Monthly Archives: September 2017

Hurricanes: bane for birds, boon for birders

During a program I presented on birds and birding at the Elizabethton/Carter County Public Library, an attendee asked me if I knew what happens to birds in a hurricane? The question, no doubt prompted by such recent storms as Harvey and Irma, is of particular concern now that many of our favorite birds are migrating south along paths that could take them into harm’s way.

 

Well-known birder Kenn Kaufman shared his knowledge about birds and hurricanes when interviewed back in 2011 on the Audubon website. Among some fascinating insight he shared, Kaufman noted that the way intense storms affect birds depends on the species. He noted that a whimbrel, a large shorebird, would be more likely to fly through a major hurricane and live to tell the tale. On the other hand, such a storm would likely prove lethal for songbirds like warblers and thrushes.

 

To the questioner at my program, I also admitted that dedicated birders are, at times, rather atypical people. For a birder looking to find a totally unexpected bird, every hurricane comes with a proverbial silver lining. In the case of birders, that lining involves some of those stronger flyers — birds like whimbrels, noddies, terns, jaegers or tropicbirds — that get swept into the eye of the storm, carried far inland and dropped onto large lakes as the storm weakens.

 

My first direct observation of one of these hurricane-transported displaced birds took place back on Sept. 8, 2004. I had been drawn to Musick’s Campground on South Holston Lake by reports of an incredible fallout of such birds, which included species like whimbrel and red knot. More than a dozen fellow birders were present in the swirl of wind, mist and rain when a graceful bird with a dramatic two-toned black and white plumage flew overhead. I had no idea of the bird’s identity, but I knew instantly it was a species I’d never observed. I heard someone yell “sooty tern” — the identity of the shouter turned out to be area birding legend Rick Knight — and then pandemonium broke out as birders in rain gear got their binoculars into position to track the bird before it flew out of sight.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Sooty Terns nests in the Dry Tortugas in the Florida Keys. One was blown into Northeast Tennessee with Hurricane Frances in 2004.

 

We needn’t have worried. The bird lingered long enough for all those present to get a good look. I was accompanied that day by the late Howard P. Langridge, a well-known birder in both Florida and Tennessee. Howard had seen sooty terns, but he had found them when visiting the islands of the Dry Tortugas, west of the Florida Keys.

 

Two months after the exciting observation of that sooty tern, Howard passed away at age 81. So, even to this day, memories of that bird are tinged with some bittersweetness from the fact it was one of my last birding adventures with a man who served as a bit of a birding mentor for me. On our drive back home after that exciting encounter with the storm-driven tern, Howard talked excitedly about sooty terns and some of the other rare birds he had seen in a birding career that spanned more than 50 years.

 

In addition, we learned a valuable lesson that day. It’s an accepted fact that no bird is worth risking life or limb. It’s also a good idea to be careful where you park when going out to a rain-drenched lakeshore to look for birds from a diminished hurricane. Howard and I lingered after the other birders departed. When we started to leave, he discovered his car’s back tires had gotten stuck in the clay mud. With Howard behind the wheel, I pushed his car as the tires spun madly for traction. I ruined a new pair of denim jeans, but I got the car out of the mud. It’s one more memory that will put a smile on my face to this day.

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Photo by Jean Potter Caspian Terns at Holston Lake in Northeast Tennessee.

 

The sooty tern, blown to a Bristol lake in 2004 by Hurricane Frances, remains a highlight of my birding; however, it’s hardly the only unusual bird to be dumped on area lakes thanks to hurricanes that formed in tropic waters.

 

Hurricane Hugo back in 1989 remains one of the most legendary storms in the minds of most long-time birders in the area. I hadn’t yet taken up birding, but birders like Howard made sure I knew all about the bird bounty stirred up by Hugo. Two species of jaegers — parasitic and pomarine — were among the birds blown inland to Watauga Lake in Carter County. Seeing these birds usually requires a seat on a boat capable of traveling far out to sea to look for birds that hardly ever venture near the shoreline except for nesting.

 

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Photo by Bryan Stevens A Forster’s Tern observed at Boone Lake in Northeast Tennessee.

