Category Archives: Tennessee

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.

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.

Making the acquaintance of a special ruffed grouse with lots of personality

Although I’ve seen many birds over the years, it’s not often that I’m introduced on a first-name basis with one. So, I’m happy to report that I’ve now made the acquaintance of Rufous, a resident of the woodlands around Flag Pond, a small community in Unicoi County, Tennessee.

 

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                               Rufous the ruffed grouse has been visiting the farm of Leon and Janice Rhodes for the past couple of years, apparently showing little fear of his human neighbors.

Rufous is a ruffed grouse that has been a fascinating and funny neighbor to Leon and Janice Rhodes for the past couple of years. I met Rufous on Saturday, June 25, at the Rhodes family farm. Brayden Paulk, a grandson of the couple, invited me to visit and attempt to meet Rufous.

 

This particular grouse is apparently a creature of habit, and Brayden suggested that a morning visit might be more conducive to my chances of getting to know Rufous.
I arrived around 9 a.m. and met Brayden and his grandfather. We went to a nearby barn, which apparently serves as a familiar meeting spot for Rufous and those people lucky enough to have gotten to know him over the past couple of years.
Rufous is only one member of a family of ruffed grouse in residence on the Rhodes property. In an email to me, Brayden told me that the mountain farm is a good place to see ruffed grouse. The 17-year-old doesn’t live in Tennessee, but he is a frequent visitor, spending time with his grandparents as often as possible. He and his family live in Oxford, Alabama. He also told me that his grandparents send him every one of my bird columns in the mail.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                Inside his grandfather’s barn, Brayden Paulk spends a moment with Rufous, a ruffed grouse with an abundance of charisma.

“I do happen to live in a great place for birds,” he informed me in an email. His home is located close to the Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge, which Brayden said is known for breeding blue-headed vireos, red-headed woodpeckers, and Swainson’s warblers.
“It has a lot of longleaf [pine] habitat, so I hope soon that red-cockaded woodpeckers might be reintroduced there, and establish a colony,” he added. The red-cockaded woodpecker is classified as an endangered species across much of the southeastern United States.
Brayden is a volunteer working in the Talladega National Forest in the foothills of the Appalachians on a study focused on the effects of controlled burns on cavity-nesting birds, such as red-cockaded woodpeckers.
He is an enthusiastic and, as I learned after meeting him, quite an accomplished birder. Warblers are his favorite family of birds, followed by ducks and sparrows.
“I enjoy where I live because I get to enjoy species such as the black-throated green warbler, blue-headed vireo and even red crossbill in the summer,” he said.
We have also exchanged emails in a discussion about why some of these birds, which are usually found in the boreal forests much farther north, stay much farther south along the spine of the Southern Appalachians.
His future plans are to major in Conservation Biology. “I hope to get a masters in ornithology from Cornell,” Brayden shared.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                               Leon Rhodes uses his cap to challenge Rufous to a friendly duel.

Of course, during our recent meeting, his focus was on arranging a meeting with Rufous, a bird with “a lot of personality.” Both Brayden and his grandfather cautioned that Rufous doesn’t follow a schedule. In other words, the meeting would take place only if Rufous was so inclined.

Although he has a very tame nature, Rufous is most definitely a wild bird.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait too long. Brayden was the first to detect the soft clucks as Rufous made his way cautiously toward the old barn. He emerged from the surrounding woodlands and walked into the barn where I was seated and waiting with Brayden and his grandfather.
Rufous immediately noticed my presence, identifying me as a stranger in the midst of some more familiar friends. He kept a wary eye turned on me during his visit. After a few moments of watching Rufous strut around the barn like he owned it — and perhaps he does in his own mind — I removed my camera from my pocket. I made sure that my actions didn’t alarm Rufous. When he didn’t object, I proceeded to take photos and videos of this very personable ruffed grouse.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                              Rufous would have started out life much like this ruffed grouse chick, which was photographed on Holston Mountain in Carter County, Tennessee.

One of his favorite activities during these visits is to duel with a red baseball cap worn by Leon Rhodes. Whenever Brayden’s grandfather removed the cap and waved it in front of Rufous, the grouse became very focused. He channeled his attention almost exclusively on the cap until, with a startlingly swift attack. The entire sequence reminded me of a bull attacking a matador’s red cape.
For probably a half hour, Rufous put on quite a show, and I think Brayden and his grandfather were thrilled that the grouse proved so cooperative during my visit.

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Early American naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted these ruffed grouse as a familym unit.

