Birding in the Fog, May 22-24, 2022


Ah, cell service? Nope, non-existent at the visitor center when we arrived at 10 o’clock on Sunday morning.  We were unable to reach one member of our group who wasn’t arriving until lunch.  

The weather was beautiful, though, for a walk on the .8 mile Elk Run Trail loop.  We heard our first Cerulean as well as Hooded and Blackburnian Warblers.  We then drove to the picnic area for a peaceful lunch along the creek there.

After lunch we went to the Flat Top and Falling Waters Cascades trailhead.  On our mile long walk we heard a couple more Ceruleans, but we were yet to see one.  Several of us heard a beautiful chorus of three Hooded Warblers with one male clearly seen.  We left and headed back just in time as an afternoon storm was forecast for 4 o’clock.  It came right on time as we were checking into the hotel.

We saw quite a few more common species. Below, an Ovenbird and a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

We had dinner at the lodge restaurant where we were entertained by a trio of fiddlers.  After dinner we walked around Abbot Lake.  It was quite dark so we tried to call a Screech Owl, but no luck.  We were startled by a large brown blob (creature) that ran through our group.   The ID of the blob is still a mystery.  

Rain was forecast for 11:00 AM.  It was cool, but nice birding along Radar Road.  We heard Ceruleans but again couldn’t find one.  It was difficult seeing birds with the fog. 

We saw a beautiful red salamander though (redeft).  Shortly after that we were met by a group of researchers who were all headed out in full rain gear, looking for particular species called the Peaks of Otter salamander that is found only in Bedford and Botetourt counties.

Next, we started down Warbler Road.  We heard and saw several of the same warblers we’d heard on Sunday.  The fog rolled in and unfortunately it started raining shortly after 11:00 AM.  

We decided to eat lunch downstairs in the lodge rather than at the picnic area.  The fog was so thick we could barely see the lake.   After lunch Cynthia tested our birdsong ID skills on the warblers we’d been seeing.  Everyone did very well having heard them many times.  

With so much fog we decided it would not be worthwhile or safe to drive to the overlooks as planned.  Instead, we birded through the meadow, stepping over a little turtle on the path, and into the woods heading toward Johnson’s Farm.

We heard American Redstarts, Hooded and Cerulean Warblers.  Then suddenly we heard the clear, loud churee’-churee’-churee’ notes of a Kentucky Warbler right along our path.  Catherine spotted it and a couple of us got a really good unobstructed view of it sitting out on a branch, but then it flew.  Not giving up we followed it through the small patch of woods to the meadow on the other side.  The bird was in a large tree singing away.  We then spent an hour and 15 minutes searching for a bird that was right overhead, singing loudly and repeatedly, but the fog was dense.  Don said he looked at every leaf on that tree.  We didn’t find it.

We took a break out of the rain at the visitor center and did charade-like imitations of birds to entertain ourselves: hummingbird, bittern, Louisiana and northern waterthrushes, crane, woodpecker and others.  We walked around the lake in the rain with the goal of finding just one more species.  We did find Cedar Waxwings.  They, along with Eastern Phoebes and Barn Swallows (photo on right), didn’t seem to mind the rain at all.

Since it was raining steadily at 7:00 AM, we decided to wait and hope it would let up.  Some of us had breakfast at the lodge restaurant while we waited.  About 8:30 four of us decided to head back toward Johnson Farm in light rain in search of the Kentucky Warbler.  We found it again in the same location.  Becky spotted it and a couple more of us got a good look at it.  We continued on to the farm, but the birds were not very active so we headed home.

In spite of the weather everyone was in good spirits the whole time.  It was a light hearted crew providing me a memorable experience in leading my first Forsyth Audubon trip.

Thanks to Barb Barucki and Cynthia Donaldson for sharing some of the photos used in this story.

By Jesse Anderson

For any adventure – no matter the weather or bird activity, or unforeseen circumstances – great company often makes for a great story. As we barrel through the calendar year, endlessly filling our backyard feeders, installing native plants…waiting for a time when we can again re-group to enjoy birds together. For now I thought I’d share our story.

Leading my first winter trip with Forsyth Audubon, there was a natural drive to do things a bit differently – change some things up to make it fun and interesting, considering we have been traveling as an organization to the Outer Banks for a long while now. I was interested in sharing a “seldom-visited” birding hotspot, which I have grown to love, Lake Phelps, AKA Pettigrew State Park. At a whopping 16,600 acres, Lake Phelps is North Carolina’s second largest natural lake. As we arrived at Pettigrew State Park, driving through six or more inches of water and winds howling, we all secretly knew birding was going to be tough. While waiting for everyone to arrive, a couple of Bald Eagles of various ages flew overhead – maybe there was hope. One thing you can’t ever plan for is weather, and boy did this weather stir things up.

Getting by with a little help from our friends - from getting cold feet along the flooded Bodie Island boardwalk. Photo by Jesse Anderson.

Getting by with a little help from our friends – from getting cold feet along the flooded Bodie Island boardwalk. Photo by Jesse Anderson.

Walking out to the boat ramp, we could see turbulent waters ahead. We were able to view a few hunkered down winter songbirds, but it wasn’t easy. With strong winds blowing, Lake Phelps looked more like a rough ocean than a lake – nothing out on the lake except some whitecaps! In an attempt to salvage the stop, we headed toward the “sheltered” south leeward side of the lake, where the waterfowl were hopefully hiding. Less than halfway there, we encountered downed trees blocking the only road to the access. Enough with this, on to the Outer Banks!

