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.  

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Artful birding

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 there are more birding opportunities available in Haywood County. If you’re interested in linking up with birders in the area try the Carolina Field Birders at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/CFBlist/ or contact Connie Wulkowicz at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. There is also a new Audubon Chapter in the area, Great Smoky Mountains Audubon at  http://gsmas.com/Site/Welcome.html.

And please support your local arts council and join us for another fund day, next year at the 14th annual Birding for the Arts.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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/.

(Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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.  

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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,

ermine trim,

scarlet-crested crown.

But would royalty be caught

backing down a dead hickory.

 

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Slip-sliding away

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.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and a naturalist. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Cold-weather wimps

No, I’m not talking about those of us who stay in the warm confines at Cataloochee, nursing Ninja porters, while the kids hit the slopes. These cold-weather wimps are ruby-throated hummingbirds. As most of you hummer-watchers know, our ruby-throats, basically the only nesting hummers in the eastern U.S., have generally all departed for warmer climes by the end of October. But are the times and maybe the climes changing?

My recent (Jan. 8-16) weekly installment of “This Week at Hilton Pond” titled “Winter Hummingbirds in the U.S. (Ruby-Throats & Global Warming)” raised some really interesting questions. This Week at Hilton Pond is a weekly e-newsletter produced by Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History’s executive director Bill Hilton Jr.

Hilton is no stranger to winter hummers. He has banded more than 80 winter hummers since 1991. I met Hilton back in 2002 when he came to the residence of Ted and Ann Kirby in Waynesville and banded a rufous hummingbird that had taken up residence — see www.smokymountainnews.com/issues/ 11_02/11_27_02/out_lola.html.

Hilton noted in the newsletter that despite all the vagrant hummers he had banded he had never banded a ruby-throated after Oct. 18 or before March 27. But according to Hilton’s account all of that changed this past December when he got a call from a friend from Buxton. This friend, who lives between the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound, reported that she had at least a half-dozen ruby-throated hummingbirds coming to feeders in her yard.

Hilton said they arrived in Buxton around 1:30 p.m. and that by 2 p.m. they had their first ruby-throat (a female) in the trap. In two days at Buxton, Hilton banded nine winter ruby-throats, seven (five females and two immature males) in his friend’s yard and two other females at an alternate site. Hilton noted that all the hummers were healthy and one was even going through its annual mid-winter molt.

Hilton, like any good scientist, is never more than a reflective moment away from “why” and/or “how.” And like any good scientist he would never posit one event as proof of anything, but keen anecdotal observations are the precursor of any hypothesis worth more study.

Hilton reflects that the warm Gulf Stream is only about 10 miles offshore of the Outer Banks and that it helps to moderate winter temps. But, “… even though the Gulf Stream has been this close for millennia there were NO reports of winter ruby-throats in North Carolina before about 1995 or so,” writes Hilton. He believes that ruby-throats on the Outer Banks may be benefiting from ever-so-slight increases in annual winter temperatures – gasp! “Climate change.”

Hilton writes, “… Mountaintop glaciers melting … polar ice fields shrinking … droughts worsening … severe storms increasing … ocean levels rising (and even affecting dunes and beaches at Cape Hatteras National Seashore) … and now “cold weather wimp” ruby-throated hummingbirds wintering where they never have before …” and wonders out loud, “… if – because of their recently acquired ability to survive WITHOUT migrating to the neotropics – ruby-throated hummingbirds are THE species that finally drives home the point that global warming is for real?”

To read Hilton’s entertaining narrative regarding the winter ruby-throats (along with his usual outstanding photography) and/or to learn more about Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History visit www.hiltonpond.org.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Northern Pintail

Thanks to a head’s up from Tim Carstens last Sunday morning (1/15), I saw a drake northern pintail, Anas acuta, at Lake Junaluska. This “nomad of the sky” is cosmopolitan in distribution, breeding in northern Europe, Asia and North America. Its range has been estimated at more than 11 million square miles and it is known to overwinter as far south as Panama, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Some even make it to Hawaii and other Pacific Islands for their winter break. Not even oceans can deter this sleek strong flyer. One pintail tagged in Labrador, Canada, was found nine days later in England and several pintails tagged in Japan have been recovered from the U.S., as far east as Mississippi.

In North America, the northern pintail breeds from the prairie pothole region of the Upper Midwest across Canada and Alaska. Nearly half of this population migrates through California. Many overwinter in California’s Central Valley but others continue south to the west coast of Mexico. Northern pintails in the Central Flyway overwinter from the Texas Panhandle down to the Gulf coast of Texas and Louisiana, most of those in the Mississippi Flyway spend their winter in Louisiana with smaller numbers spread throughout Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee. The primary wintering range for northern pintails in the Atlantic Flyway is along the Atlantic coast of New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida. North Carolina generally accounts for 50 percent or more of this population.

