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Birding the Pee Dee NWR

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Spring and Summer Birding in the Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge

Will Stuart | E-Mail | Posted 12-12-09

Northern Parula

Northern Parula - Will Stuart

Early Arrivals

It's April 8th, 2009, a beautiful spring morning, and I have a bad case of "warbler fever". Time to go birding. I decide to head to the Pee Dee National Wildlife refuge, an easy 1 hour drive from my home in Matthews, NC.

Established in 1963 to provide wintering habitat for migratory waterfowl , the Pee Dee NWR is one of 10 national wildlife refuges in North Carolina. Its 8,443 acres span the Pee Dee river and include 3,000 acres of deciduous bottomland forest, 1,200 acres of upland pine forest, and 4,000 plus acres of mixed forests, managed agricultural fields, and fallow fields. Several state roads, plus miles of well maintained gravel roads, make it easy to access the refuge's many fields, forests, ponds, and wetlands. The refuge website note's over 180 bird species recorded with 90 or so species breeding within the refuge boundaries. The refuge is well known for its birding.

The skies brighten and temperatures rise through the 50's as I follow Route 74 east to Wadesboro, NC where I intersect with NC 52. I turn north on NC 52 and drive 5.8 miles to the refuge headquarters. While there is no visitor center, the refuge has well-maintained restrooms adjacent to the headquarters. After stopping briefly to strap on my binoculars and mount a 400mm lens on my Canon body, I am ready to see some birds!

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler - Will Stuart

I follow Wildlife Drive past Sullivan's Pond and descend toward Brown's Creek. I stop and listen to repeated calls of "sweet, sweet, sweet", my first of several encounters with brilliant yellow Prothonotary Warblers . I continue to GTR Road, a one-way gravel road which traverses dense bottomland forest along Brown Creek, perfect habitat for several early spring warblers. Within minutes I hear the repeated song of a Northern Parula. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet flits among the roadside trees as a Louisiana Waterthrush sings loudly from a branch above Brown Creek. I stop to photograph mahogany-colored blossoms of pawpaw trees and spot a Northern Parula gleaning insects from a small birch tree. Success!

On subsequent visits, I find the thick cover of GTR drive a reliable destination for Red-eyed Vireos, Prothonotary Warblers, Northern Parulas, and Hooded Warblers.

Prairie Warbler

Prairie Warbler - Will Stuart

Field and Forest Margins

Buoyed by my successful visit in early April, I return to the Pee Dee NWR on April 20 hoping to see more activity in the refuge's open and successional fields. Once again I enter at the refuge headquarters and follow Wildlife Drive. As I approach Sullivan Pond a pair of Killdeer adults "flop" about, feigning injury while their fluffy, long-legged chicks forage along the roadside. The "witchity-witchity-witchity" song of a Common Yellowthroat adds to the entertainment. I pause for a few photos before heading to the fallow fields where GTR Road approaches state road 1649. As I leave the forest a male Summer Tanager "picky-tucks" from the forest edge. I drive slowly through the large, open field and soon hear the song I am seeking, the distinct ascending trill of a Prairie Warbler staking a claim to his summer home. I stop and wait, with the sun to my left, I am able to capture a bright yellow male as he patrols several roadside sweetgum saplings.

Yellow-throated Warbler

Yellow-throated Warbler - Will Stuart

I drive to another reliably bird location, the intersection of Clark Road and State Road 1627. Clark Road angles to the northeast with an active corn field to the right and a successional mixed pine and deciduous forest to the left.

Such ecotone areas are common in the Pee Dee and often reward a visitor who will take the time to stop, listen, and look. On any given day you could hear Yellow-breasted Chats, Common Yellowthroats, Pine Warblers, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, vireos, tanagers, and more.

On this morning I hear the distinctive song of a Yellow-throated Warbler, apparently establishing his territory. With the sun behind me I am able to get several close shots from my Jeep. The handsome warbler makes my day!

Escaping the Heat

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting - Will Stuart

By late April noon-time temperatures in the Pee Dee often approach 80 degrees. On April 26th I stake out a roadside stream southeast of Gaddy's Covered Bridge where I have spotted songbirds converging to drink and bathe. Within a half hour I hear the call of a Kentucky Warbler and minutes later he emerges from thick cover along the stream. An Indigo Bunting pair arrives silently, the brilliantly colored male contrasting with the subdued colors of his mate. This day I am in for a special treat as a brilliant red Summer Tanager arrives, walks to the center of the small stream, and enjoys a lengthy bath. Shortly thereafter a Louisiana Waterthrush arrives to patrol the stream edges. I continue this midday stakeout on each visit into mid-June and capture a number of visitors to the stream including a handsome Scarlet Tanager pair.

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager - Will Stuart

Kentucky Warbler Bathing

Kentucky Warbler Bathing - Will Stuart

Summer Tanager

Summer Tanager Bathing - Will Stuart

Fledgling Wood Ducks

In May J. D. Bricken, the refuge manager, calls and offers me a permit to photograph Wood Ducks from a blind on Andrews Pond. I immediately accept! J.D. tells me his staff annually bait, net, and band over 100 Wood Ducks from early July through late August. I arrive before sunrise on June 8 and spot 2 lone Wood Ducks on the far side of the pond. After several uneventful hours I hear a splash down and look out to see a male and female pair some 40 meters from the blind. They seem content to cruise among the water lilies so despite the distance, I fire off a number of shots. On subsequent mornings several immature Wood Ducks approach the blind cautiously, usually with the supervision of an adult female. The drakes are noticeably absent.

Wood Duck Fledgling

Wood Duck Fledgling - Will Stuart

Immature Wood Duck

Immature Wood Duck - Will Stuart

"Bob White!"

Northern Bobwhite

Northern Bobwhite - Will Stuart

From late spring through mid-summer, the often heard ( but rarely seen) Northern Bobwhite quail may be the most vocal breeding bird within the refuge. Due to habitat loss and urban sprawl this popular game bird tops the Audubon Society list of common birds in decline. Evidence of sharp declines in bobwhite populations over the past 30 years reinforce my appreciation of large managed tracts such as the Pee Dee NWR. Here the many successional fields and forest margins all but guarantee a mid-summer visitor will be treated to a sharply whistled call of "bob white, bob bob white".

Unexpected Visitors

During late summer's post-breeding dispersal, the Pee Dee NWR is the occasional destination of coastal wading birds. In late July, 2009 a half-dozen immature Little Blue Herons frequent Arrowhead Lake for several weeks. In early August a pair of immature White Ibis arrive to feed in the impoundments along Wildlife Drive. On September 10th, I receive a call from J.D. telling me a pair of immature Wood Storks are visiting those same impoundments. I grab my camera and head to the refuge, arriving in mid-afternoon and finding a pair perched high in a tree above the impoundment. I do my best with less than ideal light assuming this might be my one opportunity. As luck would have it, the Wood Stork pair does spend the night and I am able to photograph the pair fishing in the impoundments along Wildlife Drive early on September 11th.

Wood Storks Feeding

Wood Storks Feeding - Will Stuart

Season's End

By mid-September, the roadsides, fields, and forests of the Pee Dee NWR seem strangely silent. The calls of Indigo Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, tanagers, warblers, and vireos have faded away. Soon sparrows and winter warblers will arrive and thereafter flocks of blackbirds and waterfowl will show up to winter. I will enjoy my winter visits to the Pee Dee NWR but I am already anticipating next spring.

Location and Points of Interest

Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge (Google interactive map)

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