Monthly Archives: July 2016

Making the acquaintance of a special ruffed grouse with lots of personality

Although I’ve seen many birds over the years, it’s not often that I’m introduced on a first-name basis with one. So, I’m happy to report that I’ve now made the acquaintance of Rufous, a resident of the woodlands around Flag Pond, a small community in Unicoi County, Tennessee.

 

Rufuous-Two (1)

Photo by Bryan Stevens                               Rufous the ruffed grouse has been visiting the farm of Leon and Janice Rhodes for the past couple of years, apparently showing little fear of his human neighbors.

Rufous is a ruffed grouse that has been a fascinating and funny neighbor to Leon and Janice Rhodes for the past couple of years. I met Rufous on Saturday, June 25, at the Rhodes family farm. Brayden Paulk, a grandson of the couple, invited me to visit and attempt to meet Rufous.

 

This particular grouse is apparently a creature of habit, and Brayden suggested that a morning visit might be more conducive to my chances of getting to know Rufous.
I arrived around 9 a.m. and met Brayden and his grandfather. We went to a nearby barn, which apparently serves as a familiar meeting spot for Rufous and those people lucky enough to have gotten to know him over the past couple of years.
Rufous is only one member of a family of ruffed grouse in residence on the Rhodes property. In an email to me, Brayden told me that the mountain farm is a good place to see ruffed grouse. The 17-year-old doesn’t live in Tennessee, but he is a frequent visitor, spending time with his grandparents as often as possible. He and his family live in Oxford, Alabama. He also told me that his grandparents send him every one of my bird columns in the mail.

Brayden-Rufous

Photo by Bryan Stevens                Inside his grandfather’s barn, Brayden Paulk spends a moment with Rufous, a ruffed grouse with an abundance of charisma.

“I do happen to live in a great place for birds,” he informed me in an email. His home is located close to the Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge, which Brayden said is known for breeding blue-headed vireos, red-headed woodpeckers, and Swainson’s warblers.
“It has a lot of longleaf [pine] habitat, so I hope soon that red-cockaded woodpeckers might be reintroduced there, and establish a colony,” he added. The red-cockaded woodpecker is classified as an endangered species across much of the southeastern United States.
Brayden is a volunteer working in the Talladega National Forest in the foothills of the Appalachians on a study focused on the effects of controlled burns on cavity-nesting birds, such as red-cockaded woodpeckers.
He is an enthusiastic and, as I learned after meeting him, quite an accomplished birder. Warblers are his favorite family of birds, followed by ducks and sparrows.
“I enjoy where I live because I get to enjoy species such as the black-throated green warbler, blue-headed vireo and even red crossbill in the summer,” he said.
We have also exchanged emails in a discussion about why some of these birds, which are usually found in the boreal forests much farther north, stay much farther south along the spine of the Southern Appalachians.
His future plans are to major in Conservation Biology. “I hope to get a masters in ornithology from Cornell,” Brayden shared.

Rufous-Three

Photo by Bryan Stevens                               Leon Rhodes uses his cap to challenge Rufous to a friendly duel.

Of course, during our recent meeting, his focus was on arranging a meeting with Rufous, a bird with “a lot of personality.” Both Brayden and his grandfather cautioned that Rufous doesn’t follow a schedule. In other words, the meeting would take place only if Rufous was so inclined.

Although he has a very tame nature, Rufous is most definitely a wild bird.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait too long. Brayden was the first to detect the soft clucks as Rufous made his way cautiously toward the old barn. He emerged from the surrounding woodlands and walked into the barn where I was seated and waiting with Brayden and his grandfather.
Rufous immediately noticed my presence, identifying me as a stranger in the midst of some more familiar friends. He kept a wary eye turned on me during his visit. After a few moments of watching Rufous strut around the barn like he owned it — and perhaps he does in his own mind — I removed my camera from my pocket. I made sure that my actions didn’t alarm Rufous. When he didn’t object, I proceeded to take photos and videos of this very personable ruffed grouse.