The drake northern pintail is one handsome dude. The head is chocolate brown with a clean white stripe that snakes up from the white breast and neck. The back and sides are slate-gray with black highlights and it has a bright white rump patch. The “pin” tail is long. It can account for a quarter of the total length of an adult mail in breeding plumage. The middle two tail feathers are black and the outside ones are gray with white margins. An iridescent green speculum is displayed in flight and the bill is blue with a black stripe in the center and black margins.

The female is more muted with a tawny head and a mottled brown and white body. Her bill is dark blue-gray, usually with darker blotches. The female has a rather long pointed tail as duck tails go, but nothing comparable to the male’s pin.

The drake’s tail accounts for most of the colloquial names — like spiketail, sprigtail, sprig, etc. but I knew them in Louisiana as snakeheads. I’m not sure of the origin of this name, but I’ve heard two accounts. One is the white stripe that “snakes” up the drake’s head and the other is in reference to the bird’s habits. Pintails are a skittish lot and when they’re on the water and they become alarmed they raise their heads up on their long snake-like necks to get a better look around.

Because of the pintail’s immense range and global population it is listed as a species of least concern. However, the northern pintail’s North American population has been in a tailspin since the late 1950s. Numbers have dropped from an estimated 10 million in 1957 to around 3 million today. Disease has played a part in the loss of North American pintails, both in the past and more recently. Two outbreaks of avian botulism in Canada and Utah in 1997 claimed close to a million pintails. But loss of habitat and changes in agriculture appear to be the most serious threats to North American pintails.

Numbers from the Atlantic Flyway mirror this dramatic decline. The Atlantic Flyway Midwinter Survey recorded an average of about 250,000 birds in the late 1950s. Today’s survey records about 50,000 pintails.

North Carolina joined South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and Florida in 2004 to create a multiagency project committed to finding ways to reverse this population decline.

(Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Rain for wind

This year’s ninth annual Balsam Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was held Friday Dec. 30. As I was driving home from work at 7 a.m. that Friday morning things were looking good. By the time I got a nap and met Paul Super, who had graciously agreed to help out, and his friend Patrick Flaherty beating the bushes around Autumn Care, it was about 12:30 p.m. and the wind was bllloooooowwwwiiinnggg!

Now wind is a terrible obstacle for birders. Birds are prone to sit tight rather than be buffeted around and you can’t here a chip note or song unless you’re within 50 feet or so of the source. But after last year’s 10 hours in the pouring rain, wind wasn’t so bad.

Paul and Patrick had already done the yeoman’s work, recording more than 30 species.

We left Autumn Care and went down to the vicinity of Barber’s Orchard to an area that had historically been very good for sparrows. Much of the landscape was altered due to the EPA cleanup or arsenic from the old orchard. While we were lamenting the lack of sparrows we looked up to see a gorgeous adult bald eagle, right overhead, flying low across the open spaces. That made us feel a little better about the lack of sparrows.

We kicked around a little more and flushed a pretty rufous-looking sparrow-sized bird from the brambles. We were all on the same page, thinking fox sparrow. But try as we might we could never coax the bird up again and, of course, no one got a fox sparrow for the count.

In fact the count total, 65 species, tied the record low for species. It was the same number we recorded last year and I, for one, would much rather be dry and wind-blown with 65 species than soaked to the bone with 65 species.

And while we tied our low record for bird species, we may have set a record for participation. I think Bob Olthoff, count compiler, said we had nearly 30 participants for this year’s count. It was a great mixture of tried and true troopers plus a good dose of new blood.

Paul, Patrick and I left the orchard and made a couple of short stops before making it to the Waynesville watershed. The reservoir was vacant of waterfowl for the second year in a row.

We did get to add golden-crowned kinglet, brown creeper, ruffed grouse and common raven to our list at the watershed. We still dipped on what one would think would be an easy find in the watershed — pileated woodpecker. We also didn’t have a regular winter resident in the area — hermit thrush. We decided to leave the watershed and head back to an area near the Waynesville Rec Center where we frequently find hermit thrushes in the winter. We dipped again.

By this time it was getting late and Patrick needed to go. I dropped Paul and Patrick and made one more mad dash to the watershed hoping to call up an owl at dusk. Once again — the best laid plans of mice and birders — not an owl around. But the bird gods smile and as I was dashing around the watershed, I spooked a hermit thrush that flushed and flew across the road right in front of me. It was the only one recorded on the count.

The lies, I mean stories, warm, tasty food and cool libations at Bocelli’s were as enjoyable and congenial as ever. And when we counted down the list we had two brand new species for the count despite the overall low total. Our group and one other nearby had seen the adult bald eagle and the Lake Junaluska group had an immature so we recorded two bald eagles (new species), and the Lake Junaluska group also recorded a greater scaup which was new for the circle.

As usual the Balsam CBC wishes to thank the staff and management at Bocelli’s for putting up with a bunch of noisy birders and to also thank the Town of Waynesville for access to the watershed and Waynesville residents Jim Francis and Glen Tolar for access to their private property.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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