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A proper Carolina welcome

August 25, 2009
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There’s an agreement among birders, mostly unspoken, that if you have a birder friend from another part of the country you do your best to show him some local specialties, some birds they’re unlikely to get wherever they come from. Fortunately for us, nearly every single place in the US has something that’s notable, and visiting birders are rarely disappointed because even if you’ve seen different before, the novelty of different is part of what makes us birders in the first place. For visitors to my small neck of the woods, different usually means Pine Barrens and the two (sometimes three) species of southeastern birds dependent on them. So when I get a birding visitor who has at least half a day to spend birding, I’ll make the trip down to Weymouth Woods Nature Preserve to find, in order of likelihood, Brown-headed Nuthatches (buckets of them), Red-cockaded Woodpeckers (more often than not) and, if we’re really lucky, Bachman’s Sparrows (play the lottery).

So when my dad moved to North Carolina for a few months it was only a matter of time before we made the trip down to find the Woodpecker, a lifer for him. I decided to do it this past weekend, despite the fact that late August is not the best time to find land birds generally, and the woodpeckers had not been the easiest to find for me the last time I tried to take someone down to find them (though thankfully for both Mike and me, that trip did end in success). But I was not to be deterred by these conditions that might send less stubborn birders seaching for a better weekend. Fueled by a desire to get out beyond the immediate area as much as anything, I decided to chance it.

Let me just clear the air here and say that the Woodpeckers called my bluff. Several hours of diligent searching failed to turn up the birds that were apparently out foraging and, unfortuantely for us, not making any noise. If you’re wondering what a frustrated birder trying to show a bird that he knows is there to a visitor, here’s the photo.

It wasn’t a total loss however. While we were hanging around the feeders near the interpretive center I spotted a pair of Bachman’s Sparrows in a particularly dense buit of underbrush. While not a lifer for my dad (there’s a couple places in Missouri where they can still be found), it was certainly a target species and cool besides, especially since we watched the pair move through the firegrass. They would occasionally pop their heads up showing that big bill and clean breast, but the most amazing thing, at least to me, was how they moved around.

See, sparrows are supposed to hop on both feet, but these Bachman’s shuffled, one foot in front of the other, moving as quiet as mice through the grasses. It occurred to me that this was almost certainly the reason they were so hard to find, even when you know where they are. You can try to kick them out of the grass, but they’ll just walk off to the next clump without a single indication that they’ve gone. I found it fascinating, and haven’t been able to find any confirmation that this is how they move, but my eyes don’t lie, and in the eternal words of Roger Tory Peterson, When the bird and the book disagree, believe the bird.

So while in the end we didn’t find the woodpeckers, meaning we’ll almost certainly have to make another tip down at some point since I’m not letting my dad leave North Carolina without a Red-cockaded Woodpecker, it was still a good trip. I was actually happier finding the Sparrow than I would have been finding the Woodpeckers, and it’s nice that at least one target was ticked off the list, lest I get a reputation for failing to find visitors birds. And we can’t have that.

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3 Comments
  1. Greg permalink
    August 25, 2009 7:38 am

    It was a great trip to the Pine Barrens! I reminisced that I got my life Bachman's Sparrow in my early birding days, and was as fascinated by the beautiful Prairie Warblers on the glades of Missouri as I was with the beautifully singing Bachman's Sparrow. That would not be the case today! It was cool to see the two shuffling through the underbrush. Nice guiding, N8!

  2. Nate permalink
    August 25, 2009 11:07 am

    @dad- Well, if you enjoyed it then I guess it was a success, woodpecker or no. Do you want to chase the Phalarope in W-S this weekend if it sticks around? 🙂

  3. Jochen permalink
    August 26, 2009 9:04 am

    I think it is very nice of you, Nate, that you practise finding the Nuthatch AND the sparrow AND the woodpecker on each of your trips there so hard that I can fully rely on you once I make it to NC in the hopefully not so far-away future. Now, if you could find me a Black-billed cuckoo as well, that would be nice. I mean, I have seen tons of them around the Great Lakes but they would look lovely on a NC list as well, or wouldn't they?

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