Category Archives: Bryan Stevens

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.