Tag Archives: birds

Plovers among migration champions of vast and varied shorebird clan

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Photo by Janice Humble • A killdeer wanders in a grassy area near the Wal-Mart on Volunteer Parkway in Bristol. The killdeer, a species of plover, is one of the more common shorebirds found in the region.

I’m always glad to lend a hand at identifying birds. If you’re uncertain of a bird’s identification and have a photo of the bird in question, assistance is an email away. Janice Humble emailed me seeking some help with identifying the bird in a photograph attached with her message. She noted that the bird was accompanied by a companion in the grassy area near the Wal-Mart on Volunteer Parkway in Bristol. She also noted that the two birds uttered loud “peeps” during her observation.

The bird turned out to be a killdeer, a species of plover native to North America. Plovers belong to the family of shorebirds that include various sandpipers, curlews, dowitchers, stilts, avocets and other species. The killdeer is a rather common shorebird that finds itself at home far from the seashore, often present in habitats such as pastures and golf courses, as well as the grassy areas near the concrete and asphalt jungles that surround Wal-Marts and other such shopping complexes.

The killdeer’s famous for its faking of an injured wing. When its nest or young is threatened, a killdeer will go into an elaborate display, fluttering the “injured” wing and uttering shrill peeps to distract the potential predator. If successful, the bird will lure the predator away from the nest or vulnerable young. Once at a safe distance, the killdeer undergoes a miraculous recovery and takes wing, leaving behind a bewildered and perhaps chagrined predator.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Killdeer explores near a stream bank.

Other North American plovers related to the killdeer include American golden-plover, black-bellied plover, Pacific golden plover, Wilson’s plover, piping plover, snowy plover, mountain plover and semipalmated plover. About 70 different species of plovers exist around the world, including such descriptively named birds as little ringed plover, red-capped plover, three-banded plover and white-fronted plover.

Musick’s Campground on Holston Lake has been one of the best area locations for seeking shorebirds during their migrations. The shore near the campground has been a magnet for persuading unusual shorebirds to pause their journey to rest, refresh and refuel. The location’s privately owned, but individual wishing to bird the shoreline can enter by signing the guest book located a small but well-marked kiosk. Some of the most memorable shorebirds I’ve seen at Musick’s Campground over the years include whimbrel, dunlin, sanderling, greater yellowlegs, short-billed dowitcher, American avocet, black-bellied plover and semipalmated plover. In recent weeks, the location has hosted such unexpected shorebirds as red knot and red-necked phalarope.

While the neighboring states of Virginia and North Carolina offer coastal birding opportunities, my native Tennessee remains quite landlocked. This fact poses a challenge for birders looking to capitalize on the seasonal migrations of shorebirds. Fortunately ponds, mudflats on the shorelines of lakes, riverbanks and even flooded fields offer adequate substitute habitat for many shorebirds. While the Mountain Empire region may lack a seashore, migrating shorebirds have learned to make do.

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Photo by Jean Potter • The American golden-plover, like this individual, is a long-distance migrant among the varied family of shorebirds.

This varied and far-flung family is also known as “wind birds,” a term which is an allusion to the capacity of many species of shorebirds to undertake nothing less than epic migrations. Many of the shorebirds that pass through in the spring are in haste to reach their nesting grounds as far north as the edge of the Arctic tundra. In fall, many of the same birds are eager to return to destinations in Central and South America ahead of cold weather and times of scarcity.

The plovers — the sedentary killdeer excepted — are among the champions of long-distance migration. According to the Audubon website, the black-bellied plover spends the brief summer season nesting in the world’s high Arctic zones but disperses to spend the winter months on the coasts of six of the globe’s seven continents.

The Pacific golden-plover’s twice yearly migrations represent an even more impressive feat. This shorebird often nests in Alaska and winter in Hawaii. The website Phys.org notes that research on this plover has revealed that the bird is capable of flying almost 3,000 miles in a mere four days. The website also reveals that those plovers wintering in Hawaii cannot lay claim to longest migrations. Some Pacific golden-plovers nest even farther south in the Pacific, reaching the Marshall Islands.

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Photo by Jean Potter • A black-bellied plover stands out from most relatives when it wears its nesting season breeding plumage.

Shorebirds represent only a single family of birds migrating through the region in the fall. Songbirds from warblers and thrushes to vireos and flycatchers, as well as raptors and waterfowl, wing their way through the region every fall. Get outdoors with a pair of binoculars and have a look. It’s almost impossible not to see something, which may turn out to be a delightful and unanticipated surprise.

