Category Archives: Common Birds of Northeast Tennessee

Some birds expert at conjuring Halloween-style thrills and chills

nature bird cute wildlife

The  greater tit, a European relative of the Carolina chickadee, has learned to hunt and kill a species of small bat in the Hungarian mountains. • Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

My ruby-throated hummingbirds set a new record this year, lingering until Oct. 17. Although present on the morning of that date, I didn’t see any that evening. The next morning, their absence — quite notable and somewhat saddening — continued. In all likelihood, I won’t see any more ruby-throated hummingbirds until next April. I hope they arrive early.

Carolyn Baker Martin commented on the post I made on Facebook about the departure of the hummers. Carolyn noted that 2018 has been an interesting year for birds and flowers. Carolyn, who lives in Elizabethton, Tennessee, also shared a recent observation she made of a hummingbird behavior that I’ve never personally witnessed.

“I had a hummer recently in torpor,” Carolyn wrote in her post. “It sat on the feeder a long time without moving or feeding. Finally, a tail feather began to move. It fed constantly for one more day and was gone.”

Despite their small size, most hummingbirds, including the ruby-throated hummingbirds, are less frail than they appear. Torpor is a biological adaptation possessed by hummingbirds and some other creatures that lets them survive a serious cold spell. It’s not quite the same thing, but think of these tiny birds as voluntarily going into a coma when they enter torpor. Comatose or catatonic creatures are a staple of some horror and suspense films, so perhaps a look at how some birds can induce shivers along the spine is in order in view of the celebration of Halloween this week.

The ultimate coma victim is the fabled zombie, but that’s not likely to afflict any of our feathered friends, right? Well, consider the great tits of Hungary, which are relatives of our tufted titmouse and Carolina chickadee. These birds — at least the Hungarian ones — have apparently acquired a taste for brains.

Not human brains, thankfully. The victims of these brain-hungry great tits are a species of bat — a flying creature often associated with the modern celebration of Halloween, as well as legends about vampires — that shared the habitat of these birds in the Bükk Mountains of Hungary. As it turns out, the tits only hunted bats, in this case a tiny species known as common pippistrelle, out of dire necessity.

Bat ecologists Péter Estók and Björn M. Siemers, after observing the odd behavior of the great tits during some winter seasons, conducted a study to see if great tits are consistent devourers of bats’ brains. They discovered that the birds did hunt the bats and had even learned to detect a special call the bats make as they emerge from hibernation. The ecologists conducted their study over two years and learned that the great tits teach others of their kind the special art of hunting bats. They also learned that the birds made efficient killers, dragging the bats from their roosts and cracking their skulls to get at their brains.

However, when provided with plenty of alternative food, including such favorite items as bacon and sunflower seeds, the great tits chose to eat these items rather than actively hunt bats. The researchers concluded that great tits only resort to harvesting the brains of small bats during times of scarcity during harsh winters. The bizarre story is even featured in the title of a fascinating book by Becky Crew titled “Zombie Birds, Astronaut Fish, and Other Weird Animals.”

Cassowary

Photo by lailajuliana / Pixabay.com • The southern cassowary reaches a height of more than five feet and weighs 120 pounds. The bird has a fearsome but perhaps undeserved reputation for attacks on humans.

So, if humans have nothing to fear from brain-hungry birds, are there any birds that we should fear? Some experts suggest that precautions might be in order if one expects to come into close proximity with a southern cassowary, which is the third-tallest and second-heaviest living bird, smaller only than the ostrich and emu.

The cassowary, a native of New Guinea and northeastern Australia, has developed a reputation as a fearsome bird capable of injuring or killing humans. According to ornithologist Ernest Thomas Gilliard, cassowaries deserve their reputation. In his 1958 book, “Living Birds of the World,” he explained that the second of the three toes of a cassowary is fitted with a long, straight, dagger-like claw which can sever an arm or eviscerate an abdomen with ease. According to Gilliard, there have been many records of natives being killed by this bird.

A thorough study, however, has partly exonerated the cassowary from these misdeeds. In a total of 150 documented attacks against humans, cassowaries often acted in self-defense or in defense of a nest or chicks. The only documented death of a human took place in 1926 when two teenaged brothers attacked a cassowary with clubs. The 13-year-old brother received a serious kick from the bird, but he survived. His 16-year old brother tripped and fell during the attack, which allowed the cassowary to kick him in the neck and sever the boy’s jugular vein.

Mesembriornis_model

Model of the terror bird Mesembriornis at the Chicago Field Museum, prepared by taxidermist Leon L. Pray, seen on the left.