A quick stop for lunch at Sugar Shack Seafood Market, just over the Roanoke Sound as you travel into the Outer Banks. Weather wasn’t only turbulent for the birds, it caused an upwelling in the whole schedule – the road down to Cape Hatteras was completely flooded – as lunch quickly turned into spreading word of overturned UPS trucks and floating Jeep 4×4 vehicles. Luckily, our amazing group was able to overcome by scrambling to re-book accommodations and adapt.

The sheltered marsh of Bodie Island did not disappoint. A visit to the observation deck provided our group with even more diversity and great bonding time. The group enjoyed excellent views of a wide variety of waterfowl and a very cooperative tricolored heron.

Tricolored Heron. Photo by Paul Beerman.

Tricolored Heron. Photo by Paul Beerman.

A short trip over to the Old Coastguard Station provided good views of some sheltering American Oystercatchers and Red-breasted Mergansers. Walking out to the point quickly reminded us how hard the wind was blowing, considering we soon began being pelted with sand as we crested the edge of the terminal groin.

American Oystercatchers feeding in the sheltered surf. Photo by Jesse Anderson.

American Oystercatchers feeding in the sheltered surf. Photo by Jesse Anderson.

As we returned, crossing Bonner Bridge, we noticed a few cormorants which had been stranded on top of the bridge, sheltering from the strong winds. Cormorants are the most efficient marine predator in the world, catching more fish per effort than any other animal – where they lack in efficiency is on land – they are clumsy and awkward, often struggling to take flight. In a split-second decision, we decided to stop, with a speed limit of 55 MPH, they were likely to meet an unfortunate fate. Jean Chamberlain [wildlife rehabilitator extraordinaire] and I [mere mortal], got to work catching these two birds to help them see another day. Jean showed her true expertise as she approached, quickly captured, and released the cormorant that was staying still. I went after the other, which decided to run awkwardly along Bonner Bridge, with an awkward human (me) chasing behind. Finally, I caught the second bird and both were released to safety.

Awkward human (Jesse) chasing awkward bird (Double-crested Cormorant). Photo by Barb Borucki.

Awkward human (Jesse) chasing awkward bird (Double-crested Cormorant). Photo by Barb Borucki.

On the way home, a few of us stopped to observe the tail-end of a (continuing) Common Gallinule in a roadside ditch – woohoo!! Take the win where we can get it!

The following day was a trip to Mackay Island NWR. After contacting the range manager prior to our visit, I was particularly excited about this stop. Upon arrival, however, a different story unfolded. Apparently because of federal budget cuts on wildlife refuges, the gates to the range were “closed on the weekend” according to the range manager via phone, something he failed to mention in prior conversation. Even to this day, scouring their website, I find that the range is “Open Sunrise to Sunset.” Our great group of Forsyth Audubon members would adapt and enjoy what portion we could! One of the main targets was the all-elusive King Rail. Many were heard, yet they stayed true to their modus-operandi.

Just before lunch, we received notifications that the King Eider had been relocated off Jeanette’s Pier. We made a quick decision to enjoy our bag lunch on the next ferry and head straight back to Nags Head to do some seawatching.

The Common Eider was much closer and more cooperative. Photo by Paul Beerman.

The Common Eider was much closer and more cooperative. Photo by Paul Beerman.

Upon arrival at Jeanette’s Pier, a number of other birders were already observing a pair of King Eider. The views were distant, but distinguishable, and it was enjoyable to compare both King and Common Eider at the same site! In addition to the eider, we enjoyed viewing a number of ducks, Manx Shearwater, and a few Razorbills.

Forsyth Audubon members enjoying the challenge of viewing a flyby Manx Shearwater. Photo by Jesse Anderson.

Forsyth Audubon members enjoying the challenge of viewing a flyby Manx Shearwater. Photo by Jesse Anderson.

After we got our fix of seawatching, we collectively decided to explore Pea Island NWR, a favorite local hotspot. A few stops within the refuge provided just the amazing addition to bird diversity the group was looking for. Made for a great end to day two.

American Avocets. Photo by Paul Beerman.

American Avocets. Photo by Paul Beerman.

Our third day was a long-awaited journey into offshore waters on the Stormy Petrel II, a boat operated by Brian Patteson and Kate Sutherland. Pelagic trips are possibly one of my favorite things to do while at the coast, mainly because it brings you away from human development into a whole new world, one not often seen from shore.

Sunrise from the Stormy Petrel II. Photo by Jesse Anderson.

Sunrise from the Stormy Petrel II. Photo by Jesse Anderson.

Throughout the day, both bird life and marine life did not disappoint. Just as we were heading into Oregon Inlet, I noticed a small dark bird on the water from mid-way down the starboard side and ran to the front yelling ‘alcid!’ As we barreled ahead, the bird dove just under the bow. The tiny bird ended up being our first, and only Dovekie of the trip – and what wonderful views we had.

Dovekie. Photo by Jesse Anderson.

Dovekie. Photo by Jesse Anderson.

The Dovekie hung around the boat for quite a while, seemingly in an attempt to catch its breath and avoid becoming a meal of a nearby Great Black-backed Gull. Additional bird highlights included thousands of Northern Gannet, a number of Razorbill, and a great diversity of gulls of all ages.

A non-feathered highlight and the amazing reason pelagic trips are so much fun – you never know what you’ll encounter! Common Thresher Shark (Alopias vulpinus) full breaching from the water was a top highlight for me! Photo by Jesse Anderson.

A non-feathered highlight and the amazing reason pelagic trips are so much fun – you never know what you’ll encounter! Common Thresher Shark (Alopias vulpinus) full breaching from the water was a top highlight for me! Photo by Jesse Anderson.

After spending the final morning exploring Alligator River NWR, we all slowly trickled back toward Forsyth County, many with photos to share and stories that would last a lifetime. Looking forward to again enjoying the company of fellow like-minded bird (and nature) enthusiasts. Hope you are all having a great summer!

