Birdingpals Trip Report

Birdingpal Martijn Voorvelt's USA trip 2011

North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. April 13th - May 11th, 2011

This was primarily a family vacation in North Carolina (NC), South Carolina (SC) and Georgia (GA) with Marijke and our two kids, Nina (3) and Joep (1). As a European birder with limited experience, when it comes to the American continent, I reserved a few days to go birding, though of course many birds present themselves during non-birding hours. Although it was my first time in the US, most bird species I had already seen during past trips to eastern Canada, Mexico and Surinam. The trip yielded 71 lifers out of a total of 158 species (excluding five introduced species). A number of places visited are worth mentioning, especially McDowell Park near Charlotte, the Blue Ridge Parkway in NC, Savannah National Wildlife Refuge northwest of Savannah, and Carolina Sandhills NWR in the north of SC.

- studying Sibley's Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America
- using Marshall Brooks and Mark Johns (ed.): Birding North Carolina and several websites to select good birding sites
- contacting birders in several areas through - downloading sounds from and learning them
- watching Youtube videos of American birds (often giving a much better impression of what to expect than pictures in a book)
Species marked * are lifers.

1. Southern NC April 13-19: South of Charlotte, NC
The first birds seen upon arrival at Charlotte Airport were American Robins, House Finches and Common Grackles.
Between April 13th and 19th we stayed at Marijke's sister's place in the Somerset suburban neighbourhood in Waxhaw, NC, southeast of Charlotte. Despite a lack of feeders, the area is quite birdy. In the backyard and around the house the following species were seen or heard daily: Northern Cardinal, American Robin, House Sparrow, European Starling, Common Grackle, Eastern Towhee*, Mourning Dove, Brown-headed Cowbird*, Northern Mockingbird, Carolina Chickadee*, Brown Thrasher*, Tufted Titmouse*, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Carolina Wren*, Song Sparrow, American Crow, Blue Jay and American Goldfinch. Turkey Vultures were often seen soaring. A Red-bellied Woodpecker* was regularly heard but seldom seen. A Northern House Wren alarm rattle was heard on the first day only. It would not be before our return in May, that I could get reacquinted with this species - by then it would be singing all day and every day. Also that day I heard a distant Eastern Bluebird. The next morning I clearly heard a seemingly out-of-place Field Sparrow* singing. It turned out there was some undeveloped terrain between Somerset and Rea Road. In the backyard I heard the songs of a Pine Warbler* and an unexpected Ruby-crowned Kinglet*, which showed itself nicely - I could even see the red crown. The first of many Red-shouldered Hawks* soared overhead, while a fly-by Northern Harrier would remain the only one of the trip.
McDowell Park, April 15
On April 15th I visited McDowell Park, southwest of Charlotte, with Birdingpal Nicole Hoekstra.
She had recommended the park, and with good reason: it is wonderfully varied, with lots of water, wooded areas and savanna habitat. Red-eyed Vireos were common. We hiked the service road throught he northern (savanna) part. We heard a Northern Parula* singing and Summer Tanager and Red-breasted Nuthatch calling. Nicole showed me my first Brown-headed Nuthatches* and simultaneously the first Chimney Swift* flew past - many more would follow later. Eastern Bluebirds occupied nestboxes and flew around with Barn Swallows. We saw a few stunning male Indigo Buntings, encountered quite a few Common Yellowthroats, large groups of migrating Red-winged Blackbirds and Brown-headed Cowbirds, and a small group of Northern Rough-winged Swallows. Then a couple of new species presented themselves: an Eastern Kingbird* sat atop a tree, and a Worm-eating warbler* and an early Acadian Flycatcher* were heard in a patch of swampy forest. A strangely familiar song drew us towards a White-throated Sparrow showing nicely at close range. A pair of ducks taking off must have been Wood Ducks, although better views were to follow elsewhere. Black vultures soared overhead. Upon returning we observed a group of Red-shouldered Hawks in the sky and group of Savannah Sparrows on the ground. The edge of the wood was where we heard and saw two White-eyed Vireos*, their song immediately recognizeable.
