When the Birds Aren’t Biting

It’s late August, and the fall migrants ought to be showing up, the first spattering of raindrops before the deluge. Migrating shorebirds have been moving down the coast for weeks now, but inland I think most of us are still anxiously watching the northern horizon, waiting for the waves of warblers to arrive.

A feeble “cold” front about a week ago knocked a few degrees off our upper-90s norm for a few days. So, hoping some fall migrants might be surfing the crest, I took a morning last weekend to go out to Mason Farm.


As I approached, a Great Blue Heron was perched regally atop a tall dead tree overlooking the intermittent marsh. It looked majestic up there, like the lord of all it surveyed, and I thought maybe it was a good sign to see such a magnificent bird before I’d even gotten out of my car.

Squadrons of dragonflies parted as I drove into the parking area. On the trail, the air was still and warm, and, even this early in the day, moving from shadow into sunshine felt like opening the oven door.


As I made my way around the trail, it became apparent that the heron had not been a harbinger of great harvest after all. Little in the way of bird life made itself apparent. I heard a couple of distant Yellow-billed Cuckoos. Two Downy Woodpeckers chased each other through the trees, and a ragged Indigo Bunting watched me from one patch of woods.

One of the fields yielded a Blue Grosbeak and a few whistling Eastern Wood Pewees. I did manage to find two American Redstarts and a pair of Northern Parulas.

A patchy-looking Blue Grosbeak insists on staying between me and the sun.
Eastern Wood Pewee.

But that was about it. For a Mason Farm morning, it was a lot quieter than I’d hoped. A bird or two here, then long stretches of nothing.

When that happens, generally I just enjoy the walk. You’re on the trail, breathing the open air, out there in the beauty. What’s not to love? I understand many people even do this without looking for birds at all.

On this particular morning, though, it was impossible not to notice something else going on. Butterflies were everywhere.

Female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (above) and the male, plus a mostly hidden Pearl Crescent.
Black form Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.

Most obvious were Eastern Tiger Swallowtails — big, conspicuous butterflies of yellow and black — wobbling over the trail and the fields in great numbers. The males, and most of the females, wear their tiger stripes over a buttery base coat, but some females come in all black, with lovely iridescent blue highlights.

Hordes of less ostentatious butterflies filled the air. Delicate Cloudless Sulphurs the color of pollen traced quavery courses though shoulder-high grasses. Lower down, crowds patterned in Halloween orange and black — Pearl Crescents, I learned later — jostled for space. A perfect Red-Spotted Purple scorned the flowers for the leaves overhead, and on the last leg of the trail I came upon a Viceroy, a mimic of the more familiar and apparently foul-tasting Monarch. Tiny skippers — I know only the common Silver-spotted Skipper and the bright orange Fiery Skipper by name — drifted through the air everywhere like flecks of ash.

Red-spotted Purple.
Pearl Crescent.
Cloudless Sulphur.
Silver-spotted Skipper
Silver-spotted Skipper

As I walked, I found my gaze shifting from the trees earthward to the flowers and brushy shrubs. I only know a handful of butterflies, but by the end of the loop, I was butterflying at least as much as I was birding: watching, identifying the ones I could, taking pictures and resolving to learn the ones I couldn’t.

On the drive out, I was brought up short by one last, spectacular creature working in the flowering brush beside the gravel drive. A Zebra Swallowtail, it had been through some stuff — it had a tear in its left hindwing, and its long spear of a tail on that side was gone — but it was still here, moving from blossom to blossom with a singular focus, doing what butterflies must do.

Zebra Swallowtail.

You never know when you set out what you’re going to find. The birding this day was a bit of a bust, but the further I went, the more I found the air pulsing with life and color, with what Darwin called “endless forms most beautiful.” How could you feel anything but gratitude to be able to walk through the world for a few hours surrounded by all this?

And sometimes you don’t even have to go looking for it. The next evening, Anne and I were sitting out on the deck talking and having a glass of wine when a tiny winged fleck suddenly appeared, fluttering into the midst of our conversation. Brown and faintly lined, it looked like a nondescript bit of dead leaf — except that, on the outer edge of its hindwing, nature has given it an astonishing little patch of opalescent blue set with what looked like four tiny sapphires.

