Category Archives: Tennessee

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.

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.