This post was written by noted ornithologist, Brainard Palmer-Ball. Photo credit, Pam Spaulding.
May is the ideal month for birdwatching in Kentucky, because in addition to our permanent resident birds, many migrant species are on the move from wintering grounds to breeding grounds. Because of Kentucky’s location, most species of birds can be found in the area in May, which is peak spring migration.
I was curious if 100 species of birds could be found at Bernheim Forest in a day during this peak time, so I recruited Mark Monroe, son of long-time Bernheim board member, Burt Monroe, Jr., to help me see how many species we could find on Forest property last Wednesday, May 3. I also invited retired Courier-Journal photographer, Pam Spaulding, to come along and chronicle some of the sightings of the day. Nashville birder, Jim Arnett, also joined us; Jim is a UPS pilot based out of Louisville, so he sometimes has a layover in town, and he was able to join us for much of the day.
Mark and I began our day just after 6:00 a.m. on Harrison Fork Road on the south side of the Forest to try to get some night birds. We were pleased to be greeted with a chorus of Whip-poor-wills and Chuck-will’s-widows. We also heard a calling American Woodcock and a couple of Eastern Screech-Owls. Another bonus for this part of the Forest is the nesting Blue-winged Warblers … hard to find elsewhere in the area. As the sun began to rise, we got several Blue-wingeds plus an even less common warbler, a singing Cerulean.
The next part of our morning was spent in the Arboretum area and the Big Prairie. We met up with Pam and Jim there and began ticking off many common species including Eastern Bluebird, both Orchard and Baltimore Oriole, Indigo Bunting, and Blue Grosbeak. We heard one of the introduced Northern Bobwhite Quail singing in the prairie. Over Lake Nevin, three species of swallows were foraging, and Mark found a Pied-billed Grebe and Great Blue Heron.
Around the Education Center the Purple Martins were active. Several new species, including a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, were also visiting the Purple Martin houses. One of the highlights of the peak of spring migration is the presence of numerous species of “wood warblers,” small, mostly colorful, species that winter in the tropics and nest in the eastern U.S. and Canada. On the day we tallied 29 species of these beauties including Black-throated Green, Cape May, Blackburnian, Bay-breasted, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, and Blackpoll. None of these seven nest in central Kentucky, but are present for a couple of weeks each spring and fall. There are also species that nest at Bernheim like the Blue-winged we encountered earlier; some of the other characteristic nesting ones include Northern Parula, Yellow-throated Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Pine Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, and Yellow-breasted Chat. Several species prefer large blocks of forest, and Bernheim is a particularly good place to encounter them. These include Ovenbird, Worm-eating Warbler, Hooded Warbler, and Kentucky Warbler. Our prize warbler of the day, however, was a male Black-throated Blue; we heard and then got to see this not only pretty, but quite uncommon migrant species.
Other groups of birds that were well represented on our day list included flycatchers, with Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Phoebe, Least Flycatcher, Great Crested Flycatcher, and Eastern Wood-Pewee all seen. We also encountered five species of vireos, four nesting species (White-eyed, Red-eyed, Yellow-throated, and Warbling) plus a migrant Blue-headed. Thrushes were also present in good numbers; these included a nesting species – the Wood Thrush – plus three that are only found during migration: Swainson’s Thrush, Gray-cheeked Thrush, and Veery. It’s also hard to talk about Bernheim Forest’s birds without mentioning the tanagers; both Summer Tanager and Scarlet Tanager are numerous in the woodlands. The males of both species are bright red, the Scarlet with a jet black wing. These species also winter in the tropics but spend their summers nesting here.
A few other nice birds we found on the day included some late Red-breasted Nuthatches and Ruby-crowned Kinglets (birds that are here during winter but that were still around), Cedar Waxwings, a Barred Owl, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and four species of hawks.
So how did we do? In all we tallied 115 species on the Forest!