That striking flourish gives the species its name, as I learned later: Gemmed Satyr. This one kept us company for quite a while. It danced in the air between us, occasionally coming to rest on the table, on my sleeve, on the rim of my wine glass, as we talked and listened to the cicadas and watched the evening fade.




Devil Bird

I got up early last Sunday to go to the airport. Not to catch a plane, but to try to find an Upland Sandpiper.

Upland Sandpipers, long-necked shorebirds that prefer grasslands to the actual shore, have an affinity for airports. They migrate through eastern North Carolina during the steamy days of late summer, and in July and August of most years birders report a few in the grassy fields that surround the runways at Wilmington International Airport, northeast of downtown.

I am not one of those birders. I’ve never seen an Upland Sandpiper. But several have been reported at the airport in the last few weeks, so I went out Sunday to try to add one to my life list.

The Wilmington airport has an outdoor observation area where you can park, sit at a picnic table, and watch the planes land and take off. (Apparently this is a thing.) I held my binoculars up to the chain link fence that prevents distracted birders from wandering out onto the runway and scoured the green expanse, sweat rolling down the back of my neck under what was, even before breakfast, already a sweltering sun.

Zip. Grasshoppers made feeble parabolic flights as if they were wearing underpowered jetpacks. A few dragonflies clung to the tips of wheaty stalks. But not a single visible bird interrupted the treeless plain. Not a Killdeer, not a grackle, not a robin. Definitely not an Upland Sandpiper.

Maybe the birds were out there but hidden, as grassland birds so often are. Maybe I was looking in the wrong direction; it’s a big place. I did score a trio of Eastern Kingbirds, my first in New Hanover County this year, patrolling from atop the fence, but after baking to a crackly crunch for a while I conceded. Someday maybe I’ll see an Upland Sandpiper. It won’t be today.

That white tail fringe gives it away: Eastern Kingbird on the hunt.

Plan B

But the day was still young, so I activated Plan B: Operation Anhinga.

The reptilian waterbirds are not terribly difficult to find along the Southeastern coast, if you know where to look. I’ve seen several of them in and around Wilmington, but when I looked over my year list, I was surprised to note that I didn’t have one yet in 2016. So I left the airport and headed for Greenfield Lake.

Greenfield Lake
Greenfield Lake

Although it’s an urban lake with a paved trail around its five-mile contour, an amphitheater, playgrounds, and a boathouse, most of the shoreline is a scribble of quiet coves and shady bays lined with cypress trees dripping with fringed curtains of Spanish moss. Alligators raft its quiet surface, and most of the year it’s a terrific place to look for birds.

A hitchhiker catches a ride on alligator cruising Greenfield Lake.

During the cooler months, American Coots sail in black flotillas, and Pied-billed Grebes dive near the shores. Double-crested Cormorants crowd together on the branches of tiny mid-lake islets, and there are times when Great Blue Herons and Great and Snowy  Egrets spangle the trees like Christmas ornaments. In migration season, warblers, vireos, and other passerines flit along the wooded shore.

Great Blue Heron
A Great Blue Heron basks in the trees overlooking Greenfield Lake.


Belted Kingfisher
A Belted Kingfisher surveys the pickings.

The dead of summer, though, is, if not quite dead, at least drowsy. When I got there on Sunday, everything was eerily still. From my vantage point, not a Mallard or a Canada Goose stirred the mirrored surface. Even the cormorants were gone. Nothing feathered moved except for a Northern Mockingbird hunting in the grass and a pair of Carolina Chickadees chasing each other in a pine tree. The odds of finding an Anhinga, or anything else, didn’t seem all that promising.

Still, I was here. I gathered my binoculars and camera, skirted the amphitheater, and walked down to the water’s edge. As I stood and scanned the distant treeline, the lake looked as barren as the airport fields.

