By Fred J. Eckert
If you live in or near Raleigh you are an easy drive away from the largest bird park in North America and largest waterfowl park in the world.
Did you realize that? Few do.
The scarlet ibis inhabits tropical South America and islands of the Caribbean.
I didn’t – not until just recently when my wife Karen and I discovered and visited Sylvan Heights Bird Park, located in the tiny northeast North Carolina rural town of Scotland Neck (pop. 2,000), a bit east of Rocky Mount between Tarboro and Roanoke Rapids on NC Route 258. It was only about an hour and a half or so drive from our home in North Raleigh, meaning it’s an easy day trip from anywhere in Wake County.
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.
The knob-billed duck, also known as a comb duck, is found in tropical wetlands in several areas of the world – sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar, in Asia from southern China and Laos to Pakistan and in areas of South America, including Brazil, Paraguay and northern Argentina.
There is no other place in the country quite like Sylvan Heights 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. 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, we 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 during the early months of the year, 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.
The photos I’ve submitted to illustrate this feature give you a taste of the sorts of birds and waterfowl you will see, but to try to give you a better feel I’ve created a slide show video using images I took there. To watch it click on A Visit to Sylvan Heights Bird Park. You will be asked to enter a password. Enter: Birds. Capital B then lower case.
Authored by John Gerwin
The now-annual spring (mid-May) mountain birding trip, co-sponsored by Wake Audubon and the Museum of Natural Sciences, was another fantastic weekend of bird-watching. We were not-so-pleasantly surprised to wake up on Saturday morning to a temperature of 37 degrees! And again it was mid-May. But that is how it is in the “northern” mountains of NC.
Bobolink in flight. Photo by Dan and Sue Harvey
We left Friday morning, and our first birding stop was at a familiar hayfield along the Blue Ridge Parkway where a dozen or more Bobolinks have been breeding for nearly a decade. This year the winds were high which made for some great views of males doing their aerial courtship display flights, and chases of both males and females. Those same winds made it impossible to hear any sparrows that might have been singing – we suspect no self-respecting sparrow was even trying. We next headed to our hotel, the Holiday Inn Express (which gives our group a super low rate for this time of year).
Dark-eyed Junco female with nest material. Photo by Dan and Sue Harvey
On Saturday morning, the 23 of us headed for Trout Lake trails at Moses Cone Memorial Park. Here we found various warblers, such as Black-throated Blue, Canada, Hooded, Chestnut-sided and Blackburnian. We watched a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers at their nest, feeding young, and an adorable Junco with nest material in its beak that looked like Witch’s Broom material – wispy, reddish-brown strands of something, nearly as long as the bird.
Baltimore Oriole. Photo by Dan and Sue Harvey
We headed to the Valle Crucis Community Park for lunch and after-lunch birding. This site is wonderful for finding some cool birds that are then easy to view, such as Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, Cedar Waxwing, Least and Willow Flycatchers, Yellow Warbler, and this year, a Yellow-throated Vireo at near eye level and a mere 30’ away when found and first watched.
Scarlet Tanager. Photo by Dan and Sue Harvey
On Sunday we spend the morning hours at a pullover just west of Elk Knob State Natural Area. Here we found Golden-winged Warbler and more Chestnut-sided Warblers, American Redstart, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Scarlet Tanager, and Common Raven. We then went into the Park to rustle up a few more species. After this we headed up the Blue Ridge Parkway to Jeffress Park overlook. Here we found, as before, great views of Black-throated Green Warbler. We heard Cerulean and Blackburnian but did not see either this time (we have in the past, at this spot). All in all, in spite of the low 30’s on Saturday, we had another great time enjoying the birds of this region, along with some of the spring flowers, and notoriously bad puns of from a couple of the leaders.
by John Gerwin
Glass is a well-known problem for birds. Bird collisions with glass result in a large number of mortalities – as many as one billion each year. To help homeowners prevent birds hitting their windows the American Bird Conservancy has produced a flyer that can be downloaded at www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/collisions/pdf/collisions_flyer.pdf . This flyer describes a variety of treatments that you and I can adopt, to be used on glass, that can greatly reduce the number of birds striking windows. Wake Audubon has received a batch of these for distribution as well. So if you’d prefer to obtain one from us, ask at one of our general meetings or at one of the events in which we participate (like the upcoming April events).
And if you want to learn more about what other work ABC is doing to reduce bird-glass collisions, please visit: http://www.abcbirds.org/newsandreports/releases/130912.html
And here is an interesting piece of info to think about when placing feeders: Place your feeders closer than 3 feet to a picture window, or affixed to the glass or window frame, to significantly reduce the likelihood and severity of window collisions. When birds take off from feeders 6 feet or more from windows, they’re going at their top speed when they hit, making the severity of collisions far greater.
By Gerry Luginbuhl, Board President
Thanks to all of the folks who donated money to have their bird feeders cleaned this November. Judy, at Logan’s Nursery, contacted me a few months ago to suggest a fundraising idea. She offered to collect people’s birdfeeders during the month of November and keep track of the feeders to make sure everyone got the right feeder back after it had been cleaned. We decided on a suggested donation of five dollars per feeder, and worked out a biweekly pick-up schedule. We put a notice about the cleaning on our web site and Logan’s also sent out a notice in their monthly email. We ended up with 40 feeders (and many baffles). Judy collected the donations as they came in and handed me an envelope full of checks on December 2nd. At five dollars/feeder, that would have brought Wake Audubon two hundred dollars, but, due to the generosity of many, we collected three hundred and forty-five dollars! Way to go! Look for us to repeat this fundraiser next year, probably in October rather than November. We will be looking for some volunteers to help me next time; I have learned how to disassemble and reassemble a bunch of different types of birdfeeders and am happy to do this again next year.
