Category Archives: Erwin Record

Warblers exert special pull for many birders

KirtlandsWarbler

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The Kirtland’s Warbler, while endangered, is slowly building its numbers with intensive human assistance. Nearly 50 different warbler species nest in the eastern half of the continental United States. The rest of the world’s warblers reside mostly in Central and South America.

I’ve been fascinated with the group of small, energetic songbirds known as warblers almost from the start of my time as a birder. Many birds have inspired poetry, but to me, the warblers are poetry. I suppose another, more down-to-earth part of my fascination is that a little effort is usually required to see these birds. Although many species of warblers spend the summer months in the region, few of them would really be described as backyard birds. That being said, I am also fortunate to live in a location surrounded by woodlands that are inhabited by several species of warblers in the months spanning April to September on the calendar.

Of course, it’s always gratifying to hear from readers who have also caught the “warbler bug” and find these tiny, colorful songbirds as fascinating as I do. Graham Gardner of Abingdon, Virginia, sent me a recent email about the warblers, an extensive family of neotropical migrants that happen to be among my favorite birds.

CanadaWarbler

Photo by Graham Gardner • A Canada warbler wears a dark necklace of feathers across its yellow breast.

“I just wanted to share another great birding experience that I recently had with my father this past weekend,” Graham wrote in an email sent on May 1. “As you know, the spring migration of neotropical migrants is upon us. My father and I decided to take a trip to Peaks of Otter Lodge in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains to attempt to observe some of the more difficult-to-find warblers that I had not yet checked off my life list.”
He reported that the trip was wildly successful.

“We observed 10 warbler species in total in just under two days of birding.” Among them were three species that were new for him: cerulean warbler, Blackburnian warbler, and bay-breasted warbler.

He also shared some photos. “These guys are really quite difficult to photograph,” he wrote. “They are either constantly on the move, bouncing from branch to branch, or they are high in the canopy staying mostly out of sight.”

Graham wrote that he looks forward to searching for warblers in the coming weeks as they continue to pass through, and in some cases settle in, our Appalachian Mountains.
I congratulated Graham for his success with some of my favorite birds. I also let him know that he succeeded with a bird — the cerulean warbler — that has been elusive for me over the years. It’s one of the few warblers that spend time in the eastern United States that I haven’t managed to add to my life list. The other two warblers I need are the Connecticut warbler and Kirtland’s warbler.

Cerulean 2

Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of cerulean warblers, a bird that he knew as the “Azure Warbler.”

 

“The cerulean was definitely the highlight of the trip for me,” Graham noted in a second email to me.

The cerulean warbler makes infrequent appearances in the region, but it has been observed as recently as the spring of 2016 at Steele Creek Park in Bristol, Tennessee. Some other locations — Frozen Head State Park, Edgar Evins State Park and Falls Creek Falls State Park — support breeding populations of this warbler within the Volunteer State.

Unfortunately, the cerulean warbler is one of the fastest declining songbirds in the United States. Habitat destruction in its breeding range in the Appalachian Mountains and its wintering range in South America is to blame for its plummeting numbers.

Among a family of several breathtakingly beautiful species, the cerulean warbler is one of the most exquisite of its kind in terms of appearance. Adult males have pale cerulean blue upperparts — hence the bird’s common name — and white underparts with a black necklace across the breast. They also show black streaking on the back and flanks.

Beyond its uncommon status, there are other reasons why it’s difficult to lay eyes on a cerulean warbler. First and foremost, cerulean warblers prefer to forage in the treetops. In that leafy, lofty habitat, observing these warblers can be difficult for ground-bound humans.

NoWaterthrush

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Northern waterthrush is a warbler fond of foraging near slow, flowing water.

I’ve been very close to seeing a cerulean warbler twice. During a past Spring Naturalists Rally at Roan Mountain, Tennessee, several people watched a cerulean warbler flitting in some tall trees while I struggled unsuccessfully to get my binoculars on the rapidly moving bird. More recently, I was looking for birds with fellow birder Jean Potter along the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee, for a Fall Bird Count. She found a female cerulean warbler in a tree overhanging the river, but I failed to get my binoculars on the bird in time.

