Category Archives: Common Birds of Northeast Tennessee

Visit by Yellow-headed blackbird, last seen in region in 1994, creates a stir

Bugaboo Springs Road near Jonesborough, Tennessee, saw some heavier vehicular traffic in mid-January after the exciting observation of a yellow-headed blackbird associating with a sizable flock of brown-headed cowbirds.

Yellow-headedBlackbird-JBoro

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This yellow-headed blackbird has been residing with flocks of brown-headed cowbirds and European starlings at a cattle pasture near Jonesborough, Tennessee. The bird, the first of its kind seen in Northeast Tennessee since 1994, has generated excitement among birders. Some people have traveled from as far as Knoxville, Tennessee, and Roanoke, Virginia, to see the bird.

The bird came to the attention of Dawn Peters, a resident along Bugaboo Springs Road, who noticed the unusually colorful bird at her feeders while looking out the window of her laundry room. At first, she thought the bird might be an oddball member of the cowbird flock.

“I’d never seen one before,” she said. “I knew it was something strange and something new.”

Dawn took the time to take a photograph of the bird and then contacted friends Jean and Brookie Potter, who also happened to be birders. They alerted her to the rare status of her feeder visitor.

“He really stood out,” Dawn said of the blackbird with a yellow head.

The yellow-headed blackbird arrived at her feeders on a snowy day when the temperatures had plunged. Dawn said she has been feeding birds for 20 years since she and her husband moved to Bugaboo Springs Road near Jonesborough, Tennessee. “The birds know where to come for food,” she said. “I try to feed them all, but they can eat you out of house and home.”

IMG_2235

Photo by Bryan Stevens This yellow-headed blackbird and several brown-headed cowbirds perch in a tree after foraging for food in a cattle lot near Jonesborough, Tennessee.

Dawn said she gets a variety of birds at her feeders, ranging from sparrows and cardinals to mourning doves and finches. “I also get downy woodpeckers and towhees,” she added.

On occasion, she will notice a hawk in the yard. In the summer, she puts out several feeders with sugar water to attract hummingbirds. “Last summer, I had brown thrashers raise a family in my yard,” she said.

Although the yellow-headed blackbird arrived with a flock of brown-headed cowbirds, the other flock members didn’t exactly embrace him. “Some of the cowbirds would peck at him,” she said.

While the yellow-headed blackbird hasn’t been back to her feeders since Jan. 13, the bird was rediscovered less than a mile from her home in a feed lot for cattle. The yellow-headed blackbird has continued to associate with large flocks of cowbirds and European starlings and has been observed by dozens of birders.

The yellow-headed blackbird, known by the scientific name Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus, is a relative of cowbirds, as well as the familiar red-winged blackbird. It’s a unique species in that it is the only member of the genus, Xanthocephalus. Breaking this word down from its ancient Greek origins, the name means, quite literally “yellow headed.”

Yellow-headedBlackbird-Copy

Photo by Bryan Stevens This yellow-headed blackbird was photographed at Antelope Island State Park in Utah in 2006.

The yellow-headed blackbird’s also a species that has been only a rare visitor to the region. While a common bird in wetland habitats west of the Great Lakes, the yellow-head blackbird has not been reported often in East Tennessee. In fact, there are only a handful of records since the 1930s, the most recent sightings being reported and documented in 1990 and 1994. Since it has been almost a quarter of a century since the last time a yellow-headed blackbird was found in East Tennessee, one could argue that a visit from a vagrant individual of this species was long overdue. In southwest Virginia, there are a couple of records from Smyth County dating back to July of 1985 and March of 1988.

It’s not quite clear why a yellow-headed blackbird ventured into the region in mid-January. Normally, these birds spend the winter months in the southwestern United States and Mexico. They often migrate in huge flocks with other species of birds, which could explain why the bird found itself an honorary member of a flock of cowbirds estimated to number about 300 individuals.

