Tag Archives: Bryan Stevens

Unlikely orange-crowned warbler becomes daily visitor this winter at woman’s feeders

After you have fed the birds long enough, you’re going to get visits from “mystery” birds. No matter how thoroughly you thumb through the pages of your field guides or how many online Google searches you conduct, it can be hard to pin down the identity of certain birds, especially when you encounter them for the first time.

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Photo by Rebecca Boyd • This orange-crowned warbler has found a favorable winter residence at the home of Rebecca Boyd in Knoxville, Tennessee, making frequent visits to suet feeders to supplement its usual diet of insects and berries.

In the summer and fall, young birds recently out of the nest can cause some confusion when they show up in the company of their parents at feeders. In the winter, often a season characterized by subdued plumages and nomadic wanderers, the surprise visitors can be one of the many “little brown birds” in the sparrow clan or a summer bird like an oriole or thrush that has decided to take a shot at overwintering.

Or, with greater frequency each winter, it might be one of the warblers. That was the case when Rebecca Boyd, a resident of Knoxville, Tennessee, contacted me recently via Facebook asking for assistance with a bird identification.

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Photo by Rebecca Boyd • This orange-crowned warbler is one of the more nondescript members of the warbler family.

Although most of the warblers beat a hasty retreat from North America every fall, a handful of species have increasingly begun to spend the winter months far north of their usual tropical haunts. Some of these species include yellow-rumped warbler, pine warbler and palm warbler, but the low-profile orange-crowned warbler is also becoming more common between November and March, especially in yards and gardens offering supplemental food such as suet cakes.

The small greenish-yellow bird that showed up at Rebecca’s home was easily identified, thanks to some great photographs that she took of her visitor. I communicated to her that I believed her bird to be an orange-crowned warbler. She had also conducted her own research, which had also led her to that conclusion.

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Photo by Rebecca Boyd • This orange-crowned warbler has found a home at the residence of Rebecca Boyd in Knoxville, Tennessee, this winter.

Rebecca said she also shared some photos with birding groups on Facebook, which brought some helpful feedback. “I’ve gotten numerous responses that orange-crowned warblers are becoming a lot more common on the east side of the Mississippi, with quite a few people saying they are seeing them in their yards, too,” Rebecca wrote.

The orange-crowned warbler is one of the more undistinguished members of this New World family of birds that numbers about 115 species. The bird gains its common name from a physical feature that is rarely seen — an orange patch of feathers that, unless the bird is extremely excited or agitated, is usually concealed beneath its dull greenish-yellow feathers. It’s not a field mark that’s considered reliable for identifying the bird.

Rebecca got a lucky break and managed to photograph this elusive feature on her visiting bird. She said the feathers on the bird’s head appeared wet, which may have explained the appearance of the orange crown.

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Photo by Rebecca Boyd • Wet feathers made the rarely seen orange crown visible on this orange-crowned warbler that has taken up residence at the home of Rebecca Boyd in Knoxville, Tennessee, this winter.

So, what does signify an orange-crowned warbler? The lack of wing bars, as well as the absence of a strong facial pattern is a strong indicator. The bird in Rebecca’s photo is not nearly as drab as this warbler can appear. Some appear very gray with only a hint of yellow or green in their plumage. There is often faint gray streaking evident in their yellow-green breast feathers. This warbler always shows yellow beneath its tail, a feature that is often only glimpsed as an observed bird is diving into cover. These birds also have sharp, thin bills. It’s usually a process of eliminating other suspects that brings birders to identify one of these warblers.

Unlike some warblers restricted to either the eastern or western United States, the orange-crowned warbler migrates and winters throughout the nation, east and west, although it primarily only nests within the western United States, as well as Alaska and Canada.

Although Rebecca said she has only been bird-watching and taking pictures for a little over a year, she has been a general point-and-shoot photography hobbyist for years. “My backyard is a bird paradise that attracts numerous and varied species,” Rebecca noted. “My favorites are bluebirds and hummingbirds, but the little warblers are also very special.”

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Photo by Rebecca Boyd • Besides orange-crowned warbler, like this individual, other warblers on occasion winter in the United States. Species most often attempting to spend the winter months in the United States include palm warbler, pine warbler, and yellow-rumped warbler.

Most of the warblers are currently residing on the island of the the Caribbean, or far south in Central and South America. A few others spend the winter in Florida or other southern states. The 50 or so species that nest in the United States and Canada will begin arriving as early as next month, although the majority of these summer residents will arrive or pass through the region in late April and May.

So, while it has a colorful name, the orange-crowned warbler is one of the more drab and nondescript members of its family. Other warblers living throughout the Americas include flame-throated warbler, crescent-chested warbler, citrine warbler and arrowhead warbler.

