Grade school encounter with killdeer provides memorable teaching moment

With the arrival of April, the pace of migration will quicken. Throughout the month of March, the “early birds” made their return to my yard, including species like tree swallow, brown thrasher, chipping sparrow and blue-gray gnatcatcher.

Birders know they have a narrow window of opportunity to enjoy the arriving birds in the spring. Some will linger briefly and continue to points farther north, while others will take up residence but turn secretive quickly as they get down to the important business of building nests, incubating eggs and raising young.

Killdeer-CHICK

A young killdeer — looking like a fuzzy golfball on toothpics, is born precocial. They can leave the nest and feed themselves, all while wearing a coat of downy feathers. Photo by Krista Lundgren/U.S. Fish & Wildlife

 

The task of producing young is the most important one that birds undertake. Even with the most dedicated parents, many birds born this spring will never reach the age of one. Eggs in the nest are vulnerable to opportunist predators, including snakes, mice, squirrels, raccoons and even other birds. Many of the birds that nest in our yards, gardens and woodlands produce altricial young. The term “altricial” is a scientific one meaning the young birds are born helpless and blind, without feathers, with almost non-existent mobility. However, they grow quickly. Since just as many creatures would like to gobble up hatchling birds as like to consume eggs, it doesn’t pay to remain in a nest for any longer than absolutely necessary.

Birds hatched in cup-shaped nests placed in trees, shrubs or even on the ground usually leave their nests within a couple of weeks. On the other hand, cavity-nesting birds produce young that can afford to linger a little longer. Some of their hatchlings may remain inside a nesting cavity for as long as a month. Even after altricial young leave their nests, they will remain dependent on their parents for some time.

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Painting by John James Audubon of what he called the “Killdeer Plover.”

On the opposite side of the equation, many birds produce precocial young, which are born with their eyes open, bodies with feathers or down, and the mobility to follow their parents almost from the time they leave the egg. Precocial young can also find their own food, although parents may escort them to good foraging areas. Well-known precocial birds include ducks and chickens. Anyone who has ever observed ducklings or chicks following a mother hen is familiar with the attributes of precocial young.

Many wild birds produce precocial young, including shorebirds, grouse and quail, wild turkeys, loons and grebes. The ostrich, the world’s largest bird, also produces precocial young. Closer to home, one of my earliest bird memories involves a bird quite famous for the care and keeping of its precocial young. The killdeer is a North American shorebird that is at home in a variety of habitats, including rooftops, parking lots, golf courses, pastures and, in the case of my remembrance, an elementary school playground.

I don’t remember who discovered the nest, but I know that my teacher at Hampton Elementary School and her fellow faculty members protected the nest once they became aware of it. My teacher also had the wisdom to incorporate the nesting killdeer into her lessons. In other words, she made the discovery of these nesting birds a “teachable moment” for her young students.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Four eggs in a killdeer nest, which is assembled right on the ground.

I can’t think of a better bird for teaching some lessons about the strategies birds use to raise young. The killdeer doesn’t make much of a nest. The female often lays her amazingly well-camouflaged eggs — usually four, but occasionally three or five — in a shallow depression in dirt or gravel. On occasion, they may line the nest with plant materials or other items. I once observed a killdeer nest in a gravel parking lot of a mobile home dealership. The ingenious female killdeer, using an abundant material, had lined her nest with discarded cigarette butts — dozens of them. I’ve always joked that I hoped the young weren’t born with a nicotine addiction.

Killdeer parents are zealous parents in safeguarding their young. Adults are famous for feigning a “broken wing” to distract potential predators away from nests and offspring. They will also call loudly while faking their injury to keep the predator’s attention diverted. It’s the loud call — an exuberant “kill-deer” — that has given this member of the plover family its common name.

Like many memories from childhood, some details of that killdeer family’s fate are a little hazy. As far as I know, the parent killdeers succeeded at raising their young family. Perhaps that moment of learning, which let me glimpse into the private life of a fascinating family of birds, pointed me toward my eventual interest in birds.

Killdeer_AgainstLog

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An adult killdeer is usually a conspicuous, loud bird. 

Later, as an adult and during my early years as a birder, I had an encounter with a baby killdeer. I found the tiny bird limp and lifeless on the ground. Saddened, I reached down to pick up the young bird — it looked like a fuzzy golf ball on matchstick legs — for a closer look. As my fingers started to close around the bird, the baby revived and sprinted off with an impressive display of speed. That’s when I learned that killdeer young have one last defense against would-be predators; they can play possum!

