Category Archives: Fall migration

Although graceful in the water, life gets awkward for grebes on land

As the calendar moves into the months of October and November, migrating waterfowl will replace the exodus of songbirds that evacuate the North American continent every fall in preparation for their winter season in the tropics. The umbrella term of waterfowl can include such birds as ducks, geese, loons and grebes.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • This pied-billed grebe stranded itself on a wet lawn during fall migration. A grebe’s legs are positioned so far back on their bodies that grebes have difficult walking on land. Once released in a pond, the grebe was able to take flight and continue its migration.

That last family keeps one of the lowest profiles among the grouping of birds lumped together as waterfowl. Worldwide, there are 22 species of grebes. This family also includes three extinct species — Alaotra grebe, Atitlán grebe and Colombian grebe.

Many people are unaware of the grebes. After all, they are oddball birds with not a lot in common with other waterfowl such as loons and ducks. In eastern Tennessee, southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina, the pied-billed grebe is the most likely member of the grebe family to come into contact with humans. The pied-billed grebe’s scientific name, Podilymbus podiceps, can be roughly translated as “rear-footed diver.” The reference is to the fact that this grebe, as well as others of its kind, have their feet positioned so far back on their bodies that movement on land is difficult and awkward.

The pied-billed grebe has inspired a variety of other common names, including American dabchick, dabchick, Carolina grebe, devil-diver, dive-dapper, hell-diver, pied-billed dabchick, pied-bill, thick-billed grebe and water witch, all of which reflect this grebe’s almost exclusively aquatic lifestyle.

The pied-billed grebe is a world-class survivor. Already a member of an ancient family of birds, this species has outlasted the others in its genus. The Atitlán grebe, which was also known as the giant grebe, went extinct around 1989 after a series of catastrophic setbacks, including a devastating earthquake and the introduction of smallmouth and largemouth bass to Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. The bass consumed the prey this grebe needed for its survival, and large bass occasionally ate young grebes.

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Bass introduced into Lake Atitlán consumed the small fish that the Atitlán Grebe              required as a food source. Large bass also ate young grebes.

 

 

These birds range in size from the least grebe, which weighs only about six ounces, to the great grebe, which can tip the scales at four pounds. North American grebes include red-necked grebe, horned grebe, eared grebe, Clark’s grebe and Western grebe. In extreme southern Texas, birders can find least grebes in suitable wetland habitats.

With the exception of the least grebe, I’ve seen all of North America’s grebes. During visits to Utah in 2003 and 2006, I observed the sleek, long-necked Clark’s grebe and Western grebe. On a 2006 trip to Utah, I visited Antelope Island State Park and observed tens of thousands of Eared Grebes gathered on the Great Salt Lake for the nesting season. In Tennessee, one of the most reliable locations to find eared grebes is from viewing areas at Musick’s Campground on South Holston Lake, where a small number of these grebes have wintered for many years.

An unusual February fallout back in 2014 resulted in equally unusual numbers of red-necked grebes on area lakes, rivers, and ponds. I’d previously observed this grebe on Boone Lake, South Holston Lake and Watauga Lake in northeast Tennessee.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Red-necked Grebe mixes with Mallards at a pond on the campus of Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton.

Grebes are prone to landing on glistening surfaces — lawns, asphalt parking lots and even paved roads — during migration flights, especially at night during heavy rain. A serious problem arises when the grebe, with those rear-positioned feet, finds itself stranded, unable to take flight again without a paddling run across the surface of a body of water.

One of these strandings was recounted in Rick Knight’s book, The Birds of Northeast Tennessee. On Feb. 13, 1994, a red-necked grebe grounded itself with one of these crash landings onto a parking lot in Elizabethton, Tennessee. The fortunate grebe received a human-assisted rescue, being transported to a small lake near the town for release.

In November of 2011, a neighbor delivered a bird that had landed in his yard and could not take flight. The bird, put into a cardboard box for its own safety, didn’t appear to have any injuries. Once I saw the bird, I realized it was a pied-billed grebe. We released the bird on my fish pond, where the grebe dived and swam extensively before resting for a long period on a muddy edge of the pond. Overnight, the grebe disappeared. I believe the grebe took flight during the night and continued with its fall migration. The incident remains one of my closest encounters with a grebe.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens The pied-billed grebe paddles through the water after it was rescued after a stranding on a lawn.