We decided to do another trail, through the picnic area. Here we found a Palm Warbler*, a Downy Woodpecker and a singing Pine Siskin; I heard at least one Black-and-White Warbler and my first Great Crested Flycatcher*. Back in Somerset the next day, a Chipping Sparrow could be observed (I had already heard them singing a couple of times), and flying overhead were two unexpected Fish Crows* (recognizable by their guttural yet sympathetic calls) and a Tree Swallow*. I paid a visit to the undeveloped land between Somerset and Rea Road the morning of the 17th. It was full of Myrtle Warblers, Common Grackles, Field Sparrows, Tufted Titmice, Northern Cardinals and singing White-throated Sparrows. A group of 10 Northern Mockingbirds flew overhead, and four White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) tried to escape me. Most notable perhaps was a sole Ruby-throated Hummingbird. That afternoon I visited the picnic area at McDowell's Park again, with Marijke and the kids this time. Mallard and Great Blue Heron* were not uncommon. Unsatisfactorily, I managed to score three species, including one lifer, by ear alone: Belted Kingfisher, Prothonotary Warbler* and Tennessee Warbler. Bank Swallows and Northern Rough-winged Swallows foraged above the lake, five Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta), were basking in the sun and we could observe a Carolina Anole (Anolis carolinensis) from up close. Back home a Cooper's Hawk was hunting in the yards.
On April 19th I was briefly confused by Northern Mockingbirds in Freedom Park in Charlotte, doing very vivid imitations of Eastern Phoebe and Eastern Wood-pewee. Luckily, I would encounter those species in the flesh later. Chimney Swifts flew above the pond.
2. Around Savannah, Georgia April 20-25: Tybee Island, GA.
Driving onto Tybee Island past Savannah, Georgia, the change in bird population is immediately apparent. Suddenly Boat-tailed Grackles*, Red-winged Blackbirds and Royal Terns abound, and in the marshes Great White Egrets and Snowy Egrets are conspicuous. Both Ring-billed and Laughing Gulls are very common on and near the beach. No White-throated Sparrows here, no Eastern Towhees or American Robins, even. Now and then a group of Brown Pelicans flies by or a Willet forages on the beach. Barn Swallows and Tree Swallows forage above the yards. On the evening of our first day on Tybee, walking home with pizzas, I found a male Orchard Oriole in our street. What a beautiful bird that is.
The next few days, animals be found in the yard or in the streets around the house included Great Crested Flycatchers, Myrtle Warblers, Carolina Anoles and a Raccoon (Procyon lotor). Double-crested Cormorants and Chimney Swifts were regularly seen flying overhead. An interesting species here - though common for me in the Netherlands - lived on 12th St. near the beach: a couple of Eurasian Collared Doves. On the 21st of April, I found my first Clapper Rails* in the marsh along 12th St. that afternoon. Several Red-winged Blackbirds were singing there. The next day I decided to pay a visit to the Sally Pearce Nature Trail - a very small yet interesting patch of forest in the middle of the village - and to the North Beach. Perhaps due to bad timing - I went in the afternoon - I did not find much of interest. The trail produced two birds: a calling Fish Crow and an Ovenbird*, the latter nicely visible as it was walking a log. Back in the yard, a Black-throated Blue Warbler* sang, and that evening I saw a Great Black-backed Gull flying past the pier.
Ring-billed Gull, Tybee Island beach, GA.
Little Tybee (April 21)
A boat trip with Dave or Rene Heidt of may be pricy, it is not your average tourist dolphin loop. It is a personalized ecotour with a very knowledgeable captain, well worth it.
We were lucky to have captain Dave on the way to Little Tybee, a local ex-fisherman whose knowledge is the most broad and general, and Rene - who is more specialized in wildlife, particularly birds - on the way back. On the uninhabited island of Little Tybee itself I would also meet Diana Churchill, president of the local Audubon society and an experienced birder.
