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Carolina in the Pines

March 11, 2008

I’ve been stuck in a Big Year rut lately. The birds that came hard and fast at the beginning of the year are beginning to dry up. Even though the residents have begun feeling their oats and filling the morning air with songs, they’re by and large birds that I’ve already seen. The winter birds are still here, but it increasingly smaller numbers, and we’ve still got a few weeks yet before the spring arrivals start showing up in any numbers. So in the slow days of March, I had originally planned to take a trip south and work some of Carolina’s Pine Barrens specialties in the hopes that one in particular, would be easier to find now that birds are beginning to sing.

It wasn’t that long ago that I went down to Weymouth Woods before. Sometimes, one just needs to see something different, and I’m lucky that that opportunity lies just down the road. This was more than just a jonesing for some new sights though, I had two birds that I wanted bad for my Big Year, Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Bachman’s Sparrow. The woodpeckers are always there and relatively easy to find, and I’ve never missed them. The Sparrow though, is the very definition of a skulker. Though a year round resident, the bird is only ever evident during that short time of the year when the males sing from the top of sumac shrubs and firegrass clumps. But get too close and they dive into the brush and no amount of coaxing or flushing will pull them out. On my first visit to Weymouth two years ago at this time of year, a friend and I walked through acres of pine forest chasing a singing bird. We never saw it, and I would still love to pick up that life bird sitting down in the Pine Barrens but on this day, I’d be happy just to hear it and count it on a Big Year.

I was somewhat disappointed as I arrived at the sanctuary and noticed the section I had been counting on for Bachman’s Sparrow had been very recently burned. The Pine Barren habitat requires fire to sustain the transitional nature of the forest, but the Bachman’s Sparrow likes a slightly older dynamic, where the firegrass has been replaced by thick brush. So I was disappointed obviously. While the burn was essential for the ecosystem as a whole, it was disastrous to my Sparrow search. Though I was tuned to the song (they sound like a high, thin Eastern Towhee to me), I heard no Bachman’s Sparrows.

But there was still a specialty bird there for me to find, and early on, I had trouble finding it. In the past, I often heard Red-cockaded Woodpeckers immediately upon exiting my car. This time, nothing. I walked through the woods, but the only thing I heard were the songs of newly singing Pine Warblers, and the squeaky flocks of Brown-headed Nuthatches (what is it about the Pine Barrens that selects for squeaky bird calls?) The gum swamp was productive, I picked up a small flock of Rusty Blackbirds and nearly all of the other woodpeckers (still no Hairy though) avidly drumming and calling.

But that wasn’t enough. I simply couldn’t drive all the way down to find Red-cockadeds and come away empty handed, could I? I decided to walk a little ways down a trail I’d never been on before, one that sticks to the high country through perfect RC habitat. When I had no better luck, I decided to turn around. But first, a stop to eliminate some of the coffee I’d had that morning (if you hear what I’m saying). I realize it’s somewhat cliché, the old adage that you always see birds when you least expect them, but no sooner had I begun emptying my bladder, then that old familiar bird popped out from behind a dead pine not 100 meters down the trail. I quickly buttoned up and headed down to watch a pair of strangely silent Red-cockaded Woodpeckers forage along the trail for nearly 10 minutes. Target acquired.

The Bachman’s Sparrow may have remained a no-show, but that’s birding. If we got our targets every time then anyone could do this thing we do, it would probably also mean that bird populations are much better than they really are, but that’s a different topic. I’ll have to come back to Weymouth Woods next month some time in the hopes that the Bachman’s Sparrows are more vocal. So it goes…

But though I missed the sparrow, as I took the trash out out home that very same afternoon, the first Osprey of spring flew over my house. I shouldn’t be stuck in the 160s for long.

  1. Jochen permalink
    March 11, 2008 10:53 am

    “I realize it’s somewhat cliché”
    It’s not cliché, it’s Murphy at his best and after years of experience I never put my camera on the ground outside my arm’s reach when I have to eliminate a good meal while out birding…

  2. Patrick Belardo permalink
    March 11, 2008 3:43 pm

    Looks like some really cool habitat. It reminds me of our pine barrens here in NJ, but with taller trees.

  3. corey permalink
    March 11, 2008 11:29 pm

    Red-cockaded Woodpecker is a good way to start your life list of birds seen while peeing.

  4. noflickster permalink
    March 13, 2008 2:58 pm

    Congrats on the RCWs, though your recounting almost sounds like a Seinfeld episode.

    GEORGE: I didn’t know whether to try and keep her from falling, or zip up.
    JERRY: What did you do?
    GEORGE: I zipped up!

    Yeah, I’ve got a case of the simples today.

    Good luck with the Bachman’s!
    – Mike

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