Croatan National Forest, NC, 4/29-30/16

All photos are Marshall Faintich

April 29, 2016

I had wanted to see and photograph a Bachman's Sparrow for a few years now. They breed in open pine, tall grass, savannahs in the southeastern U.S., and are rarely seen in Virginia. Even where there is suitable habitat, they are very secretive, and are most often seen between mid-April and mid-May when males may fly up to a low perch and sing for a mate. I did some research and found that the closest, reliable site for this species was in the Croatan National Forest near New Bern, North Carolina. When I read that endangered Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and Swainson's Sparrows were also possible there, I called Walt Childs to see if he wanted to go with me. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are only found in Virginia at the Nature Conservancy Piney Grove preserve that is not open to the public, and a colony is being started in the Great Dismal Swamp. I had only seen this woodpecker one time, and that was in south-eastern Florida. Swainson's Warblers are also very difficult to see. They are divided into two races - one that prefers swamps and the other that prefers mountains with lots of nearby mountain laurel. I had only seen Swainson's Warblers twice before - a very quick look at one in the Great Dismal Swamp here in Virginia, and four of them in the mountains in Henderson County, North Carolina.

It was a 355 mile drive from here in Nellysford, and that meant at least a two-day trip. The only two days that both Walt and I could go were this past Friday and Saturday. Walt agreed to find lodging, and I worked on travel routes. Walt had a mid-1990s birding guide for North Carolina, and we used that as our starting reference. We were in for a few logistical surprises. We couldn't understand why almost all of the hotel rooms were booked, and why moderately priced hotel rooms were more than twice their normal rate. Walt finally found the last two hotel rooms in a Best Western in Swansboro, NC that was just under $100 per night per room.

I had been following the New Bern weather forecast for two weeks preceeding the trip. Every four hours it changed from 10 to 20% chance of rain to 60% for those two days, and then back again. The morning we left, it was partly cloudy with 10% chance of rain on Friday, and coudy with 20% chance of rain on Saturday. There had been heavy thunderstorms until 4 a.m. on Friday morning, and storms were forecasted again for Sunday. We hoped for good weather there.

We left Nellysford at 8:30 a.m. on April 29, and drove the first 270 miles in four hours - all interstate highways and not a single traffic light the entire way. There was light rain/drizzle all the way, but then it cleared when we got off the interstate. The rain had stopped, but we hit lots of traffic and long waits at traffic lights as soon as we got onto US 70. It took us another two hours to go the last 85 miles. When we got to New Bern, we understood what was going on. There was a three day air show at MCAS Cherry Point, with the Blue Angels scheduled for a late Saturday afternoon aerial display. Our planned enry point into the Croatan NF was just off of route 101 in Havelock, just at the south end of MCAS Cherry Point.

The out-of-date birding guide book proposed a 15 to 20 mile path through the Croatan NF, but we found the last 9 miles to be the most productive. All of the roads up to Millis road were paved, mostly 55 mph with heavy traffic, and little or no shoulders to pull off for birding. The first half mile along Millis Road was paved with homes along the road, but the rest of the route was sandy dirt. We had the entire last nine miles all to ourselves, except for the first paved section and the occasional speeding pick-up truck that raised large dust clouds, and the last 1/4 mile from route 24 where there was a waste transfer station, and lots of vehicles were going in and out on Saturday morning to drop off trash. The birding guide book stated that the best place to find Bachman's Sparrows was in the open pine savannah along Millis Road.


Croatan National Forest



Last nine miles of our Croatan NF route

We arrived at 2:30 p.m. and it started to drizzle again, but cleared when we parked at a small road just at the start of the savannah, and we hiked there for about an hour. I thought that we heard a few Bachman's Sparrows singing, but couldn't locate any of them. On the way back to the car, we did flush one bird that flew low from the tall grass and landed a short distance later, and was hidden once again. Walt and I agreed that it had to have been a Bachman's Sparrow - the right size and markings, and we had heard them singing. My life bird #615, but I really wanted a photo confirmation.

We returned to the car, and drove along the small road where we had parked (shown on the image map just above the "h" of Savannah. We stopped a short distance later to watch a Yellow-throated Warbler catch a spider on the dirt road. We saw a few other species there, including Great Crested Flycatchers.


Yellow-throated Warbler


Yellow-throated Warbler

We continued down Millis Road, stopped when we heard birds, but didn't see many birds. We did see two, unidentified snakes cross the road in front of us, and a small fox. We made the turn, per the guide book, at Fire Service Road 123, passing by FSR 168 that we saved for the next day. A word of caution - none of the fire service roads were marked with numbers. I had determined the coordinates of turn points and printed out maps prior to leaving home. FSR 123 became Pringle Road after a while (road sign only at route 24).

We stopped about 2/3 of the way from Millis Road to route 24, when we saw a male and a female Blue Grosbeak in the grass along the road. The sun was just starting to appear, but it was low in the sky (5:45 p.m.). We started seeing other bird species there as well.


Female Blue Grosbeak


Pine Warbler


Great Crested Flycatcher

Then, two Red-headed Woodpeckers flew in, but quickly departed.


Red-headed Woodpecker

There was a bit of a commotion up in the trees, and Walt noticed a tree marked as a Red-cockaded Woodpecker nesting tree, and there were three of these woodpeckers returning to their nesting sites.


Red-cockaded Woodpecker


Red-cockaded Woodpecker


Red-cockaded Woodpecker

But the excitement wasn't over. There were Brown-headed Nuthatches in the pine trees, and a Prairie Warbler in the brush.


Brown-headed Nuthatch


Brown-headed Nuthatch


Prairie Warbler


Prairie Warbler


Prairie Warbler


Prairie Warbler


Prairie Warbler

We continued down Pringle Road where we saw more Brown-headed Nuthatches.


Brown-headed Nuthatch


Brown-headed Nuthatch


Brown-headed Nuthatch


Brown-headed Nuthatch

It was getting late, but we decided to hike part of the Patsy Pond Nature Trail before heading for the hotel. Four Bachman's Sparrows and eight Red-cockaded Woodpeckers had been reported there the day before. We saw a few more species, but neither of these two species. We had already logged 25 avian species in North Carolina, almost all of them in the Croatan NF, and it was 7:00 p.m. We tired and hungry, and had most of Saturday to try again.

Click here to continue on the next day of the trip


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