusk, Skyline Drive was also the setting for my very first black bear sighting as well as an encounter with some unruly turkeys.

I did note that we did hit the area trails, right?  The hiking within Shenandoah National Park did not disappoint either!  On Friday, we hiked the White Oak Canyon/Cedar Run circuit which was a strenuous 8 miles or so with significant elevation gain, but very much worth the effort.  There are over six waterfalls along the trail, but unfortunately the water flow was fairly minimal.  Within our first couple of miles, we encountered a rare, midday bat sighting.  While the orange substance on/around the ears didn’t resemble and photos I had seen of white-nose syndrome, we were not sure if the little guy was sick or not, so we were sure to keep our distance.  We also found what I later researched and believe to be a white-spotted slimy salamander.  This little guy was actually a pretty good size, I would guess about 5 inches long.  This hike also provided us with the opportunity to be startled several times!  In waiting for my counterpart near a large rock outcropping, I almost wandered dangerously close (for my comfort anyway!) to a fairly good sized copperhead before spotting it.  Luckily, it seemed quite comfortable and didn’t react poorly to my presence or proximity.  A short while down the trail, we also had to zip past a ground hive of bees of some sort.  They seemed content in going about their business as well and left us alone, as we did them.  This had turned out to be quite the adventure and it was only day 1!

-Justine Homiak, Wake Audubon Board Member

Why Bird?

i Sep 4th No Comments by

Someone once asked me why I found birding so appealing. Three reasons came very quickly to mind. The first was that it gave me an excellent reason to get outdoors–the windows in my home do not lend themselves very well to seeing the birds on my feeders from inside, so if I really want to see them I must go outside. “Outside,” of course, covers a vast, vast area, so essentially birds open up the world to the energetic and the curious. My second reason was aesthetic. Birds provide access–sometimes easy and other times difficult–to one of nature’s most splendid displays of beauty in terms of color, form, and activity. Few things are more beautiful than migrating geese silhouetted against a full moon or warblers skittering about a tree canopy like erratic Christmas ornaments. The third reason I offered was the intellectual interest that birds generate. Throughout his recent talk to the Carolina Bird Club, renown writer on birds, Scott Weidensaul, repeated his principle theme that “birds do amazing things.” The literature and film stemming from the study of the “amazing things” birds do as well as the intrinsic interest that individual birds and species possess fills libraries and archives. One person could never read or view all of it. This was my spontaneous response to the question I was asked. So, I would ask you. What is it about birds and birding that appeals to you? I look forward to reading your responses in this space.

-John Little, Wake Audubon Board Member

Young Naturalists For Nightjars

i Jul 23rd No Comments by

Young Naturalists For Nightjars
By Sean Higgins

Nightjars, including whip-poor-wills, chuck-will’s widows and common nighthawks, are some of our most bizarre and mysterious birds. Their nocturnal habits, long migrations and cryptic colors make it difficult for biologists to fully understand their habitats and populations. Ten young naturalists helped by joining a nationwide citizen science survey through the Center for Conservation Biology. This required a nature convoy by moonlight on one very hot summer night.

June 28th, 2012. 8:30 pm – 11:30 pm.
We rendezvoused at Pelican’s SnoBalls in Apex for a briefing on the scientific protocol while enjoying ice cream and dill pickle-flavored snow cones. From there we drove along the east side of Jordan Lake in Chatham County.
We stopped every mile to get out and listen for the cooing calls of nightjars. A chorus of katydids, green frogs and eastern spadefoot toads filled the humid air – but no nightjars. At times, we wondered if we heard whip-poor-wills deep in the distance – but then dismissed it as our ears playing tricks. At one stop we thought we spooked a gaggle of geese, only to discover young adults enjoying a nighttime swim.
For our final survey stop, we pulled onto a gravel drive between two straw fields flanked by forest. We listened intently in all directions for a full six minutes as the protocol required. Alas, we’d been shut out. As we gathered together for one final debrief, I tried to minimize the group’s disappointment.
“Our result of no birds is just as important to the conservation study as if we’d heard a dozen”, I said reassuringly. “Remember that it’s the combined data in all 48 states over several decades that allows scientists to…”

“Did you hear that?”, a young naturalist shouted. “There’s a second one over there”, shouted another. “Can we count them in the study?”
I explained that we could NOT count these late comers in our official results, but we could make a side note of their late appearance. It was a fitting end to an unusual evening – perhaps a commentary on the shadowy nature of nightjars!