So, while my luck with cerulean warblers hasn’t changed (yet), I have seen several warblers at my home this spring, including hooded warbler, ovenbird, black-throated green warbler, black-and-white warbler and Northern parula. In addition, I’ve seen other warblers — yellow-breasted chat, Cape May warbler, yellow warbler and chestnut-sided warbler — at other locations in the region.

Black-and-WhiteWarbler

Photo by Graham Gardner • The black-and-white warbler, which is aptly named, is one of the most easily identified warblers.

The warblers are poetry written with splashes of movement and hints of color written across an often green background. While not easy to observe, they’re worth seeking out. Glimpsing one of these energetic songbirds is always a moment that puts a smile on my face — and in my heart.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Readers report on robin, purple martin that stand out from other members of their flocks

 

Albino-Swallow

Photo by Jean Potter • Two barn swallows in typical plumage perch on a wire with an albino individual.

Birds of a feather, as the old saying goes, tend to flock together, but what happens when a member of the flock stands out from the rest? Although conventional wisdom mandates that being conspicuous is not helpful for most wild creatures, some of them can’t help but get attention. Different readers have brought to my attention some birds at their homes that instantly stood out.

Sara and Ed Gschwind, residents of Bristol, Tennessee, have been keeping tabs on an American robin in their yard that is showing an extensive amount of white feathers in its plumage. For the most part, this particular robin has a white head, largely white wings and extensive white in the typically red breast. “My 88-year-old mother, Nora Rockett, suggested I send a photo to you,” Sara wrote in an email.

Robin-PartialAlbino

Photo by Ed Gschwind • A leucistic American robin enjoy time in a bird bath. Albino and leucistic birds are rather rare in nature.

Sara said that her mother, who has lived in Bristol all her life, has never seen anything like it. I replied to Sara’s email, asking for a few more details.

While the robin interacts with others of its kind, the Gschwinds haven’t seen any evidence this particular robin is attempting to nest. Ed took a photograph of the robin enjoying the water in a bird bath in the Gschwind yard.

“The robin bathes every day, and loves the water like all robins do,” Sara wrote. “The robin has been here since the robins returned three months ago. I’m trying to keep it happy.” Since the robin is a regular visitor, I agree that they’re doing a good job keeping the bird happy, since it’s not shown any inclination to leave their yard.

Tom Brake, who lives in Abingdon, Virginia, contacted me through Facebook about a male purple martin with extensive white feathers residing at the purple martin colony he has established at his home.

Purple martins are the largest member of the swallow family in the United States. Like many other swallow species, they nest in colonies. Martins are cavity-nesting birds that readily accept hollow gourds or special purple martin condominiums for nesting.

“Currently I have nests in 43 compartments with 20 being active (eggs having been laid),” Tom wrote. “Last year I had 51 pairs, and I hope to get close to being back to 60 or 70 active pairs this year. The next two weeks will be the busy time for completion of nests and laying.”

PurpleMartin-Albino-TomBrake

Photo by Tom Brake • A leucistic male purple martin perches with its mate, a typical female purple martin, near a hollow gourd they may use for nesting purposes.

As for the bird showing the white feathers, Tom has named him “Leuie” because the bird is an example of leucism, a condition related to albinism.

Albinism is a genetic, or inherited, condition resulting in a complete lack of production of pigmentation. Albino birds are, for the most part, extremely uncommon. I’ve heard of a variety of birds, ranging from hummingbirds and American robins to various ducks and swallows, that have a tendency to produce albino individuals.

Leucism is another genetic mutation that causes affected birds to grow feathers that are pale or whitish overall. A faint pattern may be visible. Leucism is also uncommon, but is more common that albinism. Both the robin in the Gschwind yard and the purple martin at Tom’s home are examples of leucistic birds.

