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Smoking out the migrants

May 17, 2010
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Here’s a short geographical primer to set you up for this post.  The state of North Carolina can very roughly be separated into three major biotic regions.  In the east we have a broad coastal plain of pocosin lakes and black water swamps stretching down to some of the best beaches in the nation.  Places where you can stand at the ocean’s edge and look up and down and see no sign of human encroachment for miles.    You can also drive on them occasionally, not that I’d recommend it, but you can.  Beyond that there are nesting shorebirds and Gulf Stream pelagics and all manner of wintering waterfowl.  It is dangerously good birding.

In the far west you’ve got the mountains, the southern part of the widely celebrated Appalachians (that’s Appalaaaachians like apples, not like apes if you want to sound authentic).  North Carolina is home to some of the most dramatic hills in the entire range.  This is, after all, the state of the highest mountain west of the Rockies in Mount Mitchell and the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park…well, half of each of those.  This area is rugged and beautiful and also phenomenally good birding.

The whole big middle is generally known as the Piedmont and it, with exception made for the Sandhills, is mildly hilly, covered in  native oak-hickory forest where the odd pine stand hasn’t taken over, and not appreciably different from any similar region anywhere in the eastern United States.  As far as birding goes, it definitely has it’s moments, but compared to the rest of the state it’s fairly underwhelming.

Now I’m not intending to slag on my part of the world.  It’s got some great things going for it, not least of which is proximity to the rest of the state, but when spring comes and you’re birding radar is set for high sensitivity for new stuff and some time goes by without that new stuff, you might get a little disheartened.  You begin to think about how you can get some of the benefits of the hot birding parts of the state without having to sit in a car for several hours.  Maybe if I just got a little bit closer…

Normally I wouldn’t think to travel so far afield for habitat I could just as easily get around here, but it’s been a pretty slow migration this year.  Many birders suspect some strong southerly weather systems last week have have given the birds the opportunity to skip right over North Carolina on their way north this year.  That may be the case, but I wouldn’t go out without a fight.  I needed to go to where the birds are, or at least where they usually are.  I just needed to go west.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying I headed to the western edge of the Piedmont this weekend, to the foothills of the mountains in Winston-Salem to a reliably good migration trap called Reynolda Gardens just off the campus of Wake Forest University.  Those who have felt the tempting pull of sweet lady nicotine may recognize the name, Reynolda is derived from none other than cigarette magnate R.J. Reynolds.  This is North Carolina after all.  The gardens, and in fact the entire campus of Wake Forest University, lie on the grounds of the Reynolds’ former country estate.

I have to say, I found it somewhat odd to see this area celebrated when the tobacco industry, of which the current incarnation of R.J. Reynolds is still a significant part, is well-known to obfuscate responsibility for their product and the inherent health issues.  I mean, the grounds themselves are centered by an enormous house that once belonged to the Reynolds family.  A house that was built at the expense of those for whom tobacco contributed to an early grave.  It’s an art museum and a historic site now, which is better I guess, but it stands as a testimony to the sort of obscene wealth one can accumulate when you stop caring about the well-being of your fellow human beings (see also Blackwater and Goldman-Sachs).  There’s a serious fortune to be made there, folks.

Aaaanyway, the birds.  I came across a Forsyth County Audubon Society walk and chatted with a few of the locals about Reynolda and where I should go.  There was a pair of Bluebirds actively hunting in the grass nearby.  I managed to get a quick shot of the male as it flew back to its box.  I fired off a burst of shots and the one below is actually the very corner of the last shot.  It’s nothing special, but I thought it looked pretty cool.

There was also a very loud Great Crested Flycatcher picking these huge beetles off of an oak tree. Not a bad start before I headed into the densely wooded part of the property.

I was looking for warblers that take a more westerly route, those aforementioned Appalachian highway stars that only infrequently make it as far east as Chapel Hill.  I didn’t really have any luck with warblers, and a couple Gray-cheeked Thrushes along with the futuristic ray gun songs of many many Swainson’s Thurshes made it certain the trip wasn’t a complete bust on the bird front (Any day when you hear a Catharus sing is a good day), but I did find hundreds of Cedar Waxwings.

Every single tree was full of them, one giant flock of birds flycatching, berry-grabbing, chasing each other around and all the while incessantly calling.  It was as if I’d suddenly come down with a case of situational tinnitus, the background was filled with the high pitched squeal of Waxwings.  I’d never seen so many in my life.  And as much as I like Waxwings, it was a little much.

In the midst of this auditory onslaught I heard the bad brakes song of a nearby Blackpoll Warbler and followed it to find an individual feeding in a pine not more than ten feet off the ground.  As this was likely my best shot ever to get a photo of one of these guys, I hung around and was eventually rewarded for my patience with it hopped down to no more than five feet from me!  I was able to take advantage.  Hooray for the new camera!

It was hardly the warbler bonanza I had anticipated, but it wasn’t a total loss.  I guess I’ll just have to accept that this is one of those low years and get out east or west as soon as I’m able to do so.

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5 Comments
  1. May 17, 2010 7:33 am

    I feel lucky living in New York City now….we just have to go to the local park for our warbler bonanza!

    Nice shots of the Blackpoll and here’s hoping that the warblers at least pay you a visit on their way back south.

  2. Nate permalink*
    May 17, 2010 10:20 am

    @Corey- Yeah, you’re definitely lucky. It seems like spring migrants really congregate at certain areas and are spread a little thin elsewhere.

    Fall migration is definitely better than spring around here and I’ll undoubtedly pick up some of the species I missed this spring.

  3. May 17, 2010 11:56 am

    Nice pics of that Blackpoll! Still haven’t seen one yet this spring, though I’ve heard them a couple of times recently. Hope they don’t bugger off before I catch one in the binocs!

  4. Nate permalink*
    May 18, 2010 8:51 am

    @Robert- Thanks! They’ll be around for a few more days, I’ve had quite a few this past week. Better get them now, they’re hard to find in the fall because they migrate down the coast!

  5. May 19, 2010 6:47 pm

    Finally got a Blackpoll Warbler in the bins this afternoon! Took it long enough.

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