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It’s breeding time for the Piedmont’s birds, including the elusive dickcissel

A dickcissel.
A dickcissel.

Last Monday I ran a Breeding Bird Survey route.

I have been volunteering for this project for years; I run a local route and a coastal plain route. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has been collecting data on breeding bird populations for decades. Randomly chosen 25-mile routes are surveyed every half mile for 3 minutes. The same routes are run year after year.

At 5:36 a.m. I was at survey point No. 1 at Camp Stewart Road and Harrisburg Road in extreme eastern Mecklenburg County. The route then makes its way over to Flowe’s Store Road in Cabarrus County, crosses Highway 601, and follows Miami Church Road to Barrier Store Road, ending just into Stanly County on Lewis Road. The habitat is overwhelmingly fragmented woodlots broken up by large yards and some agricultural fields.

As expected, chipping sparrows, house finches, mourning doves, American crows, common grackles, indigo buntings, and Northern cardinals – species typical of this habitat – dominated. Only one stop was truly early successional growth and here I tallied prairie warbler, and yellow-breasted chat. A handful of stops where deciduous forest was accessed produced both scarlet and summer tanagers, great-crested flycatchers, and red-eyed vireos.

One surprise was a lone cedar waxwing quietly hanging out in a pine stand. This was very likely a breeding bird but the species has never been recorded on this route before. Waxwings nest in such low numbers in our area that they are very difficult to detect.

Only for the last mile or so does the habitat change to true, wide open grain or fallow fields. This habitat supports some declining species and I was able to record a couple of them; grasshopper sparrows and Eastern meadowlarks. Different looking country produces different looking birds. By stop No. 50 I had documented 51 species of breeding birds.

After the 50th stop I drove just another half-mile up the road and was rewarded with the distinct sound of a singing dickcissel. I quickly located the bird on a wire right over the car and enjoyed leisurely looks. I have seen them in the area before so I always check to see if they have returned. Dickcissels are spotty breeders in North Carolina – pretty rare, really. If the route had been extended another half-mile I would have been able to report it in the official numbers. Maybe he will move onto the route next year.

Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com.