Birders everywhere recently celebrated #BlackBirdersWeek which was triggered by the experience of Christian Cooper in Central Park in New York City.  Christian, a black birder, was confronted by a white woman with a dog running off leash in the Ramble, an ecologically sensitive part of the park.  Christian politely asked the woman to leash her dog and she responded by threatening to call the police and then following through with the call and lying that Christian was threatening her.  Birders rallied in their support of Christian, a board member of New York City Audubon and an expert birder.  For more, see National Audubon’s story, ‘Black Birders Week’ Promotes Diversity and Takes on Racism in the Outdoors.

Blackburnian Warbler. Photo by Jeff Gresko.

Blackburnian Warbler. Photo by Jeff Gresko.

John Haire shared his memories of Christian with Forsyth County birders.

“Christian Cooper showed me my first Blackburnian Warbler in the spring of 1994, when I lived in NYC.  He was one of the folks that actively birded “the Ramble” in Central Park, and was someone I looked up to because I was a beginner and he was already experienced and knew his stuff.  It’s amazing how some bird memories persist, and that is one I will never forget!”

The spectacular Blackburnian Warbler has had a powerful effect on many birders.  It was Phoebe Snetsinger’s spark bird in 1961 that fueled her drive to see as many of the world’s birds as possible.  She went on to become the first person to observe over 8,000 species.  Former Forsyth Audubon President Susan Jones called the Blackburnian Warbler her gateway bird.

In the trailer for the documentary, “Birders: The Central Park Effect,” Christian calls out a Blackburnian Warbler.

Later, John told me, “It was just one of those bird memories that last forever, like I can remember my first warbler (a Common Yellowthroat), my first towhee, first Cedar Waxwing, etc.  I just vividly remember that CC showed me a Blackburnian in Central Park (with some time, I could probably re-find the place).  It’s funny how some birds are so memorable years later!”  John added that Blackburnian Warbler may still be his favorite warbler.

Cerulean Warbler. Photo by Jeff Gresko.

Cerulean Warbler. Photo by Jeff Gresko.

Carol Cunningham joined the conversation with memories of birding with John.

“John Haire showed me my first Cerulean and first Blue-Winged Warblers.  He obviously had a good teacher in Christian Cooper.”

Hooded Warbler. Photo by Allison Gagnon.

Hooded Warbler. Photo by Allison Gagnon.

Allison Gagnon also has fond memories of birding with John.

“I understand completely! John Haire led the way for us to have great looks at a Hooded Warbler he heard at Reynolda one time, and I always think of him when I see, or even hear them!”

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Photo by Jeff Gresko.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Photo by Jeff Gresko.

Let’s end with Deirdre Herrington reminiscing about another of our favorite Forsyth County birders, Rob Rogers.

“A year after I retired I took Rob Rogers’ course at Forsyth Tech and haven’t looked back.  It’s been such a joy to open my eyes and ears to the avian wonders all around.  So when we were asked to muse about who showed us which bird for the first time I have to think of Rob and the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (although there were many others, of course).  Our class of novice birders were following Rob around like imprinting ducklings at Reynolda when he heard a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, sighted it and followed it to its nest.  I still remember which tree.   At the time, I was fixated on visual identification but marvelled at Rob’s ability to first hear a particular bird and then try to find it.  Even when the song of the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was pointed out to me, I couldn’t seem to catch it.  This led to an “ah ha” moment when I realized I have high frequency hearing loss (another reason to start birding when you are young).  Four years and a hearing aid later I hear those rascal gnatcatchers all the time!   While the amplification helps, I also finally recognized what to listen for.  It’s delightful to see the various species up close through binoculars, but recognizing their songs has doubled the pleasure.  So I’d like to sincerely thank Rob, but also the many other experienced birders in Forsyth Audubon that I’ve cornered on bird walks and Audubon trips (Cynthia Donaldson, Nathan Gatto, Ron Morris, Bill Gifford and Mike Conway to name a few).”

Blue-winged Warbler. Photo by Jeff Gresko.

Blue-winged Warbler. Photo by Jeff Gresko.

We are very fortunate to have a local community of birders who love to share.  Join the conversation and tell us about your favorite memories in the comments.

By Jesse Anderson, Pinnacle, NC

Well, it was an outlier of a year for the Hawk Watch at Pilot Mountain. In statistics, an outlier is a data point which differs significantly from other points of data in a given study. Historically, the average count has been about 4,500 migrants, 95% of which were Broad-winged Hawks. In 2019, Pilot Mountain’s hawk watch was presented with an outlier of a year – an all-time low for total numbers of Broad-winged Hawks during our count season – a total of under 500 migrants. Even though few passed, some stuck around long enough for a nice photo!

 A Broad-winged Hawk migrating over Pilot Mountain

A Broad-winged Hawk migrating over Pilot Mountain

At first glance, these numbers may sound frightening; however, Pilot Mountain’s hawk watch wasn’t the only “outlier” in the state. At the other end of the “outlier” spectrum was a nearby count just off the Blue Ridge Parkway where Jim Keighton at the Mahogany Rock Hawk Watch saw over 8,600 migrant raptors. The Story/Lenoir Hawk Watch had an amazing outlier of 8,200 birds in a single day, totaling over 11,000 for the year’s count! And last, but not least, the Mount Pisgah Hawk Watch totaled over 9,200 migrants for the season.

On the positive side, Forsyth Audubon and Pilot Mountain State Park held another Hawk Watch Volunteer Training, in which over 20 new prospective volunteers came to join for a wonderful event where they learned more about hawk identification, behavior, and the procedures for tracking weather data at the Little Pinnacle Overlook!