 

In the coming weeks and all throughout the winter months, look for pied-bill grebes, as well well as more uncommon grebes like horned grebe and red-necked grebe, on lakes and rivers throughout the region.

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

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Plovers among migration champions of vast and varied shorebird clan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. To ask a question, make a comment or share a sighting, email him at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Annual Fall Bird Count finds 125 species

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                  Red-tailed Hawks were found in good numbers on the recent fall count, but the species was outnumbered by migrating Broad-winged Hawks.

The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society held its annual Fall Bird Count back in September. The chapter’s five-county Fall Bird Count, the 47th consecutive survey conducted by the chapter, was held Sept. 24. A total of 39 observers (and two yard watchers) found a total of 125 species. Oppressive heat on the day of the count probably negatively affected bird numbers.
The Fall Bird Count, as well as the chapter’s annual Spring Bird Count, surveys bird populations in the upper Northeast Tennessee counties of Carter, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington.
The annual count is compiled by long-time chapter statistician Rick Knight.
The recent count was most notable for low numbers of many species. “A curious statistic: we had more Cedar Waxwings than European Starlings,” Knight remarked.
The all-time high on for a Fall Bird Count was 137 species in 1993.
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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                     Blue-winged Teal were among the migratory waterfowl found during the recent Fall Bird Count conducted by the Elizabethton Bird Club.

The total for this year’s Fall Bird Count follows:
Canada Goose, 1,118; Wood Duck, 40; Mallard, 224; Blue-winged Teal, 4; Green-winged Teal, 1; Ruffed Grouse, 2; Wild Turkey, 23; Pied-billed Grebe, 3; Double-crested Cormorant, 16; Great Blue Heron, 30; Great Egret, 10; Green Heron, 2; Black-crowned Night-Heron, 2; and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, 1.
Black Vulture, 159; Turkey Vulture, 222; Osprey, 7; Bald Eagle, 4; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 2; Cooper’s Hawk, 10; Red-shouldered Hawk, 5; Broad-winged Hawk, 25; and Red-tailed Hawk, 22.
Killdeer, 66; Spotted Sandpiper, 3; Least Sandpiper, 4; Pectoral Sandpiper, 6; American Woodcock, 4.
Rock Pigeon, 365; Eurasian Collared Dove, 2; Mourning Dove, 174; Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 1; Eastern Screech-Owl, 14; Great Horned Owl, 8; Barred Owl, 8, and Northern Saw-whet Owl, 1.

 

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Photo by Bryan Stevens Downy Woodpecker was the most numerous woodpecker tallied on the fall count.

Common Nighthawk, 3; Chimney Swift, 379; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 30; Belted Kingfisher, 33; Red-headed Woodpecker, 1; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 61; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 5; Downy Woodpecker, 42; Hairy Woodpecker, 10; Northern Flicker, 28; and Pileated Woodpecker, 32.
American Kestrel, 14; Peregrine Falcon, 2; Eastern Wood-pewee, 12; Acadian Flycatcher, 1; Empid species, 3; Eastern Phoebe, 68; and Eastern Kingbird, 1.
White-eyed Vireo, 2; Yellow-throated Vireo, 2; Blue-headed Vireo, 20; Red-eyed Vireo, 15; Blue Jay; 329; American Crow, 376; and Common Raven; 26.
Purple Martin, 1; Tree Swallow, 163; Barn Swallow, 1; Carolina Chickadee, 152; Tufted Titmouse, 124; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 12; and White-breasted Nuthatch, 36.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                 A total of 54 Northern Mockingbirds, Tennessee’s official state bird, was found on the count.

Brown Creeper, 5; House Wren, 3; Carolina Wren, 139; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 2; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 23; and Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 5.
Eastern Bluebird, 91; Veery, 4; Gray-cheeked Thrush, 6; Swainson’s Thrush, 89; Hermit Thrush, 1; Wood Thrush, 16; American Robin, 343, Gray Catbird, 48; Brown Thrasher, 14; and Northern Mockingbird, 54.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                    Red Crossbills were among the finches tallied on this year’s Fall Bird Count.

