I spent a couple of hours birding the parking fields at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Cabarrus County last week. It is a unique habitat for our area; vast expanses of sparse grass only a couple of inches high interspersed with bare ground and gravelly dirt roadways.
At first glance it can appear totally devoid of birds but at times it can be surprisingly birdy. There is a suite of species that prefer and seek out this barren habitat, some of them ultra-rarities for the inland southeast. The parking fields mimic tundra habitat, the preferred habitat of birds such as some longspurs and snow buntings. On rare occasions individuals of those species enter our area they often will end up somewhere on the property.
An initial drive-thru of a remote field immediately revealed two American kestrels perched on power lines. These smallest falcons were likely waiting for large grasshoppers to reveal themselves.
I rolled down my windows and instantly heard high-pitched descending tinkling notes coming from the bare dirt outside my vehicle. It was a fine male horned lark, one of the characteristic species that utilizes expansive, treeless open habitat.
A flock of 13 killdeer appeared unconcerned as I drove by, merely stepping off the road to allow me to pass. A sharp-shinned hawk skimmed the ground hoping to flush a savannah sparrow that had wandered too far from cover. I noted a few heads sticking up from the short grass and was glad to see a group of Eastern meadowlarks, totally unrelated to the horned larks. Meadowlarks are actually in the blackbird family.
I then focused my attention on the fields closer to the speedway. There are a few patches of brush under some high tension power lines that act as a magnet to attract songbirds seeking cover from the exposure of the short grass areas.
One such patch was absolutely filled with sparrows, mostly savannah but also with plenty of song, field, and swamp sparrows. A larger bird popped up on some goldenrod; a beautiful adult white-crowned sparrow. White-crowneds are a characteristic bird of open country with scattered brush so this one was right at home. They are superficially similar to the more familiar white-throated sparrow but are a more elegant looking bird, always a treat to see in our area.
Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com. Check out his blog at piedmontbirding.blogspot.com