My first attempt to add this species to my Tennessee list ended in failure, although I did enjoy seeing several white-crowned sparrows, a handsome bird that definitely doesn’t deserve being classified as one of the “little brown birds” that so often serves as an offhand designation for sparrows. That attempt was made on the morning of Jan. 18 and may have been ended prematurely. When I got access to a computer later, I checked to see if any other observations had been reported. I noticed a report from local birder Michelle Sparks, who saw the bird probably less than 90 minutes after I had ended my first attempt.

7ee8ab76db6c1c18d9bac62d3c602b30--john-james-audubon-blackbird 2

Early American naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted these yellow-headed blackbirds.

Speculating that the yellow-headed blackbird and its accompanying flocks of brown-headed cowbirds and European starlings would return to the feedlot to forage before dark, I returned at 4 p.m. to try again. I found the feedlot overwhelmed by hundreds of cowbirds and starlings, but I didn’t see any sign of a bird with a yellow head. Many of the cowbirds carpeted the pasture as they gleaned seeds and other food items. Many of the starlings were perched in the branches of trees and on the roof of an old farmhouse. At some point, almost every bird in the chaotic flock spooked and took to the air. The flock wheeled and turned, with most of the birds settling into the upper branches of some of the taller trees at the location. I soon detected a flash of yellow. I’m not sure where the bird had been hiding earlier, but the yellow-headed blackbird proved unmistakable, perched high in the trees with the sun shining brightly. He couldn’t hide from my binoculars or camera, which I used to snap several photos of this rare visitor to the region.

I have this species on my life list, having seen yellow-headed blackbirds during visits to Utah in 2003 and 2006. While in Utah, I also saw red-winged blackbird, brown-headed cowbirds and Brewer’s blackbirds, including a partial albino individual that presented a challenge in identifying.

While technically a songbird, the yellow-headed blackbird routinely ranks as one of the worst singers among North America’s songbirds. The yellow-headed blackbird is not all musical, with its song repertoire ranging from what has been described as “cacophonous strangling noises” and “honking gurgles” on the website for the publication, “Birdwatcher’s Digest.”

JEAN-Yellow-headed Blackbird

Photo by Jean Potter • This yellow-headed blackbird was photographed in Colorado in 2016.

The New World’s blackbirds belong to the family of birds, Icteridae, which also consists of birds such as meadowlarks, orioles, cowbirds, grackles, bobolinks and oropendolas. Although many blackbirds show predominantly black plumage, these birds often contrast their dark coloration with yellow, orange or red feathers. The name of the genus stems from Ancient Greek and Latin words that, translated into English, mean roughly, “jaundiced ones,” which stems from the yellow feathers present in the plumage of many species. Other blackbirds in the New World include tawny-shouldered blackbird, saffron-cowled blackbird, melodious blackbird, oriole blackbird and scarlet-headed blackbird. In the United States, other nesting species in the family include Brewer’s blackbird, tri-colored blackbird and rusty blackbird. The last of these species has shown chronic long-term and acute short-term population declines, based both on breeding season and wintering ground surveys. Some estimates suggest that the rusty blackbird population has declined by 80 percent, which could soon endanger the species.

I’m hoping the yellow-headed blackbird on Bugaboo Springs Road is liking where it has found itself this winter and will continue to delight observant birders over the upcoming weeks.

•••••

Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

IMG_2236 2

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Birders from near and far converged on Bugaboo Springs Road near Jonesborough, Tennessee, to search for the yellow-headed blackbird.

Advertisements

What’s in a name? Vernacular designations for some birds lack imagination

I took part in a Christmas Bird Count last month. These annual mid-December surveys of bird populations are not quite as exciting as counts held during the spring or fall migration periods each year, but they can produce some interesting results. One exciting post-count activity after taking part in a CBC is getting together to compile the results tallied by the various participating groups and individuals. The results are usually compiled on field checklists for birds of Tennessee. These checklists, which are produced by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Tennessee Ornithological Society, feature a listing of the common name of every bird species likely to be encountered in the state.

AmKestrel-Flight

Photo by USFWS/Robert Burton • An American kestrel in flight shows the aerodynamic design that earned this small falcon the common name of sparrow hawk.