Crossing the river towards Little Tybee, Royal Terns and Black Skimmers were seen, but also two new tern species for me: Forsters Tern* and Least Tern*. The latter in particular would prove to be common. The marshes of Little Tybee contained some Marsh Wrens* and lots of Barn and Tree Swallows.
Upon arriving on the beach of Little Tybee the first noticeable animals were Atlantic Horseshoe Crabs (Limulus polyphemus)...lots of them. A little further on the beach, shorebirds congegrated: mostly Semipalmated Sandpipers, many Semipalmated Plovers, some Wilson's Plovers, Sanderling and American Oystercatchers, a Black-bellied Plover, groups of Hudsonian Curlew (Whimbrel) and one or two Dunlin and Western Sandpipers*. Among the many Royals, some Sandwich Terns rested. An Osprey was very active. On the way back a small family of Bald Eagles flushed a group of Red-breasted Mergansers. Other birds seen on the way back included a Green Heron, Red-winged Blackbirds, Ruddy Turnstones and an American Herring Gull.
Savannah National Wildlife Refuge (April 24)
The SNWR lies across the state border, a 45 minutes drive from Tybee. It was Diana Churchill, who, when I met her on Little Tybee, had persuaded me, I should definitely pay the the refuge a visit, and for this I should be grateful to her.
Or should I?
The morning I walked the northern SNWR dikes - the whole of the southern part was closed - was characterized by two annoying M's: mist and mosquitos. Lots of thick mist and lots of mosquitos.
The only two other visitors I met assured me: “they are not usually this bad”, as if that's a consolation.
Because of the mist I had to bird by ear for the most part. The first thing I heard, from the car whilst driving towards the refuge, was a Black-throated Green Warbler*. In the refuge Common Yellowthroats, Red-winged Blackbirds and Boat-tailed Grackles dominated the airwaves. More interesting te me were the sounds of Common Moorhens*, two American Bitterns* and a Sora. I could see the silhouettes of Anhingas sitting in the mist. Then two small herons appeared, flying past me at close distance: a Least Bittern* and a juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-heron. More Least Bitterns would appear later. Two lean herons flying by, a white and a completely dark one: Little Blue Herons. A male Bobolink* foraging on the path was the first of several. Savannah Sparrows too would spend most of their time in front of me on the trails. The vegetation bordering them were teeming with life: mostly Yellow Warblers and Myrtle Warblers but also Swamp Sparrows*. A bird only heard singing was a Painted Bunting, the main species I had been looking for on the north beach, to no avail. Quite a few Indigo Bunting were both heard and seen. Finally I saw a flock of ca. 15 White Ibis flying off from a sand bank; two visitors showed me the reason why: an American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) was approaching the bank! As I was leaving the refuge, the mist cleared and I could see a few groups of American Coot. I also decided to pay a brief visit to a nearby site called Kingfisher Pond. The main attraction there was a Magnolia Warbler* singing in the woods near the water.
On the 25th we left Savannah. Along the I-95 I saw a new trip bird from the car: a Pileated Woodpecker flying by. The first of many. During a lunch stop near Madison, GA, I heard a Prairie Warbler* singing. In the same area Joep found a beautiful large insect: a Red Velvet Ant (Dasymutilla occidentalis) a.k.a. Cow Killer... We stayed the night in the Days Inn hotel in Athens: pretty good value for its low price! The next day we drove into the mountains.
3. Blue Ridge mountains, southwest NC April 26-29: Yellow Creek (Robbinsville).
We stayed (only) three days in a fantastic, spacious cabin in Yellow Creek, a valley near Robbinsville in the extreme southwest of North Carolina. It is in a forested, quiet location near a babbling stream which - apparently - is full of trout. The valley was echoeing with the nearcontinuous sounds of Hooded Warblers*, Northern Parulas, a Kentucky Warbler* - sometimes joined by a second one - and Indigo Buntings. Regular visitors were Downy and Pileated Woodpeckers, as well as Ruffed Grouse, which were heard displaying very close to the cabin now and then. Some evenings, a Whip-poor-will* was heard as well as a very far-off Wood Thrush*. From the 27th, Eastern Phoebes* were suddenly common. At night, Spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer crucifer) were heard everywhere.