I’ll just keep daydreaming on the occasional snowy day of the approach of spring, which signals that the kin of the orange-crowned warbler will be winging their way north again in only a couple more months. I, for one, can’t wait.

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If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photo by Rebecca Boyd • This orange-crowned warbler grabs a bit of suet from a feeder at the home of Rebecca Boyd in Knoxville, Tennessee.

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Red-shouldered hawk makes a fascinating, if somewhat shy, guest

People who feed the birds soon get to know the feisty personalities from the retiring wallflowers when it comes to the visitors to their yards. Northern mockingbirds, male ruby-throated hummingbirds and American robins are usually counted among the more boisterous birds.

Then there are the birds that shrink from interaction and hang back on the fringes, including wood thrushes, Eastern towhees and the large but shy pileated woodpecker. The latter example just goes to show that size doesn’t always equate with an extroverted personality when it comes to birds.

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Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Lee Karney • Red-shouldered hawks prefer to perch and ambush prey. They drop on unsuspecting prey, which varies from reptiles and amphibians to rodents, that come within reach.

That’s certainly the case with a red-shouldered hawk that has taken up residence for the winter at my home. The hawk usually favors a stand of trees near the fish pond at my home when it visits the yard. The hawk made its initial appearances in December and then lingered into the new year. So far, the hawk has been a very shy guest. I’ve wanted to photograph the bird, but that’s difficult to do when it spooks and flies off the instant I step outside the door of my home. I’m not too disappointed because I know that raptors that are too comfortable around humans are at risk of running afoul of misinformed individuals who may regard all predatory birds as “bad.” The reality is that all hawks are valuable components of a healthy, working ecosystem with each species filling a certain niche.

According to a factsheet published by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, this raptor breeds in moist woodlands, riverine forests, the borders of swamps, open pine woods and similar habitats. Nesting almost always occurs near water, such as a swamp, river or pond.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • This captive red-shouldered hawk was rehabilitated after suffering an injury and now works in an educational program at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina to teach the public about raptors, other birds, and various types of wildlife.

 

The red-shouldered hawk is an ambush predator. This raptor usually selects a favorable perch and remains still while scanning for possible prey. The hawk will drop rapidly onto any prey that wanders carelessly within range. In the summer, prey items largely consist of reptiles and amphibians, including snakes and frogs, as well as some insects and crayfish. Most of these creatures are scarce during the colder months of the year, which prompts these hawks to adopt a diet that focuses on rodents and the occasional songbird. Other than the altercations with the resident crows, I haven’t observed any encounters between the hawk at my home and any other birds — with one exception.

On a recent morning, the hawk was on its usual perch — a branch of a large willow adjacent to the fish pond — when seven Canada geese, another rare visitor to my home, suffered some sort of fright and took flight. The noisy geese flew directly over the willow, which spooked the raptor into taking flight in the opposite direction of the departing geese.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A calling red-shouldered hawk perched in a dead tree on Pawleys Island in South Carolina.

The red-shouldered hawk produces a distinctive, piercing whistle that reminds me of the shrill call of a killdeer. The hawk at my house has been silent so far, perhaps not wishing to draw attention. The few times the local crows have noticed the hawk’s presence, they’ve flocked together to mob the unfortunate hawk. It’s also not the right time of year. During courtship and the subsequent nesting period, these hawks are vocal. At other times of the year, they are rarely heard. It’s also possible to mistakenly think you have heard one of these large hawks. Blue jays have apparently learned to imitate the “kee-yar” call of this hawk, often working a flawless rendition of the whistled notes of this large raptor.

In contrast to the related red-tailed hawk, the red-shouldered hawk soars less and prefers to perch hidden in the cover of trees. This hawk’s name comes from the reddish-brown shoulder patches in the bird’s wings. Adults show a tail marked with vivid bands of black and white that is quite distinctive.

The red-shouldered hawk belongs to the same genus of raptors as its larger relative, the red-tailed hawk. The genus, buteo, includes about two dozen large raptors that are often dominant avian predators in their respective habitats. The red-shouldered hawk is known by the scientific name Buteo lineatus.

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Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of red-shouldered hawk.

The red-shouldered hawk is less common in the region than some of the other raptors. This hawk’s stronghold is in Florida and other southern states like South Carolina and Georgia. I’ve seen many of these hawks on visits to both the Sunshine State and Palmetto State.

Some of the buteo species have adapted to life on islands, including the Galapagos hawk and the Hawaiian hawk. Some of these hawks have quite descriptive names, including the white-throated hawk, gray-lined hawk, zone-tailed hawk and short-tailed hawk. Outside the United States, raptors in the buteo genus are often known as buzzards. When the first European colonists came to the New World, they applied the term buzzard to both native vultures, as well as the large raptors like Swainson’s hawk and broad-winged hawk that reminded them of the ones back in Europe.

