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In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine. You can find them at the tallest peaks, on

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In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine. You can find them at the tallest peaks, on

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In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine. You can find them at the tallest peaks, on

Our State Knows Best: Birding

In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.


You can find them at the tallest peaks, on sandy shores, and even in your own neighborhood — and we’re not just talking about North Carolina’s exceptional range of bird species; we’re talking about all the folks who spend their time watching our winged companions.

“Birdwatching is part of the entire outdoor experience,” says Tom Earnhardt, a conservationist, author, and producer/writer of the PBS series Exploring North Carolina. “It’s birdwatching, yes, but it’s also part of the wildflower experience and the ecosystem experience, whether it’s coast, Piedmont, or mountains.”

We chatted with Earnhardt and three other experts — Donald Seriff, author of Birds of the Central Carolinas; Steve Tracy, president of the Carolina Bird Club; and Colleen Bockhahn, past president of the Wake Audubon Society and Eastern Vice President of the Carolina Birds Club — to find out about their avian adventures, their favorite places in the state to spot ’em, and the birds they always look for first.

Our experts

 

Tom Earnhardt
Conservationist, author, and writer/producer of PBS’s Exploring North Carolina
Donald Seriff
Author of Birds of the Central Carolinas
Steve Tracy
President of The Carolina Bird Club
Colleen Bockhahn
Past president of the Wake Audubon Society and Eastern Vice President of the Carolina Bird Club

How did you get into birding?

Tom Earnhardt: I’ve enjoyed literally every area of North Carolina for years, and anytime you start getting into a particular place — whether it’s the coast, the Piedmont, or the mountains — the birds are an integral part of the whole experience.

Donald Seriff: I was one of those kids who grew up playing outside and just running around in nature pretty much all day long. Our mothers would throw us out of the house and say, “Don’t come back till sunset.” We’d go hang out in the woods, and I spent a lot of time alone out in the woods observing nature. At some point in college and after college, I got interested in focusing on birds.

Colleen Bockhahn: I’ve had a deep love of nature ever since I was a kid. I was always one of those kids who played outside and loved everything about animals and nature. Birds are everywhere and they do all kinds of different interesting things. Plus, meeting other people that were excited about going to watch birds and making it a social thing really resonated with me because I can be social and be out in nature, which are my two favorite things.

What do you love most about birding?

Tom Earnhardt: Every place you go will have a bird that uses their niche habitat. The niche habitats can be rock ledges or the holes in the trees. It might be a bird that needs the acorns of a particular oak. They’re there for a reason; they’re there because of the habitat or the insects available, and if those things aren’t present, you won’t see those birds. I love to make those connections. Bird-watching helps you with understanding what creatures need and what plants need to be there — it’s the total experience.

Donald Seriff: I think now, after 30 years in the wildlife world, what I love the most is that so many people are getting interested, because we’re at a critical point in the conservation of not just birds, but also other groups of animals and plants. It really makes me feel good that more folks are getting into it and that they’re more concerned about the future of their local environment and natural areas.

Steve Tracy: I don’t know that I would go outside as often if I wasn’t looking for birds, and it does bring me into contact with other animals that I don’t see very often. Like this past weekend, I saw a muskrat, and I’ve seen bobcats and coyotes.

There are a lot of amazing birds out there — which one is your favorite?

Tom Earnhardt: There are favorite birds, really, in each season. North Carolina has, on an annual basis, about 450 birds within its borders. There’s a constant changing of the guard, and that’s one of the exciting things. North Carolina is a natural boundary between southern species and northern species: In the winter we have the swans and the snow geese; in the summer we have the buntings and the yellow-billed cuckoos.

Donald Seriff: I always mention peregrine falcons first. It’s [the species] that inspired me early on, especially in college. It was federally endangered and there was a big effort for many years to help it recover, and it has pretty much recovered as a species. In fact, we had a nesting pair in Charlotte, which is the first time out of the mountains that that’s ever been recorded.

Colleen Bockhahn: I enjoy birds that have a lot of personality — birds like crows and others that may be “nuisance birds” to other folks. I think they’re just so interesting to watch, and crows actually help locate raptors. I had a bald eagle in my yard one time, which I never thought would happen ever, and the only reason I saw it was because I heard a bunch of crows making a racket outside in my yard. Sure enough, there’s an eagle sitting up in the tree. The crows sort of sounded the alarm and let me have that really cool experience.

So where should we go bird-watching first?

Donald Seriff: I think the Piedmont has been pretty overlooked by the science community. Everybody seems to focus on the birds in the mountains and the birds on the coast, and rightfully so, but the Piedmont is a pretty amazing place to study nature and it’s close to home for most people in the Carolinas. There are plenty of great natural areas to go out and study plants and animals, and especially birds, in the Piedmont. I love greenway corridors in some of the major cities like Raleigh and Charlotte.

