Category Archives: Birds

Unlikely orange-crowned warbler becomes daily visitor this winter at woman’s feeders

After you have fed the birds long enough, you’re going to get visits from “mystery” birds. No matter how thoroughly you thumb through the pages of your field guides or how many online Google searches you conduct, it can be hard to pin down the identity of certain birds, especially when you encounter them for the first time.

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Photo by Rebecca Boyd • This orange-crowned warbler has found a favorable winter residence at the home of Rebecca Boyd in Knoxville, Tennessee, making frequent visits to suet feeders to supplement its usual diet of insects and berries.

In the summer and fall, young birds recently out of the nest can cause some confusion when they show up in the company of their parents at feeders. In the winter, often a season characterized by subdued plumages and nomadic wanderers, the surprise visitors can be one of the many “little brown birds” in the sparrow clan or a summer bird like an oriole or thrush that has decided to take a shot at overwintering.

Or, with greater frequency each winter, it might be one of the warblers. That was the case when Rebecca Boyd, a resident of Knoxville, Tennessee, contacted me recently via Facebook asking for assistance with a bird identification.

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Photo by Rebecca Boyd • This orange-crowned warbler is one of the more nondescript members of the warbler family.

Although most of the warblers beat a hasty retreat from North America every fall, a handful of species have increasingly begun to spend the winter months far north of their usual tropical haunts. Some of these species include yellow-rumped warbler, pine warbler and palm warbler, but the low-profile orange-crowned warbler is also becoming more common between November and March, especially in yards and gardens offering supplemental food such as suet cakes.

The small greenish-yellow bird that showed up at Rebecca’s home was easily identified, thanks to some great photographs that she took of her visitor. I communicated to her that I believed her bird to be an orange-crowned warbler. She had also conducted her own research, which had also led her to that conclusion.

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Photo by Rebecca Boyd • This orange-crowned warbler has found a home at the residence of Rebecca Boyd in Knoxville, Tennessee, this winter.

Rebecca said she also shared some photos with birding groups on Facebook, which brought some helpful feedback. “I’ve gotten numerous responses that orange-crowned warblers are becoming a lot more common on the east side of the Mississippi, with quite a few people saying they are seeing them in their yards, too,” Rebecca wrote.

The orange-crowned warbler is one of the more undistinguished members of this New World family of birds that numbers about 115 species. The bird gains its common name from a physical feature that is rarely seen — an orange patch of feathers that, unless the bird is extremely excited or agitated, is usually concealed beneath its dull greenish-yellow feathers. It’s not a field mark that’s considered reliable for identifying the bird.

Rebecca got a lucky break and managed to photograph this elusive feature on her visiting bird. She said the feathers on the bird’s head appeared wet, which may have explained the appearance of the orange crown.

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Photo by Rebecca Boyd • Wet feathers made the rarely seen orange crown visible on this orange-crowned warbler that has taken up residence at the home of Rebecca Boyd in Knoxville, Tennessee, this winter.

So, what does signify an orange-crowned warbler? The lack of wing bars, as well as the absence of a strong facial pattern is a strong indicator. The bird in Rebecca’s photo is not nearly as drab as this warbler can appear. Some appear very gray with only a hint of yellow or green in their plumage. There is often faint gray streaking evident in their yellow-green breast feathers. This warbler always shows yellow beneath its tail, a feature that is often only glimpsed as an observed bird is diving into cover. These birds also have sharp, thin bills. It’s usually a process of eliminating other suspects that brings birders to identify one of these warblers.

Unlike some warblers restricted to either the eastern or western United States, the orange-crowned warbler migrates and winters throughout the nation, east and west, although it primarily only nests within the western United States, as well as Alaska and Canada.

Although Rebecca said she has only been bird-watching and taking pictures for a little over a year, she has been a general point-and-shoot photography hobbyist for years. “My backyard is a bird paradise that attracts numerous and varied species,” Rebecca noted. “My favorites are bluebirds and hummingbirds, but the little warblers are also very special.”

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Photo by Rebecca Boyd • Besides orange-crowned warbler, like this individual, other warblers on occasion winter in the United States. Species most often attempting to spend the winter months in the United States include palm warbler, pine warbler, and yellow-rumped warbler.

Most of the warblers are currently residing on the island of the the Caribbean, or far south in Central and South America. A few others spend the winter in Florida or other southern states. The 50 or so species that nest in the United States and Canada will begin arriving as early as next month, although the majority of these summer residents will arrive or pass through the region in late April and May.

So, while it has a colorful name, the orange-crowned warbler is one of the more drab and nondescript members of its family. Other warblers living throughout the Americas include flame-throated warbler, crescent-chested warbler, citrine warbler and arrowhead warbler.

I’ll just keep daydreaming on the occasional snowy day of the approach of spring, which signals that the kin of the orange-crowned warbler will be winging their way north again in only a couple more months. I, for one, can’t wait.

