Monthly Archives: December 2014

Annual Christmas Bird Counts offer some surprises

The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society held its 72nd consecutive Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count on Sunday,  Dec. 14. A total of 25 observers in six parties tallied 69 species. Inn addition, counters observed another three species during Count Week.

Female-Downy1

Photo by Bryan Stevens                              Downy Woodpecker, such as this female, were found on both the Elizabethton and Roan Mountain Christmas Bird Counts.

According to long-time count compiler Rick Knight, this year’s total was slightly below the recent 30-year average of 72 species. The all-time high for the Elizabethton CBC took place in 2012 when a total of 80 species was recorded.

Highlights from this year’s Elizabethton CBC included a Greater White-fronted Goose, American Woodcock and Palm Warbler. Other notable finds include five Purple Finches and 18 Pine Siskins. Notable absences included Red-breasted Nuthatch, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Eastern Meadowlark.

Photo by Bryan Stevens

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                     A Greater White-fronted Goose and Canada Goose forage in a field during the Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count.

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The 62nd Roan Mountain CBC took place Monday, Dec. 15. A total of eight observers in two parties found 53 species. This was above the recent 30-year average of 45 species and the most since 1995 when 54 species was recorded for this count.

According to Knight, an immature Northern Goshawk proved the highlight of this year’s Roan Mountain CBC. Other notable finds included Red-breasted Nuthatch, Purple Finch and Pine Siskin.

Knight also noted that Common Ravens were found on both counts. A total of 11 Common Ravens was found on the Elizabethton CBC with 24 Common Ravens found during the Roan Mountain CBC.

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The 2,050 European Starlings reported on the Elizabethton CBC represented the most common species on this survey. Other common birds on the Elizabethton CBC included American Crow (725), Canada Goose (526) and Rock Pigeon (467).

CBC-Snipes

Photo by Bryan Stevens                            Wilson’s Snipes were found along the Watauga River during the Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count.

The American Crow, with 146 individuals found, ranked as the most abundant species on the Roan Mountain CBC. Only 47 European Starlings were tallied for this count. Other common birds for the Roan Mountain CBC included Song Sparrow (80), Mourning Dove (46) and Carolina Chickadee (42).

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The results for the Elizabethton CBC follows:

Greater White-fronted Goose, 1; Canada Goose, 526; Mallard, 302; Ring-necked Duck, 2; Bufflehead, 251; and Hooded Merganser, 12.

Wild Turkey, 106; Common Loon, 2; Pied-billed Grebe, 10; Horned Grebe, 8; and Great Blue Heron, 23.

Black Vulture, 6; Turkey Vulture, 6; Bald Eagle, 1; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 4; Cooper’s Hawk, 9; Red-tailed Hawk, 23; and American Kestrel, 12.

American Coot, 3; Killdeer, 3; Wilson’s Snipe, 7; American Woodcock, 1; and Ring-billed Gull, 36.

Rock Pigeon, 467; Mourning Dove, 282; Eastern Screech-Owl, 14; Great Horned Owl, 4; and Barred Owl, 1.

Belted Kingfisher, 17; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 46; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 10; Downy Woodpecker, 34; Hairy Woodpecker, 5; Northern Flicker, 42; and Pileated Woodpecker, 28.

Eastern Phoebe, 9; Blue Jay, 237; American Crow, 725; Common Raven, 11; Carolina Chickadee, 137; Tufted Titmouse, 74; White-breasted Nuthatch, 29; and Brown Creeper, 1.

Count-Thrush

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        Hermit Thrushes were found during both the Elizabethton and Roan Mountain Christmas Bird Counts.

Carolina Wren, 121; Winter Wren, 8; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 17;  Eastern Bluebird, 140; Hermit Thrush, 9; and American Robin, 28.

Northern Mockingbird, 84; European Starling, 2,050; Cedar Waxwing, 27; Palm Warbler, 1; and Yellow-rumped Warbler, 73.

Eastern Towhee, 22; Chipping Sparrow, 12; Field Sparrow, 16; Fox Sparrow, 1; Song Sparrow, 168; Swamp Sparrow, 1; White-throated Sparrow, 115; White-crowned Sparrow, 23; and Dark-eyed Junco, 129.

Northern Cardinal, 231; Purple Finch, 5; House Finch, 33; Pine Siskin, 18; American Goldfinch, 107; and House Sparrow, 96.

