Category Archives: Bryan Stevens Feathered Friends

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.

 

 

Origins of the name of Muscovy duck shrouded in mystery

Joan Stenger sent me an email recently about an unusual waterfowl observation. On a recent  Saturday, she visited downtown Bristol where the creek widens a bit near the fire station and beside the park. Joan wrote that she saw a flock of ducks and Canada geese and enjoyed watching them.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                             Muscovy ducks seen outside of Texas are domesticated versions of the wild waterfowl. Male Muscovy ducks sport red carbuncles around their bills.

“One fellow stood on the opposite bank and had bright red marks on his face,” she added. “My daughter and I went over the bridge and into the park to get closer and hopefully get a better view.”

Joan described the odd duck as larger than the other ducks but not as big as the geese. “Its back was dark dark blue with teal,” she wrote. “I had never seen such a duck! “
She said they continued to watch the flock of Canada geese and then returned home.  There she consulted her bird books and only found one small mention and picture of a Muscovy duck. Armed with that information, she conducted an online search for more information about Muscovy ducks.
 “Have you seen many of these fellows?” Joan asked in her email.
In my reply to her email, I informed Joan that Muscovy ducks are becoming more common. However, outside of Texas, most Muscovy Ducks seen are “feral” domesticated versions of the wild bird. Many people have probably also seen feral mallards that are content to reside year-round with us. The Muscovy ducks have probably decided the same thing.
In southern Texas, it is possible to observe wild Muscovy ducks, but sightings of these ducks outside of the Lonestar State involve domesticated ducks. Like mallards, Muscovy ducks have long been domesticated, and some of the domesticated individuals have gone feral. These ducks, descendants of their wild ancestors, have become more common, both nationwide and locally.

I’ve heard from other curious people over the years about encounters with Muscovy ducks. The birds behave unusually for a duck. For instance, they often pant like a dog and strut around more like a wild turkey than a typical duck. Most of these feral Muscovy ducks are also relatively tame in association with people, long ago having learned to connect humans with free handouts of bread, popcorn and other foods.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                            Wild Muscovy ducks are dark waterfowl with white wing patches. Domesticated Muscovy ducks exhibit a wide variety of plumage colors, including brown and white feathers.

In the wild, Muscovy ducks are native to Mexico, as well as Central and South America. Before Christopher Columbus reached the New World in 1492, natives had long domesticated this duck. When Columbus first visited the New World, he even took back to Europe some of these ducks.
The term “Muscovy” is a reference to the Russian city of Moscow, but the reasons behind the connection of this duck’s common name to Moscow are obscure. One theory is that the duck acquired the name in association with the Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands, later shortened to the Muscovy Company. Perhaps this chartered trading outfit sold some of these ducks to European customers in the 1500s.
After all, Columbus and early explorers named the wild turkey for the faraway country of Turkey, mistakenly believing that the New World provided a more direct route to this realm so important to trade. Perhaps the Muscovy duck also acquired a name connected with Moscow for no better reason. It does appear that the origins of the name are one of history’s odd mysteries.
Adding to the mystery is the fact that the duck’s scientific name also refers to a city — Cairo in Egypt — far from this bird’s native home. Translated, the Muscovy duck’s scientific name means “musky bird from Cairo.” Another common name for the duck is Barbary duck, which refers to a region of Africa home to modern-day Libya.

While the wild Muscovy duck is a tropical bird, the domestic ones are perfectly capable of weathering cold temperatures as low as 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                       Domesticated and feral Muscovy ducks are widespread across North America. These ducks were first discovered by Europeans arriving in the New World, although native tribes had long raised them as domestic animals.

The Muscovy Duck has only one other close relative, the white-winged wood duck of India and Bangladesh, One of the world’s largest ducks, the white-winged wood duck is a seriously endangered species. One curious fact about this duck is its tendency to only forage for food after dark.

