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While out birding today with @latta.ridge at Apex Community Park in Apex NC, we were lucky to spot a rare wintertime beauty flitting in the brush, a Prairie Warbler! We found him on the far northwest corner of Apex Lake in the marshy area next to the intersection of walking paths.
It was so cool to see this feathered gem at such a weird time of year since Prairie Warblers typically are found in Wake county in the spring, summer & early autumn months.
These lovely little beauties are active birds, often wagging their tails as they search for the six or eight legged snacks that make up the bulk of their diet. When they get stuck for the winter in colder locations (like central NC) they’ll also supplement their diet with the sap flowing from trees and even berries when available.
Prairie Warblers breed across the entire state of NC. When spring arrives, they’ll build their nests in openings with patches of dense woody understory vegetation, such as overgrown fields with shrubs, or young regrowing forests. They place their nests in trees or shrubs, generally less than 10 feet above the ground. This little one has several months to go before it has to worry about that stuff though 🙂
Last week, I returned to the OBX of North Carolina to lead a birding trip. As always, I arrived a couple of days early to scout out the area to make sure all of the expected species were where they were supposed to be.
After spending the day on Pea Island, I headed up to Jennettes Pier to see if I could catch a glimpse of some sea birds hunting for a meal on the Atlantic. There was plenty to see including Black Scoters, Common Loons, Gulls and Grebes but most of them were flying far offshore. Only the Brown Pelicans were swooping in at close range.
By 4:45, daylight fading fast I was about to leave when this lovely Common Eider hen flew in and landed alongside the pier. Although I certainly wish I could have photographed this beautiful bird from a lower vantage point, the last few minutes of golden hour light was simply too good to pass up for catching these portraits.
Measuring 25-27 inches in length with a wingspan stretching 41 inches, Common Eiders are the largest species of duck in the northern hemisphere. Their size non withstanding, Eiders are agile swimmers. They spend a great deal of their time at sea diving beneath the waves in search of mussels, clams, scallops, sea urchins, starfish, and crabs resting on the ocean floor or clinging to rocks and jetty’s. Because their prey is often located in shallow water, they are more easily found then other sea duck species when birding on the shoreline.
Common Eiders are a wintertime visitor to the coastal areas of NC. Interestingly, 95% of sightings of this species in the Tarheel State comprise of adult females and immature males while the bulk of adult males appear to spend the winter in New England and Newfoundland.
Look for Eiders in coves, near inlets and especially around bridges, piers and rock jetties. Basically anywhere along the oceans edge where mussels and crabs are present. These beautiful ducks will stick around NC until early April so we’ve still got plenty of time to enjoy them. Aren’t they wonderful? 🙂
Admittedly these aren’t the best photos I’ve ever taken, but I had to grab a few ‘far away shots of this Sandhill Crane I spotted while birding with @isaacmcshanephoto & @calatta this past week at the Alligator River NWR in eastern NC. While I wish this lovely bird was a bit closer, I was so excited to share this rare sighting in the field with friends!
Sandhill Cranes breed in Siberia, throughout central Canada as well as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska. Their are even small year round populations of Sandhills which nest in Florida, Mississippi and Cuba. Each autumn, thousands of them migrate south to spend the winter in northern Mexico, California, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida. Luckily for us, a handful of Sandhills show up right here in eastern NC at Alligator River NWR & at the Pocasin Lakes NWR each winter.
Standing nearly 4ft tall, Sandhill Cranes are large birds with long, thin legs and necks. Though it’s hard to see in my photos, the bird’s cheeks are white and its forehead has a bright red patch, which is one of their most noticeable features. Though they are covered in mostly grayish plumage, the shade of those gray tones can vary widely from bird to bird. In fact, if you look closely at these photos sometimes Sandhills can display a reddish-brown appearance. This is because they preen themselves by rubbing mud on their feathers and mud from iron-rich environments is often red.