The morning of April the 28th was a memorable one. A loud bird song woke me up: a Swainson's Warbler* repeating its “see, see, see, SISterville” song every few seconds. I got out of bed, quietly so as not to wake anyone up, dressed quickly and left the house. The moment I opened the door, however, the Swainson's stopped. It was not heard again and it was impossible to find. Instead, on my morning walk, I flushed a Ruffed Grouse, found at least one Yellow-throated Vireo*, heard a Louisiana Waterthrush and observed a pair of Eastern Phoebes at close range. The Kentucky and other warblers woke up gradually as I walked home to make breakfast. Eastern Chipmunks (Tamias striatus) chipped away in the undergrowth.
Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest (April 28)
The double loop trail that runs to the giant trees was supposed to be easy enough to bring small kids. Though that proved to be a little too optimistic, we finished the trail nevertheless. Birds heard were mainly Ovenbirds, Black-throated Blue and Black-throated Green Warblers, one or two Black-and-white Warblers and American Redstarts, and two calling Acadian Flycatchers. Of interest was a Red-sided Flat Millipede (Sigmoria aberrans) and a calling Whitebreasted Nuthatch.
On the morning of the 29th we packed the car and drove towards Cherokee to get onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. Because we wanted to be sure to reach our next destination in time, we did not really take our time enjoying the many overlooks but mainly drove on, getting out for a bite or a sanitary stop two or three times. Birds found easily were Indigo Buntings, Pine Warblers, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Carolina Chickadees (one near Waterrock Knob was singing like a Black-capped and could have been a hybrid) and Dark-eyed Juncos, lots of juncos....But my day of birding the Blue Ridge was still to come.
April 29 - May 6: Celo
Celo Inn is a nice place a few miles off the Parkway. The gardens surrounding the Inn host a smaller quaint wooden building called the Cottage, which would be our home for a week. A new bird, heard first near the actual town of Celo, was the Gray Catbird*. I would hear them all week in the area. Another bird new for the trip was a Scarlet Tanager heard calling by the South Toe River on the morning of the 30th. The Celo Inn gardens hosted Red-eyed Vireos, Carolina Wrens, American Robins, Brown Thrashers, Northern Cardinals, Song Sparrows, House Sparrows, American Goldfinches, House Finches and at least one Pileated Woodpecker. Eastern Phoebes and Yellowthroated Vireos were occasionally heard in the area. In the evenings, a Wood Thrush sang in the distance and sometimes a small flock of Canada Geese was heard flying overhead. On May the 2nd, a small Buteo flew past. It had a short tail and an Accipiter-like flight: fast wingbeats alternating with soars, pointed wings, like a fat Cooper's Hawk with a short tail. Due to the sunlight, I could not see any colour details, but the strange shape and flight, I had never seen before and I take it to be my first and only Broad-winged Hawk*.
The area hosted American Crows, Great Crested Flycatchers, Eastern Bluebirds, Barn Swallows, Northern Parulas, Black-throated Green and Blue Warblers, Ovenbirds, Chimney Swifts and European Starlings. Black Racers (Coluber constrictor) were common.
Blue Ridge Parkway / Mount Mitchell (May 1, 5 and 6)
I was going to meet Birdingpal Steve Semanchuk at the Bull Creek Valley overlook on the 1st of May at 7.00. As he predicted, it took me about an hour to get there; from the car I saw a Wild Turkey* crossing, and I heard Pine and Black-and-white Warblers, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Golden-crowned Kinglets from the car window. Steve proved a goldmine; he is knowledgeable, enthusiastic and - like me - an advocate of birding by ear. Not only did he show me some new birds, but he taught me lots of things about the area and was patient enough to make sure I could finally get some good looks at birds that up until then I had only heard or seen glimpses of, notably Hooded Warblers, Blue-headed Vireos, Scarlet Tanagers and Chestnut-sided Warblers.
