Those quiet mornings are starting to set in. Yesterday, the only morning chorister in full song, in my yard was a Carolina wren. My summer-hooded warbler could be heard occasionally, but it was like he was humming to himself. Immature towhees were shouting out “drink!” from the tangles and there was an assortment of humming bird squeaks and chickadee and titmouse grousing but the rousing morning chorus that has been with us since early May is gone.
As we started over the bridge on the Isle of Palms Connector, I noticed a line of large black and white birds through the pine trees. “Gourd heads,” I must have said out loud, because my wife said, “What?”
“Wood storks,” I said, pointing to the undulating line of five or six wood storks, alternately flapping and gliding across the marsh at low tide.
New York City is big, bustling and in July – hot, but there are always entertaining and even educational ways to escape the heat. The planets aligned just right giving both Denise and me the entire July Fourth week off.
We donned our tourist attitudes and headed north for a visit with Denise’s sister in Eastampton, New Jersey and a short train ride and a day in the Big Apple with Izzy (10) and Maddie (6).
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about scarlet tanagers, a showy rather common species I assumed most were familiar with. But at least 10 readers emailed or otherwise contacted me to say they had located and seen their first scarlet tanager because I had described their vocalizations. In that regard, let’s see what we can do with rose-breasted grosbeaks.
“The scarlet tanager flies through the green foliage as if it would ignite the leaves.
You can hardly believe that a living creature can wear such colors.”
— Henry David Thoreau
This seems to be a scarlet tanager kind of year. I’ve been seeing and hearing them at my house, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and in the Great Smokies. No bird in our region is more striking. Jet black wings on a trim red almost luminescent body, the male is impossible to overlook. And it’s easy to recognize by both song and call.
I almost never encounter the summer tanager (whose entire body is rosy red) in Western North Carolina, but the scarlet tanager is encountered every year — to a greater or lesser extent — during the breeding season (mid-April to mid-October) in mature woodlands (especially slopes with pine and oak) between 2,000 and 5,000 feet in elevation. The bird winters in northwestern South America, where it enjoys the company of various tropical tanagers that do not migrate.
Keep in mind that the female doesn’t resemble her mate except in shape. She is olive-green or yellow-orange in color. Also keep in mind there is a variant form (morph) of the male tanager that is orange rather than scarlet in color. I suspect this variant is the result of something peculiar in its diet. My first and only encounter with an orange scarlet tananger was in the Lake Junaluska area several years ago.
The call note used by both the male and female is a distinctive “chip-burr … chip-burr.” The male’s song is not pretty. He sounds like a robin with a sore throat; that is, the notes in the song are hoarse and raspy. When gathering nesting material, the female sometimes sings a shorter “whisper” song in response to the male’s louder song.
Males in adjacent territories often engage in combative counter-singing and will, as a last resort, go beak-to-beak. On our property, a creek sometimes serves as a boundary — the line drawn in the sand, as it were. The males sing defiantly at one another across the water and sometimes make forays into enemy territory. Meanwhile, the female is busy incubating her eggs. When not squabbling with a nearby male, her mate brings food.
I had to take my shoes off to get there, but I believe last Saturday (April 28) was the 13th annual Birding for the Arts. BFA is part of the Haywood County Arts Council’s “Fund Party Series” – entertaining, fun events that help fund the Arts Council and all the wonderful things they provide for our community. You can learn more about the Arts Council and their Fund Party Series plus much more at www.haywoodarts.org.
Gracious and enthusiastic hosts for this annual event are Joe Sam and/or Kate Queen. We meet at 8 a.m. at the Performing Arts Center to get a quick overview of the day and begin our birding. This is where we pad our list. If you’re looking for numbers on a daily bird trip, you have to include the common “yard birds” like European starling, mockingbird, robin, house sparrow, etc.
After the Performing Arts Center we set out for Lake Junaluska, then to the Blue Ridge Parkway, where we dine at the Waynesville Overlook before heading on up and then descending down either N.C. highway 215 or U.S. 276, through the forests to the farmlands of Bethel and back to the Performing Arts Center.
Guests are free, of course, to bird for as long or little as they wish. The whole day generally lasts till around 5 or 5:30 p.m., and we wind up with around 80 species. We keep an “official” tally and, of course, not everyone sees and or hears every bird recorded but we do our best to get visuals where we can and point out songs and or calls. We had 13 participants meet at the Performing Arts Center this spring and six plus Kate and I stuck it out for the whole day, recording 83 species.
