Birds of North Carolina: Summer

Summer Birds of North Carolina (June, July, August)

June is a quiet month for much of the bird world. During the time that eggs are being incubated or nestlings cared for, parent birds stay as unobtrusive as possible so as not to attract attention to their vulnerable chicks. Bird song is reduced and, because even seed-eaters generally feed insects to the growing young, activity at home feeders slows down. The last of the northbound migrants are gone and the earliest returnees will not begin appearing until July. There is still much going on in every bird’s life, but a birder has to look diligently to find it.

One highlight of the hot days of early summer is the arrival, in unpredictable and sometimes unexpected places, of large showy birds, young of the year herons, egrets, and other long-legged waders trying out independence by wandering far from the coastal rookeries in which they were raised. Great egrets, black-crowned or yellow-crowned night-herons, little blue herons, and white ibis, some from as far away as Florida, may turn up far inland, even in the mountains. Wood storks and cattle egrets are sometimes part of the parade. Snowy egrets, though less likely than the others to join in this post-breeding dispersal, are not impossible. Marshes, lake edges, and open fields are the places to look for these visitors.

Another summer phenomenon is the arrival at Jordan Lake, near Raleigh, of the largest concentration of bald eagles in the eastern United States. The large lake provides fishing opportunities and the surrounding woodland offers undisturbed roosting sites for these magnificent birds. A few eagles patrol this area year-round but it’s during the dog-days of summer that the population hits its peak, swelled by post-breeding wanderers from all over the southeast.

For many bird watchers summer means one particular bird: the ruby-throated hummingbird. Nectar feeders that may have seen only occasional (and usually male) rubythroats in May and June are suddenly swamped by newly fledged hummer young and their newly emancipated mothers. In addition to these, North Carolina hummingbird populations are further increased by midsummer as adults begin filtering in from the north, getting a head start on migration. It’s a challenge at times to keep the feeders filled, but one most birders happily accept.

By mid-July, though, many active birders’ thoughts turn to another group of birds entirely: the shorebirds. Adult shorebirds start moving south from their far northern breeding grounds as soon as the young can fend for themselves. The earliest begin arriving on North Carolina’s beaches and mudflats shortly after the Fourth of July. By the third week of the month their migration is well advanced, with huge flocks of many different species coming and going daily. Young birds join the crowd in August, providing an extra identification challenge. The spectacle of shorebird migration is one that every birder should experience at some time, and there’s no better place than the coast and barrier islands of North Carolina to see it.

Even inlanders should be on the lookout for shorebirds from midsummer on. Sudden rainstorms often cause “fallouts,” and even in the mountains a dozen different species may sometimes be spotted foraging in a flooded field after such events.

By August small woodland birds begin exploring beyond their breeding territories and bird watchers may find all sorts of surprises in their backyard trees and shrubs. Most of these birds will not call attention to themselves with song, though, so you have to look carefully — and frequently — to find them.

Flocking birds, finished with nesting, find each other some time in August. Suddenly there are hundreds of starlings, red-winged blackbirds, and grackles milling about in a stubble field, huge flocks of swallows snatching prey over a sod farm, or a thousand nighthawks zipping around at dusk. If you have the time and patience, it’s fun to stop and look closely at these congregations. The blackbirds may contain aberrant individuals, such as partial albinos, among them. The swallow flocks will probably produce not only barn, tree, and rough-winged swallows but also the less-commonly encountered bank or cliff swallows. Nighthawk watchers will see chimney swifts chipping and soaring high above and clouds of dragonflies heading on a migration of their own. There is always more to any scene than first meets the eye.

Sometime in late summer even people who have not had screech owls nesting nearby — and that’s most people — may notice the quavering calls of these little birds in their backyards. Young screech owls that have stayed within a restricted breeding territory for the early weeks of their lives are now testing their wings and hunting skills in a wider area, keeping in touch vocally as they go and giving many homeowners their easiest chance to hear (and perhaps even see) this species from the comfort of their living rooms.

Ducks have been out of sight for the most part a good deal of the summer. After their spring breeding efforts, locally nesting duck species such as mallards and wood ducks have a major molt in which they lose all their flight feathers at one time. During this time, unable to fly, they wear an “eclipse plumage” which is inconspicuous and this, along with an instinct to stay hidden whenever possible, helps them to survive an otherwise very dangerous period. By late summer however, they are back to normal again, freshly dressed for a new season. They start showing up at their usual haunts, along with whatever chicks have escaped the jaws of snapping turtles or the claws of predatory birds.

As the season winds down birders throughout the state begin anticipating the excitement of the next two months, when migrant landbirds from all over North America will flock in, bringing new discoveries daily. Slow-paced summer birding will give way to something almost akin to spring in its potential for surprise, and eager birders will be out in droves, seeking to record every arrival.

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