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The results for the Roan Mountain CBC follows:

Mallard, 3; Bufflehead, 12; Hooded Merganser, 4; Wild Turkey, 7; Pied-billed Grebe, 2; and Great Blue Heron, 3.

Northern Goshawk, 1; Turkey Vulture, 4; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 2; Cooper’s Hawk, 1; Red-shouldered Hawk, 1; Red-tailed Hawk, 7; and American Kestrel, 1.

Rock Pigeon, 3; Mourning Dove, 46; Eastern Screech-Owl, 1; Barred Owl, 3; and Belted Kingfisher, 2.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, 1; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 3; Downy Woodpecker, 13; Hairy Woodpecker, 3; Northern Flicker, 5; and Pileated Woodpecker, 7.

Eastern Phoebe, 2; Blue Jay, 22; American Crow, 146; and Common Raven, 24.

CBC-Bufflehead

Photo by Bryan Stevens                        Bufflehead was one of the few ducks found on both the Elizabethton and Roan Mountain Christmas Bird Counts.

Carolina Chickadee, 42; Tufted Titmouse, 29; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 1; White-breasted Nuthatch, 15; and Brown Creeper, 1.

Carolina Wren, 25; Winter Wren, 3; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 10; Eastern Bluebird, 16; Hermit Thrush, 1; and Northern Mockingbird, 6.

European Starling, 47; Eastern Towhee, 2; Field Sparrow, 15; Fox Sparrow, 3; Song Sparrow, 80; White-throated Sparrow, 8; White-crowned Sparrow, 5; and Dark-eyed Junco, 24.

Count-Coot

Photo by Bryan Stevens                         Common Coots were found at only one location on this year’s Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count.

Northern Cardinal, 16; Purple Finch, 2; House Finch, 4; Pine Siskin, 4; American Goldfinch 30; and House Sparrow, 31.

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According to the website of the National Audubon Society, the annual Christmas Bird Count evolved from another holiday tradition. In the 1800s, people engaged in a holiday custom known as the Christmas “Side Hunt.” This event saw participants choose sides and go afield with their guns; whoever brought in the biggest pile of feathered (and furred) quarry won.

Conservation was in its beginning stages around the turn of the 20th century, and many observers and scientists were becoming concerned about declining bird populations. Beginning on Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, an early officer in the then budding Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition — a “Christmas Bird Census” — that would count birds during the holidays rather than hunt them.

Frank Chapman organized the very first Christmas Bird Count back in

Frank Chapman organized the very first Christmas Bird Count back in 1900.

Thanks to Chapman’s inspiration and the enthusiasm of 27 dedicated birders, 25 Christmas Bird Counts were held that day. The locations ranged from Toronto, Ontario to Pacific Grove, California with most counts in or near the population centers of northeastern North America. Those original 27 Christmas Bird Counters tallied 89 species on all the counts combined. Some of the birds found included such common birds as Northern cardinal, dark-eyed junco, turkey vulture and killdeer. It also included some somewhat unusual species such as Townsend’s warbler, pine grosbeak, Anna’s hummingbird, greater prairie-chicken and white-headed woodpecker.

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Cardinal makes a splendid symbol of Christmas season

The shopping days before Christmas are getting fewer, so I hope everyone has had time to find gifts for everyone on their lists. My own sincere wish to readers is that everyone gets to enjoy a great holiday that just might also include watching some birds.

Photo courtesy of Tom and Helen Stetler A male Northern Cardinal takes a bath at the home of Tom and Helen Stetler in Elizabethton.

Photo courtesy of Tom and Helen Stetler
A male Northern Cardinal takes a bath at the home of Tom and Helen Stetler in Elizabethton.

Although I hate to see the colorful birds of spring and summer — scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks — depart every fall, the winter season offers some compensation.

Often, when we think of the birds of the winter season, our thoughts focus on some of the less-than-colorful feeder visitors — the brown sparrows and wrens, the black and white chickadees, the drab American goldfinches so unlike their summer appearance.

There’s one bird, however, that makes an impression in any season. The Northern cardinal, especially the brilliant red male, stands out against a winter backdrop of snow white, deep green or drab gray.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service  Pyrrhuloxia

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The Pyrrhuloxia is a relative of the Northern Cardinal found in the southwestern United States.

