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Monday, July 4, 2011

The Bird That Almost Wasn't

If there’s one thing you’ve heard of the Carolina Sandhills for, it’s probably golf. Apparently the sands from the ancient coastline that graced the region millions of years ago makes for good greenskeeping or something. Oh, and you’ve probably heard of the Fort Bragg Military Reservation. But there should be a third reason you’ve heard of the Sandhills.

The very geography that makes the region a haven for upper-class golfers (redundant?) also gives it vast forests of pine with a nice savannah understory, and that means the wildlife in the region is found nowhere else in North Carolina. Stuff like Pine Snakes, Florida Cooters, and even a species of tree frog whose nearest disjunct population is in New Jersey. Oh yeah, and, you know, birds.

I decided we’d go down to the site where I’d gone this past April to check out North Carolina’s first record of Cassin’s Sparrow. It had a whole bunch of birds that would be lifers for James, species which I wouldn’t mind getting better looks at anyway. Driving around the dirt road, many common grassland species were present in numbers, like Eastern Kingbird and Orchard Oriole, and even an unexpected Cooper’s Hawk (those guys are always unexpected for me).

But the main draw of this site is the nearby Red-cockaded Woodpecker colony, a species which almost exclusively nests in live Longleaf Pines that have low amounts of deciduous vegetation around them. There were many marked nest holes around, and even some active feeding trees – you can tell them by the sap that drips down the trunk and becomes white when it dries.

Longleaf Pine with sap wells - Scotland Co., NC; 06/30/2011

Unfortunately, there were no actual woodpeckers to be found, so we cruised around trying to listen for their squeaky calls. All that netted us was a flyover Common Nighthawk, which would have been a lifer for James but we couldn’t ever actually locate the bird.

As we walked down one of the sandy roads, we found this juvenile Southeastern Five-lined Skink, commonly known ‘round these parts as a Blue-tailed Skink. This particular youngster decided that James’s shoe was totally a good hiding place, and I had to end up fishing him out of the sneaker when he tried to dive under James’s foot!

Southeastern Five-lined Skink in shoe - Scotland Co., NC; 06/30/2011

So, it was off to our next locale, Weymouth Woods Nature Preserve, which I’ve heard from several veteran NC birders is the spot to find the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. I just wish they’d told the birds, because despite finding several nest holes we struck out on the woodpeckers once again. The savannah understory was very interesting however – it was odd hearing grassland species like Indigo Bunting and Prairie Warbler in the middle of a vast pine forest. In any case, at this point James was feeling pretty disappointed, so we decided to go back to the first Red-cockaded spot and just plant until one showed up. It was a long-shot, but it was the only shot we had.

Sitting around the nest-holes, we saw several other woodpeckers – Red-headed, Red-bellied, even Pileated, but no signs of the bird we were looking for. A Northern Bobwhite cried plaintively over the nearby field, and it was beginning to feel like we’d made the hour-and-a-half drive down here for nothing. Then, all of a sudden, there it was – you could have mistaken it for an odd Brown-headed Nuthatch if you weren’t paying attention, but in reality it sounds more like a high-pitched Red-headed Woodpecker. It flew in and started drumming on a tree, and then a second showed up – Red-cockaded Woodpeckers!

Red-cockaded Woodpecker - Scotland Co., NC; 06/30/2011

James was highly relieved at this point, he’d really wanted to see one of these fine endangered species, but seeing two was a real treat. Almost as if on cue, just fifty feet from where we’d been watching the woodpeckers, I heard the distinctive tremolo of a Bachman’s Sparrow, another Sandhills specialty which we’d managed to miss at both sites before.

Bachman's Sparrow - Scotland Co., NC; 06/30/2011

Lucky for us, this nice male let us get very close – he just sat up on an exposed perch belting out his song while we crept closer and closer, and only bailed when we got within five feet or so. This one really showed off the subtle plumage of the Bachman’s Sparrow – blurry russet streaks offset the beige, and there’s a hint of mustard yellow to the wings; truly, it is a birder’s bird.

Click through for best quality!

Well, that took care of both of our targets for the day. Two lifers for James, two great looks at great birds for me, and thankfully, in the end, one great day of birding!

Bachman's Sparrow singing - Scotland Co., NC; 06/30/2011

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