It’s been nice hosting this beautiful raptor, although the crows might disagree with me. A neighbor who lives close to me has had red-shouldered hawks spend the summer months on her property, so I’m hopeful that my visitor might even like the surroundings well enough to become a full-time resident.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • In a timely fashion, this red-shouldered hawk, which has avoided the camera for weeks, arrived on this rainy day in late January on the same date this post inspired by this bird was published.

Even during winter season, activity on the Roan doesn’t slow much

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The setting sun casts a pink glow to the winter sky near the village of Roan Mountain. The 11th annual Roan Mountain Winter Naturalists Rally is set for Saturday, Feb. 11, at the Roan Mountain State Park Conference Center.

Activities last month and planned events for February are just some of the evidence that, no matter the season, things are always happening on Roan Mountain.

For instance, the 65th Roan Mountain Christmas Bird Count was held Sunday, Dec. 17, with nine observers in two parties. Up to four inches of snow blanketed most of the area, but the roads were clear. These weather conditions highlight the fact that over the years a couple of Roan Mountain CBCs had to be cancelled due to weather conditions.

Participants included Fred Alsop, Jim Anderson, Rick Blanton, Kevin Brooks, compiler Rick Knight, Roy Knispel, Guy McGrane, Amber Stanley, and Charles Warden. A total of 44 species were tallied, near the 30 year average of 46. The all-time high of 55 species was established back in 1987.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A total of 50 Dark-eyed Juncos made the tally during the Roan Mountain Christmas Bird Count held Dec. 17, 2017.

A list of the species follows:

Canada Goose, 24; Pied-billed Grebe, 1; Great Blue Heron, 3; Cooper’s Hawk, 1; Red-shouldered Hawk, 1; and Red-tailed Hawk, 6.

Rock Pigeon, 19; Mourning Dove, 58; Eastern Screech-Owl, 2; Barred Owl, 1; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 3; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 2; Downy Woodpecker, 10; Hairy Woodpecker, 2; Northern Flicker, 1; and Pileated Woodpecker, 7.

American Kestrel, 1; Eastern Phoebe, 6; Blue Jay, 23; American Crow, 82; and Common Raven, 11.

Carolina Chickadee, 25; Tufted Titmouse, 20; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 5; White-breasted Nuthatch, 15; Brown Creeper, 2; Winter Wren, 2; Carolina Wren, 15; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 13; Eastern Bluebird, 30; American Robin, 12; Northern Mockingbird, 6; European Starling, 65; and Cedar Waxwing, 2.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A total of 15 Northern Cardinals were found the day of the Roan Mountain Christmas Bird Count last month.

Eastern Towhee, 9; Field Sparrow, 11; Song Sparrow, 80; Swamp Sparrow, 2; White-throated Sparrow, 11; Dark-eyed Junco, 50; Northern Cardinal, 15; House Finch, 3; American Goldfinch, 46; and House Sparrow, 41.

Some interesting incidents on this count included finding an Eastern Phoebe at an elevation of 4,450 feet surrounded by snow. The most abundant birds included Common Crow with 83 individuals found and European Starling with 65 individuals counted.

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The focus will be on botany for the upcoming Roan Mountain Winter Naturalists Rally, scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 11.

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Lisa Huff

According to Richard Broadwell, director for the winter rally, the event has drawn hardy nature enthusiasts from far and wide to Roan Mountain for the past 11 winter seasons. Top naturalists volunteer their time and energy to make the event both enjoyable and educational for people of all ages. Parents are encouraged to bring the kids.

Broadwell noted that the 2018 Winter Rally continues this celebration of the natural world by providing top speakers on topics concerning the environs of the Roan Highlands. Speakers for morning programs will be Ben Jarrett, Southern Regional Science Coordinator, for The American Chestnut Foundation; Lisa Huff, Stewardship Ecologist with the Tennessee State Natural Areas Program; and Dwayne Estes, professor of biology at Austin Peay State University.

Jarrett will speak about the historical significance of the American chestnut in a program tilted “Restoration of American Chestnut: A Marriage of Breeding and Biotechnology.” He will take a look at the American chestnut and its economic, ecological and social importance). He will also educate about the chestnut blight and subsequent downfall of the species, as well as the ongoing restoration efforts through backcross breeding and genetic engineering.

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Ben Jarrett

Huff will present a history of the shortleaf pine and bluestem vegetation community in Tennessee in a program titled “The Mystery of the Missing Shortleaf Pine.” She started working for the Tennessee State Natural Areas Program in 2000. She is tasked with the daily operations and management of over 42,000 acres in 21 natural areas in East Tennessee.