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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. To ask a question, make a comment or share a sighting, email him at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Native wrens offset lack of size with fiercely competitive spirit

 

Nature’s not always neat and tidy. In fact, nature operates with rough-and-tumble mechanisms that, all too often, put some of our favorite birds at odds with each other. Like any other living creature, birds compete for resources — food, water, prime nesting real estate and even mates. Some of those pretty and entertaining birds at your feeder or bird baths have a dark side that isn’t often glimpsed.

When some insight is gained into these behaviors, it’s only human to feel discouraged, disenchanted or dismayed. Nonetheless, some recent emails have reminded me to look at some of these more distressing incidents as teaching moments.

Joy Stewart emailed me asking for advice on a problem with rival nesting birds in her yard.

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Photo by Jean Potter • A house wren brings a delivery of food to waiting young.

“I have a total of 10 bird houses in my yard,” she wrote. “They are sized for a variety of bird species, and most years nearly all are filled—usually wrens, bluebirds, tree swallows, nuthatches or finches.”

At a recent get-together, she talked with a woman who also puts out bird houses and works hard to attract birds. “She talked at length about how bad house wrens are and how they destroy or kill bluebird eggs and babies,” Joy wrote. “She described how these wrens had just killed a house full of baby bluebirds. The woman also said house wrens are not native to this country.”

Joy noted that she usually tries to keep track of these types of issues, but the woman’s claims were all shocking news to her and made her wonder if such cutthroat competition might explain why her bluebirds seem to have absented themselves from her yard.

She ended her email by asking two questions. “Is the problem as bad as it sounds?” Joy inquired. “Also, how do I now work to get rid of the house wrens that have been coming to my two wren houses for over 10 years?”

She noted that just permanently taking down the houses would likely not work. “If nothing else, they will just move into the slightly larger houses,” she noted.

I replied to Joy’s email, noting that her friend is partly correct, but has confused house wren and house sparrow. From her description, I also noted that it appears she has house wrens in her yard.

The house wren is a native bird; the house sparrow is not a native bird, but was introduced into the country. Its true origins are Africa/Europe.

However, as cavity-nesting birds, both the sparrow and the wren compete with bluebirds. Legally, Joy can take steps to “control” house sparrows. As non-native birds, they are not protected.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • House sparrows, such as this female, are non-native birds that pose a serious threat to native cavity-nesting birds such as Eastern bluebirds.

However, the house wren is a native bird. I also happen to like house wrens. They have such bubbly, happy songs, and they’re good parents. They can raise as many as 10 young in one nest box.

Unfortunately, both the wren and the sparrow engage in ruthless behavior when it comes to nesting. Both species will evict bluebirds and other birds from boxes. They will even destroy eggs and young. Bluebirds can and do fight back, but despite their small size, house wrens are very feisty.

House wrens like brushy habitat that offers a lot of cover. I suggested Joy might consider trimming back or eliminating brush and hedges. Open space is also more attractive to bluebirds. Of course, chickadees and nuthatches also like brushy habitat and woodland edges, just like the house wrens.

It’s complicated, but I come down on the side of our native birds. House wrens have their place, but house sparrows should never have been in this country in the first place. I advised that Joy leave the wren boxes available to forestall the wrens deciding they have to fight other birds for a box. At the same time, I would not place any other boxes close (at least not within easy view) of the wren boxes, as wrens are very territorial.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Eastern bluebirds compete with native cavity-nesting birds such as house wrens and tree swallows for prime nest locations. Non-native birds, such as European starlings and house sparrows, can out-compete native birds for limited resources.

In response to a follow-up query, I suggested that placing the boxes completely out of sight would be the best rule of thumb. Try to have a building, a wall, or perhaps a large tree blocking the wren boxes from other boxes. At least this way, perhaps the adult wrens won’t be viewing the competition. It would be advisable to keep as much space between the wren boxes and the boxes meant for other birds as is practical and possible.

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An email from another reader likely involved a nesting wren. These small birds are rather notorious for choosing odd nesting sites. I’m thinking it is that tendency that explains Vivian Tester’s recent email asking for some suggestions for a somewhat unique problem.

“I’m looking for advice,” Vivian wrote. “I have a bird that has made a nest on my car windshield. I have driven the car a few times and she will fly away when I start the car, but I don’t want to do anything to harm her or the eggs.”

The situation had her baffled. “How long should it take for the process of laying eggs and them hatching and leaving the nest?” Vivian asked.