The compiler generally reads out the various names on the checklist, which lists all the local birds, beginning with black-bellied whistling duck and ending with house sparrow, and the spokespersons for the various parties respond as each bird’s name is called with the number of birds seen for each species. Over the years, some of the common names of birds featured on the list have changed, as has the position on the list for some of the species. For instance, the American kestrel and other falcons are no longer listed on the card in a grouping with the other raptors found in the state. This doesn’t make much sense to me. But, as I understand it, the falcons have been re-classified for scientific reasons, changing their relationship with the other birds listed on the checklists.

The falcons are not the only birds demoted from the grouping of raptors. The two native vultures — turkey vulture and black vulture — are now listed with herons and ibises instead of raptors. The falcons are now listed between the groupings of woodpeckers and flycatchers.

MaleTowhee-PIC

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Former common name rufous-sided towhee became Eastern towhee, which is far less descriptive of the bird’s appearance.

At least no expert has suggested a name change for any of the falcons. I dislike name changes, especially when we lose a descriptive name for a mundane one. That’s how we got relatively bland names like Eastern towhee instead of rufous-sided towhee and Northern flicker in place of yellow-shafted flicker. In fact, the American kestrel was once known as the sparrow hawk. The merlin and peregrine falcon, larger relatives of the kestrel, were once known as the pigeon hawk and duck hawk, respectively.

Common names are also known as “vernacular” names. Vernacular can be defined as the language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people, which contrasts with the scientific names for species of birds that are usually only recognized by ornithologists or other experts. However, just like dialects, there can be a great deal of variety among common names for the same birds. Many of the common names for some of our favorite birds lack any vivid descriptiveness.

IMG_4080

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinal seems much less descriptive of this popular bird than such common names as Virginia nightingale and cardinal grosbeak.

For instance, let’s take a look at the Northern cardinal, which has been known by such common names as cardinal bird, cardinal grosbeak, crested redbird, Kentucky cardinal, redbird, Virginia redbird and Virginia nightingale. The first thing that irritates me about the common name of this bird is that there is no Southern cardinal. So, why is this bird the “Northern” cardinal? The only other birds in the Cardinalis genus are the desert cardinal, also known as the pyrrhuloxia, and the vermilion cardinal. Both these relatives have arguably more interesting and descriptive names than their relative, which is a favorite of many birders and arguably better known to many people.

I can understand why Kentucky cardinal and Virginia redbird are not inclusive names since the Northern cardinal ranges far beyond the borders of these two states. On the other hand, cardinal grosbeak with its reference to the cardinal’s large beak, as well as crested redbird, are both more descriptive and creative than the rather nondescript Northern cardinal.

Of course, a literary great summed up the confusing attitude toward common names. “What’s in a name?” William Shakespeare had Juliet ponder. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”800px-Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623

I think The Bard was on to something. Whether we call a cardinal a redbird or a Virginia nightingale, it’s song will sound as sweet to our ears. The appearance of one of these birds on a gloomy day will elevate our mood whether we know the bird as cardinal grosbeak, Kentucky cardinal or, in scientific terminology, Cardinalis cardinalis.

 

BRISTOL HUMMERS DEPART

As promised, here’s an update on the hummingbirds that proved dutiful daily visitors to a sugar water feeder at the Bristol home of Ralph Beamer through Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Early in the new year, Ralph notified me that the hummingbirds departed ahead of 2018’s arrival.

“We had a surprise on New Year’s Day,” Ralph wrote in an email. “The hummingbirds were gone. I am glad they left ahead of the extreme cold we have had the last few days.”

Ralph noted that he had a wonderful time watching them for the past three months. He is hopeful they will come back in the future, but figured that is probably wishful thinking.

Actually, some of these winter hummingbirds, which often turn out to be rufous hummingbirds, have proven quite faithful to favorite locations. Bird banders have recaptured some individual hummingbirds year after year in the same yards. During the stay of his visitors, Ralph shared photographs and videos with me of their visits to his feeders. I enjoyed receiving his periodic updates about them.

I emailed Ralph back and told him that these hummingbirds seem to also have a knack for knowing when to leave and suggested he keep an eye out for them again next fall.