••••••

If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photo by Rebecca Boyd • This orange-crowned warbler grabs a bit of suet from a feeder at the home of Rebecca Boyd in Knoxville, Tennessee.

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Visit by Yellow-headed blackbird, last seen in region in 1994, creates a stir

Bugaboo Springs Road near Jonesborough, Tennessee, saw some heavier vehicular traffic in mid-January after the exciting observation of a yellow-headed blackbird associating with a sizable flock of brown-headed cowbirds.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • This yellow-headed blackbird has been residing with flocks of brown-headed cowbirds and European starlings at a cattle pasture near Jonesborough, Tennessee. The bird, the first of its kind seen in Northeast Tennessee since 1994, has generated excitement among birders. Some people have traveled from as far as Knoxville, Tennessee, and Roanoke, Virginia, to see the bird.

The bird came to the attention of Dawn Peters, a resident along Bugaboo Springs Road, who noticed the unusually colorful bird at her feeders while looking out the window of her laundry room. At first, she thought the bird might be an oddball member of the cowbird flock.

“I’d never seen one before,” she said. “I knew it was something strange and something new.”

Dawn took the time to take a photograph of the bird and then contacted friends Jean and Brookie Potter, who also happened to be birders. They alerted her to the rare status of her feeder visitor.

“He really stood out,” Dawn said of the blackbird with a yellow head.

The yellow-headed blackbird arrived at her feeders on a snowy day when the temperatures had plunged. Dawn said she has been feeding birds for 20 years since she and her husband moved to Bugaboo Springs Road near Jonesborough, Tennessee. “The birds know where to come for food,” she said. “I try to feed them all, but they can eat you out of house and home.”

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Photo by Bryan Stevens This yellow-headed blackbird and several brown-headed cowbirds perch in a tree after foraging for food in a cattle lot near Jonesborough, Tennessee.

Dawn said she gets a variety of birds at her feeders, ranging from sparrows and cardinals to mourning doves and finches. “I also get downy woodpeckers and towhees,” she added.

On occasion, she will notice a hawk in the yard. In the summer, she puts out several feeders with sugar water to attract hummingbirds. “Last summer, I had brown thrashers raise a family in my yard,” she said.

Although the yellow-headed blackbird arrived with a flock of brown-headed cowbirds, the other flock members didn’t exactly embrace him. “Some of the cowbirds would peck at him,” she said.

While the yellow-headed blackbird hasn’t been back to her feeders since Jan. 13, the bird was rediscovered less than a mile from her home in a feed lot for cattle. The yellow-headed blackbird has continued to associate with large flocks of cowbirds and European starlings and has been observed by dozens of birders.

The yellow-headed blackbird, known by the scientific name Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus, is a relative of cowbirds, as well as the familiar red-winged blackbird. It’s a unique species in that it is the only member of the genus, Xanthocephalus. Breaking this word down from its ancient Greek origins, the name means, quite literally “yellow headed.”

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Photo by Bryan Stevens This yellow-headed blackbird was photographed at Antelope Island State Park in Utah in 2006.

The yellow-headed blackbird’s also a species that has been only a rare visitor to the region. While a common bird in wetland habitats west of the Great Lakes, the yellow-head blackbird has not been reported often in East Tennessee. In fact, there are only a handful of records since the 1930s, the most recent sightings being reported and documented in 1990 and 1994. Since it has been almost a quarter of a century since the last time a yellow-headed blackbird was found in East Tennessee, one could argue that a visit from a vagrant individual of this species was long overdue. In southwest Virginia, there are a couple of records from Smyth County dating back to July of 1985 and March of 1988.

It’s not quite clear why a yellow-headed blackbird ventured into the region in mid-January. Normally, these birds spend the winter months in the southwestern United States and Mexico. They often migrate in huge flocks with other species of birds, which could explain why the bird found itself an honorary member of a flock of cowbirds estimated to number about 300 individuals.

My first attempt to add this species to my Tennessee list ended in failure, although I did enjoy seeing several white-crowned sparrows, a handsome bird that definitely doesn’t deserve being classified as one of the “little brown birds” that so often serves as an offhand designation for sparrows. That attempt was made on the morning of Jan. 18 and may have been ended prematurely. When I got access to a computer later, I checked to see if any other observations had been reported. I noticed a report from local birder Michelle Sparks, who saw the bird probably less than 90 minutes after I had ended my first attempt.

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Early American naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted these yellow-headed blackbirds.

Speculating that the yellow-headed blackbird and its accompanying flocks of brown-headed cowbirds and European starlings would return to the feedlot to forage before dark, I returned at 4 p.m. to try again. I found the feedlot overwhelmed by hundreds of cowbirds and starlings, but I didn’t see any sign of a bird with a yellow head. Many of the cowbirds carpeted the pasture as they gleaned seeds and other food items. Many of the starlings were perched in the branches of trees and on the roof of an old farmhouse. At some point, almost every bird in the chaotic flock spooked and took to the air. The flock wheeled and turned, with most of the birds settling into the upper branches of some of the taller trees at the location. I soon detected a flash of yellow. I’m not sure where the bird had been hiding earlier, but the yellow-headed blackbird proved unmistakable, perched high in the trees with the sun shining brightly. He couldn’t hide from my binoculars or camera, which I used to snap several photos of this rare visitor to the region.