Chick-Grouse

Photo by Bryan Stevens                              Rufous would have started out life much like this ruffed grouse chick, which was photographed on Holston Mountain in Carter County, Tennessee.

One of his favorite activities during these visits is to duel with a red baseball cap worn by Leon Rhodes. Whenever Brayden’s grandfather removed the cap and waved it in front of Rufous, the grouse became very focused. He channeled his attention almost exclusively on the cap until, with a startlingly swift attack. The entire sequence reminded me of a bull attacking a matador’s red cape.
For probably a half hour, Rufous put on quite a show, and I think Brayden and his grandfather were thrilled that the grouse proved so cooperative during my visit.

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Early American naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted these ruffed grouse as a familym unit.

After my visit with Rufous, I took Brayden for a brief birding trip to Rock Creek Recreation Area near Erwin, Tennessee. I was hopeful we might get to see a black-throated blue warbler, which has been an elusive warbler for Brayden. We did get some good birds at Rock Creek, including hooded warbler, Northern parula, blue-headed vireo, red-eyed vireo, black-throated green warbler and blue-gray gnatcatcher.
We didn’t, however, find a black-throated blue warbler. We didn’t give up, though, and proceeded to the Cherokee National Forest on Unaka Mountain. We made one very productive stop, finding a singing veery, a scarlet tanager and a dark-eyed junco. We also found more warblers, including black-and-white warbler, worm-eating warbler and black-throated green warbler. I’m happy to report we also found a male black-throated blue warbler. So, the productive morning resulted in my meeting with a grouse with a lot of personality and Brayden getting a new species for his life list of birds.
I don’t have any theory to explain Rufous and his acceptance of his human neighbors. I do believe birds, like humans, are individuals. Some of them have quirks that set them apart from others. Although he acts tame, Rufous is still a wild bird. Most ruffed grouse are extremely wary birds that go out of their way to avoid humans. Meeting a grouse that took humans in stride was a fascinating experience.

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Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                          This photo shows the ruff of feathers that gives this grouse its common name.

The ruffed grouse is named for the male’s neck ruff. These feathers around the neck can be erected in mating displays, creating an impressive “collar.”  The ruffed grouse has served since 1931 as the state bird of Pennsylvania.

Many years ago, a ruffed grouse boldly walked into my front yard and then ventured onto the front porch. Only my timely intervention rescued the visiting grouse from a cat that belonged to my parents.
The unusual behavior of Rufous has persisted for two years. That, in my book, makes him a very unique grouse. I’ll always remember the day that I made his acquaintance.

Rufous-One

Photo by Bryan Stevens       Rufous proved to be a grouse with a unique personality.

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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.

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Summer Bird Counts gather data on bird populations of two Northeast Tennessee counties

The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society held its annual Summer Bird Counts in the counties of Carter and Unicoi in June, adding to the data  that exists for regional bird populations during the summer nesting season.

Red-shoulderHawk

Photos by Bryan Stevens                                                Red-shoulder Hawks, such as this captive individual that is part of an educational program at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina, are relatively rare birds in Northeast Tennessee.

Although its hasn’t been conducted for a long time, the Unicoi County Summer Bird Count established a new record this year with a total of 112 species reported, in contrast to the 110 and 111 species tallied during the first two Summer Counts conducted in 2014 and 2015.
A total of 21 observers in five parties counted birds in Unicoi County on Sunday, June 12, from Flag Pond and Erwin to Unicoi and Limestone Cove, as well as other strategic locations. A total of 20 species of nesting warblers made the count, including Blackburnian, Swainson’s and Magnolia. Other highlights from the count include a single Northern Bobwhite, four Bald Eagles, a Red-shouldered Hawk (a scarce bird in Northeast Tennessee) and three Red Crossbills.
Although I participated in the first two Unicoi County Summer Bird Count, I was in South Carolina at the time of this year’s survey. I hate to miss any count, and I was excited to learn that this year’s survey set a new record for most species to date.