Wild Muscovy ducks are large waterfowl with a black plumage accented with big white wing patches. They can be almost 34 inches long and weigh as much as nine pounds. It’s the heads of these ducks that really make them stand apart. Both sexes have bare black-and-red or all-red faces. Males also sport pronounced caruncles at the base of the bill, as well a a slight crest of feathers. The appearance of domestic Muscovy ducks is quite variable, with some birds sporting almost entirely white plumage.
Muscovy ducks and mallards will also hybridize, producing sterile offspring that are known as “mullards.” I’ve observed both domestic Muscovy ducks and “mullard” hybrids at local parks, but I haven’t yet seen any wild Muscovy ducks. The domestic version of this duck has also established feral populations around the globe in locations such as Europe, New Zealand, Canada and Australia.henry_charles_bryant00
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In addition to asking her question about Muscovy ducks, Joan shared a story about bluebirds at her home.
“We feed the birds year round and enjoy their antics at the feeders,” she reported. “We were pleased to have bluebirds raise a nest full of babies this year, although I was told that we would not have bluebirds because we live in town.” Apparently “no one told the bluebirds,” Joan joked.
Because of her feeders and the bird baths, she receives visits from a good variety of birds, mostly dominated by the cardinals.

 

Looking back on the birding highlights of 2016

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Three young Eastern phoebes share a crowded nest.

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

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The mother hummingbird Bliss tends her two offspring.

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

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

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

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Woman gets glimpse into life of a nesting ruby-throated hummingbird

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Photo Courtesy of Donna Ottinger                        This nest, filled with two tiny eggs, was discovered in a maple tree in a Bluff City yard by Donna Ottinger.

For Bluff City, Tennessee, resident Donna Ottinger, the show in her front yard beats anything you might find on television this summer. Since late July, Donna has been watching a female ruby-throated hummingbird that she has named Bliss carry out her nesting duties.

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Photo Courtesy of Donna Ottinger                  Bliss the ruby-throated hummingbird visits a feeder for a sip of sugar water.

Like all female ruby-throated hummingbirds, Bliss produced two eggs for containment in a delicate nest of spiderweb, lichen and plant fibers woven onto a maple tree branch. There are some reasons why it’s always a pair of eggs for hummingbirds. First, the nest is so small — about the size of a walnut half-shell — that there is barely room for two eggs, let alone more. Second, once the young hatch, the nest has just enough room to accommodate them as they grow, fed well by their mother. Third, feeding two hungry young hummingbirds is a demanding task. A female hummingbird has to find enough food to fuel her own body and help her young in the nest grow and thrive. It’s a full-time job during the daylight hours. She’s pressed hard to succeed at raising two young. Attempting to rear more would most likely prove impossible.

Donna compared the two tiny eggs to Tic Tac mints. The entire process — from building the nest to incubating eggs to tending hatchlings — requires a commitment of more than two months. Donna noted that even after the young hummingbirds hatched, Bliss continued to reinforce the nest with collected silk from spider webs.

Donna kept the nest under observation after she discovered it in late July. As she noted on her Facebook page, finding a hummingbird nest is not an everyday occurrence. The nest is on one of the lower branches of a large maple tree in her front yard only a short distance from her porch. She was able to sit comfortably while watching Bliss come and go to her tiny nest.

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Photo Courtesy of Donna Ottinger                                           Bliss, a ruby-throated hummingbird, sits on her nest to incubate her two eggs.

“It’s been a real blessing,” Donna told me when we met in person on Aug. 19. She was gracious enough to permit my mom and me to sit on her front porch and enjoy the show. During our visit, we got to watch as Bliss arrived to feed the babies. It’s not a spectacle for the squeamish. Bliss plunged her long bill deep into the throats of each baby bird in turn and pumped some nutritious contents into the growing youngsters. Despite the fact that it looked like she could easily impale the babies, they suffered no ill effects and looked quite full and satisfied after the visit.

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Photo Courtesy of Donna Ottinger              On Aug. 1, one chick hatched. The second chick hatched the following day, making for a very full nest.

The two babies were hatched on Aug. 1 and Aug. 2, respectively. The staggered hatching reflects the fact that Bliss also laid the eggs on separate days. Not knowing the gender of the babies, Donna named the Aug. 1 hatchling Monday for the day of the week hatching took place. In turn, the second baby, which escaped its shell on Aug. 2, was named Tuesday.