Something caught my eye right in front of me, a solid form breaking up the feathery leaf edges. My eyes shifted from distant focus to near, and — well, look at that. A Green Heron, motionless in a tree growing out of the water not thirty feet out.

Green Heron
A Green Heron catches my eye.

At the same moment, I noticed a sound, a soft guttural croaking. The sound drew my gaze down the tree trunk and — and there, smack in front of me, its white wing patches blazing (how on earth did I miss them in the first place?) was an Anhinga.

How did I miss that big white wing patch?

Relatives of the cormorants, which they superficially resemble, Anhingas are striking but strange, prehistoric-looking birds; I can imagine them perched on crooked limbs above oozy primordial swamps. They’re sometimes called “snake birds” for their habit of swimming completely submerged except for their heads and serpentine necks. Apparently I’m not the only one who finds something vaguely spooky about them; the Tupi people of Brazil considered them evil spirits and gave them the name we still use for them:  Anhinga, meaning “devil bird.”

The call of the Anhinga.

This one extended its long neck, opened its spear of a bill and uttered another few raspy croaks. I watched for several minutes before it spread its wings and launched itself toward the far side of the lake.

Preparing for takeoff.

The Bear

Most days when I can go birding, I go into the field without a specific target in mind; I go to see whatever I can see. Occasionally, though,  I go out in search of a specific bird — or, as on this morning, two of them.

One, the Upland Sandpiper, remained completely out of my grasp. The other practically flapped into my lap.

That’s how it goes, I thought. As often happens, a line came to mind from that guide to enlightened living, The Big Lebowski: Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.

Sometimes both on the same morning.


Old Birds Made New

I had high hopes for Salt Pond, but it was a slow morning. Aside from the ubiquitous Gray Catbirds scolding me with wheezy meows from every shadowed thicket and a pair of Downy Woodpeckers chasing each other up the trunk of a dead snag, there was very little going on.

Gray Catbird
In southwest Cape Cod, it seemed to me that Gray Catbirds might outnumber all the other species put together.
Downy Woodpecker
A Downy Woodpecker scoots along a dead limb at Salt Pond.

I wasn’t discouraged, exactly, but after 90 quiet minutes I didn’t see much point in lingering, especially since the mosquitoes were as active as the bird weren’t, swarming out of the reedy brush to attack my arms and legs whenever I paused. I picked up my pace.

Suddenly a bird streaked low overhead from behind me and swooped up to light on the tip of a bare branch.

Eastern Kingbird

Handsome fellow in a dark charcoal suit, with a narrow strip of bright white at the tip of the tail. Whoa, I thought. That’s an Eastern Kingbird!

Eastern Kingbirds, bold tyrant flycatchers fond of surveying their surroundings from open field fence rails and the tops of trees, are not uncommon. Back home in North Carolina, they’re not everyday birds, certainly, but I see them fairly often.

Eastern Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird, a handsome flycatcher in a dark suit.

But I wasn’t in North Carolina. I was in Massachusetts, and I’d been birding there every day for a solid week. I’d seen lots of birds, but not, until now, an Eastern Kingbird. To be honest, the possibility of Eastern Kingbirds hadn’t even crossed my mind.

So when this one appeared literally out of the blue, it gave me a little shot of surprised delight. It was like bumping into a friend from home in a faraway place. It reminded me that much of birding is about context; it’s not only what you see, it’s when and where and how you see it.

Thickets Thick With Birds

We were spending the first week of August in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, the most southwesterly point on Cape Cod. The rocky shoreline, coastal thickets, and deep forests that surround the village are thick with birds.

Along the waterline, Spotted and Least Sandpipers pick their way among thick brown ribbons of beached seaweed and pebbles the size of hen’s eggs. Imposing Great Black-backed Gulls float overhead.

Double-crested Cormorant
A Double-crested Cormorant performs its sun salutations looking toward Martha’s Vineyard.
Spotted Sandpiper
A Spotted Sandpiper tiptoes among the rocks on the shore of Vineyard Sound.
Least Sandpiper
A Least Sandpiper forages at the tide line.