I have this species on my life list, having seen yellow-headed blackbirds during visits to Utah in 2003 and 2006. While in Utah, I also saw red-winged blackbird, brown-headed cowbirds and Brewer’s blackbirds, including a partial albino individual that presented a challenge in identifying.

While technically a songbird, the yellow-headed blackbird routinely ranks as one of the worst singers among North America’s songbirds. The yellow-headed blackbird is not all musical, with its song repertoire ranging from what has been described as “cacophonous strangling noises” and “honking gurgles” on the website for the publication, “Birdwatcher’s Digest.”

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Photo by Jean Potter • This yellow-headed blackbird was photographed in Colorado in 2016.

The New World’s blackbirds belong to the family of birds, Icteridae, which also consists of birds such as meadowlarks, orioles, cowbirds, grackles, bobolinks and oropendolas. Although many blackbirds show predominantly black plumage, these birds often contrast their dark coloration with yellow, orange or red feathers. The name of the genus stems from Ancient Greek and Latin words that, translated into English, mean roughly, “jaundiced ones,” which stems from the yellow feathers present in the plumage of many species. Other blackbirds in the New World include tawny-shouldered blackbird, saffron-cowled blackbird, melodious blackbird, oriole blackbird and scarlet-headed blackbird. In the United States, other nesting species in the family include Brewer’s blackbird, tri-colored blackbird and rusty blackbird. The last of these species has shown chronic long-term and acute short-term population declines, based both on breeding season and wintering ground surveys. Some estimates suggest that the rusty blackbird population has declined by 80 percent, which could soon endanger the species.

I’m hoping the yellow-headed blackbird on Bugaboo Springs Road is liking where it has found itself this winter and will continue to delight observant birders over the upcoming weeks.

•••••

Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Birders from near and far converged on Bugaboo Springs Road near Jonesborough, Tennessee, to search for the yellow-headed blackbird.

Red-shouldered hawk makes a fascinating, if somewhat shy, guest

People who feed the birds soon get to know the feisty personalities from the retiring wallflowers when it comes to the visitors to their yards. Northern mockingbirds, male ruby-throated hummingbirds and American robins are usually counted among the more boisterous birds.

Then there are the birds that shrink from interaction and hang back on the fringes, including wood thrushes, Eastern towhees and the large but shy pileated woodpecker. The latter example just goes to show that size doesn’t always equate with an extroverted personality when it comes to birds.

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Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Lee Karney • Red-shouldered hawks prefer to perch and ambush prey. They drop on unsuspecting prey, which varies from reptiles and amphibians to rodents, that come within reach.

That’s certainly the case with a red-shouldered hawk that has taken up residence for the winter at my home. The hawk usually favors a stand of trees near the fish pond at my home when it visits the yard. The hawk made its initial appearances in December and then lingered into the new year. So far, the hawk has been a very shy guest. I’ve wanted to photograph the bird, but that’s difficult to do when it spooks and flies off the instant I step outside the door of my home. I’m not too disappointed because I know that raptors that are too comfortable around humans are at risk of running afoul of misinformed individuals who may regard all predatory birds as “bad.” The reality is that all hawks are valuable components of a healthy, working ecosystem with each species filling a certain niche.

According to a factsheet published by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, this raptor breeds in moist woodlands, riverine forests, the borders of swamps, open pine woods and similar habitats. Nesting almost always occurs near water, such as a swamp, river or pond.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • This captive red-shouldered hawk was rehabilitated after suffering an injury and now works in an educational program at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina to teach the public about raptors, other birds, and various types of wildlife.

 

The red-shouldered hawk is an ambush predator. This raptor usually selects a favorable perch and remains still while scanning for possible prey. The hawk will drop rapidly onto any prey that wanders carelessly within range. In the summer, prey items largely consist of reptiles and amphibians, including snakes and frogs, as well as some insects and crayfish. Most of these creatures are scarce during the colder months of the year, which prompts these hawks to adopt a diet that focuses on rodents and the occasional songbird. Other than the altercations with the resident crows, I haven’t observed any encounters between the hawk at my home and any other birds — with one exception.

On a recent morning, the hawk was on its usual perch — a branch of a large willow adjacent to the fish pond — when seven Canada geese, another rare visitor to my home, suffered some sort of fright and took flight. The noisy geese flew directly over the willow, which spooked the raptor into taking flight in the opposite direction of the departing geese.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A calling red-shouldered hawk perched in a dead tree on Pawleys Island in South Carolina.