Once hatched, young hummingbirds remain in the nest about 28 days (nearly a month) and depend on their mother to bring them regular meals. If that’s not enough, the ruby-throated hummingbird is known to nest twice in a season. It certainly must rank a female hummingbird as one of the busiest of our summer birds. At the time I wrote this column, Monday and Tuesday had still not left the nest.

The young hummers have grown at an astonishing rate and Donna has witnessed their progress day by day. She noted that young hummers start off life with a short bill. Like the rest of their bodies, however, their bills have grown accordingly as Monday and Tuesday received regular feedings from Bliss.

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Photo Courtesy of Donna Ottinger                Having grown at a rapid pace, hummingbird chicks Monday and Tuesday find their nest growing rather cramped by mid-August.

Female hummingbirds receive no assistance from their mates. Males don’t assist with the rearing of their own young. For male hummingbirds, summer is mainly a time to thrive on the abundance of nectar-bearing blooms, as well as a profusion of tiny insects and spiders that also make up a good portion of their diet.

When I saw them, I knew that little Monday and Tuesday would be out of the nest in a short time. It would also be necessary for them to soon begin fall migration. On Aug. 23, Donna reported on her Facebook page that the young hummers had left the nest.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                   Bliss feeds her two young hummingbirds.

“Just three weeks after hatching, the baby hummers have both left the nest,” she wrote in her post. “They didn’t go far, and Bliss is still feeding them in a nearby tree where they have taken up new residence.”

The next generation of hummingbirds always helps swell the number of these tiny birds in our yards in late summer and early fall. Keeping visiting ruby-throated hummingbirds can be as simple as planting an abundance of the flowers they love, but offering multiple sugar water feeders also helps. Keep the sugar water mix at a four parts water to one part sugar ratio. Don’t offer honey in your feeders. When mixed with water, it can spoil and spread fungal diseases. Remember that hummingbirds don’t subsist on sugar water alone. They also eat numerous tiny insects and spiders to obtain the protein they need for their dietary needs, so don’t use insecticides near feeders or flowers that hummers are likely to visit.

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Photo Courtesy of Donna Ottinger  Monday and Tuesday find the nest increasingly crowded in the days before they fledged.

It was absolutely wondrous to observe Bliss and her babies. The experience has motivated me to keep a closer watch on the hummingbirds in my yard. There are female hummers present every summer. They have to be nesting somewhere, and I’d like to find a nest in my own yard.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photos Courtesy of Donna Ottinger            Monday and Tuesday share a compact nest.

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Bliss incubates her eggs at her nest in Bluff City, Tennessee.

South Carolina trip provides excellent viewing opportunities to observe one of nation’s most colorful birds

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Photos by Bryan Stevens                                                          A male Painted Bunting feeds on millet seed at a feeder at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

I enjoyed a recent excursion to coastal South Carolina, which provided me a change to look for birds at such locations as Huntington Beach State Park and Brookgreen Gardens. These two attractions are two of my favorite places to bird when I get an opportunity to a stay at Pawleys Island in South Carolina.

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The male Painted Bunting is one of the most colorful birds in North America.

Southwest Virginia, Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina share some colorful species of birds, including rose-breasted grosbeak, Baltimore oriole, scarlet tanager and indigo bunting. The vibrant blue plumage of a male indigo bunting makes it one of the most coveted birds at feeders. One of my earliest bird memories is one that recalls summer sightings of “blue birds,” or indigo buntings, perched in the same blue spruce tree with “yellow birds,” or American goldfinches. It’s very likely that such memorable childhood sightings set me on the path to becoming a birding and nature enthusiast.