••••••

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. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Winter weather events can adversely affect birds, too

Although the weather has been mild thus far this winter, that can change in the blink of an eye. Inclement weather affects humans, but it can also have adverse affects on birds. Snow, sleet, ice, wind and other forces can play havoc on the lives of our feather friends. Birds have many adaptations to help them deal with the worst the elements can throw at them, but sometimes events can overtake them.

LaplandLongspur-Auk

Bodies of the fallen Lapland longspurs are shown scattered on a frozen lake after a 1904 weather-related catastrophe overtook hundreds of thousands of migrating longspurs.

One such event took place on the night of March 13-14, 1904, when hundreds of thousands of one small songbird species perished as circumstances came together in a perfect storm. This infamous event in the annals of ornithology mystified residents living around the town of Worthington, Minnesota, when they awoke on the morning of March 14 to find thousands of dead birds strewn across the landscape. Birds fell onto everything from yards and gardens to street and rooftops, as well as numerous frozen lakes.

In an article in the ornithological publication The Auk, the affected songbird was identified as the Lapland longspur, a bird that nests in the Arctic tundra and spends winters on the expansive prairies and plains of the United States and Canada. The Lapland longspur, also known as the Lapland bunting, also ranges into Russia and the Northern Scandinavian countries of Europe. The term “longspur” refers to the long hind claws on this small songbird’s feet. Two other longspurs — Smith’s longspur and chestnut-collared longspur — are found in North America.

The Lapland longspur disaster on the night of March 13, 1904, originated with a massive migration flight taking these songbirds back to their tundra nesting grounds. The author of the Auk article speculated that the longspurs migrating northward encountered a winter storm in the darkness. Heavy snow accumulated on the feathers of the exhausted migrants, forcing them to crash to the ground by the hundreds of thousands across the terrain of southwestern Minnesota and northwestern Iowa. From the point of view of the disoriented birds, the lights from the towns dotted across the landscape added to the chaos and confusion. Many of the bird suffered blunt force traumas, including ruptured organs, crushed skulls, bone fractures and other such injuries incurred when falling to the ground from great heights.

The Auk article comes to a total of a million birds lost in a single night, although the author admits the toll could have been even higher. Although this is an immense figure, consider that a survey dating to 2004 estimated 8 million Lapland longspurs in Alaska alone during the nesting season.

aul152-871

Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted Lapland Longspurs or, as he knew them, Lapland Lark Buntings.

The 1904 disaster didn’t seem to dent the overall numbers of the Lapland longspur. The populations of many species of birds can survive such catastrophes, but other species already struggling could be adversely affected by such events. For example, in February of 2007 a flock of year-old whooping cranes was exterminated by severe storms that overwhelmed them in a shelter at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. A total of 18 young whooping cranes, part of a flock trained to follow an ultralight aircraft from their birthplace in Wisconsin to the refuge in Florida salt marshes, were killed during the storm. The loss of that many young birds also robs the endangered species of much needed vitality. As of February 2015, the total whooping crane population stood at 603 individuals, including 161 captive birds.

Weather disasters extract a toll on both humans and birds. Sometimes they may affect hundreds of thousands of individuals, although the consequences are often confined to smaller segments of a population.

In early May of 2013, dozens of common loons migrating through Wisconsin encountered an unseasonable ice storm. Many of the birds found ice forming on their feathers, weighting them down and causing emergency landings. Wildlife rehabilitation workers rescued more than 50 birds, but there were probably many other loons affected by the freak storm that were lost without a trace.

Common_Loon_on_Water

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • Common loons are quite at home in the air and on the water, but these birds are awkward if weather forces them to set down on land.

Loons crashing onto land or even small ponds are doomed. Agile and graceful in water because of strong legs and webbed feet, loons are almost incapable of movement on land. Landing on a small body of water is not much better since loons must run along a stretch of waters — sometimes for hundreds of yards — in order to get their relatively heavy bodies aloft.