The red-shouldered hawk produces a distinctive, piercing whistle that reminds me of the shrill call of a killdeer. The hawk at my house has been silent so far, perhaps not wishing to draw attention. The few times the local crows have noticed the hawk’s presence, they’ve flocked together to mob the unfortunate hawk. It’s also not the right time of year. During courtship and the subsequent nesting period, these hawks are vocal. At other times of the year, they are rarely heard. It’s also possible to mistakenly think you have heard one of these large hawks. Blue jays have apparently learned to imitate the “kee-yar” call of this hawk, often working a flawless rendition of the whistled notes of this large raptor.

In contrast to the related red-tailed hawk, the red-shouldered hawk soars less and prefers to perch hidden in the cover of trees. This hawk’s name comes from the reddish-brown shoulder patches in the bird’s wings. Adults show a tail marked with vivid bands of black and white that is quite distinctive.

The red-shouldered hawk belongs to the same genus of raptors as its larger relative, the red-tailed hawk. The genus, buteo, includes about two dozen large raptors that are often dominant avian predators in their respective habitats. The red-shouldered hawk is known by the scientific name Buteo lineatus.

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Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of red-shouldered hawk.

The red-shouldered hawk is less common in the region than some of the other raptors. This hawk’s stronghold is in Florida and other southern states like South Carolina and Georgia. I’ve seen many of these hawks on visits to both the Sunshine State and Palmetto State.

Some of the buteo species have adapted to life on islands, including the Galapagos hawk and the Hawaiian hawk. Some of these hawks have quite descriptive names, including the white-throated hawk, gray-lined hawk, zone-tailed hawk and short-tailed hawk. Outside the United States, raptors in the buteo genus are often known as buzzards. When the first European colonists came to the New World, they applied the term buzzard to both native vultures, as well as the large raptors like Swainson’s hawk and broad-winged hawk that reminded them of the ones back in Europe.

It’s been nice hosting this beautiful raptor, although the crows might disagree with me. A neighbor who lives close to me has had red-shouldered hawks spend the summer months on her property, so I’m hopeful that my visitor might even like the surroundings well enough to become a full-time resident.

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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. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • In a timely fashion, this red-shouldered hawk, which has avoided the camera for weeks, arrived on this rainy day in late January on the same date this post inspired by this bird was published.

What’s in a name? Vernacular designations for some birds lack imagination

I took part in a Christmas Bird Count last month. These annual mid-December surveys of bird populations are not quite as exciting as counts held during the spring or fall migration periods each year, but they can produce some interesting results. One exciting post-count activity after taking part in a CBC is getting together to compile the results tallied by the various participating groups and individuals. The results are usually compiled on field checklists for birds of Tennessee. These checklists, which are produced by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Tennessee Ornithological Society, feature a listing of the common name of every bird species likely to be encountered in the state.

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Photo by USFWS/Robert Burton • An American kestrel in flight shows the aerodynamic design that earned this small falcon the common name of sparrow hawk.

The compiler generally reads out the various names on the checklist, which lists all the local birds, beginning with black-bellied whistling duck and ending with house sparrow, and the spokespersons for the various parties respond as each bird’s name is called with the number of birds seen for each species. Over the years, some of the common names of birds featured on the list have changed, as has the position on the list for some of the species. For instance, the American kestrel and other falcons are no longer listed on the card in a grouping with the other raptors found in the state. This doesn’t make much sense to me. But, as I understand it, the falcons have been re-classified for scientific reasons, changing their relationship with the other birds listed on the checklists.

The falcons are not the only birds demoted from the grouping of raptors. The two native vultures — turkey vulture and black vulture — are now listed with herons and ibises instead of raptors. The falcons are now listed between the groupings of woodpeckers and flycatchers.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Former common name rufous-sided towhee became Eastern towhee, which is far less descriptive of the bird’s appearance.

At least no expert has suggested a name change for any of the falcons. I dislike name changes, especially when we lose a descriptive name for a mundane one. That’s how we got relatively bland names like Eastern towhee instead of rufous-sided towhee and Northern flicker in place of yellow-shafted flicker. In fact, the American kestrel was once known as the sparrow hawk. The merlin and peregrine falcon, larger relatives of the kestrel, were once known as the pigeon hawk and duck hawk, respectively.

Common names are also known as “vernacular” names. Vernacular can be defined as the language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people, which contrasts with the scientific names for species of birds that are usually only recognized by ornithologists or other experts. However, just like dialects, there can be a great deal of variety among common names for the same birds. Many of the common names for some of our favorite birds lack any vivid descriptiveness.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinal seems much less descriptive of this popular bird than such common names as Virginia nightingale and cardinal grosbeak.

For instance, let’s take a look at the Northern cardinal, which has been known by such common names as cardinal bird, cardinal grosbeak, crested redbird, Kentucky cardinal, redbird, Virginia redbird and Virginia nightingale. The first thing that irritates me about the common name of this bird is that there is no Southern cardinal. So, why is this bird the “Northern” cardinal? The only other birds in the Cardinalis genus are the desert cardinal, also known as the pyrrhuloxia, and the vermilion cardinal. Both these relatives have arguably more interesting and descriptive names than their relative, which is a favorite of many birders and arguably better known to many people.