Several more birders were present, as it turned out to be a well-known Cerulean Warbler* stakeout. We saw 5 or 6 of them, at one point there were three singing simultaneously. I was also very happy to get some decent looks at Blackburnian Warblers with their stunningly orange throats, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. A few Eastern Wood-pewees* were heard in the distance. We worked our way up towards Mount Mitchell. At Craggy Gardens, Black-throated Blue and Black-throated Green Warblers were particularly abundant and almost tame. This was where Steve showed me several Canada Warblers* and where I heard one Veery* call. Mount Mitchell was pretty quiet, although some more Canada Warblers were found and I got a nice look at a Golden-crowned Kinglet. Further north we heard a couple of Worm-eating Warblers, a singing Gray Catbird, Pileated Woodpeckers and Pine Siskins. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker showed a glimpse. Another Worm-eating Warbler was singing along the road down to the Pisgah Campground. At the campground, the only bird of interest was a female Rubythroated Hummingbird enjoying the campground manager's feeder.
A visit to the actual top of Mount Mitchell with the family on May the 5th would produce two more species: Common Raven and (Eastern) Winter Wren*, which sounds rather different from the European Winter Wrens I am used to. The next morning we left the area, but not before I saw a glimpse of another new bird behind the Celo Inn: a Northern Flicker*. Driving a little further along the Parkway we met a few more Wild Turkeys: first two, then three. I saw an owl flying by in front of the car; it was a medium-sized owl with short, rounded wings, dark with lighter underwings and very deep wingbeats. This only fits Barred Owl*: it was way too small and stocky to be a Great Horned, and it was too big to be an Eastern Screech. A brief visit to Linville Falls that morning produced another Blackburnian Warbler, relentlessly singing all morning on the car park, lots of Black-throated Blue Warblers, lots of Northern Parulas (including the first seen), a Blue-headed Vireo, a Kentucky Warbler, some Northern Rough-winged Swallows and a feral pigeon pretending to be a real wild Rock Dove.
4. Southern NC and Northern SC
May 6-11: South of Charlotte, NC (revisited)
Back in Somerset, the bird population had changed slightly but noticeably during our absence. Winter birds such as White-throated Sparrows and American Goldfinches had been replaced by Northern House Wrens, Chimney Swifts and Great Crested Flycatchers. That evening in the backyard, quite unexpectedly, about 20 Cedar Waxwings flew overhead. The next few days would see more flocks, numbering from 2 to 40; sometimes you could clearly see the yellow tail-tips. On May 8th, a mother's day visit to the Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens southwest of Charlotte was made memorable for me by one bird. It was seen from the car while approaching the area: a small swallow with a short tail and an obviously off-white rump: a Cliff Swallow*.
Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge (May 9th)
I went to Carolina Sandhills on my own, the main goal being the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and Bachman's Sparrows. The visit would boost my life list considerably: one morning in the area produced 7 lifers, and I could have easily spent another day there. The Red-cockaded Woodpeckers* are easy; they are noisy little buggers. Groups of bickering woodpeckers can be found in many places along the Wildlife Drive. The Bachman's Sparrows were much harder to find. I had almost given up hope, when, near the end of the Drive, I heard one singing. In the end I have heard three singing Bachman's Sparrows* in all, and I have not been able to see a single one of them. Unexpected bonuses came in the form of a Blackpoll Warbler* near the entrance, a pair of Northern Bobwhites* narrowly escaping the tyres of my car (I could hear some calling now and then), the common yet exquisitely beautiful Red-headed Woodpeckers*, a Northern Flicker mobbing a Red-tailed Hawk, a singing Yellow-throated Warbler*, the sheer number of Orchard Orioles and Pine Warblers, an American Bittern flying past, a Green Heron atop a dead tree, Spotted Sandpipers* and displaying Killdeer on the banks of Lake Bee, a Bald Eagle, several Prairie Warblers, a Worm-eating Warbler, a Blue Grosbeak, and much, much more. On the way back, just when I was wondering why I hadn't seen a Meadowlark by the side of Highway 601 yet - as it looked so suitable - lo and behold, an Eastern Meadowlark turned up on a fence. A fitting final bird on the trip list.

Last update 02/11/2011