Tom noted that “Leuie” is doing well so far. “He has a mate, but their first clutch of four eggs was either thrown out by a second year male martin or discarded by themselves because they sensed non-viability,” Tom wrote in a Facebook message. “Maybe the cold, wet weather had something to do with the loss.” He noted that the same thing happened recently to two other nests.

“Leuie and mate are still using their gourd, so I expect they will re-clutch,” Tom wrote. The term “re-clutch” means that Leuie’s mate will lay a new batch of eggs and Leuie will be ready to carry out his own paternal duties to help raise any resulting young.

Albinism and leucism are not the only conditions that can affect pigment in a bird’s feathers. Some birds have the opposite problem in that they produce too much pigment, resulting in a much darker bird than what would be typical. The plumage of such affected birds is described as melanistic, which is in stark contrast to an albino bird. With a melanistic bird, the feathers are much darker than usual because of an abundance of pigment. In rare albino birds, the opposite occurs and the lack of pigment in the feathers leave them looking white. Completely albino birds also tend to have red eyes. It’s probably better for a bird to be melanistic. Albino birds tend to stick out like sore thumbs, attracting the attention of predators.

Robins-AlbinoAndRegular

Photo by Ed Gschwind • Compare the leucistic American robin in the bird bath with the typical robin perched in a nearby chair. Albino birds are rather rare in nature.

I’ve only seen a few albino or partial albino birds in person, although I have observed videos and photographs of such birds. During a trip to Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2006, I observed an albino Brewer’s blackbird. An albino blackbird is almost an oxymoron. This particular blackbird had a white upper body and head and a black lower body. At first, I thought it might be a small tern, but closer observation — and identification of the birds with which it was associating — eventually confirmed that it was a Brewer’s blackbird, a common species in Salt Lake City.

Those observations remain my best looks at albino birds in the wild. I’ve also seen partial albinos, including an American Crow with white feathers in its wings that inhabited the woodlands and fields at my home for several years. I’ve also observed a couple of American goldfinches over the years that would probably qualify as leucistic birds.

A few years ago, I saw an albino Red-tailed hawk while driving between Erwin, Tennessee, and Asheville, North Carolina, on Interstate 26. The hawk was often present near the North Carolina Visitors Center. I’ve also heard from readers over the years about birds such as American goldfinches and downy woodpeckers exhibiting albino tendencies.

Albino-Hawk

Photo by Jean Potter • This partial albino red-tailed hawk was spotted for several years near the state line dividing northeast Tennessee and western North Carolina.

These issues involving the absence or abundance of pigment can complicate bird identification. After all, all-white birds, from snowy owls and tundra swans to great egrets and snow geese, do exist in nature. Even in these birds, however, there’s usually some other color present to break up the uniformity of the bird’s plumage. Keep in mind that such rarities as albino individuals of such common species as house finches and American robins can show up at your feeders or in your yard. It’s just another way birds constantly surprise us.

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

Spring Bird Count participants deal with unseasonal cold snap

The 74th annual Elizabethton Spring Bird Count was held on Saturday, May 6. A total of 43 observers in nine parties took part in the annual survey, which consists Carter County and parts of adjacent Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington counties. In addition to Elizabethton, the count includes territory in such cities as Elizabethton, Erwin, Kingsport, Bristol and Johnson City.

Count-Gobbler

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male gobbler seeks the attention of hens, as all these Wild Turkeys add to the number of this species found during the count.

The most unusual aspect of this year’s count involved rather cold conditions, according to long-time count compiler Rick Knight. Although held nearly a week into May, this was one of the coldest days ever experienced on a spring count. The temperature range was 36 to 54 degrees. Light rain fell before sunrise; the morning was partly cloudy to cloudy, then the afternoon saw light rain, with light snow showers at the higher elevations and a half-inch accumulation of snow on Roan Mountain.

Knight noted that previous cold spring counts included: 32 to 55 degrees in 1979, 44 to 52 degrees in 1987, and 27 to 54 degrees in 1992. Despite the weather, participants managed to find 148 species, which is exactly the average over the last 30 years, but below the average over the last decade, which stands at 154 species.