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Young American Robins, such as this bird, helped provide sizable numbers for this bird on the Summer Counts.

The American Robin took the prize as the most common bird with 417 robins observed by count participants. The robin was closely followed by European Starling (317); Song Sparrow (186); and Indigo Bunting (129). The 85 Hooded Warblers found on count day made this species the most common warbler on this year’s survey.

The total follows:
Canada Goose, 76; Wood Duck, 12; Mallard, 21; Northern Bobwhite, 1; Ruffed Grouse, 3; and Wild Turkey, 16.
Great Blue Heron, 22; Green Heron, 2; Black Vulture, 7; Turkey Vulture, 43; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 1; Cooper’s Hawk, 3; Bald Eagle, 4; Red-shouldered Hawk, 1; Broad-winged Hawk, 5; and Red-tailed Hawk, 8.
Killdeer, 10; Rock Pigeon, 52; Mourning Dove, 108; Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 2; Eastern Screech-owl, 1; Great Horned Owl, 3; Barred Owl, 2; Chuck-Will’s-Widow, 3; Whip-poor-will, 11; and Chimney Swift, 35.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 7; Belted Kingfisher, 4; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 26; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 3; Downy Woodpecker, 16; Hairy Woodpecker, 7; Northern Flicker, 8; and Pileated Woodpecker, 14.
American Kestrel, 3; Eastern Wood-Pewee, 7; Acadian Flycatcher, 43; Least Flycatcher, 6; Eastern Phoebe, 54; Great Crested Flycatcher, 1; and Eastern Kingbird, 13.

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Counts focused on Unicoi County and adjacent Carter County.

White-eyed Vireo, 6; Yellow-throated Vireo, 1; Blue-headed Vireo, 41; Warbling Vireo, 1; and Red-eyed Vireo, 140.
Blue Jay, 52; American Crow, 156; Common Raven, 6; Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 33; Purple Martin, 14; Tree Swallow, 108; Barn Swallow, 69; and Cliff Swallow, 70.
Carolina Chickadee, 65; Tufted Titmouse, 43; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 9; White-breasted Nuthatch, 15; Brown Creeper, 2; House Wren, 27; Winter Wren, 1; and Carolina Wren, 78.
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 22; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 13; Eastern Bluebird, 67; Veery, 23; Hermit Thrush, 3; Wood Thrush, 35; American Robin, 417; Gray Catbird, 40; Brown Thrasher, 23; Northern Mockingbird, 27; European Starling, 377; and Cedar Waxwing, 51.
Ovenbird, 70; Worm-eating Warbler, 18; Louisiana Waterthrush, 6; Black-and-white Warbler, 19; Swainson’s Warbler, 4; Kentucky Warbler, 2; Common Yellowthroat, 4; Hooded Warbler, 85; American Redstart, 9; Northern Parula, 15; Magnolia Warbler, 2; Blackburnian Warbler, 1; Yellow Warbler, 3; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 10; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 25; Yellow-throated Warbler, 18; Prairie Warbler, 6; Black-throated Green Warbler, 53; Canada Warbler, 16; and Yellow-breasted Chat, 3.
Eastern Towhee, 68; Chipping Sparrow, 40; Field Sparrow, 19; Song Sparrow, 186; and Dark-eyed Junco, 49.

Crossbill-Carvers

Red Crossbills were found on the Unicoi County Summer Count.

Scarlet Tanager, 29; Northern Cardinal, 97; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 9; Blue Grosbeak, 3; Indigo Bunting, 129; Red-winged Blackbird, 120; Eastern Meadowlark, 11; Common Grackle, 50; and Brown-headed Cowbird, 46.
House Finch, 29; Red Crossbill, 3; American Goldfinch, 76; and House Sparrow, 26.

