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Reader’s mystery bird turns out to be Louisiana waterthrush

On occasion, readers seek out my help with identifying birds they encounter. I am always glad to assist. Photographs, a recording of the bird’s song, or even a well-written description are often all that’s necessary to pinpoint the identities of mystery birds.

Lewis and Jeana Chapman, residents of Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee, notified me in an email that they have been enjoying some good birdwatching trips. They also wanted some help with the identity of a bird they observed last summer.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Northern waterthrush, pictured, has a beige eye line rather than the white one usually shown by the Louisiana waterthrush.

“My wife and I love to go to the Creeper Trail in Virginia and enjoy the creek,” Lewis wrote in an email. “On these trips in the summer months, we have watched this bird run along the rocks of the shore feeding.”

He also mentioned that he had attached in his email some photos, which proved extremely helpful. “Our closest guess at what type of bird it is was a spotted sandpiper, but its beak/bill seems too short. Any help you can give us would be greatly appreciated.”

A quick scan of the photos the Chapmans sent with their email helped me narrow the options down to two related birds — a Louisiana waterthrush and a Northern waterthrush. I used three criteria — location, season and plumage — to identify the bird in their photos as a Louisiana waterthrush.

Louisiana Waterthrush

Photo by Adobe Stock • Subtle plumage differences, as well as habitat, behavior and seasonal presence, are factors in distinguishing the Louisiana waterthrush, pictured, from the closely related Northern waterthrush. The Louisiana waterthrush nests along fast-moving streams in the area while the Northern waterthrush does not breed in the region.

 

The Chapmans had good reason to suspect the bird might have been a spotted sandpiper, but for the true identity of the bird in question, it’s necessary to delve into the family of warblers, which includes species such as American redstart, ovenbird, common yellowthroat, Northern parula and black-throated blue warbler.

The two waterthrushes are very similar in appearance. Louisiana Waterthrushes has a heavier bill and a white eye line, while the Northern Waterthrush’s eye line is usually somewhat yellowish-beige. A Louisiana waterthrush typically also has a whiter belly and underparts.

Appearance wasn’t even the most important element of the criteria. Location and season more readily helped confirm the identity. The Louisiana waterthrush has a range concentrated on the southern part of the eastern half of the United States, mostly south of the states of New York, Michigan and Wisconsin. In this region, only the Louisiana waterthrush is known to nest. The Northern waterthrush is strictly a spring and fall migrant, electing to nest near bogs and slow streams in Canada and the northern tier of states in the United States.

The Louisiana waterthrush also attracts attention with its characteristic “teetering” gait. Much like the spotted sandpiper, this waterthrush bobs the rear half of its body up and down as it walks and forages by the sides of streams. In their behavior, this shorebird and this warbler are very much alike. The waterthrush will often turn over wet leaves or other stream debris to search for prey items, such as aquatic insect larvae, crustaceans, snails and even small fish. The Louisiana waterthrush was once known as the water wagtail, which makes reference to the aforementioned teetering gait.

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Early artist and naturalist John James Audubon painted this Louisiana waterthrush.

Many warblers have shown signs of decline in recent years. The Louisiana waterthrush, however, appears to have bucked that trend. According to the website All About Birds, Louisiana waterthrush populations were stable between 1966 and 2015, based on statistics from the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 360,000, with almost all of those individuals spending at least part of the year in the United States. About a quarter of the population retreats into Mexico during the winter season. The rest winter in Florida and some of the Gulf Coast states, as well as the islands of the Caribbean.

While most songbirds are fortunate to survive two or three years in the wild, at least one Louisiana waterthrush lived to the age of at least 11 years and 11 months. The bird, a male, was seen in New Jersey in the wild and identified by a band on one of his legs. He had been banded in the same state, according to All About Birds.

The two waterthrushes are the only species in the genus Parkesia, so named to honor American ornithologist Kenneth C. Parkes, who was for many years Curator of Birds at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The common name of the Louisiana waterthrush is not a very apt one, as this bird does not have any special affinity for the state of Louisiana. Someone collected some of the early specimens of the Louisiana waterthrush in its namesake location, and the name has stuck through the years.

Waterthrush

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Even in migration, both waterthrushes like to stay near water.