After my visit with Rufous, I took Brayden for a brief birding trip to Rock Creek Recreation Area near Erwin, Tennessee. I was hopeful we might get to see a black-throated blue warbler, which has been an elusive warbler for Brayden. We did get some good birds at Rock Creek, including hooded warbler, Northern parula, blue-headed vireo, red-eyed vireo, black-throated green warbler and blue-gray gnatcatcher.
We didn’t, however, find a black-throated blue warbler. We didn’t give up, though, and proceeded to the Cherokee National Forest on Unaka Mountain. We made one very productive stop, finding a singing veery, a scarlet tanager and a dark-eyed junco. We also found more warblers, including black-and-white warbler, worm-eating warbler and black-throated green warbler. I’m happy to report we also found a male black-throated blue warbler. So, the productive morning resulted in my meeting with a grouse with a lot of personality and Brayden getting a new species for his life list of birds.
I don’t have any theory to explain Rufous and his acceptance of his human neighbors. I do believe birds, like humans, are individuals. Some of them have quirks that set them apart from others. Although he acts tame, Rufous is still a wild bird. Most ruffed grouse are extremely wary birds that go out of their way to avoid humans. Meeting a grouse that took humans in stride was a fascinating experience.

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Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                          This photo shows the ruff of feathers that gives this grouse its common name.

The ruffed grouse is named for the male’s neck ruff. These feathers around the neck can be erected in mating displays, creating an impressive “collar.”  The ruffed grouse has served since 1931 as the state bird of Pennsylvania.

Many years ago, a ruffed grouse boldly walked into my front yard and then ventured onto the front porch. Only my timely intervention rescued the visiting grouse from a cat that belonged to my parents.
The unusual behavior of Rufous has persisted for two years. That, in my book, makes him a very unique grouse. I’ll always remember the day that I made his acquaintance.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens       Rufous proved to be a grouse with a unique personality.

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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.

South Carolina trip provides excellent viewing opportunities to observe one of nation’s most colorful birds

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Photos by Bryan Stevens                                                          A male Painted Bunting feeds on millet seed at a feeder at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

I enjoyed a recent excursion to coastal South Carolina, which provided me a change to look for birds at such locations as Huntington Beach State Park and Brookgreen Gardens. These two attractions are two of my favorite places to bird when I get an opportunity to a stay at Pawleys Island in South Carolina.

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The male Painted Bunting is one of the most colorful birds in North America.

Southwest Virginia, Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina share some colorful species of birds, including rose-breasted grosbeak, Baltimore oriole, scarlet tanager and indigo bunting. The vibrant blue plumage of a male indigo bunting makes it one of the most coveted birds at feeders. One of my earliest bird memories is one that recalls summer sightings of “blue birds,” or indigo buntings, perched in the same blue spruce tree with “yellow birds,” or American goldfinches. It’s very likely that such memorable childhood sightings set me on the path to becoming a birding and nature enthusiast.

It’s fun to speculate that I might have traveled that path even sooner if I’d observed in that blue spruce one of the relatives of the indigo bunting. The painted bunting, which I saw frequently during my South Carolina vacation, is often described as one of the most colorful birds in the United States. A male painted bunting’s plumage is an almost shocking blend of blue, green, yellow and red feathers, which make males appear almost too tropical for a bird that makes its home for part of the year in the United States. The color pattern for the male painted bunting consists of a blue head, a red eye-ring, red underparts and a green backs. Females and immature birds are a uniform, bright lemon-green overall, with a pale eye-ring. Two years are required for a male painted bunting to acquire the vibrant plumage that has given the bird its common name.

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It’s easy to see how the male painted bunting acquired its reputation as one of North America’s most colorful birds.

The painted bunting is a specialty bird of the southern United States, as well as some locations in the southwestern United States, including southern Arizona and New Mexico. A thriving population exists along the Atlantic Coast in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. These colorful birds also occur in Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Some other common names for this bird include painted finch and rainbow bunting. Early French colonists to the New World named this songbird “Nonpareil,” which means “without equal.” That neatly sums up the amazing appearance of this bird.

Bird feeders help this bird overcome its shyness in the presence of humans. Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina maintains several feeders filled with millet, which is a small seed favored by buntings, as well as some sparrows and finches. The feeders located at the park’s Nature Center are a popular destination for people hoping to get a good look at a painted bunting. Of course, the buntings share the feeders with other birds, including chickadees, cardinals, house finches, brown-headed cowbirds and red-winged blackbirds.

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Female and immature painted buntings are greenish-yellow birds that are eclipsed by the more vibrant adult males.

