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Wednesday, 05 March 2008 00:00

Unexpected guest

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There are almost as many reasons for watching birds as there are birders. Whether you are a backyard birder content to fill the feeders and occasionally glance out the window to see who’s flitting about or a hardcore lister, traveling the globe to tick off as many lifers as possible, there’s no denying the attraction of these amazing creatures.

Most birders probably fall somewhere in between those two extremes enjoying parts of many different aspects of birding. Many, like myself, keep the feeders full and enjoy the guests that come to dine plus enjoy getting in the field to check out different habitats for different species and anticipate the occasional birding trek to new and different environs.

But there is one aspect of birding that titillates the novice and the expert alike. That is the unexpected. The unexpected may be a new species — a new tick on that life list for those who keep lists, or simply a bird never seen before for the more relaxed birder. The unexpected can be a known species that shows up in a brand new setting like the Scott’s oriole — a first North Carolina state record — that showed up at a feeder in Conover this winter. Or it could be observing unexpected behavior from birds you thought you knew well. I remember the surprise at finding numerous scarlet tanagers (normally canopy dwellers) foraging on the ground during fall migration a few years ago.

Well, my unexpect-o meter got another jolt last week. I was passing the large kitchen windows watching the hordes of marauding pine siskins clamoring over all the feeders devouring everything in sight when, there in the middle of a pile of brown-streaked siskins, was a larger olive and yellow specimen. A closer look revealed a pine warbler.

Pine warblers are common breeders across the Southeast including coastal North Carolina, the Piedmont and into the foothills but are generally absent from the mountains of Western North Carolina. We do get a few spring and fall migrants.

Many pine warblers in the Southeast from coastal North Carolina all the way across to east Texas are residents. These birds are joined in the winter by birds that nest north to New England and areas of southern Canada.

One reason we don’t have pine warblers in the mountains is because they are habitat specialists. They are not called oak warblers or poplar warblers — they are pine warblers and they stick to pine forests.

There are regular accounts of pine warblers throughout the winter along the coast and into the Piedmont of North Carolina, but what was this one doing in the mountains? We will never know for sure, but there are a couple of likely scenarios.

The bird showed up on the heels of one of the fronts that passed through the area last week. He — it was a male in fresh plumage — could have been a resident bird, wintering south and west of here that got jostled a bit by one of the fronts. Or he could be a migrant.

According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” Web site, “The Pine Warbler is one of the first warblers to return to the North in spring, arriving as early as February in areas just north of the wintering range.”

I like the second scenario. This guy hung around for about three days, eating mostly from the peanut butter log, but enjoying the occasional black-oil sunflower seed, then hoped on the next front headed north. He should be in Canada ready to set up housekeeping by mid-April.

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

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