Category Archives: Bristol

Great white heron pays unexpected area visit to Steele Creek Park

I wrote a few weeks ago about the tendency of long-legged wading birds to wander far afield from their usual coastal haunts in late summer. In the ensuing weeks, numerous sightings of some unexpected waders have been reported throughout the region and beyond. 
Jeremy Stout, the manager of the Nature Center at Steele Creek Park in Bristol, reported that a great white heron generated some birding excitement among park visitors. Stout noted that the heron was first reported by Sherry Willinger on Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 7-8, and then found again by Ruth and Mary Clark on Friday, Aug. 11. Stout also managed to get a photograph of the heron, which has been seen just outside the park grounds between Ralph Harr Bridge and Highway 126. Steele Creek Park Naturalist Don Holt saw the heron again on Aug. 15. He invited others who see the heron to share their sightings by calling the park’s Nature Center at (423) 989-5616. Reports will help the park staff document the duration of the rare visitor’s stay and keep interested birders informed of its presence. 
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Photo by Jeremy Stout
This great white heron was photographed near Steele Creek Park in Bristol. Currently considered the same species as the great blue heron, there is debate among experts about granting the great white heron status as a species in its own right. 

In early August, Cheryl Livingston reported a great white heron and a great egret at Watauga Lake in Hampton. While only a handful of records exist for the great white heron in this region, these observations will not help boost the lists of any area birders. The great white heron and the great blue heron, scientifically speaking, are the same species — at least for the moment.
According to the website for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this large wading bird, originally thought to be just a white color morph of the great blue heron, might actually deserve consideration as its own species. The website’s profile of the great white heron notes that recent research about the great white suggests that it is at least a subspecies of the great blue heron. Some preliminary unpublished data suggests that the bird may even be a completely separate species. That would be exciting news for many birders, who would be able to quickly add an unexpected bird to their life lists. 
The majestic great white heron usually ranges throughout south Florida and the Florida Keys, but individuals wander far from those parts of the Sunshine State after the nesting season. 
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Painting by John James Audubon of the iconic Great White Heron of Florida.

The great white heron — as its name suggests — differs dramatically in appearance from a great blue heron, mostly in having all-white plumage. In addition, the great white heron has a yellow bill, which is heavier and more solid than the slender bill of the smaller great egret, for which it could be confused at a casual glance. The great blue heron, known by the scientific named of Ardea herodias, can stand 54 inches tall and weigh close to eight pounds. 
Waders other than great white herons have been wandering this summer. Farther afield, Michael Sledjeski has been reporting little blue herons and great egrets at Rankin Bottoms, which is a birding hot spot at Douglas Lake in East Tennessee. The location is well known among birders as a magnet for shorebirds and wading birds. Sightings of wood storks have been somewhat widespread in Tennessee and Virginia this summer. 
In addition, other waders are showing up far from their usual ranges. For instance, a roseate spoonbill — a large, pink wading bird — has shown up as far north as Pennsylvania, marking the first time the species has been sighted in the Keystone State since 1968.  
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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Identifying white herons and egrets can be a tricky business. This immature Little Blue Heron is just starting to get the          blue feathers of adulthood. 

I’ve not seen anything as exciting as a wood stork or roseate spoonbill at home, but on several occasions in the past couple of weeks my fish pond has been visited by great blue herons. A couple of these visitors were young birds, which are probably wandering widely during their first summer out of the nest. I’ve also seen green herons at the pond and in the creeks along the linear trail in Erwin. 
If the great white heron eventually gains recognition as a separate species, I will already have the bird on my Tennessee bird list thanks to a sighting of one several years ago at Musick’s Campground on Holston Lake in Bristol. Ironically, I’ll not have this bird on my Florida list, as I’ve not seen it in its southern stronghold. 
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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.  If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.
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Elizabethton summer bird count sets new record

The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, also known as the Elizabethton Bird Club, conducts two summer surveys of area bird life. Last week, the results of the Unicoi County Summer Bird Count were explored. This week, the focus is on the Carter County Summer Bird Count, which set a new record. The 24th Carter County Summer Bird Count was held Saturday, June 10, under favorable weather conditions with twenty observers in six parties. A record high of 123 species were tallied, besting the previous high of 121 species set in 2013. The average over the previous 23 years was 112 species, ranging from a low of 105 to as many as 121.

