North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission

Help Us Celebrate “The Year of the Bird” and Get Your Winter Birding On!

Author: Jodie Owen/Wednesday, February 14, 2018/Categories: Blog, Conservation, Education, Wildlife Watching

Help Us Celebrate “The Year of the Bird” and Get Your Winter Birding On!

It’s 2018 – 100 years since the passage of one of the most important bird-protection laws in history – the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. To celebrate this milestone, National Geographic, Audubon and others have declared this year “The Year of the Bird.”  

And if you’ve ever wanted to learn more about birds, this is your year! Over the next 11 months, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission will be posting information on its blog about birds in North Carolina, the various projects agency biologists are conducting to help manage and monitor bird populations in the Tar Heel state, and much more so be sure to check back frequently.

First up is a general overview of birding in the winter. Even though it might be cold and dreary, you can still get your nature watching fix. In fact, several species of birds can be seen only in North Carolina in the winter. Let’s take a closer look at a few of the birds that are found in North Carolina only in the winter and how you can attract them to your backyards.

Dark-Eyed Junco

Although they’re ground-feeding birds, dark-eyed juncos are frequent visitors to backyard bird feeders in the winter. You can usually spot dark-eyed juncos, which are dark grey or brown with a pink bill and white outer tail feathers, hopping on the ground, eating the seed that has fallen to the ground from the feeder. This medium-sized sparrow prefers black-oil sunflower seed, millet, safflower seed, among other seeds. Except in the mountains where they are found year-round in middle-to-higher elevations, black-eyed juncos usually show up in North Carolina in the fall and depart for colder climates to our north as the weather warms in the spring.

White-Throated Sparrow

Another frequent visitor to the backyard bird feeder is the white-throated sparrow. This large sparrow, which is brown above and gray below with a black-and-white striped head and bright white throat, also prefers to feed on the ground, scratching through the leaves and dirt for fallen seed. It prefers black-oil sunflower seed, millet and cracked corn. This bird is one of the very recognizable winter singers (check out their song here).

Pine Siskin

Pine siskins are tiny birds that are winter visitors to North Carolina, except in the high elevations of western North Carolina, where they also can be found during the summer. These tiny songbirds are brown and very streaky with subtle yellow edgings on wings and tails. Pine siskins often travel in flocks of more than 20 birds and have a unique, rising “zzzzzzzzzzzzreeee” call.” They’ll come to backyard bird feeders that offer small seeds without tough shells, like thistle, nyjer and black-oil sunflower. They’ll also eat the fragments of larger seeds, as well as suet.  As their name implies, pine siskins like the seeds of pines and other conifers like cedars, larch, hemlock and spruce.

Outside of your bird feeder, you have the best chance of spotting pine siskins in the spruce-fir forests of western North Carolina, such as Roan Mountain, Mount Mitchell, or in the Devils Courthouse area, in summer. Getting good views of perched birds can be tricky, and most birds are seen and heard in flight.

Hummingbirds

You look out your window and spot what looks like an oddly colored hummingbird. But wait, it’s winter! That’s impossible! Or is it? While the ruby-throated hummingbird is the only breeding hummingbird found in North Carolina, there have been various legitimate reports of other species of hummingbirds spotted in the Tar Heel state between October and March, most notably the rufous hummingbird.

Rufous hummingbirds are beautifully colored birds with the males a brilliant orange and females green and orange colored. Like ruby-throated hummingbirds, rufous hummingbirds are tiny, fast and territorial when it comes to feeding — primarily on nectar from colorful, tubular flowers (or backyard feeders filled with 4-to-1 water/sugar solution).

According to the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, which tracks hummingbird sightings, the rufous hummingbird has been seen in 30 counties with hundreds of records reported for North Carolina. Museum officials know of four banded birds that returned multiple years to Durham, Shelby, Hampstead and Vass.

But the rufous is only one of 11 hummingbird species that have been spotted in North Carolina. The reports of wayward hummingbirds were so numerous that the museum decided to conduct a study on what it calls “vagrant hummingbirds,” that is, hummingbirds not typically seen in the eastern part of the country, much less in North Carolina. You can read more about this very interesting study here: http://naturalsciences.org/research-collections/research-specialties/birds/nc-hummingbirds. This webpage also provides information on the 11 species of hummingbirds that have been reported in North Carolina and specific counties where a species has been spotted. You can also report a vagrant sighting.

Northern Harrier

Northern harriers are unique hawks with long wings and long tails and a face that looks very similar to that of an owl. Like an owl, and unlike most other hawks, northern harriers rely on their keen hearing to locate prey beneath the vegetation, usually in open fields. You won’t find these slim hawks skulking around a bird feeder, but rather foraging from the sky where they fly slowly and low over the ground, dipping and rising like a roller coaster, their wings held in a V-shape as they glide searching (listening?) for cotton rats, house mice, harvest mice, shrews and even songbirds to feast upon.

Males are gray above and whitish below with a black-banded tail and black wingtips. Females and immature birds are brown with black bands on the tail. Adult females have whitish undersides with brown streaks, while immature birds are buffy, with less streaking. All northern harriers have a white rump patch that you can see when the bird is in flight.

While northern harriers can be found throughout North Carolina in the winter, they are most commonly seen in the Coastal Plain. Bring your binoculars and your patience and you’re sure to be rewarded with a sighting of these unique hawks.

 

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