The thing about birding one day during spring migration is there are always hits and misses. Last Friday, there were Cape May and palm warblers at Lake Junaluska but neither was present on Saturday. However, great looks at a black-crowned night heron at the new wetlands and a common loon in full breeding plumage fishing just 50 feet or so from the shore provided a couple of good hits to make up for those misses. We also got outstanding looks at an osprey perched near Highway 19.
The Parkway started out a little slow but the Waynesville Overlook was productive as usual. We lunched with rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, blue-headed and red-eyed vireos, chestnut-sided warblers and blackburnian warblers.
We didn’t see any peregrines at Devil’s Courthouse, but we did get up close and personal looks at a pair of Canada warblers. We were also able to list golden-crowned kinglets from there, as we heard them but couldn’t get any looks.
We were kinda stuck in the high 70s species wise, but our last stop at a wet area near Bethel gave us the boost we needed by adding yellow warbler, blue-gray gnatcatcher, great blue heron, blue-winged teal, wood duck and belted kingfisher.
Birding for the Arts is a great low-key yet high quality birding experience for novice and experienced birders. And if you can’t spend an entire day – the morning, through lunch at the Waynesville Overlook, is well worth the ticket price. I believe we tallied 61 species by the time lunch was over last Saturday.
And please support your local arts council and join us for another fund day, next year at the 14th annual Birding for the Arts.
At Wild South’s recent “Green Tie Gala,” friend, writer, poet and publisher Thomas Rain Crowe, with a knowing wink, slipped a slim beautifully bound chapbook into my hands. I cracked it open immediately upon arriving home and read the first poem “Antidote to Narcissus:”
I’ve heard the great blue heron
Cannot see its own reflection
Cast from the water’s surface —
a gift that it may never lose a fish
in the image of a perfect eye
or fail to see a frog amid
such slate feathers shed
from a rookery on high.
If only we could fade that way
Into the mist of rivers,
Into rhododendron shade;
If only we could be so beautiful
And not know a thing about it.
I perused some of the 14 other titles — “Parable of the Flycatcher,” “The Nuthatch,” “Hawks: A Homily,” “Parable of the Wren,” — then closed the book and left it on the kitchen counter near the coffee pot to wait for dawn.
Next morning with coffee and book in hand, I sat out on the deck where towhees were conferring with chickadees and cardinals conversed with wrens to read the rest of A Conference of Birds. The book is Christopher Martin’s first book of poetry. Martin lives in the Georgia piedmont near Kennesaw Mountain with his wife and two children and is pursuing a Master of Arts in Professional Writing at Kennesaw State University. He is the editor of the online literary magazine “Flycatcher: A Journal of Native Imagination” and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in “Shambhala Sun,” “Loose Change Magazine,” “New Southerner,” “Buddhist Poetry Review,” and others. Martin is working on “Native Moments: An Ecology of Fatherhood,” a collection of essays and has contributed to the “Elevate/Art Above Underground” project in Atlanta.
Nature has called to poets ever since there have been poets. It spurred ancient Greek poet Theocritus to pen his idylls and has been muse for every epoch of literary history. And poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns and Blake penned lines in the voice of their time and passed the baton on to Emerson, Thoreau, and others then followed by Frost, who knew how to turn a common phrase, and today in voices of their own poets like Oliver, and, closer to home, Ray and Crowe and others with open eyes, open ears and open hearts speak to us in clear voices. The speak not only about the world around us but how the world around us and the world within us is only one world.
Martin has a strong, clear and compelling voice to add — from “Hawks: A Homily” “… But I wonder how one can speak/of angels, whose wings we have not seen,/when red-tail hawks still fly over interstates/on black-dappled, rust, red, white-brushed,/creation-colored wings,/and nest on rooftops/angels never would.”
And he understands how those worlds are intertwined, “… My child cannot see that far,/I’m sure, cannot see the falling,/dancing flares of dark purple,/the swallows that follow dragonflies./Before my son, I’m not sure/I would have seen them, either,/not sure I would have opened my eyes.” From “Watching Purple Martins.”
I found Martin’s poetry tight and timely; what poetry is about — in the now, while brushing eternity. I know you can purchase A Conference of Birds here - http://www.spdbooks.org/Producte/9781883197261/a-conference-of-birds.aspx. Or for more information contact New Native Press at http://www.newnativepress.com/.
A couple of weeks ago I received an email from Rachel Reid of Andon-Reid Bed and Breakfast asking if I was up to leading a birding trip on March 31. Now, I’m quite pleased to mention that Andon-Reid has a birding package for their guests that includes my services as a guide – please see http://blog.andonreidinn.com/, but I was a bit concerned as March 31 is a bit early for migration in Western North Carolina. However, Rachel said her guests were insistent about a half-day birding package.
