Category Archives: Common Birds of Northeast Tennessee

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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Plovers among migration champions of vast and varied shorebird clan

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Photo by Janice Humble • A killdeer wanders in a grassy area near the Wal-Mart on Volunteer Parkway in Bristol. The killdeer, a species of plover, is one of the more common shorebirds found in the region.

I’m always glad to lend a hand at identifying birds. If you’re uncertain of a bird’s identification and have a photo of the bird in question, assistance is an email away. Janice Humble emailed me seeking some help with identifying the bird in a photograph attached with her message. She noted that the bird was accompanied by a companion in the grassy area near the Wal-Mart on Volunteer Parkway in Bristol. She also noted that the two birds uttered loud “peeps” during her observation.

The bird turned out to be a killdeer, a species of plover native to North America. Plovers belong to the family of shorebirds that include various sandpipers, curlews, dowitchers, stilts, avocets and other species. The killdeer is a rather common shorebird that finds itself at home far from the seashore, often present in habitats such as pastures and golf courses, as well as the grassy areas near the concrete and asphalt jungles that surround Wal-Marts and other such shopping complexes.

The killdeer’s famous for its faking of an injured wing. When its nest or young is threatened, a killdeer will go into an elaborate display, fluttering the “injured” wing and uttering shrill peeps to distract the potential predator. If successful, the bird will lure the predator away from the nest or vulnerable young. Once at a safe distance, the killdeer undergoes a miraculous recovery and takes wing, leaving behind a bewildered and perhaps chagrined predator.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Killdeer explores near a stream bank.

Other North American plovers related to the killdeer include American golden-plover, black-bellied plover, Pacific golden plover, Wilson’s plover, piping plover, snowy plover, mountain plover and semipalmated plover. About 70 different species of plovers exist around the world, including such descriptively named birds as little ringed plover, red-capped plover, three-banded plover and white-fronted plover.

Musick’s Campground on Holston Lake has been one of the best area locations for seeking shorebirds during their migrations. The shore near the campground has been a magnet for persuading unusual shorebirds to pause their journey to rest, refresh and refuel. The location’s privately owned, but individual wishing to bird the shoreline can enter by signing the guest book located a small but well-marked kiosk. Some of the most memorable shorebirds I’ve seen at Musick’s Campground over the years include whimbrel, dunlin, sanderling, greater yellowlegs, short-billed dowitcher, American avocet, black-bellied plover and semipalmated plover. In recent weeks, the location has hosted such unexpected shorebirds as red knot and red-necked phalarope.

While the neighboring states of Virginia and North Carolina offer coastal birding opportunities, my native Tennessee remains quite landlocked. This fact poses a challenge for birders looking to capitalize on the seasonal migrations of shorebirds. Fortunately ponds, mudflats on the shorelines of lakes, riverbanks and even flooded fields offer adequate substitute habitat for many shorebirds. While the Mountain Empire region may lack a seashore, migrating shorebirds have learned to make do.

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Photo by Jean Potter • The American golden-plover, like this individual, is a long-distance migrant among the varied family of shorebirds.

This varied and far-flung family is also known as “wind birds,” a term which is an allusion to the capacity of many species of shorebirds to undertake nothing less than epic migrations. Many of the shorebirds that pass through in the spring are in haste to reach their nesting grounds as far north as the edge of the Arctic tundra. In fall, many of the same birds are eager to return to destinations in Central and South America ahead of cold weather and times of scarcity.

The plovers — the sedentary killdeer excepted — are among the champions of long-distance migration. According to the Audubon website, the black-bellied plover spends the brief summer season nesting in the world’s high Arctic zones but disperses to spend the winter months on the coasts of six of the globe’s seven continents.

The Pacific golden-plover’s twice yearly migrations represent an even more impressive feat. This shorebird often nests in Alaska and winter in Hawaii. The website Phys.org notes that research on this plover has revealed that the bird is capable of flying almost 3,000 miles in a mere four days. The website also reveals that those plovers wintering in Hawaii cannot lay claim to longest migrations. Some Pacific golden-plovers nest even farther south in the Pacific, reaching the Marshall Islands.

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Photo by Jean Potter • A black-bellied plover stands out from most relatives when it wears its nesting season breeding plumage.