Estes will speak about southeastern United States grasslands, such as savannas, prairies, glades, barrens, bald, bogs, fens, and meadows, all of which are imminently threatened. He will also educate about the work of the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative in Clarksville, which aims to focus grassland conservation efforts across a 21-state region. SGI will use a multi-faceted approach combining restoration, preservation, recreation, research, rescue, seed banking, education and market-driven strategies. SGI is currently working with and seeking support from private philanthropic foundations, corporations, non-profit conservation organizations and government agencies. His program is titled “The Southeastern Grasslands Initiative: Charting a New Course for Conservation in the 21st Century.”

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Dwayne Estes

All programs will be held at the Roan Mountain State Park Conference Center. Jarrett will speak at 9:30 a.m. followed by Huff at 10:30 a.m. The program by Estes at 11:40 a.m. will conclude the slate of presentations. Lunch, which requires a pre-paid reservation, will be served at 12:30 p.m. Sarah Sanford, candidate for Master’s of Environmental Management at Duke University, will present a lunchtime program on “Grassy Balds Management in the Roan Highlands.”

Four different hikes are planned for the afternoon, starting at 1:30 p.m. Hike options include:

• Lisa Huff will lead a hike in the Hampton Creek Cove Natural Area. Binoculars are recommended. The moderately strenuous hike should not take more than three hours.

• Jamey Donaldson, ETSU John C. Warden Herbarium Adjunct Curator, will lead a hike to the alder balds on the ridgeline of Roan Mountain. Dress warmly for this strenuous hike.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Pine Siskin in a spruce at Carver’s Gap on Roan Mountain.

• Marty Silver, Ranger with Warriors Path State Park, will lead a wildlife tracking and animal signs hike down near the Doe River in Roan Mountain State Park. This is a moderately strenuous and kid-friendly activity.

• Dr. Frosty Levy, Professor Emeritus of Biology at East Tennessee State University, will lead an easy winter tree identification hike in Roan Mountain State Park.

For more information and a downloadable brochure, visit http://friendsofroanmtn.org/2018%20Winter%20Rally%20Brochure.pdf or email Broadwell at rbroadwell@gmail.com. The event is free to members of Friends of Roan Mountain and children. Adults who are not members of FORM can register for all activities for $10.

Cardinal has rivals when it comes to depiction on Christmas cards

Although many articles have been penned about the demise of the Christmas card, I still receive plenty of these paper greetings each holiday season. My friends and acquaintances, knowing me well, I suppose, often select cards featuring a variety of birds. Regardless of rising postal costs and hectic schedules during a busy season, the Christmas card appears to be an enduring tradition.

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Photo by Nathan Rathbun/USFWS • An observation of a bright red male Northern cardinal is sure to put some cheer into the holidays.

Many of the cards I have received this year and in past holiday seasons have featured the Northern cardinal, which has long been one of my favorite birds. During the winter months, particularly during the holiday season, the Northern cardinal seems to take on even more significance. Anyone who received many Christmas cards this year will probably confirm that the cardinal often appears on them. The origins of the cardinal’s affiliation with the holiday of Christmas are a bit murky. After all, the Northern cardinal is a North American bird that would have been unknown in Europe until the 1600s, when the first explorers and settlers arrived from Europe.

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Photo by Jeff Keller/National Science Foundation • Chinstrap penguins (Pygoscelis antarctica) are also known as the bearded penguin and the ringed penguin. They reach about two feet tall and weigh less than 10 pounds. Chinstraps form strong bonds with their mates and will wait long periods for their mates to return to the breeding ground each year, rather than take a new mate.

The cardinal is hardly the only species of wildlife, let alone bird, that has become closely associated with the holiday. Everything from polar bears and seals to doves and penguins are also popular motifs for designers who craft Christmas cards. In recent years, I’ve even seen other birds — owls, chickadees, and even sandpipers — begin to decorate cards.

Often, when we think of the birds of the winter season, our thoughts focus on some of the less-than-colorful feeder visitors — the brown sparrows and wrens, the black and white chickadees and the drab American goldfinches that are such a contrast in winter to their vibrant summer appearance. The Northern Cardinal, especially the brilliant red male, stands out against a winter backdrop of snow white, deep green or drab gray. Could there be a better bird to brighten a Christmas card?

Well, as it turns out, there are other birds beyond the picture-perfect Northern cardinal that are worthy of gracing the front of Christmas cards. As previously mentioned, penguins are popular featured birds on many a Christmas card. Thanks to major motion pictures like Happy Feet (2006) and Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2011), as well as documentaries like 2005’s March of the Penguins, these dapper birds have enjoyed an enhanced profile in recent years and earned a place on our Christmas cards.