I was still a little bit skeptical when I arrived at the B&B around 8:30 a.m. last Saturday; concerned that the guests didn’t understand that our species pool would be limited to winter residents, plus perhaps a few waterfowl at Lake Junaluska and at best one or two early migrants. But when I sat down to have a cup of coffee with Dr. Ashwini Anand, his wife Prabhune and son Pavan, my fears were quickly dispelled.
The good doctor explained that he and his family loved to travel and that they were amateur photographers. He said that on a recent trip to Belize they had encountered a group on a birding tour and this group’s focus and excitement on observing birds was infectious. He said that he and his family were casual observers of feeders on their property in London, Ky., but after encountering the group in Belize they had become quite interested in learning more and more about birding. Their enthusiasm was contagious. It pricked at a kind of common bond I think most birders share at some level and recognize in others; they had been bitten by the bug.
Well we started out at Lake Junaluska in hopes that Friday’s storms had knocked some migrant waterfowl from the sky to go with the migrant swallows I knew had returned. We weren’t disappointed. We found northern shovelers, blue-winged teal, ruddy ducks, a lone female ring-necked duck, a couple of female buffleheads, double-crested cormorants, pied-billed grebes and a nicely colored common loon. And the birding gods were kind to us as near the new wetlands we found a mature bald eagle perched in a tree at the lake’s edge.
We got great looks at tree swallows, northern rough-winged swallows and purple martins at the lake but no barn swallows. That was quickly remedied when we made a short stop at Richland Creek just across the highway from the lake. Barn swallows were cruising the golf course. And as we were watching the barn swallows, Pavan noticed some movement in the brush at the edge of the creek. We watched as a song sparrow chased a Louisiana waterthrush out of the brambles and sent it farther down the creek.
As I mentioned, the Anands were avid photographers and long clear looks at the bird Thoreau said, “… carries the sky on his back” – eastern bluebird — plus cooperative American goldfinches and a red-winged blackbird showing off its epaulets led to a cacophony of shutter clicks that would make the paparazzi swoon.
With time running out we headed up the Blue Ridge Parkway to try for some high-elevation specialties. We were able to call up one small group of cooperative black-capped chickadees near Waterrock Knob before we had to head back to Andon-Reid. Back at the B&B we tallied our species list, I believe we wound up with 44 species. I think the Anands were pleased, I know I was. It is always a pleasure to be reconnected to that instinctive inspirational spark; that pure and simple joy that nature brings to the human psyche.
The tapping of pileateds ... means attachment to a nest site
and attachment of the members of a pair to each other . . .
When one pair of pileateds is especially excited about
meeting its mate, it bends its head and bill far back,
waving them back and forth in an arc of 45-degrees
as it jerks its whole body in what I call a ‘bill-waving dance.’
Thus, they keep their pair bonds strong with small ceremonies.
— Lawrence Kilham, “On Watching Birds” (1988)
Here in the Smokies region there are six woodpecker species one can anticipate encountering on a regular basis. Red-headed woodpeckers are sometimes reported, but I have only seen a few in the years that I’ve resided here. My favorite among this tribe is the pileated woodpecker. The common name can be correctly pronounced as either “pi-lee-a-tid” or “pill-ee-a-tid.” “Pileated” indicates the bird has a crest on its head. The word derives from a skullcap (a “pileaus”) worn in ancient Rome. Male and female pileateds can be easily distinguished: males sport red mustaches and full-red crests on their heads, while females display black mustaches and half-red, half-black crests.
Unlike the larger 21-inch-long ivory-billed woodpecker, the pileated proved adaptable to environmental changes wrought by man so that it has — after a period of setbacks — become a commonplace feature of both our backcountry and community woodlands. Spotting one of these 19-inch-long crow-sized birds isn’t at all uncommon. When you do flush one, it will sound loud “yucca, yucca, yucca” calls and flash its vivid white under-wing markings.
The mainstays of the big bird’s diet are ants and other wood-boring insects. Matchbook-size chips of bark and wood chiseled from a feeding tree or log are sure signs of its presence. Using its tail for support, the bird can back down a tree as easily as it can climbup a tree.
The species usually mates in February and then spends most of March digging a nest cavity. The rectangular entrance hole (other woodpeckers excavate entrance holes that are more or less round) will be located anywhere from 10 to 75 feet above ground. After the three to five eggs are laid in mid-April, incubation requires about 18 days.
