By Amber Veverka
Kentucky warblers, gone. Whip-poor-wills, disappearing. Barn owls, just one known pair.
Those are just a few of the early findings of a region-wide search for birds that’s taking place in yards, woods and even parking lots around the county.
Don Seriff, Mecklenburg County natural resources coordinator, is supervising data collection for the Mecklenburg Breeding Bird Atlas, a three-year project led by the Mecklenburg Audubon Society and the county natural resources department.
The goal: to document which birds live and breed in a 14-county region – and which are missing in action.
“Breeding birds are something we want to keep an eye on because we are actively developing Mecklenburg County,” Seriff said, “and it’s changed the fauna of the county.”
Horned larks return?
Some birds that used to cluster around Mecklenburg farms left as the farms did, data from this first year of the bird atlas show. And species that flock to fields turning back into woodland also are missing.
Loggerhead shrikes once flew all over Charlotte, but then dwindled to a single pair nesting in movie theater parking lot, Seriff said. Now even that couple is gone. So too appears to be the Kentucky warbler, whose only remaining trace in the county is a single, crumbling five-year-old nest.
Ernie McLaney grew up in Cotswold in the mid-1960s and recalls horned larks winging through open fields near what is now Randolph Middle School.
“I remember hearing them out my bedroom window,” says McLaney, former head of the CPCC Center for Sustainability and an avid birder.
No more: Horned larks went the way of those Cotswold fields. But there may be reason for hope. After decades of absence, a pair of horned larks was spotted this year at a Charlotte golf course near the coliseum, the bird atlas has revealed.
Seriff’s team found another bit of good news: The elusive dickcissel, a grassland bird, found on private property in Pineville.
Passenger pigeons flying over Davidson College
To know if a bird is missing, you have to know it was there in the first place. Mecklenburg has detailed records of birds going back 15 years, and before that, birders such as Wing Haven Gardens’ Elizabeth Clarkson published books detailing local species. But Seriff needed information prior to 1950, and that is where the naturalist turned detective. On his own time, Seriff visited regional museums, examining stuffed specimen birds - a relic from the time when ornithologists tracked birds by shooting them.
Then Seriff took off for Washington D.C. to a U.S. Department of Agriculture building where, stuffed in a closet, was the data motherlode: More than 6 million little pieces of paper – individual, handwritten bird-sighting records. The records were sent by amateur naturalists for a federal bird-tracking program, going back more than a century.
The carefully penned lines from N.C. residents spoke of a place now lost, a region where Henslow’s sparrows and Bachman’s sparrows – now gone – flitted. A place where a Davidson college student in the late 1800s described thousands of now-extinct passenger pigeons flying overhead and roosting in trees near campus.
Based on what those records say once lived here and what this year’s volunteers have discovered, Seriff ticked off several more presumed casualties: The hooded warbler, a yellow sprite of a bird, which now nests on just one chunk of land near Latta Nature Preserve. Bobwhites, disappearing across North Carolina due to habitat loss and attacks on their chicks by fire ants, and which are just “barely hanging on” in Mecklenburg County.
In some cases, though, even the bad news carries a bit of good. Those two barn owls, the only ones found in Mecklenburg? Their kind, once plentiful across the region, hasn’t been seen in more than 10 years, Seriff said, so from zero to two – that could be a start.
Want to help find birds?
The Mecklenburg Breeding Bird atlas actually spans 14 counties, dividing areas up into 10-square-mile blocks. Each block has volunteers who locate pairs of birds that are nesting. Most of that work will launch again in spring, but some species nest nearly all year. Contact the Mecklenburg Audubon Society to learn how to record your sightings. Findings from each year of the bird atlas will be put online when they’re complete.
The North American Bird Phenology Program in Washington, D.C. accepted records of bird sightings from 1880 to 1970 and volunteers are currently digitizing the program’s 6 million handwritten records. To learn more click here.