European Starling, 426; Cedar Waxwing, 506; Ovenbird, 4; Worm-eating Warbler, 1; Northern Waterthrush, 1; Black-and-white Warbler, 4; Tennessee Warbler, 12; Orange-crowned Warbler, 1; Common Yellowthroat, 10; Hooded Warbler, 4; American Redstart, 13; Cape May Warbler, 7; Northern Parula, 3; Magnolia Warbler, 11; Bay-breasted Warbler, 6; Blackburnian Warbler, 3; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 2; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 3; Palm Warbler, 16; Pine Warbler, 11; Yellow-rumped Warbler, 2; Yellow-throated Warbler, 2; Prairie Warbler, 1; and Black-throated Green Warbler, 8.
Eastern Towhee, 65; Chipping Sparrow, 24; Field Sparrow, 11; Song Sparrow, 83; Dark-eyed Junco, 95; Summer Tanager, 2; Scarlet Tanager, 15; Northern Cardinal, 138, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 43; and Indigo Bunting, 13.
Red-winged Blackbird, 61; Eastern Meadowlark, 10; Common Grackle, 156; House Finch, 51; Red Crossbill, 2; Pine Siskin, 10; American Goldfinch, 231; and House Sparrow, 38.

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The season’s first White-throated Sparrow showed up at my home on Oct. 30. I’m hopeful that the sparrow is but the first of many new arrivals ahead of the winter season. To share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment, send an email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Arduous migration journeys by some birds represent wondrous natural achievements

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                          This rose-breasted grosbeak struck a window Monday, Oct. 3, during fall migration. Although this bird rested and later recovered, many birds are felled by similar perils and obstacles as they migrate south each fall.

A stunned rose-breasted grosbeak recuperating on the front porch on Oct. 3 provided a reminder that migrating birds face a variety of perils and obstacles as they wing their way back south. Now that we’re into October, many of the birds of summer — orioles, tanagers, warblers and hummingbirds — are becoming scarce in our yards and gardens. These neotropical migrants are temporary visitors, remaining in North America only long enough to nest and raise young before they take to the wing to return to more tropical regions for the winter months that will grip their summer home in snow and ice for several months.

Some of these birds migrate out of the tropics to avoid competition. Others find North America a land of abundant, albeit temporary, resources. This land of plenty offers a wealth of insects, seeds, fruit and other nourishing, nutritious food to help parent birds keep their strength while they work to ensure their young thrive. The phenomenon of migration isn’t exclusive to the neotropical migrants of the New World. Birds in other parts of the world migrate, too.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                 The tiny ruby-throated hummingbird crosses the Gulf of Mexico twice yearly to migrate from Central America to North America in the spring and back again in the fall.

The Arctic tern, for example, truly takes migration to extremes. This small seabird travels each year from its Arctic nesting grounds to the Antarctic region, where it spends the winter months. Put into terms of mileage, the Arctic tern can travel about 50,000 miles in a single year. For a bird with a body length of about 15 inches and a wingspan of about 28 inches, this incredible migration is an astonishing feat.

The ruby-throated hummingbird, a favorite of many bird enthusiasts living in the eastern United States, makes an impressive migration each year. Just to reach the United States, these tiny birds undertake a strenuous journey. They leave their wintering grounds in Central America to return to the United States and Canada for the nesting season. 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! With the end of summer, the entire population of ruby-throated hummingbirds, increased by a new generation of young birds, makes the Gulf crossing for a second time in a year to return to the American tropics for the winter months.

The broad-winged hawk, a raptor found in the region during the summer, makes a fall migration back to South America every fall that astonishes human onlookers who gather along mountain peaks to witness the spectacle. The hawks form large flocks, also called kettles, that can number thousands of birds.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Steve Maslowski The bar-tailed godwit stages migrations that can take nine days of non-stop flight spanning nearly 6,000 miles.