So we can rest easier knowing that murderous birds that reach a height of almost six feet tall are unlikely to terrorize us should we travel to the lands down under. A more ancient relative of the cassowary, however, might have been a different story had humans lived during the same time period. Phorusrhacids, also known as “terror birds,” were a group of large carnivorous flightless birds that once had some members reign as an apex predator in South America before they went extinct around two million years ago. The tallest of the terror birds reached a height of almost 10 feet. Titanis walleri, one of the larger species, even ranged into what is now the United States in Texas and Florida.

web-terror

Terror birds were equipped with large, sharp beaks, powerful necks and sharp talons. Their beaks, which would have been used to kill prey, were attached to exceptionally large skulls. Despite their fearsome appearance, these birds probably fed on prey about the size of rabbits. Perhaps not knowing this, Hollywood has cast these birds as monsters in such films as 2016’s “Terror Birds” and 2008’s “10,000 BC.”

Besides, casting birds as the villains had already been done back in 1963 when Alfred Hitchcock released his film, “The Birds,” based loosely on a short story by Daphne du Maurier. The film, which starred some big Hollywood names such as Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette and Veronica Cartwright, cast a whole new light on a “murder” of crows. Today, the film has achieved the status of a Hollywood classic. I guess it just goes to show that werewolves, zombies, and other Halloween monsters have nothing on our fine feathered friends.

TheBIRDS!

Advertisements

Common nighthawk flocks form part of fall migration spectacle

Nighthawk

Photo by Jean Potter • A common nighthawk rests on a metal railing.

With September advancing on the calendar, I have been keeping an eye on the skies. For the most part, I focus on the upper branches of trees and feeders during the migration season, but I don’t forget the need to look skyward from time to time.

The reason? Well, that’s the best way to detect soaring raptors or flocks of migrating common nighthawks. The autumn sky is also a popular flyway for other birds, including chimney swifts and swallows.

So, what is a common nighthawk? First, this bird, despite what is implied by its name, is not a hawk. It’s also not strictly nocturnal. Particularly in the fall, nighthawks are active during daylight hours when engaged in catching winged insects. Outside of fall migration, these birds can often be observed over large parking lots or well-lit streets, snatching up insects swarming around the light poles.

The common nighthawk is one of three members of the nightjar family found in the region during the summer months. The other two nightjars are the whip-poor-will and chuck-will’s-widow, birds that produce their namesake vocalizations in the nocturnal hours. Both of these species migrate, but they don’t take the dramatic approach employed by nighthawks. Each fall, common nighthawks form large flocks, ranging in size from dozens to hundreds or even thousands of individuals, as they migrate south for the winter.

john_james_audubon_common_nighthawk_bird_print

Early American naturalist and artist painted this dynamic scene of common nighthawks.

The whip-poor-will, after the common nighthawk, is the second most widespread member of its family to spend its breeding season in North America. The whip-poor-will ranges from southern Canada to the Gulf states. This bird also occurs in Arizona, New Mexico and southwestern Texas. The whip-poor-will favors habitat consisting of deciduous woodlands and the edges of forests.

All members of the nightjar family feed exclusively on insects that are caught on the wing. In this respect, the nightjars can be considered the nocturnal counterparts of the swallows. The nightjars have comparatively large, gaping mouths they use to scoop up flying insects. They also have large eyes, an adaptation to their nocturnal lifestyle.

Whip-poor-will numbers have been declining in the past few decades. These nocturnal birds frequent woodland edges, but they seem to be rather particular about such habitats. A forest that is too mature seems to hold little interest for them. Disturbed habitats, such as those created by logging, are acceptable to the birds once secondary growth begins. As this new growth matures, however, the whip-poor-will apparently abandons such territory. Because of these requirements, whip-poor-wills can be somewhat localized in their distribution and sometimes difficult to locate.

Nighthawk-PHOTO

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • A common nighthawk finds a perch for a brief rest.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite summer activities was sitting on the front porch of my grandparents’ home and listening to the whip-poor-wills call after dark. I remember how the plaintive call would be repeated for long intervals before a passing automobile’s headlights might frighten the bird into silence. Then, after a brief pause, the “whip-poor-will” calls would, tentatively at first, begin again and continue throughout the night.

Today, I’m living in my grandparents’ old home, and the whip-poor-wills no longer call. I heard a single individual that called for a single evening back in May of 1997, but that was apparently a migrating bird that did not remain in the surrounding woodlands. The only member of the nightjar family that I dependably encounter at home these days is the common nighthawk, and then only during that narrow window of late summer and early autumn.

Unlike whips and chucks, the common nighthawk isn’t active only after dark, which makes it much easier to observe these birds. They look somewhat like swifts and swallows but are much larger. They are brownish-gray birds with pointed wings and forked tails. They are easily identified by distinctive white patches on the underside of their wings.