Though most would expect a Sandhill Crane to be spotted near water, these elegant birds are usually found in wide open places, especially plowed or stubble (preferably corn) fields; closely mowed fields, soggy & grassy pastures, shallow pools, and around the edges of impoundment margin areas. Look for them feeding with flocks of Tundra Swans at the Alligator River NWR and at the Pocasin Lakes NWR in NC from December through early February.
Check out this Snow Goose I encountered this past week while birding at the Pea Island NWR in NC. She’s sporting a bright yellow collar. Although I photographed many Snow Geese (including this family digging for food in the mud together shown in the subsequent photos) I made sure to capture several photos of this one so that I could report the sighting to the USGS.
Bird banding is important for studying the movement, survival and behavior of birds. Data from banded birds are used in monitoring populations, setting hunting regulations, restoring endangered species, studying effects of environmental contaminants, and addressing such issues as Avian Influenza, bird hazards at airports, and crop depredations.
If you see a banded bird, try and get a clear photograph of the band or collar. Then visit www.reportband.gov to submit your sighting to the USGS. Results from banding studies support national and international bird conservation programs such as Partners in Flight, the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, and Wetlands for the Americas. This is why it’s so important to report what we’re seeing out there.
Once you’ve submitted your report, you’ll receive a certificate of appreciation from the USGS which will include details about the bird you found which is pretty neat too!
According to the certificate, this goose is a female who hatched over 4 years ago in Quebec Canada. It’s incredible to think that this bird made it all the way down to North Carolina to spend the winter. I can certainly understand why though because the Pea Island NWR is a special place. One that I always look forward to returning each year as well 🙂
While location scouting in preparation for a recent birding trip to Murrells Inlet SC, I decided to take a quick drive north to check up on the pair of Limpkins that I’d found a few months ago to see if they were still in the same location. Though it took about an hour of searching in a swampy area / ponds adjacent to a suburban neighborhood, I was extremely happy to find the Limpkins a full 24 hours before my guest was to scheduled to arrive.
Rolling up on the first spot on tour day it only took like 3 seconds for us to re-find the bird. It was a real thrill to be able to share this lovely creature with a fellow bird loving photographer Isaac McShane @isaacmcshanephoto I know he was stoked to have added this bird to his life list too! *You should check out Isaac’s website btw. His photos are wonderful 😉
This Limpkin and it’s mate are pretty far away from their normal home range which typically only extends north from South America into Florida. From what I’ve heard from local reports, this pair actually nested here this past summer and successfully raised a few chicks. In fact this isn’t the only pair who have been found in SC. In recent years other Limpkins have been sighted as far inland as the Goose Creek reservoir including a breeding pair which was the first ever nest recorded in the state.
It seems clear that these Limpkins are comfortable enough to spend the winter in South Carolina thanks to the mild winter temperatures & ample supply of their favorite food (Apple Snails) found in the ponds and nearby swamp. If you look closely at a couple of the photos you can see these large snail shells near the Limpkins feet. It’s going to be interesting to see if the pair remains to nest here again in the spring. I’m the meantime, I plan on checking in on these beauties several times over the winter and will provide updates on their status throughout the season ahead.
When walking through the woods in central North Carolina the air is filled with sounds of bird song, most especially so via the Eastern Towhee. These handsome birds are quite vocal and are relatively easy to find by their familiar “drink your tea” calls emanating from the brush. Occasionally they’ll pop out from the tangled undergrowth to provide you with a good look and may even follow you on the trail.
I spotted this one while birding yesterday at the Cape Fear Shiners Park in Lillington NC. Eastern Towhees come in two different varieties, the white-eyed and the red-eyed seen here. Years ago, they were known as the Rufus-sided Towhee but today both white & red eyed birds are lumped together under the Eastern moniker.
