Category Archives: Bryan Stevens

Reader reports visit from rufous hummingbird

An email from Bristol resident Ralph Beamer offered a timely reminder about the need to keep a watchful eye on our sugar water feeders even as most of the ruby-throated hummingbirds depart the region.

“For the past week, I have had a red humming bird coming to the feeder,” Ralph explained in his email. He added that he had never seen a hummingbird like this recent visitor.

“Have you had any reports of a similar sighting?” Ralph asked.

Ralph is the first person to make such a report this fall, but sightings of a species of hummingbird other than the expected ruby-throated hummingbird are becoming more commonplace each year. Once the numbers of ruby-throated hummingbirds are reduced as these tiny birds migrate from the region, noticing an unusual hummingbird at a feeder becomes even easier.

In a reply to Ralph’s email, I sought more information on the hummingbird’s coloration. He confirmed that the bird’s feathers looked more reddish brown than bright red, which supports my belief that he has received a visit from a rufous hummingbird.Ruf-Drawing

I speak from personal experience. My yard has attracted rufous hummingbirds on a couple of occasions. In October of 2016 I received my most recent visit from a rufous hummingbird, which lingered into November and was banded by Mark Armstrong. A former curator of birds for the Knoxville Zoo, Armstrong has devoted several years to studying the phenomenon of rufous hummingbirds that appear to migrate on a regular basis through the eastern United States every fall and early winter. Mark’s efforts have largely focused on Tennessee reports of rufous hummingbirds, but other banders operating from the Gulf Coast to New England have confirmed rufous hummingbirds in their respective regions.

The possibility of attracting a rufous hummingbird is the reason I encourage others to keep a sugar water feeder available into October and November. Experts who have studied the matter note that the presence of a feeder will not encourage ruby-throated hummingbirds to linger. These tiny birds know instinctively when it’s time to depart. Without the attraction of a feeder, however, a visiting rufous hummingbird might reject any extended stay in your yard.

Selasphorus rufus, or the rufous hummingbird, is about the same size as the ruby-throated hummingbird. Both species reach a body length of a little more than three inches and weigh only a few grams. In fact, one of these small hummingbirds might weigh the equivalent of a dime. Female rufous hummingbirds are slightly bigger than males, so a well-fed female rufous hummingbird might weigh as much as a nickel. So, to get an accurate impression of this sort of size, simply think of these tiny birds as weighing less than some of the spare change in your pocket.

Although hummingbirds are not known for their longevity, the website for Tennessee Watchable Wildlife notes that the oldest rufous hummingbird on record reached an age of eight years and 11 months. For the most part, hummingbirds blaze like tiny comets and enjoy typically brief but fast-paced lives. Despite a prevalent impression, hummingbirds are not delicate creatures. For instance, the rufous hummingbird’s tolerance for cold allows it to survive temperatures that dip briefly below zero. This adaptation has allowed the rufous hummingbird to breed as far north as Alaska.

The Selasphorus genus of hummingbirds consists of the rufous and six other species. Of those species, the Allen’s hummingbird, broad-tailed hummingbird and calliope hummingbird are known to also migrate through the eastern United States although with less frequency than the rufous. The remaining Selaphorus hummers — scintillant hummingbird, glow-throated hummingbird and volcano hummingbird — range in the tropical regions of Costa Rica and Panama. Those rufous hummingbirds that don’t spend the fall and early winter in the southeastern United States choose to overwinter in the region of Mexico around the city of Acapulco. This majority of the rufous hummingbird population migrates north again in the spring to claim nesting territory that can range from the Rocky Mountains of the western United States, as well as the Pacific Coast states of California, Oregon and Washington, all the way north to southern Alaska, as well as British Columbia in Canada.

Those rufous hummingbirds that continue to migrate through the southeastern United States each autumn constitute more evidence that we still have a lot to learn about birds. Even an abundant species like the rufous hummingbird offers mysteries that curious humans can attempt to understand.

While I can’t guarantee hummingbirds, I want to remind readers of the bird walks at 8 a.m. each Saturday in October at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee. Remaining walks, which are free and open to the public, are scheduled for Oct. 21 and Oct. 28. Meet at the parking lot at the park’s visitors center. Bring binoculars to increase your viewing pleasure.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To ask a question, make a comment or share a sighting, email him at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Hurricanes: bane for birds, boon for birders

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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.

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.

 

 

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.

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.