Tag Archives: Carter County Compass

Although graceful in the water, life gets awkward for grebes on land

As the calendar moves into the months of October and November, migrating waterfowl will replace the exodus of songbirds that evacuate the North American continent every fall in preparation for their winter season in the tropics. The umbrella term of waterfowl can include such birds as ducks, geese, loons and grebes.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • This pied-billed grebe stranded itself on a wet lawn during fall migration. A grebe’s legs are positioned so far back on their bodies that grebes have difficult walking on land. Once released in a pond, the grebe was able to take flight and continue its migration.

That last family keeps one of the lowest profiles among the grouping of birds lumped together as waterfowl. Worldwide, there are 22 species of grebes. This family also includes three extinct species — Alaotra grebe, Atitlán grebe and Colombian grebe.

Many people are unaware of the grebes. After all, they are oddball birds with not a lot in common with other waterfowl such as loons and ducks. In eastern Tennessee, southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina, the pied-billed grebe is the most likely member of the grebe family to come into contact with humans. The pied-billed grebe’s scientific name, Podilymbus podiceps, can be roughly translated as “rear-footed diver.” The reference is to the fact that this grebe, as well as others of its kind, have their feet positioned so far back on their bodies that movement on land is difficult and awkward.

The pied-billed grebe has inspired a variety of other common names, including American dabchick, dabchick, Carolina grebe, devil-diver, dive-dapper, hell-diver, pied-billed dabchick, pied-bill, thick-billed grebe and water witch, all of which reflect this grebe’s almost exclusively aquatic lifestyle.

The pied-billed grebe is a world-class survivor. Already a member of an ancient family of birds, this species has outlasted the others in its genus. The Atitlán grebe, which was also known as the giant grebe, went extinct around 1989 after a series of catastrophic setbacks, including a devastating earthquake and the introduction of smallmouth and largemouth bass to Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. The bass consumed the prey this grebe needed for its survival, and large bass occasionally ate young grebes.

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Bass introduced into Lake Atitlán consumed the small fish that the Atitlán Grebe              required as a food source. Large bass also ate young grebes.

 

 

These birds range in size from the least grebe, which weighs only about six ounces, to the great grebe, which can tip the scales at four pounds. North American grebes include red-necked grebe, horned grebe, eared grebe, Clark’s grebe and Western grebe. In extreme southern Texas, birders can find least grebes in suitable wetland habitats.

With the exception of the least grebe, I’ve seen all of North America’s grebes. During visits to Utah in 2003 and 2006, I observed the sleek, long-necked Clark’s grebe and Western grebe. On a 2006 trip to Utah, I visited Antelope Island State Park and observed tens of thousands of Eared Grebes gathered on the Great Salt Lake for the nesting season. In Tennessee, one of the most reliable locations to find eared grebes is from viewing areas at Musick’s Campground on South Holston Lake, where a small number of these grebes have wintered for many years.

An unusual February fallout back in 2014 resulted in equally unusual numbers of red-necked grebes on area lakes, rivers, and ponds. I’d previously observed this grebe on Boone Lake, South Holston Lake and Watauga Lake in northeast Tennessee.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Red-necked Grebe mixes with Mallards at a pond on the campus of Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton.

Grebes are prone to landing on glistening surfaces — lawns, asphalt parking lots and even paved roads — during migration flights, especially at night during heavy rain. A serious problem arises when the grebe, with those rear-positioned feet, finds itself stranded, unable to take flight again without a paddling run across the surface of a body of water.

One of these strandings was recounted in Rick Knight’s book, The Birds of Northeast Tennessee. On Feb. 13, 1994, a red-necked grebe grounded itself with one of these crash landings onto a parking lot in Elizabethton, Tennessee. The fortunate grebe received a human-assisted rescue, being transported to a small lake near the town for release.