Not every bird mystery that comes my way via Facebook or in an email is so easily resolved. This identification, which happened to involve the New World warblers, my favorite family of birds, once again showed me the amazing diversity of this group of birds. From the terrestrial Louisiana waterthrush to the treetop-dwelling cerulean warbler, it’s an amazing group of songbirds I’m always happy to introduce to bird enthusiasts.

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No cowbird ever knows its biological parents

While many birds are excellent parents, others lack any maternal or paternal instincts altogether. The common cuckoo, a nesting bird in Europe and Asia, is a well-known brood parasite that would rather slip its eggs into the nest of other bird than raise its own young. In scientific terms, “brood parasite” refers to creatures that rely on others to raise their young. In addition to some birds, this tactic is also employed by some species of insects and fish.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Female brown-headed cowbirds stay alert to observe bird leaving or coming to a nest. Once they have located a nest, these birds slip their own eggs into the nests of other birds.

The strategy is effective, if, in the human way of thinking, rather heartless. In biological terms, however, this “foster parenting” allows brood parasites to ensure a new generation without expending much energy on the part of the actual parents. Some recent contacts with readers have reminded me that not all of our feathered friends would qualify for “parent of the year.”

Mike Dickenson of Bristol, Tennessee, contacted me on Facebook about a discovery he made in a nest built under the steps of his house.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female brown-headed cowbird visits a feeder.

“I noticed two blue eggs,” he said. “I checked a few days later and noticed two gray eggs also. Did another bird sneak her eggs into the nest?” Mike also informed me that some of the eggs hatched shortly after he discovered them.

James Rowland of Erwin, Tennessee, sent me a message on Facebook asking me to identify a bird in a photograph he had taken. “What is this bird?” James asked. “It’s larger than a sparrow.”

He added that he observed and photographed the bird near the Covered Bridge in Elizabethton, Tennessee. A study of the bird in the photo revealed a very nondescript bird in largely gray plumage. Few of our birds are this plain and gray with almost no standout characteristics.

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Photo by James Rowland • A brown-headed cowbird, probably a young bird or a female, near the Covered Bridge in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

In both cases, one of North America’s most successful brood parasites was involved. I responded to Mike and told him that is was entirely possible that a female brown-headed cowbird slipped some eggs into the nest beneath his steps. I likewise informed James that the bird in his photo looked like a brown-headed cowbird. I added that the bird was either a female or a young bird, since a male would have the brown head that gives the species its common name.

In North America, one of the best-known feathered brood parasites is the brown-headed cowbird. While many brood parasites are specialists, with females slipping their eggs into the nest of a specific species of host bird, the brown-headed cowbird approaches brood parasitism in a less discriminating manner. Female cowbirds have been known to lay their eggs in the nests of at least 221 different species of birds. No baby brown-headed cowbird ever knows its biological parents.

How did the brown-headed cowbird turn to a life of foisting eggs onto unsuspecting foster parents? The answer is connected with the American bison, also known as buffalo. When the bison roamed the Great Plains of the United States by the millions, flocks of brown-headed cowbirds followed the great herds, feeding on the insects flushed by the hooves of millions of bison. As the herds stayed on the move constantly, the cowbirds also developed a nomadic lifestyle. After the bison herd diminished, the cowbirds survived a potential crisis by simply transferring their bovine affinity from bison to domesticated cattle.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male brown-headed cowbird displays the brown head that gives this bird its common name.

At times, this random and undiscriminating approach to reproduction fails. Some finches feed their young a diet that consists of a great deal of vegetable matter. Young cowbirds fed this protein deficient diet fail to thrive and ultimately perish.

Other birds blissfully bring a rich assortment of protein snacks — insects, spiders and other small invertebrates — that permits the young foster bird to thrive, at times at the expense of the host bird’s own young. About 20 years ago I observed a willow flycatcher bringing food to a young brown-headed cowbird at least twice the size of the “parent” trying to feed it. I’ve also seen song sparrows, dwarfed by a cowbird changeling, trying to keep their enormous baby bird well fed.

Cowbirds are members of the blackbird family, which includes such relations as orioles, meadowlarks and grackles. All cowbirds are confined to the New World and include species such as the screaming cowbird of Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil, as well as the bronzed cowbird of Central America and the southern United States, especially the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana. Other cowbird family members include giant cowbird and the shiny cowbird.

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Early naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted this pair of brown-headed cowbirds.

Eggs showcase a genuine miracle each time a bird hatches

Photo by Bryan Stevens
Some birds lay clutches with many eggs while others, like this flamingo, invest their energy and dedication to a single egg each time they nest. This Chilean flamingo at Zoo Atlanta is a relative of the American flamingo.

