Birdwatching on the Outer Banks: Love is in the air!

By on May 7, 2018

Black-throated Blue Warbler (Jeff Lewis)

At long last, May is here! This is the month that we birders have been waiting for. Northbound neo-tropical songbirds are passing through, migrant shorebirds are in their finest breeding plumage and the local birds are singing and nesting all around us. Life is good!

An early morning venture into a woodland habitat can produce a long list of warblers, vireos and flycatchers, with an occasional thrush, oriole, tanager or grosbeak thrown in. In addition to watching for movement in the treetops, listen for their songs. Not only are they all beautifully unique, it is often the first indication we get of the bird’s presence. If a certain species is particularly shy, like most of the thrushes, the song may be as good as it gets — we may not get a visual.

Warblers to expect this month include: Ovenbird, Worm-eating Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Hooded Warbler, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Magnolia Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler and Yellow-throated Warbler.

More difficult warblers to look for include: Blue-winged Warbler, Swainson’s Warbler (usually heard only), Cerulean Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler and Wilson’s warbler. In more open, scrubby habitats, look for Yellow Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Common Yellowthroat and Palm Warbler.

Almost impossible on the Outer Banks in spring are Golden-winged, Tennessee, Nashville, Connecticut, Mourning, Bay-breasted and Canada Warblers.

Some of these difficult species are regularly seen during fall migration — they just take a more inland migration route in the spring.

Vireos that may be spotted include Red-eyed, White-eyed, Blue-headed and Yellow-throated, with Red-eyed and White-eyed the most common, actually breeding here.

A flash of red high in the treetops is most likely a Summer or Scarlet Tanager since cardinals are usually found lower down. Both of these tanagers have a loud and lovely song, similar to a robin, but a little hoarser. If the tanager you’ve spotted has black wings, it’s a Scarlet; if not, then it’s a Summer. The females of both species are mostly yellow, with greenish backs.

An orange bird is undoubtedly a Baltimore Oriole. Another great songster, the adult males have a striking black head to contrast with the bright orange body; immature males and females are a slightly duller orange or yellow-orange without the black head. Orchard Orioles have arrived, too. The adult male of this smaller oriole is a handsome chestnut red and black, while the immature male and the female are a lemon yellow color. They prefer lower, more open habitats — like orchards.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Jeff Lewis)

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are a stunning black and white bird with a rose-red breast. They are usually tree-top singers but will come down to visit a well-stocked bird feeder. The female is brownish, with white wing bars and dark steaking down the breast. As the name implies, they have a big, thick bill, just right for cracking open those sunflower seeds.

Brilliant blue Indigo Buntings can also be seen up in the treetops, although they prefer more open habitats, like farm field edges. Blue Grosbeaks are similarly colored, slightly larger and also frequent this same open habitat. Look for a rusty wing bar on the Blue Grosbeak. The females of both of these species are a warm brown.

Thrushes, denizens of thick, dark, deciduous forests are rather shy, and sometimes a glimpse is all we get. Learn to enjoy their amazing songs — they are master singers. Although we get a few thrushes in spring migration, they primarily migrate west of here. All five species are basically reddish brown to brown, with spots on the underparts, so consult a field guide for identity tips.

In open habitats near water, look for swallows.

Including the well-known Purple Martin, we have six species that can be seen in spring: Tree Swallows, dark above and white underneath, nest in tree cavities and birdhouses and are becoming more common.

Barn Swallows, common, are the most colorful, with a red throat, cinnamon underparts and a long forked tail. They nest in barns and under bridges, piers and boat docks. They are wonderful acrobats and amazing to watch.

Northern Rough-winged Swallows, brown above and white below, nest in holes in cliff banks. Bank Swallows, uncommon, are similar to rough-wings but are smaller and have a brown breast band. They do not nest here.

Cliff Swallows, with a dark red throat and a buffy rump, are very hard to find on the Outer Banks. They nest mostly under bridges west of here, as close as Williamston.

Locally good places to hunt for these spring migrants are, from north to south, Corolla, especially in the Currituck lighthouse area, the Duck boardwalk, Kitty Hawk Woods, Nags Head Woods, the woods at the north end of Roanoke Island, Bodie Woods and the woods in Buxton and Frisco. The Alligator River NWR is full of breeding warblers (12 species), but finding additional migrants can be difficult due to the vast acreage of habitat.

Migrating shorebirds are the hot items at Pea Island and along the sound and ocean beaches and mudflats this month.

An astounding five plovers, 19 sandpipers, plus American Oystercatcher, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet and Red-necked Phalarope can be found in May along the Outer Banks! On the ocean beaches, especially near the inlets, look for Willet, Whimbrel, Red Knot, Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone, American Oystercatcher, Black-bellied Plover, Wilson’s Plover, Semipalmated Plover and Piping Plover. On the sound side, on the mud flats, and along impoundment shorelines look for most of the same birds, plus about a dozen other sandpipers.

Also, watch for the striking Black-necked Stilt and American Avocet. Sort carefully through any flocks of Dunlin or Stilt Sandpipers, you may spot the very rare Curlew Sandpiper.

If you’re a beginning birder, new to this area or just like to bird in a group, there are bird walks on Fridays at Pea Island. Meet at the Visitor Center at 8:00.

Spotted Sandpiper (Jeff Lewis)

Nine species of terns are possible in May, with Roseate Tern being the problem child. Good places for terns are near the inlets, although there should be terns anywhere you look near water. Least Terns, Gull-billed Terns, Common Terns and Black Skimmers are starting to nest on the beaches, while Sandwich and Royal Terns are setting up house on some of the nearby spoil islands in the sound. You may also see Forster’s Terns, Black Terns and (huge) Caspian Terns on your birding forays. Black Terns are most likely to be observed over mudflats, saltmarshes and impoundments, where they hawk for insects.

And there are more: nesting Brown Pelicans in their breeding colors, lots of herons, egrets and ibis to enjoy, Ospreys screaming at their chicks, woodpeckers busy feeding young through tree cavities and ruby-throated hummingbirds zooming around our flower beds.

Noisy Great-crested Flycatchers and Eastern Kingbirds have arrived and are busily raising families. In salt, brackish and fresh marshes, King, Clapper, Virginia and Black Rails are breeding, although the tiny Black Rail numbers have sadly decreased to almost none. Least Bitterns, Marsh Wrens and lots of Red-winged Blackbirds are also busy nesting, flying back and forth with food for their young.

In our backyards, all of our year-round birds are busy feeding chicks.

No matter where you look, it seems that love is in the air!

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Wonderful descriptions, Jeff!