Wake Audubon’s Young Naturalist Club is a group of 12-18 year olds, their families and volunteers who join together for monthly wildlife excursions and service projects across the state. Learn more at

Interesting Blog

i Jul 20th No Comments by

Read about an interesting new study on Lincoln’s Sparrows’ songs from Discover Magazine’s Ed Yong. The researchers are right here at UNC-Chapel Hill!

Bird Nesting in NC

i Jun 14th No Comments by

One of the most alluring behaviors about birds is that of building a nest. This is obviously a fundamentally important task for most bird species, and it is equally important for us to understand the nesting process of each species if we are to make sound conservation decisions. Most of us love an “Easter Egg hunt”, and as a bird biologist, I love sleuthing around the woods and fields for bird nests – I’m sure it’s the thrill of the hunt, and I’m lucky to be able to play out my childhood afflictions in my adult, professional life. I have been recording nest data on North Carolina birds for over 20 years. I’m continually surprised at how little we know, still, about a number of the species that breed in our State.

On the one hand, there are programs to monitor certain groups of birds, such as those we call “colonial nesting waterbirds”, like the coastal-breeding terns, or egret, species. On the other, there are still a number of species for which we have almost no nest data; or, those which we have are 100+ years old. I study the breeding biology of a few species, but when engaged in my projects, or on public field trips, I keep an eye out for any nest behaviors. This past spring, I and the Museum’s bird collections manager Brian O’Shea, came across a dozen or more nests, two of which were “firsts” for me, others nearly new for me, and others just plain neat to view.  Included here are some observation notes about some of these nests, and some photos, when we could get those.

First things first.

Worm-eating Warbler  (WEWA) – this Neotropical migrant species is now a “species of concern” in the Southeast, as it appears to be declining in numbers.  I have found birds carrying food before, which most birds do when feeding nestlings somewhere; but I was unable to follow those birds to the nests. In mid- May of this year, while studying some breeding Black-throated Green warblers in the Uwharrie mountains region, I again came upon an adult carrying food. This time, I was able to hide far enough away, yet still watch the adults, and figure out where they were going with the food. It took over an hour, because they were weary, and on the slope of a ravine that was partially obscured from me. This species nests on the ground, and often at the base of some vegetation. There was little vegetation in the area to where the pair kept going, and I was able to locate my first Worm-eating Warbler nest underneath an overhanging “soffit” of dirt/moss, near the base of one of the few Mountain laurels on the hillside. The nest contained 3 babies, which were beginning to “feather out”. I quickly took some pictures and kept moving.

Later, when reviewing the images, I realized that the front nestling was a Brown-headed Cowbird. This species lays its eggs in other birds’ nests, leaving the host to raise any cowbird that hatches out. Often, the cowbird eggs hatch first, and those babies grow quicker than any host young, and as such, the host young often perish (or are literally tossed out of the nest by the baby cowbird). In this case, I guess because the nest was on the ground, although the cowbird certainly looks larger, the two warbler nestlings look healthy enough, and my guess is that all of them eventually fledged. I was unable to go back and check. It was a surprise to see a cowbird chick because the nest site was within a very large patch of fairly mature forest.  But we have learned over the past few decades that cowbirds do penetrate miles into such deep woods, and they are masters at finding other species nests, especially ground nesters.

Worm-Eating Warbler Nest with Cowbird Nestling

Blackburnian Warbler (BLBW) – on June 5, 2012, Brian and I, along with Marilyn Westphal and Mark Simpson, were scouting along the Big Butt Trail just west of Mt. Mitchell, assessing the feasibility of studying Veery and Hermit Thrush along this trail. Along the way, I spotted a female Blackburnian with food, and instinctively hollered “she’s got an active nest somewhere nearby, follow that bird!”  Well, perhaps a bit overly dramatic, but this was to be my first nest for this species, anywhere, and certainly one of the few documented for NC. Within a minute, this female flew to the end of a Red Spruce branch about 30’ up, and Brian announced “I have it.” And indeed, just like that, there it was, a small blob of plant fibers tucked into the leafy, terminal sprigs of a spruce tree.  It was too high to determine the number of young or their age, but still an exciting find for us.  And just as exciting (or perhaps more to some) were the many male Blackburnians we saw along a one-mile section of this trail.  Attached images are a female foraging in red spruce/fraser fir.  This migratory species heads to South America after the breeding season.

