Wood Thrush Walk

April 22, 2015.  The swamp is under water, with Cedar Creek being ten feet and rising, while the river is at seventeen feet. So I opt for an early morning walk along the north bluff. After all the rain, a front came through two days ago and brought with it some great Carolina spring weather – low humidity, cool temps, and a northwest wind that picks up as the day goes along. Even without flooding, I would be here on the bluff this time of year, doing what I call my annual  “wood thrush walk.” The songsters and other Neotropical migrants have just recently arrived from their tropical wintering grounds and are attracted to the hardwood bluff with its rich assortment of trees and shrubs. Most of them are just passing through, on their way to more northerly latitudes to begin the annual breeding cycle. Fortunately, the wood thrushes are here to stay, and the males will be serenading us for the next two months.

The bluffs with Cedar Creek at flood stage; home for America’s greatest songster, the wood thrush.

When I step from the car a little after 7 AM, the first thing I hear is a wood thrush in the distance, and I know it’s going to be a good day. However, the singer goes quiet for some reason, and I only hear him briefly. I make my way through the open pine woods that were prescribed-burned last year, cross a narrow but deep ditch full of water, and arrive at the bluff just south of Dawson’s Lake. A black pig is rooting along the water’s edge, but he’s too occupied to detect me. The high water reminds me again of how few animals you see here along the bluffs and high ground when you’d expect it to be a natural refuge for hundreds of deer, pigs, and other swamp critters escaping the flood. By the end of the morning I’ve walked more than three miles and see only one more pig.

As I continue east, I flush a squawking hen turkey from the ground that makes a noisy getaway flying through the trees towards the swamp. It probably left a nest behind, and it doesn’t take long to find it. There are fourteen eggs, three of which are off to the side about four inches from the snug clutch of eleven. The three eggs are in a line about two inches apart.

I’m afraid many of the turkey nests in the floodplain will be a total loss this year since even many of the ridges and natural high spots the turkeys favor for their nests cannot escape seventeen feet of water. I’m sure some will re-nest, but late nests are generally not as successful as early nests.

I hear more wood thrushes as I walk the bluff line. Some places where I had noted them in previous years appear to be unoccupied, perhaps as a result of prescribed fire which has burned a lot of the hardwood understory preferred by the thrushes.

I go as far as Kitt’s Grave, the old boat landing on the north side of Cedar Creek, before turning back at 10:00. During the mile-and-a half walk, I tally four, possibly five, singing thrushes but never see the first bird.  I do see and hear a fair amount of migrant activity. The black-throated blue warblers are active, as are hooded warblers, ovenbirds, summer tanagers, red-eyed vireos, Northern parulas, great crested flycatchers, and best of all, a single male scarlet tanager. This beauty is moving slowly some thirty-to-forty-five feet up in some white oaks and offers plenty of good views. The show-stopping red-and-black plumage, bracketed several times in the late morning sun, against a backdrop of young, fresh green foliage, is spell-binding and the ultimate eye candy.