Category Archives: Tennessee Rare Birds

Green herons will depart from region in coming weeks as cooler conditions return

With the arrival of September, migration’s pace will quicken. In late August, I started seeing warblers passing through my yard. In other locations in the region, birders have shared reports of shorebirds and wading birds.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Green herons are short, stocky herons that can assume some comical poses.

Jonesborough resident Julia Ellis wrote about her own observation of a green heron that took place recently. She had seen a photo of a green heron with one of my recent columns, which helped her identify the bird.

She explained in her email that she saw the heron at along a creek on her Cherokee Road farm. “I was at a loss as to what it was,” Julia wrote. “It showed up several times a few weeks ago very close to dusk. The picture in the newspaper cleared up the mystery for me.”

Although not unusual at this time of year, green herons have been lurking along the linear trail’s waterways in Erwin. The scientific name — Butorides virescens – of this bird comes from a mix of Middle English and Ancient Greek and roughly translates as “greenish bittern.”

The green in the bird’s plumage appears as a dark green cap, as well as a greenish back and wings. Adult birds also have chestnut-colored neck feathers and a line of white feathers along the throat and belly. These herons often assume a hunched position, which can make them look smaller than they actually are.

Keep alert when walking along the trails in Erwin and you may catch sight of one of these interesting herons, too. Farm ponds in the countryside around Jonesborough, as well as wetland habitat around Persimmon Ridge Park, are also good places to look for this small heron. Most green herons will depart in late September and early October. This small heron retreats from the United States during the winter season but will return next spring in April and May.

A few herons — great blue heron and black-crowned night heron — remain in the region throughout the year, even enduring the cold winter months in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina.

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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.

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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.

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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.

County’s Summer Bird Count finds 104 species

Members and friends of the Lee & Lois Herndon Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society enjoyed a busy June, conducting its two annual summer bird counts last month. To the satisfaction of everyone involved, these counts encountered normal temperature after a spring count this past May that actually saw some snowfall when it was held on May 6.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Nesting Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers can be found at higher elevations in Unicoi County. This woodpecker is usually considered a winter bird in the region, but a few nest in the mountains.

According to long-time compiler Rick Knight, the chapter holds these summer counts in the counties of Carter and Unicoi to provide a set of baseline data on the diversity and numbers of breeding birds in these two local counties. This supplements other summertime data collection projects, such as the long-running Breeding Bird Survey (one route in Carter County) and the Nightjar Survey (three local routes).

The Carter County Summer Bird Count was initiated shortly after the conclusion of the Tennessee Breeding Bird Atlas project. The Unicoi County Summer Bird Count’s origins are more recent, with this survey making its debut in June of 2014. The fourth consecutive Unicoi County Summer Count was held June 17 with 21 observers in five parties looking for birds on Unaka Mountain, as well as such locations as Erwin, Limestone Cove and Flag Pond. Morning weather was favorable, but scattered rain in the afternoon hindered some efforts. A total of 104 species were tallied, down slightly from the three-year average of 111 species. Highlights included a Bald Eagle, Merlin and six Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, including a nest with young. A total of 20 species of warblers were tallied, including Swainson’s Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler and Prairie Warbler. Other notable birds include Hermit Thrush and Blue Grosbeak.

I took part on the count, looking for birds in the Limestone Cove area of the county with Brookie and Jean Potter, Charles Moore, and David and Connie Irick. Beyond bird, we saw other wildlife, including skunks, white-tailed deer, rabbits, groundhogs and various butterflies.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young Red-winged Blackbird begs food from its attentive mother.

A highlight of our count took place near the Appalachian Trail along Highway 107 at Iron Mountain Gap where we found a pair of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers delivering food to young inside a nesting cavity in a tree easily viewed from the roadside. In addition, a singing Chestnut-sided Warbler put on quite a show for a group of admiring birders enchanted with this bird’s dazzling plumage and energetic antics.

