Scot Duncan’s Bird Report: 28 March 2017

Each spring, Birmingham-Southern’s Dr. Scot Duncan shares his migratory bird observations with the BASBirding listserv. Over the years, it’s become a great way for list subscribers to find out what’s showing up in the Magic City—specifically in the area surrounding Ruffner Mountain—and to get the sort of deep perspective that only a biologist can provide. Dr. Duncan has agreed to let Birmingham Audubon share his reports with visitors to our website—we hope you’ll enjoy them, and that they’ll inspire you to take your binoculars and hit the trail!

Scot Duncan’s Ruffner Report: 28 March 2017

Dr. Scot Duncan (Photo: Bob Farley)

Yesterday I dropped the truck off for a windshield replacement at a business near Ruffner, then hiked onto a section of Red Mountain that is directly to the northeast of Ruffner while the truck underwent surgery. (Ask me sometime about the causal relationships between hickory trees, climate change, strong winter storms, and windshield damage.) This is undeveloped property not owned by Ruffner, but ecologically the habitats are the same.

It had rained furiously the night before, and the valleys between hills were flooded with ephemeral streams that will be gone by week’s end. Many trees had been thrown down in the neighborhoods surrounding Ruffner, but by mid-morning the storms’ violence had given way to moody partly-sunny skies and pleasantly cool temperatures. Seasonally speaking, the canopy was still in an early phase of awakening, with small green or golden leaves on most trees. Yellow-rumped Warblers were common, feeding on unseen insects found amongst the new foliage, and I was able to find a few neotropical or winter coastal-plain migrants on their way back north or setting up local territories.  Blue-gray Gnatcatchers have been back for over a week, and are pairing off—they are the earliest breeders of Ruffner’s transient residents. I heard several Black-and-White Warblers and one Northern Parula.  Both breed in the region, but I’ve never encountered them breeding at Ruffner.  I did pick out a lone Palm Warbler amongst the Yellow-rumps, the only migrant I saw that doesn’t breed in the region.

Along a temporary creek at the base of Little Sandstone Ridge was a pair of Louisiana Waterthrushes. I had heard them chipping from the trail, and wondered why they were here and whether they were Northern or Louisianan. I crept up to near where they were feeding to find them on patrol and feeding congenially within a few meters of one another.  One short blast of Louisiana Waterthrush song from my phone clarified my suspicions. They immediately responded with territorial behavior, which surprised me since this wasn’t suitable breeding habitat for them, and I am not aware of the species ever breeding at Ruffner. Both flew to different perches about 15-20 feet off the ground. One sang repeatedly (clearly a Louisiana) while the other chipped with comparable fervor. Both their song and field marks confirmed their Louisianan heritage. As I retreated to the trail, I wondered whether their relationship would last. They were so young, so eager… but that creek will be dry soon, and if they want to stay engaged, they’ll need to migrate together to more suitable habitat, and agree on where to settle. Can their relationship withstand that much stress?

Yellow-throated Vireos were also vocal, and I heard at least three.  Unlike the others, these will breed at Ruffner, so their songs were likely more than pre-territorial practice.  I spotted one White-eyed Vireo, but it was silent.  WEVI’s breed at Ruffner, and as they are early arrivals, I am surprised I didn’t hear any sing.

There was a very soggy and groggy Barred Owl napping in a Virginia pine thicket with wings flared to dry out.  What with the storms and rain from 2 a.m. onward all night, he/she was cold, wet, and probably hungry.  I’d not have noticed him but for a petulant Tufted Titmouse who flew over and fussed from a reasonably safe distance.

My favorite encounter of the day was the flock of about ten Purple Finches that were feeding on young elm seeds in the canopy.  They were chattering and singing, which is why I noticed them. PUFIs seems to be more abundant at Ruffner in the late winter/very early spring, perhaps because there are few food sources for them during the dead of winter.

Lastly, I just heard my first Broad-winged Hawk for the year.  Yay!

Dr. R. Scot Duncan is a Professor of Biology at Birmingham-Southern College, and the author of Southern Wonder: Alabama’s Surprising Biodiversity.

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