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Photo by Kelly Falkner/National Science Foundation • Two emperor penguins greet each other near Ross Island in Antarctica. Emperors are the largest of all penguins, reaching nearly four feet tall.

Of course, there’s not one single “penguin” species. There are about 20 different penguin species, ranging in size from the emperor penguin, which weighs 75 pounds and stands three feet seven inches tall, to the little blue penguin, also whimsically known as the fairy penguin, which weighs 2.2 pounds and stands about 16 inches tall. Other species include the king penguin, yellow-eyed penguin and macaroni penguin.

While at first glance owls are an unlikely species for depiction on a Christmas card, I can understand why people have embraced these nocturnal birds. With their big eyes and a reputation that has improved as we are less likely to embrace superstitious myths, owls are a good choice for gracing the cover of a card. One species — the snowy owl — is a perfect bird to depict the wintry season. With its white plumage, contrasted with varying amounts of black or brown markings on the body and wings, this owl of the Far North is a good symbol for the Christmas season. It’s no surprise at all to find an image of a snowy owl staring with piercing yellow eyes from the front of a Christmas card. Other species of owls that I’ve seen featured on cards include barn owl, great horned owl, Northern saw-whet owl, and burrowing owl.

In real life, the snowy owl is a denizen of the treeless tundra regions of the Arctic. Some winters see these owls staging massive migrations that bring them south of the Canadian border. While they are more likely to spend the winter months in such Canada-bordering states as Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, snowy owls have surprised and delighted birders by winging their way as far south as Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina during some winters.

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Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS • This snowy owl was photographed at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota. Some winters see great numbers of this owl surge out of the tundra to winter south of the Canadian border.

While owls and penguins are definite contenders, I’d wager that the Northern cardinal is the bird most often depicted on Christmas and other greeting cards. As further evidence to explain the popularity of the Northern cardinal, consider that it’s the official state bird of seven states — Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky. Only the Northern mockingbird, which represents five states as official state bird, even comes close to the Northern Cardinal in this respect. Being designated an official state bird is also an honor that’s eluded any species of owl, let alone any of the world’s various penguins.

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Snowy owl pair painted by John James Audubon.

Finally, one last thing works in favor of the Northern cardinal. Once the holidays are past, and the Christmas cards are packed away, there’s nothing like a glimpse of a Northern Cardinal to add some cheer to a bleak winter day.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photo by Mike Lucibella/National Science Foundation • An adult Adelie penguin turns its head. The Cape Crozier penguin colony is one of the largest known Adelie penguin colonies in the world, home to roughly half a million birds.

 

Purple finches always welcome winter visitors when snow and cold drives them to feeders

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Purple finches are mainly winter visitors in the region, although they may make appearances during their fall and spring migrations. Although similar to house finches, purple finches have their own unique appearance once observers become familiar with them. The notched tail, evident in this bird, is a good way to distinguish purple finches from very similar house finches.

The region experienced its first brush with wintry weather with the snowstorm that arrived Dec. 8. With a few inches of snow on the ground, some birds that had been ignoring my feeders decided to give them a second look. American goldfinches, dark-eyed juncos and a red-bellied woodpecker made frequent visits to the feeders over the weekend as more snow and cold temperatures put a temporary stop to the mild start of the 2017-2018 winter season.

So far, the feathered clientele at my feeders are the expected visitors, including Carolina chickadees, downy woodpeckers, song sparrows and white-breasted nuthatches. Some birds, such as pine siskin and purple finch, which can make feeder watching an exciting winter pastime, have not yet made an appearance. Both these species belong to a group of birds known in birding circles as “Northern finches” that also includes species like red crossbill, evening grosbeak and common redpoll.

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Photo by George Gentry/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A male evening grosbeak perches on the side of a sunflower-stocked feeder.

The purple finch, which is a winter visitor to northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina is apparently not as common as in past years. Some experts have speculated that the decline in the numbers of purple finches each winter can be attributed, at least in part, to the closely related house finch. Today, the house finch is quite widespread, found across the United States. Originally, however, the house finch was a bird of the western part of the country, living in Mexico and the southwestern United States.

About 1940, the house finch became established in the eastern United States. In violation of federal law, these small finches were being sold in New York City as pet birds described as “Hollywood Finches.” To avoid trouble with authorities, vendors and even some owners released their “Hollywood Finches” into the wild. Finding the area around New York City to their liking, house finches spread. Within a few decades, they were common birds throughout the eastern United States, including Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. The house finch had also been introduced into Hawaii about 1870, and is still present today, along with many other species of birds not native to the island.

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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.