Steve Tracy: I like to go to the Outer Banks — to Pea Island Wildlife Refuge and Bodie Island Lighthouse down to the salt pond in Buxton near Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. In the fall I like to go to Jackson Park in Hendersonville; it’s a good place for migrating warblers. Some years are better than others, but it’s always been the place to go in the fall. I like to go into the mountains in the spring as well — Max Patch is a good place.

Colleen Bockhahn: I really enjoy the Sandhills area of the state. There are places like Weymouth Woods State Park, which is a really great accessible area of the Sandhills for folks to explore. And then, of course, the Outer Banks are a big birding spot, with places like Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. I’ve taken many trips out there and seen just overwhelming numbers of birds sometimes, especially at Pea Island. It’s always nice to go to places like that and really see that those places are making a difference [in conservation]. You can see hundreds or even thousands of birds in one location.

What should beginner birders know?

Tom Earnhardt: Watch the birds in your yard. You don’t have to go across the state to see something really special. I live in Raleigh. I live within the city limits, not too far from downtown, and on a regular basis I’ll see literally 20 to 30 species in the yard. So that’s the best place to start. Second, if you’re going on a little vacation in the state, get a bird book and look at the birds that are going to be in season. Take a look at the birds around you wherever you are — that’s the best place to start your birding.

Donald Seriff: It’s fun! It’s an exciting, fun activity that will challenge you mentally and physically and intellectually. It’s just an activity that you may never have considered. If you can get active in one of your local bird clubs and then with the Carolina Bird Club at the state level there will be all kinds of field trip options. My suggestion would be that you join a local group and hang out with some folks that have more experience than you do. [Talk to them] while you’re standing there with a bird in the spotting scope. Is the bird’s tail squared off? Is it notched? Is it longer or shorter? While you have those few seconds to go over those things, you can learn a lot from somebody who can point out some crucial field marks that you would normally miss.

Steve Tracy: I would suggest to somebody that’s just starting out that they not spend a lot of money on optics. You can get some pretty good binoculars without spending a lot of money, and if you decide that this is the hobby for you, then you can investigate getting something that is more durable and maybe has a better field of view and sharper clarity.

So … do we need to set our alarms for the crack of dawn? What’s the best time of day to bird-watch?

Tom Earnhardt: I love the morning because you hear the little symphony. You hear the different birds talking to each other, and this is the time of the year when they’re starting to pair up and the nest will be built pretty soon.

Colleen Bockhahn: Unfortunately for those of us who are not morning people, and I’m not, early morning is definitely the best time. I always joke and tell people that I’m not sure why I ever became a bird-watcher because I’m definitely a night owl, and if I could sleep in until 10 a.m. every day, I would. But when I wake up before the sun has risen to go birding, especially if I’m meeting friends or going someplace new, I’m always really excited.

What’s the most challenging part of birding?

Tom Earnhardt: As a society, the challenging thing is maintaining the habitat to enjoy them. It really saddens me that we have lost a lot of habitat for [birds]. We have to leave patches where these birds have the habitat and the food that they need. The thing that frustrates me the most is going back to places where I’ve seen birds over many, many years and not finding them again.

Donald Seriff: The identification can be extremely challenging at times, and a lot of the longtime birders spend a lot of time discussing what they’ve seen before they decide what species they have.

Steve Tracy: There are birds that we call “nemesis birds” that we haven’t been able to find them. Everybody has those. Some people will “chase” birds, and that can burn up a lot of gas and a lot of time, so I usually don’t chase birds a long distance.

Colleen Bockhahn: Conservation is really important to me. It’s part of my job, but it’s also a reason I stay active in bird-watching. I do advocacy work and really push for conservation because as a bird-watcher and a nature lover, we’re constantly losing habitats and birds, and other animals are getting fewer and fewer overall. The challenge is not getting too downtrodden about that, and doing everything I can to help save what we have left and encouraging others to do so.

How can we help protect and preserve our birds?

Steve Tracy: Probably the No. 1 thing people can do if they own their own property is to try to remove invasive plant species and replace them with native plant species that provide cover and food for birds. I think people need to be more mindful of providing plants for wildlife.

Tom Earnhardt: If you want to put a feeder in your yard, great. I’ve got feeders in my yard and I enjoy them. But more importantly, if you’ve got a little piece of land, even if it’s your yard in town, don’t knock down every big tree. Probably the most important thing, though, is to put away the herbicides and pesticides. We use far too much in our yards and towns. We’ve got to have a really good mixture of native plants. There’s a strong, strong correlation between native plants that have the right seeds and attract the right insects — and birds.

Colleen Bockhahn: Go introduce kids to birds. I think there are a lot of kids already really interested in nature and birds, but there are so many that are still disconnected. Birds are such a great way to grab kids’ attention and get them interested in nature because they’re so accessible and they have lots of different interesting behaviors. We need to make sure that the next generation cares about the natural world just as much as we do.

This story was published on Apr 14, 2021

Zach Skillings

Zach is a spring 2021 editorial intern at Our State.