The most common species on this year’s Spring Bird Count was the Cliff Swallow with 1,046 individuals — a new record for this species — found this year. Other common species include European Starling (704), American Robin (693) and Tree Swallow (526).

A Stilt Sandpiper found in Washington County represented only the third time this species has been observed during the Elizabethton Spring Bird Count. As always, Knight said there were a few notable misses, such as Northern Bobwhite, Ruffed Grouse, Pied-billed Grebe, Brown Creeper, Winter Wren, Swamp Sparrow and Pine Siskin. In addition, no gulls were found on any of the area lakes.

Count-MaleMartin

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Purple Martins, like this male, were sluggish on the day of the count thanks to cold temperatures and steady rainfall.

In addition, several species of warblers that nest in the region showed rather low numbers. Some of the low numbers for some species may be attributable to the weather. Nevertheless, the count produced observations of 28 different warbler species.

The total is listed below:
Canada Goose, 390; Wood Duck, 27; Mallard, 93; Blue-winged Teal, 5; and Hooded Merganser, 2.
Wild Turkey, 54; Common Loon, 2; Double-crested Cormorant, 42; Great Blue Heron, 115; Great Egret, 1; Green Heron, 13; Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, 8; and Black-crowned Night-heron, 1.
Black Vulture, 74; Turkey Vulture, 108; Osprey, 10; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 1; Cooper’s Hawk, 5; Bald Eagle, 13; Broad-winged Hawk, 5; Red-winged Hawk, 25; and American Kestrel, 11.
Virginia Rail, 4; Killdeer, 35; Spotted Sandpiper, 27; Solitary Sandpiper, 19; Greater Yellowlegs, 1; Lesser Yellowlegs, 1; Stilt Sandpiper, 1; and Least Sandpiper, 6.
Forster’s Tern, 1; Rock Pigeon, 155; Eurasian Collared-Dove, 3; Mourning Dove, 224; Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 4; Black-billed Cuckoo, 1; Eastern Screech-owl, 6; Great Horned Owl, 1; Barred Owl, 2; Common Nighthawk, 1; Chuck-will’s-widow, 2; Whip-poor-will, 10.
Chimney Swift, 66; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 23; Belted Kingfisher, 23; Red-headed Woodpecker, 5; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 54; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 3; Downy Woodpecker, 23; Hairy Woodpecker, 5; Northern Flicker, 30; and Pileated Woodpecker, 34.

Count-NightHeron

Several species of herons, including this Yellow-crowned Night Heron, were found for this year’s Spring Bird Count.

Eastern Wood-pewee, 1; Acadian Flycatcher, 5; Willow Flycatcher, 1; Least Flycatcher, 6; Eastern Phoebe, 42; Great Crested Flycatcher, 13; Eastern Kingbird, 43; and Loggerhead Shrike, 1.
White-eyed Vireo, 5; Yellow-throated Vireo, 10; Blue-headed Vireo, 41; Warbling Vireo, 9; Red-eyed Vireo, 122; Blue Jay, 138; American Crow, 301; Fish Crow, 2; and Common Raven, 22.
Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 345; Purple Martin, 36; Tree Swallow, 526; Barn Swallow, 259; and Cliff Swallow, 1,046.
Carolina Chickadee, 82; Tufted Titmouse, 140; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 3; White-breasted Nuthatch, 13; House Wren, 30; Marsh Wren, 1; Carolina Wren, 99; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 39; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 11; and Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 2.
Eastern Bluebird, 136; Veery, 44; Swainson’s Thrush, 5; Hermit Thrush, 1; Wood Thrush, 82; American Robin, 693; Gray Catbird, 35; Brown Thrasher, 51; Northern Mockingbird, 95; European Starling, 704; and Cedar Waxwing, 272.
Ovenbird, 117; Worm-eating Warbler, 19; Louisiana Waterthrush, 18, Northern Waterthrush, 1; Golden-winged Warbler, 3; Black-and-White Warbler, 47; Swainson’s Warbler, 2; Tennessee Warbler, 1; Kentucky Warbler, 1; Common Yellowthroat, 17; Hooded Warbler, 95; American Redstart, 6; Cape May Warbler, 7; Northern Parula, 25; Bay-breasted Warbler, 4; Blackburnian Warbler, 1; Yellow Warbler, 3; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 9; Blackpoll Warbler, 1; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 25; Palm Warbler, 1; Pine Warbler, 15; Yellow-rumped Warbler, 18; Yellow-throated Warbler, 20; Prairie Warbler, 4; Black-throated Green Warbler, 53; Canada Warbler, 1; and Yellow-breasted Chat, 11.