The Northern cardinal belongs to a genus of birds known as Cardinalis in the family Cardinalidae. There are only two other species in this genus, and they range across North America and into northern South America. The two relatives are the pyrrhuloxia, or Cardinalis sinuatus, of the southwestern United States, and the Vermilion Cardinal, or phoeniceus, a bird found in Colombia and Venezuela.

Two other South American birds — red-crested cardinal and yellow-billed cardinal — are more closely related to tanagers than to our familiar Northern cardinal. Both the Northern cardinal and red-crested cardinal have been introduced into the state of Hawaii, so two non-native birds from different parts of the globe are now resident in the Aloha State.

Over the years, the Northern cardinal has also become associated with the Christmas season. How many Christmas cards have you received this holiday season with a cardinal featured in the artwork? I’d wager that at least a few cards in any assortment of holiday greetings will feature the likeness of a bright red cardinal.

This sample Christmas card from cardinalchristmascards.com is a good example of the way Christmas cards often depict this beautiful bird.

This sample Christmas card from cardinalchristmascards.com is a good example of the way Christmas cards often depict this beautiful bird.

Cardinals, also known by such common names as redbird and Virginia nightingale, are easily recognized backyard birds. I never tire of observing these colorful birds. Cardinals are easily lured to any backyard with plentiful cover to provide a sense of security and a generous buffet of sunflower seed.

Cardinals accept a wide variety of food at feeders. Sunflower seed is probably their favorite, but they will also sample cracked corn, peanuts, millet, bakery scraps and even suet. The cardinal is also one of only a few birds that I have noticed will consistently feed on safflower seed.

While we may get the idea that cardinals feed largely on seed, that is a misconception based on our observation of the birds at our feeders. When away from our feeders, cardinals feed on insects and fruit, including the berries of mulberry, holly, pokeberry, elderberry, Russian olive, dogwood and sumac.

Photo by Ken Thomas Even the female Northern Cardinal offers observers admirable, subtle beauty.

Photo by Ken Thomas
Even the female Northern Cardinal offers observers admirable, subtle beauty.

There’s no difficulty in identifying a cardinal. The male boasts crimson plumage, a crest, a black face and orange bill. The female, although less colorful, is also crested. Female cardinals are soft brown in color, with varying degrees of a reddish tinge in their feathers, particularly in their wings. Immature cardinals resemble females except young cardinals have dark bills.

Cardinals are a widespread species, ranging westward to the Dakotas and south to the Gulf Coast and Texas. The southeastern United States was once the stronghold of the cardinal population. In the past century, however, cardinals have expanded their range into New England and Canada.

Photo by Jean Potter A pair of Northern Cardinals perch on a feeder for a meal of various seeds.

Photo by Jean Potter
A pair of Northern Cardinals perch on a feeder for a meal of various seeds.

At feeders, cardinals mingle with a variety of other birds. Their preference for dense, tangled habitat is one they share with such birds as brown thrashers, Eastern towhees, Carolina wrens and song sparrows. In general, however, cardinals directly associate only with their own kind. Cardinals will form loose flocks during the winter, but these flocks are never as cohesive as those of such flocking birds as American goldfinches. Cardinals are more often observed in pairs.

Photo by Bryan Stevens Cardinals are common visitors to backyard feeders.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
Cardinals are common visitors to backyard feeders.

For such a bright bird, the male cardinal can be surprisingly difficult to detect as he hides in the thick brush that conceals his presence. Cardinals are nervous birds, however, and usually betray their presence with easily recognized chip notes.

It’s not surprising that such a popular bird has also become associated with many trappings of the Christmas season.
“You see cardinals on greeting cards, stationery, paper plates, paper napkins and tablecloths, doormats, light switch plates, candles, candle holders, coffee mugs, plates, glasses, Christmas tree ornaments and lights, bookmarks, mailboxes, Christmas jewelry,” writes June Osborne in her book The Cardinal. “And the list goes on. Cardinals have become an integral part of the way that many people celebrate the holiday season.”

MaleCardinal-Limb

Photo by Jean Potter                                   Male Cardinals always brighten gloomy winter days.

I can be included among such people. My Christmas decorations include an assortment of cardinal figurines and ornaments. There are other birds — doves and penguins for example — associated with the holiday season, but for me the holidays magnify the importance of one of my favorite birds. The cardinal, in its festive red plumage, appears made to order for a symbol of the holiday season.