She noted that she had not been able to see any eggs. She added that the nest’s construction starts at the windshield and goes into the area under the hood. “I haven’t tried to open the hood in case it would destroy the nest,” she wrote.

Surprisingly, Vivian said the same thing happened last year but she just kept removing the nest. “I’m just not sure what I should do,” she wrote.

In my reply, I told Vivian that it sounds like she has a wren or perhaps a sparrow, and it can take 12-16 days for the eggs to hatch. The young must then spend another 10-12 days in the nest, so it could be at least four weeks for the entire process.

I suggested that, unless she could go without her car for a month, she should open the hood and gently remove the nest somewhere close by. A box or crate could hold the nest and the parent birds are likely to simply move from the car over to the new location for the nest. The parents are more attached to the nest itself than they are your car.

I admitted that I was sort of “winging” it on this problem. While a car is an odd choice for nesting, I’ve heard of birds such as swallows that nest on boats and then follow the boats along their river routes.audubon-ix-songsters-and-mimics-house-wren

After I responded, Vivian emailed me back. “I wanted to update you on the bird nest,” she wrote. “I did move it today into a hanging basket just above my car.”

The nesting bird flew away when Vivian opened the hood. “I am hoping she will return since I did see four little eggs in it,” she wrote.

I believe Vivian’s bird is probably a Carolina wren. I’ve observed these wrens, a slightly larger relative of the house wren, nesting in an old apron my grandmother used as a bag for her clothespins, as well as a plastic shopping bag hanging from a nail in my garage. A pair also once tried to nest in the exhaust vent for my clothes dryer.

Worldwide, there are about 80 species of wrens. All but one of the world’s wrens are confined to the New World. A variety of common names describe the various species with some creativity, including such monikers as tooth-billed wren, flutist wren, white-headed wren, sepia-brown wren, fawn-breasted wren and moustached wren.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To share a sighting, make a comment, or ask a question, send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Fruit increases chances of visit from scarlet tanagers

 

Last summer, Annette Bryant emailed me some beautiful photos she had taken of birds at her home in Marion, North Carolina.

“Photographing birds has been a passion of mine for many years,” Annette wrote to me. “I look forward to our blueberries getting ripe because I see certain birds only at that time.”

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Photo Courtesy of Annette Bryant • This male Scarlet Tanager adds a splash of tropical color whenever he appears.

One of those birds, she noted, is the scarlet tanager. Anyone who has beheld a scarlet tanager is hardly likely to forget the observation. Thanks to a recent observation I made of one of these birds, I have been reminded of some of the breathtaking birds — including the scarlet tanager — that make the mountains of northeast Tennessee, western North Carolina and southwest Virginia their summer home. The extraordinary appearance of the male scarlet tanager is certainly one that sets it apart from most other songbirds.

This tanager is not typically a feeder visitor, but bird enthusiasts can lure these birds with fruit, such as orange slices placed in special feeders or simply spiked onto the branches of backyard trees. As an added bonus, orange slices can also attract birds such as brown thrashers, Baltimore orioles and gray catbirds. The scarlet tanager indulges its fondness for fruit by incorporating various berries into its diet. In addition to the blueberries mentioned by Annette, other fruit-bearing trees and shrubs — mulberry, elderberry, serviceberry and wild cherry — will make your yard or garden more inviting to this somewhat elusive bird.

I usually have a few scarlet tanagers in residence around my home during the summer months, but I haven’t seen one so far this spring. However, my luck changed while taking part in the Summer Bird Count for Carter County, Tennessee. The count, conducted by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club, has been a long-running survey of summer birds in the region. Along with fellow birders Jean and Brookie Potter, Chris Soto and Mary-Anna Wheat, I got a timely reminder of the beauty of the scarlet tanager while we searched for birds on Holston Mountain near Elizabethton, Tennessee. A stunning male tanager showed up and entertained us with fantastic looks for several moments.

The male scarlet tanager boasts a brilliant plumage of crimson red paired with black wings and tail. Of course, like many other birds, the female scarlet tanager makes no real claim to the common name with her comparatively drab greenish plumage. However, the scientific name, Piranga olivacea, gives a nod to the olive-green plumage of females, young males and even adult males when they’re molting their feathers.

So, why is it so difficult to lay eyes on such a brightly colored bird? The answer rests with this bird’s daily routine, which is usually conducted among the upper woodland canopy in such tall trees as oaks and poplars.