While shorebirds, killdeers are not tied to the shoreline. Although I have observed them along beaches in South Carolina, these birds are just as much at home in cattle pastures, muddy edges of rivers and lakes or even baseball fields. Such terrestrial habitats provide these birds with plenty of food, which includes insects, spiders, centipedes, earthworms and the occasional seed. While many people remain unaware of the world’s shorebirds, the killdeer is the one member of the family that is probably frequently encountered by many Americans. Their fondness for habitats created by humans, from parking lots to gravel-covered rooftops, bring these birds close to us.

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Remember to share your first hummingbird sightings with me. Simply jot down the time and date that you first notice these tiny birds have returned. You can email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or though Facebook. I am increasingly impatient to see my first hummingbirds of the season.

Writer and artist Julie Zickefoose to share wisdom at Abingdon program, nature walk

 

With the nesting season for some of our favorite birds kicking off, the timing is especially fortuitous for an upcoming program. Acclaimed nature writer and wildlife illustrator Julie Zickefoose will be the a featured speaker for Sunday with Friends at the Washington County Public Library in Abingdon, Virginia, later this month. Her talk will be followed by a book sale and signing.

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Julie Zickefoose and a feathered friend. — Photo Contributed

In addition, Zickefoose will take part in a bird walk along the Virginia Creeper Trail at 8 a.m. on Saturday, April 22. Those wishing to participate in this Earth Day event are invited to meet at the trailhead in downtown Abingdon. I’m planning on attending the walk, which I hope will produce many interesting migrant birds. The walk is free and open to the public.

Zickefoose, the author of the new book, “Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest,” will speak Sunday, April 23, at 3 p.m. at the Washington County Public Library. Her event is free and will be held in the Conference Room at the Main Library in Abingdon, Virginia.

The public is invited to meet Zickefoose on the day after Earth Day to celebrate her new book. Life-sized baby birds wriggle, crawl and flutter off the pages of this beautiful book, the product of 13 years of deep involvement and close observation of nesting birds. Lively writing describes the development of 17 bird species from egg to fledgling, with the wonder, humor and relentless curiosity that Zickefoose is known for. She provided commentary on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” for five years and for 12 years has written a thrice-weekly natural history blog.

She has written several other books, including “The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds,” “Natural Gardening for Birds: Create a Bird-friendly Habitat in Your Backya26312954._UY1628_SS1628_rd,” and “The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America,” a co-writing venture with Bill Thompson.

 

According to Zickefoose’s website, she began her career as a field biologist for The Nature Conservancy. She became a magazine and book illustrator. Eventually, she began illustrating her own stories. She writes and paints from Indigo Hill, her 80-acre sanctuary in Appalachian Ohio. Zickefoose also writes a blog. To read entries, visit juliezickefoose.blogspot.com.

Ben Jennings helped secure Zickefoose’s lecture. He has worked for the past 15 years organizing “Sunday with Friends,” a series of book and author events hosted by the Washington County Public Library’s Friends of the Library organization.

“I get tips from lots of folks about writers, as well as doing research on my own,” Jennings said.

He also noted that Kate Foreman persuaded him to invite Zickefoose to take part in the series. “Kate is a longtime friend, and currently the director of advancement at Barter Theatre,” Jennings said. “I certainly trust her judgment. Kate had to remind me — but I did remember — Julie’s commentary on NPR several years ago. Julie was thrilled to come to be with Kate for the weekend.”

The Friends of the Washington County Public Library is a voluntary, non-profit organization whose purpose is to help strengthen the resources of the library and to make it a dynamic force in the community. Friends’ activities generally fall into four main categories— advocacy, fundraising, programming and volunteerism. First organized in the mid-1960s, the Friends groups has made an important contribution over the years by helping to raise funds to improve library facilities and providing financial support for special projects. The Washington County Public Library is located at 205 Oak Hill St., Abingdon, Virginia. For more information, visit http://www.wcpl.net.

Bluebird-Box

A female bluebird checks out a potential nesting box. — Photo by Bryan Stevens

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A pair of Eastern bluebirds, a species of birds often featured in Zickefoose’s writings, has been exploring the nest box options available at my home. The bluebirds actually started checking the boxes in late February. With the arrival of March, the pair has had to contend with as many as three tree swallow interlopers. I’m not sure of the status of the third tree swallow, but it definitely gives the swallows an edge in numbers.

