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Pandemic Adventures Part 1: Local Spring Birding

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

2020 began pretty normal, with distant signs of trouble that seemed, well, distant almost to the point of irrelevance. Up through early March, life was unchanged (e.g., a President’s Day OBX birding trip from 2/16–2/17 and a big 30th birthday party at our house on 2/29). I don’t think the reality of the global pandemic really sunk in until both my office and my wife’s sent us packing back home. For me, full-time telework began on 3/16, and I’m considering that the “start date” for my pandemic experience. By the time NC’s official stay-at-home order went into effect on 3/30, our routine had dramatically shifted.

My wife and I were very fortunate not to have suffered the same degree of health, economic, or social hardships borne by many others, and our sympathies extend to all of those. However, this blog is focused on the lemonade, not the lemons, that came out of the pandemic.

In addition to home projects (e.g., tearing down part of our deck and building some stairs), I maintained my sanity with an above-average amount of birding. The prime stretch of lockdown coincided nicely with spring bird migration, allowing me to do more high-quality local birding than normal. We also left the house a number of times for some socially responsible day and overnight nature trips (see the Part 2 Blog).

Yard Birding

Perhaps unsurprisingly, during the pandemic I birded our property more than any other location. This included a number of more intensive pre-work, post-work, or weekend checklists, along with a fair number of more casual checklists of birds I happened to hear or see while working on the back porch. Between 3/16 and 6/5, I saw/heard 86 species of birds in the yard across 68 different checklists (not all checklists were complete). That’s pretty good for a single spring; for reference, my annual yard list is usually around 95-98 birds. (Update: in 2020, I ended up with 104 species in the yard.)

Incredibly, this list included 12 new yard birds (new total as of 6/5 = 112), including:

  • American White Pelican (3/24, on the lake 2-3 miles away, seen from the loft through my scope)

  • Northern Rough-winged Swallow (3/27)

  • White-eyed Vireo (4/3, also 4/16, 4/21)

  • Tree Swallow (4/6, also 5/31)

  • Common Loon (4/6, heard yodeling on the lake)

  • Greater Yellowlegs (4/9, heard)

  • Prairie Warbler (4/14, heard)

  • Palm Warbler (4/17)

  • Veery (4/28, heard singing)

  • Gray Catbird (4/29)

  • Canada Warbler (5/4, county bird, seen!)

  • Broad-winged Hawk (5/15, also 6/2)

  • Prothonotary Warbler (6/1)

  • Brown Thrasher (6/2)

During this time period, 16 species of warblers showed up (Worm-eating on 5/6, Blackpoll on 5/14, and Blackburnian on 5/22 were the best return visitors), along with lots of other interesting migrants (e.g., Rose-breasted Grosbeak plus a few Swainson’s Thrushes that hung around for over a week) and local breeders (e.g., Yellow-throated Vireo, Scarlet Tanager, Blue Grosbeak).

In June, yard birding slowed down precipitously after the migrants moved on, summer set in, and the heat and humidity made working outside untenable. However, the yard featured more interesting non-avian life over the summer. Our newly-installed water features were a big hit. They hosted breeding Cope’s Gray Treefrogs, with hundreds of tadpoles over numerous egg cycles, plus a Pickerel Frog that became completely accustomed to human approach and was seen daily throughout July and August. (A Green Frog replaced the Pickerel once fall came around.) The water features seemed to attract more dragonflies, too, with the biggest surprise being Bar-winged Skimmers (fairly rare in the piedmont), which returned multiple times and eventually mated and laid eggs in the water feature. A baby deer was born in our front yard, and Rocky the raccoon made daily daytime visits to our house for roughly three weeks in July. And the omnipresent lizards always make good photo subjects.

Local Birding

Even during the formal stay-at-home order that lasted from 3/30 till 5/8, individuals were permitted “[t]o engage in outdoor activity,” which included birding. A combination of meteorological forces and more free time resulted in this being an unusually productive spring for birders across the piedmont. With a few exceptions noted below, all of my local birding was in Chatham Co.

The Lower Haw River was exceptional this spring! Across 8 trips from late March to early June (including a few by kayak), I saw or heard 99 species of birds on the river. This included a whopping 21 species of warblers. On one trip (5/8), a friend and I tallied 20 different species of warblers, more than I’ve ever seen in one place before! This included a Wilson’s (new state bird, usually quite rare but widespread throughout NC this spring); Magnolia, Bay-breasted, and Blackpoll (none of which I’d ever seen in their resplendent breeding plumage); Chestnut-sided (ditto, apart from one spring sighting in DC); and Kentucky (rare, local breeders, but dependable here). Apart from the warbler action, I had a Baltimore Oriole (4/29, county bird), some Solitary Sandpipers (5/8), and lots of Spotted Sandpipers along the river.

The spring also brought some rare birds to Jordan Lake. On 4/9, a friend of mine found a Neotropic Cormorant at Crosswinds Marina, a few miles from my house as the crow flies. I think I was the second human (of many) to observe this bird, which had never previously been seen in North Carolina, and which was a lifer for me. Although I don’t generally chase rare birds, I will absolutely chase down something that close to home; a thirty-minute drive is my self-imposed limit.

When one-time Tropical Storm Arthur brushed the NC coast on 5/18, the northward migration of many coastal birds was shifted inland. Four days of easterly winds and seemingly neverending rainfall effectively pinned these birds down in the piedmont for the week, making for unusually interesting birding. Following up on a lead from a friend who found some distant gulls and terns on a water quality structure near Crosswinds Marina, I kayaked out to get a closer look after work on 5/21. What a trip! I had 2 Black and 4 Common Terns (the latter were county birds for me), along with 3 Lesser Black-backed, 2 Herring, 4 Laughing, and dozens of Ring-billed Gulls. I also had a clean sweep of all 6 species of swallows (including Bank), which the storm brought down in high numbers across the piedmont. Chatham County didn’t get many good shorebirds; on 5/19, all I could find was a lone Semipalmated Sandpiper at the Lystra road mudlflats before they were submerged by the rising lake. So, on 5/22, I broke form and headed over to Lake Crabtree to see some of the ridiculous shorebirds that the Wake Co. birders had been reporting for days; by the time I arrived, 4 Red-necked Phalaropes (!), a Greater Yellowlegs, and White-rumped (!), Semi, and Least Sandpipers remained. I won’t go over the numerous other rare shorebirds reported earlier in the week from Crabtree, but one of them rhymes with “timbrel.” If only Chatham Co. had a lake like Crabtree…

The yard, river, and lake were the main local attractions this spring, but I did visit a few other nearby hotspots. I birded my favorite local marsh just up the street on no less than 10 occasions, but could never turn up any rails or bitterns. This nonetheless remains a reliable spot for hearing Eastern Whip-poor-wills, which is always fun. I also flushed a Bobolink from the NC Forest Service HQ field across the street, the first I’d ever seen near the lake.

That’s about it for the local piedmont pandemic birding this spring. To read about more COVID nature adventures, check out the Part 2 Blog, which covers a number of short day and overnight trips to the mountains, sandhills, and coastal NC.

But before you go, here is an enormous gallery of bonus bird pics from the lake, followed by a handful of herps and leps, and capped off by a bunch of local odes.


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