Birds provide visible evidence of transition of seasons

We are midway through March, and the birds are on the move. We’ve been fortunate to enjoy some beautiful spring weather and all the accompanying flowers in the last couple of weeks. The next month or so will feature a lot of transition as our winter resident birds prepare to depart and some of our beloved summer residents return to spend the next few months with us.

For instance, the Buffleheads that congregate on Wilbur Lake in Carter County are already dispersing to local rivers and ponds. After spending some time on these other waterways, they will be flying farther north. Buffleheads are cavity-nesting birds, so they will look for wooded lakes and seek out a tree with a large cavity or cranny. There, the female will lay her eggs and renew the cycle of life before the adults and a new generation return to winter in the region in several months.

These little two-toned ducks with a dark and light plumage pattern have long been a favorite of mine. Patsy Schang sent me a photo of a pair of Buffleheads that visited a pond at her neighbor’s Roan Mountain home. As you can see from the accompanying photograph, the two Buffleheads look quite at home.

“I was so excited to see these ducks on our neighbor’s pond,” Patsy wrote in her email. “I think they are Buffleheads – my first!”

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Photo courtesy of Patsy Schang
These Buffleheads visited a Roan Mountain pond earlier this month.

Patsy had no trouble identifying the ducks, and I congratulated her on her first sighting of Buffleheads, It’s always fun to see a new bird, especially so close to home.

According to the Ducks Unlimited website, Buffleheads breed from southern Alaska through the forested areas of western Canada, central Ontario and eastern Quebec.

The website notes that 90 percent of the population is believed to breed from Manitoba westward. So, these little ducks travel a long way to spend the winter on Wilbur Lake, Ripshin Lake and other locations in Northeast Tennessee.

•••••

Karla Smith sent me an email about a nesting colony of Great Blue Herons in Elizabethton.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens
This colony of nesting Great Blue Herons is located behind the Elizabethton Municipal Airport.

“I didn’t know if you had heard about the herons that are nesting in the tops of two trees behind the airport in Elizabethton,” Karla wrote in her email. “I believe they are herons. I am not an avid bird watcher, but do enjoy them and sighted these a few weeks ago. There are six nests total in the two trees and it is quite a sight to see.”

I went the next day and found the nests and several herons exactly where Karla informed me they would be. This is only the second time I have observed nesting Great Blue Herons in Carter County.

I counted six nests and seven herons during my brief visit to the location. The two trees are on a steep hillside at the back of a field behind the Elizabethton Municipal Airport. From this location, the adult herons can spread out along the nearby Watauga River to find plenty of food once the young are born.

In addition to the herons near the airport, there are at least two active Great Blue Heron nests along Blevins Road on the other side of Elizabethton. This location also served as a nesting place last year for Yellow-crowned Night-Herons.

I posted about the heron nesting colony at the airport on my Facebook page and several friends shared interesting stories.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Great Blue Heron stands in a nest built in a tree over the Watauga River along Blevins Road in Elizabethton.

Sandra “Snad” Garrett said she plans to check out the colony, which is not far from the Stoney Creek home she shares with her husband.

“We used to enjoy watching a huge rookery on the Mississippi River in North Minneapolis when we lived there,” she wrote. “I had no idea there was a rookery so close to us here.”

Seeing the post reminded Elizabethton resident Rita F. Schuettler of a previous close encounter with a Great Blue Heron.

“I was fishing on the Watauga River when I saw my first Great Blue Heron,” she said. “It was close by and staring at me. Scared me to death, but I was thrilled to see it.”

In a follow-up moment, I congratulated Rita, telling her that it’s difficult to sneak up on a Great Blue Heron and that it sounded like they both got surprised.

“I was sitting there motionless fishing and he was standing there motionless fishing,” Rita wrote in another post. “I don’t know who was there first. It might have scared him also, because he flew away!”

•••••

I saw my first Barn Swallow of the spring on March 19 at Anderson Marsh on the old Johnson City Highway near the Okolona exit. There was also a Great Blue Heron in the creek at the same location.

The previous day, it was all about the raptors, as I found a Sharp-shinned Hawk on Simerly Creek Road, an American Kestrel in Unicoi and a Red-tailed Hawk and a Cooper’s Hawk both soaring in the same vicinity in Johnson City. Once I tossed in both Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures, it capped off what amounted to a pretty good raptor day.

On March 17, the only wild waterfowl lingering at the pond at Erwin Fishery Park turned out to be a pair of American Wigeon. On land, I also enjoyed watching a large mixed flock that consisted of Common Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds and European Starlings. They were feeding on shelled corn that some good-hearted person had probably left for the domestic ducks and geese that make their home at the pond.

All this activity is proof that the seasons are changing, and with them the makeup of the birds that share our yards and gardens.

••••••

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Photo by Bryan Stevens
A male Eastern Towhee feeds on the ground beneath a feeder hanging in a tree.

Elizabethton resident Dee Obrien contacted me on Facebook with a question about a bird she saw recently at her home.

“I have an unusual bird in the yard,” she wrote in her message. “He’s about the size of a robin or mockingbird. Is black on top with white bars on his wings. Rust color on outer sides of his belly, but is off white in the middle of his belly. He is a ground feeder.”

I was glad Dee included the information on the bird’s behavior. Details like that are just as important as size and coloration. From her detailed description, including the information about its ground-feeding habits, I was able to figure out that she had seen an Eastern Towhee. Later, she notified me that she had consulted a field guide and agreed with my identification.

•••••

It’s great to hear from so many fellow bird enthusiasts. That’s been one of my goals with this blog. I hope to continue to receive communications from readers. Otherwise, it’s just me writing about the birds I have seen. I’d much rather have this blog become more engaging and interactive where people can share their enthusiasm for our fine feathered friends.

It’s easy to post comments on my new blog at ourfinefeatheredfriends.wordpress.com. You can also reach me on Facebook or send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. Please share the link to the blog with others who might be interested in the topic of birds and birding in Northeast Tennessee.

•••••

There’s a new poll this week. Here’s the answer to last week’s poll. Which of the red-necked birds in the list specified in the poll isn’t a real bird? Well, the answer is Red-necked Goose. I hope everyone got the correct answer.

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