 

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com A pair of eggs in the traditional cup-shaped nest built by many songbirds.

The nesting season is in full swing for most of the bird species that breed in eastern North America. Although they may employ a variety of strategies to ensure nesting success, they all start off their attempts with a clutch of eggs.

It’s the egg that separates birds from most mammals while still linking them to their reptilian kin. Let’s leave the question of which came first, the prototypical chicken or the proverbial egg, to philosophers and instead take a look at the differences birds employ when it comes to the precious life-giving egg in its fragile yet protective shell.

A few birds devote an enormous investment of time to a single egg. For instance, the American flamingo lays only a single egg, which is incubated atop a nest made from a mound of mud for about a month. This flamingo breeds extensively through the islands of the Galápagos, coastal Colombia, Venezuela and nearby islands, Trinidad and Tobago, along the northern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, Cuba, Hispaniola, the Bahamas, Virgin Islands, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. While other flamingo species are common attractions at zoos, the American flamingo was considered extinct in the United States by 1900. However, recent research indicates that wild birds still make their way into southern Florida. As recently as 2014, a large flock of about 150 wild individuals spent time in the Sunshine State.

While there are more than 300 species of hummingbird distributed throughout the New World, the offspring of these tiny birds all emerge, just like all other birds, from an egg — albeit a very small one. Most hummingbirds are “twins,” hatched with a single sibling that will share their nest and the care of a dutiful mother. The female ruby-throated hummingbird lay two eggs. A female hummingbird gets no assistance from the male and has to find enough food to fuel her own body and help her young in the nest grow and thrive.

photo of green and black hummingbird perched on red branch

Photo by Dick Scholten on Pexels.com Hummingbirds lay only two eggs because the female can care for no more than two young and feed herself.

Most birds lay multiple eggs, although the number in a clutch may vary dramatically from species to species. A female American robin will usually lay three to five eggs in a nest that builds alone in the fork between tree branches. The size of her clutch of eggs is fairly typical for many songbirds.

Other songbirds are even more prolific. A female house wren, although a rather small bird, may lay as many as eight or nine eggs. Likewise, the golden-crowned kinglet is one of North America’s smallest songbirds, but the female kinglet may lay as many as 11 eggs in a small nest woven of moss, spider’s silk, lichens and strips of bark. By comparison, the female blue-gray gnatcatcher, while similar in size to a kinglet, attempts to lay no more than three to five eggs.

On the other hand, some birds adjust clutch size depending on the resources available to them. In years when their food — a type of caterpillar often injurious to spruce trees — is abundant, the Cape May warbler may lay as many as nine eggs. In years when the aforementioned spruce budworms are scarce, the female warbler may reduce her clutch size to a mere four eggs.

Eggs look fragile, but are actually surprisingly strong. Egg-shaped or “ovoid” objects are considered to be among the strongest shapes in nature. However, strength is no guarantee against a host of hungry predators. Many birds rely on camouflage to protect their eggs. For instance, the female ruffed grouse will usually lay 9 to 14 eggs in a no-fuss nest constructed of leaves in a basin on the forest floor. While incubating her eggs, the grouse hen’s mottled brown plumage makes her almost invisible.

In a similar fashion, the female Eastern whip-poor-will does not build a nest and invariably lays only a pair of eggs, which are placed directly on the forest floor. Her plumage helps her blend with her surroundings, making it extremely difficult to discover a whip-poor-will incubating her eggs.

Many species of ducks are prolific layers of eggs. The wood duck hen may lay as many as 16 eggs in her nest, which may be in a natural tree cavity or a human-made nesting box.

However, not all waterfowl lay a large clutch of eggs. The common loon usually lays only one or two eggs. Once young loons hatch from their eggs, the parents are devoted caregivers, providing food and protection for the one-month period required for young loons to achieve a degree of independence.

Most of our common birds lay eggs that are significantly smaller than the egg of a chicken. Wild turkey hens lay eggs — as many as 17 eggs in some cases — that are noticeably larger than an average chicken egg.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com The common ostrich, the world’s largest bird, also lays the largest egg.

Who takes the prize for largest egg? That distinction, not surprisingly, goes to the world’s largest bird. Africa’s common ostrich hen, which can weigh as much as 220 pounds, lays the largest known bird egg. Furthermore, a female common ostrich will usually incubate about 20 of these large eggs, which can reach a diameter of six inches and weigh three pounds.