Hurricane Hugo also blew more than 50 Forster’s terns — a record number for the region — to Watauga Lake. In addition, a single royal tern — a first record for Tennessee — was also detected by birders looking for birds displaced by Hurricane Hugo.

 

Much farther back, a high count of Caspian terns was recorded Sept. 5, 1964, at Boone Lake in the wake of Hurricane Cleo. The late Wallace Coffey, a well-known birder in Bristol, was present to witness those 130 Caspian terns. Both Caspian and royal terns are birds usually found along the Atlantic Coast in places like Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.

 

As I write this week’s post, I’m keeping track of the progress of more hurricanes forming in the Atlantic. The season has already produced some historically powerful storms. Could the projected path of one of these hurricanes bring storm remnants over Tennessee. Will area lakes see another incredible fallout of birds uprooted from their tropical homes? Time will tell. If something unusual does make an appearance, I hope to bring it to the attention of readers in an upcoming column.

 

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Join Bryan Stevens on Saturday, Sept. 30, for a one-hour morning bird walk on the trails at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton. The walk will begin at 8 a.m. from the parking lot at the park’s visitors center. Bring binoculars to help increase your chances of seeing some migrating birds along the park’s trails.

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Green herons will depart from region in coming weeks as cooler conditions return

With the arrival of September, migration’s pace will quicken. In late August, I started seeing warblers passing through my yard. In other locations in the region, birders have shared reports of shorebirds and wading birds.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Green herons are short, stocky herons that can assume some comical poses.

Jonesborough resident Julia Ellis wrote about her own observation of a green heron that took place recently. She had seen a photo of a green heron with one of my recent columns, which helped her identify the bird.

She explained in her email that she saw the heron at along a creek on her Cherokee Road farm. “I was at a loss as to what it was,” Julia wrote. “It showed up several times a few weeks ago very close to dusk. The picture in the newspaper cleared up the mystery for me.”

Although not unusual at this time of year, green herons have been lurking along the linear trail’s waterways in Erwin. The scientific name — Butorides virescens – of this bird comes from a mix of Middle English and Ancient Greek and roughly translates as “greenish bittern.”

The green in the bird’s plumage appears as a dark green cap, as well as a greenish back and wings. Adult birds also have chestnut-colored neck feathers and a line of white feathers along the throat and belly. These herons often assume a hunched position, which can make them look smaller than they actually are.

Keep alert when walking along the trails in Erwin and you may catch sight of one of these interesting herons, too. Farm ponds in the countryside around Jonesborough, as well as wetland habitat around Persimmon Ridge Park, are also good places to look for this small heron. Most green herons will depart in late September and early October. This small heron retreats from the United States during the winter season but will return next spring in April and May.

A few herons — great blue heron and black-crowned night heron — remain in the region throughout the year, even enduring the cold winter months in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina.

Plovers among migration champions of vast and varied shorebird clan

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Photo by Janice Humble • A killdeer wanders in a grassy area near the Wal-Mart on Volunteer Parkway in Bristol. The killdeer, a species of plover, is one of the more common shorebirds found in the region.

I’m always glad to lend a hand at identifying birds. If you’re uncertain of a bird’s identification and have a photo of the bird in question, assistance is an email away. Janice Humble emailed me seeking some help with identifying the bird in a photograph attached with her message. She noted that the bird was accompanied by a companion in the grassy area near the Wal-Mart on Volunteer Parkway in Bristol. She also noted that the two birds uttered loud “peeps” during her observation.

The bird turned out to be a killdeer, a species of plover native to North America. Plovers belong to the family of shorebirds that include various sandpipers, curlews, dowitchers, stilts, avocets and other species. The killdeer is a rather common shorebird that finds itself at home far from the seashore, often present in habitats such as pastures and golf courses, as well as the grassy areas near the concrete and asphalt jungles that surround Wal-Marts and other such shopping complexes.