Away from feeders, however, it can be difficult to find painted buntings. Males sing from elevated perches in spring and early summer, which can simplify the effort of locating them. The greenish females blend well with their surroundings and can be a much bigger challenge to observe. Once I learned to recognize the male’s song, finding painted buntings away from feeders became easier.

Before federal protections were put into place, painted buntings were often captured and caged as exotic pets. Although such practices are now illegal in the United States, these birds are still captured in some Central American locations for sale as a pet caged bird. I’ve always believed that it’s much more enjoyable to observe any bird free to fly, sing and live out its life in the wild.

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A female Painted Bunting decides to visit a hummingbird feeder.

The population of painted buntings has declined, particularly on barrier islands off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina. Destruction of habitat has been a major factor, but these birds are also victimized by brown-headed cowbirds. The female cowbirds slip their own eggs into the nests of unsuspecting birds, which often raise the young cowbirds even at the expense of their own young.

Painted buntings do show up in some unexpected places, but there are only a few records for the region. In November of 2015, a male painted bunting showed up at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York, of all places. That particular bird lingered until Jan. 3, 2016, before it was last seen prior to a cold front moving into New York. The surest way to see a painted bunting is to visit some of its strongholds along the southern Atlantic Coast or the other regions in the United States where this technicolor dream of a bird ranges.

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Indigo Buntings are fairly common songbirds in much of the eastern United States.

Until then, enjoy the painted bunting’s much more common, at least in this region, relative. The indigo bunting usually returns to the region in April and lingers into early October. Indigo buntings are also fond of visiting feeders for offerings of millet or sunflower seed.

Besides indigo buntings, other related birds include the lazuli bunting, varied bunting and blue bunting. Other birds named bunting, but not as closely related, include the snow bunting and the lark bunting. The term “bunting” when used with a bird basically refers to various seed-eating birds with stubby, cone-shaped bills.

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The Lazuli Bunting takes the place of Indigo Buntings in the western half of the United States. This male was photographed in Utah.

Perhaps some day in the future I’ll glimpse a migrant painted bunting that has strayed off course and has ended up in southwest Virginia or northeast Tennessee. Until that hypothetical day, I’ll continue to look for this dazzling bird any time I am in the Low Country of South Carolina. In addition, I’ll simply enjoy the electric blue plumage of the adult male indigo buntings that visit my feeders almost daily during the summer months.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. 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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This male Painted Bunting visits feeders at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count tallies 73 species

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A blur of red feather signals the arrival of a male Northern Cardinal at a feeder. A total of 123 cardinals were found on the recent Elizabethton CBC.

The 73rd consecutive Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count was held on Saturday, Dec. 19, with 24 observers in six parties plus one feeder watcher.  A total of 73 species was tallied, with an additional four count-week species. This is slightly above the recent 30-year average of 71.7 species. The all-time high for this CBC was 80 species in 2012.

Long-time count compiler Rick Knight noted that some of the highlights from this year’s Elizabethton CBC included: five Blue-winged Teal, which represented only the fourth time this duck has been found for this count, as well as  Northern Shoveler and Greater Scaup.

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Bald Eagle was represented by five individual birds on the recent CBC conducted by members of the Elizabethton Bird Club.

Other highlights included Bald Eagle, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Red-breasted Nuthatch, American Pipit and Palm Warbler.

The 72 Chipping Sparrows found during the CBC represented the most individuals of this species ever tallied for this count.

A few winter finches have also arrived in the area, based on the Purple Finch and Pine Siskins detected during the CBC.

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A single Red-breasted Nuthatch was found, assuring that this species made it onto the annual survey of bird populations in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

The European Starling was the most common bird with a total of 1,707 individual starlings represented on the count. Other common birds included American Crow (987), Canada Goose (511) and American Robin (450).

The total for the 2015 Elizabethton CBC follows:

Canada Goose, 511; Mallard, 129; Blue-winged Teal, 5; Northern Shoveler, 12; Greater Scaup, 2; Lesser Scaup, 1; Bufflehead, 172; and Hooded Merganser, 10.

Wild Turkey, 30; Pied-billed Grebe, 15; Horned Grebe, 10; and Great Blue Heron, 13.

Black Vulture, 16; Turkey Vulture, 26; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 2; Cooper’s Hawk, 5; Bald Eagle, 5; Red-shouldered Hawk, 2; Red-tailed Hawk, 22; and American Kestrel, 18.

American Coot, 7; Killdeer, 5; Ring-billed Gull, 65; Rock Pigeon, 349; Eurasian Collared Dove, 7; and Mourning Dove, 114.

