Category Archives: Field guides to birds

Regional bird count detects population trends

Driveway-Heron

Photo by Pattie Rowland • A Great Blue Heron explores a paved driveway at a home in Erwin, Tennessee. Rookeries, or nesting colonies, in Erwin have expanded the population of this large wading bird locally.

Members of the Elizabethton Bird Club and birding organizations in Kingsport and Bristol fanned out across Northeast Tennessee on Saturday, May 5, for the 75th consecutive Elizabethton Spring Bird Count. A total of 60 observers (a new participation record) looked for birds in Tennessee’s Carter County and parts of the adjacent counties of Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington.

Counts like this one, as well as surveys such as the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas, now in its third season, provide valuable information to assist responsible agencies and organizations with the protection and preservation of the nation’s birds.

This year’s spring count tallied 152 species, slightly better than the overall average of 149 species established over the last 30 years. The most ever species tabulated for this count was 166 species back in 2016.

Downy_Peanuts

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Many of the birds found during a survey liked the Spring Bird Count are observed at feeders, such as was the case with this downy woodpecker.

I counted birds along the Watauga River in Elizabethton and on Holston Mountain. Some of the better birds I saw during the daylong outing included Baltimore oriole, Blackburnian warbler, warbling vireo, and yellow-billed cuckoo.

I also saw numerous great blue herons. It’s notable that this large wading bird has become much more common in the region, thanks to recent rookeries, or nesting sites, in Erwin, Elizabethton, Bristol and other locations. In recent years, new rookeries have also been established in southwest Virginia in locations such as Saltville and Damascus. A total of 123 great blue herons were found on this year’s spring count.

So it was with much interest that I read on my Facebook page the story of an encounter Pattie Rowland, a resident of Erwin, Tennessee, had with a rather tame great blue heron. Instead of flying away when Pattie stepped outside, a visiting heron strolled around her yard and down her neighbor’s driveway.

Pattie wondered if the heron could be a fledgling from the rookery in Erwin. While that’s certainly a possibility, the bird could also be an adult nesting in the rookery and wandering a little farther afield than usual in search of food for its young. In addition to fish, great blue herons will also feed on earthworms, amphibians, reptiles and even small rodents. As I mentioned to Pattie, herons are like people. Each bird is an individual; some are shy, others are curious and adventurous, which may find a heron exploring a paved driveway instead of a water lily-choked pond.

Heron-OnNest

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Great blue herons have expanded their nesting range into the region.

This heron has only been known to nest in Unicoi County since 2007. In addition, count participants found 144 double-crested cormorants, another bird affiliated with water that has proliferated as a summer nesting bird in the region.

Despite the increasing numbers of great blue herons and double-crested cormorants, they were far from the most numerous bird found on the spring count. The European starling claimed the distinction of most abundant bird on this year’s count with a total of 921 individuals found. Other abundant birds included cliff swallow (864); American robin (844); Canada goose (648); red-winged blackbird (546); and American crow (377). Although the count produced many good birds, it was also notable for some misses, including Northern bobwhite, sharp-shinned hawk and Kentucky warbler.

RW-Blackbird-Erwin

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male red-winged blackbird sings to attract mates and ward off rivals.

In the wild, great blue herons can live for 15 years. The great blue heron’s diet is often dictated by opportunity with these large birds known to feed on prey that ranges from fish and crustaceans to small alligators and baby turtles. These herons will also feed on insects, rodents, amphibians, reptiles and even nestling birds. A great blue heron will basically try to eat anything that it can capture and swallow.

The great blue heron is the largest North American heron, as well as the world’s third-largest heron species. Other herons around the world with descriptive common names include Goliath heron, black-headed heron, purple heron, zigzag heron, capped heron and whistling heron.

The great blue heron isn’t the only heron found in the region. Other herons that can be found locally include green heron, yellow-crowned night-heron and black-crowned night-heron, all of which were found on the recent bird count.

If you’re interested in observing great blue herons for yourself, consider visits to the wetlands at Sugar Hollow Park in Bristol, Virginia, or the waterways around Osceola Island Recreation Area near Holston Dam in Bristol, Tennessee. These herons can also often be found stalking fish, frogs and other prey around the edges of ponds or streams.

The official results of the Spring Bird Count by the Elizabethton Bird Club are presented below:

Canada goose, 648; wood duck, 70; mallard, 176; Northern shoveler, 1; greater scaup, 1; bufflehead, 1; and red-breasted merganser; 4.