The nightjar, or Caprimulgidae, family of birds is also sometimes known as “goatsuckers.” There are almost 80 species of nightjars in the world. Less than 10 occur in North America. The common nighthawk, whip-poor-will and the chuck-will’s widow are neotropical migrants. While they breed in a wide range of territory in North America, they spend their winters in Central and South America. Like all nightjars, nighthawks feed almost exclusively on insects, which they catch on the wing.

Many of the common nighthawk’s relatives have been given descriptive names, such as long-trained nightjar, collared nightjar, spot-tailed nightjar, red-necked nightjar, golden nightjar, fiery-necked nightjar, swamp nightjar, pennant-winged nightjar, lyre-tailed nightjar, little nightjar, sickle-winged nightjar, rufous-bellied nighthawk, short-tailed nighthawk, sand-coloured nighthawk and least nighthawk.

So, keep looking skyward. The next flock of migrating common nighthawks may fly over your home. These flocks are usually on the move throughout September although they begin to appear as early as late August. They can also appear almost magically, as if out of thin air. First, observers may see one of two birds, then several, followed quickly by dozens or sometimes hundreds as they wheel and cavort in the skies overhead with impressive grace and agility. I’ve seen flocks that would easily number more than 500 birds in locations throughout the region, although flocks often number only a couple of dozen birds. The two flocks I’ve observed so far this migration season numbered about thirty and fifty birds, respectively.

41004068_10215014667832542_3336138056443887616_o

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Rising clouds provide a backdrop for a flock of migrating nighthawks.

 

 

The world can be a big, bad place for tiny hummingbirds

Mantis-Four

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Large mantises have been known to prey on ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Many years ago I read an account of a scarlet tanager making a snack of a ruby-throated hummingbird. Memory being what it is, I am no longer sure if that account was corroborated or one of those urban legends of birding.

A few pertinent facts should be considered. Male scarlet tanagers look striking in their red and black plumage. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are attracted to the color red. In the details I recall of the story about the predatory tanager, the hummingbird kept flying close to the tanager as if attracted to the red plumage. If so, it was a case of curiosity kills the cat or, in this case, the hummingbird. The tanager seized the hummingbird in its bill and, for good measure and to “tenderize” its prey, beat the hummingbird against the side of a branch. All of this took place before a crowd of birders who observed the incident through their binoculars. I don’t recall anyone taking a photo of the hummingbird’s tragic demise.

An email from Gene Counts reminded me of the tale of the tanager and the hummingbird. Gene, who lives in Haysi, Virginia, sent me a photograph and a short note about a praying mantis that stalks hummingbirds as they visit his feeders for a sip of sugar water.

MantisVsHummer

Photo by Gene Counts • This photo was shared by Gene Counts, who described how the mantis stalked hummingbirds that came to his feeder.

Gene told me of his excitement upon capturing the large insect’s behavior in a photograph.

“I just had to share this picture with you,” Gene wrote. “After all, my wife, Judy, was more excited today than the day we married in Chicago 54 years ago.”

He certainly hooked my attention with that introduction.

“A praying mantis is using our feeder as his own private hunting preserve,” Gene continued in his email. “The mantis follows and stalks the hummingbirds all the way around 360 degrees.”

So far, the stalking has only resulted in “several near misses,” but Gene declared that he is ready to pounce in case the mantis gets lucky.

“It has been four hours and he has lowered his goal,” Gene wrote of the patient mantis. “He is now clinging to the bottom (of the feeder) waiting for an insect. Now I can expel my breath as he no longer an avian threat.”

While Gene’s mantis may not be an immediate threat to hummingbirds visiting his yard in Haysi, does that mean we can be complacent when these large insects share our yards and gardens with hummingbirds?

Ruby-throated-WILLOWS

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

 

Documented evidence exists to identify large praying mantises as predators on ruby-throated hummingbirds. A brief foray online found numerous instances of hummers falling victims to these large carnivorous insects.

There are two species of mantises in the region — the European, or praying mantis, and the Chinese mantis — capable of capturing hummingbirds. Both species were introduced in the 1800s to act as a predator of insect pests detrimental to crops and gardens. The Chinese mantis can reach a length of 4.3 inches, while the European mantis achieves a length of about 3.5 inches. A third species — Carolina mantis — reaches only a length of 2.5 inches and should not pose a threat to ruby-throated hummingbirds, which are about 3.5 inches long.

Although introduced from Europe, the European mantis (Mantis religiosa) has earned recognition as the official state insect of Connecticut. The native Carolina mantis is the official state insect for South Carolina.

In Central and South America, where the world’s more than 300 species of hummingbirds reach their greatest diversity, there are also more species of predatory mantises. Some of these tropical insects prey on the tropical counterparts to the ruby-throated hummingbird.