In November of 2011, a neighbor delivered a bird that had landed in his yard and could not take flight. The bird, put into a cardboard box for its own safety, didn’t appear to have any injuries. Once I saw the bird, I realized it was a pied-billed grebe. We released the bird on my fish pond, where the grebe dived and swam extensively before resting for a long period on a muddy edge of the pond. Overnight, the grebe disappeared. I believe the grebe took flight during the night and continued with its fall migration. The incident remains one of my closest encounters with a grebe.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens The pied-billed grebe paddles through the water after it was rescued after a stranding on a lawn.

 

In the coming weeks and all throughout the winter months, look for pied-bill grebes, as well well as more uncommon grebes like horned grebe and red-necked grebe, on lakes and rivers throughout the region.

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

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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.

Count sets new records while gathering data on world’s birds

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The downy woodpecker ranked among the 10 most frequently reported birds on the 2017 Great Backyard Bird Count. A record number of 173,826 people took part in this year’s GBBC, which was held Feb. 17-20.

In announcing the results of this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count, organizers of the annual global bird survey shared an anecdote about a second-grade student in Memphis, Tennessee. The girl, who obviously enjoyed making a contribution as a citizen scientist for the GBBC, made a real connection with the birds she was being asked to count.

Calling her participation the “best day of her life,” the girl went on to share her excitement about seeing a downy woodpecker. She was hardly alone in seeing this small woodpecker. A total of 38,760 checklists across the country included downy woodpecker with their totals.

The girl’s joy at discovering a downy woodpecker — a bird that was completely new to her — all but guarantees that she will look forward to taking part in the 2018 GBBC. If her interest in birds continues to develop, she just may catch the birding bug herself.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Counting crows and other birds at Shook Branch at Watauga Lake during the recent GBBC.

The 2017 Great Backyard Bird Count is now part of the history books, and thanks to participants from around the world, this year’s GBBC ranked as the biggest count in its 20-year history. Participants set a new high bar for number of checklists submitted and total number of species reported.

An estimated 214,018 participants took part this year, compared to the 2016 final total estimate of 163,763 individuals. An incredible total of 5,940 different species was tallied by GBBC participants, which is a dramatic spike from last year’s total of 5,689 species. That record number of participants also turned in a record number of completed checklists — 173,826, compared to the final total of 162,052 in 2016.

The three states with birders submitting the most checklists were, in descending order, New York, Pennsylvania and California. Incidentally, Virginia came in sixth, with 5,190 checklists submitted during the 2017 GBBC. North Carolina came in ninth with 4,220 checklists submitted by 2017 GBBC participants. Birders in Tennessee will need to step up for future counts. The Volunteer State ranked 20th on the list with 2,215 checklists submitted.

The states seeing the most species of birds reported were, in descending order, California (370 species), Texas (360 species) and Florida (309 species). North Carolina checklists indicated a total of 213 species to land the Tar Heel State at No. 8 on the list of states with most species reported. Virginia, in 12th place, tallied a total of 196 species. Tennessee came in 32nd place with 136 species, which isn’t too bad for a landlocked state.

In North America, the most numerous birds reported on the count included several species of geese, as well as blackbirds, starlings and crows. A total of 4,793,261 snow geese made this bird the most numerous North American species reported on the GBBC. Other common birds, in descending order, included red-winged blackbird with 2,464,572 individual birds tallied, as well as Canada goose, 1,895,077; European starling, 919,038; mallard, 715,594; ring-billed gull, 647,950; American coot, 500,261; greater white-fronted goose, 426,040; common grackle, 416,720; and American crow, 378,483. During my participation this year, I saw several of these species, including red-winged blackbird, Canada goose, European starling, mallard, ring-billed gull and American crow.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Killdeer in Limestone Cove during the Great Backyard Bird Count held last month.

The ten most frequently reported species, in descending order, were Northern cardinal, American crow, mourning dove, dark-eyed junco, downy woodpecker, blue jay, black-capped chickadee, house finch, house sparrow and white-breasted nuthatch. While taking part in the GBBC last month, I saw all these species with the exception of the black-capped chickadee. Instead, my submitted checklists featured Carolina chickadees.