Shorebirds, which in North America can consist of birds ranging from plovers and godwits to dowitchers and avocets, are champion migrants. The bar-tailed godwit makes an even more impressive non-stop migratory flight. This shorebird nests in parts of Scandinavia, northern Asia and Alaska. Some of these godwits make a nine-day non-stop migratory flight that takes them from New Zealand to the Yellow Sea of China, a distance of almost 6,000 miles. Needless to say, since the godwits make no stops along the way, they must also go without food for the duration of their journey.

Most of the warblers that nest in North America retreat to Central and South America during the winter months. Few warblers, however, make as great a journey as the blackpoll warbler. Instead of migrating over land, this five-inch-long warbler undertakes a two-stage migration. The first half of the migration is a non-stop flight of about 1,500 miles. Every fall, these tiny birds fly over the ocean during this part of their migration, departing from Canada or the northern United States and not stopping until they reach various locations in the Caribbean. There they will spend some time recovering from the exhausting first half of their journey before they continue their way to such South American countries as Colombia and Venezuela. Once again, during the time they spend flying over open ocean, these tiny warblers do not feed.

Even birds that cannot fly undertake migrations. For instance, flightless penguins swim hundreds or thousands of miles to reach preferred ranges for feeding or nesting. The Australian emu, a smaller relative of the ostrich, makes seasonal migrations on foot to ensure access to abundant food supplies at all seasons.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Kirk Rogers         The Arctic tern’s migration, which takes it from the Arctic to the Antarctic, keeps this small seabird in the sky for about 50,000 miles each year.

Birds are not even the only animals to migrate. Many creatures, from whales and wildebeest to dragonflies and butterflies, impress humans with their endurance as they stage regular migrations.

Even as some of our summer favorites depart, we should prepare to welcome back some winter favorites, including dark-eyed juncos, yellow-rumped warblers, white-throated sparrows and yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Fall is indeed a time of departure for many birds, but it’s also a time to make new friends with the other birds that should soon start arriving in our yards and gardens.

As for the rose-breasted grosbeak on the porch, that story had a happy ending. After taking some time to recover after apparently striking a window, the bird hopped around the porch for a moment and then took wing and flew to nearby hawthorn trees. The bird’s flight — strong and straight — delighted me. The grosbeak could have been badly injured or even killed. I wished it the best for the remainder of its journey.

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I’m dedicating this week’s column to the memory of J. Wallace Coffey, a great birder and wonderful individual who died Tuesday, Sept. 27. I met Wallace, a native of Bristol, Tennessee, back in the late 1990s. He introduced me to some wonderful birding destinations in the region, including such Virginia locations as Burke’s Garden, Steele Creek Park in Bristol, the wetlands of Saltville and Musick’s Campground on Holston Lake. Wallace was a tireless promoter of birds, birding and birders, and he loved to encourage young people to explore nature. He was also a great leader for the Bristol Bird Club, as well as the Elizabethton Bird Club. He will be greatly missed.
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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Summer’s bright American goldfinches will soon transform into their dull winter plumage

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                            An American goldfinch feeds on thistle seeds from a feeder designed to contain these tiny seeds.

I received a phone call recently from Allan Vance, who had a question about American goldfinches. Allan told me he moved back to Bristol about nine years ago after living for about 30 years in Savannah, Georgia. He now resides in the community of Middlebrook, where he feeds the various birds that flock to his yard.

Allan explained that the goldfinches had become conspicuous in their absence from his yard starting a few weeks ago. “I haven’t seen a single one in weeks,” he said.

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A thistle sock with seeds favored by American goldfinches.

Allan purchases thistle socks for the flock of goldfinches at his home. These “socks” are actually long, mesh bags holding the tiny seeds of the nyjer plant. Although these seeds are also known as thistle seeds, they are not related to the thistle plants that are sometimes classified as noxious weeds. Finches are able to cling to the sides of the mesh socks as they carefully remove the seeds. The tiny seeds are quite securely held within the mesh socks. Special feeders with small ports for dispensing of these tiny seeds are also available.

After he purchased his most recent thistle sock, Allan expected the birds to visit it as is their usual custom.     After several weeks, only one bird — not a goldfinch — had visited the sock. He wondered if there might be some explanation behind the goldfinches suddenly turning their backs on these favorite seeds.