Whether a bird’s eggs are small or large, these fragile shells — when all goes well — break open to release some amazing miracles. I think anyone who enjoys the hummingbird hovering near a flowering basket on the porch or the flock of American goldfinches at thistle feeders in the back yard will readily agree.

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Photo by nastya on Pexels.com

Majesty of bald eagle suitable for America’s official bird

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Photo by David Dibert on Pexels.com A bald eagle comes in for a landing.

Here’s an early “Happy Fourth of July” to all my American readers. I thought this week’s post should focus some attention on our national bird, the American bald eagle, which officially became the national emblem in 1782 when the great seal of the United States was adopted.

Despite elevating this native bird to such lofty status, we have not always been kind to the bald eagle. We allowed habitat destruction and toxic pesticides to bring this eagle to the brink of extinction. With some protection, however, the bald eagle rebounded. In fact, the Department of Interior took the eagle off the endangered species list on June 28, 2007.

bald eagle over the body of water

Photo by Wayne Christensen on Pexels.com A bald eagle scoops a fish from the water with its talons.

The bald eagle has been more frequently observed by birders in Northeast Tennessee in recent years. Some of the area lakes in the region are good places to look for Bald Eagles, particularly in the fall and winter. A few lakes even host nesting bald eagles. For instance, this eagle has been documented nesting at Holston Lake in recent years.

I’ve observed bald eagles in Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida and Virginia. My most unusual observation of a wild bald eagle took place on Labor Day many years ago when an adult eagle flew over my grandparents’ home in Limestone Cove in Unicoi County. North America’s other eagle, the golden eagle, is a very rare visitor to northeast Tennessee. The golden eagle is primarily a bird of the western United States while the bald eagle ranges widely across the United States as well as into Canada and Mexico.
The eagles are incredibly majestic birds and important symbols of the value of natural places and creatures.

close up photography of white black eagle during daytime

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com The bald eagle had rebounded in population.

The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is a member of a genus known as Haliaeetus, or sea eagles. There are seven other living species in the genus: the white-bellied sea eagle, Sanford’s sea eagle, African fish eagle, Madagascar fish eagle, Pallas’s fish eagle, white-tailed eagle and Steller’s sea eagle.

The bald eagle, however, is not considered closely related to eagles in the genus Aquila, or “true eagles,” in which the golden eagle is included.

close up photography of bald eagle

Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com The bald eagle’s place as the nation’s symbol seems very well secured.

Both male and female adult bald eagles have a blackish-brown back and breast; a white head, neck and tail; and yellow feet and bill. Juvenile bald eagles are a mixture of brown and white and reach full maturity in four to five years.

The female bald eagle is 35 to 37 inches in length, slightly larger than the male, with a wingspan that ranges from 72 to 90 inches. Bald eagles weigh from 10 to 14 pounds.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com Bald eagles are often associated with wetland habitats.

 

Despite these impressive characteristics, the bald eagle is dwarfed in comparison to one of its now-extinct relatives. The largest eagle ever to evolve was Haast’s eagle, which once thrived in New Zealand. This eagle was named for the German geologist Julius von Haast, who founded Canterbury Museum at Christchurch in New Zealand. Haast, who died in 1887, was one of the first scientists to study large flightless birds such as the moa family that once roamed New Zealand.

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Julius von Haast

In fact, Haast’s eagle was considered a major predator on the population of New Zealand moas, some of which reached a height of 12 feet tall and a weight of more than 500 pounds. By contrast, female Haast eagles probably reached a weight of 22 to 33 pounds. Males, as is the case with most living eagles, are smaller than females and probably weighed between 20 to 26 pounds. This mega-sized eagle possessed a relatively short wingspan of roughly 8 to 10 feet wide. This wingspan compares to that recorded for large specimens of golden eagle and Steller’s sea eagle. Even the largest of today’s eagles, however, are about 40 percent smaller in body size than the size of Haast’s eagles. Despite their superior size, moas simply lacked any defense against the huge razor-like talons and sharp bill of the Haast’s Eagle.

