Autumn is probably the best season in North Carolina. Summer’s too hot, spring’s too short, and winter is wet and windy. But autumn drags out till after Thanksgiving, day after day of cool mornings and clear days where it’s easy to convince yourself to get out in the field. So yesterday I headed south to Weymouth Woods in the Sandhills where a banding operation has been getting some good movement of migrating birds in the last week. When I arrived, the fog moving through the pines made for a kind of ghostly scene.
Weymouth Woods is best known for its Pine Barrens habitat, the Longleaf Pine savanna known for such local specialties as Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Bachman’s Sparrows. In fact, most of the park contains this highly transitional and specialized habitat, but I was more interested in the lowlands filled with gum and poplar swamp and conventional oak-pine forest. I thought this would be my best bet for finding any transient species.
I was mostly right. I quickly came across a flock of small birds that notably contained a pair of Black-throated Blue Warblers and newly arrived Ruby-crowned Kinglets. A short walk down the trail I heard a soft call note, like a leaky faucet dripping into a pool of water. Peering into the underbrush I found two Gray-cheeked Thrushes, the very bird I had on my list for this outing. North Carolina’s third record of Bicknell’s Thrush was mist-netted here a couple days before. Could these birds have been that cryptic species? Possibly, but nothing I was going to see would have lead me one way or the other.
The entire morning I was made especially aware of the changing seasons. Not only did I find fall migrants like the Warblers and Thrushes, but Kinglets were everywhere and the first Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers of the season had arrived. The opportunity for any migrants that I may have missed is running out, fortunately they’re aren’t more than a handful left at this point.
I didn’t search much for the other Pine Barrens species, I heard the Woodpeckers but they were some distance away and I decided not to chase them. Bachman’s Sparrows are like feathered mice this time of year, and it’s getting a bit too cold at night for the cool herps and insects, not that I’ve been lucky enough to find them anyway. But I did spook an individual of the local subspecies of Fox Squirrel on a pine tree. It’s really funky, looking more like a skunk than a squirrel.
This one had a big white splotch on its back too in addition to the white nose and paws. It’s kind of amazing how well these guys can camouflage against the burned ground and trunks of these pine trees. Fire, remember, is the defining characteristic of this ecosystem, everything revolves around it. It’s the only place in the world where you can find these weird squirrels, which in addition to being distinctly colored, are about three times the size of the Eastern Gray Squirrels that are also present.
So I can close the book on the North Carolina Thrushes (minus Bicknell’s I guess), and start thinking about picking up the birds I missed at the beginning of the year.