Thursday, June 11, 2015

Three NC birds with one stone

Natalia and I had a little getaway to Wilmington last weekend and took the opportunity to follow up on some unusual birds that have been hanging around southeastern North Carolina.

Shortly after dipping on Swallow-tailed Kites a few years ago with Nate Swick, the species was finally confirmed to be breeding in the Cape Fear River floodplain forest just below Lock and Dam #1.  Since they seem to be spreading northward, I figured they would get easier and easier each year.  At long last my patience has paid off.

Swallow-tailed Kite, above US-87, NC

We had our first sighting at the intersection of US-11 and US-87 as one cruised over the road in front of us.  We called Mark K., who, also searching for kites, was waiting for us to meet him about 5 miles further down the road.  This kite had vanished over the trees, so we decided to continue on to our rendezvous.
But we had only made it a quarter mile before two more kites crossed the road.  We pulled off at the first opportunity, a church parking lot, and were treated with the spectacle of eight (8!) Swallow-tailed Kites circling over our heads

I managed to get four out of eight Swallow-tailed Kites in one frame

I've seen these beautiful kites in Florida, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Colombia where they are common, but they are relative new-comers to NC. 

Only three Swallow-tailed Kites in this capture, but gives a nice perspective on how high they sometimes soar.  Also notice the middle-distance bird in the bottom left is molting flight feathers and has a much shorter tail.  Immature or molting adult?

Poor Mark arrived on the scene just after the kites had vanished.  We dallied around for 20 minutes in vain and then continued on to our original destination, an abandoned Monk Parakeet nest where kites had been seen earlier in the day.

We didn't see any kites, but where pleasantly surprised to see a pair of "Quaker birds," as they are called in pet store parlance, adding twigs to the nest.

Monk Parakeets, Northwest, NC

Monk Parakeets are native to southern South America, but are commonly owned as pets. Escapees have established large populations in the US--and not just in South Florida, but in northern cities as well.  Breeding in NC has been documented sporadically since the 1970s.

Monk Parakeet, Northwest, NC

According to locals, this pair has been in residence for a few years, but has yet to successfully fledge any chicks.  Apparently European Starlings (another exotic species, ironically) have taken to feeding on parakeet eggs.

We cruised around a bit longer with Mark hoping to lend him some of our Swallow-tailed Kite juju, but after a short, unsuccessful while we parted ways.  We wanted to get to the beach with time to see one more odd bird.  This one was over from across the pond, rather than from down south.

A Black-headed Gull had been hanging around Mason Inlet at the north end of Wrightsville Beach.  It turned out to be a real bird-chasers bird: sitting in plain sight in exactly the expected location.

Black-headed Gull, Mason Inlet, NC

These gulls are super common over in Europe and wander over the North America regularly, but this is the first one in a few years to be found in NC and then stick around for lots of birders to see.

Some may debate the "countability" of Monk Parakeet, but that quibble aside, it was cool to add three species to my NC in one day!  That hasn't happened since a pelagic I took in 2012. And I only added 5 species in all of 2014. So I don't ever expect to have such a day in this state ever again.


  1. Pretty tops.

    I don't think people in FL or TX get to have 8 STKI in one photo.
    Alas I won't be able to chase them in N.C. this summer, but I haven't earned that right yet anyway--plenty of other N.C. established species to pursue first.

    1. You going to spend some time in NC again this summer? What birds will you be after? Get on a pelagic?

  2. Very good post, Scott!
    I did not get the Black-headed Gull and I admit, probably wouldn't have noticed it. One of the differences between new birders and uber-birders: BOTH look at EVERY bird, but one wonders "what is that?" and the other wonders "WHAT is THAT?!!"
    In other words, new birders look at every bird and are overwhelmed.
    Typical birders ignore the usual suspects and get a good list going, but they only notice OBVIOUS birds that are new to them.
    And then there are the Uber Birders: They look at every bird and discern that ONE bird that is rare in the flock of common ones. Such as finding the Black-headed Gull ( not a Laughing Gull). Or the Cackling Goose among Canadas. Or the Immature Yellow-headed Blackbird among Red-winged Blackbirds. Or the SHINY Cowbird among Brown-headed Cowbirds.

    Speaking of Florida, I saw over as DOZEN Swallow-tailed Kites roosting in a dead hardwood!
    The tree had widespread branches, so everyone had their own spot for sleeping and preening. I took a photo while practically standing under the tree on a trail. The birds were gone by 8 a.m., formed a kettle in the sky for a few minutes, then veered off in different directions to spend their day cruising the skies.
    That location: Audubon Park, which I think is in Volusia County. I'd give you the hotspot location, but is off line at the moment, doing a taxonomic update.

    Audubon is a small nature park (Under 30 acres) in a residential street called Doyle Road in Deltona, and is managed by a local Audubon group and the town. There's one loop trail and it takes you through some hardwood scrub, then an open lawn with a couple of retention ponds, then into the woods and on a wonderful elevated boardwalk over a freshwater marsh.

    Only issue is that the gate may or may not be open, so parking can be problematic. Just leave a note on your windshield if this happens and park way over so that you are not blocking the road.

    Looking forward to more blog entries, Scott! -- Erla Beegle of Wake Audubon Meetup.

    1. Thanks for the note!

      I have to point out that I was not the one who found the Black-headed Gull. Always makes it easier when somebody else does the hard work for you!

      If a consequence of climate change is more Swallow-tailed Kites in NC, I could certainly live with that.