Long-time count compiler Rick Knight said highlights of the count included seven Ruffed Grouse, including chicks, as well as such species as Yellow-crowned Night-heron, Bald Eagle, Red-shouldered Hawk and 21 species of warblers.

The American Robin, with 392 individuals counted, barely edged out European Starling, with 389 individuals counted, for most numerous bird on this year’s summer count.

Making the Summer Bird Count for the first time was Red-headed Woodpecker, represented by a pair of birds nesting at Watauga Point Recreation Area on Watauga Lake near Hampton. Other notable songbirds found included Vesper Sparrow, Blue Grosbeak, Red Crossbill and Pine Siskin. I counted birds with Chris Soto, Mary Anna Wheat, and Brookie and Jean Potter at such locations as Wilbur Lake, Holston Mountain and Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Birds like this Red-bellied Woodpecker helped set a new record for most species on one of the Elizabethton Summer Bird Counts.

The count’s total follows:
Canada Goose, 258; Wood Duck, 7; Mallard, 125; Ruffed Grouse, 7; Wild Turkey, 21; and Double-crested Cormorant, 1.
Great Blue Heron, 10; Green Heron, 1; Yellow-crowned Night-heron, 1; Black Vulture, 7; and Turkey Vulture, 28.
Sharp-shinned Hawk, 1; Cooper’s Hawk, 7; Bald Eagle, 2; Red-shouldered Hawk, 3; Broad-winged Hawk, 7; and Red-tailed Hawk, 5.
Killdeer, 2; Rock Pigeon, 37; Eurasian Collared Dove, 1; Mourning Dove, 137; Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 4; Eastern Screech-owl, 2; Great Horned Owl, 2; Barred Owl, 2; Common Nighthawk, 1; Chuck-will’s-widow, 5; and Whip-poor-will, 8.
Chimney Swift, 80; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 17; Belted Kingfisher, 3; Red-headed Woodpecker, 2; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 16; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 2; Downy Woodpecker, 12; Hairy Woodpecker, 4; Northern Flicker, 18; and Pileated Woodpecker, 24.
American Kestrel, 1; Eastern Wood-Pewee, 17; Eastern Phoebe, 71; Acadian Flycatcher, 20; Alder Flycatcher, 2; Willow Flycatcher, 1; Least Flycatcher, 5; Great Crested Flycatcher, 5; and Eastern Kingbird, 17.
White-eyed Vireo, 2; Yellow-throated Vireo, 2; Warbling Vireo, 1; Blue-headed Vireo, 41; Red-eyed Vireo, 126; Blue Jay, 69; American Crow, 227; and Common Raven, 7.
Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 45; Purple Martin, 53; Tree Swallow, 149; Barn Swallow, 129; and Cliff Swallow, 113.
Carolina Chickadee, 54; Tufted Titmouse, 71; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 12; White-breasted Nuthatch, 16; Brown Creeper, 2; House Wren, 79; Carolina Wren, 67; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 28; and Golden-crowned Kinglet, 12.
Eastern Bluebird, 88; Veery, 32; Hermit Thrush, 4; Wood Thrush, 43; American Robin, 392; Gray Catbird, 38; Brown Thrasher, 21; Northern Mockingbird, 42; European Starling, 389; and Cedar Waxwing, 64.
Ovenbird, 70; Worm-eating Warbler, 9; Louisiana Waterthrush, 9; Golden-winged Warbler, 13; Black-and-white Warbler, 26; Swainson’s Warbler, 2; Common Yellowthroat, 28; Hooded Warbler, 95; American Redstart, 6; Northern Parula, 25; Magnolia Warbler, 3; Blackburnian Warbler, 7; Yellow Warbler, 13; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 36; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 38; Pine Warbler, 3; Yellow-rumped Warbler, 1; Yellow-throated Warbler, 14; Black-throated Green Warbler, 26; Canada Warbler, 16; and Yellow-breasted Chat.
Eastern Towhee, 121; Chipping Sparrow, 78; Field Sparrow, 50; Vesper Sparrow, 1; Song Sparrow, 178; Dark-eyed Junco, 69; Scarlet Tanager, 31; Northern Cardinal, 94; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 12; Blue Grosbeak, 2; and Indigo Bunting, 169.
Red-winged Blackbird, 77; Eastern Meadowlark, 11; Common Grackle, 84; Brown-headed Cowbird, 22; Orchard Oriole, 10; and Baltimore Oriole, 2.
House Finch, 26; Red Crossbill, 1; Pine Siskin, 5; American Goldfinch, 134; and House Sparrow, 27.