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Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter A male Scarlet Tanager brightens shadowy woodlands with a flash of tropical colors.

Fortunately, male tanagers produce a distinctive song. Upon first hearing it, listeners might mistake the hidden singer for an American robin. Listen a little closer, however, and the song sounds as if it is being delivered by a hoarse robin with a sore throat. The male tanager also makes a vocalization described as “chip-burr” that is easily heard.

If we were to see a scarlet tanager in a rain forest in South America, we might not be so surprised by its vibrant plumage, usually associated with many tropical birds. The scarlet tanager is certainly better attired than most birds to provide observers a glimpse of a creature that would indeed look more at home in the jungle.

Worldwide, there have traditionally been about 240 species of tanagers. Experts have changed some of the ways they classify tanagers, so that figure is no longer set in stone. Tanagers are a New World family of birds, concentrated mainly in the tropics of Central and South America. Some of the world’s other tanagers are known by extremely descriptive names, including yellow-backed tanager, blue-and-yellow tanager, seven-coloured tanager, gilt-edged tanager, green-capped tanager, beryl-spangled tanager, opal-rumped tanager and blue-gray tanager.

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A print of Scarlet Tanagers by early North American naturalist and painter John James Audubon.

Warblers exert special pull for many birders

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The Kirtland’s Warbler, while endangered, is slowly building its numbers with intensive human assistance. Nearly 50 different warbler species nest in the eastern half of the continental United States. The rest of the world’s warblers reside mostly in Central and South America.

I’ve been fascinated with the group of small, energetic songbirds known as warblers almost from the start of my time as a birder. Many birds have inspired poetry, but to me, the warblers are poetry. I suppose another, more down-to-earth part of my fascination is that a little effort is usually required to see these birds. Although many species of warblers spend the summer months in the region, few of them would really be described as backyard birds. That being said, I am also fortunate to live in a location surrounded by woodlands that are inhabited by several species of warblers in the months spanning April to September on the calendar.

Of course, it’s always gratifying to hear from readers who have also caught the “warbler bug” and find these tiny, colorful songbirds as fascinating as I do. Graham Gardner of Abingdon, Virginia, sent me a recent email about the warblers, an extensive family of neotropical migrants that happen to be among my favorite birds.

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Photo by Graham Gardner • A Canada warbler wears a dark necklace of feathers across its yellow breast.

“I just wanted to share another great birding experience that I recently had with my father this past weekend,” Graham wrote in an email sent on May 1. “As you know, the spring migration of neotropical migrants is upon us. My father and I decided to take a trip to Peaks of Otter Lodge in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains to attempt to observe some of the more difficult-to-find warblers that I had not yet checked off my life list.”
He reported that the trip was wildly successful.

“We observed 10 warbler species in total in just under two days of birding.” Among them were three species that were new for him: cerulean warbler, Blackburnian warbler, and bay-breasted warbler.

He also shared some photos. “These guys are really quite difficult to photograph,” he wrote. “They are either constantly on the move, bouncing from branch to branch, or they are high in the canopy staying mostly out of sight.”

Graham wrote that he looks forward to searching for warblers in the coming weeks as they continue to pass through, and in some cases settle in, our Appalachian Mountains.
I congratulated Graham for his success with some of my favorite birds. I also let him know that he succeeded with a bird — the cerulean warbler — that has been elusive for me over the years. It’s one of the few warblers that spend time in the eastern United States that I haven’t managed to add to my life list. The other two warblers I need are the Connecticut warbler and Kirtland’s warbler.

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Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of cerulean warblers, a bird that he knew as the “Azure Warbler.”

 

“The cerulean was definitely the highlight of the trip for me,” Graham noted in a second email to me.

The cerulean warbler makes infrequent appearances in the region, but it has been observed as recently as the spring of 2016 at Steele Creek Park in Bristol, Tennessee. Some other locations — Frozen Head State Park, Edgar Evins State Park and Falls Creek Falls State Park — support breeding populations of this warbler within the Volunteer State.

Unfortunately, the cerulean warbler is one of the fastest declining songbirds in the United States. Habitat destruction in its breeding range in the Appalachian Mountains and its wintering range in South America is to blame for its plummeting numbers.

Among a family of several breathtakingly beautiful species, the cerulean warbler is one of the most exquisite of its kind in terms of appearance. Adult males have pale cerulean blue upperparts — hence the bird’s common name — and white underparts with a black necklace across the breast. They also show black streaking on the back and flanks.

