Birding NC: Spotting Red Flashes Under a Green Canopy

Want to hike on a nature trail in a national forest as you look and listen for songbirds? Go no farther than Uwharrie National Forest, where Densons Creek Nature Trail in Montgomery County winds through mixed hardwoods and pine forest. 

The forest, first purchased by the federal government in 1931 during the Great Depression, contains very diverse vegetation and is a scenic wildlife habitat. By national standards, it is small; the forest covers only about 50,000 acres. However, the variety of birds in the forest makes it a vital part of the N.C. Birding Trail, which links educational and historical attractions with communities and businesses across the state.

 

The trail offers two options for hiking. One is a 2.2-mile loop that takes you to an excellent view of Densons Creek, a beautiful stream with large rocks and fast-moving water. The shorter choice is a one-mile loop. Both options are marked with white painted blazes. When I was there, the blazes were easy to notice although road noise from nearby NC Hwy 24/27 was initially distracting until I was deeper into the forest. 

Be alert to see a summer tanager even before you hear it, and don’t mistake it for a cardinal.
The strawberry-colored male is the only completely red bird in North America and makes a beautiful sight as it flits under the greenery of the forest canopy. In the oaks, it is usually in the mid-canopy and above.

In contrast, the mustard-yellow female is more difficult to spot, but both sexes have a distinctive call that sounds like pit-ti-tuck. The male is also noted for making a series of whistles that can last up to four seconds. Both sexes like to dine on bees, wasps and other flying insects that they capture during short sallies from a perch.

 

Another tanager to be on the lookout for is the scarlet tanager, which is equally brilliantly colored. The male has a blood-red body that contrasts with its jet-black wings and tail. Because he stays high in the forest canopy, he can be difficult to find. Even harder to spot is the yellowish-green, dark-winged female. After breeding, the male molts to a female-like plumage but retains his black wings and tail. Before the fall migration to South America begins, his feathers will also be yellow-green.

The scarlet tanager’s calls – energetic and distinctive chick-burr sounds — provide clues when it is nearby. Its song is also distinguishing. The male sings a series of up to five chirruping phrases very hurriedly. The female sings a similar pattern more softly with fewer syllables. When foraging, mates (these tanagers are monogamous during a breeding season) often sing together. 

These tanagers, whose males sport red frames, are joined in the forest by another songbird, the American Redstart, named for another striking red feature. The name “redstart” refers to the orange-red patches on a breeding male’s wings and tail (“start” is an old word for tail); otherwise, an adult male is mostly black with bright orange patches on his wings, sides and tail. A female, which has an olive back and a gray head and underparts, also has bright patches on her wings, side and tail but these marks are yellow.

The calls of a redstart are also distinct. Both male and female use several calls, including sharp, sweet-sounding chip notes as well as high-pitched alarm calls. During spring and early summer, a male also sings sweet, explosive songs that stop abruptly with an accented ending.

A small but lively warbler, the redstart hops among tree branches in search of insects. To catch them easily, it startles its prey by flashing the bright patches in its wings and tails. Because the redstart prefers large tracts of interior woodlands that measure at least 1,000 acres, the Uwharrie National Forest is an ideal habitat for it.

As you walk the trail, also listen for woodpeckers that are so prominent in our area. The forest abounds with them. In addition, be alert to see and hear a hooded warbler (described in the May issue about Raft Swamp Farms) and a prothonotary warbler (February issue about Hinson Lake).

Theresa Savery, ranger at the forest, views the trail as “easy to moderate in difficulty.” The elevation gain of the longer loop is 135 feet. One hiker commented that the trail has “lots of ups and downs, roots and rocks.” However, it is dog-friendly if you want a canine companion with you on a hike.

The Densons Creek Nature Trail, open daily, leaves from the National Forest headquarters near Troy, which is open on only weekdays. A trail map with a key to the numbered nature stops, including where gold was once sought, is available at the information board by the parking lot.

Because gold was discovered in the Uwharrie Mountains in the 19th century, don’t be surprised to find someone panning for gold in the creek. If you think you can be lucky when you visit, in addition to a camera, bring a pan.

OutreachNC has embarked on a yearlong series that highlights regional sites of the N.C. Birding Trail. Enjoy the series as contributor Ray Linville explores beautiful landscapes and birds of our home state. He can be reached at linville910@gmail.com.  Photo credit to Brady Beck: Summer Tanager (yellow) – comments on the article welcomed to: editor@outreachnc.com