Eastern Towhees are best found foraging for a meal in dense brushy areas along the edges of fields, in suburban backyard hedges and in deciduous forests. They are also one of the few species of birds which nest from the Appalachian mountains all the way to the coast. Happily Towhees are a year round resident of NC so keep an eye (and ear!) out for them every time you step outside.
One of the best things about birding is that you never quite know with 100% certainty what you’re going to encounter in the woods. Sure, we’ve got our expectations but every so often we are presented with the opportunity to be surprised and delighted by what we see. I this case, I was so happy to spot this handsome Barred Owl hunting for a snack this past weekend while on a trip to the Huntington Beach State Park in Murrells Inlet SC.
It was thrilling to get a close up look at such an impressive bird. At one point, I was showing the owl to some other photographers when it took off and zoomed about a foot over our heads only to land briefly to catch an insect on the side of branch. Then it quickly flew to a nearby tree to consume its prize much to the delight of all.
Barred Owls are a year round resident of South and North Carolina and are widely found across both states. They are primarily found wetland areas, such as around beaver ponds and in open swamps, bottomlands, and nearby marshes. I spotted this one in the woods across the road from the Nature Center at HBSP not far from the marsh boardwalk area.
I think my favorite part of this encounter was that I was able to get a nice close up look at the owls expressive eyes. They are beautiful!
Speaking of their eyes, did you know that can not turn their eyes in any direction at all? This is because owls don’t have eyeballs in the traditional sense. Instead an owls eyes are shaped like fixed tubes, almost like binoculars. In order to compensate for the lack of directional movement, they can turn their head 270 degrees. We can rotate our heads only half that far. Incredible!
A couple days ago, I went out into the rain to go birding at the Cape Fear Shiners park in Lillington, NC. This is a relatively new birding hot spot designated by eBird and I was eager to explore the woods, fields and marsh to see what I could find. One of the first birds spotted was this Hermit Thrush perched on a branch just off the trail.
I was thrilled to be able to snap off a few photos of this feathered gem from a relatively close vantage point. The cloudy diffused lighting, misting rain and those lovely golden leaves provided (IMO) a superb backdrop for these portraits. Just gorgeous!
As a few of you know, winter is my favorite season to go birding in NC and species like the Hermit Thrush are the reason why. These pretty thrushes breed in the conifer forests in the mountains of the western part of the state but only show up in central & eastern North Carolina in October-early April.
They are best found in open coniferous and mixed deciduous forests, near berry and fern thickets and along pasture edges. Their habitats preferences are led by their diet which includes insects, spiders, snails, and earthworms, plus considerable amounts of berries during the fall and winter. Look for Hermit Thrushes foraging for insects on the ground and munching on berries in the shrubs and low canopies of trees in central NC from now until early April.
Birds have fascinated me all my life, but it wasn’t until I began developing my skills as a photographer that I realized I am a birder. Traveling to seek out birds of a certain species, continually adding to my life list, obsessed with anything avian related, these are some of the qualities that define me as a birder. First and foremost I am a nature lover. Whether photographing, kayaking, hiking, rock climbing or mountain biking, I am happiest amidst the natural world.
While I was kayaking along the Wild and Scenic Red River some years back a curious group of River Otters appeared nearby and lingered long enough for me to pull out my phone and snap some pixelated photos and videos. That experience inspired me to buy a quality camera so that I could be ready for my next wildlife encounter. That otter interaction was the catalyst for a snowball effect which has fueled my passion for nature photography and addiction to birding.
My camera equipment goes everywhere I do. Every time I neglected to bring my camera I regretted it, so eventually I just committed to bringing it everywhere. Sometimes I am inspired to take landscape photography, other times I dabble in macro photography of flowers and insects. Animals are my favourite subject. I think wild animals see a lot more humans than humans see wildlife. It takes a certain mindset to slow down enough to discover wildlife, which is a gift that helps nourish my positive mental attitude. Photoing wild animals is a challenge, and with great challenges comes great rewards.