Here are a few other eagle facts:

— Eagle bones are light because they are hollow. The beak, talons and feathers are made of keratin.
— The Madagascar fish eagle is the most rare eagle on earth, and one of the most rare birds. The current population is estimated at less than 400 individual birds, with perhaps around 120 breeding pairs.
— Bald eagles have 7,000 feathers.
— Wild bald eagles are long-lived birds and may live as long as 30 years. In captivity, however, the oldest documented Bald Eagle lived to be 47 years old.
— Bald eagles can lift as much as four pounds. They feed mainly on fish, but they will take advantage of carrion and scavenge for their meals. They will occasionally also take waterfowl as prey.
— The hunting area of bald eagles varies from 1,700 to 10,000 acres. Home ranges are smaller where food is present in great quantity.
— Bald eagles can fly to an altitude of 10,000 feet. During level flight, they can achieve speeds of about 30 to 35 miles per hour.
— All eagles are renowned for their excellent eyesight.
— Once paired, bald eagles remain together until one dies. Bald eagles lay from one to three eggs. The 35 days of incubation duties are shared by both male and female.
— Today, there are about 10,000 breeding pairs of bald eagles.

••••••

I look forward to hearing from readers. Those who wish to ask a question, share an observation or make a comment may reach me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

bald eagle in macro photography

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com Happy Fourth of July!

What is going on with these jewels? Readers wonder about change in hummingbird numbers

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A ruby-throated hummingbird visits a sugar water feeder.

Jane Arnold, a resident of Bristol, Tennessee, emailed me to ask a question about hummingbird numbers this spring.

In her email, Jane wrote, “My mom (Betty Poole of Bristol, Virginia) asked me to email you and ask if you have received any emails from fellow hummer enthusiasts about the number of hummers they are seeing this year.”

Jane went on to explain that her aunt, Alyce Pennington, Montcalm, West Virginia, and her cousin, Hal Pennington, Huntsville, Alabama, have also reported not seeing many of these tiny birds this spring. “When they arrived in April, they would see them off and on all day long,” Jane wrote. “But the last couple of weeks their presence has dropped off quite a bit.

In addition to Jane’s email, I also received a similar question in an email from Garland Depew of Bluff Hollow, Virginia.

“I’d like your opinion on my hummingbirds,” Garland wrote. “They always show up in mid April, and by this time (early June) I usually have a dozen or so fighting for the feeders. It’s been that way for years.”

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Garland noted that this year he had about eight hummingbirds show up by late April. “Then all of a sudden in the middle of May they just vanished,” he added. “I have just one or two now.”

In the past Garland said that he had “literally a cloud of birds at the feeders” and that ’it’s hard to get an accurate count, but last year we had about 18 hummers, and similar numbers in the years before that.”

He noted that he has been using feeders to attract hummers for at least 10 years.

Garland also checked with a neighbor who lives about a quarter mile down the road from his home regarding the number of hummingbirds at their feeders. She informed him that she has seen six or seven hummingbirds, whereas she estimated she had as many as 20 last year.

“I can’t think of anything I might have done to cause this,” he said. “Any ideas?”

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It’s unfortunate, but it is a fairly common and disappointing aspect of hummingbird lives that their numbers tend to decline after they burst back on the scene every April. Some of those spring ruby-throated hummingbirds in April are migrants that are going to keep pushing farther north. They stick around for a while at a place they like but will eventually keep moving on, which is why numbers stay fairly consistent in late April and early May.

 

In late May, however, those hummingbirds intending to spend the summer north of us have departed the region. We are left with the hummers that have liked our yards and gardens enough to stick around with us for the entire summer. It’s also true that numbers of hummingbirds in any one specific area will fluctuate from year to year. It’s just possible that, for a reason that may be nothing greater than a garden planted with their favorite flowers, hummingbirds have shifted where they live for a season.

I experienced similar aspects of this situation myself this spring. I had probably a dozen hummingbirds at my feeders in late April, but throughout May their numbers dwindled. We have arrived in June, and I probably have two or three males and possibly one or two females. That means that the two females are probably nesting nearby. It’s also a fact that local numbers of birds fluctuate from year to year. Attracting them one year is not a guarantee they will return every subsequent year.