It’s fun to speculate that I might have traveled that path even sooner if I’d observed in that blue spruce one of the relatives of the indigo bunting. The painted bunting, which I saw frequently during my South Carolina vacation, is often described as one of the most colorful birds in the United States. A male painted bunting’s plumage is an almost shocking blend of blue, green, yellow and red feathers, which make males appear almost too tropical for a bird that makes its home for part of the year in the United States. The color pattern for the male painted bunting consists of a blue head, a red eye-ring, red underparts and a green backs. Females and immature birds are a uniform, bright lemon-green overall, with a pale eye-ring. Two years are required for a male painted bunting to acquire the vibrant plumage that has given the bird its common name.

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It’s easy to see how the male painted bunting acquired its reputation as one of North America’s most colorful birds.

The painted bunting is a specialty bird of the southern United States, as well as some locations in the southwestern United States, including southern Arizona and New Mexico. A thriving population exists along the Atlantic Coast in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. These colorful birds also occur in Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Some other common names for this bird include painted finch and rainbow bunting. Early French colonists to the New World named this songbird “Nonpareil,” which means “without equal.” That neatly sums up the amazing appearance of this bird.

Bird feeders help this bird overcome its shyness in the presence of humans. Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina maintains several feeders filled with millet, which is a small seed favored by buntings, as well as some sparrows and finches. The feeders located at the park’s Nature Center are a popular destination for people hoping to get a good look at a painted bunting. Of course, the buntings share the feeders with other birds, including chickadees, cardinals, house finches, brown-headed cowbirds and red-winged blackbirds.

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Female and immature painted buntings are greenish-yellow birds that are eclipsed by the more vibrant adult males.

Away from feeders, however, it can be difficult to find painted buntings. Males sing from elevated perches in spring and early summer, which can simplify the effort of locating them. The greenish females blend well with their surroundings and can be a much bigger challenge to observe. Once I learned to recognize the male’s song, finding painted buntings away from feeders became easier.

Before federal protections were put into place, painted buntings were often captured and caged as exotic pets. Although such practices are now illegal in the United States, these birds are still captured in some Central American locations for sale as a pet caged bird. I’ve always believed that it’s much more enjoyable to observe any bird free to fly, sing and live out its life in the wild.

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A female Painted Bunting decides to visit a hummingbird feeder.

The population of painted buntings has declined, particularly on barrier islands off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina. Destruction of habitat has been a major factor, but these birds are also victimized by brown-headed cowbirds. The female cowbirds slip their own eggs into the nests of unsuspecting birds, which often raise the young cowbirds even at the expense of their own young.

Painted buntings do show up in some unexpected places, but there are only a few records for the region. In November of 2015, a male painted bunting showed up at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York, of all places. That particular bird lingered until Jan. 3, 2016, before it was last seen prior to a cold front moving into New York. The surest way to see a painted bunting is to visit some of its strongholds along the southern Atlantic Coast or the other regions in the United States where this technicolor dream of a bird ranges.

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Indigo Buntings are fairly common songbirds in much of the eastern United States.

Until then, enjoy the painted bunting’s much more common, at least in this region, relative. The indigo bunting usually returns to the region in April and lingers into early October. Indigo buntings are also fond of visiting feeders for offerings of millet or sunflower seed.

Besides indigo buntings, other related birds include the lazuli bunting, varied bunting and blue bunting. Other birds named bunting, but not as closely related, include the snow bunting and the lark bunting. The term “bunting” when used with a bird basically refers to various seed-eating birds with stubby, cone-shaped bills.

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The Lazuli Bunting takes the place of Indigo Buntings in the western half of the United States. This male was photographed in Utah.

Perhaps some day in the future I’ll glimpse a migrant painted bunting that has strayed off course and has ended up in southwest Virginia or northeast Tennessee. Until that hypothetical day, I’ll continue to look for this dazzling bird any time I am in the Low Country of South Carolina. In addition, I’ll simply enjoy the electric blue plumage of the adult male indigo buntings that visit my feeders almost daily during the summer months.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more.

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This male Painted Bunting visits feeders at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

Regional spring bird count sets several new records

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                  Newly-arrived migrant birds such as Indigo Bunting were well represented on the 73rd annual Elizabethton Spring Bird Count.