As noted by Ramona Snavely, founder of the Pilot Mountain Hawk Watch, weather is one of the most influential factors in Broad-winged Hawk migration. In her study, weather had a direct correlation with both the number and diversity of species passing Pilot Mountain. The one critical factor that typically drives high numbers of Broad-winged Hawks past Pilot Mountain is a consistent northwest wind following the passage of a cold front during optimal migration timing – something that just did not occur in a timely manner this year. We do know, whatever the timing of the particular cold front that passed, Lenoir, NC was the place to be. That’s one of the great things about hawk watching, you never know when you’ll be in the right-place-right-time!

For the dedicated volunteer, you never know when a different kind of outlier will make for a special treat, like this beautiful Olive-sided Flycatcher, which paid a visit to the Little Pinnacle for just long enough to strike a pose!

Olive-sided Flycatcher at Little Pinnacle Overlook

Olive-sided Flycatcher at Little Pinnacle Overlook

Until next year, we hope to see you out there, and ‘Keep Looking Up!’

By Heather Moir, fourth grade teacher at Summit School

The Clay-colored Thrush is a tropical bird whose northernmost range extends to southern Texas. My fourth graders can tell you from first-hand observation that it is an aggressive bird (“a bully”), who won’t share bananas with any other birds. They know this detail about tropical bird behavior from watching Cornell’s Panama Fruit Feeder Cam – a live camera feed from Panama that shows a fruit feeding station that brings in tropical birds.

A Clay-colored Thrush at the feeder

A Clay-colored Thrush at the feeder

I began putting the Panama fruit feeder cam on the Smart Board as the children arrived in the mornings. The live camera feed also includes audio, and the tropical bird sounds were calming first thing in the morning. But the camera served as background and nothing more.

Then one morning the Toucans arrived. They were big. They were colorful. They were impressive. The children were excited. I was pretty excited myself. From then on, we began paying closer attention to the fruit feeder camera. That’s when some of the kids noticed the tawny-colored bully bird who chased the smaller colorful birds away from the bananas. They asked what kind of bird it was. I had no idea. We checked out a field guide to the birds of Panama from our library and discovered it was a Clay-colored Thrush.

A big, beautiful Yellow-throated Toucan in the trees above the feeders

A big, beautiful Yellow-throated Toucan in the trees above the feeders

A few days later, one boy was intrigued with the bird with the bright yellow feathers at the base of its tail. He paused the computer so he could look it up in the field guide. The field guide was set up with pictures and numbers that had to be cross-referenced to find the bird’s name. So he asked me for help. When I pointed to the bird’s name in the book, his eyes got big and I could see the wheels turning. The bird’s name was almost too much for a fourth grade boy to handle – it was a Flame-rumped Tanager. “Seriously?” he asked. Then, because he couldn’t help himself, “You mean his name means “fire booty?” He couldn’t be expected to hold it in after all. Yes, I confirmed, that’s its name.

A male Flame-rumped Tanager enjoys a banana

A male Flame-rumped Tanager enjoys a banana

Since then, the Flame-rumped Tanager and his mate have made repeat appearances at the fruit feeder. We have also seen a flock of Gray-headed Chachalacas (at least a dozen), who throw the bananas around carelessly as they feed. We are still hoping the Toucans will come back.

Mrs. Flame-rumped Tanager bathes in a nearby stream

Mrs. Flame-rumped Tanager bathes in a nearby stream

I am hopeful that somehow an interest in birds and nature has been sparked. I am grateful to Cornell for these wonderful webcams that make nature watching so accessible. And I am especially grateful to whoever named some of our birds with names that are so appealing to ten-year-olds. One day soon I will let the children know that they may be able to find Yellow-rumped Warblers right in their own backyards!

All photos by Shelley Rutkin


By Cynthia Donaldson

Our group of 19 birders enjoyed listening to the birds along the Elk Run Trail. Our training sessions of “birding by ear” had begun!

After an early morning on Sunday, May 19, and a three-hour drive from Winston-Salem, we were ready to hike the Elk Run Trail.  From the trailhead behind the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we hiked the .8 mile loop trail through a pleasant mountain woods.  A Louisiana Waterthrush, foraging along the babbling brook, gave us quick looks as it flew from log to log and then perched on a low branch.   Redstarts, vireos, and Ovenbirds entertained from the forest foliage.  This “concert” was the necessary communication of birds busy defending territories and attracting mates.  Their musical songs, “teacher-teacher-teacher,” “get up – get up – get out of bed,” “drink-your-tea,” “chick-burr,” and many more played in our ears as we enjoyed the not-so-quiet woods.  As typical, birding fully leafed–out trees is difficult.  When one can’t “see” the birds, the sense of hearing becomes the tool for identification.  By the end of the trip, most people on the trip became adept at recognizing Ovenbird, Cerulean Warbler, Eastern Wood-Pewee, American Redstart, Indigo Bunting, and Hooded Warbler.  Some even could identify the nuances between the Red-eyed and Blue-headed Vireo!

We had our lunch at the picnic area, binoculars close by just in case. After lunch, we went to the Flat Top parking area between MM 84 – 83 and with the help of Bill, found the Cerulean Warbler immediately.  The Hooded Warbler, singing his “get up – get up – get out of bed,” was not so accommodating, but we all would get a look at one before the trip was over. 

This is an Eastern Phoebe nest located in the visitor center breezeway. Apparently, she constructed this nest this spring. All the moss and leaves seemed to be of the same age – newly gathered! We had never seen a nest this tall before!
We didn’t hurry back to the lodge to get checked in because they were without electrical power.  The generators were servicing most of the lodge and rooms, but the kitchen was not able to prepare their usual dinner menu items. 