On the other hand, one of the reasons I have spent more time photographing birds than other types of wildlife is simply due to their availability. If bears and bobcats came to my yard everyday I would gladly photograph them as well. For anyone interested in developing skills of photoing uncooperative moving subjects, birds are a great place to start! But there is so much more to it than just their availability. While I admire their diversity of plumage, patterns, habits and habitats, their flight is what fascinates me the most.
When I look up in the sky and see a buzzard soaring along the thermals, it seems like they have it all figured out. Sometimes it looks like they are consciously enjoying their ability to fly. Other times I watch them soaring effortlessly on autopilot and wonder if perhaps they are taking a nap. Their ability to maneuver through woodlands with such agility and confidence it will not crash or injure itself is amazing. They have evolved to be lightweight enough to counteract gravity yet durable enough to withstand a beating of the magnitude capable only in nature.
Birds are dinosaurs! Or was it dinosaurs who were birds? Both are correct. The development of gravity defying winged creatures was perfected long before humans began to record history. That is super cool. What’s more, humans have been attempting to replicate the gravity defying qualities of birds since the dawn of history. While we have learned to harness the physical properties of lift and drag sufficient enough to pilot aircrafts, we will never be able to flap our arms and lift off.
When I wander through creeks I find myself skipping stones and when I hike through the woods I might climb a tree or jump across a small gulley. To me, nature is the ultimate fountain of youth, distracting me from the rigors of reality, immersing myself in something so pure, raw and real that I feel connected to everyone and everything, my soul nourished and replenished. If time spent in nature is the fountain of youth, birds are my conduit to understanding the building blocks of who I am.
As long as I live, the sight and sound of a pileated woodpecker will bring me back to my early childhood, visiting my grandma in Roanoke, VA, who taught me to identify birds not just by sight but also by their sound. Goldfinches will always take me back to Plattsburgh, NY where my other grandma instilled upon me the importance of winter feeders. During the past few weeks I have had a lot of Goldfinches at my Thistle Seed Finch feeder and I sometimes wonder if they have ever been through Plattsburgh, and what is the likelihood they are the descendants of birds who have fed from my family’s feeders so far from here?
Then there’s the Robins. The Robin’s song was my NY grandmother’s favourite song. Her loyal son, (my dad) used to call her every night while taking his evening walk. When he heard a Robin he would hold the phone up to it, wandering through yards with his phone high overhead, looking quite peculiar to uninformed observers. When she perked up and said “Oh yes, I hear it!” It made both of their days. It’s been a joke in the family for years and I will forever smile at the sight of a Robin. Isn’t it funny how life comes full circle?
While that person gave the gift of birding to multiple generations, her son returned the favor to her, and her grandson (me) took it to the next level. As my dad’s passion for birding had waned over the years, my contagious passion has infected him and revived a dormant love. He had a detached retina several years ago and after surgery he was unable to use binoculars. One day while I was checking out a new birding “hot spot” I saw someone not wielding a camera or binoculars but instead she had on a tripod a large monocular. A lightbulb went off. I gave my dad a monocular for Christmas (one small enough to carry while on his daily walks). He carries it everywhere, his peeper, as he calls it!
Birding is in my blood. I have always loved birds but only realized within the past few years that birding is my Eden. When I am sad, birding makes me happy. When I am happy, birding makes me happier. When I am confused I find answers while focused on birds, answers often having nothing to do with birds! When I am lonely the birds provide me with great company and insight.
And do you know what is best about birding? The joy of birding expands as it is shared. The only thing I love as much as birding is talking about birding and inspiring others to find themselves in the world of birds. I hope to see you out there one day.
About: Isaac McShaneis a birder, writer and photographer based in Wilmington North Carolina. To read more of Isaac’s latest adventures, see his galleries and order prints visit his website at https://www.isaacmcshanephotography.com/
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Bird watching tours, trips, adventures and birder news in North Carolina