Consider the way the mantis makes a perfect predator. It’s spiky forelimbs are spiky and serrated, making them perfect for seizing and grasping. This insect’s triangular head can turn their heads 180 degrees to scan its surroundings with two large compound eyes. A mantis also has three other simple eyes to increase its keen vision. Brutal mouthparts can easily tear apart and devour any prey the mantis manages to catch with its ambush hunting style.

Hummingbirds, regardless of species, are in a tough spot in the food chain. A bird not much bigger than many large insects is going to be a target for opportunistic predators like a mantis that will attempt to kill and consume anything small enough for them to make the effort.

p03mnqtd

Maria Sibylla Merian, a German-born naturalist and scientific illustrator, was one of the first naturalists to observe insects directly. She painted this horrific work featuring a large spider preying on a hummingbird that had been dutifully incubating her eggs. When she died in 1717, she was recognized as one of the world’s foremost entomologists.

To make matters worse for ruby-throated hummingbirds, some large spiders and the bigger dragonflies have also been documented as hummingbird predators. When ruby-throated hummingbirds retreat to Central America for the winter months, they also face threats from lizards and snakes.

The list of predators that have been known to eat ruby-throated hummingbirds extends to bullfrogs, as well as many raptors, including kestrels, merlins and sharp-shinned hawks. Blue jays and other birds will raid hummingbird nests for eggs or young. Squirrels and chipmunks are also nest predators.

nature water eyes pond

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com. Large frogs have also been known to prey on hummingbirds.

Despite all these perils, some ruby-throated hummingbirds have achieved a “long” life. The oldest on record was a ruby-throated hummingbird banded at the age of nine years and one month. Most elder hummingbirds are females. Few male hummingbirds, perhaps because of the energy they expend dueling with each other, reach their fifth birthday.

It’s definitely not easy being as tiny as a hummingbird in a world of fearsome giants, but birders who have seen a hummingbird hover boldly in front of their faces know how these tiny birds take life in stride. They may have a disadvantage in size, but that doesn’t keep them from living life as if they were as big as an eagle.

Rubythroat

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Despite a perceived disadvantage of size, ruby-throated hummingbirds are quite capable of thriving in a giant world.

Egrets and their kin wander widely in late summer

Late summer has a sort of lazy feel of anticipation to it. Most birds are finishing up their nesting season. Hungry fledglings appear at feeders in the company of adults. In recent weeks, I’ve noticed an explosion in the number of hummingbirds visiting my feeders and garden flowers. I’ve also noticed the vanguard of migrant birds that are starting to make appearances as fall migration approaches. It’s not just songbirds, however, that are on the move. Some large and rather conspicuous birds have been attracting attention in recent weeks, including a variety of wading birds.

 

 

 

Sightings this summer of long-legged wading birds in Tennessee and Virginia that are far outside of their usual range have included cattle egret, white ibis and roseate spoonbill. In addition, Susan Hubley reported on Facebook about a tricolored heron at John Sevier Lake in Rogersville, Tennessee, on July 25.

This heron is not usually found this far inland from the coast. Another tricolored heron showed up at Paddle Creek Pond in Bristol, Tennessee, on July 30. Adrianna Nelson reported the sighting on Bristol-Birds, an email network for sharing unusual bird sightings in the region. She also shared some photographs of the bird.

Tri-Colored-ONE

Photo courtesy of Adrianna Nelson • This tricolored heron spent a few days at Paddle Creek Pond in late July and early August. This large farm pond is managed by Crumley Farms Inc. and the Bristol Bird Club to provide habitat for migrating shorebirds and other birds.

“This is the first time I have seen a tricolored heron in Tennessee,” she wrote in a response to an email I sent her. “It is a long way off from its usual range. I have seen them before on Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina.”

She described the refuge as an excellent place to see waders, painted buntings, and many other birds. “I get the chance to go almost every year, since it is so close to where we vacation in Hilton Head,” Adrianna wrote.

She also commented on her unexpected observation.

Tri-colored-TWO

Photo courtesy of Adrianna Nelson • This tricolored heron spent a few days at Paddle Creek Pond in late July and early August.

“It is exciting to see something where it doesn’t usually belong,” Adrianna wrote. “I was definitely surprised to see the heron. That’s part of the fun of birding — you never know what to expect!”

She was also excited to share the sighting on Bristol-Birds. “It’s fun to share sightings with the birding community so they can also enjoy rare or unusual birds in our region,” she wrote.

Adrianna noted that she has been birding since age nine. “It all started when I saw a little gray bird hopping around in our yard,” she recalled. “I noticed it was only at our house around the winter months, and I stared to wonder what the bird was.”

After some searching online, she successfully identified the bird as a dark-eyed junco.

“During my search, I was surprised by the wide variety of birds, and I wanted to find as many as possible,” Adrianna wrote. “Since then, I was hooked!