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The 23rd annual Summer Bird Count for Carter County was held Saturday, June 18, with 18 observers in seven parties. Strong winds were a problem for most of the day, causing a few missed species and reduced numbers for others. Still, this year’s count managed 108 species, just below the average of 112 for the previous 22 years. The range for this count has varied from 105 species to a high of 121 species. Interesting finds included a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, a Red-shouldered Hawk, a Eurasian Collared-Dove, a Warbling Vireo, a Brown Creeper and a Hermit Thrush, as well as 18 species of warblers.

The total follows:
Canada Goose, 315; Wood Duck, 4; Mallard, 145; Ruffed Grouse, 2; Wild Turkey, 18; Great Blue Heron, 20; Green Heron, 3; and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, 1.
Black Vulture, 16; Turkey Vulture, 38; Cooper’s Hawk, 4; Red-shouldered Hawk, 1; Broad-winged Hawk, 2; and Red-tailed Hawk, 5.
Killdeer, 6; Rock Pigeon, 55; Eurasian Collared Dove, 1; Mourning Dove, 110; Barred Owl, 4; Common Nighthawk, 1; Chuck-Will’s-Widow, 2; and Whip-poor-will, 17.
Chimney Swift, 42; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 25; Belted Kingfisher, 3; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 16; Downy Woodpecker, 4; Hairy Woodpecker, 4; Northern Flicker, 14; and Pileated Woodpecker, 12.
American Kestrel, 1; Eastern Wood-Pewee, 6; Acadian Flycatcher, 14; Alder Flycatcher, 2; Least Flycatcher, 2; Eastern Phoebe, 36; Great Crested Flycatcher, 3; and Eastern Kingbird, 16.
White-eyed Vireo, 4; Yellow-throated Vireo, 3; Blue-headed Vireo, 21; Warbling Vireo, 1; and Red-eyed Vireo, 91.

Waxwing-Pair

Cedar Waxwings were found on both counts.

Blue Jay, 40; American Crow, 237; Common Raven, 3; Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 64; Purple Martin, 43; Tree Swallow, 72; Barn Swallow, 70; and Cliff Swallow, 341.
Carolina Chickadee, 43; Tufted Titmouse, 44; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 7; White-breasted Nuthatch, 7; and Brown Creeper, 1.
House Wren, 31; Winter Wren, 6; Carolina Wren, 51; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 12; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 8; Eastern Bluebird, 52; Veery, 20; Hermit Thrush, 1; Wood Thrush, 34; American Robin, 332; Gray Catbird, 24; Brown Thrasher, 16; Northern Mockingbird, 32; Eurasian Starling, 244; Cedar Waxwing, 17.
Ovenbird, 45; Worm-eating Warbler, 7; Louisiana Waterthrush, 6; Black-and-white Warbler, 21; Swainson’s Warbler, 2; Common Yellowthroat, 8; Hooded Warbler, 67; American Redstart, 5; Northern Parula, 6; Magnolia Warbler, 1; Blackburnian Warbler, 1; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 7; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 23; Pine Warbler, 1; Yellow-throated Warbler, 7; Black-throated Green Warbler, 18; Canada Warbler, 16; and Yellow-breasted Chat, 7.

HouseSparrow

House Sparrows were present for both counts.

Eastern Towhee, 87; Chipping Sparrow, 59; Field Sparrow, 23; Song Sparrow, 121; Dark-eyed Junco, 62; Scarlet Tanager, 19; Northern Cardinal, 80; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 11; Blue Grosbeak, 5; and Indigo Bunting, 90.
Red-winged Blackbird, 41; Eastern Meadowlark, 14; Common Grackle, 95; Brown-headed Cowbird, 43; Orchard Oriole, 8; and Baltimore Oriole, 2.
House Finch, 40; American Goldfinch, 81; and House Sparrow, 47.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend me 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.