The 73rd consecutive Elizabethton Spring Bird Count, which was held Saturday, April 30, set numerous records for this long-running survey of the region’s birds. The 59 observers in 13 parties (both representing record highs for participation) enjoyed favorable weather over the coverage area, which included Carter County and parts of adjacent Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington Counties.

 

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Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                              A total of 166 species of birds, including Rose-breasted Grosbeak, pictured, helped participants in the Elizabethton Spring Bird Count, establish a new record high for this annual survey. The old record of 161 species was set back in 2005.

Long-time count compiler Rick Knight announced that the annual count tallied 166 species, eclipsing the previous record of 161 set in 2005. By comparison, the average number over the last 30 years has been 147 species.

Highlights for this year’s Spring Bird Count included American Golden-Plover and Fish Crow, which were new to this annual survey of birds in the region.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                           The presence of several nesting colonies of Great Blue Herons could help explain a new record-high for this species on this year’s count.

Other notable find included Hooded Merganser (a hen with two young), a lingering pair of Common Mergansers, Virginia Rail, Black-billed Cuckoo, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Peregrine Falcon, Sedge Wren and Cerulean Warbler.

Amazingly, given the long history of this count, 21 species occurred in record high numbers this year. Knight said the increased number of observers and parties certainly contributed to this.

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Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                      Although the Sora is rarely found during this annual count, the four individuals found this year represented an all-time high for the species on this yearly survey.

The record highs were for the following species:  Canada Goose (653), Mallard (332), Wild Turkey (57), Great Blue Heron (107), Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (14), Black Vulture (152), Spotted Sandpiper (83), Barred Owl (12), Belted Kingfisher (30), Red-bellied Woodpecker (97), Warbling Vireo (20), Red-eyed Vireo (257), Ovenbird (244), Worm-eating Warbler (39), Yellow-throated Warbler (44), Eastern Towhee (222), Scarlet Tanager (82), and Baltimore Oriole (38). Three species — Orchard Oriole (42), Northern Saw-whet Owl (3) and Sora (4) — tied previous high counts.

Several of these good finds were made by observers counting in Unicoi County at such locations as Rock Creek Recreation Area and Unaka Mountain. The final total follows:

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Photo by Bryan Stevens Common backyard birds, such as Northern Cardinal, were among the record-high 166 species found.

Canada Goose,  653; Wood Duck, 85; American Wigeon, 2; Mallard, 332; Blue-winged Teal, 6; Bufflehead, 5; Hooded Merganser, 3; and Common Merganser, 2.
Northern Bobwhite, 1; Ruffed Grouse, 1; Wild Turkey, 57; Common Loon, 1; Pied-billed Grebe, 5; Horned Grebe, 1; and Double-crested Cormorant, 65.
Great Blue Heron, 107; Green Heron, 16; Black-crowned Night-heron, 1; Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, 14; Black Vulture,  152; and Turkey Vulture,  212.
Osprey,  15; Bald Eagle, 10; Sharp-shinned Hawk,  2; Cooper’s Hawk, 7; Broad-winged Hawk, 16; and Red-tailed Hawk,  38.
Virginia Rail,  1; Sora , 4; American Coot, 3; American Golden-Plover, 1; Killdeer,  46; Spotted Sandpiper,  83; Solitary Sandpiper,  34; Greater Yellowlegs,  2; Lesser Yellowlegs , 2; Least Sandpiper, 5; and Pectoral Sandpiper, 2.
Bonaparte’s Gull, 1; Ring-billed Gull, 7; Forster’s Tern, 7; Rock Pigeon, 166; Eurasian Collared-Dove,  3; Mourning Dove,  254; Yellow-billed Cuckoo,  9; and Black-billed Cuckoo, 1.
Eastern Screech-Owl, 10; Great Horned Owl,  6; Barred Owl,  12; Northern Saw-whet Owl, 3; Common Nighthawk, 1; Chuck-will’s-widow, 10; Eastern Whip-poor-will, 32; Chimney Swift , 209; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 31; and Belted Kingfisher, 30.
Red-headed Woodpecker, 2; Red-bellied Woodpecker,  97; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 4; Downy Woodpecker,  37; Hairy Woodpecker, 10; Northern Flicker,  33; Pileated Woodpecker, 43; American Kestrel, 19; and Peregrine Falcon, 1.
Eastern Wood-Pewee,  7; Acadian Flycatcher, 12; Least Flycatcher, 6; Eastern Phoebe, 77; Great Crested Flycatcher, 15; and Eastern Kingbird, 57.
Loggerhead Shrike, 1; White-eyed Vireo, 12; Yellow-throated Vireo, 9; Blue-headed Vireo,  78; Warbling Vireo, 20; Red-eyed Vireo,  257; Blue Jay, 320; American Crow, 338; Fish Crow, 1; Common Raven,  and 14; Horned Lark,  2.
Purple Martin, 81; Tree Swallow, 426; Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 133; Barn Swallow, 217; and Cliff Swallow, 807.
Carolina Chickadee,  173; Tufted Titmouse, 166; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 16; White-breasted Nuthatch, 26; and Brown Creeper,  4.
House Wren,  45; Winter Wren, 4; Sedge Wren, 1; Carolina Wren,  129; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher,  97; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 5; and Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 4.