IMG_9069

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This sign marks the importance of Paddle Creek Pond to migrating shorebirds and wading birds.

While diverting storms can’t be ruled out for causing some of these birds to detour into the region, it’s also 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 explore uncharted territory. Some other recent emails have reminded me of that fact.

James Elliott sent me an email describing a bird that is most likely a great egret. “For the second time in 30 years, I saw a magnificent, all-white heron yesterday on the South Houston River,” James wrote.

“I live at the very terminus of Riverside, Bullock Hollow, and Paddle Creek roads,” he wrote. “Big Springs Road is opposite across the river.”

When the bird departed, he said it flew east. He described the bird as “totally white” and “beautiful in flight.” He expressed regret that he was unable to get photographs.

Egret-Susan-Two

Photo courtesy of Susan Schreiner • This visiting great egret spent some time along the South Holston River in late July. Egrets, herons and other wading birds often wander into some unexpected locations in late summer.

Susan Schreiner, however, did get photographs of a great egret she observed near her home along the South Holston River in Bristol.

“We had a nice visitor today along the South Holston River,” Susan wrote in the email she sent. “When we first spotted it, it was in our tree and then flew down to the water.”

She said the egret has associated with some great blue herons in the vicinity. “It’s quite distinctive,” she wrote of the stately wading bird.

The diversity of the region’s bird life has impressed her. “Coming from Illinois, this is all pretty amazing for me,” she wrote.

Egret_SUSAN 2

Photo courtesy of Susan Schreiner •Egrets and herons, such as this great egret, wander into some unexpected locations in late summer.

The egret is not the only exceptional bird that Susan has observed. “I occasionally see a bald eagle fly down the river that is just breathtaking,” she wrote in her email.

Through email, James and I discussed whether the bird he saw was a great white heron or a great egret. Since he saw the bird and I did not, I am inclined to go with his identification of great white heron. Although rare outside of Florida, this type of heron — simply a great blue heron in an alternative plumage — has over the years been spotted a handful of times in and around Bristol. Whether an egret or heron, his sighting is more evidence of the tendency of wading birds to wander widely in late summer.

The great egret became a motivational symbol for conservation with the foundation of the National Audubon Society in 1905. Today, the organization has nearly 500 local chapters, each of which is an independent non-profit organization voluntarily affiliated with the National Audubon Society. These chapters often organize birdwatching field trips and conservation-related activities. The National Audubon Society spearheaded efforts to end the mass slaughter of various bird species. Some birds were killed for food, but millions were also killed for their showy feathers that were destined to decorate stylish attire worn as a symbol of high fashion. As early as 1910, some states began passing legislation to abolish trade in bird plumes. The federal government also came to the assistance of birds with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which was a law first enacted in 1916 to implement measures to protect and conserve migratory birds.220px-National_Audubon_Society_logo

In 1953, a great egret in flight was chosen as the symbol for the official logo of the National Audubon Society, which was formed in part to prevent the killing of birds for their feathers. Birds like great egrets, snowy egrets, roseate spoonbills and other long-legged waders had been decimated before people responded to the wanton destruction being visited upon these beautiful and awe-inspiring creatures.

The great egret belongs to the genus Ardea, which includes various egrets and herons. Other members of this genus include Goliath heron, black-headed heron, purple heron and pied heron.

The tricolored heron belongs to the genus Egretta, which consists of various herons and egrets that mostly breed in warmer climates. In North America, other members of this genus include snowy egret, reddish egret and little blue heron. Older birding field guides may refer to the tricolored heron as the Louisiana heron, which was an older popular name for the species.

GreatBlue-Egret

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A great blue heron and a great egret patrol a tidal creek in South Carolina.

Although many herons and egrets are tall and stately, there are some pint-sized members of this group of birds. In North America, the smallest is the least bittern. The largest of the world’s herons if the aptly named Goliath heron, which is also known as the giant heron. This wading bird can stand five feet tall and weigh 11 pounds. The Goliath heron is native to sub-Saharan Africa but also ranges into southwest and south Asia. The world’s largest heron feeds almost exclusively on fish.

Other descriptive names for some of the world’s herons include boat-billed heron, white-crested tiger heron, zigzag heron, rufous-bellied heron, whistling heron and white-necked heron.

To try your own luck at observing herons and egrets, scout bodies of water such as ponds, rivers, lakes and streams to increase the odds of getting your own binoculars on one of these elegant waders.

Egreta

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A snowy egret and a great egret forage for prey on a South Carolina tidal creek.

Indigo bunting one of summer’s common songbirds

IMG_6700

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The male indigo bunting is a resplendent bird.