SolitarySandpiper-One

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Migrating shorebirds, such as this Solitary Sandpiper, added diversity to this year’s Spring Bird Count in Northeast Tennessee.

Eastern Towhee, 132; Chipping Sparrow, 67; Field Sparrow, 35; Savannah Sparrow, 4; Grasshopper Sparrow, 1; Song Sparrow, 166; White-throated Sparrow, 4; White-crowned Sparrow, 2; Dark-eyed Junco, 28; Summer Tanager, 2; Scarlet Tanager, 60; Northern Cardinal, 212; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 19; Blue Grosbeak, 5; Indigo Bunting, 79; Bobolink, 22; Red-winged Blackbird, 271; Eastern Meadowlark, 89; Common Grackle, 327; Brown-headed Cowbird, 97; Orchard Oriole, 21; Baltimore Oriole, 16; House Finch, 64; American Goldfinch, 228; and House Sparrow, 52.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Count-IndigoBunting

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Newly-returned neotropical migrants, such as this Indigo Bunting, increased the total number of species for the annual spring count.

Get ready to welcome spring’s returning hummingbirds

All bird enthusiasts have their personal favorites among our feathered friends. Cardinals, bluebirds, robins and chickadees would certainly find a place in any Top 10 lists. What bird would top the list? I have no qualms predicting that the ruby-throated hummingbird would be a frontrunner for such a ranking.

rubythroated_hummingbird

A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird seeks nectar at tiny blooms. — Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

 

The popularity of hummingbirds in general, and the ruby-throated hummingbird specifically, is simple to understand. These tiny birds are perfectly willing to insert themselves into our lives, offering hours of fascinating entertainment as they visit our gardens, duel at our sugar water feeders and occasionally even nest in trees and shrubs in our yards.

Individuals who feed birds know that it can be an expensive undertaking. The cost of providing sunflower seeds and suet cakes for hungry flocks during the winter months can nibble at the monthly budget, but hardly anyone would begrudge the sparrows, finches, wrens and woodpeckers. After all, they return the favor, putting on daily shows just outside our windows.

Attracting hummingbirds is generally much less expensive than feeding other birds. After all, you need only a mixture of sugar water — four parts water to one part sugar — to fill a feeder and catch the attention of a visiting hummer. A few pounds of sugar will last a lot longer than that bag of sunflower seeds and it’s much less expensive to purchase at the grocery store.

If you do want to take extra steps to attract these diminutive, feathered saccharine junkies, consider supplementing your landscape with a variety of flowering plants. To explore some of the best choices for flowers to tempt hummingbirds, visit the website of The Hummingbird Society at http://www.hummingbirdsociety.org.

Hummer-CloserUp

A male ruby-throated hummingbird surveys his territory from a convenient perch. — Photo by Bryan Stevens

Nevertheless, few bird enthusiasts are truly frugal when it comes to our feathered friends. Even if the cost of bringing hummingbirds and other birds was much higher, I don’t think we would abandon the undertaking. Quite simply, the birds mean too much to us. They fascinate us with their speed and agility, their pugnacious relations with each other, and of course their tiny size. The irony is that, although hummingbirds are so small, they don’t seem to recognize that fact as they zig and zag through yard and garden.

While the ruby-throated hummingbird is the only hummer that nests in the eastern United States, which is what brings these tiny birds into our lives every year from April to October, there are more than 300 species of hummingbirds. Much creativity has gone into giving each of these hummingbirds a descriptive common name.