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I had a recent phone call with Erwin resident Don Dutton, who wanted to know why hummingbirds have been scarce around his home this summer. I’ve noticed fewer hummers at my own home this summer, but it’s natural for numbers to fluctuate from year to year. I anticipate that numbers will rise as hummingbirds begin migrating south again in the coming weeks. At that time, the adult hummers will be joined by the young birds from this season’s successful nesting attempts.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Numbers of Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the region tend to fluctuate each year, but people should see a spike in their numbers as the hummingbirds end summer nesting and start migrating south again.

Don shared that when he lived out west, he often visited Mount Charleston near Las Vegas, Nevada, where he saw swarms of hummingbirds comprised of various different species. In the eastern United States, the only nesting species is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

If you have felt slighted by hummers so far this year, keep a sugar water feeder available to attract them on their way south later this summer and into the fall. To share a sighting, make a comment, or ask a question, send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

 

 

Warblers exert special pull for many birders

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The Kirtland’s Warbler, while endangered, is slowly building its numbers with intensive human assistance. Nearly 50 different warbler species nest in the eastern half of the continental United States. The rest of the world’s warblers reside mostly in Central and South America.

I’ve been fascinated with the group of small, energetic songbirds known as warblers almost from the start of my time as a birder. Many birds have inspired poetry, but to me, the warblers are poetry. I suppose another, more down-to-earth part of my fascination is that a little effort is usually required to see these birds. Although many species of warblers spend the summer months in the region, few of them would really be described as backyard birds. That being said, I am also fortunate to live in a location surrounded by woodlands that are inhabited by several species of warblers in the months spanning April to September on the calendar.

Of course, it’s always gratifying to hear from readers who have also caught the “warbler bug” and find these tiny, colorful songbirds as fascinating as I do. Graham Gardner of Abingdon, Virginia, sent me a recent email about the warblers, an extensive family of neotropical migrants that happen to be among my favorite birds.

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Photo by Graham Gardner • A Canada warbler wears a dark necklace of feathers across its yellow breast.

“I just wanted to share another great birding experience that I recently had with my father this past weekend,” Graham wrote in an email sent on May 1. “As you know, the spring migration of neotropical migrants is upon us. My father and I decided to take a trip to Peaks of Otter Lodge in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains to attempt to observe some of the more difficult-to-find warblers that I had not yet checked off my life list.”
He reported that the trip was wildly successful.

“We observed 10 warbler species in total in just under two days of birding.” Among them were three species that were new for him: cerulean warbler, Blackburnian warbler, and bay-breasted warbler.

He also shared some photos. “These guys are really quite difficult to photograph,” he wrote. “They are either constantly on the move, bouncing from branch to branch, or they are high in the canopy staying mostly out of sight.”

Graham wrote that he looks forward to searching for warblers in the coming weeks as they continue to pass through, and in some cases settle in, our Appalachian Mountains.
I congratulated Graham for his success with some of my favorite birds. I also let him know that he succeeded with a bird — the cerulean warbler — that has been elusive for me over the years. It’s one of the few warblers that spend time in the eastern United States that I haven’t managed to add to my life list. The other two warblers I need are the Connecticut warbler and Kirtland’s warbler.

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Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of cerulean warblers, a bird that he knew as the “Azure Warbler.”

 

“The cerulean was definitely the highlight of the trip for me,” Graham noted in a second email to me.

The cerulean warbler makes infrequent appearances in the region, but it has been observed as recently as the spring of 2016 at Steele Creek Park in Bristol, Tennessee. Some other locations — Frozen Head State Park, Edgar Evins State Park and Falls Creek Falls State Park — support breeding populations of this warbler within the Volunteer State.

Unfortunately, the cerulean warbler is one of the fastest declining songbirds in the United States. Habitat destruction in its breeding range in the Appalachian Mountains and its wintering range in South America is to blame for its plummeting numbers.

Among a family of several breathtakingly beautiful species, the cerulean warbler is one of the most exquisite of its kind in terms of appearance. Adult males have pale cerulean blue upperparts — hence the bird’s common name — and white underparts with a black necklace across the breast. They also show black streaking on the back and flanks.