As the house finch claimed a new range, they inevitably encountered the related purple finch. During the winter, both finches are often present at feeders in the region. When both are available for observation, bird enthusiasts should take advantage of the opportunity to compare and contrast these birds. Personally, I have never had any difficulty distinguishing a purple finch from a house finch. The two species, at least in my eyes, are easily recognized. I can understand why some people might have trouble separating the two birds. The late Roger Tory Peterson once described the purple finch as a bird “dipped in raspberry juice.” Think about that imagery for a moment and you’ve got a good start to distinguishing a male purple finch from a male house finch. Unfortunately, the description does nothing to distinguish females of the two species.

Let’s deal first with the males. Male purple finches are delicate pink-red (that raspberry coloration) on the head and breast, mixing with brown on the back and cloudy white on the belly. The red of a male purple finch is definitely a color I have not observed with many other birds. Even “red” birds such as male Northern cardinals and male scarlet tanagers do not show the same red color. Once you learn the way the red appears in the plumage of a male purple finch, you are on your way to telling this bird apart from its relative.

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Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this depiction of purple finches.

The red in the plumage of male house finches is surprisingly variable. In most cases, the heads, necks and shoulders of male birds are reddish and the red at times extends to the stomach and between the wings on the bird’s back. The intensity of the red changes with the seasons and is also derived from the berries and fruits in the bird’s diet. Pale yellow and bright orange are alternatives to the typical red plumage.

Look closely at the photograph of the purple finches accompanying this column. There’s a distinctive facial pattern evident on the birds. The strong facial markings include a whitish eye stripe and a dark line down the side of the throat. This pattern simply doesn’t exist with the male house finch. When I make a snap identification of these two birds, I always look for the facial pattern even before I study any other aspects of the appearance of the bird. In addition, purple finches have powerful, conical beaks and a tail that appears short and is clearly notched at the tip. Rounding out the description of a male house finch is the fact that they have a long, square-tipped brown tail and are brown or dull-brown across the back with some shading into gray on the wing feathers. The breast and stomach feathers may be streaked.

Females of both house finches and purple finches are dull brown birds that could easily be mistaken for sparrows. Again, the facial pattern is much more apparent on a female purple finch than on the related female house finch. In addition, I have always noticed that female purple finches are usually a darker shade of brown than the dull brown female house finches. Both male and female house finches are more slender than their more chunky-bodied counterparts.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A study of the facial pattern of a female purple finch helps contrast her from similar female house finches. Again, the notched tail is also a good indication of the bird’s identity.

In the United States, another close relative of the house finch and purple finch is the Cassin’s finch of the western United States. Together, the three species make up a classification known as the American rosefinches. Formerly placed in the genus Carpodacus, these three birds are now in the genus known as Haemorhous. The new classification separates them from the Eurasian rosefinches, which includes more than two dozen species including scarlet finch, great rosefinch and crimson-browed finch.

Purple finches occupy a variety of winter habitats, including fields and woodland edges, as well as yards and gardens. All it takes to lure these finches to your feeder is a plentiful offering of sunflower seeds. If you are lucky enough to have both of these finches visiting your feeders, take time to study the differences. It takes some practice, but they can be distinguished quite confidently.

Merry Christmas to all my fellow bird enthusiasts! 

Winter weather events can adversely affect birds, too

Although the weather has been mild thus far this winter, that can change in the blink of an eye. Inclement weather affects humans, but it can also have adverse affects on birds. Snow, sleet, ice, wind and other forces can play havoc on the lives of our feather friends. Birds have many adaptations to help them deal with the worst the elements can throw at them, but sometimes events can overtake them.

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Bodies of the fallen Lapland longspurs are shown scattered on a frozen lake after a 1904 weather-related catastrophe overtook hundreds of thousands of migrating longspurs.

One such event took place on the night of March 13-14, 1904, when hundreds of thousands of one small songbird species perished as circumstances came together in a perfect storm. This infamous event in the annals of ornithology mystified residents living around the town of Worthington, Minnesota, when they awoke on the morning of March 14 to find thousands of dead birds strewn across the landscape. Birds fell onto everything from yards and gardens to street and rooftops, as well as numerous frozen lakes.

In an article in the ornithological publication The Auk, the affected songbird was identified as the Lapland longspur, a bird that nests in the Arctic tundra and spends winters on the expansive prairies and plains of the United States and Canada. The Lapland longspur, also known as the Lapland bunting, also ranges into Russia and the Northern Scandinavian countries of Europe. The term “longspur” refers to the long hind claws on this small songbird’s feet. Two other longspurs — Smith’s longspur and chestnut-collared longspur — are found in North America.

