When I was 9 years old, I thought the dark-eyed junco sounded like a character from Don Quixote.
But when I found a discarded, half-burned field-guide on birds, I discovered that it’s actually a little gray-backed, white-bellied bird (junco hyemalis) that darts through high-elevation woodlands, building mossy nests tucked into the crevices of steep embankments.
The book overflowed with bird names that delighted a kid’s imagination: the tufted titmouse, Bonaparte’s gull, the cerulean warbler and the solitary vireo. I even found one that sounded like something I could call the bullies at school: yellow-bellied sapsucker. I was partial to woodpeckers like the sapsucker, and spent hours in the woods hunting for one. But most often, I would catch a glimpse of the yellowhammer, instead, and once, I spied the pileated woodpecker — a crow-sized, red-crested bird that had to be the basis for Woody the Woodpecker.
“Careful. When you start going out in the field and looking … well, then you’re hooked,” warns Asheville bird-watcher Peggy Lasher.
A regular participant in bird walks at Beaver Lake, Lasher refers to bird watching as “the most scientific of sports and the most sporting of sciences.” She likes the mental challenge of identifying habitats, songs and field marks — a red dash along the cheek, the shape of the tail, the color of the crown.
Cerulean warblers can be found, spring through summer, at the higher elevations. Tree swallows pass through the area in spring, but rarely nest here. The gray-eyed junco can be spotted from Craggy Gardens north, Lasher reports.
But even knowing all that, “Bird watching is a matter of luck,” asserts Marilyn Westphal, secretary of the Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society in Asheville. No one would have guessed there’d be a sighting of wood storks at the U.S. Forest Service fish hatchery on the Davidson River last year, she observes. “Then there was the oldsquaw [a type of duck] just hanging out at a small lake in Transylvania County. It’s an ocean bird,” she notes, adding, “Who knows what it was doing there.”
Or what about the young peregrine falcon that made its home in downtown Asheville, atop the BB&T Building, a few years ago? Lasher remembers the bird’s surprise appearance, as well as the black-crested night heron that showed up at Beaver Lake — far from its coastal range.
Unusual sightings are just part of the thrill. Westphal takes particular pleasure in knowing her songbirds, the warblers. “This is one of the best areas in the country for warblers, but very few people know about them,” she says. That’s because you can walk through the woods for hours and never see one of these neotropical, spring-and-summer mountain visitors, Westphal explains.
But you’ll hear their distinctive songs. “If you know the song, you’ll know where to look,” says Westphal: Yellow warblers nest in shrubs, cerulean warblers in the grass, ferns and crevices below. “My mind just goes into it, looking and listening — just being out there in the natural world and being able to recognize what’s out there with you,” she reflects.
That’s a sentiment bird-watcher Eileen Wilson shares. “If I see something, I want to know what it is,” she points out. Ducks are her favorite, like the black-and-white bufflehead, sometimes seen at Beaver Lake diving into the waters, then popping up like a cork.
Asked about the flocks of coots that also frequent lakes in the area, Wilson replies, “Ooh! You’ve heard of someone being called an ‘old coot’? Just watch those birds for a while, and you’ll see why.” These nondescript black ducks, with beady red eyes, nod their heads while paddling along, mindlessly drifting this way and that.
Much more to Wilson’s liking are the occasional sightings of the common loon, ring-necked duck and red-breasted merganser.
“Then there’s the teenage boy’s favorite: the tufted titmouse,” she adds, laughing.
Where did that name come from? “The Brits thought that one up,” she replies — as if that explained it. “They also call bird-watchers ‘twitchers,'” she remarks.
Titmice, pipits, pewees and other curiously named birds may add to the confusion. What’s a beginning birdwatcher to do?
“You don’t have to be an expert … to come on one of our bird walks,” says Wilson, referring both to the regular events held at Beaver Lake (the first Saturday of the month, at 9 a.m.) and the ones at Jackson Park in Hendersonville (the second Saturday, also at 9 a.m.). The April 4 walk, in particular, will be geared toward beginners, Wilson points out.
Westphal adds, “If you’re going to be a birder, you’re going to have to get binoculars.”
A field guide is handy, too, but all you really need is a little patience and a kid’s insatiable curiosity — like the drive to catch sight of the teeny ruby-crowned kinglet darting through the underbrush on a cool March day.
For bird walks in the Tryon area, contact the Foothills Equestrian Nature Center in Tryon at (704) 859-9021. For Hendersonville bird walks, call ECO volunteers at 692-0385. For Asheville-area walks, call the Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society at 254-7893. Check the Mountain Xpress calendar for other bird-event listings.
For backyard birding info, check out either of these Web sites:
• fws.gov/r9mbmo/pamphlet/pamplets.html (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
For bird-watching/bird-feeding supplies, visit The Compleat Naturalist (2 Biltmore Plaza 274-5430); Wild Birds Unlimited (1997 Hendersonville Rd., 687-9433); Everything for the Birds (175 Weaverville Highway, Weaverville, 645-3938); Robin’s Wood, Ltd. (200 Riverside Drive, 281-0201); WNC Feeds (23 Glendale Ave., 253-7654); and The Trellis (104 S. Washington St., Hendersonville, 697-5600).