Beyond its uncommon status, there are other reasons why it’s difficult to lay eyes on a cerulean warbler. First and foremost, cerulean warblers prefer to forage in the treetops. In that leafy, lofty habitat, observing these warblers can be difficult for ground-bound humans.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Northern waterthrush is a warbler fond of foraging near slow, flowing water.

I’ve been very close to seeing a cerulean warbler twice. During a past Spring Naturalists Rally at Roan Mountain, Tennessee, several people watched a cerulean warbler flitting in some tall trees while I struggled unsuccessfully to get my binoculars on the rapidly moving bird. More recently, I was looking for birds with fellow birder Jean Potter along the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee, for a Fall Bird Count. She found a female cerulean warbler in a tree overhanging the river, but I failed to get my binoculars on the bird in time.

So, while my luck with cerulean warblers hasn’t changed (yet), I have seen several warblers at my home this spring, including hooded warbler, ovenbird, black-throated green warbler, black-and-white warbler and Northern parula. In addition, I’ve seen other warblers — yellow-breasted chat, Cape May warbler, yellow warbler and chestnut-sided warbler — at other locations in the region.

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Photo by Graham Gardner • The black-and-white warbler, which is aptly named, is one of the most easily identified warblers.

The warblers are poetry written with splashes of movement and hints of color written across an often green background. While not easy to observe, they’re worth seeking out. Glimpsing one of these energetic songbirds is always a moment that puts a smile on my face — and in my heart.

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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 http://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.

Annual spring rally returns to Roan Mountain April 28-30

Larry McDaniel and James Neves, the co-directors one of the region’s longest-running nature events, are excited about the activities they have to offer for the 59th annual Roan Mountain Spring Naturalists Rally. Continuing the tradition of the 58 preceding rallies, this year’s rally will offer a great assortment of programs, hikes and activities which celebrate the unique beauty and natural diversity of this environmental treasure that is Roan Mountain.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Flowers and pollinating insects just go together.

Scheduled for Friday-Sunday, April 28-30, this year’s event is open to nature enthusiasts of all skill levels from casual interest to advanced study. There is something for everyone. Bring friends and family and invite the neighbors to take part. The headquarters and hub of activities for the rally is the Conference Center at Roan Mountain State Park. Registration, meals, programs, and exhibits will be centered there. Most of the field trips will meet at the field adjacent to the cabin area entrance. Participants will see signs in the field for the various field trips. Onsite registration is available at the field. For most of the field trips participants will carpool from the field to nearby trailheads. Organizers strongly encourage carpooling, which will help participants make new friends and lower fossil fuel emissions.

This year’s evening programs will focus on native bees, as well as mountains sports and recreation.

“Bees for Birders: Discovering Native Bee Watching Through Binoculars” will be presented by Sam Droege at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 28. Droege, a native of Hyattsville, Maryland, received an undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland and a master’s degree at the State University of New York – Syracuse. Most of his career has been spent at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. He has coordinated the North American Breeding Bird Survey Program, developed the North American Amphibian Monitoring Program, the Bioblitz, Cricket Crawl, and Frogwatch USA programs and works on the design and evaluation of monitoring programs. Currently he is developing an inventory and monitoring program for native bees along with online identification guides for North American bees at http://www.discoverlife.org, and reviving the North American Bird Phenology Program (https://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bpp/).

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Sam Droege

Diversity is a hallmark of the natural world. For instance, Droege points out that east of the Mississippi there are about 800 species of native bees. This is more species than the total species of birds and butterflies combined. Bees are also more abundant and easier to find. Flowers are their habitat and different species favor different types and groups of plants. So, why aren’t we watching them? Lack of information on how to watch them is the answer. With a pair of butterfly binoculars and a new free identification guide, anyone can begin to be a bee watcher, “beeder”, bee head, or simply a broader naturalist.

David Ramsey will present the evening program at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aprilm 29. He will speak about “Wild Times: Conservation Through Mountain Sports and Recreation.” Ramsey is an outdoor photographer, writer and conservationist born and raised in Unicoi County. He has spent most of the past 30 years exploring and photographing these southern Appalachian Mountains and sharing his photography and passion for the mountains with thousands of people. During that time, his photography has been published extensively — locally, regionally and nationally. Throughout his life, Ramsey has been in

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David Ramsey

spired by other photographer-conservationists, from Elliot Porter, Galen Rowell and Robert Glenn Ketchum to the region’s own Edward Schell. In 2011, he was selected as National Hero of Conservation by Field and Stream Magazine for his leadership in the effort to save the 10,000-acre Rocky Fork Watershed, part of which is now a Tennessee State Park. In 2012 he was chosen as a National Conservationist of the Year finalist by Budweiser and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Ramsey is also a former Stanley A. Murray Volunteer of the Year for Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. Ramsey is at work on finishing a book about the fight to preserve Rocky Fork and working to have the northeast Tennessee region recognized as a major outdoor recreation destination.

