Category Archives: North American herons

Keep a look out for wandering waders during late summer season

Summer heat and humidity make the summer season my least favorite one for birding, but every season brings birding surprises. I was reminded of this fact when Larry and Amelia Tipton sent me a recent email asking for help with the identification of some birds near their home.

Attaching a photo with their email, the Tiptons wrote, “These birds showed up a few days ago and we cannot identify them. We would like to know what they are.”

When I opened the photo, I realized that the birds captured in the image would not be considered out of place if the Tiptons lived near the coast of the Carolinas, Georgia or Florida. The birds in the photo, however, were somewhat unexpected in the foothills of western North Carolina near their home in the town of Old Fort.

WhiteIbises

Photo Courtesy of  Larry and Amelia Tipton • Immature white ibises in a field near the Catawba River in North Carolina.

“We live on a farm near the Catawba River but have mostly woodland and fields,” the couple added. “We do not have a pond on our property but have a branch and a larger creek nearby.”

I wrote back and told the Tiptons that the birds they photographed were young white ibises. I informed the Tiptons that the two young ibises are likely testing their wings, so to speak, after leaving the care of their parents. If they like the area, and it sounds like they do, they may decide that the branch and creek are just what they need.

I received a followup email. “We sort of knew these were water birds but were surprised to find them so far away from marsh or wetlands or the ocean,” the Tiptons wrote. “We thought maybe a storm blew them off course during flight.”

While a diverting storm can’t be ruled out, it’s normal behavior for young wading birds to disperse far and wide after leaving the nest. North American waders, or wading birds, include such long-legged species as herons, egrets, bitterns, ibises, storks and spoonbills. Most species are associated with wetlands or coastal areas.

Late summer birding is usually a period of doldrums as heat and humidity can discourage birders as well as diminish bird activity. However, it’s also the time of year when birders can make some unexpected surprises as wandering waders, such as the ibises discovered by the Tiptons, explore uncharted territory.

Other waders this season showing up in unexpected location have included a wood stork found by Linda Walker in Polk County, Tennessee. Likes the ibises in North Carolina, the stork was confining its activities to a small branch bordered by heavy vegetation. These branches are a far cry from the usual wetland haunts of these two species.

Overall, the white ibis and wood stork have some superficial similarities. They are both long-legged white birds with black wing tips and unusual down-turned bills that they use to probe for food, which largely consists of fish and other aquatic prey.

The latter is North America’s only native stork. According to the National Audubon Society, Florida once provided a stronghold for the wood stork in the United States. Unfortunately, the population crashed in the 1990s, decreasing from around 150,000 birds to fewer than 10,000. In recent years, numbers have increased and wood storks have expanded their breeding range into South Carolina. Wood storks are nearly four feet tall, making them one of the tallest of the waders. Wood storks have a dark, featherless heads, giving them a resemblance to vultures. For the most part, they’re rather grotesque birds when observed at close quarters. Soaring overhead on thermal updrafts, wood storks look quite graceful and even majestic thanks to their white plumage and black accents. A wingspan of 65 inches gives them the means to soar easily.

Storks-Two


Photo by Bryan Stevens 
Worldwide there are 19 species of storks, but the wood stork (pictured) is the only native stork   found in the United States.

The Audubon Society identifies the white ibis as one of the most numerous wading birds in Florida, but the bird is common also in other parts of the southeast with appropriate wetland habitat. Like the wood stork, the ibis has declined in Florida in recent decades largely as a result of human encroachment. The white ibis looks like a bird that could have been invented by Dr. Seuss. The all-white plumage is contrasted by pinkish-orange legs, a reddish-pink bill and bright blue eyes. In flight, the white ibis shows black feathers on the edges of its wings.

The affinity for water and wetlands relates to the diet of most waders, which consists of fish and other aquatic prey such as amphibians, crustaceans and even insects. For the remainder of July and into August and September, birders should monitor ponds, small lakes, rivers and even branches and creeks for any wandering waders. For instance, I once made a trip to a park in Greeneville, Tennessee, to observe a pink-hued roseate spoonbill that had made a rare stopover in the region. While that observation took place nearly 20 years ago, I remember vividly finding the pale pink bird playing odd man out among a flock of several dozen Canada geese as a soft rain drizzled from an overcast sky. Although many of the waders cling to coastal habitats, they have wings like other birds and know how to use them. Other waders have been known to show up in unlikely locations, including birds such as tri-colored heron, limpkin and snowy egret.

Of course, I hope to hear from any readers lucky enough to glimpse one of these unanticipated finds. Enjoy your birding.

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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.

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.

Elusive least bittern provides big addition to life list

I observed a new life bird during a recent trip to coastal South Carolina. Birders like to make additions to their life list, which is a compilation of all the species of birds observed over the years. I haven’t made any additions to my life list since 2013, so adding this new bird felt long overdue.

Least Bittern Painting by John James Audubon; Least Bittern Art Print for sale

These least bitterns were painted by early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon.

