The Business Birder: Confused Fall Birder

 

I attended the Carolina Bird Club meeting in Hickory on Friday, September 19.  I only stayed one day due to a football game in Raleigh on Saturday.  My level of anticipation grew as the days before the meeting slowly melted away.  It turned out to be a strange week, preempted by another event. 

 

Hurricane Isabel approached as a Category 5 storm, so I made some preparations for this large of a storm, including buying the generator that had been on my to-do list the three years since I moved back to the coast.  Fortunately for us, Isabel became a Category 2 storm and made landfall at Drum Inlet, well northeast of Wilmington.

 

I waited to drive to Hickory until I was sure the storm had come ashore.  First, I visited the south end of Wrightsville Beach before leaving to check for sea birds.  I could not see very well offshore through the mixture of blowing rain and sand; however, the usual birds were still trying to fish and fly with the forty plus MPH winds.  The Willets were working the beach and the Brown Pelicans were flying or sitting on the water.  Only the swallows and grackles were hunkered down on the lee side of the dunes.

 

Adding the drive to Hickory and a day of great fall birding and the drive to Raleigh for a day of great football and then the drive back to Wilmington, all within forty-eight hours, makes the week seem a little surreal as I look back on it.

 

The CBC meeting was hosted by Dwayne Martin, who also served as guide for my morning trip.  Simon Thompson presented a program Friday night on confusing fall warblers that I wish I had seen before the morning adventure when I proved to be a confused fall birder. 

 

My morning trip covered the Hickory City Park, Geitner Park, and Glenn Hilton Park.  At Hickory Park, our first stop, we found some great birds; however, as the morning went on, the birds were scarcer.  My birds at these three sites included:  Green Heron, Wood Duck, Blue-winged Teal, American Black Duck, Yellow-billed Cuckoo,  Eastern Wood-Pewee, Fish Crow, White-breasted Nuthatch, Brown-headed Nuthatch, White-eyed Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo, Philadelphia Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Tennessee Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, American Redstart,  Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and American Goldfinch.

 

We saw several Cape May’s in a variety of plumages.  Also, everyone kept calling out Chestnut-sided Warblers and I could not find one.  I probably saw at least one of these birds but did not recognize its fall plumage.

 

In the afternoon, we visited the Wagner Property on the Yadkin River, off NC 268, north of Lenoir and about twenty-six miles from the hotel.  This is private property that we birded by permission.  It is a wonderful fall birding site! 

 

I added Red-headed Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Common Yellowthroat, and Scarlet Tanager.  The group saw many more warblers than I did because I wimped out and returned to my SUV early.  I had forgotten to take water with me.  After I left, the group found a feeding wave that included Black-and-White, Bay-breasted, Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided, and Yellow-throated Warblers. 

 

I am embarrassed to recount my failure; however, I wanted to document the quality of this site.  Our guide said they had had fifteen warbler species plus a Western Kingbird on the morning trip to the Wagner property. 

 

The meeting, held at the Park Inn/Gateway Conference Center at the intersection of US 321 and US 70 just off I40 Exit 123, was a big success except for the social hour before the program.  I bopped in without eating dinner, expecting a glass of wine and some cheese and crackers to suffice until breakfast.  Refreshments consisted of water.  Just water! 

 

I rushed out before the program started and bought my own provisions, sharing them with my two new friends, Tommie and Fran from the Winston-Salem Audubon Society, who rode with me throughout the day.

 

I learn something on every trip.  Back in August, I learned from a Maine birder how to pish from a car.  Funny, I had just never thought about doing that.  I have played bird songs from my SUV’s CD player, just never thought of pishing.  Duh!

 

For its educational value, this trip was no exception.  This example was contributed by a birder on the morning trip:  “How do you identify a Fish Crow?  Just ask him if he is an American Crow.  He will tell you.” 

 

Another lesson was learned from a newspaper article on the CBC meeting in the Hickory Record.  It quoted Lori Martin on the difference between “birdwatching” and “birding”:   “Birdwatchers let the birds come to them; birders go out to look for the birds”.  I knew this but I liked the way she said it.   She should have, however, worked the word “obsession” into her definition of birding.

