Audubon North Carolina has 10 amazing chapters across the state who help put a local focus on bird preservation and conservation issues. In this special blog series, we’ll focus on a chapter each month to learn more about their history, what they are working on, and to increase the statewide understanding of special ecosystems and habitats. Each month will include a series of posts about each chapter including a post from our biologists that will share a unique research project that is happening in the chapter’s geographic footprint.
This month, we get to know the Mecklenburg Audubon Society Meckbirds.org. Read on to learn more about our chapter serving the greater Charlotte area.
In December 2009, Tom Sanders and Ron Clark conducted a trial Big Day, a marathon birding excursion, throughout Mecklenburg County. At the end of the day, they had driven more than 180 miles. Thus, the following month marked the start of a three-year run of monthly Big Days.
The first couple of months were spent finalizing the route, with a rough schedule and winging it as they went. As the sun rose, species were added as they were heard.
Once the route was determined, the starting point was Cowan’s Ford Wildlife Refuge, a great area for spotting American Woodcock, and always a good list starter! Each Big Day, the two met one hour before sunrise and went well into the evening, with 16 hour-days during the summer. The pair’s favorite month was May as the migrants had returned, and the morning chorus was overwhelming as different species began to sing. The tally upon leaving was usually around 40, but often topped 50, for only two hours.
The route ran north to south through the county, with more than 30 stops on the list. Some were quick, such as the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron nests in the spring, located within the city of Charlotte limits, or the wintering downtown Peregrine Falcon, while other destinations involved a lot of walking.
The sites visited varied, depending on the season and what was needed. The lakes and ponds took lesser priority in non-duck months. The good migrant areas, such as Latta Park and Ribbonwalk Nature Preserve, were visited only in spring and fall. Four-Mile Creek and Six-Mile Creek Greenways, and McDowell Prairie were monthly as they both provide good year-round birding. In some instances, timing proved to be everything, making all the difference in our spotting success! Thirteen male Bobolinks landed in a nearby tree at Rural Hill Nature Preserve once for just a few minutes. Five minutes either way, we would have missed them.
Often the route was changed while driving, as a species was found that eliminated the need to go somewhere else. Lunch was a quick fast-food stop, eating while going to the next place. While driving, several species were picked up along the road or seen flying by, always a plus. On foot, Ron and Tom stayed together, as the Big Day rules state that all participants must see or hear 95% of the species. Many, and probably most, species were counted as heard, not seen. Time is pressing on Big Days, so it is important to keep moving.
Two very good county birds were found during Big Days, Least Bittern and Black-headed Gull, a first county record. The gull was at a wastewater treatment plant, which always added 5-7 species, including Baird’s, Least, Pectoral, White-rumped Sandpipers and both yellowlegs. Other good species seen during the three-year period were Rough-legged Hawk, Sedge Wren, Grasshopper Sparrow, Loggerhead Shrike, Mississippi Kite and Common Raven. The best species year was 2011 with 181 species. The best month was May during peak migration. For two years, the species total was 105.
Toward the end of 2012, the project and the boys just ran out of steam! All of the information was given to the county for their records. Mecklenburg birds always looked forward to the report from Tom and Ron. Without their diligence many birders would have missed the opportunity to follow-up and enhance the number of unusual species added to their life lists.