IMG_7687

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A family of Canada geese swims in the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

Ruffed grouse, 4; wild turkey, 45; common loon, 5; double-crested cormorant,144; great blue heron, 123; great egret, 2; green heron, 29; black-crowned night-heron, 2; and yellow-crowned night-heron, 8.

 

Black vulture, 121; turkey vulture,167; osprey,12; bald eagle, 8; cooper’s hawk, 8; red-shouldered hawk, 2; broad-winged hawk, 8; and red-tailed hawk, 27.

 

Killdeer, 41; spotted sandpiper, 37; solitary sandpiper, 35; greater yellowlegs, 2; lesser yellowlegs, 8; least sandpiper, 10; white-rumped sandpiper, 1; and ring-billed gull, 2.

gbbc-killdeer

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Killdeer, a species of shorebird in the plover family, is a permanent resident in the region.

 

Rock pigeon, 217; Eurasian collared-dove,10; mourning dove, 251; yellow-billed cuckoo, 17; black-billed cuckoo, 3; Eastern screech-owl, 8; great horned owl, 2; barred owl, 8; common nighthawk, 5; chuck-will’s-widow, 7; Eastern whip-poor-will, 43; chimney swift, 185; ruby-throated hummingbird, 51; and belted kingfisher, 15.

Red-headed woodpecker,10; red-bellied woodpecker, 129; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 5; downy woodpecker, 55; hairy woodpecker, 6; Northern flicker, 44; and pileated woodpecker, 59.

American kestrel, 19; Eastern wood-pewee, 43; Acadian flycatcher, 32; least flycatcher, 2; Eastern phoebe, 82; great crested flycatcher, 31; Eastern kingbird, 123; and loggerhead shrike, 1.

 

White-eyed vireo, 21; yellow-throated vireo,10; blue-headed vireo, 86; warbling vireo, 17; red-eyed vireo, 280; blue jay, 231; American crow, 377; fish crow, 2; and common raven, 22.

Purple martin, 82; tree swallow 206; Northern rough-winged swallow, 131; barn swallow, 226; and cliff swallow, 864.

Carolina chickadee, 197; tufted titmouse, 213; red-breasted nuthatch, 11; white-breasted nuthatch, 44; brown creeper, 3; house wren, 53; winter wren, 7; Carolina wren, 225; blue-gray gnatcatcher, 110; golden-crowned kinglet, 5; and ruby-crowned kinglet, 2.

Eastern bluebird,181; veery, 15; gray-cheeked thrush, 1; Swainson’s thrush, 3; wood thrush, 109; American robin, 844; gray catbird, 77; brown thrasher, 72; Northern mockingbird, 138; European starling, 921; and cedar waxwing, 144.

Bluebird-Pool

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A handsome male Eastern bluebird perches on a chain-link fence.

Ovenbird, 170; worm-eating warbler, 42; Louisiana waterthrush, 37; Northern waterthrush, 3; golden-winged warbler, 2; black-and-white warbler, 118; Swainson’s warbler, 3; Tennessee warbler, 1; common yellowthroat, 23; hooded warbler, 192; American redstart,12; Cape May warbler, 4; Northern parula, 44; magnolia warbler 7; Blackburnian warbler, 11; yellow warbler, 34; chestnut-sided warbler, 18; blackpoll warbler, 5; black-throated blue warbler, 71; palm warbler, 5; pine warbler, 13; yellow-rumped warbler, 53; yellow-throated warbler, 43; prairie warbler, 14; black-throated green warbler, 97; and Canada warbler, 34.

Eastern towhee, 250; chipping sparrow,137; field sparrow, 74; savannah sparrow, 2; grasshopper sparrow, 4; song sparrow,322; swamp sparrow, 1; white-throated sparrow, 10; white-crowned sparrow, 7; and dark-eyed junco, 74.

Summer tanager, 3; scarlet tanager, 97; Northern cardinal, 376; rose-breasted grosbeak, 37; blue grosbeak, 6; indigo bunting, 148; dickcissel, 2; and yellow-breasted chat, 10.

Bobolink,16; red-winged blackbird, 546; Eastern meadowlark, 144; common grackle, 474; brown-headed cowbird, 144; orchard oriole, 28; Baltimore oriole, 35; house finch, 96; pine siskin, 79; American goldfinch, 382; and house sparrow, 47.

HousieFinch

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male house finch perched on a cable. These finches are native to the western United States but became established in the eastern states thanks to the illicit pet trade.