Shorebirds represent only a single family of birds migrating through the region in the fall. Songbirds from warblers and thrushes to vireos and flycatchers, as well as raptors and waterfowl, wing their way through the region every fall. Get outdoors with a pair of binoculars and have a look. It’s almost impossible not to see something, which may turn out to be a delightful and unanticipated surprise.

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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. To ask a question, make a comment or share a sighting, email him at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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.

Keep a look out for wandering waders during late summer season

Summer heat and humidity make the summer season my least favorite one for birding, but every season brings birding surprises. I was reminded of this fact when Larry and Amelia Tipton sent me a recent email asking for help with the identification of some birds near their home.

Attaching a photo with their email, the Tiptons wrote, “These birds showed up a few days ago and we cannot identify them. We would like to know what they are.”

When I opened the photo, I realized that the birds captured in the image would not be considered out of place if the Tiptons lived near the coast of the Carolinas, Georgia or Florida. The birds in the photo, however, were somewhat unexpected in the foothills of western North Carolina near their home in the town of Old Fort.

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Photo Courtesy of  Larry and Amelia Tipton • Immature white ibises in a field near the Catawba River in North Carolina.

“We live on a farm near the Catawba River but have mostly woodland and fields,” the couple added. “We do not have a pond on our property but have a branch and a larger creek nearby.”

I wrote back and told the Tiptons that the birds they photographed were young white ibises. I informed the Tiptons that the two young ibises are likely testing their wings, so to speak, after leaving the care of their parents. If they like the area, and it sounds like they do, they may decide that the branch and creek are just what they need.

I received a followup email. “We sort of knew these were water birds but were surprised to find them so far away from marsh or wetlands or the ocean,” the Tiptons wrote. “We thought maybe a storm blew them off course during flight.”

While a diverting storm can’t be ruled out, it’s normal behavior for young wading birds to disperse far and wide after leaving the nest. North American waders, or wading birds, include such long-legged species as herons, egrets, bitterns, ibises, storks and spoonbills. Most species are associated with wetlands or coastal areas.

Late summer birding is usually a period of doldrums as heat and humidity can discourage birders as well as diminish bird activity. However, it’s also the time of year when birders can make some unexpected surprises as wandering waders, such as the ibises discovered by the Tiptons, explore uncharted territory.

Other waders this season showing up in unexpected location have included a wood stork found by Linda Walker in Polk County, Tennessee. Likes the ibises in North Carolina, the stork was confining its activities to a small branch bordered by heavy vegetation. These branches are a far cry from the usual wetland haunts of these two species.

Overall, the white ibis and wood stork have some superficial similarities. They are both long-legged white birds with black wing tips and unusual down-turned bills that they use to probe for food, which largely consists of fish and other aquatic prey.

The latter is North America’s only native stork. According to the National Audubon Society, Florida once provided a stronghold for the wood stork in the United States. Unfortunately, the population crashed in the 1990s, decreasing from around 150,000 birds to fewer than 10,000. In recent years, numbers have increased and wood storks have expanded their breeding range into South Carolina. Wood storks are nearly four feet tall, making them one of the tallest of the waders. Wood storks have a dark, featherless heads, giving them a resemblance to vultures. For the most part, they’re rather grotesque birds when observed at close quarters. Soaring overhead on thermal updrafts, wood storks look quite graceful and even majestic thanks to their white plumage and black accents. A wingspan of 65 inches gives them the means to soar easily.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens 
Worldwide there are 19 species of storks, but the wood stork (pictured) is the only native stork   found in the United States.

The Audubon Society identifies the white ibis as one of the most numerous wading birds in Florida, but the bird is common also in other parts of the southeast with appropriate wetland habitat. Like the wood stork, the ibis has declined in Florida in recent decades largely as a result of human encroachment. The white ibis looks like a bird that could have been invented by Dr. Seuss. The all-white plumage is contrasted by pinkish-orange legs, a reddish-pink bill and bright blue eyes. In flight, the white ibis shows black feathers on the edges of its wings.

The affinity for water and wetlands relates to the diet of most waders, which consists of fish and other aquatic prey such as amphibians, crustaceans and even insects. For the remainder of July and into August and September, birders should monitor ponds, small lakes, rivers and even branches and creeks for any wandering waders. For instance, I once made a trip to a park in Greeneville, Tennessee, to observe a pink-hued roseate spoonbill that had made a rare stopover in the region. While that observation took place nearly 20 years ago, I remember vividly finding the pale pink bird playing odd man out among a flock of several dozen Canada geese as a soft rain drizzled from an overcast sky. Although many of the waders cling to coastal habitats, they have wings like other birds and know how to use them. Other waders have been known to show up in unlikely locations, including birds such as tri-colored heron, limpkin and snowy egret.

