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Chilly weather makes for great birding in Charlotte

Red-shouldered hawk.
Red-shouldered hawk. Ron Clark

Last Sunday afternoon I met six enthusiastic birders at the Four Mile Creek Greenway for an afternoon walk through the bottomland forests and open cattail marshes. It was a cold day with temperatures in the mid-30s; perfect conditions to look for birds hurriedly foraging for their last meal of the day.

I figured the top priority for most of them would be to find food and they would therefore be less worried about keeping out of sight. The birds did not disappoint.

Immediately after we started out from the Piper Glen Shops, an American robin was found sitting quietly in a bramble right by the trail. It made no effort to put any distance between it and the group of birders staring back.

Just a short while later a beautiful red-shouldered hawk sat 20 feet off the trail, never even acknowledging our presence as it scanned the ground for a salamander or a slow-moving crayfish. We would go on to see three more red-shouldereds, including one cozy pair celebrating Valentine’s Day side by side high in a cottonwood tree, clearly paired up for the approaching nesting season.

Recent floods have left the ground scoured and the vegetation washed away and flattened along that stretch of greenway. Three species of sparrows hopped around at close range, not caring about the joggers and bikers whizzing by.

The most numerous were the white-throated sparrows, but a few song sparrows and swamp sparrows mixed in enough to make it interesting. In the trees, foraging flocks made up of Carolina chickadees, downy woodpeckers, American goldfinches, red-bellied woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches, and brown-headed nuthatches showed up every 100 yards or so.

I was especially glad to find a few rusty blackbirds among the common grackles visiting a feeder in a backyard next to the greenway. Rusty blackbirds have really declined over the last few decades. Our group really enjoyed an Eastern phoebe that obligingly allowed close approach, constantly bobbing its tail in typical phoebe fashion.

There wasn’t much soaring going on that day, but we did have a fly-by great blue heron, turkey vulture and some unidentified ducks.

After two hours of birding the group had tallied 24 species seen or heard, a tidy total for a leisurely stroll on a cold day.

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