The new bird technically belongs to the group of long-legged waders — herons, egrets and a few other allied birds — often seen in South Carolina coastal areas. Most of these birds are often described as elegant, majestic or stately, but that’s not the case with this particular bird. My sighting also helped me cross a family of birds off my list. The least bittern I observed on June 11, 2016, in the marsh at Huntington Beach State Park near Pawleys Island, South Carolina, represented the final member of the heron family in the United States that I needed for my life list.

Least-Bittern-Photo

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                            Least bitterns, the smallest member of the heron family in North America, possess special adaptations for life in marshes and wetlands.

Some life birds on my list are rare birds that have unaccountably strayed into the region while others are birds I deliberately set out to find during visits to area where they are prevalent. I wasn’t actively looking to add any life birds to my list during my recent South Carolina visit, so the least bittern also represented a very pleasant surprise.

The least bittern has been found in wetlands in southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee, but I’ve never been in the right place at the right time to find this bird closer to home. I have seen a few American bitterns, which are a larger relative of this diminutive member of the heron clan. I didn’t have the same degree of difficult adding an American bittern to my list. Years ago, while birding with Reece Jamerson, an American bittern emerged from vegetation at the edge of a ditch in a flooded pasture and proceeded to put on quite the show. To my eternal regret, that sighting predated my habit of always carrying a camera with me while birding.

American_Bittern

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Gary Zahm     The American bittern, a larger relative of the least bittern, has a habit of freezing into place when spotted in the open, trusting that it will blend into the background. The trick doesn’t always work.

The least bittern is the smallest of North America’s herons and is one of the smallest of the world’s herons. Although it achieves a body length of 11 to 14 inches, this bird weighs only about three-and-a-half ounces. If you’re wondering how birds can achieve this lightness of being, remember that they’re comprised mostly of hollow bones and feathers. By way of comparison, the chipmunks so fond of raiding our bird feeders weigh a couple more ounces than the heaviest least bittern. The dwarf bittern of Africa and the black-backed bittern of Australia rival our native least bittern for the title of world’s smallest heron. In flight, the least bittern’s wings can unfurl as much as 18 inches.

One ironic twist is that I saw a least bittern a few days prior to what I am listing as the official date of observation for this life list addition. When I visited Huntington Beach State Park on June 5 upon first arriving I was walking the marsh causeway when a small heron flew into a dense area of vegetation. I got only an instant’s glimpse of a small heron that I was convinced was a least bittern. However, with such a short duration for the sighting, I chose not to count that sighting. When I observed the species again a few days later, however, that boosted my confidence in my call on that first sighting.

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Photo by Jean Potter                                            This Least Bittern was photographed in a wetland in Texas.

The wetlands at the park provide perfect habitat for nesting least bitterns. The least bittern is not a rare bird, but its lifestyle makes it an exceptionally difficult bird to observe. This bird acquired its reputation for elusiveness almost as soon as it was first encountered by European settlers. Early ornithologists agree that the least bittern is a master at concealment. Several of them write about the ability of these tiny herons to blend with the reeds and other vegetation in their wetland abodes. John James Audubon, the early naturalist and famous painter of North America’s birds, is credited with discovering that the least bittern possesses the ability to compress its body in order to facilitate its passage through a space no more than an inch wide.

Wild-NightHeron-Adult

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                    This Black-crowned night-heron was also found and photographed at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina, close to the location where the least bittern was observed.

These birds usually shun flight. Their preferred mode of getting through the dense vegetation of the marsh is to straddle reeds and cattails as they climb the vegetation. While some marsh birds, such as clapper rails, are fairly vocal, the least bittern’s elusive manner extends even to its vocalizations. The least bittern is rarely heard outside of the nesting season, although a startled bird may produce an excited cackling. The least bittern I observed was completely silent as it slowly merged back into the dense cattails of the marsh.

In appearance, the least bittern is a distinctive bird with a dark crown patch, a rusty-orange neck and sides, a white chin patch and an orange and white striped throat. Its eyes and bill are yellow. The legs are green in the front and yellow in the back. Males and females are similar in appearance with males looking slightly more vibrant.

American_Bittern-2 copy

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Sallie Gentry                 The American bittern, which is also a member of the heron family in North America, is larger and slightly more frequently observed than its smaller relative.

A female least bittern will lay between five and seven eggs, but a range of threats face her hatchlings. Crows and raptors, marsh mammals and alligators and other reptiles are potential predators. An unlikely peril is posed by the small marsh wren, which will puncture the eggs of least bitterns and other wetland birds nesting in its territory.

Incidentally, the previous bird added to my life list back was a black-legged kittiwake observed on Oct. 29, 2013, at Holston Dam in Sullivan County, Tennessee.

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Wild-NightHeron-Young

Photo by Bryan Stevens This young Black-crowned Night-heron does a good job blending with its surroundings.

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.