The birds on the most frequently reported list are almost without exception birds of yards and gardens, making them more likely to be counted by more individual participants. On the other hand, the most numerous, or abundant, birds are those that join together to form large flocks. They’re widespread, but less likely to be encountered in yards and gardens.

I counted at home and at several favorite birding locations. During a visit to Watauga Lake in Carter County, Tennessee, my mother and I observed an immature bald eagle and a yellow-bellied sapsucker, which turned out to be among my personal GBBC highlights this year. I always enjoy looking for birds during the four-day count period. I also like to feel that I am contributing to a shared knowledge about birds and their populations.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Buffleheads on the Watauga River during the recent GBBC.

If you would like to view photos of birds from around the world that were taken during this year’s GBBC, visit gbbc.birdcount.org/photo-subs-2017/.

If you didn’t get to take part this year, be sure to plan ahead for next year when the GBBC will be held Feb. 16-19, 2018. Help make next year’s count another one for the record books.

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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.

 

Birds, other wildlife deserve protection of Endangered Species Act

Photo by Lisa Hupp/USFWS • A bald eagle has an average of 7,000 feathers. Bald eagles are protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. For instance, it is against the law to possess their feathers or other remains. Eagles are abundant enough they no longer qualify for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

The Endangered Species Act serves as one of the strongest, most effective wildlife protection laws in the world. Although the ESA was not meant to protect only birds — the law actually protects everything from bats and whales to wolves and shellfish — it has done an outstanding job ensuring that our feathered friends continue to fly free and thrive in a world they must increasingly share with human beings.

According to Earthjustice — an environmental law organization that uses the power of the law to fight for the earth and its inhabitants — the ESA was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support more than 40 years ago to provide a legal safety net for wildlife, fish and plant species that are in danger of extinction.

Photo by Scott Flaherty/USFWS • The California condor is an example of a species saved from the brink of extinction thanks to the Endangered Species Act. Much work remains to be done to protect this large bird.

Earthjustice and other environmental groups are warning that some members of the current Congress want to slash the Endangered Species Act, threatening the very existence of the imperiled wildlife and ecosystems the Act protects. Some politicians from the state of Utah seem to be leading this effort, which is a sad irony considering the wealth of natural majesty the unique lands of Utah has to offer.

None other than President Richard Nixon, a Republican, signed the ESA into law back on Dec. 28, 1973, and it was an effort that crossed political party lines that made the legislation a reality. Biologists warn that our planet is facing a sixth wave of mass extinction, according to a release from Earthjustice. The Endangered Species Act, which has prevented 99 percent of the species under its care from vanishing, is precisely the kind of effective tool needed today. It has revived the bald eagle, the American alligator, the California condor and many others.

House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT) has said he wants to “repeal and replace” the Endangered Species Act. Others are supporting legislative proposals that would make it harder for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to resolve Endangered Species Act lawsuits. The ESA is truly a prime example of the old saying, “If it’s not broke, don’t try to fix it.” Bishop and his allies, to put it plainly, are wrong.

Photo by Lou George/USFWS • The Kirtland’s Warbler is an endangered songbird that has seen its numbers slowly increase thanks to the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

If there’s ever been a government regulation that has done what it set out to do, it has been the Endangered Species Act. Without the ESA, many of our birds, including the nation’s official bird, might no longer still exist on the planet. The bald eagle had been reduced to a mere 417 pairs in 1963. With the passage of the ESA, the eagle began to rebound. In 2007, in a highly publicized success story, the existence of 11,040 pairs of bald eagles in the United States allowed this majestic bird to be removed from its listing under the ESA in 2007.

Photo by USFWS • Whooping cranes still exist largely due to protections afforded them by the Endangered Species Act.

