November 17, 2017
Birding on the Outer Banks: The winter birds have arrived
By JEFF LEWIS
The Outer Banks Voice
Cool November temperatures and chilly north winds send us our winter birds.
In wooded habitats, and along the edges, look and listen for
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Eastern Phoebe, Blue-headed Vireo, Brown
Creeper, Winter Wren, Golden-crown Kinglet, Ruby-crown Kinglet and
Some of these species are easily overlooked, so let’s look closely at
three of them, a trio that nests in the North Carolina mountains.
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are fairly common here in winter but are easy
to overlook. These woodpeckers can be heard drilling into trees or
mewing (similar to a catbird), but if you approach too hastily they
move around to the back side of the tree, remaining hidden. Stand still
for a minute, and they’ll usually show themselves again.
As their name implies, sapsuckers feed on tree sap, and this is the
reason for the drilling, of course. Interestingly, a sapsucker will
drill various sizes and patterns of holes, depending upon the species
of tree. They will peck deep holes, shallow holes, holes in horizontal
rows, holes in vertical rows, tightly spaced or distant holes, round
holes, oval holes or even shallow flat squares, small or large.
It is incredible how these unique birds have learned how best to
harvest the sap from each tree. After the hard work is complete,
sapsuckers return periodically to harvest the sap that has collected,
which they lick up with their tongue. The insects that get stuck in the
sweet sap add a little protein! Sometimes hummingbirds and other
species will steal a little of the sap when the sapsucker is not
watching. In addition to tree sap, sapsuckers also feed on berries and
Brown Creepers are a bizarre little bird. Brown above and white below,
and only about 5 ½ inches long, a Brown Creeper looks a little bit like
a Carolina Wren, except with a stiff woodpecker tail. Their feeding
behavior is unique.
Brown Creepers start at the base of a tree, usually a large one, and
using their stiff tail and down-curved bill for support, creep up the
tree in a spiral searching for insects and spiders in the cracks and
crevices of the bark. When they reach the top, they simply flutter down
to the base of the next tree and start all over again. They remind me
of a mouse or a large bug, flat against the trunk.
Brown Creepers are very cryptically patterned and are easily overlooked
against the brown bark. Even the calls that creepers give are hard to
hear, as they are extremely high pitched. Many people cannot hear them
at all. So fixated on tree trunks, Brown Creepers even build their
nests (similar to a hammock) under a wedge of bark.
Winter Wrens have one of the prettiest songs of any bird, in my
opinion, a long, bubbly concoction of about 100 separate notes, but
you’re very unlikely to hear one during the winter on the Outer Banks.
They will sometimes sing in spring just before leaving for their
breeding grounds, though. Winter Wrens are dark brown and tiny, only
about 4 inches long, or about the size of a chicken egg, with a head
and stubby tail attached. They prefer dense tangles in woods, often in
moist habitats, and forage for insects along the ground.
They are considered secretive and hard to see, but mostly, if you sit
still for a while, they just ignore humans; I’ve actually had one hop
right over my feet once! Once you learn the two-note call that they
give, a hard “jip-jip,” they become easier to find.
Winter Wrens have a peculiar habit of bobbing up and down and they have
a very short tail which they keep stuck straight up, so they are easily
identified, once found. They mostly forage along the ground for their
Other winter resident songbirds that are present by November include
Orange-crowned Warbler, Palm Warbler, and a good variety of sparrows:
Savannah Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows and Fox Sparrows are
four common to uncommon ones. White-throated Sparrows and Chipping
Sparrows are common in (some of) our yards and some years we have good
numbers of Dark-eyed Juncos. Nelson’s and Saltmarsh Sparrows can be
found by trudging through brackish and salt marshes. Unusual to rare
sparrows to look for in winter include Lincoln’s, Vesper, Lark and Tree
Sparrow, to name a few.
By November we are inundated with Yellow-rumped Warblers, aka
butter-butts, so named for their bright yellow rumps. These little
birds are found in abundance and in a great variety of habitats; just
about anywhere there are some shrubs or trees for a little cover!
Waterfowl are mostly in place by November, especially by the end of the month.
Get out early and scan the pond at Bodie Island and especially the
impoundments at Pea Island, Mattamuskeet, Mackay Island and Pocosin
Lakes National Wildlife Refuges — many species of ducks are available
for viewing. Snow Geese and Tundra Swans should also be present.
Ocean watching can be fun in November.
Northern Gannets should be present, flying south or plunge-diving into schools of fish.
On many days large numbers of Red-throated Loons can be seen, and a few Common Loons are usually present, as well.
Look for Horned Grebes, too. Long strings of Black Scoters and Surf
Scoters can be seen as they migrate south over the ocean and sometimes
a White-winged Scoter can be seen as well.
Our ocean piers are the best vantage points from which to scan for
these birds. You may even see a Humpback Whale! If you’re lucky you may
spot a Common Eider or Long-tailed Duck or Brant; eiders are more often
seen around structures like jetties and piers and Long-tailed Ducks and
Brant are more often seen in the sounds, especially near the inlets.
One of the best ways to see Brant is to ride the ferry from Hatteras to
Ocracoke. Some years you can see many of these species inside Oregon
Inlet, especially around the Bonner Bridge. Harlequin Ducks are even
In the backyard, keep a good variety of bird food out, in feeders and
on the ground; this is the time of year when unusual birds sometimes
show up at feeders. Look for Painted Buntings, Baltimore Orioles, and
Even Western Tanagers show up occasionally.
Reprinted from The Outer Banks Voice. Each month Jeff Lewis, an
expert on birds and bird-watching, writes an article on the subject for