Two recent summer bird counts emphasized some of the more commonplace birds in the region. While American robins and European starlings were extremely abundant, these two birds are permanent residents and are present year-round. A few other summer songbirds also helped swell the ranks of some of the seasonally common birds. For instance, the Unicoi County Summer Bird Count found a total of 141 indigo buntings while the Elizabethton Summer Bird Count tallied 82 of these little blue beauties. Both of these Northeast Tennessee surveys are conducted by members of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society.

The indigo bunting likes to reside in the boundary region where forests and woodlands meet fields and pastures. Personally, the indigo bunting has always been a bird that is suggestive of the long, hot days of summer. One of my earliest and still quite vivid birding memories is a recollection of a shockingly blue bird atop a blue spruce tree in my yard. Several decades later, the tree is no longer standing, but these beautiful birds — I now know these summer visitors were indigo buntings — return year after year to my yard and gardens.

Count-IndigoBunting

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Neotropical migrants, such as this Indigo Bunting, increase the variety of bright and colorful birds in eastern North America from spring until fall each year.

These birds usually arrive in the region in late April and I’ve seen them in late October, although most indigo buntings have left the region by late September.

Male indigo buntings are persistent singers, and in the past couple of weeks one very enthusiastic male has been singing even during the hottest hours of recent July afternoons. The preference of this small songbird is to sing from the tops of tall trees. They are often concealed by the green leaves. When I do get a glimpse of the obscured songster, often all I see is a dark shape silhouetted against the bright sky. Sometimes, if he plunges from the upper branches into the woodland understory, I get that telltale glimpse of blue feathers.

The indigo bunting is the only solid blue bird in the eastern United States. It’s all an illusion, of course. The indigo bunting’s feathers are not really blue. The male’s brilliant azure plumage is caused by the process of refraction. This process absorbs all but blue light, which explains why the indigo bunting appears blue. In bright light, it can even look unnaturally vivid blue. In poor light, however, an indigo bunting male can appear black. Fortunately, indigo buntings have both a characteristic body shape and song, so even if the birds are not seen at their best, they can still be recognized.

Indigo-Count

Photon by Bryan Stevens • Indigo Buntings will perch on wires and sing for hours even during hot summer days.

Like many species of songbirds, the male is by far the most colorful. In this instance, the male is also responsible for the species’ name. Indigo is a blue dye that was once an important crop in the South. The drab female may boast some blue highlights in her plumage. Juvenile birds just out of the nest also resemble the female. Pay close attention to any indigo buntings you observe as summer progresses. Juvenile birds will look mostly brown with just a hint of blue in the wings and the tail. These will be the young buntings that were hatched this spring and early summer. They will often accompany their parents to feeders.

Indigo buntings are particularly fun birds to observe in late summer. Although some books indicate that males are not very active in rearing young, I have on numerous occasions witnessed male buntings feeding fledglings at feeders. Indigo bunting juveniles, like the young of many other birds, beg for tidbits from parents by “bowing,” spreading their wings and shivering. These actions usually prompt a parent to pop some morsel into an impatient youngster’s open bill. Indigo buntings are relatively easy to view. They frequent weedy fields and roadside brush. During the breeding season, males can also be seen singing from prominent perches. The song, a distinctive jumble of notes, can help observers find these dedicated singers.

IndigoBunt

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although bright blue, a male indigo bunting will often blend with its surroundings.

The male indigo bunting is one of the most colorful birds to visit feeders in the region. This species is also extremely fond of millet seed. I like to have some feeders stocked with millet when the buntings begin to return each spring. They will also feed on thistle and sunflower seeds. Away from our feeders, they also devour plenty of seeds from various noxious weeds. Because of the indigo bunting’s appetite for the seeds of destructive weeds, it is considered a very beneficial bird.

One of the most attractive summer scenes is to observe American goldfinches and indigo buntings feeding together on the nodding heads of summer sunflowers. The goldfinch males, resplendent in their bright yellow and black plumage, compete with the blue indigo bunting males for the fresh sunflower seeds. When bright red male Northern cardinals join in, observers have a complete artists’s palette for summer viewing.

The indigo bunting will usually respond to human squeaks that imitate a bird’s call. When a flock or family group of buntings are disturbed by a human observer, they usually begin a chorus of alarmed “chipping.”indigo-bunting-john-james-audubon

As I indicated earlier, indigo buntings remain in the region until late September. Although this bird typically winters in Mexico, Panama and the Caribbean, in recent decades some indigo buntings have only gone as far south as Florida to spend the winter. There in the Sunshine State, the indigo buntings may mingle with a close relative, the splendidly multi-colored painted bunting. I usually see these vibrant songbirds whenever I visit coastal South Carolina in spring or summer. Male painted buntings are probably one of the most colorful birds in the United States with hues of red, green, purple and blue in their feathers.

PaintedBunting-Male (1)

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The male painted bunting is one of North America’s most colorful birds.