I explained that there were two possible reasons, which are somewhat connected to each other, for the goldfinches suddenly shunning the sock. It’s early fall and there’s an abundance of natural food sources available to fold finches. Many roadside, fields and gardens are filled with plants that are already producing a banquet of fresh seeds for finches and other seed-loving birds. It’s possible that, faced with a smorgasbord of other foods, the goldfinches are no longer quite as reliant on the seeds in Allan’s thistle socks.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                    An American goldfinch showing its bright summer plumage.

The American goldfinch is also one of the last songbirds to nest each season. Some goldfinches don’t even start to think about nesting until late July and early August. Their nesting season is timed to coincide with a time of natural abundance. Goldfinches feed their young mostly on insects, as opposed to most songbirds that work so hard to gather insects to feed their young a protein-rich diet.

It’s a satisfying irony that, although brown-headed cowbird females sometimes slip their eggs into a goldfinch nest, any young hatched in those nests rarely survive. While goldfinch hatchlings are adapted to thrive on a diet of seeds, the fostered young cowbirds fail to thrive on a diet so lacking in insects.

In addition to feeding birds, his yard serves as a place for them to nest. He noted that wrens have successfully nested at his home over the years. He said a funny memory from years ago involved a white-tailed deer at a feeder. “I saw this doe raiding my feeder,” he said, adding that the deer used its tongue to lick seeds from the feeder.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A fall American goldfinch looks quite different than it does at the height of summer.

The male American goldfinch during the breeding season is unmistakable in his bright yellow and black plumage. Female goldfinches are more subdued in coloration. Males also sing a bubbly, cheerful song when seeking to win the attention of a potential mate. Outside of the nesting season, goldfinches are quite sociable and form large flocks. Dozens of these small songbirds can descend on feeders at almost any time of the year, but they are primarily attracted to our feeders during the lean times of the winter months.

For these and other reasons, goldfinches are favorites of many bird lovers. There are actually three species of goldfinches in North America. The two related species are Lawrence’s goldfinch of California and the lesser goldfinch, which ranges through the southwestern United States as well as Central and South America.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                            A male American Goldfinch perches on a barbed wire fence.

The American goldfinch is also known by other common names, including wild canary, yellowbird and willow goldfinch. I’ve also heard the goldfinch referred to as “lettuce bird.” This nickname, which was one my maternal grandmother applied to the bird, relates to the bird’s fondness for seeds. Apparently the goldfinches would flock to lettuce plants in the garden once they had gone to seed.

Come winter, this vibrant bird undergoes a transformation into a dull, drab bird with grayish feather. In fact, this annual molt usually begins in September. During the fall and winter, the American goldfinch looks almost like an entirely different bird.

It’s understandable why people love to entertain flocks of these finches in their yards and gardens. Three states — Washington, Iowa and New Jersey — have made the American goldfinch their official state bird.

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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.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                                                                  Winter goldfinches are not the birds of splendid appearance that they wear during the summer months.

Hooded warbler favorite member from an exceptional family of birds

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                   Hooded Warblers, like this male, prefer to remain in the shadows of shrubs and thickets.

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A plushie Hooded Warbler.

I watched a male hooded warbler flitting among the branches of a forsythia shrub during a soft rainfall on Sept. 18. As I watched the small bird dash after unseen insects among the thicket formed by the forsythia branches, I marveled at the bird’s exquisite appearance. The gold and green feathers seemed to glow brightly in the dim light as a drizzle of rain wet both bird and leaves. The black hood and bib surrounding the male’s yellow face stood out by virtue of its stark contrast from the brighter feathers.

The appearance of the male bird provides this species with its common name. The female has an identical yellow-green coloration as the male, although she is slightly more drab. She lacks the black hood and bib, although older females may acquire some dark plumage on the head and around the face. Both sexes also show white tail feathers that they constantly flick as the move about in thick vegetation and shrubbery.

I know that every migrant passing through my yard is making its way south and it may be another five to six months before I again see any of my favorite songbirds. The hooded warbler will make itself at home in the forests of Mexico, as well as Belize, Costa Rica and other Central American nations. Most hooded warblers begin returning to their winter haunts as early as mid-September, but lingering individuals continue to entertain birders in the United States throughout October.