Sometimes, words fail. Mere adjectives are somewhat inadequate in providing common names for many of the world’s more than 300 hummingbirds, but that doesn’t keep us from trying to give descriptive names to each hummingbird species. For instance, we have the beautiful hummingbird of Mexico; the charming hummingbird of Costa Rica and Panama; the festive coquette of northwestern South America; and the magnificent hummingbird of the southwestern United States.

Other names are even more elaborate and occasionally outlandish, such as the white-tufted sunbeam of Peru; the violet-throated metaltail of Ecuador; the violet-throated starfrontlet of Peru and Bolivia; the hyacinth visorbearer of Brazil; and the rainbow-bearded thornbill of Colombia and Ecuador.

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A male ruby-throated hummingbird ignores honeybees for a sip of sugar water. — Photo by Bryan Stevens

It would seem then that our own ruby-throated hummingbird is in good company. After spending the winter months in Central America, ruby-throated hummingbirds are already streaming north. Just to reach the United States, these tiny birds undertake an arduous journey. Most of these tiny birds, which are barely four inches long, make a non-stop flight of more than 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico. The journey can take almost an entire day!

Sightings are already being reported, and ruby-throats typically arrive in the region in early April. In fact, a male ruby-throated hummingbird showed up at my feeders on Saturday, April 15.

If you don’t have your feeders outdoors and waiting for them, it’s time to do so. As always, I love to hear from readers about their first hummingbird sighting of the year. Jot down the time and date and contact me by email at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I can hardly wait for one of our favorite birds to get back. Let’s give them a hearty welcome.

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

 

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

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

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

Known for migrating incredible distances, the shorebirds are often referred to as “wind birds,” a romantic allusion to their habit of taking wing for the epic journeys that astound scientists and birders alike. Among the far-flung family are birds known as sandpipers and plovers, as well as whimbrels, willets, tattlers and turnstones.
Still, among the general public, as well as some birders, the shorebirds are a much misunderstood group of birds. For example, most people could hardly be blamed for believing that shorebirds are inhabitants of only the beach and shore. In fact, some species are at home in an array of habitats, ranging from woodlands and prairies to the Arctic tundra and mudflats. Some are notoriously elusive, their camouflage and low-key behavior allowing them to escape casual notice at most times.
In late winter and early spring, a true oddball among the shorebirds begins courting. The American woodcock, also known by such whimsical names as “bog sucker” and “timberdoodle,” is a shorebird that has completely abandoned the shore in favor of woodlands and fields. Beginning as early as February, American woodcocks in the region conduct nightly courtship displays, starting at dusk, that combines aerial acrobatics with an assortment of unusual acoustical flourishes. Any wet field adjacent to a wooded area could offer a stage for these evening displays, but unless you know where to look and make an effort to do so, the American woodcock might as well remain a phantom of the night.
John-James-Audubon-American-Woodcock.-1.-Male.-2.-Female.3.-Young-in-Autumn

John James Audubon, an early American naturalist and artist, painted this scene of American woodcocks feeding in damp earth.

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

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

Snipe-Stetler

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

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

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

Snipe-One

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

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

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

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

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

Origins of the name of Muscovy duck shrouded in mystery

Joan Stenger sent me an email recently about an unusual waterfowl observation. On a recent  Saturday, she visited downtown Bristol where the creek widens a bit near the fire station and beside the park. Joan wrote that she saw a flock of ducks and Canada geese and enjoyed watching them.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                             Muscovy ducks seen outside of Texas are domesticated versions of the wild waterfowl. Male Muscovy ducks sport red carbuncles around their bills.

“One fellow stood on the opposite bank and had bright red marks on his face,” she added. “My daughter and I went over the bridge and into the park to get closer and hopefully get a better view.”