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Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                        Vireos, such as this Red-eyed Vireo on a nest, were quite abundant. The numbers of Red-eyed Vireos and Warbling Vireos set all-time highs for the count.

Eastern Bluebird, 157; Veery, 13; Swainson’s Thrush,  2; Wood Thrush, 138; American Robin,  888; Gray Catbird, 55; Brown Thrasher, 45; Northern Mockingbird, 122; European Starling,  986; and Cedar Waxwing, 44.
Ovenbird, 244; Worm-eating Warbler, 39; Louisiana Waterthrush, 32; Golden-winged Warbler, 2; Black-and-white Warbler, 90; Swainson’s Warbler, 6; Nashville Warbler, 1; Kentucky Warbler, 5; Common Yellowthroat, 27; Hooded Warbler, 208; American Redstart, 21; Cape May Warbler, 4; Cerulean Warbler, 2; Northern Parula, 56; Magnolia Warbler, 3; Bay-breasted Warbler, 2; Blackburnian Warbler, 7; Yellow Warbler, 15; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 36; Blackpoll Warbler, 1; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 85; Palm Warbler, 8; Pine Warbler, 10; Yellow-rumped Warbler, 62; Yellow-throated Warbler, 44; Prairie Warbler, 5; Black-throated Green Warbler, 81; Canada Warbler, 44; and Yellow-breasted Chat, 8.
Eastern Towhee, 222; Chipping Sparrow, 126; Field Sparrow, 72; Savannah Sparrow, 1; Grasshopper Sparrow, 4; Song Sparrow, 276; Swamp Sparrow, 5; White-throated Sparrow, 13; White-crowned Sparrow, 11; and Dark-eyed Junco, 63.

Hairy_Male

Photo by Bryan Stevens While some species set record highs, only 10 Hairy Woodpeckers, like this male, were found by participants in the annual Elizabethton Spring Bird Count.

Summer Tanager, 1; Scarlet Tanager, 82; Northern Cardinal, 299; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 30; Blue Grosbeak, 6; and Indigo Bunting, 126.
Bobolink, 1; Red-winged Blackbird,  480; Eastern Meadowlark, 142; Rusty Blackbird, 2; Common Grackle, 477; Brown-headed Cowbird, 91; Orchard Oriole, 42; and Baltimore Oriole, 38.
House Finch, 56; Pine Siskin, 59; American Goldfinch, 354; and House Sparrow, 80.
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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.

Woodpecker’s ‘red belly’ often obscured from view, but ‘redhead’ name often goes to wrong bird

 

In recent posts I have discussed the smallest and largest of the woodpeckers in the region, as well as focused a spotlight on the oddball yellow-bellied sapsucker and the medium-sized Northern flicker. This week’s post will focus on one of the most common, although ridiculously misnamed, woodpeckers, as well as one of its rather uncommon relatives.