By May, the spring hummingbird migration is basically finished for the region. A few of the female hummingbirds, finding our yards to their liking, will conclude their epic journey here and spend the next few months tending to a new generation of hummers. Female ruby-throated hummingbirds lay two eggs. There are some reasons why it’s always a pair of eggs. First, the nest is so small that there is barely room for two eggs, let alone more. Second, once the young hatch, the nest has just enough room to accommodate them as they grow, fed well by their mother. Third, feeding two hungry young hummingbirds is a demanding task. A female hummingbird has to find enough food to fuel her own body and help her young in the nest grow and thrive. It’s a full-time job during the daylight hours. She’s hard-pressed to succeed at raising two young. Attempting to rear more would most likely prove impossible.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Female ruby-throated hummingbirds always lay two eggs, which means most females will care for two chicks after hatching. 

The entire process —€” from building the nest to incubating eggs to tending hatchlings —€” requires a commitment of more than two months. The female hummingbird builds her exquisite nest from lichen and various plant fibers, much of it held together by collected spider silk. Once that time-consuming task is completed, the female hummingbird lays her eggs. She will spend about the next 18 days incubating them. Once they hatch, the young will remain in the nest about 28 days (nearly a month) and depend on their mother to bring them regular meals. If that’s not enough, the ruby-throated hummingbird is known to nest twice in a season. It certainly must rank a female hummingbird as one of the busiest of our summer birds.

Of course, a few adult males will also put an end to their migration once they reach the region. The males, however, don’t assist with the rearing of their own young. For male hummingbirds, summer is mainly a time to thrive on the abundance of nectar-bearing blooms, as well as a profusion of tiny insects and spiders that also make up a good portion of their diet.

The good news is that hummingbird numbers will increase later this summer and in early fall. All those hummers that went farther north will migrate back through, and in the autumn they will be traveling with their kids. Be sure to keep feeders available when we hit August to offer places for hummers to rest and refuel as they migrate through again.

selective focus photography of ruby throated hummingbird perched on bird feeder

Photo by Chris F on Pexels.com

Only a single species — ruby-throated hummingbird — nests in the eastern United States, while several species nest in the western half of the nation, especially in the American southwest. Worldwide, the 300 some species of hummingbirds have been giving some incredibly descriptive names such as Andean blossomcrown, black inca, blue-chested hummingbird, buffy helmetcrest, bumblebee hummingbird, charming hummingbird, coppery emerald, gorgeted sunangel, great sapphirewing, green-breasted mountaingem, lesser violetear, long-tailed woodnymph, purple-bibbed whitetip, saw-billed hermit, spangled coquette and white-throated hummingbird. This sampling of the dazzling variety of names for these tiny birds is indicative of their long-standing popularity with people.

As I have done in years past, I advise a patient but proactive approach for attracting hummingbirds. Keep feeders readily available. Don’t add red dyes to your sugar water mixture, which is perfectly acceptable at a ratio of four parts water to one part sugar. If possible, offer flowers in addition to feeders. Don’t keep your landscape too tidy. A perfectly manicured lawn is like a desert for hummingbirds. Provide some shrubs and trees to provide cover and perching branches. Water features, particularly waterfalls and fountains, are also a reliable means of attracting hummingbirds, as well as other birds. These tips also help attract other sorts of birds, as well, so it’s a win-win situation for bird enthusiasts.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A ruby-throated hummingbird perches on a feeder.

 

 

 

Regional bird count detects population trends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great crested flycatcher is a small bird with a very big name

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A great crested flycatcher perches in the branches of a pine in South Carolina.

Knoxville resident Rebecca Boyd shared on Facebook on May 27 that she enjoyed seeing a new bird at her home. “Although the guide books say this is a common bird, this morning was the first time I’ve ever seen a great crested flycatcher,” she wrote on her post.

I congratulated her and asked if she heard the bird make its loud “wheep” call. Only one bird — the great crested flycatcher — produces that loud, whistled “wheep!” She reported that she did indeed hear the call, which helped her find the bird in a tree in her yard.

Many species of birds have been given puzzling common names, and this is certainly the case for the great crested flycatcher. This bird does indeed sport a raggedy crest. For a flycatcher, it is almost a showy bird with its brown and dull yellow plumage. There’s not much to explain the adjective “great” in this bird’s name. It’s only about eight inches long. Helped by the shaggy crest, this flycatcher looks like it has a head slightly too large for its body.

The great crested flycatcher is unique among the region’s flycatchers in nesting inside natural cavities, just like such popular cavity-nesting birds as Eastern bluebird, Carolina chickadee, and wood duck. This flycatcher will also nest inside bird boxes, although the entrance hole needs to be slightly larger than the ones required for bluebirds, swallows and other small songbirds. During spring visits to coastal South Carolina, I’ve observed these flycatchers attempting to nest inside wooden paper delivery boxes. I’m not sure what the newspaper subscribers thought of these clever attempts to take up residence in the boxes.