 

I also learned that you can pish a bird out of the sky though this is yet to be proven in my experience.  We were trying to locate a Rose-breasted Grosbeak by its squeak (like a sneaker on a gym floor).  We flushed the bird, a juvenile Grosbeak, and as it flew overhead, Dwayne tried to pish it out of the air.  No joke; he says it sometimes brings them down.  

 

On Sunday, September 28, I flew to Charleston, West (by God!) Virginia for a business meeting the following day in Huntington.  Time for more fall birding!

 

I usually research last-minute trips to new birding sites on the Internet.  The Huntington Tri-state Audubon Society does not have a Website so I tried something new.  I called a couple of contacts from the American Birding Association Member Directory.  One call produced great results.  Beverly Delidow directed me to a good site, the Green Bottom Wildlife Management Area, along the Ohio River.

 

I stayed at the Hampton Inn off I64 at Exit 20.  Green Bottom was 15.8 miles from the hotel.  To get there, take I64 Exit 18 going right at the end of the ramp and taking a left about two blocks later at a “T” intersection.  Follow Merrick Creek Road to Little Seven Mile Road and from there to WV 2 at 5.7 miles.  Turn right and the WMA is 10.1 miles on the left. 

 

One landmark on WV 2 is Hillbilly Hotdogs.  I did not stop this time but it is on my to-do list for the future.  On the return trip, you will see a sign at the intersection of WV 2 and Little Seven Mile Road directing you to I64.      

 

The WMA is about two miles long and there is a “brownoculars” sign on either end, with three entrances in between.  The first entrance is for the Hoeft Marsh, which I skipped because a thunderstorm associated with a cold front arrived just after I did.

 

While waiting for the rain to stop, I investigated the other sites by car.  Greenbottoms, the home of Confederate General Albert G. Jenkins, is located on the WMA at the third entrance.  I pulled in and was immediately forced to use two large trees out back to shelter my rental car from hail.  Caution: sane people should not try this because the lightning may turn out to be worse than the hail.

 

A nearby historical marker called the General “brilliant”.  As it turns out, he and his calvary were the first to carry the Confederate flag into Ohio.  I am skeptical.  It sounds more like a fraternity prank to me since Ohio is just across the river from his house.  No doubt they also mooned the other bank of the river.

 

Between the Marsh and Greenbottoms is the main entrance and parking lot for the headquarters, nature trail, and observation platform.  This is where I did all of my birding.  It was very birdy, especially close to the creek. 

 

The wetland ecology of the WMA features several large impoundments, a swamp, and small creeks.  The WMA also has many overgrown fields and scrubby hedgerows that hold a ton of sparrows.  There are two nice rows of hardwoods between the impoundments and the Ohio River.  Between the two rows of trees are managed agriculture fields with different crops such as buckwheat, sorghum, sunflowers, winter wheat, corn, and millet.  This place seems to be a waterfowl smorgasbord. 

 

The Green Bottom Swamp is in the center of the WMA.  It is the home of another famous West Virginian – this is the only West Virginia home of the Central Mudminnow (Umbra Limi)!  Another treat on the smorgasbord!

 

Birds observed included:  Wild Turkey, Eastern Phoebe, Downy Woodpecker, House Wren, White-eyed Vireo, Tennessee Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Savannah Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, and Song Sparrow.  I saw most of the passerines and two Downy Woodpeckers traveling together in feeding waves.  I saw at least four different plumages of Common Yellowthroat and many other warblers I never identified.

 

Me still confused?  Maybe a little; however, I am proud of my identification of a couple of confusing birds at Green Bottom.  I found a pair of Black-headed Grosbeaks.  Call the rare bird alert! 

 

Oops! They were first winter male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.  I had never seen one in this plumage since I had only seen them in the spring.  Now if Dwayne had been able to pish that one out of the air, I would have more quickly known what I was looking at.

 

My other major triumph was identification of a first winter female Magnolia Warbler.  It took a while but finally I confirmed every field mark.

 

My education continues.

 

***

 

The author, John Ennis, is a full time healthcare consultant and a part time birder, who wishes that it were the other way around.  He lives in the Wilmington, North Carolina area.

 

John B. Ennis ă 2003

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