Blackburnian Warbler Female Foraging

Seconds, anyone?

Winter Wren (WIWR) – soon after finding the above warbler, we began our way back to the parked car. As we approached a large, upturned root ball, a small brown object gently fluttered past me.  I had found only one Winter Wren nest before, about 20 years earlier, but in the same “root ball” situation (and they are well-known for nesting in such sites).  I was sure it had a nest somewhere underneath but upon kneeling found it to be rather dark and more spacious than I’d thought, as the root ball had an overhanging “porch roof” of nearly two feet. But Brian had his headlamp along, and with his help, I quickly spotted the classic globe of moss that makes up a typical winter wren nest – and noted the other typical feature, that of feathers lining the inside. Brian determined that there were 6 eggs inside. It’s a large nest given the birds’ size, with a side entrance; and I imagine that the thick layer of moss, plus those feathers, provide for nice insulation on those cold mountain nights, which extend into late June (in NC, Winter wrens breed from 3000-the top of Mt. Mitchell). The forecast for the coming night was for lows in the upper 40’s, and remember, this was June 5th.

Winter Wren Nest

House Wren (HOWR) – when I returned home to Raleigh on June 8, the wren eggs in the nest box alongside our driveway had just hatched. This nest contained 6 eggs as well. House and Winter wrens weigh in at about 10g or less, and I still have a hard time understanding how they can even attempt to raise 6 young, let alone lay 6 eggs.  Both of these species are in the same genus, Troglodytes, which translates to “cave dweller” and are what we call “short distance” migrants – they essentially do not go south of the border.

Black-and-white Warbler (BAWW) – I had another bit of positional luck in the Uwharries this spring. On May 8 we were trying to capture another Black-throated Green Warbler for our study of that species, and when we sat down some 10 m from the mist net, we saw some activity to our right. There was an adult female Black-and-white, with a big wad of food in her beak. By now, you know my reaction to such sightings! She was quite close to us, less than 10 m, clinging to the side of a small tree that was part of a group of 3 smallish trees. This species is also a ground-nester, so I was sure she had a nest at the base of one of those trees, and indeed, she did.  BAWW’s do not seem to be as shy around the nest as some other species. Within a few minutes we had captured the Black-throated Green we were after, and I moved our banding operation a bit further away, but only about 12 m from the nest site. She, and soon after her mate, immediately began going to the nest, feeding the 5 nestlings.  The nestlings seemed to be about 5 days old, and in this species, fledge at about 9 days old. Indeed, I returned on May 14 and saw one fledgling following the adult female, and being fed by her, about 15 m from the nest site.  This is only the 3rd nest of this species that I have found, although I have often seen adults carrying food for nestlings.

Black-and-White Warbler Babies

Wood Thrush (WOTH) – there is much concern about the fate of this Neotropical migratory species these days, as population numbers have plummeted over the past few decades. In urban areas, this species still occurs but is usually a host for Brown-headed cowbirds. Thus, in any area, we are interested in how it fares during the breeding season. As indicated already, cowbirds are found even within large areas of mature forest. On May 7, again while tracking a Black-throated Green Warbler on Daniel Mountain in the Uwharries region, I happened to look to my right and spy that suspicious form in a small mountain laurel alongside the trail. A closer peek revealed a female sitting tight in her nest. I was able to climb the bank and get on level with the nest, and even slightly above, and take some images of her –a veritable “birds-eye view”.  When I retreated and went back down to the trail, she bolted. My guess is that she knew she had been found, but was not going to risk any movement, and thus detection, while I was looking at her.  Thus, as soon as I took my eyes off of her to go back to the trail, she felt safe to make her escape. At that point I decided to go back and see the contents, again to determine if there were any cowbird eggs or not.  As you can see from the image, they were all Wood Thrush eggs. You may be surprised by how similar they are to a Robin’s egg – well, a Robin is in the thrush family and thus these two species are closely related. (Bluebirds are also thrushes). I was back in the Wood Thrush area on May 16th, and with the help of a mirror determined that the eggs had hatched and the young appeared about 3 days old. I did not want to disturb the nest area any more so did not climb the bank again to take any more photos.

