At this time of the summer in Western North Carolina not much is going on in the bird world. A few early songbirds are beginning to trickle south along our mountain slopes and any patch of water might hold a southbound shorebird, but during these hot summer days it’s best to look for large birds such as herons and egrets. During the latter part of July and on into August and September many members of this family undergo what is called “post-breeding dispersal.” After the birds have finished breeding for the year, they wander away from their coastal colonies and appear inland at any available patch of water, even a small farm pond as long as there is food present. This movement of herons and egrets can enliven a somewhat uninspiring season for bird finding.
The Great Blue and Little Blue Herons and Great Egrets are the most likely to wander into our view. Tricolored Herons, White Ibis and Snowy and Cattle Egrets are quite uncommon inland at this time, and the two Night Herons are also rare visitors. Most of the wandering herons and egrets are solitary or occur in small numbers, but some years we see larger groups of up to 25 birds at some locations. However, a couple of years ago we had a White Ibis invasion. From Marshall to Brevard we had predominantly immature White Ibis all along the rivers and on small dams and reservoirs. No one was quite sure why we saw so many, but perhaps they had a good breeding season at their colonies nearer the coast. Most of the birds were not the stunning black and white adults with the long pink bills, but browner immature birds with a mottled brownish and white plumage.
The Great Blue Heron is the largest member of this family and the only one likely to still be present into the winter months. A small number of these impressive birds spends the colder months of the year at any available water where they hunt for fish, frogs and small mammals. The smaller Little Blue Herons and Snowy Egrets are of a similar size at around two feet tall. Cattle Egrets are smaller still with a somewhat hunchbacked appearance.
Not all of the white members of the heron family that undergo post-breeding dispersal are egrets. First-year Little Blue Herons are also white until they attain their slate-blue adult plumage at about 2 years. Often strange half-white and blue birds are seen as they molt from immature to adult plumage. Birds in all of these plumages can be distinguished from the similar egrets by their greenish legs, blue base to the bill and the relatively un-egret-like shape. We have even had a couple of visits by a Great White Heron (a color morph of the Great Blue) which is a very rare bird here as it is usually restricted to Southern Florida.
Other bird movement is not as obvious, but still goes on. From the middle of July onwards, shorebirds begin passing through our area, and one might see almost any species of shorebird that breeds in the north and winters in the south. The most common species are those that frequent fresh water habitats, such as Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and Solitary, Pectoral and Spotted Sandpipers. Also, many of the smaller species such as Yellow and Cerulean Warblers have already started to move south, and this is the time of the year to catch up with the latter species during migration. Check for Ceruleans in the small roving flocks of titmice and chickadees quietly moving towards their wintering grounds in the Andes. On our regularly scheduled Birdwalks in WNC we are often lucky enough to see several species of warbler such as Blackburnian, Canada, Black-and-white, and American Redstart moving through even this early.
While we are indeed several weeks away from any major southbound movement of birds, getting out at this time of the year can certainly produce some surprises, as there is always some bird activity regardless of the season.
Simon Thompson owns and operates Ventures Birding Tours (birdventures.com) and also co-owns and operates the Asheville Wild Birds Unlimited store. For information on birding activities in the area, drop by the store or visit asheville.wbu.com