The killdeer’s famous for its faking of an injured wing. When its nest or young is threatened, a killdeer will go into an elaborate display, fluttering the “injured” wing and uttering shrill peeps to distract the potential predator. If successful, the bird will lure the predator away from the nest or vulnerable young. Once at a safe distance, the killdeer undergoes a miraculous recovery and takes wing, leaving behind a bewildered and perhaps chagrined predator.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Killdeer explores near a stream bank.

Other North American plovers related to the killdeer include American golden-plover, black-bellied plover, Pacific golden plover, Wilson’s plover, piping plover, snowy plover, mountain plover and semipalmated plover. About 70 different species of plovers exist around the world, including such descriptively named birds as little ringed plover, red-capped plover, three-banded plover and white-fronted plover.

Musick’s Campground on Holston Lake has been one of the best area locations for seeking shorebirds during their migrations. The shore near the campground has been a magnet for persuading unusual shorebirds to pause their journey to rest, refresh and refuel. The location’s privately owned, but individual wishing to bird the shoreline can enter by signing the guest book located a small but well-marked kiosk. Some of the most memorable shorebirds I’ve seen at Musick’s Campground over the years include whimbrel, dunlin, sanderling, greater yellowlegs, short-billed dowitcher, American avocet, black-bellied plover and semipalmated plover. In recent weeks, the location has hosted such unexpected shorebirds as red knot and red-necked phalarope.

While the neighboring states of Virginia and North Carolina offer coastal birding opportunities, my native Tennessee remains quite landlocked. This fact poses a challenge for birders looking to capitalize on the seasonal migrations of shorebirds. Fortunately ponds, mudflats on the shorelines of lakes, riverbanks and even flooded fields offer adequate substitute habitat for many shorebirds. While the Mountain Empire region may lack a seashore, migrating shorebirds have learned to make do.

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Photo by Jean Potter • The American golden-plover, like this individual, is a long-distance migrant among the varied family of shorebirds.

This varied and far-flung family is also known as “wind birds,” a term which is an allusion to the capacity of many species of shorebirds to undertake nothing less than epic migrations. Many of the shorebirds that pass through in the spring are in haste to reach their nesting grounds as far north as the edge of the Arctic tundra. In fall, many of the same birds are eager to return to destinations in Central and South America ahead of cold weather and times of scarcity.

The plovers — the sedentary killdeer excepted — are among the champions of long-distance migration. According to the Audubon website, the black-bellied plover spends the brief summer season nesting in the world’s high Arctic zones but disperses to spend the winter months on the coasts of six of the globe’s seven continents.

The Pacific golden-plover’s twice yearly migrations represent an even more impressive feat. This shorebird often nests in Alaska and winter in Hawaii. The website Phys.org notes that research on this plover has revealed that the bird is capable of flying almost 3,000 miles in a mere four days. The website also reveals that those plovers wintering in Hawaii cannot lay claim to longest migrations. Some Pacific golden-plovers nest even farther south in the Pacific, reaching the Marshall Islands.

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Photo by Jean Potter • A black-bellied plover stands out from most relatives when it wears its nesting season breeding plumage.

Shorebirds represent only a single family of birds migrating through the region in the fall. Songbirds from warblers and thrushes to vireos and flycatchers, as well as raptors and waterfowl, wing their way through the region every fall. Get outdoors with a pair of binoculars and have a look. It’s almost impossible not to see something, which may turn out to be a delightful and unanticipated surprise.

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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. To ask a question, make a comment or share a sighting, email him at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Upcoming programs offer insight into birds and birding

Fall migration has begun. The pace may be a trickle at present, but the floodgates will open in September and October as a multitude of neotropical migrants — birds that spend the summer nesting season in North America — make their way back to warmer territory in Central and South America.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Upcoming programs in the region will focus on topics such as songbirds, raptors and the basics of beginning birdwatching. Plan to attend one or more of the programs to learn more about birds, such as this green heron.

A few of the “early birds” are already well on their way. At home, I am already seeing evidence of the increasing pace of migration as hummingbird numbers increase daily at my feeders and thrushes and warblers make stopovers in the surrounding woodlands. In the coming weeks, I fully expect to see even more of these migrating birds. It’s one of the major reasons that autumn’s my favorite season. The birds that were in such a rush to get to nesting grounds back in April and May take a more leisurely pace as they journey back south in September and October.

