Sunday, May 11, 2014

Birding the southern Appalachians: World of Warblers

Birders from all over the Carolinas descended on Hendersonville in the southern Appalachians for the Carolina Bird Club spring meeting last weekend to witness warblers at their finest.  What makes spring birding in this region so special is that the warblers arrive and begin singing before the trees have had a chance to leaf out.  This gives birders a great opportunity to see these elusive, beautiful songsters in their breeding finery that just doesn't exist in the piedmont or coastal plain.
I lead a couple field trips around Polk County in the Saluda area and, including some extra birding while "off-duty," spotted 25 warblers over the weekend--an excellent haul.

Swainson's Warbler, Pearson's Falls
This Swainson's Warbler I found on an afternoon trip to Pearson's Falls, was unusually cooperative; normally photographing warblers is an exercise in futility.  The sprightly little birds are often far away, rarely sit still, and when they do happen to take a sedentary moment nearby, there's inevitably a branch in the way and/or poor lighting. Why don't I just paunch into a rough guide to taking mediocre warbler photos?

Palm Warbler, Lake Junaluska
Here's a friendly Palm Warbler, but it was late in the day and the sun was just in the wrong place.

Blackburnian Warbler, Max Patch Road
This is a typical view of a Blackburnian Warbler...100 ft straight up.  Not much one can do about that.

Yellow-throated Warbler, Polk County
This was a rare case in which a canopy species, Yellow-throated Warbler, inexplicably dropped down to about eye level, and next to our parked vehicles on my Warrior Mountain trip to boot.  Not a rare bird, but one that I rarely see this well, and a crowd-pleaser for sure.

Cerulean Warbler, Blue Ridge Parkway north of Asheville
The joy of birding along the Blue Ridge Parkway north of Asheville isn't just the Cerulean Warblers, it's also that the steep dropoffs at the overlooks give the opportunity to look into the canopy at eye level and see, yes, Ceruleans, but lots of other warblers as well.  Ceruleans are notoriously difficult to photograph and this capture is pretty uninspiring (they usually look much bluer).

Canada Warbler, Craggy Gardens
Odds of getting a decent shot go up exponentially when the target is an understory species, such as this Canada Warbler.  This capture stands head-and-shoulders above most of the rest in this post.
Hooded Warbler, Warrior Mountain escarpment
I wasn't as lucky with this Hooded Warbler.  It was a cloudy early morning, so the light was low and he was far away.

Black-and-white Warbler, Warrior Mountain escarpment
 Same goes for this Black-and-white Warbler.

Chestnut-sided Warbler, Max Patch Road
 When you go looking for Golden-winged Warblers in North Carolina (no easy task, by the way; their population has declined some 98% in the state) Chesnut-sided Warblers become the 'trash' birds you can't get away from.  No complaints here!

Golden-winged Warbler, Max Patch Road
The real deal couldn't be bothered to pose for photos...this Golden-winged Warbler appeared to be busy trying to ensure the persistence of his genetic line in one his species' last holdouts in North Carolina.

Cape May Warbler, Lake Junaluska
 One of the handful of warblers we saw that is not a resident breeder in North Carolina was the Cape May Warbler.  This is one of those birds that could really use a name change.  It has no particularly affinity for Cape May, New Jersey, in fact, it is relatively difficult to find one there at all.  My vote would be to adopt its latin name tigrisoma and call it the 'Tiger Warbler.' Look at those stripes and orange face!

waterthrush sp., Polk County
We've worked our way from high to low and are now actually looking down on warblers. 

Which waterthrush?  It looks quite white; has a broad, flaring supercilium; and was working along the edge of a fast-flowing stream.  That makes it a Louisiana Waterthrush, right?
Northern Waterthrush, Polk County
Wrong! Closer inspection shows that it does indeed show a yellowish tinge, dense streaking and a fine bill.  I guess Northern Waterthrushes can make use of fast-moving habitats while migrating through the mountains (where stagnant water can be scarce), and can show that broad white eyebrow usually associated with Louisiana.  That's part of what makes birding fun: there's always more to learn.   

How quickly spring passes us by here in the South.  Most of the migrating warblers are well to the north of us now it seems.  They were few and far between on yesterday's Chapel Hill Spring Bird Count.  One surprising exception was a beautiful male Magnolia Warbler, the 32nd warbler species I've spotted in North Carolina this spring. That's certainly a record for me and, heck, that's a pretty good total for a year in this or any state. 

I've heard that springtime birding at Magee Marsh in Ohio is tough to beat, but if you want to see breeding plumage warblers without the crowds, it might be worth looking into a well-timed trip to the Southern Appalachians.


  1. Shoot man that's an absurd number of warblers; Arizonans can't even count that high, crushing photos or not (and you do have some crushes in here).

    I'll be in NC (Wayne County) for the second half of June. Most of the warblers will be gone, but I'm looking forward to birding this new location and habitat tremendously and your posts is most titillating.

  2. Thanks, Laurence!

    I've never birded Wayne County, so I'll be curious to know what habitats and birds you find there. Will you get a chance to venture out toward the coast?

    1. Hey Scott,

      I've got a few places earmarked in Wayne County (or what I think is still Wayne county; I'll be staying between Goldsboro and La Grange). I'm hoping to pull Prothonotary, Kentucky, and Swainson's Warbler, but might have to go to the Howell woods in Johnston County for 'em.
      Croatan Nat'l Forest near the coast is about an hour away, and I'll be trying for Red-cockaded and Bachmann's Sparrow there plus other woodpeckers and..err hem...Violet-green Swallow.

      I'll be borrowing vehicles and/or bumming rides so I don't know that I can make it much farther. I'd love to check out the Cape Hatteras area, of course, but may not make it this time. I'll be back in December though and if Snowies are around I'll friggin' hitch-hike and debase myself for rides, I don't care.

      You have any recommendations? I don't know what area you're rocking, seems like you move around a lot!

    2. Howell Woods is a great spot and you can definitely get those warblers there. Mississippi Kites area also possible if you keep an eye skyward and there's a spot around the corner that has Loggerhead Shrike.
      If you make it to the Croatan and are feeling lucky, you should try for Black-billed Cuckoo, which were recently discovered to be breeding there (see: You can also get Swainson's Warbler there if you miss them at Howell Woods. And yes, get your Bachman's Sparrow and RCW.

      No car is tough though...

    3. This is awesome Scott thanks, especially for the BBCU tip--that's a sweet bird and not one I'd expect in mid/late June since the AZ birds don't really arrive until July.

      I think I'll have a few days at least staying with some folks on the Emerald Isle, so I should be able to make some forays into Croatan and some of the Beach State Parks. Croatan seems to be a fabulous spot and I'm stoked as a campfire for it.
      It'll also be fun to establish more eBirding stuff for the Goldsboro/La Grange area

    4. Yeah, John Fussell just reported two pairs of BBCU there the other day. I think some folks from Durham may be headed down this weekend to chase.

      Emerald Isle is nice. Try to get to Fort Macon to see Painted Buntings. June isn't the best time for shorebirding, but if you can wrangle a kayak or boat, Rachel Carson National Estuarine Preserve across from Beaufort is another great spot. Should be Piping Plover and Wilson's Plover there. Red Knot is also possible.

    5. Thanks again Scott.
      All three of those shorebirds would be lifers, but I figured in June that they'd be gone and didn't entertain further possibilities. I shouldn't get too carried away, but this is shaping up to be a pretty exciting foray into the NC birding world.