I can understand why Kentucky cardinal and Virginia redbird are not inclusive names since the Northern cardinal ranges far beyond the borders of these two states. On the other hand, cardinal grosbeak with its reference to the cardinal’s large beak, as well as crested redbird, are both more descriptive and creative than the rather nondescript Northern cardinal.

Of course, a literary great summed up the confusing attitude toward common names. “What’s in a name?” William Shakespeare had Juliet ponder. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”800px-Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623

I think The Bard was on to something. Whether we call a cardinal a redbird or a Virginia nightingale, it’s song will sound as sweet to our ears. The appearance of one of these birds on a gloomy day will elevate our mood whether we know the bird as cardinal grosbeak, Kentucky cardinal or, in scientific terminology, Cardinalis cardinalis.

 

BRISTOL HUMMERS DEPART

As promised, here’s an update on the hummingbirds that proved dutiful daily visitors to a sugar water feeder at the Bristol home of Ralph Beamer through Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Early in the new year, Ralph notified me that the hummingbirds departed ahead of 2018’s arrival.

“We had a surprise on New Year’s Day,” Ralph wrote in an email. “The hummingbirds were gone. I am glad they left ahead of the extreme cold we have had the last few days.”

Ralph noted that he had a wonderful time watching them for the past three months. He is hopeful they will come back in the future, but figured that is probably wishful thinking.

Actually, some of these winter hummingbirds, which often turn out to be rufous hummingbirds, have proven quite faithful to favorite locations. Bird banders have recaptured some individual hummingbirds year after year in the same yards. During the stay of his visitors, Ralph shared photographs and videos with me of their visits to his feeders. I enjoyed receiving his periodic updates about them.

I emailed Ralph back and told him that these hummingbirds seem to also have a knack for knowing when to leave and suggested he keep an eye out for them again next fall.

••••••

Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

75 years strong, annual Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count breaks old records

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The 75th consecutive Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count held last month shattered records for this long-running survey. This year’s CBC was held on Saturday, Dec. 16, with 25 observers in six parties participating. The 85 species tallied established a new high for this count, shattering the old mark of 80 species set in 2012 and again in 2016. The average total over the last 30 years of the Elizabethton CBC is 72 species.

Participants included Fred Alsop, Jim Anderson, Jerry Bevins, Rob Biller, Rick Blanton, Kevin Brooks, Gil Derouen, Harry Lee Farthing, Dave Gardner, Carl Hacker, Jacki Hinshaw, David Irick, Rick Knight (compiler), Roy Knispel, Richard Lewis, Joe McGuiness, Charles Moore, Brookie and Jean Potter, Brenda Richards, Chris Soto, Amber Stanley, Bryan Stevens, Kim Stroud, and Scott Turner.

I took part in this CBC, as I have for many years, with fellow members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club. Participation in this annual survey has been a part of my holiday traditions for the past 20 years. The tradition of the CBC, however, goes much farther back.

According to the National Audubon Society’s website, the tradition of the Christmas Bird Count arose from a less than bird-friendly custom. By the turn of the 20th century, so-called sportsmen would conduct a “Side Hunt,” a rather bloodthirsty Christmas custom that saw hunters competing to see who could score the largest amount of feathered and furred corpses. It was a huge step forward for conservation when preeminent ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed a new holiday tradition. His radical idea was to count birds during the Christmas season rather than hunting and killing them.

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

The Christmas Bird Count is now conducted each year on dates between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. The first CBC took place in December of 1900 with 27 observers participating at 25 locations in the United States and Canada. Fifteen of the counts were conducted in the northeastern United States in an area ranging from Massachusetts to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Results from that first count in 1900 didn’t truly reflect the diversity of North America’s birds, but they were nonetheless interesting. The Greater Boston CBC consisted of only one participant and found only 17 species. However, some of those species included such good birds as American tree sparrow, brown creeper, Northern shrike and Northern bobwhite.

The Elizabethton Bird Club traditionally compiles the results from its two annual CBCs (Roan Mountain as well as Elizabethton) at its yearly Christmas party. This year when the tallies were added up, count participants were delighted to learn the count had set a new record with an amazing total of 85 species tallied, which is hard to come by in mid-December in Northeast Tennessee. An abundance of waterfowl helped push up the number of species found.

A few species are becoming more expected on this annual December count. For instance, greater white-fronted goose was found for the third time in the last five years. Before that, this goose had never been found on this count.

The bufflehead, the smallest of the diving ducks, set a new record with 293 individuals found. Four Northern Shovelers represented only the eight time this duck has appeared on the count. Greater Scaup were found for only the seventh time in the last 25 years. Ruddy Duck has now been found three times in the last 25 years, which matches the three occasions it was found prior to that time.

