Birding in the Carolinas

Sweat soaked and out of breath, I crouched behind a tangled labyrinth of mountain laurel. After minutes of staring into a stand of doghobble on the edge of a creek, I finally saw his zebra-like plumage. Black and white warbler, I thought, as the morning sun cast columns of golden light through the dense mountain canopy.

No doubt, birding is great fun. Whether you make a special trip to do it or find it to be a pleasant way to pass the time in the deerstand, you will find satisfaction in coming to know the names and habits of the birds in your area. You may also be astonished at the diversity of species that have always been around, just not obvious until you watched for them. Birding is about getting out into wild places and scanning the canopy and understory for birds of the wildest colors, who’s elusive nature keeps them above the mediocrity of the obvious. With over 350 bird species, a menagerie of landscapes and habitat types, and plenty or rural land, the Carolinas offer an amazing birding experience to anyone who is willing to try it.

Spring is a great time to do it since that’s when the spectacularly colored warblers pass over us, boasting their vibrant breeding plumage on their migration route from South America to their breeding grounds in the northeast and Canada. However, with so many species passing through the Carolinas this time of year, getting started can be daunting. Indeed, if you are like many of us who have ever tried it, your first attempt was frustrating: flipping through your field guide as fast as you can trying to identify every species that flies by. In your haste, you do not definitely identify any of them and turn homeward, frustrated. It is best to start with a plan, and here is how to formulate one.

Each field guide (we’ll discuss some of the best field guides later) has a species distribution m

Photo courtesy of

ap that indicates where each particular species is likely to be found at a given time of year. Make a list of those species that are in your region at the time you plan to go out. After that, narrow the list down by finding out how abundant each species on your list is. For instance, you may find that the Bachman’s warbler (Vermivora bachmanii) is listed as being in your area during the spring, but it’s also listed as an endangered species and is by far the rarest and least known warbler. The cerulean warbler (Dendroica cerulean) is not endangered, but has a discontinuous range and is almost always seen high in the canopy of old growth forests. Narrow your list by crossing out the rare or unlikely species (Of course, that doesn’t mean rule them out. Indeed, one of the most alluring aspects of birding is that chance to spot one of those rarities!). Of the species left on your list, notice the habitat types that each species prefers. The prarie warbler (Dendroica discolor), for instance, is a beautiful species common in the Carolinas in the spring and fall and likely to be found in open grasslands or large pastures, while the prothonotary warbler (Protonotaria citrea), also common, is found almost exclusively in wooded swamps. You might start with 10 species that you can expect to encounter. Study those species and their habitats, take note of distinguishing features on each one, eye rings, wing markings, coloration on outer tail feathers, etc. Take a look at the diagrams on the right.

Now you have a list of birds that you can expect to spot and a heads-up on what habitat types in which you are most likely to see each species on your list. Study each of those species, stick to your list, and if a bird flies by that you cannot identify do not get discouraged. Once you have a toehold in the sport you will be a pro in no time.

Ecotones, or places where several habitat types come together, is the best place to bird watch. For instance, an ecotone with five converging

Ecotone, or edge habitat, is a great place to watch for wildlife.

habitat types might look like this: the edge of a brushy field(1) near a stand of heavy brush or evergreens(2), bordered by a hardwood forest(3) with ample understory(4) that slopes down to a creek bottom(5). That type of landscape is as good as it gets and not too hard to find. Remember that each species requires a specific habitat type and means of competing for food, called an ecological niche. With more habitat types within seeing distance, the more species you are likely to encounter without walking your legs off.

Most warblers are hardly more than a few inches long, so despite their vibrant colors and markings, their small size alone can make them hard to spot. Their diet is exclusively insectivorous which is why you are not going to find one sharing a bird feeder with the finches. Only a few of them have elaborate songs. Usually their calls are insect-like buzzes, hardly the warbling songs you might expect. In short, watch closely and pay attention.

A field guide is critical, of course. One of the best field guides is the Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Eastern Region. It offers multiple images of each species (very helpful), categorizes the birds according to color, making it easier and faster to look up a species in the field, it also has a wealth of information on each species. There are a number of other great field guides, so just browse through them at a bookstore or online and discover which one appeals to you.

Binoculars are important, too. Look for a pair with a magnification of 7×40 or 10×40. The first number tells you how close the bird will appear through the lens, that is, a 7×40 magnification will make the bird appear seven times closer, a 10×40 will make the bird appear 10 times closer. The second number refers to the diameter of the front lens (the objective lens). Generally, a 40mm objective is sufficient. The greater the size of the objective lens, the better the light-gathering capabilities of the binoculars. If you plan to be birding in low light conditions you may want to consider a larger objective lens, such as a 50mm lens.

Lastly, a field journal is a great addition to your gear. Anything in which you can jot down a few notes such as species that you have encountered, notes on unidentified species, weather conditions, etc is invaluable, especially in the long-run.

It is also a great idea to join a birding club so that you will be able to go afield with birding enthusiasts of all skill levels. In addition, their websites will offer information on what species other birding enthusiasts have been seeing and where. The Carolina Bird Club and South Carolina Bird Watching are two great organizations to help you get started.

Best of luck!

Hunter S. Bridges