The bald eagle is only one of the many birds to benefit from the protection of the ESA. The tall and stately whooping crane and the beautiful and tiny Kirtland’s warbler are some of the other birds that are slowly showing population increases once they were afforded intensive protection under the ESA. The nene, or Hawaiian goose, and the peregrine falcon — the world’s fastest bird — have also received much needed protection.

Lest anyone think that eagles and other formerly endangered species are completely out of the woods, just consider the recent rash of bald eagle shootings in Tennessee. Two eagles, one in Rhea County and one in Meigs County, were victims of shootings. The severity of their injuries resulted in both birds being euthanized.

It’s heartbreaking to think that anyone would shoot a bald eagle, a bird that all patriotic Americans should revere as a lofty symbol of the nation’s majesty. The shootings are a reminder that it’s still not a safe world for many of the birds and other creatures that share the planet with us. The ESA is a marvelous piece of legislation that gives a measure of protection to the helpless. The law allows all Americans to share in the responsibility of being wise stewards of God’s diverse and wonderful creatures.

Photo by Steve Maslowski/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • The golden-cheeked warbler, a beautiful but endangered songbird that nests in Texas, is one of many birds that benefits from protections provided by the Endangered Species Act.

Demanding that the government keep the ESA strong and intact is not and should not be mere politics. It’s showing that Americans still value wildlife and the rights of future generations to enjoy that wildlife over money and short-term profits. Left or right, Republican or Democrat, the Endangered Species Act should be immune to political differences.

On a purely personal level, I hope to one day see such endangered songbirds as the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo, and I want the same for future generations. That’s not likely to happen without the protections of the ESA remaining strong and intact.

Let your state and federal representatives know that you support continued protections for birds and other wildlife. We can co-exist with the amazing variety of wild creatures that share our planet. It’s just a matter of priorities. Our congressional representatives and senators need to know Americans aren’t willing to tolerate attacks on the ESA. Our president and his administration need to receive the same message.

Photo by Ted Heuer/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • The Nene, or Hawaiian goose, has gradually increased in numbers thanks to the Endangered Species Act.

If you enjoy birds, keep visiting local and state parks. Continue planning trips to National Parks and Wildlife Refuges. Don’t stop feeding your backyard birds. Most importantly, fight to make sure the wildlife that makes the world a richer place continues to find that humans do make good neighbors.

For information on how to contact your government officials to express your thoughts on the value of the Endangered Species Act, visit http://www.usa.gov/elected-officials.

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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.

 

Vultures aren’t typical poster birds for ecological awareness, but perhaps they should be

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A flock of vultures gathers in a dead pine tree on a gloomy winter afternoon.

Cougars have returned to eastern mountains, white-tailed deer numbers are out of control and hungry black bears sometimes wander into towns. Encounters between humans and wildlife are nothing new. I was reminded of this fact when I received a recent email from Gene Sturgeon on the subject of vultures. Gene and his wife, Catheryn, reside in Abingdon, Virginia. The town, it would seem, has experienced a recent invasion.

“In our new neighborhood, the black vultures are ever-present,” Gene wrote. “They circle endlessly, and never seem to land on the carrion that attracts them. Turkey vultures typically are seen on the carrion, but these blacks never appear to be feeding. Also, I can’t imagine this neighborhood has more than the normal number of dead animals.”

Gene has also observed that the black vultures, starting in mid-afternoon, begin to gather in selected trees. Usually two nearby trees, he noted, will contain dozens of them for the night.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Vultures gather atop an industrial building in downtown Erwin, Tennessee.

Gene asked if the behavior he has observed is fairly typical. I replied to his email that I believe that his observations are accurate and typical. While the birds seem to be roosting in his neighborhood, they are probably not finding their food there. Vultures are capable of soaring long distance in search of food, so they may actually be dining far away from Gene’s Abingdon neighborhood.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A turkey vulture perches on a branch in a South Carolina woodland.