While bluebirds are not totally loyal to previous nesting locations, studies indicate that as many as 30 percent of bluebirds return to previous nesting sites the following season. So, if you can attract a pair of bluebirds to your yard, that’s half the battle. The same pair, or perhaps some of their offspring, will quite possibly return to yard in future years.

Habitats with spacious areas of short grass are perfect for bluebirds. So, homes with large lawns or that are located adjacent to fields, will attract bluebirds looking for a place to nest. If you lack any trees with natural cavities, a bluebird nesting box is necessary to secure their extended stay. Nesting box plans are easily obtained online if you want to build your own boxes, or you can purchase boxes at many farm supply stores and garden centers.

To keep the bluebirds happy and safe, avoid using herbicides or pesticides on your lawn to prevent accidental poisoning of adult bluebirds and their young. A few small trees and shrubs spaced throughout the yard will provide convenient perches for bluebirds as they hunt for insects to feed themselves and their young.

Get ready to welcome spring’s returning hummingbirds

All bird enthusiasts have their personal favorites among our feathered friends. Cardinals, bluebirds, robins and chickadees would certainly find a place in any Top 10 lists. What bird would top the list? I have no qualms predicting that the ruby-throated hummingbird would be a frontrunner for such a ranking.

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A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird seeks nectar at tiny blooms. — Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

 

The popularity of hummingbirds in general, and the ruby-throated hummingbird specifically, is simple to understand. These tiny birds are perfectly willing to insert themselves into our lives, offering hours of fascinating entertainment as they visit our gardens, duel at our sugar water feeders and occasionally even nest in trees and shrubs in our yards.

Individuals who feed birds know that it can be an expensive undertaking. The cost of providing sunflower seeds and suet cakes for hungry flocks during the winter months can nibble at the monthly budget, but hardly anyone would begrudge the sparrows, finches, wrens and woodpeckers. After all, they return the favor, putting on daily shows just outside our windows.

Attracting hummingbirds is generally much less expensive than feeding other birds. After all, you need only a mixture of sugar water — four parts water to one part sugar — to fill a feeder and catch the attention of a visiting hummer. A few pounds of sugar will last a lot longer than that bag of sunflower seeds and it’s much less expensive to purchase at the grocery store.

If you do want to take extra steps to attract these diminutive, feathered saccharine junkies, consider supplementing your landscape with a variety of flowering plants. To explore some of the best choices for flowers to tempt hummingbirds, visit the website of The Hummingbird Society at http://www.hummingbirdsociety.org.

Hummer-CloserUp

A male ruby-throated hummingbird surveys his territory from a convenient perch. — Photo by Bryan Stevens

Nevertheless, few bird enthusiasts are truly frugal when it comes to our feathered friends. Even if the cost of bringing hummingbirds and other birds was much higher, I don’t think we would abandon the undertaking. Quite simply, the birds mean too much to us. They fascinate us with their speed and agility, their pugnacious relations with each other, and of course their tiny size. The irony is that, although hummingbirds are so small, they don’t seem to recognize that fact as they zig and zag through yard and garden.

While the ruby-throated hummingbird is the only hummer that nests in the eastern United States, which is what brings these tiny birds into our lives every year from April to October, there are more than 300 species of hummingbirds. Much creativity has gone into giving each of these hummingbirds a descriptive common name.

Sometimes, words fail. Mere adjectives are somewhat inadequate in providing common names for many of the world’s more than 300 hummingbirds, but that doesn’t keep us from trying to give descriptive names to each hummingbird species. For instance, we have the beautiful hummingbird of Mexico; the charming hummingbird of Costa Rica and Panama; the festive coquette of northwestern South America; and the magnificent hummingbird of the southwestern United States.

Other names are even more elaborate and occasionally outlandish, such as the white-tufted sunbeam of Peru; the violet-throated metaltail of Ecuador; the violet-throated starfrontlet of Peru and Bolivia; the hyacinth visorbearer of Brazil; and the rainbow-bearded thornbill of Colombia and Ecuador.