The Lapland longspur disaster on the night of March 13, 1904, originated with a massive migration flight taking these songbirds back to their tundra nesting grounds. The author of the Auk article speculated that the longspurs migrating northward encountered a winter storm in the darkness. Heavy snow accumulated on the feathers of the exhausted migrants, forcing them to crash to the ground by the hundreds of thousands across the terrain of southwestern Minnesota and northwestern Iowa. From the point of view of the disoriented birds, the lights from the towns dotted across the landscape added to the chaos and confusion. Many of the bird suffered blunt force traumas, including ruptured organs, crushed skulls, bone fractures and other such injuries incurred when falling to the ground from great heights.

The Auk article comes to a total of a million birds lost in a single night, although the author admits the toll could have been even higher. Although this is an immense figure, consider that a survey dating to 2004 estimated 8 million Lapland longspurs in Alaska alone during the nesting season.

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Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted Lapland Longspurs or, as he knew them, Lapland Lark Buntings.

The 1904 disaster didn’t seem to dent the overall numbers of the Lapland longspur. The populations of many species of birds can survive such catastrophes, but other species already struggling could be adversely affected by such events. For example, in February of 2007 a flock of year-old whooping cranes was exterminated by severe storms that overwhelmed them in a shelter at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. A total of 18 young whooping cranes, part of a flock trained to follow an ultralight aircraft from their birthplace in Wisconsin to the refuge in Florida salt marshes, were killed during the storm. The loss of that many young birds also robs the endangered species of much needed vitality. As of February 2015, the total whooping crane population stood at 603 individuals, including 161 captive birds.

Weather disasters extract a toll on both humans and birds. Sometimes they may affect hundreds of thousands of individuals, although the consequences are often confined to smaller segments of a population.

In early May of 2013, dozens of common loons migrating through Wisconsin encountered an unseasonable ice storm. Many of the birds found ice forming on their feathers, weighting them down and causing emergency landings. Wildlife rehabilitation workers rescued more than 50 birds, but there were probably many other loons affected by the freak storm that were lost without a trace.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • Common loons are quite at home in the air and on the water, but these birds are awkward if weather forces them to set down on land.

Loons crashing onto land or even small ponds are doomed. Agile and graceful in water because of strong legs and webbed feet, loons are almost incapable of movement on land. Landing on a small body of water is not much better since loons must run along a stretch of waters — sometimes for hundreds of yards — in order to get their relatively heavy bodies aloft.

Loons are not the only birds that sometimes face forced landings. In March of this year, a winter storm raged through most of the Northeastern United States. The wakes of these storms resulted in wildlife agencies in the region being flooded with reports of dead or injured American woodcocks in the region. Most of the reports were concentrated in and around New York City. Not only did the storm interrupt the migration flight of the woodcocks, but cold temperatures caused the ground to freeze, preventing the stranded birds from finding food.

The woodcock is an unusual shorebird, also known by such whimsical names as “bog sucker” and “timberdoodle,” that has completely abandoned the shore in favor of woodlands and fields. The American woodcock is not a rare bird, but the species is rarely seen due to its retiring habits and inaccessible habitats.

Closer to home, an unusual February event back in 2014 resulted in equally unusual numbers of red-necked grebes on area lakes, rivers, and ponds. This grebe, a rare visitor to the region, was apparently forced by weather conditions to make a stopover on bodies of water in the region. Reports of red-necked grebes persisted for about a week before they eventually departed to continue their flight to more favored locations.

Back in 2011, it wasn’t a winter storm that killed thousands of birds in Arkansas. The birds — red-winged blackbirds, European starlings, brown-headed cowbirds, and common grackles — shared a communal roost near the town of Beebe.

On New Year’s Eve, just as 2011 was dawning, about 5,000 of these birds died after crashing into trees, buildings and automobiles, according to a National Geographic News article by Charles Q. Choi. Apparently these birds were frightened into flight by the explosive booms from a professional fireworks display celebrating the arrival of a New Year. In the chaos after thousands of birds not suited for nocturnal flight took to the air, they began to impact various stationary objects and crash back to the ground.

Summer-Pelicans

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Brown pelicans fly in a line over the Atlantic Ocean on the South Carolina coast.

Incidentally, in the same article, mention was made of a 2010 incident when hundreds of pelicans washed up on the border between Washington and Oregon. The article blamed a cold front that caused ice to form on the feathers of the bodies and wings of the pelicans.

Birds, much like their human admirers, live in a world greatly affected by the vagaries of weather. All things considered, birds manage to ride out most of what Mother Nature throws their way. It’s one of their many admirable qualities.

Winter wren one of the season’s low-profile visitors

WinterWren

Photo by Jean Potter
What the winter wren lacks in size, it makes up for with its voice. A boisterous and exuberant singer during the spring nesting season,  winter wrens are also quick to scold intruders into their winter territories.

 

Of late, every time I step outside my front door I’ve incurred the ire of a winter wren that’s taken up residency in my yard. This wren is a tiny bird among a family of birds known for small size, but it makes its presence known in unmistakable terms.