 

Baltimore oriole famous for elaborate nest construction as well as bright plumage

Thomas Defriece of Damascus, Virginia, exchanged some Facebook messages with me in the spring about a mystery bird at his home.
He said he heard a bird song he had not previously heard outside a window at his home. When he looked out, he said that he saw “the prettiest bird” that he had ever seen. “It was orange and black, and when it took flight, the tail feathers were yellow,” he shared. “I assume it was a Batlimore oriole. Man, it was so pretty.”

BaltimoreOriole-Two

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                                       A male Baltimore Oriole will seek out elevated perches for the purpose of singing their songs.

He noted that he is originally from Maryland, where the Baltimore oriole has long served as the state’s official bird. “I’ve never seen an oriole, so I was excited,” he wrote in his Facebook message. I believe that he was correct in his identification of a bird that I’ve found rather uncommon in most parts of southwest Virginia, northeast Tennessee and western North Carolina.

 
The Baltimore oriole, despite its bright plumage, is a member of one of the blackbird clans, known in scientific circles as the Icterus genus. In his book, “Birds of Forest, Yard, and Thicket,” John Eastman notes that there are 26 species in the genus, eight of which nest in the United States. In the eastern United States, there are only two orioles — the Baltimore oriole and its smaller relative, the orchard oriole. The western half of the nation is home to a half dozen orioles, including Bullock’s oriole, Scott’s oriole, Audubon’s oriole, hooded oriole and Altamira oriole. I saw several gaudy, noisy Bullock’s orioles during a trip to Utah in May of 2006.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A migrating orchard oriole explore a blooming forsythia.

I actually have better luck finding the orchard oriole closer to home. I have learned that tall trees are an essential part of the Baltimore oriole’s favored habitat. Baltimore orioles are well-known for their colorful appearance, but their fame also rests with a sack-like nest that Eastman describes as a “durable marvel of tight-woven plant fibers” in his informational book. Eastman also notes that during another era in America, the Baltimore oriole often built its marvelous nests in American elms before Dutch elm disease almost eradicated these trees from the landscape. He reports that maples, willows and apples have served as nesting trees in the absence of elms. Once the hard-working female oriole sets to work, she may spend eight days or longer weaving plant fibers into a strong pouch suspended from the outer ends of drooping branches. The durability of the nest means that other birds, including house finches, may occupy the old nest once abandoned by the original inhabitant.

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Early naturalist and artist painted the Baltimore Oriole with the birds unusual nest.

Orioles are present in the region from April to October, generally retreating to the American tropics for the cold months of winter. There they may live on plantations that produce such much-coveted crops as bananas, coffee and cacao, which is the essential ingredient for chocolate.
The Baltimore oriole is named in honor of one of the founding fathers of the state of Maryland. George Calvert, or Baron Baltimore, was an influential English colonist instrumental in establishing the colony of Maryland. His servants wore orange and black uniforms, which inspired early American naturalist Mark Catesby to name the bird the Baltimore oriole. The bird’s association with the the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland have continued to this day. The bird is also famous as the namesake of one of America’s professional baseball teams.

 
Baltimore orioles eat insects and fruit, but these adaptive birds have also developed a fondness for sweet nectar. Orioles no longer have to raid sugar water feeders meant for hummingbirds. Many manufacturers of bird-feeding equipment now produce affordable sugar water feeders specifically designed for use by orioles. Many bird enthusiasts also use orange slices and grape jelly to lure orioles into their yards. I’ve tried these tricks, but I’ve attracted more gray catbirds and scarlet tanager than I have orioles.
Close relatives of the orioles are the oropendolas of South and Central America. Oropendolas are large birds with pointed bills and long tails. They are usually also at least partially bright yellow in their coloration. The oropendolas put the oriole to shame, however, when it comes to building nests. Although of the same basic design of an oriole’s nest, the oropendolas construct pendulous nests that may hand down more than three feet. These birds, unlike orioles, nest in colonies. So these huge, hanging nests are multiplied, with a single tree sometimes holding dozens of nests.