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A male ruby-throated hummingbird ignores honeybees for a sip of sugar water. — Photo by Bryan Stevens

It would seem then that our own ruby-throated hummingbird is in good company. After spending the winter months in Central America, ruby-throated hummingbirds are already streaming north. Just to reach the United States, these tiny birds undertake an arduous journey. Most of these tiny birds, which are barely four inches long, make a non-stop flight of more than 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico. The journey can take almost an entire day!

Sightings are already being reported, and ruby-throats typically arrive in the region in early April. In fact, a male ruby-throated hummingbird showed up at my feeders on Saturday, April 15.

If you don’t have your feeders outdoors and waiting for them, it’s time to do so. As always, I love to hear from readers about their first hummingbird sighting of the year. Jot down the time and date and contact me by email at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I can hardly wait for one of our favorite birds to get back. Let’s give them a hearty welcome.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Bryan Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more.

 

Annual spring rally returns to Roan Mountain April 28-30

Larry McDaniel and James Neves, the co-directors one of the region’s longest-running nature events, are excited about the activities they have to offer for the 59th annual Roan Mountain Spring Naturalists Rally. Continuing the tradition of the 58 preceding rallies, this year’s rally will offer a great assortment of programs, hikes and activities which celebrate the unique beauty and natural diversity of this environmental treasure that is Roan Mountain.

DaisyAndBee

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Flowers and pollinating insects just go together.

Scheduled for Friday-Sunday, April 28-30, this year’s event is open to nature enthusiasts of all skill levels from casual interest to advanced study. There is something for everyone. Bring friends and family and invite the neighbors to take part. The headquarters and hub of activities for the rally is the Conference Center at Roan Mountain State Park. Registration, meals, programs, and exhibits will be centered there. Most of the field trips will meet at the field adjacent to the cabin area entrance. Participants will see signs in the field for the various field trips. Onsite registration is available at the field. For most of the field trips participants will carpool from the field to nearby trailheads. Organizers strongly encourage carpooling, which will help participants make new friends and lower fossil fuel emissions.

This year’s evening programs will focus on native bees, as well as mountains sports and recreation.

“Bees for Birders: Discovering Native Bee Watching Through Binoculars” will be presented by Sam Droege at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 28. Droege, a native of Hyattsville, Maryland, received an undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland and a master’s degree at the State University of New York – Syracuse. Most of his career has been spent at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. He has coordinated the North American Breeding Bird Survey Program, developed the North American Amphibian Monitoring Program, the Bioblitz, Cricket Crawl, and Frogwatch USA programs and works on the design and evaluation of monitoring programs. Currently he is developing an inventory and monitoring program for native bees along with online identification guides for North American bees at http://www.discoverlife.org, and reviving the North American Bird Phenology Program (https://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bpp/).

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Sam Droege

Diversity is a hallmark of the natural world. For instance, Droege points out that east of the Mississippi there are about 800 species of native bees. This is more species than the total species of birds and butterflies combined. Bees are also more abundant and easier to find. Flowers are their habitat and different species favor different types and groups of plants. So, why aren’t we watching them? Lack of information on how to watch them is the answer. With a pair of butterfly binoculars and a new free identification guide, anyone can begin to be a bee watcher, “beeder”, bee head, or simply a broader naturalist.

David Ramsey will present the evening program at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aprilm 29. He will speak about “Wild Times: Conservation Through Mountain Sports and Recreation.” Ramsey is an outdoor photographer, writer and conservationist born and raised in Unicoi County. He has spent most of the past 30 years exploring and photographing these southern Appalachian Mountains and sharing his photography and passion for the mountains with thousands of people. During that time, his photography has been published extensively — locally, regionally and nationally. Throughout his life, Ramsey has been in

Dave-Ramsey

David Ramsey

spired by other photographer-conservationists, from Elliot Porter, Galen Rowell and Robert Glenn Ketchum to the region’s own Edward Schell. In 2011, he was selected as National Hero of Conservation by Field and Stream Magazine for his leadership in the effort to save the 10,000-acre Rocky Fork Watershed, part of which is now a Tennessee State Park. In 2012 he was chosen as a National Conservationist of the Year finalist by Budweiser and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Ramsey is also a former Stanley A. Murray Volunteer of the Year for Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. Ramsey is at work on finishing a book about the fight to preserve Rocky Fork and working to have the northeast Tennessee region recognized as a major outdoor recreation destination.