The Friends of Roan Mountain organization was created by people who cherish the natural beauty and cultural history of Roan Mountain. Members of the group sponsor interpretive and educational activities including Spring, Fall, and Winter Naturalists Rallies and a summer Xtreme Roan  Adventures Kid’s Nature Rally. Members also support the environmental mission of Roan Mountain State Park including environmental studies, conservation, and restoration. Membership supports these worthy projects and entitles members to free participation in all activities of the Spring, Fall, and Winter Rallies for that year, as well as the group’s newsletters.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Wildflowers, like trout lilies, are abundant during the spring rally.

In addition to the evening programs, a variety of hikes, workshops and other events are planned for all three days of the rally. There is an extra cost for meals, which require advance registration. For more information or a brochure of the specific events, including a reservation form for all activities, including the Friday and Saturday evening meals, visit http://www.friendsofroanmtn.org/Spring%20Rally%20Brochure%20web%202017%20.pdf

Information is also available by contacting the co-directors for the Rally. Call Larry McDaniel at 423-773-9234 or email him at larrycmcd@hotmail.com. Call James Neves at 706-224-3355 or email him at jamesneves@gmail.com.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Newly-arrived migrant birds, like indigo buntings, should be present during the rally.

Woodcocks, snipe among the more oddball members of a diverse shorebird clan

Photo by Leah Hawthorn/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • An American woodcock probes for food among fallen leaves on the woodland floor.

March is traditionally a month of erratic weather, characterized by blustery winds and occasional drenching rainstorms. While the month is also a signal to get ready for the return of migrant songbirds, they are hardly the only birds on the wing each spring. Birds from waterfowl to raptors migrate through the region in March, April and May, but the real migratory champs are the shorebirds.

Known for migrating incredible distances, the shorebirds are often referred to as “wind birds,” a romantic allusion to their habit of taking wing for the epic journeys that astound scientists and birders alike. Among the far-flung family are birds known as sandpipers and plovers, as well as whimbrels, willets, tattlers and turnstones.
Still, among the general public, as well as some birders, the shorebirds are a much misunderstood group of birds. For example, most people could hardly be blamed for believing that shorebirds are inhabitants of only the beach and shore. In fact, some species are at home in an array of habitats, ranging from woodlands and prairies to the Arctic tundra and mudflats. Some are notoriously elusive, their camouflage and low-key behavior allowing them to escape casual notice at most times.
In late winter and early spring, a true oddball among the shorebirds begins courting. The American woodcock, also known by such whimsical names as “bog sucker” and “timberdoodle,” is a shorebird that has completely abandoned the shore in favor of woodlands and fields. Beginning as early as February, American woodcocks in the region conduct nightly courtship displays, starting at dusk, that combines aerial acrobatics with an assortment of unusual acoustical flourishes. Any wet field adjacent to a wooded area could offer a stage for these evening displays, but unless you know where to look and make an effort to do so, the American woodcock might as well remain a phantom of the night.
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John James Audubon, an early American naturalist and artist, painted this scene of American woodcocks feeding in damp earth.

These mating rituals provide almost the only time that this bird makes itself visible to us. It’s only during this brief window that opens into their lives that we can be assured a glimpse. Even then, our peek at woodcocks often consists of a fuzzy twilight escapade as the bird flings itself heavenward only to make a spiraling descent a few seconds later. The displays begin with a distinct vocalization, a type of “pent,” that also has the quality of sounding like some sort of mechanical buzzer.
Once the displays conclude for the season, the birds assume nesting duties, usually unobserved by humans. The rest of the year, almost nothing but blind, sheer luck would allow a birder to stumble across an American woodcock. It’s almost as if they disappear after these spring flights of fancy.

For the most part, the “wind birds” leave lives in habitats that keep them separate from humans. On occasion, however, one of these shorebirds pays an unexpected visit to members of the public. Tom and Helen Stetler, residents of Elizabethton, Tennessee, shared an account of one such visit in a recent email.