Other North American buntings include the snow bunting, the lazuli bunting and the lark bunting, which is also the official state bird for Colorado. Some of the common but descriptive names for some of the world’s other buntings include striolated bunting, cinnamon-breasted bunting, cinereous bunting, white-capped bunting, lark-like bunting, ochre-rumped bunting, golden-breasted bunting, chestnut-bunting, red-headed bunting, yellow bunting, little bunting, brown-rumped bunting, meadow bunting, corn bunting and crested bunting.

Keep your feeders stocked with millet and sunflower seeds if you want to increase your chances of seeing indigo buntings. They will need some dependable places to re-fuel and rest during their upcoming fall migration.

Reader’s mystery bird turns out to be Louisiana waterthrush

On occasion, readers seek out my help with identifying birds they encounter. I am always glad to assist. Photographs, a recording of the bird’s song, or even a well-written description are often all that’s necessary to pinpoint the identities of mystery birds.

Lewis and Jeana Chapman, residents of Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee, notified me in an email that they have been enjoying some good birdwatching trips. They also wanted some help with the identity of a bird they observed last summer.

NoWaterthrush

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Northern waterthrush, pictured, has a beige eye line rather than the white one usually shown by the Louisiana waterthrush.

“My wife and I love to go to the Creeper Trail in Virginia and enjoy the creek,” Lewis wrote in an email. “On these trips in the summer months, we have watched this bird run along the rocks of the shore feeding.”

He also mentioned that he had attached in his email some photos, which proved extremely helpful. “Our closest guess at what type of bird it is was a spotted sandpiper, but its beak/bill seems too short. Any help you can give us would be greatly appreciated.”

A quick scan of the photos the Chapmans sent with their email helped me narrow the options down to two related birds — a Louisiana waterthrush and a Northern waterthrush. I used three criteria — location, season and plumage — to identify the bird in their photos as a Louisiana waterthrush.

Louisiana Waterthrush

Photo by Adobe Stock • Subtle plumage differences, as well as habitat, behavior and seasonal presence, are factors in distinguishing the Louisiana waterthrush, pictured, from the closely related Northern waterthrush. The Louisiana waterthrush nests along fast-moving streams in the area while the Northern waterthrush does not breed in the region.

 

The Chapmans had good reason to suspect the bird might have been a spotted sandpiper, but for the true identity of the bird in question, it’s necessary to delve into the family of warblers, which includes species such as American redstart, ovenbird, common yellowthroat, Northern parula and black-throated blue warbler.

The two waterthrushes are very similar in appearance. Louisiana Waterthrushes has a heavier bill and a white eye line, while the Northern Waterthrush’s eye line is usually somewhat yellowish-beige. A Louisiana waterthrush typically also has a whiter belly and underparts.

Appearance wasn’t even the most important element of the criteria. Location and season more readily helped confirm the identity. The Louisiana waterthrush has a range concentrated on the southern part of the eastern half of the United States, mostly south of the states of New York, Michigan and Wisconsin. In this region, only the Louisiana waterthrush is known to nest. The Northern waterthrush is strictly a spring and fall migrant, electing to nest near bogs and slow streams in Canada and the northern tier of states in the United States.

The Louisiana waterthrush also attracts attention with its characteristic “teetering” gait. Much like the spotted sandpiper, this waterthrush bobs the rear half of its body up and down as it walks and forages by the sides of streams. In their behavior, this shorebird and this warbler are very much alike. The waterthrush will often turn over wet leaves or other stream debris to search for prey items, such as aquatic insect larvae, crustaceans, snails and even small fish. The Louisiana waterthrush was once known as the water wagtail, which makes reference to the aforementioned teetering gait.

Waterthrush-Painting 2

Early artist and naturalist John James Audubon painted this Louisiana waterthrush.

Many warblers have shown signs of decline in recent years. The Louisiana waterthrush, however, appears to have bucked that trend. According to the website All About Birds, Louisiana waterthrush populations were stable between 1966 and 2015, based on statistics from the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 360,000, with almost all of those individuals spending at least part of the year in the United States. About a quarter of the population retreats into Mexico during the winter season. The rest winter in Florida and some of the Gulf Coast states, as well as the islands of the Caribbean.

While most songbirds are fortunate to survive two or three years in the wild, at least one Louisiana waterthrush lived to the age of at least 11 years and 11 months. The bird, a male, was seen in New Jersey in the wild and identified by a band on one of his legs. He had been banded in the same state, according to All About Birds.

The two waterthrushes are the only species in the genus Parkesia, so named to honor American ornithologist Kenneth C. Parkes, who was for many years Curator of Birds at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The common name of the Louisiana waterthrush is not a very apt one, as this bird does not have any special affinity for the state of Louisiana. Someone collected some of the early specimens of the Louisiana waterthrush in its namesake location, and the name has stuck through the years.