The Friends of Roan Mountain organization was created by people who cherish the natural beauty and cultural history of Roan Mountain. Members of the group sponsor interpretive and educational activities including Spring, Fall, and Winter Naturalists Rallies and a summer Xtreme Roan  Adventures Kid’s Nature Rally. Members also support the environmental mission of Roan Mountain State Park including environmental studies, conservation, and restoration. Membership supports these worthy projects and entitles members to free participation in all activities of the Spring, Fall, and Winter Rallies for that year, as well as the group’s newsletters.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Wildflowers, like trout lilies, are abundant during the spring rally.

In addition to the evening programs, a variety of hikes, workshops and other events are planned for all three days of the rally. There is an extra cost for meals, which require advance registration. For more information or a brochure of the specific events, including a reservation form for all activities, including the Friday and Saturday evening meals, visit http://www.friendsofroanmtn.org/Spring%20Rally%20Brochure%20web%202017%20.pdf

Information is also available by contacting the co-directors for the Rally. Call Larry McDaniel at 423-773-9234 or email him at larrycmcd@hotmail.com. Call James Neves at 706-224-3355 or email him at jamesneves@gmail.com.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Newly-arrived migrant birds, like indigo buntings, should be present during the rally.

Woodcocks, snipe among the more oddball members of a diverse shorebird clan

Photo by Leah Hawthorn/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • An American woodcock probes for food among fallen leaves on the woodland floor.

March is traditionally a month of erratic weather, characterized by blustery winds and occasional drenching rainstorms. While the month is also a signal to get ready for the return of migrant songbirds, they are hardly the only birds on the wing each spring. Birds from waterfowl to raptors migrate through the region in March, April and May, but the real migratory champs are the shorebirds.

Known for migrating incredible distances, the shorebirds are often referred to as “wind birds,” a romantic allusion to their habit of taking wing for the epic journeys that astound scientists and birders alike. Among the far-flung family are birds known as sandpipers and plovers, as well as whimbrels, willets, tattlers and turnstones.
Still, among the general public, as well as some birders, the shorebirds are a much misunderstood group of birds. For example, most people could hardly be blamed for believing that shorebirds are inhabitants of only the beach and shore. In fact, some species are at home in an array of habitats, ranging from woodlands and prairies to the Arctic tundra and mudflats. Some are notoriously elusive, their camouflage and low-key behavior allowing them to escape casual notice at most times.
In late winter and early spring, a true oddball among the shorebirds begins courting. The American woodcock, also known by such whimsical names as “bog sucker” and “timberdoodle,” is a shorebird that has completely abandoned the shore in favor of woodlands and fields. Beginning as early as February, American woodcocks in the region conduct nightly courtship displays, starting at dusk, that combines aerial acrobatics with an assortment of unusual acoustical flourishes. Any wet field adjacent to a wooded area could offer a stage for these evening displays, but unless you know where to look and make an effort to do so, the American woodcock might as well remain a phantom of the night.
John-James-Audubon-American-Woodcock.-1.-Male.-2.-Female.3.-Young-in-Autumn

John James Audubon, an early American naturalist and artist, painted this scene of American woodcocks feeding in damp earth.

These mating rituals provide almost the only time that this bird makes itself visible to us. It’s only during this brief window that opens into their lives that we can be assured a glimpse. Even then, our peek at woodcocks often consists of a fuzzy twilight escapade as the bird flings itself heavenward only to make a spiraling descent a few seconds later. The displays begin with a distinct vocalization, a type of “pent,” that also has the quality of sounding like some sort of mechanical buzzer.
Once the displays conclude for the season, the birds assume nesting duties, usually unobserved by humans. The rest of the year, almost nothing but blind, sheer luck would allow a birder to stumble across an American woodcock. It’s almost as if they disappear after these spring flights of fancy.

For the most part, the “wind birds” leave lives in habitats that keep them separate from humans. On occasion, however, one of these shorebirds pays an unexpected visit to members of the public. Tom and Helen Stetler, residents of Elizabethton, Tennessee, shared an account of one such visit in a recent email.