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Photo by Jean Potter                                            A male Hooded Warbler perches in a rhododendron thicket.

Like many of the ruby-throated hummingbirds that make their home in the United States for the summer, the hooded warbler’s fall migration takes it across the vast open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, crossing to the Yucatan and then dispersing from there to various points in Central America. That birds as small as hummingbirds and warblers make this incredible migration twice yearly is one of nature’s most phenomenal feats of endurance.

The warblers, also known as wood-warblers, are an exclusively New World family of birds, numbering approximately 116 species. About 50 of these species of warblers make their home in the eastern United States and Canada for the spring and summer, departing in the fall and returning to tropical wintering grounds. Some of them are extremely bright and colorful birds. As I’ve indicated in recent columns, however, some members of the family show more subdued plumages of tan, beige and brown. The hooded warbler would have to be included among the more brightly colored warblers.

Other colorful warblers that share similar tastes in range and habitat with the hooded warbler include the American redstart, black-throated blue warbler and black-throated green warbler. None of the eastern warblers show any true red in their plumage, but red and pink warblers can be found south of the border. The pink-headed warbler, red warbler and red-faced warbler all make their home in Mexico and and Central America.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A male Hooded Warbler perches in a thicket during a fall migration stopover.

While some of the neotropical migrants that venture into North America boast even brighter kin in the tropics, we need not feel cheated with the warblers that make their home in the United States for half of the year. Some of their relatives are beautiful birds, including the white-faced whitestart, golden-bellied warbler, three-striped warbler and rose-breasted chat, but few can really hold a candle to their relatives that venture north and brighten the lives of the lucky humans fortunate enough to observe them during the summer nesting season or the seasonal migration journeys.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                   The male Hooded Warbler isn’t likely to be mistaken for any other warbler.

The hooded warbler has long been my favorite member of this family of interesting, energetic and engaging songbirds. Hooded warblers reside in the woodlands around my home, nesting and rearing young each year. I’ve never found a nest, but many years ago I watched a pair of hooded warblers fend off a song sparrow that ventured too close to one of their fledglings. Of course, the sparrow posed no realistic threat to the young warbler, but that didn’t make the conflict with the hooded warblers any less intense. The poor sparrow looked completely befuddled and uncertain about its offense. After the warblers drove the sparrow from the vicinity, I watched both parents deliver some food to the young bird.

Like most warblers, the hooded warbler feeds almost exclusively on small insects and arachnids. Some warblers will also feed on fruit, seeds and even nectar. The hooded warbler favors habitats featuring woodlands with an understory of smaller trees and shrubs, such as stands of willows or rhododendron thickets. Of course, a tangle of forsythia is enough to attract a visit from a migrating hooded warbler.

9781408134610The warblers have become such popular songbirds that they warrant field guides devoted exclusively to their ranks. My long-time favorite guide is Warblers of the Americas by Jon Curson, David Quinn and David Beadle published in 1994. More recently, other guides have been published, including A Field Guide to Warblers of North America, a book in the Peterson Field Guide series, and the Stokes Field Guide to Warblers. If you want a book to enlighten you about the magic of this family of birds, consider Chasing Warblers, a book by Bob and Vera Thornton about an adventure to find and photograph all 52 species of warblers that nest in the United States.

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John James Audubon painted this image of Hooded Warblers about two centuries ago.

The warblers are, in short, an incredible family of birds. I’ve seen all but a handful of the species that reside for part of the year in the eastern United States. I still want to see a Connecticut warbler and cerulean warbler, as well as the endangered Kirtland’s warbler of Michigan and the golden-cheeked warbler of Texas. I’ll miss the warblers once fall migration has run its course. For those few months they are here, the warblers belong to us. They seem like “our” birds. They’re only on loan, though. Our winter birds bring their own favorites back to our yards, but I’ll be impatiently awaiting that flash of gold in the shadows of a rhododendron thicket next April.

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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.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                                             A female Hooded Warbler poses for her picture after being banded at Carver’s Gap on Roan Mountain.

