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In which I give thanks for North Carolina’s birds

November 26, 2007
Thanksgiving was lovely here in North Carolina, a perfect day to spend with family and friends and food. Then the weather came and the daily high dropped 30 degrees F in 24 hours. Not one to be discouraged by the cold, and with the whole day free to pursue the birds (the wife’s family had other things to attend too) and bouyed by a CarolinaBirds report of Woodcocks (a serious nemesis bird for me) I decided to head south, to Weymouth Woods Natural Reserve near Southern Pines to attend to some Sandhills specialty birds I hadn’t gotten around to tracking down this year. 

The habitat at Weymouth Woods is not something I can enjoy on a regular basis. The Longleaf Pine forest interspersed with low growing grasses and shrubs is but a small portion of what once was 10 million acres stretching from North Carolina across to eastern Texas. Sadly, all that’s left is what is protected on these small lots across the south, tiny oases for the wildlife that depend on them.
What makes these forests work is regular fire. Fire to open up the cones of the Longleaf Pine. Fire to oxygenate the soils for wiregrass and pitcher plants. Fire to burn off the opportunistic hardwoods who otherwise would turn the forest into climax oak-poplar forest that predominates elsewhere in the piedmont. This is a habitat that needs to actively managed, as it’s naturally transitional, and years of fire suppression in forestry practices have lead to the passive destruction of acres of the Pine Barrens. Though that’s only the modern threat. Before settlers arrived in the 1700s the region consisted of pines up to 150 feet high. Most of the larger, straighter individuals was felled to serve as masts for British Royal Navy ships. The rest were scored and drained of resin for use as tar, pitch and rosin for the ropes, hulls, and riggings. North Carolina at this time produced one third of the world’s resin supplies, which led to the term “Tarheel” being used to refer to folks from Carolina.By 1900, most of the virgin stands of forest were gone, except for those thankfully saved in places like Weymouth Woods. It’s a good thing too that these woods were spared. Without the Pine Barrens there would be no Gopher Tortoises, or Pine Snakes, or Bachman’s Sparrows, or Pine Barrens Treefrogs, or the bird I was keyed in on for Friday, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

I wish I had a better story for my search for the Woodpecker. The truth is, I find the Red-cockaded remarkably easy to find for such a rare bird. Not even ten minutes out of the car I heard its characteristic squeaky chrrrrrp. Except for in the summer when the young are in the nest, the Woodpecker is noisy and conspicuous. They travel in family groups and constantly call to each other as they forage along the trunks and branches of the Longleaf Pines. I had at least three in my general vicinity, I just had to put glass to bird. A woodpecker flew in from behind me, I thought I had it. In fact, it was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, similar in size and shape. I began to think that perhaps I didn’t know the call as well as I thought I did when I spotted a second woodpecker, then a third, my Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. I popped on my camera just in time to take one terrible photo before it crapped out. Oh well.

There weren’t only the Woodpeckers, Brown-headed Nuthatches and Pine Warblers foraged alongside. Scratches in the brush turned out to be Eastern Towhees rather than Bachman’s Sparrows (a distant hope, they’re hard enough when they sing, practically impossible when they don’t). The white-eyed morph of the Towhee are around here, but these were the dark-eyed version. The forest was quiet otherwise as I followed the path into the lowlands where the years of fire suppression have allowed the forest to transition into a poplar-gum woods.

The birding here was more along the lines of what you would expect anywhere in the Piedmont. I came across a fruiting vine that fed several Cedar Waxwings, Bluebirds, Goldfinches, and a lovely pair of Hairy Woodpeckers. I pished in some easily incitable groups of Chickadees that included the requisite Ruby and Golden-crowned Kinglets and Titmice but also, in two separate groups, Blue-headed Vireos, Hermit Thrush, and fantastic Sapsuckers. It was here I wished I’d charged my camera, I could have finally had some great pics of the birds two feet away from me. Even I couldn’t have screwed that up. Best bird though, was a pair of Purple Finches, a year bird for me and a reminder that I too, have some boreal finches, even if they are the most common ones. Take that New Yorkers!

As I walked back up to the highlands and through a recently burned landscape thick with wiregrass I began to again hear the chirps of another foraging family of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. All in all it was a nice morning of remembering why North Carolina birding is special, we may not have the cool winter finches or shrikes or owls that our friends up north have been drowning in this year, but our Woodpecker is a pretty good bird.

One Comment
  1. Jochen permalink
    November 26, 2007 2:00 pm

    Sigh …

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