After a lovely meet-and-greet time on the beautiful lawn overlooking  Abbot Lake and Sharp Top Mountain, we enjoyed the soup and salad bar.  Then, a few of us walked around Abbott Lake as the beautiful day turned to dusk.

We departed the parking lot around 7:00 AM on Monday morning and drove to Sunset Fields at MM 78.4. We enjoyed the trees and the lookout and then walked up Radar Road.  It is a special day when one gets great looks at three vireos: Red-eyed, Yellow-throated, and Blue-headed.  Several sightings of Scarlet Tanagers along this road and Warbler Road also thrilled us!

Jean got photos of all three vireos: Yellow-throated and Red-eyed above, Blue-headed below.

Each of us enjoyed birding along Radar Road. It was a lovely morning walk, and we saw and heard many resident species. The chronic malady, “warbler-neck,” spread quickly through the group, but nothing could stop us from searching the topmost branches for those birds!

By the time we walked down Warbler Road, we were pretty comfortable identifying these mountain birds, so as we walked we had a great time testing our skills by identifying the birds by ear!  Then we heard one that we hadn’t heard so far! We followed the buzzy, high-pitched song and were delighted to a Worm-eating Warbler, head tilted back, singing his song!  Some of the birders in our group had lost the ability to hear that pitch, so we were so glad we got to see it.

Worm-eating Warbler by Jean.

After a return to Peaks of Otter Lodge and another picnic lunch, we headed south to Harvey’s Knob at MM 95.3.  Harvey’s Knob is a fall hotspot for migrating raptors and dragonflies.  It wasn’t the right time of the year to see Broad-winged Hawks, but two Common Ravens greeted us and flew down the knob into the trees below.  There were also many male Indigo Buntings here singing their three-part song. 

We enjoyed a walk on the Appalachian Trail!

It was not very birdy along the trail, but we all know that birders default to another natural wonder: plants!   

Pink Lady’s Slippers
Rhododendron in bloom!
We visited several  overlooks on our way back to the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center.
Two Common Raven circled right above us here. We saw a Red-tailed Hawk here as well. Photo by Ga.
Thunder Ridge overlooking Arnold Valley!

After dinner, we tallied up all the birds we saw and heard! The total was 59 species with Orchard Oriole and Cedar Waxwing to be added the next morning!

Eastern Wood-Pewee photo by Jean.

Bright and early on Tuesday morning, we met behind the main lodge for a bird walk on the Johnson Farm Loop Trail (which was not really a loop, as we found out).  The scenery of this hike was gorgeous. We saw many American Redstarts, Scarlet Tanagers, and vireos.

The Johnson Farm Trail
Johnson Farm. Right behind this house, a Chickadee was busily tending to her young in an old fence post.

Once we returned to the trailhead, everyone went their own ways. Some got breakfast, but most packed up for the journey back home. It was sad to say goodbyes because we had enjoyed such a great time together!

The view of the Peaks of Otter Lodge from the top of Sharp Top Mountain.

It was hard to leave the Peaks of Otter area on such a beautiful day, so Tim, Brenda, Becky and I continued our birding trip by hiking to the top of Sharp Top Mountain. Even though it was a strenuous hike, the woods were very pleasant. Cerulean, Black-and-white, and Hooded Warblers delayed us several times because we couldn’t pass up a chance to see these gems of the forest. After lunch at the top, we hiked down, again stopping for birds, of course. We got to study a Gray-cheeked Thrush as he foraged right below us on the downward slope. We found Red-eyed Vireo and American Redstart nests. Mrs. Black-and-white Warbler, gathering nesting material, was being quite picky about the pieces she chose and ended up flying away instead of carrying her items to a nest. The last treat was a female Blackburnian Warbler in a low shrub! Another bird gathering nesting material!

Deirdre captured the sunrise on Sharp Top Mountain!

I sincerely want to thank each of the trip members for coming on this trip! It felt like a “family” vacation as we enjoyed the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountain birds together! Good job to you for learning the musical melodies of these birds… and hopefully we will remember their songs and calls next spring!

By Cynthia Donaldson

“If you want to get back in, you must move more aggressively towards the boat!”  If anyone had told us that we would be hearing these words on our winter trip, we would have wondered if we should even be going.  Forsyth Audubon Trips always hold birdy surprises – those we are ready for.  This was a different kind of surprise, but our group adapts to any situation with a smile. The remembrance of these spoken words will always make the winter trip to Georgetown South Carolina one to remember!

The travel day on Thursday was beautiful and warm for January.  Some of the early arrivals got to go to the Mariana complex and Santee Preserve in the afternoon.  We found the Western Kingbird at the complex and saw or heard the Red-cockaded Woodpecker at the preserve.  The afternoon was warm as we walked along the dike, enjoying the chattering of the Marsh Wrens and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, which we learned sound quite similar.

Friday, January 18 – Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center

In 2016, Tom Yawkey stole our hearts.  Our experience this year was quite the same.  Jim Lee welcomed us with a presentation about the preserve. The beauty of this pristine maritime forest managed for wildlife was amazing.  We visited all the different habitats of the preserve, but did not get to see any alligators this year. The alligators have lived in safety there for years! The alligators there don’t like people because they associate people with getting their blood drawn during their checkups! Over the past three decades, research has been conducted on the alligators there, giving scientists a better idea of how alligators reproduce and grow over their lifespan in the wild.

Our group enjoyed seeing the Marsh Wren and other wading birds on this dike at Tom Yawkey. Photo by Cynthia Donaldson.
Leesa Goodson got a great shot of this skulky Marsh Wren.