Of course, I hope to hear from any readers lucky enough to glimpse one of these unanticipated finds. Enjoy your birding.

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

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.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long-running bird counts find some surprises

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Abundant waterfowl, such as this Wood Duck, helped push the 2016 Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count to tie a previous record.

The annual Christmas Bird Counts conducted by the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society found some good birds.

The 74th consecutive Elizabethton CBC was held on Saturday, Dec. 17. Twenty-four observers in six parties, plus one feeder-watcher, participated. Conditions were generally favorable and featured mild temperatures (35-66 degrees) on a mostly cloudy day with windy conditions, especially in the higher elevations.

I spent the morning and early afternoon counting birds with Chris Soto and Charles Moore along the Watauga River in Elizabethton. We also received some assistance from Michelle Sparks.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • This female Eastern Towhee was one of several towhees found on the 2016 Elizabethton CBC.

A total of 80 species were tallied, tying the all-time high for this count set in 2012.  By comparison, the average over the last 30 years has been 72 species, according to the count’s long-time compiler, Rick Knight.

Knight said that highlights from the count included:

• 12 species of ducks (plus four more in count week) were counted on this year’s CBC. In particular, wigeon, shoveler, green-winged teal, both scaup and red-breasted merganser are scarce on this count, but all were found this year.

• Double-crested Cormorant was found for just the seventh time on this CBC, with six of those times since 2004.

• This CBC marked just the third time in the last 24 years and 10th ever on this CBC that Red-headed Woodpecker has made the count.

• The seven Red-breasted Nuthatches reported represented an above average number for this species.

• This was only the third time for Pine Warbler on this CBC in the last 50 years and the three Pine Warblers found this year represent a high count for this CBC.

• A single Savannah Sparrow was the first on this CBC in 16 years. There’s not much accessible habitat for this sparrow within the count area.

• Nine Purple Finches on this CBC marked the most found since 1987.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The 26 Great Blue Herons found during the Elizabethton CBC almost tied the old record.

• Red Crossbills on this year’s CBC marked only the fourth occurrence on this CBC in the last 30 years.

Nevertheless, the Elizabethton CBC had some notable misses, including Brown Creeper, White-crowned Sparrow and Pine Siskin.

Some species are showing rather obvious trends on this CBC, according to Knight.

• The 114 Wild Turkeys found are the second most found in the  last 24 years. Prior to that date, no turkeys had been found on this CBC.

• Great Blue Herons continue to increase. The 26 individuals found represent the second most ever reported on this CBC.

• The four Bald Eagles found meant that this large raptor has been found for 17 of last 18 years, but only three times before that.

• Only three Killdeers were found, which reflects a continuing decline on this CBC likely due to habitat loss and degradation.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The 47 Red-bellied Woodpeckers on the 2016 Elizabethton CBC set an all-time high for this species.

• The eleven Eurasian Collared-Doves found means that this dove has been found five of the last eight years.

• The 21 Belted Kingfishers found tied for second highest total ever for this species.

• The 47 Red-bellied Woodpeckers found set a new high count for this species, which has shown a steady increase in the foothills and lower mountains. CBCs conducted in the 1970s in Elizabethton had only single-digit counts for this woodpecker.

• Common Raven, with 13 found on this year’s CBC, has been found yearly since 1974, but none had appeared on this count prior to that date.

• Eastern Bluebird numbers continued to rise yearly. The 177 bluebirds this year represent the third-highest count for this species.

• Numbers for Field Sparrow, Song Sparrow and White-throated Sparrow showed the fewest of these three species since 1996, 1974 and 1969, respectively. These low sparrow numbers may be due to drought this year, which meant fewer seeds to feed these sparrows.

The total for the Elizabethton CBC follows:

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Feeder visitors, like this White-breasted Nuthatch, were abundant birds on both Christmas Bird Counts.

Canada Goose, 426; Wood Duck, 1; Gadwall, 10; American Wigeon, 2; American Black Duck, 1; Mallard, 205; Northern Shoveler, 2; Green-winged Teal, 3; Ring-necked Duck, 1; Greater Scaup, 2; Lesser Scaup, 1; Bufflehead, 256; and Red-breasted Merganser, 4.