Bald eagles, thanks to locations like Watauga Lake and Wilbur Lake, are also becoming more common. Eagles have been found 20 of the last 25 years, but only once prior. Red-shouldered Hawk, which is uncommon in the region, was found for the sixth time in the last quarter-century.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Lee Karney • A Red-shouldered Hawk perches in branches.

Eurasian Collared-Dove appears established in Elizabethton. This dove has been found six of the last nine years since it first made an appearance on the count.

All seven of the region’s woodpecker were found on this year’s CBC. The Red-headed Woodpecker has shown up on four counts in the last 25 years. This woodpecker was only found seven times in the years prior to 1992.

A Blue-headed Vireo spotted on this year’s count represented only the third time this species has been found. A flock of 75 American Pipits marked only the third time this species has been seen since 1992 on a CBC. Prior to that date, the species appeared only twice on an Elizabethton CBC.

Gray Catbird has been found five of the last 25 years, including this year, but only once prior to 1992. Pal Warbler, found only once prior to 1992, has now been found eight of the last 25 years. The single Pine Warbler seen means that this species has now been found four of the last 25 years, but only four times prior to 1992.

The European Starling with 1,335 individuals found on count day was easily the most common species on this year’s CBC. The 16 Dark-eyed Juncos, usually a relatively common species on the Elizabethton CBC, represented the fewest juncos ever found on this long-running survey.

Below is the complete species list:

Greater White-fronted Goose, 1; Canada Goose, 532; Wood Duck,1; Gadwall, 5; American Wigeon, 1; American Black Duck, 2; Mallard, 366; Northern Shoveler, 4; Green-winged Teal, 2; Ring-necked Duck, 14; Greater Scaup, 2; Lesser Scaup, 3; Bufflehead, 293; Hooded Merganser, 4; and Ruddy Duck, 1.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Ruddy Duck.

Wild Turkey, 33; Common Loon, 2; Pied-billed Grebe, 14; Horned Grebe, 27; Great Blue Heron, 18; Black Vulture, 3; Turkey Vulture, 12; Bald Eagle, 3; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 1; Cooper’s Hawk, 2; Red-shouldered Hawk, 2; and Red-tailed Hawk, 25.

Killdeer,17; Ring-billed Gull, 27; Rock Pigeon, 305; Eurasian Collared-Dove, 1; Mourning Dove, 157; Eastern Screech-Owl, 12; Great Horned Owl, 2; Barred Owl, 1; and Belted Kingfisher, 10.

Red-headed Woodpecker, 1; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 33; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 8; Downy Woodpecker, 27; Hairy Woodpecker, 3; Northern Flicker, 26; and Pileated Woodpecker, 21.

American Kestrel, 16; Eastern Phoebe, 12; Blue-headed Vireo,1; Blue Jay, 162; American Crow, 223; and Common Raven, 4.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Red-breasted Nuthatch at a feeder.

Carolina Chickadee, 117; Tufted Titmouse, 84; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 1; White-breasted Nuthatch, 25; Brown Creeper, 4; House Wren, 1; Winter Wren, 6; and Carolina Wren, 75.

Golden-crowned Kinglet, 41; Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 8; Eastern Bluebird, 111; Hermit Thrush, 11; Amercian Robin, 277; Gray Catbird, 1; Brown Thrasher, 1; and N. Mockingbird, 49.

Eurasian Starling, 1,335; American Pipit, 75; Cedar Waxwing, 154; Palm Warbler, 2; Pine Warbler, 1; and Yellow-rumped Warbler, 154.

Eastern Towhee, 22; Chipping Sparrow, 4; Field Sparrow, 8; Song Sparrow, 142; Swamp Sparrow, 5; White-throated Sparrow,102; Dark-eyed Junco, 16; and Northern Cardinal, 111.

Red-winged Blackbird, 1; Eastern Meadowlark, 1; Brown-headed Cowbird, 2; House Finch, 100; American Goldfinch, 90; and House Sparrow, 41.

The Audubon-sponsored CBC allows counts to also list birds not found on the count day that are seen during count week. This year participants found Redhead ducks, which were not present on count day. Notable misses this year include Ruffed Grouse, American Coot, Wilson’s Snipe, and White-crowned Sparrow.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Eastern Towhee waits out a snowstorm.

Purple finches always welcome winter visitors when snow and cold drives them to feeders

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Purple finches are mainly winter visitors in the region, although they may make appearances during their fall and spring migrations. Although similar to house finches, purple finches have their own unique appearance once observers become familiar with them. The notched tail, evident in this bird, is a good way to distinguish purple finches from very similar house finches.

The region experienced its first brush with wintry weather with the snowstorm that arrived Dec. 8. With a few inches of snow on the ground, some birds that had been ignoring my feeders decided to give them a second look. American goldfinches, dark-eyed juncos and a red-bellied woodpecker made frequent visits to the feeders over the weekend as more snow and cold temperatures put a temporary stop to the mild start of the 2017-2018 winter season.