I asked him if there were pine trees or other types of evergreens because it’s my understanding that vultures are often fond of thick stands of pine. I am guessing this is because such trees offer protection and shelter from the elements. Gene wrote back to inform me that both pine trees and leafless trees are present near his home. “The leafless tree attracts the larger cloud of black vultures,” he added.

Doubtless, some residents are uneasy when these uninvited neighbors swell the neighborhood. I was somewhat surprised by Gene’s observation, but I was also taken aback to learn that Abingdon has for years boasted an extremely substantial population of vultures. In fact, the Abingdon Police Department has even compiled a fact sheet to educate the public about these large birds. According to the release, it is around this time of year that Abingdon sees an increase in the number of vultures due to weather patterns. The APD has apparently received complaints from some citizens about the vultures roosting in their neighborhoods.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Turkey vultures forage in a freshly mowed field near Abingdon, Virginia. As scavengers, vultures play a vital but often unappreciated role in the environment.

I was glad to note that the fact sheet recognizes the important of vultures in the ecosystem. These large birds serve an important function. Without vultures, local yards and roads would be littered with rotting, stinking, animal carcasses — and the health risks that accompany them.

Nothing prohibits a private land owner from contacting a professional wildlife specialist to disturb the roosts at owner expense. If I might offer unsolicited advice, however, I’d recommend against wasting your money. The tactics, while they may make a temporary difference, don’t usually solve anything in the long run.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Turkey vultures in their usual V-shaped silhouette characteristic of a soaring vulture.

Abingdon’s government, for both ethical and legal reasons, cannot kill vultures. Private citizens are also forbidden by law to kill vultures or hire exterminators to do so. Vultures are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The birds, their nests and eggs cannot be killed or destroyed without a permit from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service. Private citizens are also not legally permitted to use fireworks to try to disperse vulture flocks.

The best thing to do is make your home and yard less attractive to these large, scavenging birds. While reading some tips put forward by the APD, I was struck by how some of the advice, if followed, can protect homes from other potential nuisance wildlife ranging from raccoons and opossums to black bears and skunks. According to the APD, there are several things people can do to make their yards less attractive as a roosting place for vultures:
• Ensure that you are not inadvertently attracting the vultures. Common attractions include open containers of pet food, uncovered garbage cans, and pet food bowls.
• Remove any dead trees that make convenient perches for vultures.
• Use humane perch deterrents, like motion-activated sprinklers or lights.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Turkey Vulture perches in a woodland in Roan Mountain, Tennessee, during late fall.

The APD also pointed those wishing for more information to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, which has excellent information about both species of vulture, including conservation information.

I was very pleased to see that the APD tried to dispel misinformation about these valuable birds. People are, naturally enough, concerned for their pets because of the presence of these large birds. Vultures are carrion eaters, which means eat animals that are already dead, preferring animals that have been dead for two to four days. While there are no accounts of turkey vultures preying upon live animals, there have been occasional reports of black vultures preying upon small, live and relatively defenseless animals.

That tells most, but not all, of the story. Black vultures occasionally will attack newborn livestock, but these birds are not likely to go after the family dog or cat, especially if the pet is mobile and in good health. Nevertheless, it is still a good idea to keep cherished pets indoors. While vultures pose little danger to them, plenty of other animals, such as coyotes, are much more opportunistic than vultures. Keeping cats and dogs confined indoors also protects wild birds and other wildlife from the instinctive predatory notions of our precious pets.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A black vulture and two turkey vultures share a perch near Boone Lake in Sullivan County, Tennessee.

While both vultures are migratory birds, their numbers have always fluctuated and will continue to do so. As their populations increase, their range has increased as well. Both species are present in the Abingdon area year-round. Because of the town’s location, their numbers increase from November through early February as they follow the weather patterns. In colder periods, they move farther south, in warmer periods, farther north. Abingdon’s climate makes for a good wintering location. As it gets warmer, non-resident flocks tend to move farther north.

