Looking back on the birding highlights of 2016

 

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All photography by Bryan Stevens • An American goldfinch feeds during the snowfall from Winter Storm Helena.

Although its been many years since grade school, I still enjoy a good snow day. Much of the snow from Winter Storm Helena fell overnight, so I awoke on a Saturday morning to see a tranquil blanket of ice crystals that would have made a perfect white Christmas had the storm arrived only a few weeks earlier.

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Winter Storm Helena has produced the only significant snowfall so far this winter in Northeast Tennessee.

Of the many things I pondered on my lazy Saturday morning was the fact that we didn’t used to name our snowstorms. After a quick consultation with Google on my computer, I learned that The Weather Channel kicked off this trend of bestowing names on winter storms back in the fall of 2012. I guess the rest of the media quickly followed suit. I do have Winter Storm Helena to thank for a definite uptick in the number of birds seeking out my feeders for an easy meal of sunflower seeds or suet. I gazed out a window for most of the morning, keeping watch on the mixed flock of birds that made a steady pilgrimage to the feeders.

A feisty flock of dark-eyed juncos, its members racing across the snow-covered ground beneath the feeders in search of seeds dropped by other birds, could easily claim the distinction of being among the most faithful visitors. The “snow birds” kept their position near the feeders for most of the day.

Other common visitors included the frantic tufted titmice and Carolina chickadees. These tiny bundles of feathers are always engaged in a perpetual race to grab a seed, fly to a perch, eat the seed, then repeat the process.

An occasional solitary downy woodpecker or no-nonsense white-throated sparrow broke the sameness in the ranks of the flocks. A flash of red signaled the arrival of a male Northern cardinal. Noisy screeches signaled the arrival of blue jays. The jays ate quickly and soon departed.

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A least bittern climbs through wetland vegetation at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

It wasn’t too long before I found myself hoping for the unexpected: a lone common redpoll among the dull goldfinches or a querulous flock of evening grosbeaks. Yes, those are long shots, but that’s what makes watching birds so exciting. I enjoyed several memorable birding moments last year, and I’m starting to look forward to what surprises watching birds might bring in 2017. Rather than predict what some of those unanticipated moments might be, I thought I’d look back at my top birding moments from 2016. Here’s my list:

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A rufous hummingbirds rests in a gloved hand after being banded.

• During a June trip to South Carolina, I saw a life bird. It’s not often that I get to add a new species to my list, so I was quite pleased. The bird — a least bittern — also represented the final species of heron that I needed to complete my observation of all North America’s herons. I saw the least bittern — very briefly — on the first day of my visit to Huntington Beach State Park. Not trusting my eyes, I declined to acknowledge I’d seen this diminutive heron. A few days later, on a tip from another birder, I got my “official” look at this bird, as well as some photos.

• A male rufous hummingbird visited feeders maintained by my mother and me from Oct. 7 to Nov. 5, 2016. I can be confident in the identification of the bird because noted bird bander Mark Armstrong traveled to my home to capture, document and band the bird. Now, with a tiny band around its leg, if the hummer returns next year we might be able to confirm it’s the same bird. This is the third sighting of a rufous hummingbird I have made at my home over the past several years.

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Three young Eastern phoebes share a crowded nest.

• Eastern phoebes build a nest on my porch fan. When I returned home after my summer vacation, I was delighted to find a pair of Eastern phoebes had built a nest on the blades of the ceiling fan on my front porch. Needless to say, the fan was taken out of commission during their nesting activity. The phoebes raised three fledglings, giving me a daily glimpse into their progress. During the recent snowstorm, I had a single phoebe foraging in the willows at the creek. I speculated that the bird could be one of the now mature nestlings from this summer’s porch nest.

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The mother hummingbird Bliss tends her two offspring.

• Last year was a stellar year for hummingbirds, which have always been one of my favorite birds. I’ve always been curious about hummingbird nests, but I’ve never succeeded in finding one. I still haven’t found one, but I was invited by Bluff City resident Donna Ottinger to visit and see a ruby-throated hummingbird nest in a maple tree in her yard. It was an incredible experience to see my first ruby-throated hummingbird nest, still occupied at the time by two tiny hatchlings being dutifully tended by their mother, a hummingbird Donna named Bliss.

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Rufus, a ruffed grouse, resides in Flag Pond in Unicoi County.

• I met a most unusual ruffed grouse this past year in the mountains near Flag Pond in Unicoi County, Tennessee. The grouse, by the name of Rufus, has been a fascinating and funny neighbor to Leon and Janice Rhodes for the past couple of years. I met Rufus on Saturday, June 25, at the Rhodes family farm. Brayden Paulk, a grandson of the couple, had invited me. The unique wild grouse acted like one of the family. The memorable meeting ranks as one of my most fascinating bird observations.
If anyone had asked me at the start of 2016 what I expected from the year, I would never have predicted adding a least bittern to my life list or making the acquaintance of a grouse named Rufus. I can look forward with confidence to another round of delightful birding surprises in 2017.

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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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