Grosbeaks in region include blue, rose-breasted representatives of family

 

Daryl Herron, a real-life friend as well as a Facebook one, posted a photo of a bird on my page recently, seeking help with identifying the bird. His sister, Monica Cody, took the photo at her Kingsport home. The stunning bird depicted in the photo, as I happily reported back to Daryl, was a blue grosbeak. The grosbeak is an impressive bird, with males showing off an overall blue plumage save for some brown and black feathers in the wings.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/ David Brezinski Rose-breasted Grosbeaks will likely be among the colorful birds present for this year's rally.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/ David Brezinski
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks will likely be among the colorful birds present for this year’s rally.

Blue grosbeaks are mostly southern birds with Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia representing the northern tier of this bird’s range in the southeastern part of the country. Look for these chunky, blue birds in brushy fields or along hedgerows in fairly open country. They favor the same habitats as such birds as yellow-breasted chat, brown thrasher and loggerhead shrike.

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Photo by Monica Cody                    This male blue grosbeak showed up near Monica Cody’s home in Kingsport, Tennessee. The blue grosbeak is an uncommon visitor in the region.

It’s a shame this bird isn’t more common in the region. Blue grosbeaks will visit feeders, but in more than 20 years of maintaining well-stocked feeders, I’ve managed to attract only one of these birds. If more common, it would surely be a favorite bird among the people offering free seed for their feathered friends.

The blue grosbeak is related to the better-known rose-breasted grosbeak. Male rose-breasted grosbeaks are absolutely stunning, especially for people getting their first-ever glimpse of this bird. It’s the adult male with his vibrant black and white feathers and the large rosy-red splash of color across the breast that gives this bird its common name. Females are brown, streaked birds that are larger than but easily confused with some of our sparrows.

Among grosbeaks, both sexes have a massive bill, which they use to hull sunflower seeds at feeders or glean insects from leaves and branches. It’s the heavy, blunt bill for which the term “grosbeak” is derived. “Gros” is a German term for large or big, so grosbeak simply means a large-beaked bird. People who band birds to further the study of them will tell you that rose-breasted grosbeaks have a wicked bite and are capable of delivering quite a nip. Bird banders in the region frequently encounter rose-breasted grosbeaks in their mist nets — and some bear the scars to prove it.

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Photo by Tammie Kroll                                      The male rose-breasted grosbeak is probably one of the least difficult songbirds to identify with his unmistakable plumage pattern.

The spring arrival of rose-breasted grosbeaks is usually a fleeting visit. Finding suitable arrangements, which can consist of well-stocked feeders and perhaps a convenient water source, the migrating birds may linger for several days. These birds nest at higher elevations, however, and are usually impatient to continue the journey to where they will spend the summer months tending to their young.

This spring, Tammie Kroll was one of the lucky people to receive visits from rose-breasted grosbeaks. Tammie emailed me to share a beautiful photo she took of the male grosbeak that visited her home in Washington County, Virginia, near Exit 13 off Interstate 81.

There’s good news for those who didn’t receive springtime visits from these pretty birds. The rose-breasted grosbeak is also a common fall migrant and can again be attracted to yards offering sources of food and water. While males usually don’t look quite as dramatic by August and September, they’re still sure to cause a stir when visiting a feeder.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                         A rose-breasted grosbeak sings from a tree on Roan Mountain, Tennessee.

 

Plenty of rose-breasted grosbeaks pass through northeast Tennessee, southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina, and a few even decide to make their summer homes in the mountains in these regions. However, these birds spread out widely across the eastern half of the North American continent, ranging from northeastern British Columbia to Quebec and Nova Scotia in Canada. They also range south from New Jersey to Georgia. The rose-breasted grosbeak also reaches Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas.

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John James Audubon painted this family of  blue grosbeaks.

For the most part, however, the rose-breasted grosbeak is replaced in the western United States by the closely related black-headed grosbeak. I saw several of these birds during a trip to Salt Lake City, Utah, back in 2006. Other grosbeaks in the United States include the evening grosbeak and pine grosbeak. In the American tropics other grosbeaks are found, including the descriptively named yellow-green grosbeak, crimson-collared grosbeak, ultramarine grosbeak and yellow-shouldered grosbeak.

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