For starters, the winter wren is a noisy bird. The one living at my home arrived in late November and immediately claimed a niche to call its own. Any intrusion is met with a scolding chatter as the wren scurries low to the ground to drop out of view. In fact, the winter wren’s a very terrestrial bird. Observers are just as likely to see one of these wrens run across the ground as they are to see it take flight. I’m hopeful he will remain as winter’s grip tightens for the next couple of months.

The website All About Birds, managed by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, offers advice on making a wren-friendly yard. “Landscaping with native plants is a good way to provide habitat for Winter Wrens,” according to the website. Other steps to take could extend to creating brush piles and ensuring some sections of the yard offers dense vegetation. The website also notes that this wren is often found making its home near streams.

In the summer, the winter wren often nests atop some of the high-elevation mountains in the region, especially ones with abundant fir and spruce trees. Otherwise, it’s mostly a winter visitor in the region. Other wrens common to the region include the Carolina wren and the house wren. In suitable habitats, especially during fall and spring migration, two other wrens — marsh wren and sedge wren — are observed occasionally in the region. Other wrens native to the United States include the rock wren, canyon wren, cactus wren, Pacific wren and Bewick’s wren.

The world’s 88 species of wrens are, for the most part, the quintessential “little brown birds,” but that hasn’t kept them from acquiring some interesting and descriptive common names. Some examples include the tooth-billed wren, flutist wren, riverside wren, whiskered wren, happy wren, musician wren, timberline wren, speckle-breasted wren, white-breasted wood wren and giant wren. The last species on the list resides in Mexico and is indeed a “giant” among a family of tiny birds, reaching a length of almost nine inches and weighing all of 1.8 ounces.

For the most part, wrens are birds of the New World. In fact, only the Eurasian wren represents the family in Europe, Asia and Africa. Experts recently split the winter wren into several different species, including the Pacific wren of the west coast of North America and the Eurasian wren of Europe, Asia and Africa.WinterWren_edited-1

Just as the winter wren thinks nothing of acting like a mouse when scurrying through leaf litter and over fallen logs in search of insect prey, this bird doesn’t hesitate to imitate mice by poking into shadowy holes in the ground or exploring the dark crevices of fallen logs. When winter temperatures drop sharply, many of these birds may cram themselves into a roosting hole to benefit from the communal heat from so many tiny feathered bodies in such close proximity. Winter wrens eat mostly insects and spiders, but in winter these birds will also eat some seeds and berries. Winter wrens rarely visit feeders, but a suet cake often attracts birds with similar dietary preferences, including kinglets and chickadees. A larger relative, the Carolina wren, is a common visitor to feeders.

In English and German lore, the winter wren was known as the “king of the birds.” Different tales provide varying explanations for how such a small bird earned such an inflated title. Ritual hunts were enacted in some European locations. These hunts, known as “wren hunts,” were conducted by “wren boys” who would parade through town on their quests. Wren Day fell on Dec. 26, which coincided with the holiday St. Stephen’s Day. Some myths blame the noisy bird for betraying the hiding place of Stephen, who was delivered up as a Christian martyr to his enemies due to the bird’s treachery. In some European cultures, various superstitions sprang up about wrens. For instance, in Scotland it is considered extremely unlucky to kill a wren.

Personally, I feel lucky to have the tiny winter wren spending time around my home and can guarantee no “wren hunts” will be staged here. At a time of year when feathered friends can be scarce, a winter wren is a welcome visitor.

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The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society produces an annual calendar featuring some exceptional bird photography from its members. This year’s calendar features full-color photographs of some colorful and engaging birds. The club sells the calendars for $15 each. All proceeds are used to support birding opportunities and bird-related causes. For instance, the club pays for bird seed to stock the feeders at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee. The club also regularly supports causes that benefit birds.HerndonCalendar2018(Cover)

The calendar also features an informative calendar grid with highlights for major holidays, as well as important bird-related dates. The calendar’s pages feature more than 80 full-color photographs of area birds, including common favorites, as well as a few more exotic birds. The front cover features a dazzling photograph of a red-headed woodpecker. The photo was taken by Debi Campbell, a resident of Bluff City, Tennessee, and current president of the Herndon chapter. If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, contact ahoodedwarbler@aol.com by email. Calendars will also be available for purchase by cash or check only at the offices of the Bristol Herald Courier located at 320 Bob Morrison Blvd. in Bristol, Virginia.

If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, contact ahoodedwarbler@aol.com by email. Calendars will also be available for purchase by cash or check only at the offices of the Bristol Herald Courier located at 320 Bob Morrison Blvd. in Bristol, Virginia.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.