BaltimoreOriole-FWS

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service The Baltimore oriole is a bird known for its bright plumage.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a Baltimore oriole as a neighbor, it isn’t only their bright coloration and elaborate nest building that recommend these birds. They’re also one of the few birds willing to eat the hairy tent caterpillars that are often a blight on the landscape. Back in the late 1990s, I observed a male Baltimore oriole visiting a large caterpillar tent in the branches of a cherry tree. The bird methodically plucked the caterpillars from the silken tent, eating them one after the other. While many birds avoid some of the spiny and hairy caterpillars, orioles actively seek them out and do a great service of reducing the damage these hungry caterpillars can inflict on the environment.

BaltimoreOriole

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                   Baltimore orioles often perch in the tree canopy, making them difficult to observe.

Orioles must have found the Defriece home in Damascus to their liking. In subsequent Facebook messages, Thomas informed me that he has seen the male oriole again, as well as a female. Perhaps the birds decided the location was a good one for nesting.

 

For most of our birds, the nesting season is winding down. A few species, like cedar waxwing and American goldfinch, are just now starting to think about nesting, but most birds have already finished with the work of ensuring a new generation of their species. At my home, I’ve been seeing young birds join their parents at my feeders. Northern cardinals, Carolina chickadees, song sparrows, and white-breasted nuthatches have all introduced their offspring to the supplemental food provided by my feeders.
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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.

Unmistakable majesty of bald eagle imminently suitable for America’s official bird

 

Eagle-HEAD

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                  The Bald Eagle’s name originates with the adult bird’s all-white head that so contrasts with the dark body.

In addition to an abundance of red, white and blue decorations, the recent celebration of the Fourth of July likely featured various images and depictions of the bald eagle, which has served as the official bird of the United States of America since the latter decades of the 18th century.

During a trip last month to Pawleys Island, South Carolina, I saw a single bald eagle. I haven’t observed any bald eagles in the region so far this year, but I did monitor via nest cams the progress of a couple of eagle pairs as they raised their chicks. The resurgence of the once-endangered bald eagle in the lower 48 states has been a laudable accomplishment that all Americans should view with pride.

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Artist and naturalist John James Audubon knew, as did Benjamin Franklin, that the Bald Eagle frequently scavenged its meals. Audubon’s painting of an eagle with a large catfish doesn’t clearly indicate whether the bird caught the fish or scavenged an already dead one.

I thought that readers would be better prepared to celebrate Independence Day with some interesting information on our national bird, the American bald eagle, which officially became the national emblem in 1782 when the great seal of the United States was adopted. Although Benjamin Franklin famously expressed reservations about making the bald eagle our national bird, in hindsight it’s clear that Americans made the right choice.

Despite elevating this native bird to such lofty status, we have not always been kind to the bald eagle. We allowed habitat destruction and toxic pesticides to bring this eagle to the brink of extinction. With well-deserved protection, however, the bald eagle rebounded, and the Department of Interior finally took the eagle off the threatened species list on June 28, 2007.

The bald eagle has been more frequently observed by birders in Northeast Tennessee in recent years. Some of the region’s rivers and lakes are good places to look for bald eagles, particularly in the fall and winter. A few lakes even regularly host nesting bald eagles. I’ve observed bald eagles in Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida and Virginia.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                            A Bald Eagle perched in a tree along the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is a member of a genus known as Haliaeetus, or sea eagles. There are seven other living species in the genus: the white-bellied sea eagle, Sanford’s sea eagle, African fish eagle, Madagascar fish eagle, Pallas’s fish eagle, white-tailed eagle and Steller’s sea eagle. The eagles are incredibly majestic birds and important symbols of the value of natural places and creatures.