Snipe-Stetler

Photo by Tom Stetler • A Wilson’s snipe visits the yard at the home of Tom and Helen Stetler in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

“We had a visit from a very unusual bird today,” Tom wrote in the email. “It was a woodcock. It stayed quite a while this morning.”
He estimated that the bird stayed in their yard for about 15 to 20 minutes.  “I kept trying to get a good picture of its long bill and finally did,” he said, enclosing a photo of the visiting bird with his email.
He credited his wife, Helen, with having spotted the bird. After seeing the bird, Helen called to her husband to come have a look “at this bird with a very long beak!”
After I examined the photo, I noticed that the unusual visitor was actually not a woodcock but a closely related bird known as a Wilson’s snipe. The confusion of the two birds is quite understandable. The snipe and the woodcock bear a superficial resemblance to each other.

The American woodcock belongs to the genus of Scolopax, a Latin term for this group of eight oddball shorebirds. Other members of the genus include the Eurasian woodcock, the New Guinea woodcock and the Sulawesi woodcock.

Snipe-One

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Wilson’s snipe is remarkably capable of blending with its surroundings.

Wilson’s snipe, which is closely related to the woodcock, inspired the term “snipe hunt.” Regarded as lessons in futility, these hunts are not seeking some mythical quarry, although some people mistakenly believe there’s no such bird as a snipe. In fact, there are several species of snipes, although only one — Wilson’s snipe — can be found in much of the United States. Some of the world’s other 25 species of snipe include Jack snipe, wood snipe, pintail snipe, noble snipe and imperial snipe.
Any wet field or pasture may conceal hidden snipes during the spring. A few sometimes spend the winter in the region. Flushing a snipe from a tangle of grass right at your feet as you walk through a wet field always works to get the heart pumping faster. Snipe also stage spring mating displays that are not quite as elaborate as those of the woodcock. I suspect that recent heavy rains made the yard at the Stetler home similar enough to a flooded field to attract the visiting snipe.

While both the Wilson’s snipe and American woodcock are elusive birds able to easily conceal themselves from view, other shorebirds definitely stand out in a crowd. For example, the gangly black-necked stilt and the spindly American avocet are surely two of the most striking, almost comical shorebirds in North America.

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The American woodcock is also known by such whimsical common names as bogsucker and timberdoodle.

In addition, members of the shorebird family vary greatly in size. North America’s smallest shorebird, appropriately enough, is the least sandpiper, a tiny shorebird less than six inches in length and weighing barely an ounce. The least sandpiper breeds widely across northern Canada and Alaska and winters across the southern United States and Mexico.
The largest shorebird — depending on how “largest” is defined — is either the Far Eastern curlew or the beach thick-knee. The Far Eastern Curlew is a large shorebird most similar in appearance to North America’s long-billed curlew, but slightly larger. This bird definitely has the longest bill of any shorebird and ranks as the world’s largest member of the sandpiper clan. The Far Eastern curlew is 25 inches in body length, although the Eurasian curlew is almost the same size. If it comes down to weight, the heaviest shorebird is the beach thick-knee, a bird native to Australia and the islands of Southeast Asia and India. This unusual shorebird can weigh as much as 2.2 pounds, but is only 22 inches long. The Far Eastern curlew, in comparison, weighs a mere 27 ounces.
In the coming weeks, check the edges of ponds, the banks of rivers and shorelines of lakes for migrating shorebirds. Don’t forget to keep an eye on your yard, too. Spring migration is always full of surprises.
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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To ask a question, share an observation or make a comment, email him at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Arrival of tree swallows one of season’s firsts among spring’s returning birds

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Tree swallows are among the different species of birds returning to the region after spending the winter months farther south. These birds will be looking for nesting boxes or natural cavities in the coming weeks.

Waiting for spring? Join the club. Between alternating bouts of unseasonably warm temperatures and frigid blasts, the weather cannot seem to decide if winter’s hanging in there a little longer or if it’s time to proceed with spring’s arrival.

You might think that would translate into a messy arrival timetable for some of our returning birds, but so far my own personal observations indicate a different story. For instance, a pair of tree swallows arrived at my home on March 8. Curious, I explored my Facebook newsfeed and discovered that the first tree swallows returned in 2016 on the very same date! These punctual arrivals never cease to amaze me. It’s almost like clockwork for some of the birds that I have observed for many years at my home.

When John James Audubon painted these tree swallows, he knew them as “white-bellied swallows.”

When I posted about the arrival of the swallows on Facebook, some other people shared their own arrival stories. Paul Elmore in Bristol, Tennessee, mentioned the arrival of the first brown-headed cowbirds at his home. “Their sounds got my attention first,” he noted in his reply to my post, describing the sound as similar to “a marble being dropped into a pail of water.”