September will also offer some opportunities to learn more about our feathered friends at some upcoming programs that aim to provide some unique insights into the birds that share the world with us. Consider attending some or all of these events, and then be sure to get outdoors in the next couple of months to discover the diversity of the birds that pass through the region every fall.

I will be presenting a free program titled “Bold Birding in the Backyard and Beyond” at the Elizabethton/Carter County Public Library at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 6. The program, which is part of the library’s Adult Services program, is designed as an introduction for beginners to the pastimes of birding and birdwatching.

 
My presentation will feature photographs taken around my home, as well as from some of my birding adventures during my travels. I took many of the photographs that will be presented in Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina, but I will also show some photos from trips to Utah, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida.

 
I will offer some basic steps people can take to increase their enjoyment of the experience of birdwatching. I will also highlight the opportunities and advantages that membership in a local birding organization can bring.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Tufted titmouse checks out a feeder.

 

The library will provide light refreshments and a display of books on birds and birding that are available through the library’s collection. The library is located at 201 N. Sycamore St., Elizabethton. For more information, call 547-6360.

The annual Roan Mountain Fall Naturalists Rally brings together nature enthusiasts from throughout the region and beyond for a weekend of nature programs, walks and other activities. This year’s rally — the 55th consecutive one in the event’s history — will be held Friday-Sunday, Sept. 8-10. Most activities will be based at the Roan Mountain State Park Conference Center in Roan Mountain, Tennessee.

While the focus of the annual rally is always on a wide range of topics in the natural world, this year’s two evening programs on Friday and Saturday will put the spotlight on birds.

Dr. Andy Jones has worked at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History for more than a decade. He was hired in 2006 as the William A. and Nancy R. Klamm Endowed Chair of Ornithology, thanks to a donation from the Klamms to the museum. In 2011, he was also named Director of Science, overseeing all activities in the Collections and Research Division. A native of Kingsport, Tennessee, he has ties to several members in area birding organizations, including the Bristol Bird Club. His program, titled, “Using Sequences, Songs, and Serendipity to Understand Eastern North American Birds,” will explore birds and their songs, which are more complicated than anyone expected.

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Photo Courtesy of FORM • Dr. Andy Jones holds a Northern saw-whet owl.

Ranger Marty Silver has worked as an environmental educator and conservation officer for Tennessee State Parks for more than 38 years, most of that time at Warriors Path State Park in Kingsport. He is responsible for the park’s interpretive programming, resource protection, trail maintenance, habitat management and outdoor education. Silver works with people of all ages, especially school children, and shares nature discovery and conservation awareness with more than 30,000 students each year. In addition, he has presented numerous teacher training workshops and has received a number of state-wide and national environmental education awards.

Silver will bring some rehabilitated captive raptors that he employs in educational programs. These birds suffered injuries in the past that made it impossible to return them to the wild, but they now serve as feathered ambassadors to help people learn about a family of birds that is often misunderstood. These raptors (with a little help from Ranger Silver) share new insights into how everyone can play a role in resource protection through nature education.

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Photo Courtesy of FORM • Marty Silver and a great horned owl present an educational program on birds.

Both evening programs begin at 7:30 p.m. and follow buffet meals that will be held at 6:30 p.m. There is an additional cost to attend the meals, and reservations are necessary. There are registration fees to attend any of the activities, including the evening programs, at the Roan Mountain Fall Naturalists Rally. Membership in the organization will result in fees being waived. For information on joining Friends of Roan Mountain or a complete schedule for this year’s Rally, please visit http://www.friendsofroanmtn.org for a downloadable brochure, registration form and contact information. In addition to the evening programs, the three-day rally will feature bird walks, as well as hikes featuring a variety of topics, including butterflies, mushrooms, wildflowers, salamanders and spiders.

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Attending these programs could offer some helpful information to prepare for this year’s fall migration. However, even if you’re unable to fit any of the programs into your schedule, plan on getting outdoors this fall. Birds are going to be much easier to find and observe as they migrate, so keep your eyes open.
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If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.