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Running for Scissors

June 10, 2008

There is one good thing about birding in the summer. It’s that birds, once on their nesting territory, are much easier to find then when they blast through on the rush to territory further north. I’m too far south for many of the missing species on my Big Year radar, but there are couple left in North Carolina that I have left. For reasons of vagrancy or general scarcity, they’re birds I don’t typically run across in the regular birding day. I had my eye on two in particular yesterday, and both required heading once again beyond the triangle.

First stop, the Sandhills, where the hardwood forests of the east are replaced by longleaf pine savannas as dependent on fire as the first are to rain. I’d been down here a couple times this year, for that most famous of North Carolina’s sandhill birds, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. I usually find them at Weymouth Woods, a popular spot for the woodpeckers, but not quite right for what I had in mind today. I needed to venture little further south, to the Sandhills Gamelands, the most expansive area of North Carolina longleaf pine forest accessible to the public, and intensely managed to stay that way by the state wildlife commission.

As I drove along the dirt roads that criss-cross the tract, I immediately saw that this was a very different place than Weymouth Woods. The forest was more open and the grass was much thicker, both good signs. I had the windows open despite the heat, the better to pick up on the high song of my quarry, and even though the temperature was just this side of stifling, there were some birds around. An Orchard Oriole singing from the top of a pine tree, for instance, a nice bird but not quite what I had in mind when I came here.

As I reached a crossroads, I perked to the plaintive song of my target bird. I had happened into an apparently especially nice area holding no fewer that six Bachman’s Sparrows within earshot. But I wanted more, Bachman’s is a bird I’ve looked for on several occasions, even heard singing in the past, but never actually had the pleasure of putting my binoculars on it. So while the birds were still singing, I set off into the woods to see if I could track one down.

Bachman’s is a tricky bird. For starters, it prefers to run on the ground when flushed rather then fly. This is the problem I’ve faced when I’ve looked for it in the past. The encounter typically goes as follows: I hear a distant bird, I run into the woods, I corner a singing male, I end up standing around the tree or bush it sang from for a few minutes before realizing it ran off. It’s very frustrating, and after a couple reenactments of this fruitless ordeal I realized I had a ace up my sleeve. Back in my car, a few meters away, was a CD of North American birdsongs.

Normally, I’m rather against using tapes even for difficult birds. I’ll pish all day long, even throw in a Screech Owl whistle on appropriate occasions, but there’s something about bringing tapes and technology into the field that strikes me as too far. But there was clearly a bird very close to my car who I had been attempting to get on for some time. So I did some equivocating, decided playing the tape one time couldn’t hurt too much, opened my car doors and let ‘er rip. The birds started singing again, but none seemed close. When suddenly a bird flew into a small oak right next to the road.

And there it sat, practically begging me to get that long lingering look at a difficult bird and minor nemesis. So, what could I do? What would any of us do? I took it, man. The bird started to sing so I got out my scope and got up close and personal. I took some pictures. I drunk in my Bachman’s Sparrow experience. I even took a short video on my camera that I meant to put online but the quality was crap. So you’ll just have to enjoy the picture, the best of several I took. I still cringe at using tapes, and I think their overuse can be a real problem, but you can’t argue with the results.

As you might expect, Sandhills Gamelands is also good for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. I didn’t see any this time, when nesting the normally gregarious families shut up, but I did see several nest trees. The NC Wildlife Commission marks them with white bands at the base so people will know to give them a wide berth. This one was right next to the road though, and hard to avoid. I didn’t hear any woodpeckers in the area so it may be one used in years past. I also came across some park rangers running a controlled burn right near where I saw my sparrows. As I mentioned before, fire is the single factor that most influences this habitat. The fact that the area here is so vast makes it easy to manage with controlled burns. Weymouth Woods, which is in the town of Southern Pines and much closer to people, often meets resistance from nearby housing developments with regards to fire and thus aren’t able to burn as often. As they require specific ground cover for nesting and foraging, Bachman’s Sparrows are even more dependent on fire than the woodpeckers, so its no surprise there are far more of them in this place where fire is more regularly used.

With one target in the bag, I had another place to go before heading home. I had to get that bird for which this post is named. So I went a bit west to a place where a very odd bird has been nesting in North Carolina for the last couple years. In an wide swath of farmland bisected by high-voltage power lines, a pair of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers has nested in the metal structure that holds up the wires. I love Scissortails, they’re one of the birds I miss the most since moving from the Midwest, where they were common summer breeders. The males are spectacular with their ridiculously long tails. I went straight to the place reported on the Carolina Birds listserve and quickly found the only slightly less spectacular female perched on a power line.

I was disappointed not to see the male, but headed home with the bird ticked all the same. Sadly, one of the first messages from the listserve I encountered on my return was the sad tale of the male’s demise. He’d been hit by a car the very day I’d traveled to see them. They had been building a nest and looked to bring up another brood just like last year. It’s unclear whether the eggs were down when the incident occurred, and it’s unlikely now that the female will find another mate since they were probably the only breeding Scissor-tails in the state. Perhaps the female will return next year with a new male, or maybe it was the male that brought the female to his funky out of the way territory. Either way, here’s hoping that she makes it back again. It’s a great bird for the state.

So all in all, not bad for a hot June day in North Carolina. I’m just glad there are still birds around to see.

  1. corey permalink
    June 10, 2008 7:27 am

    Wow…I need to get to NC! Nice shot of the sparrow: both the sparrow and the flycatcher would be lifers for me.

    That sucks about the scissor-tailed…had any ever bred in the state before that specific pair?

  2. June 10, 2008 9:00 am

    @corey – You’re always welcome for a visit. Now that I know where to find the Sparrows I’ll bet they’re a sure thing.

    The first evidence for breeding STFLs in NC was at this very spot in 2000. A pair has been back every year since, it’s assumed they are the same pair.

    Before that they were casual vagrants here, but now they seem to be increasing. I know of at least 5 individuals from around the state just this year, all young birds. I wonder if they are all dispersing fledglings from the Union Co pair.

  3. John permalink
    June 10, 2008 9:55 am

    Great finds! They’re two I have yet to see.

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