Beyond its uncommon status, there are other reasons why it’s difficult to lay eyes on a cerulean warbler. First and foremost, cerulean warblers prefer to forage in the treetops. In that leafy, lofty habitat, observing these warblers can be difficult for ground-bound humans.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Northern waterthrush is a warbler fond of foraging near slow, flowing water.

I’ve been very close to seeing a cerulean warbler twice. During a past Spring Naturalists Rally at Roan Mountain, Tennessee, several people watched a cerulean warbler flitting in some tall trees while I struggled unsuccessfully to get my binoculars on the rapidly moving bird. More recently, I was looking for birds with fellow birder Jean Potter along the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee, for a Fall Bird Count. She found a female cerulean warbler in a tree overhanging the river, but I failed to get my binoculars on the bird in time.

So, while my luck with cerulean warblers hasn’t changed (yet), I have seen several warblers at my home this spring, including hooded warbler, ovenbird, black-throated green warbler, black-and-white warbler and Northern parula. In addition, I’ve seen other warblers — yellow-breasted chat, Cape May warbler, yellow warbler and chestnut-sided warbler — at other locations in the region.

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Photo by Graham Gardner • The black-and-white warbler, which is aptly named, is one of the most easily identified warblers.

The warblers are poetry written with splashes of movement and hints of color written across an often green background. While not easy to observe, they’re worth seeking out. Glimpsing one of these energetic songbirds is always a moment that puts a smile on my face — and in my heart.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at http://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.

Readers share arrival stories about spring’s hummingbirds

Ruby-throated hummingbirds have returned. The annual first sighting of a hummingbird is one of my most cherished spring moments. Invariably, the first hummingbird to show up in my yard is a male with the gorget — or throat patch — of red, iridescent feathers that gives his species its common name.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Ruby-throated Hummingbirds swarm to a feeder filled with a sugar water mixture.

As I indicated in a recent column, the ruby-throated hummingbird is one of more than 300 species of hummingbirds. All hummingbirds are found in the New World and are absent from the Old World. Male ruby-throated hummingbirds launch their spring migration about 10 days prior to female hummingbirds.

Based on the number of people who shared hummingbird sightings with me, these tiny birds have a lot of big fans. If you would like to host your own hummingbirds, here are some crucial tips.

• Make your yard a zone that’s free of insecticides and pesticides. Residues of these chemicals can remain on blossoms, which then run the risk of sickening a hummingbird. In addition, hummingbirds subsist on more than nectar. They consume many tiny insects and spiders. Eating bugs that have been contaminated with dangerous chemicals can also sicken or kill hummingbirds.

• Provide shrubs and trees to your landscape to make your yard more inviting. Hummingbirds claim favorite posts and perches, where they will rest when they are not visiting our gardens or feeders. Shrubs and trees can also provide locations for concealing nests built by female hummingbirds.

• Cultivate plants that offer nectar-producing blooms. While hummingbirds are known to favor the color red, these nectar-sipping birds will also visit blooms of other colors. Some favorite spring blooms include the flowers of red buckeye, wild columbine, crossvine and native varieties of azaleas. As spring advances into summer, the diversity of flowers available to lure hummingbirds into your garden will increase dramatically.

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Photo by Bill Buchanan/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • Hummingbirds visit flowers for nectar, so be sure your garden offers a variety of blooms.

 

Thursday, April 6

Eddie and Delores Phipps of Bluff City, Tennessee, reported seeing their first hummingbird.

“We were excited to see our first hummingbird at the feeder on the morning of April 6,” the couple wrote in an email.  “It was the earliest we have ever seen one. He has been back every day since!”

Eddie and Delores provided me with the report of the earliest arriving hummingbird. Soon after the couple reported their hummingbird, I began to receive more sightings from throughout northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia.

Sunday, April 9

Monica Black, a resident of Unicoi, Tennessee, saw her first hummingbird of the season about 5 p.m.

“Near the chairs in the back garden there is a spillway created from the koi pond down to the frog pond,” Monica said in the email she sent me. “The hummers like to drink and bathe in it.”

The visiting hummingbird also treated her to a viewing of the first bathing hummingbird of the season.

“The male is the only hummer spotted so far,” she added.

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Facebook friend Phyllis Moore informed me that her friend, Janie Compton, saw her first hummingbird at 6:34 p.m. on Sunday, April 9, in Chesterfield, Virginia.

