View From Sandy Mush: Conservation Notes “Farm Bird Snapshot”

Between April and August 2014, Sandy Mush Farm took part in a comparative bird/wildflower study under the auspices of the University of Wisconsin.  The purpose was to determine the correlation, if any, between the emergence of certain wildflowers and the presence of particular bird species.  The endeavor is another one of many esoteric, under appreciated nooks of scientific research which are fundamental to understanding the world around us.  Committing to a career of such pursuits requires an admirable degree of non-conformity and dedication.  It sure isn’t for the money or the praise.  We are fortunate to have persons in our midst with these passions.

This survey covered grazed pastures, cornfields, stream boundaries, a small bog and sloped woodlands between elevations of 2100 and 2700 feet.  In terms of bird life, it offers a seasonal glimpse of avian activity on a typical Sandy Mush valley farm, identifying 65 bird species.  If that sounds like a lot, the total bird list for Buncombe County is now circa 276 species, including rare sightings.  While there were no unexpected new discoveries, conspicuously absent from our Sandy Mush bird tally were several once routinely seen or heard residents.  The Eastern Whip-poor-will (Antrostomus vociferous) and Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor), insectivores with small beaks and large mouths, had been previously occupied our property.  Neither made an appearance this time.  If these species remain in the area, they appear to be in steep decline, joining a few other previous regulars such as the Northern Bobwhite Quail (Colinus virginianus), Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) and American Woodcock (Scolopax minor), which are becoming scarce.

There are many factors resulting in this narrow conclusion about the missing.   As usual, probable causes lie among human actions, environmental changes and the combination.  Ruffed Grouse, for instance, prefer shelter and forage associated with oak-hickory-pine forests with ample fallen trees as drumming logs, in brushy transition zones and around bogs.  The more we clear and “improve” our property, the less attractive it is to them.  Grouse often operate as singletons or in small, covey-like groups.  We haven’t seen one on our farm in almost two years.  They seem to have moved farther up more remote wooded slopes.  The Bobwhite has very complex habitat demands and often enigmatic responses to environmental situations.  It is among the most studied of all birds.  Quail often thrive in agrarian landscapes, but their numbers have dramatically lessened with decrease in crop diversity and changes in traditional farming practices.  Their instantly recognizable calls are now only occasionally heard.  In addressing this problem, the landowner’s mirror might be an appropriate beginning.

On a happier avian note, Sandy Mush Creek and local ponds are home to at least one pair of magnificent Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias).  A bird typically associated with coastal wetlands, high elevations of Western North Carolina are at the fringes of its range.  We are fortunate in that regard.  Also, every now and again, an American Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) will drop in from GSM National Park or drift over from the French Broad.  Around Sandy Mush, eagles are still unique enough to make a sighting memorable.  As their numbers continue to increase, exploratory visits by our national symbol may become less remarkable.  Hopefully, we can be spared the hyperbole of “eye witness” reports about large birds removing family pets and carrying away small children.

The silver lining in observing birds on our farm, is the reminder that most species, not just game birds, will favorably respond to application of established game management principles.  It is possible to manage for songbirds just as it is for the fliers we hunt as game.  This first necessitates a basic understanding of habits and habitats, and demands physical initiative in taking certain steps to improve cover and facilitate nesting arrangements.  Sometimes we get lucky and it turns out that the best management practices are to “do no harm,” just leave things the way they are with minor tweaks.  Meanwhile, a good starting point is to inventory what birds you currently host and figure out how to best accommodate the ones you would like to attract in the future.  Stretching one’s knowledge of birds and interactions with their surroundings is a rewarding path.

The following is our list for comparison with yours:

Common Name Scientific Name:

American Crow Corvus brachyrhynchos

American Goldfinch Spinus tristis

American Kestrel Falco sparverius

American Robin Turdus migratorius

Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica

Barred Owl Strix varia

Belted Kingfisher Megaceryle alcyon

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Polioptila caerulea

Blue Grosbeak Passerina caerulea

Blue-headed Vireo Vireo solitarius

Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata

Black Vulture Coragyps atratus

Black-throated Green Warbler Setophaga virens

Brown Thrasher Toxostoma rufum

Canada Goose Branta canadensis

Carolina Chickadee Poecile carolinensis

Carolina Wren Thryothorus ludovicianus

Cedar Waxwing Bombycilla cedrorum

Chipping Sparrow Spizella passerina

Chimney Swift Chaetura pelagica

Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis

Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens

Eastern Bluebird Sialia sialis

Eastern Kingbird Tyrannus tyrannus

Eastern Meadowlark Sturnella magna

Eastern Phoebe Sayornis pheobe

Eastern Towhee Pipilo erythrophthalmus

Eastern Wood-Pewee Contopus virens

European Starling Sturnus vulgaris

Field Sparrow Spizella pusilla

Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias

Indigo Bunting Passerina cyanea

Killdeer Charadrius vociferus

Litte Brown Bat Myotis lucifugus

Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura

Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis

Northern Flicker Colaptes auratus

Northern Bobwhite Colinus virginianus

Northern Harrier Circus cyaneus

Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos

Northern Rough-winged Swallow Stelgidopteryx serripennis

Orchard Oriole Icterus spurius

Ovenbird Seiurus aurocapilla

Palm Warbler Setophaga palmarum

Pileated Woodpecker Dryocopus pileatus

Purple Martin Progne subis

Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus

Red-eyed Vireo Vireo olivaceus

Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus

Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis

Rufous-sided Towhee Pipilo maculatus/erythr

Rusty Blackbird Euphagus carolinus

Scarlet Tanager Piranga olivacea

Screech Owl Megascops asio

Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia

Tree Swallow Tachycineta bicolor

Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor

Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura

White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis

Wild Turkey Meleagris gallopavo

Wood Duck Aix sponsa

Wood Thrush Hylocichla mustelina

Yellow-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus americanus

Yellow Warbler Setophaga petechial

Yellow-rumped Warbler Setophaga coronata

Here is a partial list of bird collectives, avian trivia applicable to some of the above – what groups of birds are called:


Birds in general Flock of birds, plump of waterfowl, clutch of eggs
Crows Congress of crows, murder of crows
Doves Flight of doves, dole of doves, cote of doves, piteousness of doves
Ducks Paddling of ducks, raft of ducks (domesticated), team of ducks
Eagles Convocation of eagles
Falcons/Kestrels Cast of falcons/kestrels
Finches Charm of finches, trembling of finches
Geese Gaggle of geese (milling around), skein of geese (in V-formation flight)
Goldfinches Charm of goldfinches
Grouse Brace of grouse, covey of grouse
Hawks Cast of hawks,  kettle of hawks
Herons Siege of herons
Hummingbirds Charm of hummingbirds,  troubling of hummingbirds, hover of hummingbirds
Jays Band of jays, party of jays
Kingfishers Concentration of kingfishers
Meadow Larks Exultation of larks
Owls Parliament of owls, wisdom of owls
Quail Bevy of quail, covey of quail
Killdeer Congregation of killdeer, wing of killdeer
Sparrows Host of sparrows,  quarrel of sparrows
Starlings Murmuration of starlings
Swallows Flight of swallows
Turkeys Rafter of turkeys (domesticated), muster of turkeys, flock of turkeys (wild)
Woodcock Fall of woodcock
Woodpeckers Descent of woodpeckers

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