A quick stop in the later evening at the Georgetown Water Treatment Plant revealed a rare Black-headed Gull from across the Atlantic. This bird had been reported there for several weeks, and thanks to eBird, we were able to find it after sorting though the many other gulls.

We sorted through the Bonaparte’s Gulls, which look quite similar to find this Black-headed Gull. Bonaparte’s Gulls are smaller and lack the red beak. Photo by Paul Beerman.
Birding and a lovely sunset at the water treatment facility. The papermill is visible in the background. Birders visit the best places!

Saturday, January 20 – Bull’s Island

It was a gorgeous day to visit Bull’s Island, part of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. It was a bit overcast, but the temperature was very mild for a winter day. And the warm temperatures saved the day! Our captain was very excited to be transporting a group of birders, so he was eager help us find some “good” birds.

Peregrine Falcon on island of oyster shells.
Photo by Paul Beerman.
American Oystercatchers seen on the Bull’s Island Ferry ride to the island.
Photo by Leesa Goodson.

We learned that American Oystercatchers’ beaks are extremely thin so they can pry open oysters. The boat idled as we tried to watch their feeding behavior. Unbeknownst to us, the tide was heading out to sea, quickly, leaving our boat stranded on one of the oyster beds. First, I must say, I cannot think of a nicer group of people with whom to be stranded on a boat! We laughed, ate lunch, and continued birding. Secondly, our captain was terrific. He made sure we were safe and did his best to free us. After several attempts by a passing fishing boat, the larger of the company’s ferries arrived to try to pull us off. This did not work. We had two choices: wait for the tide to come back in or get off the boat to lighten the load. Thirteen of us stepped off the boat into the knee-deep water. It was a bit cold, but it worked! With a little pushing while the larger ferry pulled, we were able to get the boat back into deeper water. After the first attempt to pick up the 13 waders, the captain had to say, “If you want to get back in, you must move more aggressively towards the boat!” And on the next pass, we all clambered onto the boat.

As I earlier said, the day was warm. The captain took us on to the island boat dock where we poured the water out of our boots and dried our feet. Our next several hours on this beautiful island totally made up for any discomfort and delay! Bull’s Island is a destination like no other.

Many alligators were basking in the sun. We enjoyed seeing wintering ducks, a lone scoter, and several species of shorebirds.

Black-bellied Plover.
Photo by Paul Beerman.
Northern Harrier.
Photo by Paul Beerman.

Sunday, January 20 – Huntington Beach State Park

Sunday morning’s hike to the Huntington Beach State Park jetty was warm and pleasant, but the weather changed by the minute as the dark clouds rolled in. By the time we got to the jetty, the waves were crashing and the wind was blowing scopes around.

Beautiful morning for a walk on the beach at Huntington Beach State Park.
We were hoping to see a Snow Bunting at the jetty, but it surprised us by being down the beach. It was in the lee of the sand dune and when it took off after this quick photo by Paul, the wind carried it back toward the jetty, we failed to relocate it.

Several in our group got a quick look at a mink.
Waves and wind at the jetty!
Male Red-breasted Merganser spotted from the jetty.
Red-throated Loon at the jetty.

We enjoyed the afternoon birding other areas of Huntington Beach State Park. We found a mixed flock with Yellow-rumped, Black-and-white, and Pine Warblers on the Atalaya Straight Road trail. Our total for just this day was 61 species!

Beautiful Orange-crowned Warbler traveling in the mixed flock. Photo by Leesa Goodson.

Monday, January 21 – Huntington Beach State Park

It was a “hand-warmers” kind of day. Although not an official birding day for the winter trip, several of us braved the bitter cold to bird the Huntington Beach State Park causeway for the last time, trying to eek out a few more hours of sharing the love of birding with our friends…

And remember, if you are ever stranded on an oyster bed, the Forsyth Audubon birders are the ones to be stuck with!! Thanks for a great time with a great group of birders.

By Wendy Hawkins

a parallel to the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” (Clement Clarke Moore)

‘Twas the night before birding, when an e-mail I spied;
David Disher saw ducks, “What time?” I replied.
Bundled up next morn — Salem Lake I did dare,
In hopes that all those ducks still would be there!
My gear was all nestled, snug in my backpack,
While visions of ducks in my head shouted “quack!”

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser

I stacked on the layers and donned a down jacket;
My haul down the stairs made a bit of a racket.
Taking off in my car, heading east I did dash;
Although I was careful, not going too fast.
The park in the distance at the end of the lane,
The clouds looming over — glad there was no rain.
A Red-Tailed Hawk was the first bird to show,
But no time to stop yet, there were ducks down below.

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a handful of birders adorned with their gear!
Out of my car with equipment I flew,
To join in the party and spot what was new!
There on the lake there were birds — quite a LOT!
There was no question, we’d hit “duck jackpot!”
Mergansers, both Hooded and Common, were there; Canvasbacks, Long-Taileds, and gulls to compare.
The Canada Geese made a grandiose show,
Flocking and splashing, for what? — We don’t know.

Duck jackpot

Duck jackpot

Hop Hopkins and others, scopes panning around,
Were happy to share from the dock, safe and sound.
“Where’s the Long-Tailed Duck? The Common Merganser?” I wished.
“Can you find them? I’d like to expand my life list!”
“Look here in my scope,” these bird friends would say, Lowering an eyepiece — not a moment’s delay.
“Wow! A Long-Tailed Duck! I’ve never seen one before!
“Can’t believe it!” I hollered, “Life bird 2 – 0 – 4!”
Next a Common Merganser, looking alive,
My eyes big a saucers — life bird 2 – 0 – 5!
Scope, binoculars, and camera in hand,
I aimed, and I spotted — boy was THAT grand!
In the cold our eyes watered, but we were quite merry,
Our cheeks were like roses, our noses like berries.
Our lips were all frozen; our teeth, how they chattered!
But we could see DUCKS, and nothing else mattered.