The total for the count follows:

Canada Goose, 73; Wood Duck, 22; Mallard; Wild Turkey, 19; Great Blue Heron, 13; and Green Heron, 3.
Black Vulture, 300; Turkey Vulture, 28; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 2; Cooper’s Hawk, 1; Bald Eagle, 1; Broad-winged Hawk, 7; Red-tailed Hawk, 4; American Kestrel, 2; and Merlin, 1.
Rock Pigeon, 67; Mourning Dove, 87; Great Horned Owl, 1; Barred Owl, 2; Chuck-will’s-Widow, 4; Whip-poor-will, 9; and Chimney Swift, 61.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 15; Belted Kingfisher, 4; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 13; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 6; Downy Woodpecker, 10; Hairy Woodpecker, 3; Northern Flicker, 7; and Pileated Woodpecker, 8.
Eastern Wood-Pewee, 7; Acadian Flycatcher, 24; Eastern Phoebe, 30; Great Crested Flycatcher, 3; and Eastern Kingbird, 14.
White-eyed Vireo, 4; Yellow-throated Vireo, 1; Blue-headed Vireo, 26; Red-eyed Vireo, 95; Blue Jay, 53; American Crow, 88; Fish Crow, 7; and Common Raven, 7.
Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 36; Purple Martin, 14; Tree Swallow, 70; Barn Swallow, 77; and Cliff Swallow, 149.
Carolina Chickadee, 51; Tufted Titmouse, 43; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 1; White-breasted Nuthatch, 18; Brown Creeper, 3; House Wren, 14; Carolina Wren, 42.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Most swallows, like this Barn Swallow, have fledged and will join their parents in migrating south in the coming weeks of late summer.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 5; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 7; Eastern Bluebird, 33; Veery, 25; Hermit Thrush, 4; Wood Thrush, 37; American Robin, 281; Gray Catbird, 31; Brown Thrasher, 12; Northern Mockingbird, 24; European Starling, 534; and Cedar Waxwing, 49.
Ovenbird, 29; Worm-eating Warbler, 2; Louisiana Waterthrush, 4; Black-and-white Warbler, 12; Swainson’s Warbler, 6; Common Yellowthroat, 2; Hooded Warbler, 37; American Redstart, 4; Northern Parula, 19; Magnolia Warbler, 3; Blackburnian Warbler, 2; Yellow Warbler, 1; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 15; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 29; Pine Warbler, 1; Yellow-throated Warbler, 3; Prairie Warbler, 3; Black-throated Green Warbler, 16; Canada Warbler, 9; and Yellow-breasted Chat, 2.
Eastern Towhee, 55; Chipping Sparrow, 49; Field Sparrow, 8; Song Sparrow, 120; Dark-eyed Junco, 37; Scarlet Tanager, 27; Northern Cardinal, 83; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 4; Blue Grosbeak, 2; and Indigo Bunting, 82.
Red-winged Blackbird, 84; Common Grackle, 58; Eastern Meadowlark, 9; Brown-headed Cowbird, 29; and Orchard Oriole, 1.
House Finch, 33; American Goldfinch, 96; and House Sparrow, 17.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Young birds, like this Northern Cardinal, point to a successful nesting season for most of the region’s birds.

Next week, I’ll post results from the Elizabethton Summer Bird Count.

 

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To ask a question, make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or friend Stevens on Facebook.

Osprey’s fishy diet sets it apart from most other raptors

Jim and Tammie Kroll emailed me about a very interesting bird observation on the Virginia Creeper Trail last month.

They saw a bald eagle along the Virginia Creeper Trail on May 14. “It was between Alvarado and Damascus,” Jim wrote in the email. We got to see it at two different locations and watched it around 15 minutes at each location.”

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Photo by Jim and Tammie Kroll • This adult bald eagle was seen along the Virginia Creeper Trail.

He added that they talked to a woman who informed them that she also sees an eagle in the same area on the Creeper Trail.

The Krolls also shared a photo of the eagle. I’m always glad that to hear that observing the nation’s official bird is no longer a rare occurrence in the region. While I haven’t seen any bald eagles this year, I have observed a raptor that share many characteristics with them.

Ospreys, also known by the common name of “fish hawk,” occur worldwide. Ospreys migrate through the region in spring and fall, making sightings more likely along some lakes and larger rivers. I see them even more often when I travel to South Carolina, where these medium-sized raptors are common along the coast and in wetlands.

Some recently published books provide insight into the lives of bald eagles and ospreys. Teena Ruark Gorrow and Craig A. Koppie are the authors of the recent book, The DC Eagle Cam Project: Mr President and First Lady. This book profiles a celebrity pair of eagles that have nested for the past few years in U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.

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Front cover of a book by Teena Ruark Gorrow and Craig A. Koppie featuring photos of a nesting season in the life of a family of ospreys.

Gorrow and Koppie have also written other books together, including one offering a pictorial journey through an osprey nesting season. Titled “Inside an Osprey’s Nest,” this book provides an account of two fostered osprey chicks that receive new parents in a heartwarming, real-life account of a family of ospreys associated with the Chesapeake Conservancy Osprey Nest Cam.