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Nata Jackson, a resident of Greene County, Tennessee, shared details about her first sighting of spring. In her email, she said she had just put up her feeder when the bird arrived.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Only the male Ruby-throated Hummingbird has the brilliant red throat patch, or gorget, that gives the species its common name.

Tuesday, April 11

Nancy and Walt Vernon, of Bristol, Tennessee, emailed details of their first sighting. “We saw it about 12:30 while having lunch,” Nancy wrote in her email. “We have three feeders which we keep filled all summer.”

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Jeanie Campbell, who lives on Mendota Road in Abingdon, Virginia, also sent me an email. Her first spring hummer — a tiny female — wasn’t very active at first. “Then she began drinking away,” Jeanie wrote.

A few days later on April 15, a male — or “Mr. Red Throat” as Jeanie described him — appeared. “He buzzed around all day,” she said.

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Glen Eller, a fellow member of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, posted on Bristol-Birds — a mailing list archive for area bird sightings — that his daughter, Lia, saw her first hummingbird at 6:55 a.m. Glen’s daughter lives in Fall Branch, Tennessee.

“It’s seemingly a little bit late in this warm spring,” Glen wrote in his post.

Wednesday, April 12

Philip Laws saw his first hummingbird of spring at 4:15 p.m. in the Limestone Cove community in Unicoi County. In his Facebook post to my page, Philip said the arrival served as a reminder that he had meant to put his feeders out a few days earlier, but had failed to do so. He quickly got out feeders to welcome the birds.

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Amy Wallin Tipton, in Erwin, posted on her Facebook page about the return of her hummingbirds.

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Kristy Dunn, who lives in Johnson City, sent me an email to share her first hummingbird sighting of spring.

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Bill and Judith Beckman sent me an email to report their first hummingbird of the season. The hummer arrived around 4 p.m. at their home on Spivey Mountain in Unicoi County.

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Preston Bowers emailed to let me know he saw his first hummingbird at about 5:30 p.m.

“I have lived in Blountville since 1970,” he wrote. “Oddly enough, I never noticed hummingbirds on this property until about three years ago.”

A creek in front of his house has an abundance of jewelweed, which the ruby-throat seems to like quite well.

“So I installed a hummingbird feeder at the corner of my porch where I sit in the porch swing and play ukulele,” he added. “What a joy to watch these amazing birds as they fly by at lightning speeds or hover ever so gracefully.” Preston noted that some of their antics seem like an aerial battle. “I hear sounds that are so similar to the sound of a World War II fighter plane in tactical operations,” he wrote.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird perches on the tip of a garden post.

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Sandra Loving sent an email notifying me that she got her first sighting of a spring hummer at her feeders at her home on South Holston Lake at 7:50 p.m.

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Sharon Foster, who lives on Friendship Drive at South Holston Lake, emailed me about the date of her first hummer’s arrival. “We’ve had hummingbirds at our feeders all week,” she added.

Friday, April 14

Lynne Reinhard saw her first hummingbird at 8:15 a.m. near the upper end of South Holston Lake in Bristol. She posted the news of her sighting on my Facebook page.

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Jill Henderson, who lives on Poor Valley Road in Saltville, Virginia, emailed about her first hummer sighting: “Just wanted to let you know that I saw my first hummingbird of the spring season at approximately 9:15 a.m. at my home.”

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Beverly Puerckhauer in the Graystone area of Bristol, Tennessee,

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Ruby-throated Hummingbird must share a feeder with hungry honeybees.

saw her first hummingbird and shared news of the arrival in a comment on my Facebook page.

Saturday, April 15

Linda Quinn Cauley posted on my Facebook page that she saw her first hummingbird at 9:30 a.m. Linda lives off Sciota Road near Unicoi, Tennessee.

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Karen Fouts, of Marion, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird of spring — a male — and posted a comment on my Facebook page. Karen said she refers to these early arrival hummingbirds as the “advance scouts.”

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Mary Beierle, a resident of the Stoney Creek community in Elizabethton, Tennessee, sent me an email telling me she saw her first hummingbird around 3 p.m. “Only one so far, but we’re excited,” she added.

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Don and Shirley Cook, who reside on the upper end of South Holston Lake in Washington County, Virginia, sent me an email to notify me that they saw their first hummer at 3 p.m.

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Glenna Kiser, who lives near Lebanon, Virginia, informed me in an email of her first hummingbird this spring at 1 p.m.