Wood Thrush Nest and Eggs

Dark-eyed Junco (DEJU) – this species requires no luck at all to find its nest, nor hardly any effort. Indeed, it’s when you don’t find one after spending a few minutes in the mountains above 3500’ that you should begin to worry. So, what’s the big deal then? A couple things. For one, when we can acquire a lot of data about an animal, we can better track changes over time. Thus, it’s prudent to also keep recording nest data for at least some of our more common species, across their range (whether that be elevational, like a junco, or longitudinal, like towhees). Another is to document a range of behaviors. The Dark-eyed Junco is typically a ground nester, usually doing so underneath a dirt overhand along a road or trail, where some herbaceous cover hangs over as well.

In early June, Brian and I were capturing Hermit thrushes along the Pearly Crockett road, just south of Mt. Mitchell.  As I backed away from our mist net, I brushed a very small red spruce sapling, and out flew a junco. Naturally, I peeled back a branch, and there was a nice, rather large-for-a-junco nest, with 3 eggs. Some images are included. Juncos are known to build nests off the ground, but it’s uncommon. I have seen a lot of Junco nests on the ground, but they were never as large as this one, and I suppose being off the ground means you need a little more insulation. I carry a measuring tape with me, and this nest was 1 m above the ground; the inside diameter was 6 cm, the depth of the cup was 3 cm, and the overall width of the nest was 12 cm. But the side that faced the outer part of the tree was broader; that is, the nest width on that side was twice the width of the part that faced the sapling trunk; I think of these as landing pads for an approaching bird (we often saw this in the many Swainson’s warbler nests we measured).  Later on down the road we found a rowdy flock of teenaged juncos, at least 10 juveniles about a month out of their various nests.  I swear juncos nest all year round!  They are one of the most prolific breeders I know.

Dark-eyed Junco Nest with Eggs

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (YBSA) – while on our annual mountain birding trip, May 18-20, we came across quite a few nests of various species. In NC, sapsuckers are a rare breeder in the mountains at various scattered locations, between 3000-5000’ elevation. I studied nesting sapsuckers for a few years, with several colleagues, at 3 sites, including Moses Cone Park. Our now-annual trip includes a morning at Trout Lake in the Cone Park and I cannot resist looking for my beloved sapsuckers and any nests. Indeed, they seem to come looking for me, although it’s been 6 years.  During our study, we found that they preferred nesting in dead snags within live red or sugar maples, or black locusts. But this year, along Trout Lake, I found two active nests and both were in dead black birch trees.  Mid-May is when the adults are incubating.

During our study we were able to use a camera mounted on a pole that extended up to 55’ and thus we were able to document clutch size. In the first year, we got data on over 25 clutches and all were of 6 eggs. In the second year, there were two snow storms in late April which is right before they begin laying, and in that year, all the clutches were of 5 eggs. Cause and effect? We don’t know, but I’m suspicious.  And how does one know when a cavity some 30 or 50’ up is “active”, without the camera? In both cases, we witnessed an incubation “exchange” – in sapsuckers, and apparently most woodpeckers, males take the night shift, so during our morning sojourn we apparently had just the right timing, as the females came in to check on things, and the males departed.  That’s certainly one good way to keep your man from staying out too late at night and boozing it up (on fermented birch sap “beer” no less…..).

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Nest Cavity

Empidonax flycatchers – for years Curtis Smalling has observed two species of this genus – Least and Willow flycatchers – nesting at the Valle Crucis Community Park. This is one of our stops on our spring mountain birding trip. This year, we found females of both species building a nest. Most interesting was the Willow, which was just beginning the process.  There were only a few strands of plant fibers draped over a small branch, in the early afternoon of the 18th. She must have begun right after “lunch”.  Four species of Empidonax flycatchers nest in NC: Least, Alder, Willow, and Acadian.  But there are few reports of any Empidonax flycatcher nests for NC.  At Valle Crucis, we also found another small flycatcher, the Eastern Wood-pewee sitting on a nest, apparently incubating.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (RTHU) – although many nests of this species have been found throughout the southeast, one never gets tired of seeing another. Indeed, I think I’ve only seen ~10 in my life. On our mountain trip, Brian outdid himself by finding not one, but TWO nests; one at Trout Lake, and the other at Valle Crucis. The VC nest is shown here, and was “in construction”. The TL nest was done and the female was incubating/brooding, nicely shown in the image.  In hummingbirds, once courtship and mating has taken place, the female does the rest, building the nest, and raising the young. And she holds her own territory to do so, driving away conspecifics, including males.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird on Nest