In addition to tree swallows and brown-headed cowbirds, other recent returns have included red-winged blackbirds and American robins, which have both been hailed as traditional harbingers of spring. Over the next few weeks, I look for the pace to pick up as returning birds like chipping sparrows, brown thrashers, blue-gray gnatcatchers and yellow-throated warblers mingle with lingering winter birds such as dark-eyed juncos, purple finches and yellow-rumped warblers.

The pair of swallows that returned on March 8 probably regretted the timing. Arriving during a warm spell that saw temperatures climb into the high 70s, the swallows were soon enduring a chilly blast that saw the mercury in outdoor thermometers dipping into the 20s. The swallows are insect-eating birds, so extended cold spells often force them to retreat to the area’s lakes and larger rivers, where they can swoop over the water and have an easier time plucking cold-numbed flying insects out of the air.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Tree swallows usually return to the region in late February and early March. Look for other birds, such as brown thrashers and chipping sparrows, to return in the coming weeks.

Once milder spring temperatures prevail, the flocks of swallows forced into these necessary habitats will disperse as pairs begin seeking nesting sites. Tree swallows are cavity-nesting birds, which often puts them into competition with Eastern bluebirds. The two species usually manage to work out a truce and settle down to nest in close proximity to each other.

The iridescent blue-green male tree swallow, complete with white underparts and a forked tail, is a handsome bird and a welcome addition to the bird population in any yard or garden. Tree swallows enjoy water, so a nearby pond or creek is a boon for attracting these birds.

Tree swallows nesting in southwest Virginia are a relatively recent happening. According to Tony Decker’s The Birds of Smyth County, Virginia, tree swallows have only been common summer residents since about 1975. Some of the early records of these birds nesting in the region took place at locations like the ponds in Saltville, Virginia, and Laurel Bed Lake in Russell County, Virginia.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Eastern bluebird stakes claim to a box to ward off inquisitive tree swallows. The two cavity-nesting species are often competitors for prime nesting real estate.

A decade later, tree swallows began nesting in northeast Tennessee. The first nesting record took place at Austin Springs on Boone Lake in Washington County, Tennessee, according to The Birds of Northeast Tennessee by Rick Knight. Tree swallows soon became regular nesting birds every summer in all five counties that comprise Northeast Tennessee.

It’s usually not too difficult to find five of the six species of swallows that are known to make Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia their home from spring to fall. In addition to tree swallows, other swallows such as barn swallows, purple martins, cliff swallows and northern rough-winged swallows are fairly common summer birds in the region. The barn swallow and tree swallow are the two members of the family that are probably best known to people. They have adapted to life in both suburban and rural areas, which brings them into frequent contact with people.

The golden swallow, which today exists only on the island of Hispaniola.

While only a few swallows range into the United States and Canada, a total of 83 species of swallows can be found worldwide. Some of the common names for these different swallows (also called martins in other parts of the world) are quite descriptive. A sampling includes white-eyed river martin, grey-rumped swallow, white-backed swallow, banded martin, blue swallow, violet-green swallow, golden swallow, brown-throated martin, brown-bellied swallow, pale-footed swallow, white-bibbed swallow, pearl-breasted swallow, red-breasted swallow, mosque swallow, fairy martin and streak-throated swallow.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male tree swallow perches on a utility wire extending over a fish pond.

While many swallows and martins have proven highly adaptive when faced with human disturbances to their habitat, a few species have experienced declines. One species — the white-eyed river martin — was last seen in Thailand in the 1980s and very well may be extinct. Closer to home, the golden swallow is now found only on the island of Hispaniola after disappearing from Jamaica in the 1980s. The Bahama swallow, which nests on only four islands in the Bahamas, is also vulnerable. Incidentally, both these swallows are closely related to the tree swallow, with all of them belonging to the genus Golden Swallow. Translated from Greek, the genus name means “fast mover,” a quite accurate description of these graceful and agile flyers.

With their enthusiastic twittering to each other, tree swallows make for friendly neighbors. It’s also a pleasant diversion to watch them swoop over fields and ponds. To increase your chances of hosting your own tree swallows, offer a bird box placed in an open area. Right now is the time to attract their attention with some prime real estate.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Count sets new records while gathering data on world’s birds

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The downy woodpecker ranked among the 10 most frequently reported birds on the 2017 Great Backyard Bird Count. A record number of 173,826 people took part in this year’s GBBC, which was held Feb. 17-20.