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Several readers enjoyed their first spring sightings of hummingbirds on Easter Sunday.

Sunday, April 16

Nancy Estes emailed me just after she saw her first hummingbird of the season.

“I didn’t get a close look since I was inside my house, but I am assuming it is a ruby-throated hummingbird,” Nancy wrote. “I live in Bristol’s Middlebrook subdivision.”

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Reva Russell, who lives in the Lynnwood Hills subdivision in Bristol, Virginia, notified me in an email that she saw her first hummingbird of the season at 2 p.m.

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Terry Fletcher, who lives at First Colony Condominiums near the Bristol Country Club, sent an email about the first hummingbird of spring. Terry also photographed the hummingbird through a screen door and shared the photo in an email.

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Debbie Oliver, who resides in Bristol, Tennessee, emailed me about her first sighting.

“It wasn’t a visit from the Easter Bunny but a delightful visit from a ruby-throated hummingbird at our deck feeders around 2:30 in the afternoon,” she wrote in her email.

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Cheryl Jones in Damascus, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird of spring at 5:02 p.m. In her email, she said she was beginning to wonder what was keeping them.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have officially returned to the region as of the first week of April.

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The first hummingbird of spring showed up at at the home of Ken Croghan on Walden Road east of Abingdon, Virginia, while he was sitting on the front deck having dinner. He shared news of the arrival in an email.

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Lynn Heller and her husband were having dinner at their home in Holston Hills in Bristol, Tennessee, when they looked out the window at their hummingbird feeder. “I was telling my husband about your article and that you asked readers to share sightings of their first hummingbird,” she wrote in her email.  “About five minutes later, there he was — a ruby throated hummingbird at 6:31 p.m. on Easter Sunday. What a treat!”

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Donald Elliott Rice of Elizabethton, Tennessee, filled up his feeders on Easter Sunday. “Within a half hour, they showed up,” he posted on Facebook.

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Julie Carter Grason saw her first hummingbird at her home in the Clear Creek community of Bristol, Virginia. She shared the news in a comment on my Facebook page.

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Shirley Jenkins of Bluff City, Tennessee, saw her first ruby-throated hummingbird this spring and shared details in an email. “My family and I were sitting on the back porch about 3:30 when out of nowhere, a ruby red throat came zooming by,” she wrote in her email.

Shirley added that the bird checked out a wind chime hanging on the porch before he went on his way.

“I was thrilled to see it, since I love those adorable little creatures,” she noted. “I will definitely be putting my feeder out pronto.”

•••••

I saw my own first ruby-throated hummingbird — a male — on Saturday, April 15. Although he acted somewhat tentative at first, he became more at ease with me as I watched him at the feeders during repeated visits throughout the day. In 2016, the first hummingbird arrived on April 12, so the arrival date was slightly later this year.

Woodcocks, snipe among the more oddball members of a diverse shorebird clan

Photo by Leah Hawthorn/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • An American woodcock probes for food among fallen leaves on the woodland floor.

March is traditionally a month of erratic weather, characterized by blustery winds and occasional drenching rainstorms. While the month is also a signal to get ready for the return of migrant songbirds, they are hardly the only birds on the wing each spring. Birds from waterfowl to raptors migrate through the region in March, April and May, but the real migratory champs are the shorebirds.

Known for migrating incredible distances, the shorebirds are often referred to as “wind birds,” a romantic allusion to their habit of taking wing for the epic journeys that astound scientists and birders alike. Among the far-flung family are birds known as sandpipers and plovers, as well as whimbrels, willets, tattlers and turnstones.
Still, among the general public, as well as some birders, the shorebirds are a much misunderstood group of birds. For example, most people could hardly be blamed for believing that shorebirds are inhabitants of only the beach and shore. In fact, some species are at home in an array of habitats, ranging from woodlands and prairies to the Arctic tundra and mudflats. Some are notoriously elusive, their camouflage and low-key behavior allowing them to escape casual notice at most times.
In late winter and early spring, a true oddball among the shorebirds begins courting. The American woodcock, also known by such whimsical names as “bog sucker” and “timberdoodle,” is a shorebird that has completely abandoned the shore in favor of woodlands and fields. Beginning as early as February, American woodcocks in the region conduct nightly courtship displays, starting at dusk, that combines aerial acrobatics with an assortment of unusual acoustical flourishes. Any wet field adjacent to a wooded area could offer a stage for these evening displays, but unless you know where to look and make an effort to do so, the American woodcock might as well remain a phantom of the night.
John-James-Audubon-American-Woodcock.-1.-Male.-2.-Female.3.-Young-in-Autumn

John James Audubon, an early American naturalist and artist, painted this scene of American woodcocks feeding in damp earth.

