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Sunday, October 14, 2012

Brace Yourselves...

Winter is coming. I first noticed when I got out of my car in the Mason Farm parking lot. The air was cool and crisp, with a clear blue sky overhead. A flock of Cedar Waxwings flew in the trees above the creek, and my first White-throated Sparrows of the season chipped away in the brambles. The whole place was surprisingly birdy, perhaps because everything was trying to fatten up before it got really cold.

I never give up the opportunity to watch a confiding bird, even one so common as a Mockingbird.

While the winter birds began trickling in, the migrants were trickling out. At first we couldn’t find any real migrants, and instead contented ourselves with a lagging flock of Palm Warblers that flitted through a field of Queen Anne’s lace, picking at chaff and working its way along the tree line.

If only they'd let themselves be photographed, but as with all warblers, easier said than done.

Most surprising were the stragglers, those summer birds that haven’t yet made their way south. Among the vocal Yellow-rumped Warblers, we found breeding birds like Red-eyed Vireo, Indigo Bunting, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. It’s hard to imagine seeing birds like this on a day when the temperature dips in the 50s – I’m used to seeing them in weather more than 30 degrees warmer! After picking through tons of these birds, we finally began to see our promised migrants, highlighted by a pair of Black-throated Blue Warblers that foraged right in front of us.

No picture can do this fantastic bird justice. What a treat!

As we continued along the trail, I heard the loud, sharp notes that signaled a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers up ahead. As we reached the forested area, I saw a bird fly to the right, and immediately had it in my binocs. One of the woodpeckers was making its way up the tree. I’ve always liked Hairy Woodpeckers because, despite looking extremely similar to Downy Woodpeckers in field guides, they’re immediately distinguishable in the field thanks to their size. James snapped a couple pics in the general area, and pointed out to me an odd bird, which perhaps not coincidentally then flew off. That was the bird I’d seen fly in, and the woodpecker was merely in the background. Then James showed me the pic.

Somehow, an almost unmistakable bird.

It was a Gray-cheeked Thrush, a species I haven’t seen in years. I’m still kicking myself for not being more focused and getting a better look at the bird. Even so, I had to be happy for James. It’s a lifer for him, which is something that’s happening less and less these days. I think he's the only birder in history to get his lifer Gray-cheeked before his lifer Swainson's!

We exited the forest, and started walking past some of the large fields. Just when I thought I’d go all winter without finding one, I heard a distinctive nasally call I’ve been training myself to recognize. I’ve heard tell it’s a good year for these guys, and after getting them on my last two outings, I’m inclined to agree. A little playback and a small bird flew like a feathered dart into the tree next to me. It’s a species I see all too infrequently, and one I’m hoping to get to know better this winter: a Red-breasted Nuthatch.

I've seen five nuthatch species in my life, and this is by far my favorite!

Ever since I started birding, the North Carolina winters have seen poor numbers of Red-breasted Nuthatch. But apparently the pine crop failed up north this year, which means the birds are starting to enter the state in droves – and it’s not even really that cold yet. Hopefully, the nuthatches are just a harbinger for large flocks of irruptive finches, which could include Evening Grosbeaks and Red Crossbills if we’re lucky. It’s been almost twenty years since the grosbeaks came to the state in any numbers, but if it’s going to happen again, it might as well be now. This winter is going to be cold as Hell on Hoth, and the birds already know it. Brace yourselves.

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