Waterthrush

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Even in migration, both waterthrushes like to stay near water.

Not every bird mystery that comes my way via Facebook or in an email is so easily resolved. This identification, which happened to involve the New World warblers, my favorite family of birds, once again showed me the amazing diversity of this group of birds. From the terrestrial Louisiana waterthrush to the treetop-dwelling cerulean warbler, it’s an amazing group of songbirds I’m always happy to introduce to bird enthusiasts.

No cowbird ever knows its biological parents

While many birds are excellent parents, others lack any maternal or paternal instincts altogether. The common cuckoo, a nesting bird in Europe and Asia, is a well-known brood parasite that would rather slip its eggs into the nest of other bird than raise its own young. In scientific terms, “brood parasite” refers to creatures that rely on others to raise their young. In addition to some birds, this tactic is also employed by some species of insects and fish.

COWBIRD-Female

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Female brown-headed cowbirds stay alert to observe bird leaving or coming to a nest. Once they have located a nest, these birds slip their own eggs into the nests of other birds.

The strategy is effective, if, in the human way of thinking, rather heartless. In biological terms, however, this “foster parenting” allows brood parasites to ensure a new generation without expending much energy on the part of the actual parents. Some recent contacts with readers have reminded me that not all of our feathered friends would qualify for “parent of the year.”

Mike Dickenson of Bristol, Tennessee, contacted me on Facebook about a discovery he made in a nest built under the steps of his house.

Cowbird-Female

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female brown-headed cowbird visits a feeder.

“I noticed two blue eggs,” he said. “I checked a few days later and noticed two gray eggs also. Did another bird sneak her eggs into the nest?” Mike also informed me that some of the eggs hatched shortly after he discovered them.

James Rowland of Erwin, Tennessee, sent me a message on Facebook asking me to identify a bird in a photograph he had taken. “What is this bird?” James asked. “It’s larger than a sparrow.”

He added that he observed and photographed the bird near the Covered Bridge in Elizabethton, Tennessee. A study of the bird in the photo revealed a very nondescript bird in largely gray plumage. Few of our birds are this plain and gray with almost no standout characteristics.

36043826_277373272833221_1274549914663124992_n

Photo by James Rowland • A brown-headed cowbird, probably a young bird or a female, near the Covered Bridge in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

In both cases, one of North America’s most successful brood parasites was involved. I responded to Mike and told him that is was entirely possible that a female brown-headed cowbird slipped some eggs into the nest beneath his steps. I likewise informed James that the bird in his photo looked like a brown-headed cowbird. I added that the bird was either a female or a young bird, since a male would have the brown head that gives the species its common name.

In North America, one of the best-known feathered brood parasites is the brown-headed cowbird. While many brood parasites are specialists, with females slipping their eggs into the nest of a specific species of host bird, the brown-headed cowbird approaches brood parasitism in a less discriminating manner. Female cowbirds have been known to lay their eggs in the nests of at least 221 different species of birds. No baby brown-headed cowbird ever knows its biological parents.

How did the brown-headed cowbird turn to a life of foisting eggs onto unsuspecting foster parents? The answer is connected with the American bison, also known as buffalo. When the bison roamed the Great Plains of the United States by the millions, flocks of brown-headed cowbirds followed the great herds, feeding on the insects flushed by the hooves of millions of bison. As the herds stayed on the move constantly, the cowbirds also developed a nomadic lifestyle. After the bison herd diminished, the cowbirds survived a potential crisis by simply transferring their bovine affinity from bison to domesticated cattle.

Brown-headedCowbird-Male

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male brown-headed cowbird displays the brown head that gives this bird its common name.

At times, this random and undiscriminating approach to reproduction fails. Some finches feed their young a diet that consists of a great deal of vegetable matter. Young cowbirds fed this protein deficient diet fail to thrive and ultimately perish.

Other birds blissfully bring a rich assortment of protein snacks — insects, spiders and other small invertebrates — that permits the young foster bird to thrive, at times at the expense of the host bird’s own young. About 20 years ago I observed a willow flycatcher bringing food to a young brown-headed cowbird at least twice the size of the “parent” trying to feed it. I’ve also seen song sparrows, dwarfed by a cowbird changeling, trying to keep their enormous baby bird well fed.

Cowbirds are members of the blackbird family, which includes such relations as orioles, meadowlarks and grackles. All cowbirds are confined to the New World and include species such as the screaming cowbird of Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil, as well as the bronzed cowbird of Central America and the southern United States, especially the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana. Other cowbird family members include giant cowbird and the shiny cowbird.

Brown-headed-Cowbird-Audubon-1-726x400

Early naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted this pair of brown-headed cowbirds.