Long-tailed Duck

Long-tailed Duck

We pointed and spotted and snapped what we could,
A flashy male merganser shows off his hood.
“Take a look at their faces, see the difference in bills,”
Great ID advice! – as we shrugged off the chills.
Some ducks in clumps – now others drift left,
Where’s the Herring Gull? Bald Eagle? Hmm, was there a theft?
Blinking our eyes and turning our heads,
We “oooed” and we “awed” – there was nothing to dread.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

I’d have to leave soon – meet a friend for some “perk”,
With enough time to chat before heading to work.
I could hardly wait to report what I’d seen,
What a breathtaking, impactful trip it had been!
My short time was up; just 30 minutes allotted,
But I had seen lifers! What birds we had spotted!
I bid birders farewell, as the cold air did bite –
“Happy birding to all, and to all a good flight!”

Canada Geese

Canada Geese

To hear Wendy read her poem, click this link hear my audio recording.

Photo credits:  Long-tailed Duck by Shelley Rutkin, all others by Wendy Hawkins

By James Williams

Twas the night before Christmas
in a hawk watchers dream,
the Broadies are kettling
and Merlin are seen.

The Kestrels and Sharpies,
are harassing Osprey.
With Red-tail and Cooper
enjoined in the fray.

The Peregrine soar fast,
while the Harrier pass slow.
We count them together
howsoever they go.

So enjoy this dream…
Merry Christmas to all!
It’s only eight months…
Can’t wait ’til next Fall!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all my Hawk Watch Friends!

White-eyed Vireo. Photo by David Disher.

White-eyed Vireo. Photo by David Disher.

Ann & Chester Robertson are beloved members of Forsyth Audubon and many of our members remember the warm welcome we received from Ann and Chester.  On September 8, 2018, Ann wrote about their own introduction into Audubon.

With a nod to Marcel Proust, it is the call of a White-eyed Vireo, not a scent, that has stimulated many memories of our first “birding fall,” which was exactly 20 years ago.

When Chester retired from EMS, we had time to watch birds devour mulberries from the tree just outside our sun porch on the south side of town.  [We’ve since moved mid-town.]  That led to feeders, books, binoculars, and a budding interest in going abroad to search for more species.  We checked out the then-new Bethabara wetlands boardwalk, where we ran into Marilyn and Mike Shuping.  They kindly invited us to join the next 2nd Saturday Birdwalk, which was mid-September at Historic Bethabara.

We well remember the anticipation and nerves as we waited with assembled birders.  The walk began when Doug Deneve & Pam arrived.  One of the highlights of the outing was seeing a White-eyed Vireo (new to us) foraging in low branches above the stream.  We remember Doug saying it was a good find for that time of year.

A week or two later, we attended our first hawk watch at Pilot Mountain.  On the ascent to the Little Pinnacle, Chester was thrilled to spot his first male American Redstart.  We remember that there were hawks kettling that day, but we had no stick to measure by at that time.  I can’t remember if it was a “big day” or average.  I do remember complaining that I wasn’t seeing what everyone else was as I peered at a BLUE SKY through my opera-sized Minolta bins proudly and ignorantly purchased at Sports Authority.  At one point, Doug turned to me and said, “Well, it might have something to do with the quality of your optics.”

It was a while before that comment sank in, but eventually brands such as Leica, Swarovski, Zeiss and Bausch & Lomb made their way into our hands.  And yes, we had better views, and much joy in sharing with our fellow birders, as well as casual strangers who might happen along and wonder what was up.  One of my favorite memories was adjusting our spotting scope so that a handicapped child could look at birds on one of our outings. The child wanted to go to Africa to see birds; we always hoped that he made it.

There are 20 years of great memories of time spent in the field, in meetings, and in social gatherings with the best group of people we could ever hope to know.  We have learned that birds attract a very fine human flock indeed.  We’re grateful to each of you who added to those memories over the years.  We learned so much on outings that we could never absorb from books.  As a small instance, I distinctly remember David Disher pointed out a “Thrush Burp” while we were one on of the middle trails in Miller Park.  I always think of that moment when I heard another Thrush Burp.  It may seem a small thing, but it provides pleasure and connection, and a sense of all being right with the world.

May birders continue to share, may thrushes continue to burp, and raptors continue to thrill us with the spectacle of migration that points to forces well beyond our comprehension or control.

And yes, may White-eyed Vireos continue to thrill us with just a little lingering lilt of summer.

Good birding to all,

Ann & Chester Robertson

As you can imagine, the responses quickly started coming in.  First from Phil Dickinson, a long-time FA member and past President who now lives in Washington State.

Ann, thanks for sharing these wonderful memories of birding with Forsyth Audubon. I am coming up on 20 years after my introduction to FA (98 or 99, I forget which), and I still remember the warm greetings I received from you and Ramona at that first meeting. From then on, I was hooked by the warblers and hawks, as well, and all of the great people. So many great spring and winter trips, too.

I do miss those Broad-winged hawks out here, but love seeing the shorebird migration.

And this from Sally Zwadyk.

Dear Ann, Thank you for sharing memories.  I have great memories of our time with you and Chester.  Indeed birding does bring together a great human flock as well.  Happy Birding Anniversary!

Wendy “Big Bird” Hawkins, FA Education Chair, is a little newer to Forsyth Audubon, but now we can’t imagine life without her enthusiasm and passion for birds.  Here’s what Wendy added to the conversation.