So far, the feathered clientele at my feeders are the expected visitors, including Carolina chickadees, downy woodpeckers, song sparrows and white-breasted nuthatches. Some birds, such as pine siskin and purple finch, which can make feeder watching an exciting winter pastime, have not yet made an appearance. Both these species belong to a group of birds known in birding circles as “Northern finches” that also includes species like red crossbill, evening grosbeak and common redpoll.

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Photo by George Gentry/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A male evening grosbeak perches on the side of a sunflower-stocked feeder.

The purple finch, which is a winter visitor to northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina is apparently not as common as in past years. Some experts have speculated that the decline in the numbers of purple finches each winter can be attributed, at least in part, to the closely related house finch. Today, the house finch is quite widespread, found across the United States. Originally, however, the house finch was a bird of the western part of the country, living in Mexico and the southwestern United States.

About 1940, the house finch became established in the eastern United States. In violation of federal law, these small finches were being sold in New York City as pet birds described as “Hollywood Finches.” To avoid trouble with authorities, vendors and even some owners released their “Hollywood Finches” into the wild. Finding the area around New York City to their liking, house finches spread. Within a few decades, they were common birds throughout the eastern United States, including Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. The house finch had also been introduced into Hawaii about 1870, and is still present today, along with many other species of birds not native to the island.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male house finch perched on a cable. These finches are native to the western United States but became established in the eastern states thanks to the illicit pet trade.

As the house finch claimed a new range, they inevitably encountered the related purple finch. During the winter, both finches are often present at feeders in the region. When both are available for observation, bird enthusiasts should take advantage of the opportunity to compare and contrast these birds. Personally, I have never had any difficulty distinguishing a purple finch from a house finch. The two species, at least in my eyes, are easily recognized. I can understand why some people might have trouble separating the two birds. The late Roger Tory Peterson once described the purple finch as a bird “dipped in raspberry juice.” Think about that imagery for a moment and you’ve got a good start to distinguishing a male purple finch from a male house finch. Unfortunately, the description does nothing to distinguish females of the two species.

Let’s deal first with the males. Male purple finches are delicate pink-red (that raspberry coloration) on the head and breast, mixing with brown on the back and cloudy white on the belly. The red of a male purple finch is definitely a color I have not observed with many other birds. Even “red” birds such as male Northern cardinals and male scarlet tanagers do not show the same red color. Once you learn the way the red appears in the plumage of a male purple finch, you are on your way to telling this bird apart from its relative.

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Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this depiction of purple finches.

The red in the plumage of male house finches is surprisingly variable. In most cases, the heads, necks and shoulders of male birds are reddish and the red at times extends to the stomach and between the wings on the bird’s back. The intensity of the red changes with the seasons and is also derived from the berries and fruits in the bird’s diet. Pale yellow and bright orange are alternatives to the typical red plumage.

Look closely at the photograph of the purple finches accompanying this column. There’s a distinctive facial pattern evident on the birds. The strong facial markings include a whitish eye stripe and a dark line down the side of the throat. This pattern simply doesn’t exist with the male house finch. When I make a snap identification of these two birds, I always look for the facial pattern even before I study any other aspects of the appearance of the bird. In addition, purple finches have powerful, conical beaks and a tail that appears short and is clearly notched at the tip. Rounding out the description of a male house finch is the fact that they have a long, square-tipped brown tail and are brown or dull-brown across the back with some shading into gray on the wing feathers. The breast and stomach feathers may be streaked.

Females of both house finches and purple finches are dull brown birds that could easily be mistaken for sparrows. Again, the facial pattern is much more apparent on a female purple finch than on the related female house finch. In addition, I have always noticed that female purple finches are usually a darker shade of brown than the dull brown female house finches. Both male and female house finches are more slender than their more chunky-bodied counterparts.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A study of the facial pattern of a female purple finch helps contrast her from similar female house finches. Again, the notched tail is also a good indication of the bird’s identity.

In the United States, another close relative of the house finch and purple finch is the Cassin’s finch of the western United States. Together, the three species make up a classification known as the American rosefinches. Formerly placed in the genus Carpodacus, these three birds are now in the genus known as Haemorhous. The new classification separates them from the Eurasian rosefinches, which includes more than two dozen species including scarlet finch, great rosefinch and crimson-browed finch.

Purple finches occupy a variety of winter habitats, including fields and woodland edges, as well as yards and gardens. All it takes to lure these finches to your feeder is a plentiful offering of sunflower seeds. If you are lucky enough to have both of these finches visiting your feeders, take time to study the differences. It takes some practice, but they can be distinguished quite confidently.

Merry Christmas to all my fellow bird enthusiasts! 

Winter wren one of the season’s low-profile visitors

WinterWren

Photo by Jean Potter
What the winter wren lacks in size, it makes up for with its voice. A boisterous and exuberant singer during the spring nesting season,  winter wrens are also quick to scold intruders into their winter territories.