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Photo by Tom Stetler • A Wilson’s snipe visits the yard at the home of Tom and Helen Stetler in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

“We had a visit from a very unusual bird today,” Tom wrote in the email. “It was a woodcock. It stayed quite a while this morning.”
He estimated that the bird stayed in their yard for about 15 to 20 minutes.  “I kept trying to get a good picture of its long bill and finally did,” he said, enclosing a photo of the visiting bird with his email.
He credited his wife, Helen, with having spotted the bird. After seeing the bird, Helen called to her husband to come have a look “at this bird with a very long beak!”
After I examined the photo, I noticed that the unusual visitor was actually not a woodcock but a closely related bird known as a Wilson’s snipe. The confusion of the two birds is quite understandable. The snipe and the woodcock bear a superficial resemblance to each other.

The American woodcock belongs to the genus of Scolopax, a Latin term for this group of eight oddball shorebirds. Other members of the genus include the Eurasian woodcock, the New Guinea woodcock and the Sulawesi woodcock.

Snipe-One

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Wilson’s snipe is remarkably capable of blending with its surroundings.

Wilson’s snipe, which is closely related to the woodcock, inspired the term “snipe hunt.” Regarded as lessons in futility, these hunts are not seeking some mythical quarry, although some people mistakenly believe there’s no such bird as a snipe. In fact, there are several species of snipes, although only one — Wilson’s snipe — can be found in much of the United States. Some of the world’s other 25 species of snipe include Jack snipe, wood snipe, pintail snipe, noble snipe and imperial snipe.
Any wet field or pasture may conceal hidden snipes during the spring. A few sometimes spend the winter in the region. Flushing a snipe from a tangle of grass right at your feet as you walk through a wet field always works to get the heart pumping faster. Snipe also stage spring mating displays that are not quite as elaborate as those of the woodcock. I suspect that recent heavy rains made the yard at the Stetler home similar enough to a flooded field to attract the visiting snipe.

While both the Wilson’s snipe and American woodcock are elusive birds able to easily conceal themselves from view, other shorebirds definitely stand out in a crowd. For example, the gangly black-necked stilt and the spindly American avocet are surely two of the most striking, almost comical shorebirds in North America.

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The American woodcock is also known by such whimsical common names as bogsucker and timberdoodle.

In addition, members of the shorebird family vary greatly in size. North America’s smallest shorebird, appropriately enough, is the least sandpiper, a tiny shorebird less than six inches in length and weighing barely an ounce. The least sandpiper breeds widely across northern Canada and Alaska and winters across the southern United States and Mexico.
The largest shorebird — depending on how “largest” is defined — is either the Far Eastern curlew or the beach thick-knee. The Far Eastern Curlew is a large shorebird most similar in appearance to North America’s long-billed curlew, but slightly larger. This bird definitely has the longest bill of any shorebird and ranks as the world’s largest member of the sandpiper clan. The Far Eastern curlew is 25 inches in body length, although the Eurasian curlew is almost the same size. If it comes down to weight, the heaviest shorebird is the beach thick-knee, a bird native to Australia and the islands of Southeast Asia and India. This unusual shorebird can weigh as much as 2.2 pounds, but is only 22 inches long. The Far Eastern curlew, in comparison, weighs a mere 27 ounces.
In the coming weeks, check the edges of ponds, the banks of rivers and shorelines of lakes for migrating shorebirds. Don’t forget to keep an eye on your yard, too. Spring migration is always full of surprises.
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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To ask a question, share an observation or make a comment, email him at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Arrival of tree swallows one of season’s firsts among spring’s returning birds

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Tree swallows are among the different species of birds returning to the region after spending the winter months farther south. These birds will be looking for nesting boxes or natural cavities in the coming weeks.

Waiting for spring? Join the club. Between alternating bouts of unseasonably warm temperatures and frigid blasts, the weather cannot seem to decide if winter’s hanging in there a little longer or if it’s time to proceed with spring’s arrival.

You might think that would translate into a messy arrival timetable for some of our returning birds, but so far my own personal observations indicate a different story. For instance, a pair of tree swallows arrived at my home on March 8. Curious, I explored my Facebook newsfeed and discovered that the first tree swallows returned in 2016 on the very same date! These punctual arrivals never cease to amaze me. It’s almost like clockwork for some of the birds that I have observed for many years at my home.

When John James Audubon painted these tree swallows, he knew them as “white-bellied swallows.”