How thrilling to hear these grand memories, highlighting, especially, your introduction to and connection with Forsyth Audubon! Although I am much newer to Forsyth Audubon (4 years) and to serious birding (having “evolved” largely over the past 10 years), I resonate in harmony with your sentiments. I have learned considerable volumes from my connection with the incredible characters which comprise Forsyth Audubon! Yet, I realize I am barely scratching the surface of all there is to know about birds! When I go birding with you all, I feel like a total kid, excited about everything I see — and I’ve been know to act like a kid, too, without restraint. And you guys still don’t think I’m TOO crazy!

This fall will make 4 years since I met Kim Brand, as we were watching the same chimney at UNC School of the Arts (in our neighborhood at the time) while a few thousand Chimney Swifts assembled to roost for the night. I thought she might be a security guard approaching me to inquire about my presence in that spot, so I tried to look intently with great purpose, as if I KNEW what I was doing. How relieved I was when she joyfully asked, “Were you watching the Chimney Swifts, too?” “Yes!” I replied, “You were watching them, too?” Then she invited me to Bethabara (lower trails) — a place I had never been, but had been meaning to visit — to go birding with her early the next morning. Next thing you know I was also hooked on “Dead Bird Patrol” after she educated me on the Lights Out program and guided me in the rescue and release of a Wood Thrush on my first round with her.

Thank you to all of my Forsyth Audubon friends for your enthusiastic comradeship!

Rob Rogers, our favorite Forsyth Tech birding instructor and Forsyth Audubon past President jumped in next.

My first walk with Forsyth Audubon…….I had always been a backyard birder – had my Grandma’s old Golden Field Guide.  At some point in my late teens I bought a Peterson’s and would bird when we went to the Parkway or sometimes around the house.  One day, my wife cut out a blurb from the Journal about an Audubon walk.  I couldn’t convince myself to go.  I thought that I would be a hindrance to a group of semi pros – so I didn’t go.  From time to time, I would find the blurbs cut out and laying on the nightstand and Mits would always say – “you should go – it could be fun”.  Finally, I worked up the nerve.  Walk at Washington Park.  I thought – no way I would see anything much in the middle of Winston – so how much of a hindrance could I be.  So…..I went – and I timed it to be just at the starting time to minimize the time that people would have to work out that I was just a rookie.  When I got there, the walk had already started.  The group was leaving the parking area.  I started to just leave – but I thought – “what the heck – I’m here – just go catch up”.  I get out of the car and walk towards the group.  To my surprise, a tall man and a not so tall lady turned and walked towards me.  The lady had the nicest, most genuine, welcoming smile on her face.  The man had an intent – but welcoming look on his face.  The lady said “well hello!  My name is Ann and this is my husband, Chester.  We are so glad that you came out today”.  All of my angst immediately gone, we had a great opening conversation.  I confess I don’t recall much of what was said – but my welcome to Forsyth Audubon stays with me like it was yesterday.   We saw Great Horned Owls on the nest in the big White Pine – I got my first look through a scope.  Jim Martin was there and had several “aside moments” with me identifying birds by ear.  I was like…woooahhh.  Further down – close to what is now the dog park, we saw a pair of Red Tails – Talons locked and tumbling downwards.  A bit earlier in the walk someone had been discussing the question of when people clasp their hands is the right thumb or the left on top.  I took the opportunity to make a joke – “I wonder which Hawk’s Talon is on top – the right or the left?”  Some of the group laughed – a lady older than me looked at me with a serious look on her face.  For a moment, I thought I might have pushed it too far.  Birding, after all, is a serious business.  Then the woman’s face broke into a huge grin.  She said “you are going to fit in here – just fine”.  Ramona Snavely

And the rest….as they say….is history.

Thank you Ann & Chester

Let’s end with Hop Hopkins, another beloved FA member and past President, taking us back FORTY years!

Let me take you back 40 years instead. I came to Winston-Salem in 1977 to start my Pathology residency training at Baptist. I had always loved nature and decided to join the Audubon Society to get the magazine. A little later in the year I also received a newsletter for the Forsyth County AS. I had been birdwatching most of my life and I had never met another birder! The meeting sounded interesting so in 1978 I attended my first meeting. Like Rob I was shy and tried to sneak in but everyone was just too friendly. It was a small group who enjoyed birding together. I was able to go on one of their local bird walks to Salem Lake and was amazed that ducks were this far inland. I had much to learn.

I thought I knew my birds. Then Ramona assigned me to Pat Culbertson for Spring Bird Count. Since I always birdied on my own I thought it might be fun to learn other places to birdwatch in the county. I was surprised to learn that she planned to start at midnight to get owls and nighthawks. A front came in while we were birding so we rested a few hours at her house. At first light we headed out the door and she called out Swainson’s Thrush and Ovenbird. They would have been lifers for me but there was not enough light to see them. The day went just like that. Pat would hear 3 or 4 life birds but we had to move on as there was a fallout. The storm had brought in large numbers of migrants and she wanted all of them! I wound up being the recorder and I could barely keep up. I did get to see a few lifers, but until then I had no idea you could identify so many birds with sound only. I also had no idea where we were birding as we hit numerous places around the county. I think everyone at count dinner had a best day ever and the tally was massive. I had much to learn.

I am still learning but I must say that my FCAS teachers have been outstanding. They taught me bird sounds and where to go locally. I even went on a few field trips to the NC coast to see birds. I had been isolated but was able to learn a great deal from FCAS. I am thankful that I attended that first meeting and hope to get back attending more of them.

Royce, you can take us back more…

I hope you have enjoyed these stories.  These shared experiences make Forsyth Audubon who we are.  Please feel free to share your story in the comments.