The bird walk has started inauspiciously. As guide Cynthia Fox leads a group of binocular-toting birders through the back trails of the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, the birds seem to be sleeping in. The dozen or so people who have gathered early on a chilly April morning wonder whether they should have followed suit.
Suddenly, a rustle in a shrub, and a flurry of binocular action. Cardinal. Then a screech in the woods. Blue jay. A robin hops along a clearing in the Asiatic Arboretum. A mallard waddles along the trail, looking for a handout. Then, quiet again.
Overhead, a bird croaks, "Uh-oh," as if taunting its audience. "Now that's a fish crow," says Fox. As twelve sets of field glasses focus on the crow, it flies into a treetop, calling insistently, and another larger and browner bird emerges. The two birds wheel across the canopy, clearly in conflict, as people murmur, "Hawk, it's a hawk."
"Red-shouldered," announces Fox.
The hawk outraces the crow and lands in the crook of a massive oak, in a disorderly pile of leaves and branches.
"It's a nest!" Fox hastily sets up her spotting scope, a telescope on a tripod that is one of the key tools of serious birders. One by one, the members of the group step up to the scope and study the hawk as it settles on the nest.
Suddenly, the morning has turned promising. Birds are everywhere, and not just the typical backyard species. An Eastern phoebe flies off a branch by a small pond, grabs a fly, and returns to its perch, bobbing its tail. The more experienced birders help novices pinpoint a green heron, a smaller and prettier relative to the great blue, as it fishes from a shaded bank of the pond. As people meander through a stand of pines, Fox hears the squeak-squeak—"like a rubber duck"—that announces the presence of a brown-headed nuthatch. It is about thirty feet up, circling the trunk in search of bugs. Of the so-called Southern specialties—birds that people travel to the South to seek—the brown-headed nuthatch is the only one found in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle.
In two hours, Fox's group records thirty-four species, a respectable number for the month before bird migration reaches its peak in North Carolina.
Fox owns the Wild Bird Center store in Chapel Hill. Two Saturdays a month, she leads bird walks in Triangle hot spots, including Duke Gardens. It's a great place to introduce people to birding, she says, because of the mixture of habitats—lawns, forests, ponds—and because the trails are easily maneuvered. But experienced birders, many of whom join her groups regularly, will also find rewards at the gardens, she says, citing the nesting red-shouldered hawk and recalling sightings of a yellow-billed cuckoo and Swainson's thrush—feathers in the cap of any birder in North Carolina.
A few weeks later and a few miles away, a smaller group assembles on another crisp spring morning. Will Cook and Jeff Pippen have consented to guide a visitor along the Shepherd Nature Trail, a one-mile loop in Duke Forest, just off N.C. 751. Compact, yet meandering through varied habitats including streams, brush, loblolly pine stands, and mature hardwoods, the trail can offer up a surprising number of species during an hourlong excursion.
Cook and Pippen, both research associates at Duke—Pippen in the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences and Cook in the biology department—are serious birders, each with a life list in excess of 600 North American species. (Most accomplished birders keep a life list, an ongoing tally of all the bird species they've identified with certainty during the course of their birding.) Like many experienced birders, they trust their ears more than their eyes. As they wander the trail, they rattle off identifications based on songs and calls, rarely raising their binoculars.
"I hear an American crow."
"That's a robin singing."
"A ruby-crowned kinglet is singing off to my right," says Pippen. He explains to a less accomplished companion, "It's a long song. It starts off with a really long, thin tzee-tzee-tzee, and then goes into a long jumble of sound."
After awhile, the forest goes silent. Cook pauses on a wooden bridge where the hillside drops off and some treetops are at eye level, throws his head back slightly, and begins whistling—a low, warbling, eerie sound that mimics the song of an eastern screech-owl. Within thirty seconds, the surrounding trees are filled with the sound of singing and chattering birds.
"Oh! Ovenbird," Pippen and Cook shout almost simultaneously. A brownish bird with black streaks on a white breast scolds from a nearby branch and flies off.