This flycatcher is famous for including a shedded snake skin into the construction of its nest. This prevalent tendency on the part of great crested flycatcher isn’t practiced as a whim. Studies suggest that the snake skin serves as a deterrent to ward off potential predators that might seek to eat the flycatcher’s eggs. With the advent of the era of mass production, the great crested flycatcher occasionally substitutes cellophane or other varieties of clear plastic in place of the traditional snake skin. The speculation is that the bird mistakes the cellophane for the remnant left behind when a snake sheds its old skin.

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Photo by Rebecca Boyd • This great crested flycatcher visited in the yard at the residence of Rebecca Boyd in Knoxville, Tennessee.

As Rebecca did, you’ll probably hear a great crested flycatcher before you see it. Even when hidden in the forest canopy, the great crested flycatcher betrays its presence with its loud “Wheep! Wheep!” calls. They’re not skittish birds, however, and some patience will sometimes result in a visual observation of the bird.

Like with most other flycatchers, insects are the focus of the dietary preference of this bird. However, the great crested flycatcher will also eat some seasonally available fruit, including various berries. One of their ways of foraging for insects is to perch on a branch until an insect wanders into range. Once it spots an insect, the flycatcher swoops down to capture its prey.

The great crested flycatcher belongs to the Myiarchus genus of flycatchers, which consists of about two dozen species ranging throughout Central, South and North America. In the United States, the other two members of the genus are the ash-throated flycatcher, which resides in the western United States, and the brown-crested flycatcher, a resident of southern California, southern Nevada, central Arizona and southern Texas. Both of these species also range into Mexico and Central America. The island of Jamaica is home to one of the members of the genus with a claim to a rather unusual name. The sad flycatcher, better known in Jamaica as “little Tom Fool,” is considered a common resident of Jamaican forests.

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A Great Crested Flycatcher holds a moth in its beak prior to feeding the insect to its hungry young.

 

The tyrant flycatchers (Tyrannidae) are a family of passerine birds which occur throughout North and South America. They are considered the largest family of birds, with more than 400 species. They are the most diverse avian family in every country in the Americas, except for the United States and Canada, where they are present but without the diversity seen south of the U.S. border. Other flycatchers in the United States during the summer nesting season include the well-known Eastern phoebe and Eastern kingbird, as well as such species as willow flycatcher, olive-sided flycatcher, and scissor-tailed flycatcher. The great crested flycatcher nests throughout the eastern United States and retreats to Mexico and Central America during the winter months, although a few migrate south only as far as Florida for the colder season.

Other descriptively named tyrant flycatchers include rufous flycatcher, stolid flycatcher, black-capped flycatcher, yellow-bellied flycatcher, fork-tailed flycatcher, golden-winged tody-flycatcher, flammulated flycatcher, boat-billed flycatcher, ornate flycatcher, cinnamon flycatcher and vermilion flycatcher. The latter is a bit of a standout among flycatchers in having brilliant red plumage.

Listen for that “wheep” call from up in the woodland canopy. The hidden singer often repeatedly produces the call. Once the summer nesting season ends, these birds are typically silent. On occasion, however, an individual bird will not remain mute, and I have heard the loud “wheep” call even in September and October during fall migration. Although the great crested flycatcher is found in the region, I have observed this bird with more frequency farther south in states like Georgia and South Carolina. You just have to use a little more effort to observe this interesting bird closer to home.

UPDATE:  Rebecca Boyd Compton emailed me to say that she lives in Northern Virginia and for several months a bird she had never seen keeps coming by and knocking on her kitchen window.

“Today, I got a great picture although the gas seal busted in this window so it’s a little cloudy. Too bad! However, my friend used a Facebook site to find out the name. It’s a Great Crested Flycatcher. I’ve live in Northern Virginia for 22 years and these recent sightings are my first!”

She then did a Google search and stumbled across my blog post about Rebecca Boyd’s sighting (in Knoxville, Tennessee). “How unusual! My name is Rebecca Boyd, too,” she noted. “Now, Compton with my married name, but how unusual. I guess this bird like to visit Rebecca Boyd!”

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Photo by Rebecca Boyd Compton • Great Crested Flycatcher outside a window at a home in Northern Virginia.