Conservation // 8 min Read

In the Field: March Eye to the Sky

Written by Palmetto Bluff

Mar 11, 2022

February was a fickle month this year and could not decide if it was going to be hot or cold. Depending on what day someone participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count, they may have been in shorts and a t-shirt or they could have been in a thick jacket. For those unfamiliar with the count, the Great Backyard Bird Count is a 4-day citizen science effort initiated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Audubon Society, and Birds Canada to monitor bird activity prior to the spring migration. The Conservancy led two bird walks on day one of the event. In the morning, we found ourselves half way down River Road Preserve before it began pouring rain. We were left drenched and with a low species count, but we still heard some wonderful birds! Carolina chickadees and northern cardinals sang their hearts out whenever the rain lessened, and we had a white-eyed vireo that exclaimed “quick with the beers, Chuck!” which is a fun, slightly spirituous, mnemonic used to recognize one of their songs. Following the morning walk, we conducted FeederWatch and had a productive session. Feeder regulars, such as red-winged blackbirds, boat-tailed grackles, and Carolina chickadees made their usual appearance, but we had uncommon visitors fly in as well. Some of these species may be common at other feeders, but a Carolina wren, gray catbird, and song sparrow were unique sightings during our FeederWatch session.

Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow

Later that day we set out on the afternoon bird walk, where we meandered to Moreland Landing and spotted a pileated woodpecker pecking away at a tree roughly 15 ft from the road. This beautiful bird paid no heed to us as we gawked at its large size and rhythmic head pounding.

Pileated Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker

Once at the dock, we observed a bufflehead, hooded merganser, and a common loon floating on or flying over the water. Buffleheads and hooded mergansers are common winter waterfowl that can be found in similar bodies of water and are often confused for each other. While there are differences in beak shape, size, head shape, and plumage, there is a quick way to tell which one you are looking at. If you see brown anywhere on the bird, it is likely a hooded merganser. Neither male nor female buffleheads have any brown plumage and this aids in a quick ID between these two species. However, I highly recommend becoming acquainted with the physical differences between them, as identifying more features helps create a more confident identification. Aside from the waterfowl, there were some Forster’s terns and ring-billed gulls relaxing along the marsh bank. On our way back, we took the seashell path along the marsh edge, and we spotted a yellow-throated warbler! Yellow-throated warblers are year-round residents, but they are in low abundance during the winter, so seeing one is a delightful treat.

Yellow-throated Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler

While we watched the warbler inspect pine trees for insects, a pair of white-breasted nuthatches appeared and began shimmying along the pines nearby.

We eventually returned to Moreland and strolled down Davies Road to search for loggerhead shrikes. A pair of shrikes have overwintered in Moreland for the past three years and have been regulars on the Great Backyard Bird Count. We managed to see both loggerhead shrikes flitting around an empty lot as they periodically chased insects on the wing. Throughout the whole walk, we also managed to observe three bald eagles. Two of the eagles were identified as adults with their typical white head and tail feathers, but the third individual was likely a two-year-old bird. Its head and tail were brown while its torso and the underside of its wings had white feathers bleeding through, which is typical of a 2nd
year bald eagle. The last big surprise was near the end of the walk when we observed three red-tailed hawks flying around Moreland Village! The wind made it slightly challenging for us to hear, but we managed to listen to one of them give their distinctive shrieking call.

The unique sightings for February happened mainly during the Great Backyard Bird Count, but roseate spoonbills were spotted earlier in the month around Bird Island! At this point, it is likely they will stay with us through the summer. Near the beginning of February, a merlin was seen hunting cedar waxwings over the Inn. From the description I received, it tactically divided the flock before focusing on one individual and catching it midflight.

Cedar Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing

Falcons, such as the merlin and American kestrel, are uncommon at Palmetto Bluff and being able to witness one successfully hunt is a memorable event. I wish I were able to witness this spectacular display!

The end of February felt like spring already arrived, but March is when we begin observing the spring behavior in full swing at Palmetto Bluff. The spring migration and breeding season both begin this month which makes it an exciting time for bird watchers. Winter species start to head north while our summer residents trickle in from their tropical respites. Some species are only seen during the migration, as they neither breed nor overwinter in Beaufort County. Rose-breasted grosbeaks, black-throated blue warblers, scarlet tanagers, and yellow warblers are just a fraction of migratory birds that can be found only during the migration. They will spend a day or two filling up on food before they continue their journey north for the breeding season. While fully migratory species are of great interest to bird watchers, we cannot forget the wonderful summer residents that are flying in and setting up territories as we speak! Barn swallows, summer tanagers, blue grosbeaks, chuck-will’s-widows, and the coveted painted bunting are some notable species that use Beaufort County as a place to raise their young.

In March, we may stumble upon some birds conducting courtship rituals or gathering material for their nests. Eastern bluebirds, northern cardinals, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, and Carolina wrens are a handful of busy birds seen building nests during the early spring.

Eastern Bluebird
Eastern Bluebird

Cardinals will select dense shrubs to protect their open cup-shaped nests while chickadees and titmice will use tree cavities or birdhouses to raise their single clutch of eggs. Carolina wrens will raise two to three broods of chicks throughout the breeding season. They have a tendency of making a new nest for each clutch, so if they first choose to nest in a potted plant outside, their next nest may be in a wreath, boot, or another nook or cranny! Similar to wrens, eastern bluebirds raise 2 to 3 clutches of chicks, but they tend to use the same nesting site for each brood. The Conservancy has roughly 70 bluebird boxes throughout Palmetto Bluff, and we monitor the nest boxes from March to early August. We split the boxes among 4 routes and, for those interested in joining us, you can sign up for one of our bluebird survey excursions and see what is happening in bluebird boxes around Palmetto Bluff’s equestrian area!

The spring migration is underway, and we encourage everyone to take a stroll down River Road Preserve, Sandhill Loop, or Headwaters Nature Trail to search for the fantastic bird life at Palmetto Bluff! If you see or photograph something you wish to share, you can submit your sightings to Aaron Palmieri at apalmieri@pbconservancy.org and they may appear in next month’s update.

February’s Unique Sightings:

Yellow-throated Warbler (Moreland Village)

Bald Eagles (Moreland Village)

Red-tailed Hawks (Moreland Village)

Roseate Spoonbill (Bird Island)

Merlin (Montage Inn)

February Contributors:

Brian Byrne, May Wall

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