Loons are not the only birds that sometimes face forced landings. In March of this year, a winter storm raged through most of the Northeastern United States. The wakes of these storms resulted in wildlife agencies in the region being flooded with reports of dead or injured American woodcocks in the region. Most of the reports were concentrated in and around New York City. Not only did the storm interrupt the migration flight of the woodcocks, but cold temperatures caused the ground to freeze, preventing the stranded birds from finding food.

The woodcock is an unusual shorebird, also known by such whimsical names as “bog sucker” and “timberdoodle,” that has completely abandoned the shore in favor of woodlands and fields. The American woodcock is not a rare bird, but the species is rarely seen due to its retiring habits and inaccessible habitats.

Closer to home, an unusual February event back in 2014 resulted in equally unusual numbers of red-necked grebes on area lakes, rivers, and ponds. This grebe, a rare visitor to the region, was apparently forced by weather conditions to make a stopover on bodies of water in the region. Reports of red-necked grebes persisted for about a week before they eventually departed to continue their flight to more favored locations.

Back in 2011, it wasn’t a winter storm that killed thousands of birds in Arkansas. The birds — red-winged blackbirds, European starlings, brown-headed cowbirds, and common grackles — shared a communal roost near the town of Beebe.

On New Year’s Eve, just as 2011 was dawning, about 5,000 of these birds died after crashing into trees, buildings and automobiles, according to a National Geographic News article by Charles Q. Choi. Apparently these birds were frightened into flight by the explosive booms from a professional fireworks display celebrating the arrival of a New Year. In the chaos after thousands of birds not suited for nocturnal flight took to the air, they began to impact various stationary objects and crash back to the ground.

Summer-Pelicans

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Brown pelicans fly in a line over the Atlantic Ocean on the South Carolina coast.

Incidentally, in the same article, mention was made of a 2010 incident when hundreds of pelicans washed up on the border between Washington and Oregon. The article blamed a cold front that caused ice to form on the feathers of the bodies and wings of the pelicans.

Birds, much like their human admirers, live in a world greatly affected by the vagaries of weather. All things considered, birds manage to ride out most of what Mother Nature throws their way. It’s one of their many admirable qualities.

Dark reputation of world’s owls is being rehabilitated as people learn more about them and their habits

 

greathornedowl-2

Photo by Bryan Stevens / A great horned owl perches on a post during its part in a wild bird show at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia.

As I sit at my computer working on this week’s post, I can hear the low, sonorous call of a great horned owl from the woods located behind my house. The great horned owl is one of two species I often hear near my home. In addition, I regularly hear the much smaller Eastern screech-owl calling from the same woods. The intervals around dusk and dawn are popular times for owls to produce their eerie calls. At present, there’s a pair of great horned owls living in the woods near my home. If I hear one, I usually hear the other. These large owls call to each other to communicate their whereabouts. Perhaps it helps them avoid surprise encounters with each other once they begin hunting after the sun sets.

The great horned owl lives and hunts in the woodlands of northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina. These large owls thrive in rural areas, but these adaptable predatory birds have also learned to survive in the suburbs and even city parks. While quite at home in the region, the great horned owl is not confined to the Southern Appalachians. These owls also make their home in the wetlands along the southern Atlantic coast, as well as arid deserts of the American southwest. If nothing else, the great horned owl has shown amazing resilience and adaptability.

With about 200 different species, the world’s owls form an order known as Strigiformes. Characteristics that define owls include a mostly solitary and nocturnal existence. These predatory birds are also typified by such physical traits as an upright stance, binocular vision, exceptional hearing, sharp talons, and feathers adapted for silent flight.

BarredOwl-Perched

Photo by Bryan Stevens / A Barred Owl blends with the background in this photo taken of a wild owl at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina.

The smallest owl — weighing as little as an ounce and measuring a mere five inches) — is the elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi). To give you some perspective, that DVD of your favorite movie also weighs about an ounce. The common house sparrow that flocks in shopping center parking lots is slightly bigger than this tiny owl. According to the website, The Owl Page, the elf owl was originally known as Whitney’s Owl. The scientific name whitneyi is a Latinized word formed from the last name of Josiah Dwight Whitney, a prominent American geologist for whom the diminutive owl was named. Whitney was considered the foremost authority of his day on the economic geology of the United States. In addition to having a tiny owl named in his honor, Whitney’s name graces Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States, and the Whitney Glacier, which was the first confirmed glacier in the United States.