During a recent interview, Gorrow shared that bald eagles and ospreys share more than a few things in common.

“The bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, is America’s national bird and symbol,” Gorrow said. “It is a large raptor, or bird of prey, found only in North America. Also a raptor, the osprey, Pandion Haliaetus, is a large hawk found on every continent across the globe except Antarctica.”

Like the American bald eagle, Gorrow noted that ospreys experienced devastating health effects and reproductive failures from widespread human use of dangerous pesticides like DDT.

“By the 1970s, population numbers had plummeted to catastrophic levels for both eagles and ospreys,” she said. “Federal actions were put into place which imposed migratory bird protection and banned DDT. These measures, along with the work of dedicated scientists, conservationists and citizens, have helped these magnificent raptors recover.”

Gorrow said that when selecting a nest site, bald eagles and ospreys identify an area near water with a plentiful food supply and nearby trees. “With diets consisting mostly of fish, both require foraging areas rich in fishery resources,” she said.
During nesting season, ospreys and eagles are seen as competitors, even though food is abundant in the Chesapeake Bay region. “Bald eagles are opportunists and will usually pirate fish prey from osprey when given the chance,” Gorrow said.

Nesting season for eagles begins earlier than ospreys, so they have the upper hand in defending territories. “Eagle pairs in the Chesapeake Bay area usually lay eggs in mid-February, while the ospreys return from their southern wintering destinations around mid-March,” Gorrow said. “Ospreys generally build nests in March or April and lay eggs soon after.”

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Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this work of art featuring an osprey with a fish held in its talons.

The two large raptors also demonstrate other distinct preferences.

“Bald eagles utilize living and dead (known as snags) trees as nest sites,” she said. “Eagles rarely tolerate humans near their nests.

“On the other hand, ospreys are relatively tolerant of humans and sometimes build nests on private pavilions or docks beside waterfront properties,” Gorrow continued. “They seem to favor artificial structures and often construct over-water nests on the steel supports of bridges, channel markers, navigational buoys, fishing piers, jetties, and manmade nesting platforms. Ospreys sometimes choose snags with an open treetop or claim tall, artificial structures resembling dead trees, such as towers, utility poles, television antennas, road signs and stadium lights. They also sometimes nest on chimneys and rooftops on uninhabited buildings.”

A more in-depth glance into the lives of ospreys is available in the book “Inside an Osprey’s Nest,” which retails for $24.99. When purchased through the Chesapeake Conservancy at http://www.chesapeakeconservancy.org, $10 from every purchase supports conservation programs along the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The book is also available at http://www.schifferbooks.com, Amazon.com and other booksellers.

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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.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • An osprey perches in a tree along the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

The thrill of the chase keeps some fervent birders seeking out ‘rare’ birds

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Photo by Jean Potter • This Northern wheatear caused great excitement in the Tennessee birding community with an extended stay at a farm in the Volunteer State in November.

A little bird caused a huge stir among birders in the Volunteer State back in November.

A Northern wheatear — a six-inch-long bird that breeds in open, stony terrain across the Northern hemisphere from Asia and Europe as well as northwestern and northeastern Canada, Alaska and Greenland — made a most unlikely migratory stop at a farm in Loudon County, Tennessee, supposedly en route to its wintering grounds in Africa. The visiting songbird turned out to be the first of its kind ever documented in Tennessee.
Credit for the discovery of the bird goes to Tony King, a birder who hails from Lenoir City, Tennessee. He found the bird at Windy Hill Farm, a privately owned agricultural enterprise in Loudon County. After seeking confirmation from other experienced birders, King put out the word about his rare bird.
Almost immediately, birders flocked to the Loudon County farm — with the gracious permission from the farm’s owners — for a chance to see a bird not often glimpsed in the Lower 48 states.
Birders who saw the wheatear observed the bird actively feeding on the ground and perching on fence posts. Several members from the Elizabethton and Bristol bird clubs made the journey to Loudon County to add the wheatear to their state list for Tennessee and, for many individuals, on life lists of birds seen nationwide.

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Photo by Jean Potter • The Northern wheatear at the Loudon County farm spent much time perched on fence posts.