In announcing the results of this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count, organizers of the annual global bird survey shared an anecdote about a second-grade student in Memphis, Tennessee. The girl, who obviously enjoyed making a contribution as a citizen scientist for the GBBC, made a real connection with the birds she was being asked to count.

Calling her participation the “best day of her life,” the girl went on to share her excitement about seeing a downy woodpecker. She was hardly alone in seeing this small woodpecker. A total of 38,760 checklists across the country included downy woodpecker with their totals.

The girl’s joy at discovering a downy woodpecker — a bird that was completely new to her — all but guarantees that she will look forward to taking part in the 2018 GBBC. If her interest in birds continues to develop, she just may catch the birding bug herself.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Counting crows and other birds at Shook Branch at Watauga Lake during the recent GBBC.

The 2017 Great Backyard Bird Count is now part of the history books, and thanks to participants from around the world, this year’s GBBC ranked as the biggest count in its 20-year history. Participants set a new high bar for number of checklists submitted and total number of species reported.

An estimated 214,018 participants took part this year, compared to the 2016 final total estimate of 163,763 individuals. An incredible total of 5,940 different species was tallied by GBBC participants, which is a dramatic spike from last year’s total of 5,689 species. That record number of participants also turned in a record number of completed checklists — 173,826, compared to the final total of 162,052 in 2016.

The three states with birders submitting the most checklists were, in descending order, New York, Pennsylvania and California. Incidentally, Virginia came in sixth, with 5,190 checklists submitted during the 2017 GBBC. North Carolina came in ninth with 4,220 checklists submitted by 2017 GBBC participants. Birders in Tennessee will need to step up for future counts. The Volunteer State ranked 20th on the list with 2,215 checklists submitted.

The states seeing the most species of birds reported were, in descending order, California (370 species), Texas (360 species) and Florida (309 species). North Carolina checklists indicated a total of 213 species to land the Tar Heel State at No. 8 on the list of states with most species reported. Virginia, in 12th place, tallied a total of 196 species. Tennessee came in 32nd place with 136 species, which isn’t too bad for a landlocked state.

In North America, the most numerous birds reported on the count included several species of geese, as well as blackbirds, starlings and crows. A total of 4,793,261 snow geese made this bird the most numerous North American species reported on the GBBC. Other common birds, in descending order, included red-winged blackbird with 2,464,572 individual birds tallied, as well as Canada goose, 1,895,077; European starling, 919,038; mallard, 715,594; ring-billed gull, 647,950; American coot, 500,261; greater white-fronted goose, 426,040; common grackle, 416,720; and American crow, 378,483. During my participation this year, I saw several of these species, including red-winged blackbird, Canada goose, European starling, mallard, ring-billed gull and American crow.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Killdeer in Limestone Cove during the Great Backyard Bird Count held last month.

The ten most frequently reported species, in descending order, were Northern cardinal, American crow, mourning dove, dark-eyed junco, downy woodpecker, blue jay, black-capped chickadee, house finch, house sparrow and white-breasted nuthatch. While taking part in the GBBC last month, I saw all these species with the exception of the black-capped chickadee. Instead, my submitted checklists featured Carolina chickadees.

The birds on the most frequently reported list are almost without exception birds of yards and gardens, making them more likely to be counted by more individual participants. On the other hand, the most numerous, or abundant, birds are those that join together to form large flocks. They’re widespread, but less likely to be encountered in yards and gardens.

I counted at home and at several favorite birding locations. During a visit to Watauga Lake in Carter County, Tennessee, my mother and I observed an immature bald eagle and a yellow-bellied sapsucker, which turned out to be among my personal GBBC highlights this year. I always enjoy looking for birds during the four-day count period. I also like to feel that I am contributing to a shared knowledge about birds and their populations.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Buffleheads on the Watauga River during the recent GBBC.

If you would like to view photos of birds from around the world that were taken during this year’s GBBC, visit gbbc.birdcount.org/photo-subs-2017/.

If you didn’t get to take part this year, be sure to plan ahead for next year when the GBBC will be held Feb. 16-19, 2018. Help make next year’s count another one for the record books.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.