The miniature elf owl is every bit the predator, but its prey generally consists of various insects as well as such desert dwellers as scorpions and spiders. Despite the extremes of the environment in which it lives, the elf owl does just fine. It prefers areas offering plenty of saguaro cactus. Cavities in these iconic desert plants provide roosting and nesting locations for this tiny owl. The elf owl range from the southwest regions of the United States to Central Mexico and Baja California. Unfortunately, the numbers of this owl in Texas and California have declined in recent times.33ecc634b6bf2f56939e0c28a1e0c6c0

To find the world’s largest owl, head to the other side of the world to the islands of Japan, as well as remote areas of Siberia, Manchuria and Korea. With a body comparable in size to that of a young child and a wingspan wider than six feet, the Blakiston’s fish owl (Bubo blakistoni) earns its distinction as the largest owl in the world. The fish owls are part of a larger grouping of birds known as eagle owls, which specialize in hunting in habitats found along large rivers. Female Blakiston’s fish owls are larger than males, and a large female can weigh as much as 10 pounds and attain a 6.5-foot wingspan. This big owl was named after English naturalist Thomas Blakiston (1832-1891) who found the first specimen on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido in 1883. According to Paul Frost of The Raptor Foundation, this owl is sacred to the Ainu, a native people residing on Hokkaidu. The Ainu refer to this owl as “kotan kor kamuy,” which means “god of the village” or “god who defends the village”.

While many culture view owls with misgivings, often associating their nocturnal tendencies with more sinister motives, that’s not always the case. For instance, the Japanese people believe that owls bring good fortune. In addition, owls offer protection from suffering. Other cultures have feared and reviled owls. The ancient Romans share much of the blame for the negative image owls are still overcoming. Romans considered owls as harbingers of death, defeat and other disasters. To ward off the evil caused by an owl, Romans advised that the offending owl should be killed and nailed to a door. Such a bloodthirsty solution leads me to think that owls had more to fear from Romans than Romans had to fear from them.

The need for common names for the 200 species of owls has resulted in some creative monikers. Some of the most descriptive common names for some of the world’s owls include ashy-faced barn owl, barking owl, brown owl, cuckoo owlet, fearful owl, giant eagle owl, Christmas Island hawk owl, snowy owl, laughing owl, rufous owl, tawny-bellied screech owl, winking owl, and spotted wood owl.

great_horned_owl_and_chick-2

Photo by George Gentry/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / A Great Horned Owl is shown on the nest with one of her chicks.

Many relatives of the great horned owl have proven equally adaptive, carving out niches for themselves in habitats as diverse as jungles, deserts and the frozen tundra. Indeed, the great horned owl has many relatives living in our region. The Eastern screech owl is a tiny cousin, but some other large owls that live in the area include the barred owl and the barn owl. More rare to the region are visits by such owls as the short-eared owl and the long-eared owl. There’s even another tiny relative — the Northern saw whet owl — that is rarely heard and even more seldom seen.

Regardless of the species, the activities of owls are invariably cloaked in darkness. Despite electric lights and other trappings of civilization, people still delight in the shivers that result from hearing the hoots of an owl. It’s truly no surprise that owls have become popular motifs in the weeks leading up to our recent celebration of the Halloween holiday. Owls may live alongside us, but we’ll never truly belong to their world, which consists of all the spooky things that go bump in the night.

•••••

Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. Find him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler.

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.

•••••

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

Plovers among migration champions of vast and varied shorebird clan

0815171646c (1)

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.

Killdeer_AgainstLog

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.

6300749922_099f28ae81_o (1)

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.

Black-belliedPlover

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.

••••••

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. 
GreatWhiteHeron-STOUT

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. 
lcp_160728_1061_1024x1024 (1) 2

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.  
13350311_10208196961794152_4694016517040025689_o

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. 
••••••
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.