Eastern Screech-Owl, 7; Great Horned Owl, 4; Barred Owl, 1; Belted Kingfisher, 13; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 27; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 7; Downy Woodpecker, 23; Hairy Woodpecker, 3; Northern Flicker, 11; and Pileated Woodpecker, 10.

Eastern Phoebe, 7; Blue Jay, 76; American Crow, 987; Common Raven, 6; Carolina Chickadee, 111; and Tufted Titmouse, 110.

Red-breasted Nuthatch, 1; White-breasted Nuthatch, 31; Brown Creeper, 2; Winter Wren, 3; and Carolina Wren, 60.

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Five Hermit Thrushes were among the many species found during the Elizabethton CBC.

Golden-crowned Kinglet, 32; Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 2; Eastern Bluebird, 114; Hermit Thrush, 5; American Robin, 450; and Northern Mockingbird, 27.

European Starling, 1,707; American Pipit, 40; Cedar Waxwing, 116; Palm Warbler, 3; and Yellow-rumped Warbler, 106.

Eastern Towhee, 12; Chipping Sparrow, 72; Field Sparrow, 31; Fox Sparrow, 3; Song Sparrow, 104; Swamp Sparrow, 104; White-throated Sparrow, 78; and Dark-eyed Junco, 74.

Northern Cardinal, 123; Eastern Meadowlark, 4; House Finch, 51; Purple Finch, 1; Pine Siskin, 25; American Goldfinch, 101; and House Sparrow, 41.

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Fall-Yellowthroat

A Common Yellowthroat is a rare bird in Northeast Tennessee during the winter months.

It was strange to walk outside in short sleeves this past Christmas. This weird winter weather has also led to some unexpected bird sightings. I saw my first-ever winter warbler (other than Yellow-rumped Warbler) at home ton Dec. 30. The warbler was a male Common Yellowthroat lurking in the cattails near the fish pond. Several years ago, I found a female Common Yellowthroat at Wilbur Lake on a Christmas Bird Count. In addition to the yellowthroat, I found a Swamp Sparrow in the cattails. I also had a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos (as opposed to just one bird) in the backyard that same day.

I am pleased to find that the winter birds are gradually arriving. Now that it looks like more typical winter temperatures might prevail for awhile, I expect activity to increase at my feeders.

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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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This week’s post is dedicated to Sassy, a one-of-a-kind cat that shared my life from the summer of 2002 until Dec. 26, 2015.Sassy

Pelican surprises residents of Bristol neighborhood

 

Birders learn fairly quickly that sometimes you just have to trust your eyes. Residents near Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee, might have been understandably surprised in the days leading up to Thanksgiving when they spied a large white bird on the small lake in their neighborhood.

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All Photos by Bryan Stevens                                    This American white pelican recently spent some time at Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee.

Alice Morgan, a resident of the Middlebrook subdivision, was certainly surprised. “We are lucky to have a view of the lake,” she said in an email she sent to me on Sunday, Nov. 29.

She correctly identified the visiting bird. “We think that in the last few days we have been looking at an American White Pelican,” she reported in her email. “At first we thought it was a swan that comes and goes, but when we got our binoculars out, this bird has a very long orange beak that almost trails the water.”

The reference to a swan was made because of a small population of mute swans that have resided on the lake at least the past 20 years. However, the bird that generated the recent excitement among area birders and Middlebrook residents wasn’t a swan or even a Thanksgiving turkey. The bird was truly an American white pelican, a rare and accidental visitor in the region.

“We have yet to see it fly to see if it has the black feathers in its wings, but the beak seems to be the marking of a pelican,” Alice noted. “They are not supposed to be in this area. Could it be lost, or are we incorrect in our identification?”

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The pelican swam and associated with Canada geese at Middlebrook Lake.

In addition to the email from Alice, one of my Facebook friends, Joanne Campbell, tipped me off to the pelican’s presence.

“White Pelican on lake in Middlebrook,” Joanne wrote in a post to my page on Nov. 25. “I thought my neighbor was mistaken. I was within 25 feet of the pelican. Beautiful, but what the heck is he doing in Bristol?”

I responded to Alice’s email and Joanne’s Facebook post, informing them that their identifications were absolutely correct. Regarding whether the bird was “lost,” I am not sure of the answer. Middlebrook Lake most likely looked like a favorable location for a migrating pelican to stop in order to refuel and refresh itself.

Pelican-Itch

The pelican scratches at an itch.