Cedar Waxwing (CEDW) – in NC, this species nests primarily in our mountains, with occasional reports in other parts of the State.  On May 18 we found a pair building a nest alongside the parking lot of the Cone Manor House, at the Moses Cone park.  We watched the female make several trips, bringing soft plant fibers with which to line the nest. Each time, the male would follow and watch over the activity. The nest site was only about 35’ above us, and we had a great view.

Other nests we found on our mountain trip: Yellow Warbler (YEWA), Red-breasted Nuthatch (RBNU), Baltimore Oriole (BAOR).

Yellow Warbler in Flight

Red-breasted Nuthatch at Nest Site

Baltimore Oriole

Great Crested Flycatcher (GCFL) – this flycatcher is another Neotropical migrant, and a cavity-nesting species. They use “previously owned” cavities. It is a species that returns to our area in late April, but for some reason, I have found numerous times where they returned to our neighborhood at this time in west Raleigh, but began nesting in late May or early June. Most birds begin nesting soon after returning from their “winter” quarters. Such was the case this past Sunday, June 9th, in our front yard. I was out doing some gardening, when down came a female, spiraling right to the ground.  I seldom see them go to the ground for food – rather, it’s almost always for nest material. Of course, I wanted to holler out, “she must be collecting nest material!” but sadly, no one was around to hear me.

Nonetheless, she did begin picking up pine needles and some oak leaves, and then flew up to a snag in our neighbor’s tall Loblolly Pine. I was a bit disappointed, because last Fall I had hung a bird box with a hole specifically for Great Crested Flycatcher; and she flew right past that box and on up!  This species has nested in other boxes of ours, twice, over the past few years. But not this time. Perhaps the “candy peanut orange” paint job dissuaded her.  On the other hand, it’s hard to compete with the site she chose:  an old Red-bellied Woodpecker nest, with an east-facing entrance, and 17m (55 feet) up (HINT for the man who has everything: I LOVE my new laser range finder!).  This species requires a hole slightly larger than that used by/for bluebirds, should you wish to try for a GCFL pair of your own.

Great-crested Flycatcher in Nestbox

Red-shouldered Hawk – we have had an active nest just a few houses away, all spring. On June 11th, the nest appeared empty, and it would make sense – the nest has contained only one nestling and it’s been growing fast (young of this species often fledge later in June).  Young of this and related hawks, like the familiar Red-tailed, usually venture out among nearby branches as they mature, but I was unable to find this one youngster on the 12th, anywhere in the tree. Then on the 13th it was back in the nest. I watched it for about 15 minutes, while taking some photos, and it did indeed take one walk out along one branch, spent a few minutes looking around, and then walked back onto the edge of the nest. This species usually lays more than one egg, 3-4, and the female likely did. From the looks I got of her, and her eyes, she seemed to be a younger adult. The eyes still had a fair amount of yellow, whereas the older birds, those 3+ years, have dark eyes. The nest is way up in a very tall Sweetgum tree, and yes, I was elated to have my laser range finder in hand for this one!  The nest clocks in at ~85 feet (26-27m).  Now, that’s a room with a view.

Red-shouldered Hawk Nestling

And what about that study of breeding Black-throated Green warblers? Well, we had some radio transmitters on a few males, and although my field technician found one of the males feeding fledglings (already out of the nest), we never did find a nest. The same thing happened last year. I’ve only found one nest ever, and that was near Mt. Pisgah. It was about 60’ up in a Chestnut Oak tree, near the tip of a long branch, typical for this species and others like it (e.g. Blackburnian).   The thrill is on……..

– John Gerwin, Curator of Birds, Museum of Natural Sciences

Photo credits:


RTHU, YEWA – Dan Harvey

BAOR, RBNU – Sue Harvey

WIWR – Brian O’Shea