Joan described the odd duck as larger than the other ducks but not as big as the geese. “Its back was dark dark blue with teal,” she wrote. “I had never seen such a duck! “
She said they continued to watch the flock of Canada geese and then returned home.  There she consulted her bird books and only found one small mention and picture of a Muscovy duck. Armed with that information, she conducted an online search for more information about Muscovy ducks.
 “Have you seen many of these fellows?” Joan asked in her email.
In my reply to her email, I informed Joan that Muscovy ducks are becoming more common. However, outside of Texas, most Muscovy Ducks seen are “feral” domesticated versions of the wild bird. Many people have probably also seen feral mallards that are content to reside year-round with us. The Muscovy ducks have probably decided the same thing.
In southern Texas, it is possible to observe wild Muscovy ducks, but sightings of these ducks outside of the Lonestar State involve domesticated ducks. Like mallards, Muscovy ducks have long been domesticated, and some of the domesticated individuals have gone feral. These ducks, descendants of their wild ancestors, have become more common, both nationwide and locally.

I’ve heard from other curious people over the years about encounters with Muscovy ducks. The birds behave unusually for a duck. For instance, they often pant like a dog and strut around more like a wild turkey than a typical duck. Most of these feral Muscovy ducks are also relatively tame in association with people, long ago having learned to connect humans with free handouts of bread, popcorn and other foods.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                            Wild Muscovy ducks are dark waterfowl with white wing patches. Domesticated Muscovy ducks exhibit a wide variety of plumage colors, including brown and white feathers.

In the wild, Muscovy ducks are native to Mexico, as well as Central and South America. Before Christopher Columbus reached the New World in 1492, natives had long domesticated this duck. When Columbus first visited the New World, he even took back to Europe some of these ducks.
The term “Muscovy” is a reference to the Russian city of Moscow, but the reasons behind the connection of this duck’s common name to Moscow are obscure. One theory is that the duck acquired the name in association with the Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands, later shortened to the Muscovy Company. Perhaps this chartered trading outfit sold some of these ducks to European customers in the 1500s.
After all, Columbus and early explorers named the wild turkey for the faraway country of Turkey, mistakenly believing that the New World provided a more direct route to this realm so important to trade. Perhaps the Muscovy duck also acquired a name connected with Moscow for no better reason. It does appear that the origins of the name are one of history’s odd mysteries.
Adding to the mystery is the fact that the duck’s scientific name also refers to a city — Cairo in Egypt — far from this bird’s native home. Translated, the Muscovy duck’s scientific name means “musky bird from Cairo.” Another common name for the duck is Barbary duck, which refers to a region of Africa home to modern-day Libya.

While the wild Muscovy duck is a tropical bird, the domestic ones are perfectly capable of weathering cold temperatures as low as 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                       Domesticated and feral Muscovy ducks are widespread across North America. These ducks were first discovered by Europeans arriving in the New World, although native tribes had long raised them as domestic animals.

The Muscovy Duck has only one other close relative, the white-winged wood duck of India and Bangladesh, One of the world’s largest ducks, the white-winged wood duck is a seriously endangered species. One curious fact about this duck is its tendency to only forage for food after dark.

Wild Muscovy ducks are large waterfowl with a black plumage accented with big white wing patches. They can be almost 34 inches long and weigh as much as nine pounds. It’s the heads of these ducks that really make them stand apart. Both sexes have bare black-and-red or all-red faces. Males also sport pronounced caruncles at the base of the bill, as well a a slight crest of feathers. The appearance of domestic Muscovy ducks is quite variable, with some birds sporting almost entirely white plumage.
Muscovy ducks and mallards will also hybridize, producing sterile offspring that are known as “mullards.” I’ve observed both domestic Muscovy ducks and “mullard” hybrids at local parks, but I haven’t yet seen any wild Muscovy ducks. The domestic version of this duck has also established feral populations around the globe in locations such as Europe, New Zealand, Canada and Australia.henry_charles_bryant00
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In addition to asking her question about Muscovy ducks, Joan shared a story about bluebirds at her home.
“We feed the birds year round and enjoy their antics at the feeders,” she reported. “We were pleased to have bluebirds raise a nest full of babies this year, although I was told that we would not have bluebirds because we live in town.” Apparently “no one told the bluebirds,” Joan joked.
Because of her feeders and the bird baths, she receives visits from a good variety of birds, mostly dominated by the cardinals.