Like many other species of birds, some vultures have learned to co-exist near humans, just like such birds as Canada geese, Eastern bluebirds, American robins and mallards. Like these birds, vultures are highly adaptive creatures. Unlike some types of wildlife that shy away from human contact, vultures and some other birds have adapted to the human environment – perhaps a bit too well. Vulture behavior can be destructive. In recent years, some of these destructive tendencies have become quite infamous among birders. This new behavior apparently first surfaced among vultures wintering in south Florida.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Turkey vultures regularly dispose of road-killed animals.

They have been known to tear window and roof caulking, vent seals, shingles, rubber seals on car windshields, windshield wipers and other soft, rubbery materials. In addition, their excrement is acidic and may damage painted surfaces and landscaping. The birds also regurgitate a smelly, acidic vomit. Unfortunately, vultures apparently pass on these bad habits to others of their kind and such aberrant behavior is now being seen outside of the Sunshine State.

According to the APD, flocks of as many as 100 vultures have been documented in Abingdon. This number may rise and fall, depending on conditions. Vultures are part of the web of life, which connects them and their fellow creatures to our own lives. Turkey vultures are larger than black vultures, weighing about four to five pounds, with a wingspan of six feet. The turkey vulture’s most distinctive feature is its bright red, featherless head. In flight, a turkey vulture often appears to be “wobbling” and, from underneath, all of the flight feathers are light colored.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • Turkey vultures have bare red heads, as opposed to the black heads of the related black vulture. While larger than black vultures, turkey vultures are less aggressive than their smaller relatives.

On the other hand, black vultures are smaller, weighing less than four pounds, with a wingspan of five feet or less. The black vulture’s head is grey and featherless, but larger in proportion than the turkey vultures. Viewed in flight, only the outer flight feathers of the black vulture are white.

Although smaller in size, black vultures are feisty and aggressive birds. They often outcompete turkey vultures at carcasses. They will also only reluctantly abandon a feeding site at a carcass. My family almost learned this the hard way during a trip to South Carolina when my father almost ran his car into a flock of black vultures feeding on a road-killed deer. I warned him that the vultures might not get out of the way, and he slowed the car’s speed. The vultures hopped back from the edge of the road as our car traveled past them. Looking back, I noticed they immediately hopped back onto the carcass after we had passed. If we had sped past at full speed, one of the bird’s could easily have panicked and flown into our path. A four-pound bird can do a lot of damage if it hits the windshield of a car traveling at 40 to 50 miles per hour. Trust me! You don’t want to put this to the test.

Perhaps that’s the moral of the story. Give vultures a wide berth and, in theory, they will do the same for you. Let’s face it. Vultures aren’t going to be cute and cuddly faces for ecological awareness. A polar bear or penguin, vultures simply are not. They still have a role to play, and we should be grateful they were created for just that purpose.

Origins of the name of Muscovy duck shrouded in mystery

Joan Stenger sent me an email recently about an unusual waterfowl observation. On a recent  Saturday, she visited downtown Bristol where the creek widens a bit near the fire station and beside the park. Joan wrote that she saw a flock of ducks and Canada geese and enjoyed watching them.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                             Muscovy ducks seen outside of Texas are domesticated versions of the wild waterfowl. Male Muscovy ducks sport red carbuncles around their bills.

“One fellow stood on the opposite bank and had bright red marks on his face,” she added. “My daughter and I went over the bridge and into the park to get closer and hopefully get a better view.”