Steller’s sea eagle is named for the German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, who is renowned for his work as a pioneer in the natural history of Alaska. The 49th state to join the union is also the stronghold for the bald eagle. On occasion, Steller’s sea eagle has strayed into U.S. territory at Alaskan locations including the Pribilof Islands and Kodiak Island. Steller’s sea eagle is bigger than the bald eagle. In fact, it is the largest member of the Haliaeetus genus of eagles, making this bird one of the largest raptors in the entire world.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                    The Steller’s Jay is named in honor of German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller.

The naturalist for which the bird is named has also been honored by the naming of other creatures, including Steller’s sea lion and the now-extinct Steller’s sea cow, as well as several birds, including Steller’s jay and Steller’s eider. He was the first naturalist to describe several creatures native to Alaska, although two of these, the sea cow (a relative of the manatees) and the spectacled cormorant, are now extinct. The latter, which was the largest cormorant to ever live, is a particularly sad story. These cormorants were basically eaten into extinction, exploited as a food source by sailors and fur traders. The last spectacled cormorants perished around 1850 on a Russian island off the coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Fortunately, we have proven a little more far-sighted in our treatment of the bald eagle, which was removed from the U.S. government’s list of endangered species on July 12, 1995, and transferred to the list of threatened species. In 2007, bald eagle numbers had rebounded enough in the Lower 48 states to also allow for the bald eagle to be removed from the list of threatened species.

The bald eagle, however, is not considered closely related to eagles in the genus Aquila, or “true eagles,” in which the golden eagle is included. North America’s other eagle is a very rare visitor to the region. The golden eagle is primarily a bird of the western United States while the bald eagle ranges widely across the United States as well as into Canada and Mexico. Other true eagles include the Spanish imperial eagle, tawny eagle and wedge-tailed eagle.

BaldEagle-Sunning

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A Bald Eagle basks in sunshine from a perch in a tree along the Watauga River.

Both male and female adult bald eagles have a blackish-brown back and breast; a white head, neck and tail; and yellow feet and bill. Juvenile bald eagles are a mixture of brown and white and reach full maturity in four to five years. The female bald eagle is 35 to 37 inches in length, slightly larger than the male, with a wingspan that ranges from 72 to 90 inches. Bald eagles weigh from 10 to 14 pounds. The bald eagle’s diet consists mostly of fish, some of which are scavenged, but these large raptors are also capable of preying on everything from muskrats and ducks to rabbits and snakes. The bald eagle will also feed on carrion.

Two-hundred and thirty-four years after it was declared an official emblem of the United States, the bald eagle has become an instantly recognizable American symbol. Long may the eagles fly.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend him 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.

Elusive least bittern provides big addition to life list

I observed a new life bird during a recent trip to coastal South Carolina. Birders like to make additions to their life list, which is a compilation of all the species of birds observed over the years. I haven’t made any additions to my life list since 2013, so adding this new bird felt long overdue.

Least Bittern Painting by John James Audubon; Least Bittern Art Print for sale

These least bitterns were painted by early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon.

The new bird technically belongs to the group of long-legged waders — herons, egrets and a few other allied birds — often seen in South Carolina coastal areas. Most of these birds are often described as elegant, majestic or stately, but that’s not the case with this particular bird. My sighting also helped me cross a family of birds off my list. The least bittern I observed on June 11, 2016, in the marsh at Huntington Beach State Park near Pawleys Island, South Carolina, represented the final member of the heron family in the United States that I needed for my life list.

Least-Bittern-Photo

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                            Least bitterns, the smallest member of the heron family in North America, possess special adaptations for life in marshes and wetlands.

Some life birds on my list are rare birds that have unaccountably strayed into the region while others are birds I deliberately set out to find during visits to area where they are prevalent. I wasn’t actively looking to add any life birds to my list during my recent South Carolina visit, so the least bittern also represented a very pleasant surprise.