 

Weekly column marks 21st anniversary

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                  Dark-eyed Junco visits a feeder during a snowstorm.

I wrote my first “Feathered Friends” column on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, which means this column recently celebrated its 21st anniversary. This weekly column has appeared in the last 21 years in a total of five different newspapers. The column has also been a great conduit for getting to know other people interested in our “feathered friends.” I always enjoy hearing from readers, and I hope to continue to do so in the coming years as well.

Since February of 2014, I’ve also been posting the column as a weekly blog on birds and birding.
That first column I wrote back in 1995 focused on one of the region’s most prevalent winter residents— the Dark-eyed Junco. Here, with some revisions I have made through the years, is that first column.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                 Although they often feed on the ground, Dark-eyed Juncos will occasionally visit a hanging feeder.

Of all the birds associated with winter weather, few are as symbolic as the Dark-eyed Junco, or “snow bird.” The junco occurs in several geographic variations.
John V. Dennis, author of “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” captures the essence of the junco in the following description: “Driving winds and swirling snow do not daunt this plucky bird. The coldest winter days see the junco as lively as ever and with a joie de vivre that bolsters our sagging spirits.” The Dark-eyed Junco’s scientific name, hyemalis, is New Latin for “wintry,” an apt description of this bird.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                              A Dark-eyed Junco feeds on sunflower seeds scattered on the snow by other birds visiting hanging feeders.

Most people look forward to the spring return of some of our brilliant birds — warblers, tanagers and orioles — and I must admit that I also enjoy the arrival of these birds. The junco, in comparison to some of these species, is not in the same league. Nevertheless, the junco is handsome in its slate gray and white plumage, giving rise to the old saying “dark skies above, snow below.”
Just as neotropical migrants make long distance journeys twice a year, the junco is also a migrating species. But in Appalachia, the junco is a special type of migrant. Most people think of birds as “going south for the winter.” In a basic sense this is true. But some juncos do not undertake a long horizontal (the scientific term) migration from north to south. Instead, these birds merely move from high elevations, such as the spruce fir peaks, to the lower elevations. This type of migration is known as vertical migration. Other juncos, such as those that spend their breeding season in northern locales, do make a southern migration and, at times, even mix with the vertical migrants.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                    Dark-eyed Juncos nest at higher elevation in the Southern Appalachian. This bird was photographed at Carver’s Gap atop Roan Mountain in Tennessee.

Juncos are usually in residence around my home by early November. Once they make themselves at home I can expect to play host to them until at least late April or early May of the following year. So, for at least six months, the snow bird is one of the most common and delightful feeder visitors a bird enthusiast could want.
Juncos flock to feeders where they are rather mild-mannered — except among themselves. There are definite pecking orders in a junco flock, and females are usually on the lower tiers of the hierarchy. Females can sometimes be distinguished from males because of their paler gray or even brown upper plumage.
Since juncos are primarily ground feeders they tend to shun hanging feeders. But one winter I observed a junco that had mastered perching on a hanging “pine cone” feeder to enjoy a suet and peanut butter mixture.
Dark-eyed Juncos often are content to glean the scraps other birds knock to the ground. Juncos are widespread. They visit feeders across North America. The junco is the most common species of bird to visit feeding stations. They will sample a variety of fare, but prefer such seeds as millet, cracked corn or black oil sunflower.

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Early naturalist John James Audubon painted this picture of a pair of Dark-eyed Juncos.

There’s something about winter that makes a junco’s dark and light garb an appropriate and even striking choice, particularly against a backdrop of newly fallen snow.
Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and began a furious period of eating, I don’t even have to glance skyward or tune in the television weather forecast. I know what they know. Bad weather is on the way!

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The Dark-eyed Juncos haven’t put in their appearance for the 2016-17 winter season at my home yet, but the weather’s turning colder. I don’t expect to have to wait much longer for their return.

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Photo by Ken Thomas                            A Dark-eyed Junco perches on a branch.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.