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Field guides crucial components to improving your bird knowledge

Earlier this spring, I received an email from Jill Henderson, who resides in Saltville, Virginia, asking for some advice on obtaining a good field guide to help enhance her knowledge of the region’s birds.

“I appreciate your expertise and thank you for helping me learn about the many different types of birds that we have here in southwest Virginia,” Jill wrote in her email. “Can you recommend a good field guide/reference book for a novice bird watcher?”

Photo-FieldGuides

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                  A variety of birding field guides are available to help beginners hone their identification skills. Peruse and choose the guide that works best for you.

I provided Jill with some information about field guides especially valuable for beginning birdwatchers.

In my own experience, I look for three things in a field guide: detailed illustrations, convenient size and complete listings of birds likely to be encountered. I prefer field guides with paintings/illustrations of birds rather than book featuring photographs. It’s a personal preference, of course, but I believe a good painting beats a photograph for capturing and conveying the important details to look for when trying to identify a bird.

With those criteria in mind, some of my favorite guides are David Sibley’s The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America; The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America by Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer; and A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America by the late Roger Tory Peterson. The latter is a classic among bird texts and helped kick off birdwatching for the average individual. The Sibley and National Geographic field guides are more modern takes on a field reference guide to assist in bird identification.9780307370020-us 2

All these books have counterparts featuring Western species of birds. Sibley also has a large guide (too large to easily take into the field) that has both Eastern and Western species in it.

I also suggested to Jill that before she makes a purchase, she should thumb through the pages of some of the guides available at a local book store or, even better, borrow a copy from a library. It’s always good to get some hands-on time with these books in order to decide which guide fits your own personal preferences. For instance, some people may prefer a guide with photographs. I’ve always liked painted illustrations better than photos. However, I own some field guides that rely on photos. I often use these guides as secondary references to consult for confirmation of a particularly puzzling identification. Among the best photo field guides available are the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America by Kenn Kaufman and the Stokes Field Guide to Birds Eastern Region by Donald and Lillian Stokes.517doMN-H7L._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_

Overall, field guides are a valuable investment and crucial for individuals looking to expand their knowledge of birds. Best of all, most field guides are not expensive. Most guides cost around $20. It’s sometimes possible to pick up a good guide at a store specializing in used books for an even more modest price.

One thing to keep in mind is that we’re living in a technology-driven age. Some tech-savvy birders have begun to rely on electronic guides on mobile devices for use in the field while birding. I’m a little more old-fashioned and still prefer a portable book while looking for birds.1071890

Not all guides are dedicated to using visual cues to identify birds. Once beginners have mastered some of the visual means of identifying birds, they will perhaps want to advance to some of the excellent “birding by ear” guides to help develop the ability to match bird songs with the birds that produce these audio clues to their identities. There are literally dozens of marvelous field guides.

Although birding helped kick off the demand for nature field guides, the industry has branched out in the past couple of decades. It’s easy to obtain extensive and informative field guides on a variety of subjects, ranging from butterflies and moths to dragonflies, wildflowers, trees, reptiles, fish, mammals and much more.81a1885b-80a6-4e50-a941-f0079f122a97_1000

Jill sent me her email with the query about field guides about the time the first ruby-throated hummingbirds were returning to the region, and she shared a story about her efforts to attract hummingbirds that was sidetracked by an unwelcome visitor.

“Also, as an avid hummingbird watcher, I was so excited to prepare and hang two feeders,” she wrote. “However, the only thing attracted to them at this point has been a local bear who proceeded one night to tear down and destroy both feeders!”

Jill said that the offending bear left paw prints on her porch and sticky, red remnants of hummingbird food on the side of her house underneath the garage sconce light (also destroyed by the bruin), which he mistook for a third feeder.

“Oh well, I will try again with the feeders here soon,” she added. The incident did prompt her to change her strategy. This time, she wrote, she planned to locate the feeders a little farther from her house.

I sympathized with her about the bear’s attack on her feeders, and shared an account of an incident that befell one of my feeders. A bear mangled one of my peanut feeders this past winter, bending the mesh tube into a pretzel shape.

I added a postscript to my email reply to Jill, prompted by learning where she lives.

“I love the wetlands in Saltville,” I wrote to her. “Great habitats for birds!”

Through the years, I have observed some interesting birds in the Saltville wetlands, including surf scoter, Caspian tern, great egret and spotted sandpiper. During those visits, I always had a trusted field guide with me for consultation.e34fe1ca-5b5d-4c45-956c-41ff096610d0_1.58baeab0e8cc1f26ab894e3cbcf9f22d

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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.