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service              A male Northern Cardinal perches on a branch on a snowy winter’s day.

There’s additional evidence to put forward as testimony to the popularity of the Northern cardinal. It’s the official state bird of seven states: Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. Only the Northern mockingbird, which represents five states as official state bird, even comes close to the Northern cardinal in this respect.

Even once the holidays are past, there’s nothing like a glimpse of a Northern cardinal to add some cheer to a bleak winter day.

Photo by Jean Potter

Photo by Jean Potter                                                                                                                              This male Northern Cardinal’s red plumage makes him stand out against a snowy background.

 

Greater White-fronted Goose a surprise visitor at Elizabethton pond

Following up on a report of a Greater White-fronted Goose in Elizabethton, I visited the Great Lakes pond on the campus of Northeast State Community College. I found the goose on Saturday, Dec. 13, among a flock of about 250 Canada Geese.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A Greater White-fronted Goose grazes in the company of Canada Geese at an Elizabethton pond.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Greater White-fronted Goose grazes in the company of Canada Geese at an Elizabethton pond.

The Greater White-fronted Goose is considerably smaller than a Canada Goose. The bird is named for the distinctive white band found at the base of bill. This white band also helps distinguish this goose from similar domestic geese. The sexes are similar in appearance, but females are usually smaller than males. The head, neck and upper back of white-fronted geese are grayish-brown. The lower back and rump are dark brown, and the tail is dark brown and edged with white. The chest and breast are grayish with dark brown to black blotches and bars on the breast, giving this goose the nickname “specklebelly.” The bill is pinkish and the legs and feet are orange.

Early American naturalist John James Audubon painted this pair of Greater White-fronted Geese.

Early American naturalist John James Audubon painted this pair of Greater White-fronted Geese.

The Greater White-fronted Goose breeds in both North America and Europe and Asia, and birds spend the winter throughout the United States and even Japan. Most nesting in North America takes place on the North Slope of Alaska and across the western and central Canadian Arctic. Wintering habitats include coastal marshes, wet fields and and freshwater wetlands.

The large pond on the NSCC campus has attracted other visits from Greater White-fronted Geese in recent years. The pond has also attracted Ross’ Goose, Snow Goose and a variety of waterfowl.

Photo by Bryan Stevens The Greater White-fronted Goose is much smaller than the typical Canada Goose.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
The Greater White-fronted Goose is much smaller than the typical Canada Goose.

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I received a fun email from Judy and Bill Beckman recently.

“Today we were blessed with a wonderful sighting of a flock of some 20-plus bluebirds, mostly males, with a few cedar waxwings in the mix, swooping through our yard and feeding on the winterberries and whatever else they could find.,” they wrote. “What a beautiful Christmas gift.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens Eastern Bluebirds are year-round residents in Northeast Tennessee.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
Eastern Bluebirds are year-round residents in Northeast Tennessee.

I always love hearing from the Beckmans, who reside on Spivey Mountain in Unicoi County. They’re always seeing interesting birds.

I haven’t seen many bluebirds or waxwings so far this winter, but I will be taking part in the annual Christmas Bird Count conducted by the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society. Perhaps I will see some of those birds during the count.

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Matt Cahill posted on bristol-birds about some birding he recently enjoyed in Unicoi County. Bristol-birds is a list-serve that allows birders to share bird sightings with others on the network.

Ring-necked

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                    A Ring-necked Duck swims on a pond in Erwin.

While at Erwin Fishery Park on Dec. 7, he saw a Ring-necked Duck, four Killdeer and a single Red-breasted Nuthatch. In addition, he found a large flock of about 70 Pine Siskins in the park.

The pond at Erwin Fishery Park is a good place to look for visiting waterfowl. So far this winter, I’ve observed Bufflehead, American Wigeon, Wood Duck, Hooded Merganser, American Black Duck and Gadwall at this pond.

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I’ve also been seeing Pine Siskins, Purple Finches, House Finches and American Goldfinches at my feeders at home. I’ve also seen White-breasted Nuthatches, but I haven’t seen any Red-breasted Nuthatches so far this winter.

Photo by Jean Potter A Pine Siskin visits a feeder.

Photo by Jean Potter
A Pine Siskin visits a feeder.

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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.

Jonesborough couple hosting wintering hummingbird

I received a phone call in late November from Elizabethton resident Susan Peters, who informed me that one of her friends in a local hiking organization was hosting a hummingbird.

