Alone in the field, binoculars in hand, birders can be solitary figures. But stitch together 150 years of observations, as a new book on birds of the Charlotte region does, and their work bursts into life.
“Birds of the Central Carolinas” by Don Seriff, natural resources coordinator of the Mecklenburg County parks department, and illustrator Leigh Anne Carter, will come out in May. It’s a catalog of the hundreds of species found in the area, including recent arrivals such as bald eagles, but tinged with regret over the alarming decline of once-common birds.
The book is the first to compile records of the birds that regularly occur, or sometimes visit, 14 Piedmont counties. The 312 species profiles draw from thousands of “curious and inspired observers of our natural world,” from field notes to scientific studies.
“The more modern (bird) books kind of moved away” from personal accounts, Seriff said. “I just really wanted readers to know that people have been studying birds here for 150 years, and I thought the best way to do that was to use their own words and accounts.”
Conservation groups have declared 2018 the Year of the Bird to highlight how a changing environment is affecting birds worldwide. This year also marks the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which was the first to protect birds at a time when hunting drove a number of species toward extinction.
National Geographic quoted tropical conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy: “If you take care of the birds, you take care of most of the big environmental problems in the world.”
Loss of places to feed, nest and take cover accounts for most of the dwindling species in Mecklenburg County, according to a five-year breeding bird survey completed in 2015. The book will lend credence to arguments that the county should preserve more undeveloped land.
Nearly a third of the birds that once commonly bred in the county are listed as lost, in peril or vulnerable. Three species – Chuck-will’s-widows, loggerhead shrikes and yellow-throated warblers – abruptly vanished, nesting in the county throughout the 20th century but gone by this one.
Birds that nest in tree cavities return from migrations to find trees cut down and increased competition from other species. Insect-eating birds, which are in steep decline across North America, may be a casualty of pesticides that kill their prey.
In a single day early in his career, Seriff could spot several of the fierce little predators called loggerhead shrikes. Shrikes famously skewer their prey, like trophies, on thorns or barbed wire to be eaten later. But they’re no longer found in the county.
“In the 25 years that I’ve been with Mecklenburg County, watching the variety of birds at the different natural areas, I’ve personally seen a steep decline in a variety of species,” Seriff said.
The region also got new arrivals in recent decades. Bald eagles and peregrine falcons are recovering from the now-banned pesticide DDT that sent their numbers spiraling down. Mississippi kites are slowly moving westward from their breeding sites on South Carolina’s coast.
The book pays closest attention to Mecklenburg County, the center of the region as well as a possible harbinger of its future. As Mecklenburg approaches full development, surrounding counties are likely to see similar trends.
Northern cardinals, Carolina chickadees and red-bellied woodpeckers will still flit aplenty through Charlotte neighborhoods. But northern bobwhites, barn owls and Kentucky warblers are already on the brink of disappearing from the county.
“There may be a lot of birds, but not a diversity of birds,” Seriff said. “And a lot less interesting.”
‘Hurrah! Another species!’
The Mecklenburg Audubon Society donated the money to publish the book, which it will sell on its Web site.
“The book will be a great reference for both novice and serious birders and the general public for understanding the world of our birds and the changes to bird life brought by the growth of our area and our changing environment,” president Jim Guyton said. “Many of our members have contributed to the content of this book with hours of field work and photography.”
Seriff dug through old field notes, records and articles to give voice to legions of birders and their discoveries.
Birder William McIlwaine, the book recounts, was walking down Charlotte’s East Boulevard on April 4, 1930, when he spotted an unusual bird “singing beautifully.
“He looked dark like a Song Sparrow,” McIlwaine wrote. “But I did not have my glasses. Then he flew to the ground. I got near enough to see a long wren-like bill and tail. No Song Sparrow. My books tell me this was a Bewick’s Wren. Hurrah! Another species!”
Considered abundant in Western North Carolina in the late 1880s, the wren has vanished from the Carolinas and most of the East.
Seriff did most of the historical research on his personal time, but also used the results of county-funded bird projects and data from thousands of hours of birding by volunteers. The Mecklenburg breeding bird atlas provided a baseline of the status and distribution of species for future comparisons.
The data, he said, shows a growing pattern of missing pieces in the landscape.
“A lot of people care about water quality,” he said, “but the living resources are also critical to functional health. You really have to have those plants and animals that naturally occur, along with the clean air and water, to make everything function well. Once you start losing large groups of plants and animals, you can’t really recover that.”
Birds of the Central Carolinas
The book may be ordered online, starting in May, at www.meckbirds.org. They can also be purchased at the Mecklenburg Audubon Society’s monthly meetings at 6:45 p.m. on May 3 at the Tyvola Senior Center, 2225 Tyvola Rd., or at the June 7 Potluck Picnic behind the senior center.
Most common breeding birds in Mecklenburg County
Imperiled breeding birds
Eastern screech owl