Pileateds will often return to the same nest tree year after year, but a new nesting cavity is usually excavated each season. If you attempt to climb the nest tree and look through the entrance hole at the baby birds, it’s not unlikely that the parents will attack you with their formidable beaks.
A mother pileated has been photographed retrieving her eggs from a nest tree that was blown down. Shortly after the tree fell, she transferred the clutch of three to a new site.
One of the advantages of being a permanent resident rather than a migratory species is that individual birds can keep up with their mates from season to season. A lot of the ritual activity associated with pileateds, especially during the fall season, has to do with maintaining ongoing relationships. The online “Birds of North America” (available by subscription) provides additional background:
“When a mate dies, the surviving bird remains in the territory and seeks a new mate from adjacent areas. Once established, the pair defends the territory by drumming, calling, and chasing off intruders. A pair of Pileated Woodpeckers evicted young bluebirds from a nest cavity used by the woodpeckers the previous year and then enlarged the cavity and nested in it.
“Reactions to climbing snakes vary from concern to possible nest abandonment. Based on video camera data at 32 Pileated Woodpecker nests in Arkansas, black rat snakes entered 14 nest cavities. Adults ejected snakes at eight cavities, though the snake returned to 5 cavities. Nestlings fledged from only three of the 14 cavities with rat snake attacks. Adults appeared able to eject snakes that were smaller than 60 inches in length from nest cavities.”
Let’s close with this little poem by Maxwell Corydon Wheat Jr., that I happened upon on the I-net:
Pileated Woodpecker …
dressed for his coronation
in ebony cape,
But would royalty be caught
backing down a dead hickory.
Dateline 1999: David Kullivan a forestry/wildlife student at Louisiana State University, tells faculty that while turkey hunting in the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area, a pair of ivory-billed woodpeckers foraged in trees as close as 10 yards from him. Soon after, an expert-avian search team fielded in part by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and funded largely by Zeiss Optics hit the woods to track down this fabled icon of southern bottomland hardwood forests. After weeks of searching, the search team was left scratching their heads as the ethereal Lord God Bird once again vanished into the impenetrable swamp.
Dateline 2000-2004: zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz … For most, thoughts of ivorybills had faded back into the foggy swamps.
Dateline April 28, 2005: Announcement of the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker made by John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, at the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. Those present included Gale Norton (then Secretary of the Interior), Michael Johanns (then Secretary of Agriculture) and the Congressional delegation from Arkansas where the bird had been “rediscovered” on Bayou de View. And there were no cautions or qualifications as Fitzpatrick announced: “For a bird guy, I can’t begin to tell you how thrilling it is — it’s thrilling beyond words to stand here with two cabinet members at my side … After 60 years of fading hopes that we would ever see this spectacular bird again, the ivory-billed woodpecker has been rediscovered.”
Now we have to backtrack just a bit because Cornell was actually doubling-down on “evidence” they acquired in spring 2004, but they were buying time to, according to the Cornell University News Service, “… allow the search team to gather convincing evidence of the bird’s existence.”
May 2005: Not to be outdone, Auburn ornithologist Geoff Hill and students “find” ivory-billed woodpeckers on the Choctawhatchee River in the Florida Panhandle. In fact, Hill estimated that there were likely at least nine pairs of ivorybills in the Choctawhatchee.
And about that evidence:
Cornell’s 2006 search results: The single best piece of evidence obtained was the four-second video footage taken by David Luneau on 25 April 2004. In total, the Cornell search team spent 35,440 hours engaged in various forms of search activity including man-hours plus automatic cameras and automatic sound-recording devices.
Cornell went on to expand their search (increasing man and remote sensing hours), sending teams to Florida and Louisiana through 2009.
So where does that bring us to today? Private, individual searchers continue to find ivory-billed woodpeckers. Some have even produced their own blurry videos. Yet none have produced any kind of clear images and none have been able to take researchers back and document sightings.
When this saga began a lot was made about not being able to prove a negative – in other words there is no way to prove that ivorybills are extinct, I mean we can’t have someone under every tree at the same time, right? But it looks like the scientific community has decided to take on the challenge.
July 2011: Dr. Nicholas J. Gotelli, University of Vermont, et al, publishes “Specimen-based modeling, Stopping Rules, and the Extinction of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.” Gotelli put the odds at finding a live ivory-billed at less than 1 in 15,625.
October 2011: Andrew Solow of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, et al, publishes “Uncertain Sightings and the Extinction of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker,” which concludes there is, “…substantial support for extinction.”
I hear the ringing call of another iconic woodpecker in my ears – ha-ha-ha-HA-ha! ha-ha-ha-HA-ha! ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.