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Photo by Ken Thomas                                            Just as acrobatic as its relatives, the red-bellied woodpecker ranks as a popular visitor to feeders. This photograph shows off the splash of red on the belly that gives this particular woodpecker its name.

Among the woodpecker family, the red-bellied and red-headed woodpeckers are close cousins, belonging to a genus of those tree-clinging birds known as Melanerpes. The term, translated from Latin, means “black creeper.” Indeed, many of the two dozen members of the Melanerpes genus have an extensive amount of black feathers in their plumage. Other members of the genus include woodpeckers from the Caribbean, as well as from Central and South American. Some of them have quite colorful names, such as yellow-tufted woodpecker, golden-cheeked woodpecker and the accurately named beautiful woodpecker, a native of Colombia.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                  When climbing the trunks of trees, red-bellied woodpeckers don’t often reveal the faint reddish wash on the feathers covering their stomachs. This photo, however, is an exception and shows the trait that gives this medium-sized woodpecker its common name.

The red-bellied woodpecker is one of the most widespread members of this genus with a range that extends from southern Canada to northeastern Mexico, as well as the eastern United States as far south as Florida and as far west as Texas. A century ago the red-bellied woodpecker was almost exclusively a southeastern bird, but it has expanded its range northward and westward considerably in the last 100 years. Its southern origins are hinted at in its scientific name of Melanerpes carolinus, which can be roughly translated as “black creeper of the Carolinas.”

It’s also named for a characteristic of its appearance that is not particularly prominent and not easy to observe. The faint tint of red that tinges the white belly feathers is extremely difficult to observe when this woodpecker is hitching up the trunk of a large tree. Because males, and females to a certain extent, have a red cap, the species has been erroneously referred to as a “red-headed woodpecker” by many casual observers. The true red-headed woodpecker, however, has an entirely red head and a plumage pattern that, considering its color trio of red, white and blue-black, is downright patriotic. The red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) is about the same size as the red-bellied woodpecker.

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Photo by Dave Menke/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service                  The uncommon red-headed woodpecker deserves its common name because it, and not the related red-bellied woodpecker, has an entirely red head.

All woodpeckers are noisy when the mood strikes them, but the red-headed and red-bellied have always struck me as rather more clamorous than some of their relatives. The most common call of the red-bellied woodpecker is a sort of rolling “churr” repeated frequently while the bird is on the move from tree to tree.

To enjoy close views of the red-bellied woodpecker, provide plenty of peanuts, sunflower seeds and suet cakes. If there are any of them in the woods nearby, they will find these food offerings in short order. All my research indicates the same is true of red-headed woodpeckers, but I’ve never observed this woodpecker at my home. I’ve seen red-headed woodpeckers in Tennessee, Virginia and South Carolina, but their populations are somewhat localized. Woodlands dominated by oak trees are often inhabited by both these woodpeckers, which are fond of the acorns produced by these trees.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens           A female red-bellied woodpecker peers around a tree trunk.

One reason the red-headed woodpecker may be less common than its cousin relates to its fondness for hawking for flying insects along roadsides. The woodpeckers are frequently struck by cars when swooping after their winged prey. Historically, the American chestnut and beech trees also provided much of the mast crops consumed by these birds. With the extermination of the chestnut and the scarcity of beech in some locations, the red-headed woodpecker now depends on oaks and acorns. In fact, this woodpecker is rarely encountered outside of woodlands with an abundance of oak trees.

At feeders, red-bellied woodpeckers are prickly customers that often refuse to play nice with other birds. I’ve seen them stare down other large feeder birds, including blue jays, mourning doves and evening grosbeaks. With its large bill, the red-bellied woodpecker commands some respect.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                Although once considered a bird of the southeastern United States, the red-bellied woodpecker has expanded its range north and west during the past century.

Anyone who has hosted these birds knows they are a welcome visitor to any yard. Who knows? Some day I may even get a visit from the elusive red-headed woodpecker, which is the only woodpecker resident in the region to thus far avoid my yard.

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Photo by Mark Stevens     A promotional sign for Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina bears the image of a red-bellied woodpecker.

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 him at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.