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And you will know us by the trail of Chickadees

September 28, 2009
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This past week I’ve been watching as my blog colleagues from northern climes report wave after wave of migrating birds.  It’s the sort of thing to make a birder jealous, especially a birder from the south who, while experiencing the fall wave in fits and starts, has yet to have the sort of day that really makes you feel good about your fall.  I don’t ask for much, just a ten-plus warbler day with cameos by thrush, vireo, grosbeak and cuckoo.  And I’d like to keep especially confusing birds to a minimum.  And I’d like a lifer, or at least, a state bird.  I really don’t think that’s too much to ask, right?

So when a cold front blew through the region Friday night, the same front incidentally, that brought such great birds to parts north, I was looking forward to what the day might bring.  My dad was angling for a Cape May Warbler, a bird that is a pretty unusual migrant as far west as Missouri and one I manage to turn up a couple times a fall out here.  I love to get people life birds, through I think the least he could do is bring out some of those Mourning Warblers he gets in bunches.  So in order to maximize our Cape May potential, I decided to head out to Duke Forest.  The place can be a warbler buffet in spring, it’s where I had my best day in the spring this year, and I figured that the possibility was just as good in the fall.  Plus it had the tall pine trees that Cape May Warblers seem to prefer this time of year.

Anyway, my plan hit a snag, as best-laid plans are wont to do, when the birds were invisible for the first half of our walk.  Aside from a few calling Wood Thrushes in the very first 100 meters, we had practically nothing for about an hour.  Part of that may have had to do with the fact that it was still fairly overcast and muggy, almost as if a front hadn’t passed through the night before.  I was beginning to think that Cape May Warbler was a little ambitious, I couldn’t even pull a Redstart out of the woods.  Below is me looking somewhat, shall we say, frustrated.  A frustration amplified by the fact that I was trying to show someone a bird, albeit one that was hardly a sure thing.  A frustration that many birders know all too well, I suspect.

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It’s no secret that fall birding can be touch and go.  Birds flock up, and often times the different between a disappointing day and a great day is one well-placed and responsive Chickadee flock.  When we picked up the distant scolding of Chickadees, we decided to stop and pish, dropping in a couple Screech Owl whistles for good measure.  Another advantage of fall birding is the relatively high proportion of young birds.  Birds a little green under their gills.  Birds that aren’t quite as good at making the distinction between a legitimate Screech Owl threat and a couple dudes standing on a trail far from any likely Screech Owl roost.

In any case, the Chickadees dove in like a coordinated squadron of fighter bombers, yelling at us from only three feet away, completely convinced that even though we didn’t look much like Screech Owls, we were to be treated as such.  Their boldness brought in the motherload.  Black-throated Blues led the way, followed by Blackburnian and BT Greens and Magnolias and Black-and-White.  A Summer Tanager stopped in to have a look followed by a nice male Prairie and then a Bay-breasted Warbler, not a bad bird this far from their preferred Appalachian migratory route.  A dull cuckoo had my heart stop for a second before it showed it’s yellow bill, and all of a sudden what had begun as a majorly dull day had turned out pretty good in the space of about ten minutes.

We stopped and whistled every time we heard the hint of a Chickadee, turning up two more big flocks of migrants and adding Blue-winged, Yellow-throated, Chestnut-sided, and much to my surprise, a Nashville Warbler, a new bird for the state for me.  Now that makes a great day right there.  Add in the regular Parulas and Pines and suddenly you’ve got yourself a 14 warbler day without even mentioning the first of the season Sharp-shinned Hawk that stooped in on one of our Chickadee assemblages looking for an easy meal.  He may have gone away empty talonned, but we sure didn’t.  A great fall morning in Carolina!

Now if I could only turn up one of those Cape May Warblers for my dad.

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4 Comments
  1. September 28, 2009 7:49 am

    Suspense while out doing some fall birding? Who knew?
    You see, they may still be a little green under their gills but they like to tease just the same.
    Congrats on such a nice warbler list! However, I’d be slightly more impressed if you had managed to whistle in a Screech-Owl by immitating chickadees.

  2. Nate permalink*
    September 28, 2009 9:30 am

    @Jochen- A Screech Owl coming in to simulated Chickadee scolding? Now that would be a bird who is a glutton for punishment.

  3. September 28, 2009 11:45 am

    Hey Nate, I just saw a little of what you were describing a couple of weeks ago at Hornsby Bend. I swear there must have been about 15 chickadees, as many Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Yellow Warblers and a Nashville Warbler. That was one of the coolest sites. I figure that there was a snake up in the trees and they were going crazy!

    I agree about the youngsters. They have no fear and get a little too careless about the excitement.

  4. Nate permalink*
    September 28, 2009 3:05 pm

    @Dave- Yeah, there’s nothing quite like getting in the middle of one of those mixed flocks. Sometimes the birds just keep coming and it’s hard to keep track of everyone. We had one of those this week.

    Youngsters that get too excited become Sharpie food, so I suppose populations certainly select towards those birds who have a keen sense of what’s a legit threat and what isn’t. It’s nice to take advantage of them before they get wise though.

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