The least bittern has been found in wetlands in southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee, but I’ve never been in the right place at the right time to find this bird closer to home. I have seen a few American bitterns, which are a larger relative of this diminutive member of the heron clan. I didn’t have the same degree of difficult adding an American bittern to my list. Years ago, while birding with Reece Jamerson, an American bittern emerged from vegetation at the edge of a ditch in a flooded pasture and proceeded to put on quite the show. To my eternal regret, that sighting predated my habit of always carrying a camera with me while birding.

American_Bittern

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Gary Zahm     The American bittern, a larger relative of the least bittern, has a habit of freezing into place when spotted in the open, trusting that it will blend into the background. The trick doesn’t always work.

The least bittern is the smallest of North America’s herons and is one of the smallest of the world’s herons. Although it achieves a body length of 11 to 14 inches, this bird weighs only about three-and-a-half ounces. If you’re wondering how birds can achieve this lightness of being, remember that they’re comprised mostly of hollow bones and feathers. By way of comparison, the chipmunks so fond of raiding our bird feeders weigh a couple more ounces than the heaviest least bittern. The dwarf bittern of Africa and the black-backed bittern of Australia rival our native least bittern for the title of world’s smallest heron. In flight, the least bittern’s wings can unfurl as much as 18 inches.

One ironic twist is that I saw a least bittern a few days prior to what I am listing as the official date of observation for this life list addition. When I visited Huntington Beach State Park on June 5 upon first arriving I was walking the marsh causeway when a small heron flew into a dense area of vegetation. I got only an instant’s glimpse of a small heron that I was convinced was a least bittern. However, with such a short duration for the sighting, I chose not to count that sighting. When I observed the species again a few days later, however, that boosted my confidence in my call on that first sighting.

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Photo by Jean Potter                                            This Least Bittern was photographed in a wetland in Texas.

The wetlands at the park provide perfect habitat for nesting least bitterns. The least bittern is not a rare bird, but its lifestyle makes it an exceptionally difficult bird to observe. This bird acquired its reputation for elusiveness almost as soon as it was first encountered by European settlers. Early ornithologists agree that the least bittern is a master at concealment. Several of them write about the ability of these tiny herons to blend with the reeds and other vegetation in their wetland abodes. John James Audubon, the early naturalist and famous painter of North America’s birds, is credited with discovering that the least bittern possesses the ability to compress its body in order to facilitate its passage through a space no more than an inch wide.

Wild-NightHeron-Adult

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                    This Black-crowned night-heron was also found and photographed at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina, close to the location where the least bittern was observed.

These birds usually shun flight. Their preferred mode of getting through the dense vegetation of the marsh is to straddle reeds and cattails as they climb the vegetation. While some marsh birds, such as clapper rails, are fairly vocal, the least bittern’s elusive manner extends even to its vocalizations. The least bittern is rarely heard outside of the nesting season, although a startled bird may produce an excited cackling. The least bittern I observed was completely silent as it slowly merged back into the dense cattails of the marsh.

In appearance, the least bittern is a distinctive bird with a dark crown patch, a rusty-orange neck and sides, a white chin patch and an orange and white striped throat. Its eyes and bill are yellow. The legs are green in the front and yellow in the back. Males and females are similar in appearance with males looking slightly more vibrant.

American_Bittern-2 copy

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Sallie Gentry                 The American bittern, which is also a member of the heron family in North America, is larger and slightly more frequently observed than its smaller relative.

A female least bittern will lay between five and seven eggs, but a range of threats face her hatchlings. Crows and raptors, marsh mammals and alligators and other reptiles are potential predators. An unlikely peril is posed by the small marsh wren, which will puncture the eggs of least bitterns and other wetland birds nesting in its territory.

Incidentally, the previous bird added to my life list back was a black-legged kittiwake observed on Oct. 29, 2013, at Holston Dam in Sullivan County, Tennessee.

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Wild-NightHeron-Young

Photo by Bryan Stevens This young Black-crowned Night-heron does a good job blending with its surroundings.

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.