Joan described the odd duck as larger than the other ducks but not as big as the geese. “Its back was dark dark blue with teal,” she wrote. “I had never seen such a duck! “
She said they continued to watch the flock of Canada geese and then returned home.  There she consulted her bird books and only found one small mention and picture of a Muscovy duck. Armed with that information, she conducted an online search for more information about Muscovy ducks.
 “Have you seen many of these fellows?” Joan asked in her email.
In my reply to her email, I informed Joan that Muscovy ducks are becoming more common. However, outside of Texas, most Muscovy Ducks seen are “feral” domesticated versions of the wild bird. Many people have probably also seen feral mallards that are content to reside year-round with us. The Muscovy ducks have probably decided the same thing.
In southern Texas, it is possible to observe wild Muscovy ducks, but sightings of these ducks outside of the Lonestar State involve domesticated ducks. Like mallards, Muscovy ducks have long been domesticated, and some of the domesticated individuals have gone feral. These ducks, descendants of their wild ancestors, have become more common, both nationwide and locally.

I’ve heard from other curious people over the years about encounters with Muscovy ducks. The birds behave unusually for a duck. For instance, they often pant like a dog and strut around more like a wild turkey than a typical duck. Most of these feral Muscovy ducks are also relatively tame in association with people, long ago having learned to connect humans with free handouts of bread, popcorn and other foods.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                            Wild Muscovy ducks are dark waterfowl with white wing patches. Domesticated Muscovy ducks exhibit a wide variety of plumage colors, including brown and white feathers.

In the wild, Muscovy ducks are native to Mexico, as well as Central and South America. Before Christopher Columbus reached the New World in 1492, natives had long domesticated this duck. When Columbus first visited the New World, he even took back to Europe some of these ducks.
The term “Muscovy” is a reference to the Russian city of Moscow, but the reasons behind the connection of this duck’s common name to Moscow are obscure. One theory is that the duck acquired the name in association with the Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands, later shortened to the Muscovy Company. Perhaps this chartered trading outfit sold some of these ducks to European customers in the 1500s.
After all, Columbus and early explorers named the wild turkey for the faraway country of Turkey, mistakenly believing that the New World provided a more direct route to this realm so important to trade. Perhaps the Muscovy duck also acquired a name connected with Moscow for no better reason. It does appear that the origins of the name are one of history’s odd mysteries.
Adding to the mystery is the fact that the duck’s scientific name also refers to a city — Cairo in Egypt — far from this bird’s native home. Translated, the Muscovy duck’s scientific name means “musky bird from Cairo.” Another common name for the duck is Barbary duck, which refers to a region of Africa home to modern-day Libya.

While the wild Muscovy duck is a tropical bird, the domestic ones are perfectly capable of weathering cold temperatures as low as 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                       Domesticated and feral Muscovy ducks are widespread across North America. These ducks were first discovered by Europeans arriving in the New World, although native tribes had long raised them as domestic animals.

The Muscovy Duck has only one other close relative, the white-winged wood duck of India and Bangladesh, One of the world’s largest ducks, the white-winged wood duck is a seriously endangered species. One curious fact about this duck is its tendency to only forage for food after dark.

Wild Muscovy ducks are large waterfowl with a black plumage accented with big white wing patches. They can be almost 34 inches long and weigh as much as nine pounds. It’s the heads of these ducks that really make them stand apart. Both sexes have bare black-and-red or all-red faces. Males also sport pronounced caruncles at the base of the bill, as well a a slight crest of feathers. The appearance of domestic Muscovy ducks is quite variable, with some birds sporting almost entirely white plumage.
Muscovy ducks and mallards will also hybridize, producing sterile offspring that are known as “mullards.” I’ve observed both domestic Muscovy ducks and “mullard” hybrids at local parks, but I haven’t yet seen any wild Muscovy ducks. The domestic version of this duck has also established feral populations around the globe in locations such as Europe, New Zealand, Canada and Australia.henry_charles_bryant00
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In addition to asking her question about Muscovy ducks, Joan shared a story about bluebirds at her home.
“We feed the birds year round and enjoy their antics at the feeders,” she reported. “We were pleased to have bluebirds raise a nest full of babies this year, although I was told that we would not have bluebirds because we live in town.” Apparently “no one told the bluebirds,” Joan joked.
Because of her feeders and the bird baths, she receives visits from a good variety of birds, mostly dominated by the cardinals.