Further inland, in the reeds and woods around the “kettle” ponds scooped out by ancient glaciers, mobs of Black-capped Chickadees flit among the branches. American Goldfinches hurry from one perch to the next, their “per-chicory” flight song trailing in the breeze, and Yellow Warblers shimmer as if they were made of sunflowers.

Black-capped Chickadee
Irrepressible foragers, Black-capped Chickadees move in little gangs through the foliage.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler
Some of the thickets are full of Yellow Warblers, which are nice things for thickets to be full of.

And everywhere are Ospreys. Sailors of yore named the body of water to the west after these plentiful and beautiful raptors, using a distinctly unbeautiful term: Buzzards Bay. Nesting platforms offer great looks, and Ospreys on the wing cut through the blue sky above. They’re as common here as Turkey Vultures are back home.

One of the many Ospreys that nest on the southern reaches of Cape Cod.

Birding by Bike

Perhaps the best way for a visitor to bird this part of the cape is to rent a bike and use the Shining Sea bike path to get from one site to another.

Shining Sea bike path
The Shining Sea bike path cuts a straight line on an elevated causeway over the Great Sippewissett Marsh.

The path’s southern stretch hugs the shore, where the white sails of both boats and terns ride the wind between Cape Cod and the soft green ridge of Martha’s Vineyard across the sound. The course then passes through cool stretches of dense forest, across an elevated causeway above the vast Great Sippewissett Marsh, past ponds and former farmlands and even a historic cranberry bog. All along the route, foot trails and opportunities for side excursions intersect the path.

Great Sippewissett Marsh
The Great Sippewissett Marsh, looking from the causeway toward Buzzards Bay.
Red-winged Blackbird
A Red-winged Blackbird at Great Sippewissett Marsh.

I rented wheels for the whole week, and spent part of every day bike-hiking, pedaling out and then disembarking at various points and hoofing it along the beaches, around the kettle ponds, and up and down the wooded trails.

It was a glorious way to bird; the bike allowed me to move quickly from one place to the next, maximizing my birding time, and gave me access to areas that a car couldn’t reach.

My trusty steed.

At the Great Sippiwisset Marsh, an immature Little Blue Heron tried to blend in with a dozen Snowy Egrets, while Green Herons raised their periscope necks above the marsh grass. My spider sense tingled when a sparrow fluttered into a patch of flattened reeds close by, but all my wishing couldn’t turn it from a Song Sparrow into a Saltmarsh.

These Yellowlegs at Great Sippewissett Marsh were too far off for me to be able to differentiate in the field. When I got back to the cabin and looked at the photo, I realized I’d gotten both species in one shot: Lesser on the left, Greater on the right.

In Beebe Woods, I found a deep pine and oak forest, with mazes of trails that traced the contours of a bumpy terrain. I saw more Hairy Woodpeckers there than I’ve seen all year back home, and a flash of red high in an oak tree revealed a preening Scarlet Tanager, impossibly vivid amid the green.

Hairy Woodpecker
A Hairy Woodpecker climbs a tree in Beebe Woods.
Scarlet Tanager
A Scarlet Tanager still growing into its full scarlet glory in Beebe Woods.

Context Matters

One of the great pleasures of travel is finding new birds. I didn’t see many on this trip. Almost all the birds I saw were species I fairly regularly see back home. But seeing them in a new place was a different sort of pleasure. Birding is about appreciating not only the birds, but the environments in which they live. Seeing familiar birds in new surroundings almost made them new birds.

So when that Eastern Kingbird flashed by over my shoulder, it gave me an extra little jolt. The same thing happened when a rustling near the top of a trailside tree one morning turned out be a trio of Cedar Waxwings.

Cedar Waxwing
A trio of Cedar Waxwings surprised me at Salt Pond one morning.

These weren’t transcendent sightings; it’s not as if a Cerulean Warbler or Snowy Owl had suddenly materialized. But they were small moments when something familiar turned up  in an unexpected place, and each time it gave the day a little extra sparkle. It reminded me that one of the joys of birding is the possibility that something surprising and wonderful — even something you know well — might at any moment streak past your shoulder.