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May 29, 2012

Birding the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge

I am here in South Carolina for a music festival, and without my camera equipment to document this very productive birding trip, so I’ve decided to dabble in travel writing instead. So for those rare and misguided few who are a bit curious how a day of birding goes, please read on.

I was excited to make a trip to the Carolina Sandhills NWR, because it protects longleaf pine and wiregrass habitat that is characteristic of the American southeast. It used to cover 90 million acres, and now there are only 2 million acres remaining in fragmented regions. Altitudinally, it is the habitat just above the bottomland forest most famous for hosting the (presumably extinct) Ivory-billed Woodpecker. It is home to America’s only other endangered woodpecker, the Red-cockaded. The Carolina Sandhills NWR is one of its primary breeding grounds and perhaps the most reliable place in the world to find one. A survey twelve years ago estimated only about 12,500 birds of this species remained in the entire country, and during breeding season only about 400 birds would be spread throughout the 45,000 acres of this NWR. Despite the challenge and improbability, this was my top target species.

The day began with goatsuckers at dawn on the highway between Lugoff and McBee, SC. Having had only fleeting glimpses of goatsuckers in Costa Rica and Arizona, insufficient to identify to species level, this family had become a nemesis. But with a pair of Lesser Nighthawks over Mission Trails Regional Park two weeks ago my luck turned, and this morning despite cruising at 45mph, the two dark birds against a dusky sky showed bright white wing spots and long pointed wings—unmistakably a mated pair of Common Nighthawks, and my #434 for North America.

Arriving at the NWR, I began with a trail circling Pond A, a name typical of our utilitarian and highly managed wildlife refuges—they are a world apart from the constructed mythologies of our National Parks. I quickly became reacquainted with many familiar Eastern species from bluebirds to gnatcatchers, tanagers and the Brown-headed Nuthatch that had been my bonus from last year’s nief norf Festival in South Carolina. And then—woodpeckers! But alas, just the far more common Hairy Woodpecker, in the same family as the target. And then noisy calls from another familiar woodpecker, the Red-bellied. Plenty of trees were marked with paint by the NWR staff, indicating trees with nest holes made by Red-cockadeds, and I searched each diligently, but most trees are unused in any given year. After and hour and half, soaked with dew up to the waist and battling spiders and ticks, it was time to move on.

Driving the road with the windows open, a call from grassy field caught my attention: a single clear tone followed by a trill. Bachman’s Sparrow! Another regional speciality on my get-list for the day. I pulled off, got out, waited, scanned with binoculars but no luck. The bird was too buried in the grassland to be visible. Verifying the call with my iPod confirms the ID, this is my #435. Countable, but hardly satisfying.

On to Martins Lake, where again I find plenty of trees with paint marks but no woodpeckers. Before getting back into the car, a tapping—more like a sapsucker than a woodpecker. From a tree about 50 feet away; scan, move a little to try a different angle, and now it sounds like a different tree; scan, move, scan, move. Every time it seems to be coming from somewhere else. A nesting Acorn woodpecker pulled this trick on me two weeks ago at Volcan Mountain. My guess is that a bird was in a nearer tree, carving a nest hollow from the inside, invisible. After ten minutes, I move on to Lake Bee.

More painted trees by the parking area but no signs of life, so I take a trail that circles the lake and heads into the forest, and even before I start, I see a woodpecker flying high above the lake with a characteristically buoyant and arcing trajectory. Red-headed! A species I have sought in the east before and can finally call #436. And almost immediately after, am pleasantly surprised to find a gorgeous Yellow-throated Warbler, a species I have seen only once before in San Diego where it was a highly sought-after vagrant. Most warblers are much farther north by now, but a few species breed in the southeast, including this one. Later, on the way back, the same bird was foraging with its mate.

Along the trail more familiar easterners such as Indigo Bunting and Eastern Kingbird. A female Orchard Oriole eyes me warily and then squeals at me; there can be only one reason, her nest must be nearby. She has built it in a short tree just five feet away from the trail, the only tree within 50 feet in any direction, where I can see two hungry mouths yearning to be fed. So it seems not many people come this way. The richly-hued orange and black father follows me as I continue on the trail, eyeing me warily but silent.

Much farther along the trail screeching calls alert me to more Red-headed Woodpeckers, where I can finally get a good look at a very handsome bird, the only woodpecker with an entirely red head and a bold black and white body. Squeaks from above cause my heart to skip a beat, but now it’s just a Downy Woodpecker, yet another species in the same Picoides family as my target. More trees with paint, empty except for a calling Eastern Towhee. With the available time about the expire I turn around and head back to the parking lot where I would take one last look around a particularly dense stand of painted trees. From deep in the grasses beneath the forest, “bob......white!”, a Northern Bobwhite is my #437. I hope to see one someday, but it would require staking out a clearing with a lot of patience, and so not today. “Chip” from a tree and a good look at a very high-up Pine Warbler is my #438. But it’s only a few more steps to the car and so the celebration of these lifers is feeling muted. Time for last-ditch efforts.

It’s about a ten-minute drive along the refuge road back to the main road, where I’ll begin the trip back to Greenville, so I open all the windows, turn off the air and drive slowly. And then barely out of the parking lot I hear ‘Squeak!’ and sure enough a single Red-cockaded Woodpecker bolts into a tree and begins working its way up, offering excellent looks between branches. This endangered treasure is #439 and a very special treat. The size of the trees, the density of the habitat, and the distance would have made decent pictures a matter of impossible luck anyway. I thank the bird for its generosity, and head back. And then more luck! Before I can bring the car to a stop at the grasslands where I had stopped before, a Bachman’s Sparrow is calling from a bush just yards away. A great look ends a terrific day of birding for southern specialties. All told I listed only about 40 species, which is not particularly many for four hours worth of birding in good habitat, but with six new life birds the trip was a great success. And a wonderful end to the spring season. Back to music!


Christopher Adler, University of San Diego Music Program, 5998 Alcala Park, San Diego, 92110-2492

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