Just as quickly as they arrived, the songbirds depart, and then in the distance is a sound surprisingly similar to Cook's whistling. Both birders are elated. As Pippen explains later, Cook's screech-owl imitation drew a flock of small birds intent on driving the predator from their territory. When a real screech-owl responded to Cook's call, the pack of songbirds went after it for the same reason.
The ovenbird is a relatively new spring arrival. A return visit to the Shepherd Trail a few weeks later yields a cornucopia of migrating birds: northern parula, red-eyed vireo, scarlet and summer tanagers, American redstart, rose-breasted grosbeak, and hooded warbler. It's late April and spring "bird count day"; birders across the Triangle have scattered to assigned locations to record their sightings.
Birding is one of the few remaining arenas in which enthusiasts contribute to the scientific knowledge base. Bird counts like this one, sponsored by the Carolina Bird Club, and the National Audubon Society's Christmas bird count are conducted throughout the country. The results will be published in the regional birding publication The Chat and made available to ornithologists and other scientists. Years and years of records from the same locations may reveal patterns of long-term decline (or increase) of species or changes in distribution that reflect the effects of climate change and habitat loss.
William Schlesinger has volunteered to monitor the Al Buehler Trail, which circles the Duke Golf Course. A scientist by training (he recently stepped down as dean of the Nicholas School), he is here today in his capacity as longtime avid birder. While early- morning joggers circumnavigate the trail in twenty minutes, he and a companion take nearly three hours, scanning the treetops, forging into the brush, and occasionally pishing—making pshhh-pshhh-pshhh sounds to attract the attention of shier species.
While the dream of every birder is to report a rare sighting, Schlesinger's survey produces a healthy list of the usual suspects: a magnificent red-shouldered hawk, newly arrived woodland birds like red-eyed vireos and wood thrushes, a handful of migrating warblers, and, in the newly constructed wetland area, a spotted sandpiper and belted kingfisher. Nothing magical, but a solid contribution to Citizen Science.
Pippen and Cook are unofficial leaders of a loose coalition of passionate Duke birders, most of whom participated in one of the more unusual bird events at Duke. Late on a February afternoon last year, Duke senior Ted Gilliland, an environmental-science major, was headed to a party at the Levine Science Research Center when he spied a Cape May warbler in a scrubby tree near the building. "I saw a flash of orange," recalls Gilliland, who lives in Durham and has plans to write a book on communication and the environment. "It was pretty well plumaged for a winter bird."
Not only that, but it had no business being in Piedmont North Carolina in February. "It should have been in the West Indies," says Pippen. Gilliland quickly put out the word to birders, including Pippen, Cook, biology graduate student Carl Rothfels, and Stuart Pimm, the Doris Duke Professor of conservation ecology at the Nicholas School. That afternoon, and for several days afterward, the LSRC courtyard was patrolled by people with binoculars and digital cameras.
And their efforts were rewarded. Cook, who missed the original Cape May sighting, kept his eye on the tree. "A couple of days after the first sighting, I noticed that the tree was oozing sap, and in flew a young orange-crowned warbler checking out the sap wells. He left after a few seconds. Then I heard a black-throated blue warbler calling, making its tk-tk sound, and it flew in, too, and checked out the same sap wells."
Visiting birders would probably never be able to duplicate this trio of sightings. According to Pippen, black-throated blue warblers rarely winter in North Carolina. Orange-crowned warblers do occasionally, but almost always in coastal regions. "This kind of thing is a truly rare event at Duke," he says. "But it still could also happen more often than we think."
Every birder dreams of the "great" sighting: the life bird, the vagrant that has gotten kicked hundreds of miles out of its territory by hurricane winds or its own faulty navigation system. But, in truth, birders rarely have a bad day. The hawk at nest, the answering screech owl, the first red-eyed vireo of the season, the flock of migrating warblers—these are all noteworthy sightings. And they are birds that are accessible in or around Duke, to even novice birders.
The next time you stroll on campus, at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, or in Duke Forest, don't forget to bring your binoculars. The birds are out there, if you take the time to look for them.
— Dellwo writes about the environment and nature for publications including Dukeenvironment magazine and North Carolina Signature. A longtime Durham resident, she now lives and birds in New York's Hudson Valley.