The wheatear is a truly long-distance migrant, but it’s difficult to speculate why this individual bird’s journey took it far enough off course to land in Tennessee. My schedule didn’t permit me to immediately try to add this bird to my own life list. I made plans to make the trip on Nov. 23 as part of my Thanksgiving break. Unfortunately, the bird departed on Nov. 20, hopefully to continue its long journey to Africa for the winter months.
The wheatear got me to thinking about the way determined birders “chase” rare birds to add to their life lists. Some people are quite dedicated — or fanatical — to pursuing reports of rare birds to the point they will drop everything to chase down coveted birds.
Adding to the thrill of the chase for birders in Tennessee was the fact that a couple of days after the wheatear departed, a Bohemian waxwing became another “first” for its kind in the state. Unfortunately, that bird apparently didn’t stick around. It’s fun to speculate their reasons, but finding the motivation among our feathered friends can be an exercise in futility. I have my own motto about these rare visitors. Birds have wings, and they know how to use them. It’s that ability to pick up and fly to distant places that is part of their appeal.
I understand the appeal of chasing after a rare or hard-to-get bird. I’ve chased my share of birds. I achieved a long-held desire to see a snowy owl when I made the trip to Spring Hill, Tennessee, back in February of 2009. That’s probably the farthest I’ve traveled to observe a specific bird.
In November of 2003 I made a shorter but ultimately unsuccessful trip to Knoxville, Tennessee, for an attempt at getting binoculars on a sage thrasher that had been reported. Although I spent several hours with dozens of other birders looking for the bird, it never put in an appearance.

 

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The rufous hummingbird is one of several hummingbirds native to the western United States that has ventured into Tennessee on occasion.

My most memorable “rare bird” — and one that I chased across state lines — was a green-breasted mango, a tropical species of hummingbird. I saw that bird while it was visiting a feeder at a home in Concord, North Carolina, in November of 2000. The species is known to stray into southern Texas, but appearances outside of the Lone Star State have been rare. This hummingbird is normally found in Mexico and Central America, but in addition to the Concord bird the species was documented in Beloit, Wisconsin, back in September of 2007. The Wisconsin bird was captured and taken to a zoo because of fears it would not survive the onslaught of the frigid Wisconsin winter season.
Another personal miss — and I should kick myself for not making an attempt at seeing this bird — was a hooded crane that visited Hiwassee Refuge in December of 2011 and January of 2012. The hooded crane, a rare species from Asia, was associating with the thousands of sandhill cranes that regularly gather at the wildlife refuge near Brentwood, Tennessee.
I’m quite proud of the four hummingbird species on my Tennessee list. I traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, in December of 1997 to see a calliope hummingbird. Closer to home I’ve seen Allen’s hummingbirds and rufous hummingbirds, and, of course, ruby-throated hummingbirds.
One pertinent bit of information about the Northern wheatear is in order. The wheatear is not a rare bird. In fact, the bird is quite common with an estimated population of almost three million birds. The same is true of many of the “rare bird” sightings that excite birders. Some of these exceptional visitors are often not considered rare. The rarity comes from the bird showing up in a totally unexpected location, such as a Northern wheatear spending a week at a Tennessee farm.
That’s why an American white pelican at Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee, a harlequin duck on the Holston River in Kingsport, Tennessee, and a Northern redpoll in Shady Valley, Tennessee, can quickly generate excitement in the birding community.

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Photo by Jean Potter • This harlequin duck was a remarkable find a few years ago on the Holston River in Kingsport, Tennessee.

Most experienced birders offer one bit of advice — don’t delay. They’re words to take to heart for those seeking to chase after rare birds. In other words, if you snooze, you lose. My friend, the late Howard Langridge, was of that persuasion. In January of 2000, Howard tried to persuade me to ride with him from Elizabethton to Shady Valley in the midst of a raging snowstorm for the opportunity to see a long-eared owl. I declined. Howard made the trip, regardless of the snow and ice. As a reward, he saw the owl at the home of John and Lorrie Shumate.
After the storm passed, Howard accompanied me and Allan Trently to Shady Valley on a night when the mercury in the thermometer hovered at around zero. Almost needless to say, we didn’t even glimpse a feather of the long-eared owl. The owl’s stay at the Shumate home proved quite brief.
Of course, that’s all part of the thrill of the chase. You see some, but some you don’t see. It makes the birds that you do see even more memorable.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Kayla Carter with the Elizabethton Chamber of Commerce displays one of the calendars being sold by members of the Elizabethton Bird Club.

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The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, based in Elizabethton, is once again offering for sale its annual calendar.

All proceeds from sales of the 2017 calendar benefit the chapter’s work to promote birds and birding. This year’s calendar features nearly 100 full-color photographs. Calendars are $15. They are currently available at the Elizabethton Chamber of Commerce. In addition, for another $2 for shipping and handling, a calendar can be mailed.  To reserve a copy, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or message me on Facebook.