When I posted about the arrival of the swallows on Facebook, some other people shared their own arrival stories. Paul Elmore in Bristol, Tennessee, mentioned the arrival of the first brown-headed cowbirds at his home. “Their sounds got my attention first,” he noted in his reply to my post, describing the sound as similar to “a marble being dropped into a pail of water.”

In addition to tree swallows and brown-headed cowbirds, other recent returns have included red-winged blackbirds and American robins, which have both been hailed as traditional harbingers of spring. Over the next few weeks, I look for the pace to pick up as returning birds like chipping sparrows, brown thrashers, blue-gray gnatcatchers and yellow-throated warblers mingle with lingering winter birds such as dark-eyed juncos, purple finches and yellow-rumped warblers.

The pair of swallows that returned on March 8 probably regretted the timing. Arriving during a warm spell that saw temperatures climb into the high 70s, the swallows were soon enduring a chilly blast that saw the mercury in outdoor thermometers dipping into the 20s. The swallows are insect-eating birds, so extended cold spells often force them to retreat to the area’s lakes and larger rivers, where they can swoop over the water and have an easier time plucking cold-numbed flying insects out of the air.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Tree swallows usually return to the region in late February and early March. Look for other birds, such as brown thrashers and chipping sparrows, to return in the coming weeks.

Once milder spring temperatures prevail, the flocks of swallows forced into these necessary habitats will disperse as pairs begin seeking nesting sites. Tree swallows are cavity-nesting birds, which often puts them into competition with Eastern bluebirds. The two species usually manage to work out a truce and settle down to nest in close proximity to each other.

The iridescent blue-green male tree swallow, complete with white underparts and a forked tail, is a handsome bird and a welcome addition to the bird population in any yard or garden. Tree swallows enjoy water, so a nearby pond or creek is a boon for attracting these birds.

Tree swallows nesting in southwest Virginia are a relatively recent happening. According to Tony Decker’s The Birds of Smyth County, Virginia, tree swallows have only been common summer residents since about 1975. Some of the early records of these birds nesting in the region took place at locations like the ponds in Saltville, Virginia, and Laurel Bed Lake in Russell County, Virginia.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Eastern bluebird stakes claim to a box to ward off inquisitive tree swallows. The two cavity-nesting species are often competitors for prime nesting real estate.

A decade later, tree swallows began nesting in northeast Tennessee. The first nesting record took place at Austin Springs on Boone Lake in Washington County, Tennessee, according to The Birds of Northeast Tennessee by Rick Knight. Tree swallows soon became regular nesting birds every summer in all five counties that comprise Northeast Tennessee.

It’s usually not too difficult to find five of the six species of swallows that are known to make Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia their home from spring to fall. In addition to tree swallows, other swallows such as barn swallows, purple martins, cliff swallows and northern rough-winged swallows are fairly common summer birds in the region. The barn swallow and tree swallow are the two members of the family that are probably best known to people. They have adapted to life in both suburban and rural areas, which brings them into frequent contact with people.

The golden swallow, which today exists only on the island of Hispaniola.

While only a few swallows range into the United States and Canada, a total of 83 species of swallows can be found worldwide. Some of the common names for these different swallows (also called martins in other parts of the world) are quite descriptive. A sampling includes white-eyed river martin, grey-rumped swallow, white-backed swallow, banded martin, blue swallow, violet-green swallow, golden swallow, brown-throated martin, brown-bellied swallow, pale-footed swallow, white-bibbed swallow, pearl-breasted swallow, red-breasted swallow, mosque swallow, fairy martin and streak-throated swallow.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male tree swallow perches on a utility wire extending over a fish pond.

While many swallows and martins have proven highly adaptive when faced with human disturbances to their habitat, a few species have experienced declines. One species — the white-eyed river martin — was last seen in Thailand in the 1980s and very well may be extinct. Closer to home, the golden swallow is now found only on the island of Hispaniola after disappearing from Jamaica in the 1980s. The Bahama swallow, which nests on only four islands in the Bahamas, is also vulnerable. Incidentally, both these swallows are closely related to the tree swallow, with all of them belonging to the genus Golden Swallow. Translated from Greek, the genus name means “fast mover,” a quite accurate description of these graceful and agile flyers.

With their enthusiastic twittering to each other, tree swallows make for friendly neighbors. It’s also a pleasant diversion to watch them swoop over fields and ponds. To increase your chances of hosting your own tree swallows, offer a bird box placed in an open area. Right now is the time to attract their attention with some prime real estate.

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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.