But hummingbirds are summer birds from the tropics, right? Doesn’t the cold weather present a shock to these visitors?

Actually, many hummingbirds are adapted to frigid conditions. Rufous Hummingbirds are quite capable of surviving freezing conditions, as long as they have access to a source of food. In spring, they migrate through California, before eventually spending the summer in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

Photo courtesy of Faye Guinn Not even an occasional bout of snowy weather has deterred this hummingbird from visiting a feeder at the home of Howard and Faye Guinn.

Photo courtesy of Faye Guinn
Not even an occasional bout of snowy weather has deterred this hummingbird from visiting a feeder at the home of Howard and Faye Guinn. The brownish hummingbird is hovering in front of the feeder. Notice a male Northern Cardinal is present in the photo’s background.

The bird in question has been coming since Oct. 19 to a feeder at the home of Howard and Faye Guinn, who live near Jonesborough. Faye and I have corresponded by email about her hummingbird, which has already weathered a couple of snowstorms.

“I was delighted to have a late hummingbird but never expected him to stay this long,” Faye wrote.

When Susan contacted me, she said that the Guinns wanted to know if they should continue feeding the hummingbird or remove the feeder to encourage the bird to fly south.

GE DIGITAL CAMERA

Photo Courtesy of Faye Guinn                           A heat lamp positioned near the feeder keeps the sugar water solution from freezing during bouts of frigid weather.

I advised Faye in my email to continue to offer the sugar water, especially since other resources are scarce. These wintering hummingbirds are not entirely dependent on feeders, but they can make the difference during prolonged bouts of freezing weather. These hummingbirds will also sip from sap wells drilled into trees by Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. Hummingbirds also feed on tiny insects.

“Thanks for letting me know to keep feeding because some friends have said I should stop and he would go, but they are not birders,” Faye responded to my suggestion. “I am only backyard birder but do know a little.

The hummingbird is somewhat camera shy and the photographs Faye has managed to get have been taken from inside her home.

“Any movement outside and he is gone,” she explained. “He comes and goes very quickly. His coming and going has no schedule but in the mornings he is soon there. He looks like he is beefing up so I expect he soon will go.”

She has gone to extra effort to provide for her visiting hummingbird.

“I take the feeders down — I have two so he has a choice — about two hours after dark on the nights it is to freeze and put it back out about 6:30 with a heat lamp,” she wrote.

So far, her efforts have kept the bird healthy and content.

“I never expected him to stay this long,” she said.

When she noticed the hummingbird for the first time on Oct. 19 she saw the bird at her Mexican sage plant. Her feeder was still available at the time, too.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovers in front of the camera. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds typically depart the region by mid-October.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovers in front of the camera. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds typically depart the region by the middle of October.

Through the years, I have seen several of these seemingly out-of-place hummingbirds. Some of them remain at their host’s feeders for a brief stay of a few days or a couple of weeks, but some of these hummingbirds have extended their stay for several months, lingering throughout the winter months before eventually departing in February or March.

The big question is: are these hummingbirds truly lost and out of place? The answer, based on everything I have managed to learn, is that these hummingbirds are precisely where they want to be. For still unknown reasons, some of these western hummingbirds make a migration swing through the eastern United States.

The Rufous Hummingbird has basically become an expected winter visitor with a few reports being received each winter. I have observed Rufous Hummingbirds in many different locations, including Bristol, Blountville, Flag Pond, Elizabethton and Hampton. I have also observed Allen’s Hummingbirds in Mountain City and Johnson City. I know of records of these small birds from Erwin, Roan Mountain, Johnson City and many other locations throughout the region.

Photo by Ryan Hagerty/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service A Ruby-throated Hummingbird is held with its wings spread during a study at the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama.

Photo by Ryan Hagerty/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
A Ruby-throated Hummingbird is held with its wings spread during a study at the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama.

Mark Armstong, who works at the Knoxville Zoo, has banded many of the western hummingbirds that migrate into the region on an annual basis.

I have continued to correspond with Faye, who confirmed that the bird has remained resident throughout November. As of Dec. 7, the hummingbird was still visiting the feeders at the Guinn residence.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service A Rufous Hummingbird perches on a flowering vine.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
A Rufous Hummingbird perches on a flowering vine. This hummingbird nests as far north as Alaska.