 

Of late, every time I step outside my front door I’ve incurred the ire of a winter wren that’s taken up residency in my yard. This wren is a tiny bird among a family of birds known for small size, but it makes its presence known in unmistakable terms.

For starters, the winter wren is a noisy bird. The one living at my home arrived in late November and immediately claimed a niche to call its own. Any intrusion is met with a scolding chatter as the wren scurries low to the ground to drop out of view. In fact, the winter wren’s a very terrestrial bird. Observers are just as likely to see one of these wrens run across the ground as they are to see it take flight. I’m hopeful he will remain as winter’s grip tightens for the next couple of months.

The website All About Birds, managed by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, offers advice on making a wren-friendly yard. “Landscaping with native plants is a good way to provide habitat for Winter Wrens,” according to the website. Other steps to take could extend to creating brush piles and ensuring some sections of the yard offers dense vegetation. The website also notes that this wren is often found making its home near streams.

In the summer, the winter wren often nests atop some of the high-elevation mountains in the region, especially ones with abundant fir and spruce trees. Otherwise, it’s mostly a winter visitor in the region. Other wrens common to the region include the Carolina wren and the house wren. In suitable habitats, especially during fall and spring migration, two other wrens — marsh wren and sedge wren — are observed occasionally in the region. Other wrens native to the United States include the rock wren, canyon wren, cactus wren, Pacific wren and Bewick’s wren.

The world’s 88 species of wrens are, for the most part, the quintessential “little brown birds,” but that hasn’t kept them from acquiring some interesting and descriptive common names. Some examples include the tooth-billed wren, flutist wren, riverside wren, whiskered wren, happy wren, musician wren, timberline wren, speckle-breasted wren, white-breasted wood wren and giant wren. The last species on the list resides in Mexico and is indeed a “giant” among a family of tiny birds, reaching a length of almost nine inches and weighing all of 1.8 ounces.

For the most part, wrens are birds of the New World. In fact, only the Eurasian wren represents the family in Europe, Asia and Africa. Experts recently split the winter wren into several different species, including the Pacific wren of the west coast of North America and the Eurasian wren of Europe, Asia and Africa.WinterWren_edited-1

Just as the winter wren thinks nothing of acting like a mouse when scurrying through leaf litter and over fallen logs in search of insect prey, this bird doesn’t hesitate to imitate mice by poking into shadowy holes in the ground or exploring the dark crevices of fallen logs. When winter temperatures drop sharply, many of these birds may cram themselves into a roosting hole to benefit from the communal heat from so many tiny feathered bodies in such close proximity. Winter wrens eat mostly insects and spiders, but in winter these birds will also eat some seeds and berries. Winter wrens rarely visit feeders, but a suet cake often attracts birds with similar dietary preferences, including kinglets and chickadees. A larger relative, the Carolina wren, is a common visitor to feeders.

In English and German lore, the winter wren was known as the “king of the birds.” Different tales provide varying explanations for how such a small bird earned such an inflated title. Ritual hunts were enacted in some European locations. These hunts, known as “wren hunts,” were conducted by “wren boys” who would parade through town on their quests. Wren Day fell on Dec. 26, which coincided with the holiday St. Stephen’s Day. Some myths blame the noisy bird for betraying the hiding place of Stephen, who was delivered up as a Christian martyr to his enemies due to the bird’s treachery. In some European cultures, various superstitions sprang up about wrens. For instance, in Scotland it is considered extremely unlucky to kill a wren.

Personally, I feel lucky to have the tiny winter wren spending time around my home and can guarantee no “wren hunts” will be staged here. At a time of year when feathered friends can be scarce, a winter wren is a welcome visitor.

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The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society produces an annual calendar featuring some exceptional bird photography from its members. This year’s calendar features full-color photographs of some colorful and engaging birds. The club sells the calendars for $15 each. All proceeds are used to support birding opportunities and bird-related causes. For instance, the club pays for bird seed to stock the feeders at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee. The club also regularly supports causes that benefit birds.HerndonCalendar2018(Cover)

The calendar also features an informative calendar grid with highlights for major holidays, as well as important bird-related dates. The calendar’s pages feature more than 80 full-color photographs of area birds, including common favorites, as well as a few more exotic birds. The front cover features a dazzling photograph of a red-headed woodpecker. The photo was taken by Debi Campbell, a resident of Bluff City, Tennessee, and current president of the Herndon chapter. If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, contact ahoodedwarbler@aol.com by email. Calendars will also be available for purchase by cash or check only at the offices of the Bristol Herald Courier located at 320 Bob Morrison Blvd. in Bristol, Virginia.

If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, contact ahoodedwarbler@aol.com by email. Calendars will also be available for purchase by cash or check only at the offices of the Bristol Herald Courier located at 320 Bob Morrison Blvd. in Bristol, Virginia.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.