Ruffed Grouse, 1; Wild Turkey, 114; Common Loon, 3; Pied-billed Grebe, 10; Horned Grebe, 21; Double-crested Cormorant, 4; and Great Blue Heron, 26.

Black Vulture, 10; Turkey Vulture, 2; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 4; Cooper’s Hawk, 8; Bald Eagle, 4; and Red-tailed Hawk, 13.

American Coot, 33; Killdeer, 3; Wilson’s Snipe, 4; Ring-billed Gull, 3; Rock Pigeon, 487; Eurasian Collared-Dove, 11; and Mourning Dove, 246.

Eastern Screech-owl, 2; Great Horned Owl, 1; Barred Owl, 2; Belted Kingfisher, 21; Red-headed Woodpecker, 2; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 45; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 7; Downy Woodpecker, 23; Hairy Woodpecker, 7; Northern Flicker, 15; and Pileated Woodpecker, 24.

American Kestrel, 13; Eastern Phoebe, 10; Blue Jay, 209; American Crow, 541; and Common Raven, 13.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • American Crows are abundant birds on these two CBCs.

Carolina Chickadee, 114; Tufted Titmouse, 102; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 7; White-breasted Nuthatch, 41; Winter Wren, 8; Carolina Wren, 85.

Golden-crowned Kinglet, 19; Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 3; Eastern Bluebird, 175; Hermit Thrush, 4; American Robin, 105; and Northern Mockingbird, 40.

European Starling, 809; Cedar Waxwing, 272; Pine Warbler, 3; and Yellow-rumped Warbler, 58.

Eastern Towhee, 25; Chipping Sparrow, 29; Field Sparrow, 7; Savannah Sparrow, 1; Fox Sparrow, 1; Song Sparrow, 70; Swamp Sparrow, 2; White-throated Sparrow, 57; and Dark-eyed Junco, 135.

Northern Cardinal, 92; House Finch, 74; Purple Finch, 5; Red Crossbill, 7; American Goldfinch, 101; and House Sparrow, 17.

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The 64th Roan Mountain CBC was held on Wednesday, Dec. 21, with six participants in two parties. Conditions were generally favorable: mild temperatures (21-53 degrees) were coupled with clear skies and no significant winds.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • These American Black Ducks were found at Ripshin Lake during the Roan Mountain CBC.

A total of 42 species were tallied, slightly below the recent 30-year average of 46. The all-time high was 55 species back in 1987. Despite the decent weather, birds were hard to find. I counted with Brooke and Jean Potter in the town of Roan Mountain and on Ripshin Mountain.

Highlights included 12 American Black Ducks, a single Red-breasted Nuthatch, a solitary Ruby-crowned Kinglet and two Purple Finches. Notable misses for this count included Ruffed Grouse, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Brown Creeper, American Robin, Cedar Waxwing, Eastern Towhee and Pine Siskin.

The total for the Roan Mountain CBC follows:

Canada Goose, 5; American Black Duck, 12;  Bufflehead, 6; Wild Turkey, 8; Pied-billed Grebe, 1; and Great Blue Heron, 1.

Turkey Vulture, 1; Cooper’s Hawk, 1; Red-tailed Hawk, 6; Rock Pigeon, 25; Mourning Dove, 66; Barred Owl, 2; and Belted Kingfisher, 1.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Red-tailed Hawks are a fairly common winter raptor in the region.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, 6; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 1; Downy Woodpecker, 7; and Pileated Woodpecker, 2.

Eastern Phoebe, 1; Blue Jay, 22; American Crow, 170; and Common Raven, 9.

Carolina Chickadee, 24; Tufted Titmouse, 17; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 1; White-breasted Nuthatch, 6; Winter Wren, 2; and Carolina Wren, 18.

Golden-crowned Kinglet, 7; Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 1; Eastern Bluebird, 6; Northern Mockingbird, 3; and European Starling, 78.

Field Sparrow, 10; Fox Sparrow, 2; Song Sparrow, 55; White-throated Sparrow, 8; Dark-eyed Junco, 68; and Northern Cardinal, 12.

House Finch, 6; Purple Finch, 2; American Goldfinch, 17; and House Sparrow, 24.