J. Morris

It Ain't Over Until the Bachman's Sings

J. Morris

Birding columnist


Once again, spring migration is winding down along the Coast.

Birders have sent reports that they have seen many of our transients because of inclement weather and other elements that force the birds down for a rest on their long journey. Beautiful songbirds such as the Blackburnian Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler and the breathtaking Scarlet Tanager among others have been reported. Thrush species such as the Swainson's and Gray-cheeked Thrush have been reported. All in all, a good migration period, especially if you were able to get out and enjoy it.

Generally, one of the last destinations of the season for dedicated birders is the search for the Bachman's Sparrow and the Red-cockaded Woodpecker around the beginning of May. The hard-to-find Bachman's is here all year long, but it is notoriously elusive most of the year.

In spring and early summer, if you're lucky, it can be found only a few feet off the ground, generally from a low hanging pine limb, singing its little heart out. On the Coast, this sparrow can be found only on some private property in Hancock County, The De Soto National Forest and the Mississippi Sandhill Crane Refuge in Pascagoula.

I will never forget my first outing to the De Soto National Forest where our fearless leader, Judy Toups, had us meet at 5 o'clock in the morning. It was the first time I realized there was a 5 in the morning. We were headed there in hopes of sighting both the Bachman's and Red Cockaded, but the purpose of meeting at this completely un-American hour was to be on site when the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers left their nests as the sun rose.

These endangered little woodpeckers sport a white cheek patch as if someone slapped them upside the jaw with a white paint brush. They are exclusive to the De Soto National Forest area where special trees have been encircled at the base by metal jackets that let everyone know these trees are protected as the favorite spot for breeding and homesteading of the Red-cockaded.

We followed our fearless leader for miles in the dark, lost our way and got back on the right track. Did I mention it was still dark? We stopped along the way in a church yard for just a moment to listen for the call of the Chuck-will's-widow.

Don't let this species fool you. The Whippoorwill passes through here on migration and its calls sound similar to the Chuck but during the summer, listen for the almost inaudible "chuck" that comes before the "WILL'S WIDOW." With a little practice you will very soon know the difference between the two.

We arrived just as the slightest bit of pink began to show in the eastern sky. We heard the calls of Barred Owls as well as that of the Great-horned Owl. Place your lips over a beer bottle, I mean a coke bottle, and blow softly.

This is much the same sound you will hear from the Great-horned Owl. The Barred Owl call is more distinctive with its "who cooks for you, who cooks for YOOO ALL" The occasional boom from Nigh Hawks flying above kept my head from bobbing back and forth but I still swayed to and fro as if recovering from an evening of being a judge in a moonshine competition.

The Red-cockadeds were right on time and all got good looks.

Then we moved on with all ears and quiet mouths (quite a job for this band of birders), listening for the Bachman's Sparrow's sweet song. We did not have to wait long. Just as Judy said, it was only a few feet from the ground sitting on a pine limb. Judy forgot more about birds than I will ever know.

The Bachman's is generally plain in appearance but has a beautiful whistling song. It is declining in most of its range because of the increasing loss of its favorite habitat, mature pine forests. It also nests in brushy open fields. Although its diet is not well known, it does appear to feed on beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, other insects and spiders. During the winter, the Bachman's feeds on grass seed, which may be part of its overall diet during the winter.

Thanks again to Sharon Milligan for an excellent photo!

Going after hard-to-find species is one reason birders keep doing what they do. It is part of the challenge and always part of the learning experience. Come join us!

One final word: To the thief who stole by bird feeders and my bird bath last week, I hope your mother enjoyed them for Mother's Day, but you forgot the 40-pound bag of bird seed!

J. Morris, has been birding, teaching and writing about birds for 20 years. He is the founder of the Mississippi Coast Band of Birders.