Bristol resident Wallace Coffey made the first report of the American White Pelican on Tuesday, Nov. 24. His post on Bristol-Birds, an online forum for sharing regional bird sightings, brought my mom and me to Middlebrook Lake the next afternoon. It didn’t take long to locate the large white bird sharing the lake with large numbers of Canada geese, American coots and hooded mergansers. The pelican sort of stuck out like a proverbial sore thumb. It didn’t seem wary of people, but I remained in my car and still managed to get decent photographs of the bird. While my mom and I watched the pelican, it swam among the Canada geese and coots on the lake. It also took time to preen its feathers and flap its wings.

Pelican-Standing

The American white pelican certainly turned some heads during its brief stay at Middlebrook Lake.

The American White Pelican makes its home on large freshwater lakes and reservoirs across the prairie states — North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Montana and a few others — as well as the prairie provinces of Canada. They can be found along the Pacific and Gulf coasts during the winter, and as far inland as southern Minnesota and Wisconsin during the summer. By contrast, the smaller brown pelican generally does not leave coastal areas unless driven inland by hurricanes or other major storms.

Populations of American white pelicans residing east of the Rocky Mountains migrate along river valleys, including the Mississippi River, to their wintering grounds along the Gulf Coast and in Mexico. It is not unusual for a few to stray into the eastern United States. American white pelicans are social birds and prefer to travel in flocks, although some of the reported observations in the region have involved solitary birds.

The pelican at Middlebrook Lake represents the first sighting of an American white pelican in Bristol since May of 2010. At that time, a flock of seven of these large birds was reported at Musick’s Campground on South Holston Lake. Because the lake straddles the Virginia/Tennessee line, members of that flock of pelicans were observed in both Sullivan County, Tennessee, and Washington County, Virginia. There was also a sighting made by Patty Elton of three American white pelicans in Wythe County, Virginia, in May of 2014.

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A flock of American white pelicans soars over Salt Lake City Utah in May of 2006.

In his book, “The Birds of Northeast Tennessee,” Rick Knight lists only five records of American white pelican sightings. The first-ever sighting in Northeast Tennessee took place on Nov. 3, 1981, at Austin Springs on Boone Lake. That observation, reported by Glen Eller and Harry Farthing, involved a single pelican.

Another ten years passed before another solitary pelican visited Boone Lake and South Holston Lake in December of 1991. One of the best-known sightings took place in February of 1995 when a single American white pelican took up residence at a small pond on the grounds of Mountain Home Veterans Affairs in Johnson City, Tennessee. After spending time at that pond, that pelican moved to nearby Austin Springs on Boone Lake and later the Holston River in Kingsport. Unfortunately, the pelican collided with power lines in the summer of 1996 while flying. It injured a wing, which had to be amputated by a wildlife rehabilitation expert to save the bird’s life. Since the pelican at that point was no longer able to survive in the wild, it was sent to a zoo in Bridgetown, New Jersey.

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A flock of American white pelicans fly over the surf at Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina, in March of 2015.

Almost another decade passed before white pelicans were seen in Northeast Tennessee. That sighting involved my own observation of a single American white pelican soaring over my home in Hampton, Tennessee, on July 17, 2004. The actual credit for discovering the bird goes to my friend — David Thometz — who happened to look skyward and ask the question, “What is that big, white bird?” I think I must have been momentarily speechless when I focused my binoculars and immediately recognized an American white pelican. Eventually, I stammered out my identification

Two years later, on April 8, 2006, Coffey and Knight reported four American white pelicans at Spring Creek, which runs into South Holston Lake. After that observation, this large bird didn’t make another regional appearance until the 2010 sighting of the seven-member flock at Musick’s Campground mentioned earlier.

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Early naturalist John James Audubon captured the American white pelican in its rather bizarre, ungainly glory.

So, evidently, American white pelicans do migrate through the region in basically every season of the year. They are not, however, among birds one might expect to see in Northeast Tennessee or Southwest Virginia. I’m not surprised that the pelican selected Middlebrook Lake for its stopover. I’ve seen many unusual birds at this small lake over the years, including species such as common merganser, long-tailed duck, common goldeneye and tundra swan.

The American white pelican is one of North America’s largest birds. This pelican’s wingspan can span nine feet compared to the six- to eight-foot wingspan of its much smaller relative, the brown pelican. While the brown pelican dives into the water to capture fish, the American white pelican feeds while floating on the water’s surface. Flocks of American white pelicans will work cooperatively to corral and capture fish.

Worldwide, there are only eight species of pelicans. Some of the others include the great white pelican of southeastern Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as the pink-backed pelican of Arabia, Africa and southern India.

Pelicans, like most of our birds, have wings and are capable of long-distance flight. You never know what you might see. Keep your eyes open and a pair of binoculars handy.

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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.