What to expect when you’re expecting the Southeast
Let’s say you shoot me an e-mail saying you’re going to be in my neck of the woods and you’d like to do a little birding. Better, you have a some time. Better still, you’re not interested in the regular local patch birding that is likely to net you most of the same species you could find just about anywhere east of the Mississippi River. You want specialties. Lifers. Stuff you can’t find in Michigan and Colorado and New York. Stuff you need to find in the south.
I don’t suppose I’m too much different from any birder who lives in the area stretching from North Carolina all the way to eastern Texas when it comes to fulfilling requests for specific local specialties. Birders in that entire stretch of continent are more or less familiar with the Pine savanna habitat that historically ran unbroken for thousands of miles along the coastal plain in areas where the soil is sandy and fire is allowed to run. I’ve written about this sort of habitat in this spot before and I don’t want to repeat myself too much, but it’s sufficient to say that once it became clear such soil was good for cultivation of cotton and tobacco, when the pines were logged for naval stores and furniture, and the fear of fire near human habitation allowed Oaks and Sweetgums to swamp what was left, the habitat that is quintessentially southern ended up fragmented and degraded, such that what remains is a mere fraction of what was. So it goes with too many things, I suppose.
That said, nearly every birder in that block of states knows where the nearest expanse of this habitat can be found, and because some states have been proactive about protecting and actively managing it with controlled burns (North Carolina has been particularly good about this), there’s enough prime habitat to support a number of the unique organisms. Herps are especially well-represented by the Pine Snake, and the federally threatened Southern Hog-nosed Snake and Pine Barrens Treefrog among others, but a few mammals deserve mention as well, such as the amazing Sandhills subspecies of the Eastern Fox Squirrel. This isn’t your normal feeder raider. It’s a a massive rodent nearly two feet long whose striking black and white coloration makes it look something like an agile aboreal skunk or a buck-toothed Marcel Marceau.
But this is not a squirrel blog, no matter how deep the connection between bird people and squirrels. What about the birds?
There’s the Brown-headed Nuthatch, of course, practically a guarantee anywhere there are pines. But the Longleaf Pine savannas are most famous for being the preferred habitat for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, the fascinating little Picid who has the distinct honor of being the most mis-named species in North America. Not only is the famous cockade a barely visible speck of red on the high side of the cheek, but its species name, borealis, seems positively bizarre for a species whose home range trends farther south than any of its North American relatives. Nonetheless, such idiosyncrasies seem par for the course for a species who, alone among woodpeckers, makes its nest hole in a living tree and relies on dispersal by female birds to perpetuate the species while the males hang around with their parents to help next year’s brood. Those are just two of the little quirks that make this pecker a gem even among its charismatic kin.
The cavity nesters are child’s play, though. For the birder’s birder there is the only eastern member of a primarily western clan, the newly minted Peucaea genus, the underrated Bachman’s Sparrow, named for pastor, naturalist and J.J. Audubon collaborator John Bachman. Like most members of its genus, Bachman’s is a difficult bird to find outside of the short period of time when the males are singing on territory. For years no one knew whether or not they were even migratory because in winter they can be as difficult to see as mice. There still remains a lot to learn about where they go though the western population appears to be more migratory than the eastern one. In any case, catching a glimpse or this sharp specimen is generally a pretty special event even for local birders.
So here’s to the South, home to one of the most unique ecosystems in North America! And if you’ve got the time, an opportunity to find three fabulous birds you’re not likely to pick up anywhere else.