These mating rituals provide almost the only time that this bird makes itself visible to us. It’s only during this brief window that opens into their lives that we can be assured a glimpse. Even then, our peek at woodcocks often consists of a fuzzy twilight escapade as the bird flings itself heavenward only to make a spiraling descent a few seconds later. The displays begin with a distinct vocalization, a type of “pent,” that also has the quality of sounding like some sort of mechanical buzzer.
Once the displays conclude for the season, the birds assume nesting duties, usually unobserved by humans. The rest of the year, almost nothing but blind, sheer luck would allow a birder to stumble across an American woodcock. It’s almost as if they disappear after these spring flights of fancy.

For the most part, the “wind birds” leave lives in habitats that keep them separate from humans. On occasion, however, one of these shorebirds pays an unexpected visit to members of the public. Tom and Helen Stetler, residents of Elizabethton, Tennessee, shared an account of one such visit in a recent email.

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Photo by Tom Stetler • A Wilson’s snipe visits the yard at the home of Tom and Helen Stetler in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

“We had a visit from a very unusual bird today,” Tom wrote in the email. “It was a woodcock. It stayed quite a while this morning.”
He estimated that the bird stayed in their yard for about 15 to 20 minutes.  “I kept trying to get a good picture of its long bill and finally did,” he said, enclosing a photo of the visiting bird with his email.
He credited his wife, Helen, with having spotted the bird. After seeing the bird, Helen called to her husband to come have a look “at this bird with a very long beak!”
After I examined the photo, I noticed that the unusual visitor was actually not a woodcock but a closely related bird known as a Wilson’s snipe. The confusion of the two birds is quite understandable. The snipe and the woodcock bear a superficial resemblance to each other.

The American woodcock belongs to the genus of Scolopax, a Latin term for this group of eight oddball shorebirds. Other members of the genus include the Eurasian woodcock, the New Guinea woodcock and the Sulawesi woodcock.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Wilson’s snipe is remarkably capable of blending with its surroundings.

Wilson’s snipe, which is closely related to the woodcock, inspired the term “snipe hunt.” Regarded as lessons in futility, these hunts are not seeking some mythical quarry, although some people mistakenly believe there’s no such bird as a snipe. In fact, there are several species of snipes, although only one — Wilson’s snipe — can be found in much of the United States. Some of the world’s other 25 species of snipe include Jack snipe, wood snipe, pintail snipe, noble snipe and imperial snipe.
Any wet field or pasture may conceal hidden snipes during the spring. A few sometimes spend the winter in the region. Flushing a snipe from a tangle of grass right at your feet as you walk through a wet field always works to get the heart pumping faster. Snipe also stage spring mating displays that are not quite as elaborate as those of the woodcock. I suspect that recent heavy rains made the yard at the Stetler home similar enough to a flooded field to attract the visiting snipe.

While both the Wilson’s snipe and American woodcock are elusive birds able to easily conceal themselves from view, other shorebirds definitely stand out in a crowd. For example, the gangly black-necked stilt and the spindly American avocet are surely two of the most striking, almost comical shorebirds in North America.

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The American woodcock is also known by such whimsical common names as bogsucker and timberdoodle.

In addition, members of the shorebird family vary greatly in size. North America’s smallest shorebird, appropriately enough, is the least sandpiper, a tiny shorebird less than six inches in length and weighing barely an ounce. The least sandpiper breeds widely across northern Canada and Alaska and winters across the southern United States and Mexico.
The largest shorebird — depending on how “largest” is defined — is either the Far Eastern curlew or the beach thick-knee. The Far Eastern Curlew is a large shorebird most similar in appearance to North America’s long-billed curlew, but slightly larger. This bird definitely has the longest bill of any shorebird and ranks as the world’s largest member of the sandpiper clan. The Far Eastern curlew is 25 inches in body length, although the Eurasian curlew is almost the same size. If it comes down to weight, the heaviest shorebird is the beach thick-knee, a bird native to Australia and the islands of Southeast Asia and India. This unusual shorebird can weigh as much as 2.2 pounds, but is only 22 inches long. The Far Eastern curlew, in comparison, weighs a mere 27 ounces.
In the coming weeks, check the edges of ponds, the banks of rivers and shorelines of lakes for migrating shorebirds. Don’t forget to keep an eye on your yard, too. Spring migration is always full of surprises.
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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To ask a question, share an observation or make a comment, email him at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Weekly column marks 21st anniversary

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                  Dark-eyed Junco visits a feeder during a snowstorm.