If you missed this year’s feeder cleaning, here is how to do it yourself.
Rinse off loose dirt and seed
Soak feeder in mild detergent solution and scrub inside and out with appropriate sized brush
Sanitize by soaking feeder in a mild bleach solution (one part bleach to 9 parts water)
Allow the feeder to dry completely before refilling it with seed.
By Vanessa and Olivia Merritt (Young Naturalists)
On Saturday, June 1st, John Gerwin took some members of various NC Audubon chapters, as well as a few Young Naturalists from Wake Audubon, to bird band at Prairie Ridge Ecostation. It was about 7:30am, because birds are most active in the early morning. Earlier that morning, many nets had been set up and opened by Keith Jensen, a research technician with the Museum of Natural Sciences. The nets are like volleyball nets, with very small holes and made of fine material. Two groups went out to check the nets, in different areas, during the morning hours. Olivia and I, as well as the other Young Naturalists went with John so that he could teach us how to take the birds out of the nets. Since it was windy, the birds could see the nets more easily than usual, and we only got a few birds on the last net we checked that first round. We got a few goldfinches, and two juvenile starlings. The first step to get birds out of the net is the feet. One male goldfinch didn’t struggle, but it was difficult to get the fine strings untangled with the claws. This starling’s feet were very strong, but once getting the hind claw free, the grip loosened. Next is the tail, wings, and head. Each case varies, but the tail and head are usually the easiest to get free. The wings are harder, because if the bird struggles, the wing’s individual feathers get more tangled. After the bird is out of the net, he/she is put into a cloth bag to be taken to the banding station.
Juvenile Starling caught in the net
John Gerwin showing the young naturalists how to untangle the bird’s feet
Female goldfinch being taken out of the net. She was already banded; that’s important because we can see how she has changed since the last time she was caught. Recaptures are vital, because scientists can find out more information pertaining to the species.
At the banding station, more goes on than just the banding. We have to weigh, measure wing length, check body fat, brood patch (bird may be breeding), cloacal protuberance (to check the breeding status), age, sex, and molt.
A male goldfinch’s wing being measured by Olivia Merritt. To measure the true length, we do not spread the wing open, but instead gently place the slightly open wing on the ruler without any pressure.
A female goldfinch being inspected, while the scribe in the back writes down the bird’s band number, weight, sex, etc.
A male goldfinch being banded.
A male goldfinch being checked for molt and fat on the stomach (we blow through a straw to part the feathers).
Juvenile bluebird actually getting weighed.
An orchard oriole having its wing measured.
The orchard oriole getting weighed.
A huge Comet Darner dragonfly that was caught in the net (we didn’t have small enough bands to band it, though!).
This was a wonderful experience for both young naturalists and Audubon members. Everyone was so nice, and we had a lot of fun!
by Angie DeLozier
Birding with my niece, on The Point of the Outer Banks many years ago, she gave me some advice that has resulted in many pleasant discoveries while birding. “When you look at a flock of gulls, terns or whatever, don’t forget to look over their legs, you might spot a stranger.”
This year I had the pleasure of attending a weekend 15th birthday party for the oldest grand daughter of one of my sisters in Puerto Rico. We spent the weekend in a beach house in the town of Aguada on the West Coast. One morning, some decided to go snorkeling, so we all headed north of town and found a lovely cove which was well attended by people, vendors and Magnificent Frigate Birds.
While enjoying the sun, surf and birding, I noticed a group of pelicans following a very tanned man wearing a wide straw hat and carrying a small bag of treats, which he would give one or another of these pelicans on their return from following his whistles and hand signals to fly out to different perches around the cove.
As they got closer to where I was sitting, I remembered my niece’s advice and began scanning the legs of this group of 12 to 16 pelicans. To my surprise, I could see some blue specks within the tan ones, so I continued t0 focus until they were close enough for me to see there were actually two Blue Footed Booby birds in the group!
I had never seen anyone feeding/rewarding pelicans on a beach and never imagined you could do it to a Booby bird. Now what we did realize was that the pelicans would follow the commands of this man, but the Booby birds did not and still got rewarded! They finally passed our area and continued to the end of the cove. We left with a sense of satisfaction and feelings of wonder and awe.
So, if you are up for an enjoyable experience, and are in Puerto Rico anytime, make time to drive over there to experience this delightful circus show during the months of wintertime. The Magnificent Frigate Birds were so low you did not need binoculars to watch and we assumed that this man must do this often enough that he has a large following in the bird world.
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.
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.
Duck, American Black
Sandpiper, Purple (Oregon Inlet)
Gull, Great Black-backed
Pigeon (Dove, Rock)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…..).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
DEJU, BLWA, YBSA, WEWA, WOTH, BAWW, RSHA, GCFL – John Gerwin
RTHU, YEWA – Dan Harvey
BAOR, RBNU – Sue Harvey
WIWR – Brian O’Shea
It is hard to believe, living in Raleigh, NC, that when I was growing up the first time I saw a bluebird was as a college student in upstate NY, and what a thrill it was! What a joy to see the beautiful bright colors of what at the time, was a rare bird, and actually is the state bird of New York.
From the 1940’s until the 1970’s, bluebird populations were in decline, due to competition for nest sites from non-native house sparrows and starlings, as well as the use of DDT. Habitat loss increased as well, and outdoor cats were and continue to be a threat to bluebirds as well as other species. However, with the discontinuation of DDT spraying, and the establishment of bluebird trails and increasing use of nestboxes by individuals around the country, the beautiful birds have made a comeback.
If you are interested in seeing some unique birdhouses for bluebirds and other birds, be sure to come out to the 12th Annual Birdhouse Competition on Saturday and Sunday April 14-15 at the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh.
Beth Gaffer, Wake Audubon Board Member