I wrote my first “Feathered Friends” column on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, which means this column recently celebrated its 21st anniversary. This weekly column has appeared in the last 21 years in a total of five different newspapers. The column has also been a great conduit for getting to know other people interested in our “feathered friends.” I always enjoy hearing from readers, and I hope to continue to do so in the coming years as well.

Since February of 2014, I’ve also been posting the column as a weekly blog on birds and birding.
That first column I wrote back in 1995 focused on one of the region’s most prevalent winter residents— the Dark-eyed Junco. Here, with some revisions I have made through the years, is that first column.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                 Although they often feed on the ground, Dark-eyed Juncos will occasionally visit a hanging feeder.

Of all the birds associated with winter weather, few are as symbolic as the Dark-eyed Junco, or “snow bird.” The junco occurs in several geographic variations.
John V. Dennis, author of “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” captures the essence of the junco in the following description: “Driving winds and swirling snow do not daunt this plucky bird. The coldest winter days see the junco as lively as ever and with a joie de vivre that bolsters our sagging spirits.” The Dark-eyed Junco’s scientific name, hyemalis, is New Latin for “wintry,” an apt description of this bird.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                              A Dark-eyed Junco feeds on sunflower seeds scattered on the snow by other birds visiting hanging feeders.

Most people look forward to the spring return of some of our brilliant birds — warblers, tanagers and orioles — and I must admit that I also enjoy the arrival of these birds. The junco, in comparison to some of these species, is not in the same league. Nevertheless, the junco is handsome in its slate gray and white plumage, giving rise to the old saying “dark skies above, snow below.”
Just as neotropical migrants make long distance journeys twice a year, the junco is also a migrating species. But in Appalachia, the junco is a special type of migrant. Most people think of birds as “going south for the winter.” In a basic sense this is true. But some juncos do not undertake a long horizontal (the scientific term) migration from north to south. Instead, these birds merely move from high elevations, such as the spruce fir peaks, to the lower elevations. This type of migration is known as vertical migration. Other juncos, such as those that spend their breeding season in northern locales, do make a southern migration and, at times, even mix with the vertical migrants.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                    Dark-eyed Juncos nest at higher elevation in the Southern Appalachian. This bird was photographed at Carver’s Gap atop Roan Mountain in Tennessee.

Juncos are usually in residence around my home by early November. Once they make themselves at home I can expect to play host to them until at least late April or early May of the following year. So, for at least six months, the snow bird is one of the most common and delightful feeder visitors a bird enthusiast could want.
Juncos flock to feeders where they are rather mild-mannered — except among themselves. There are definite pecking orders in a junco flock, and females are usually on the lower tiers of the hierarchy. Females can sometimes be distinguished from males because of their paler gray or even brown upper plumage.
Since juncos are primarily ground feeders they tend to shun hanging feeders. But one winter I observed a junco that had mastered perching on a hanging “pine cone” feeder to enjoy a suet and peanut butter mixture.
Dark-eyed Juncos often are content to glean the scraps other birds knock to the ground. Juncos are widespread. They visit feeders across North America. The junco is the most common species of bird to visit feeding stations. They will sample a variety of fare, but prefer such seeds as millet, cracked corn or black oil sunflower.

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Early naturalist John James Audubon painted this picture of a pair of Dark-eyed Juncos.

There’s something about winter that makes a junco’s dark and light garb an appropriate and even striking choice, particularly against a backdrop of newly fallen snow.
Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and began a furious period of eating, I don’t even have to glance skyward or tune in the television weather forecast. I know what they know. Bad weather is on the way!

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The Dark-eyed Juncos haven’t put in their appearance for the 2016-17 winter season at my home yet, but the weather’s turning colder. I don’t expect to have to wait much longer for their return.

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Photo by Ken Thomas                            A Dark-eyed Junco perches on a branch.

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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.