Summer heat and humidity make the summer season my least favorite one for birding, but every season brings birding surprises. I was reminded of this fact when Larry and Amelia Tipton sent me a recent email asking for help with the identification of some birds near their home.
Attaching a photo with their email, the Tiptons wrote, “These birds showed up a few days ago and we cannot identify them. We would like to know what they are.”
When I opened the photo, I realized that the birds captured in the image would not be considered out of place if the Tiptons lived near the coast of the Carolinas, Georgia or Florida. The birds in the photo, however, were somewhat unexpected in the foothills of western North Carolina near their home in the town of Old Fort.
“We live on a farm near the Catawba River but have mostly woodland and fields,” the couple added. “We do not have a pond on our property but have a branch and a larger creek nearby.”
I wrote back and told the Tiptons that the birds they photographed were young white ibises. I informed the Tiptons that the two young ibises are likely testing their wings, so to speak, after leaving the care of their parents. If they like the area, and it sounds like they do, they may decide that the branch and creek are just what they need.
I received a followup email. “We sort of knew these were water birds but were surprised to find them so far away from marsh or wetlands or the ocean,” the Tiptons wrote. “We thought maybe a storm blew them off course during flight.”
While a diverting storm can’t be ruled out, it’s normal behavior for young wading birds to disperse far and wide after leaving the nest. North American waders, or wading birds, include such long-legged species as herons, egrets, bitterns, ibises, storks and spoonbills. Most species are associated with wetlands or coastal areas.
Late summer birding is usually a period of doldrums as heat and humidity can discourage birders as well as diminish bird activity. However, it’s also the time of year when birders can make some unexpected surprises as wandering waders, such as the ibises discovered by the Tiptons, explore uncharted territory.
Other waders this season showing up in unexpected location have included a wood stork found by Linda Walker in Polk County, Tennessee. Likes the ibises in North Carolina, the stork was confining its activities to a small branch bordered by heavy vegetation. These branches are a far cry from the usual wetland haunts of these two species.
Overall, the white ibis and wood stork have some superficial similarities. They are both long-legged white birds with black wing tips and unusual down-turned bills that they use to probe for food, which largely consists of fish and other aquatic prey.
The latter is North America’s only native stork. According to the National Audubon Society, Florida once provided a stronghold for the wood stork in the United States. Unfortunately, the population crashed in the 1990s, decreasing from around 150,000 birds to fewer than 10,000. In recent years, numbers have increased and wood storks have expanded their breeding range into South Carolina. Wood storks are nearly four feet tall, making them one of the tallest of the waders. Wood storks have a dark, featherless heads, giving them a resemblance to vultures. For the most part, they’re rather grotesque birds when observed at close quarters. Soaring overhead on thermal updrafts, wood storks look quite graceful and even majestic thanks to their white plumage and black accents. A wingspan of 65 inches gives them the means to soar easily.
The Audubon Society identifies the white ibis as one of the most numerous wading birds in Florida, but the bird is common also in other parts of the southeast with appropriate wetland habitat. Like the wood stork, the ibis has declined in Florida in recent decades largely as a result of human encroachment. The white ibis looks like a bird that could have been invented by Dr. Seuss. The all-white plumage is contrasted by pinkish-orange legs, a reddish-pink bill and bright blue eyes. In flight, the white ibis shows black feathers on the edges of its wings.
The affinity for water and wetlands relates to the diet of most waders, which consists of fish and other aquatic prey such as amphibians, crustaceans and even insects. For the remainder of July and into August and September, birders should monitor ponds, small lakes, rivers and even branches and creeks for any wandering waders. For instance, I once made a trip to a park in Greeneville, Tennessee, to observe a pink-hued roseate spoonbill that had made a rare stopover in the region. While that observation took place nearly 20 years ago, I remember vividly finding the pale pink bird playing odd man out among a flock of several dozen Canada geese as a soft rain drizzled from an overcast sky. Although many of the waders cling to coastal habitats, they have wings like other birds and know how to use them. Other waders have been known to show up in unlikely locations, including birds such as tri-colored heron, limpkin and snowy egret.
Of course, I hope to hear from any readers lucky enough to glimpse one of these unanticipated finds. Enjoy your birding.
Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more.
We are midway through March, and the birds are on the move. We’ve been fortunate to enjoy some beautiful spring weather and all the accompanying flowers in the last couple of weeks. The next month or so will feature a lot of transition as our winter resident birds prepare to depart and some of our beloved summer residents return to spend the next few months with us.
For instance, the Buffleheads that congregate on Wilbur Lake in Carter County are already dispersing to local rivers and ponds. After spending some time on these other waterways, they will be flying farther north. Buffleheads are cavity-nesting birds, so they will look for wooded lakes and seek out a tree with a large cavity or cranny. There, the female will lay her eggs and renew the cycle of life before the adults and a new generation return to winter in the region in several months.
These little two-toned ducks with a dark and light plumage pattern have long been a favorite of mine. Patsy Schang sent me a photo of a pair of Buffleheads that visited a pond at her neighbor’s Roan Mountain home. As you can see from the accompanying photograph, the two Buffleheads look quite at home.
“I was so excited to see these ducks on our neighbor’s pond,” Patsy wrote in her email. “I think they are Buffleheads – my first!”
Patsy had no trouble identifying the ducks, and I congratulated her on her first sighting of Buffleheads, It’s always fun to see a new bird, especially so close to home.
According to the Ducks Unlimited website, Buffleheads breed from southern Alaska through the forested areas of western Canada, central Ontario and eastern Quebec.
The website notes that 90 percent of the population is believed to breed from Manitoba westward. So, these little ducks travel a long way to spend the winter on Wilbur Lake, Ripshin Lake and other locations in Northeast Tennessee.
Karla Smith sent me an email about a nesting colony of Great Blue Herons in Elizabethton.
“I didn’t know if you had heard about the herons that are nesting in the tops of two trees behind the airport in Elizabethton,” Karla wrote in her email. “I believe they are herons. I am not an avid bird watcher, but do enjoy them and sighted these a few weeks ago. There are six nests total in the two trees and it is quite a sight to see.”
I went the next day and found the nests and several herons exactly where Karla informed me they would be. This is only the second time I have observed nesting Great Blue Herons in Carter County.
I counted six nests and seven herons during my brief visit to the location. The two trees are on a steep hillside at the back of a field behind the Elizabethton Municipal Airport. From this location, the adult herons can spread out along the nearby Watauga River to find plenty of food once the young are born.
In addition to the herons near the airport, there are at least two active Great Blue Heron nests along Blevins Road on the other side of Elizabethton. This location also served as a nesting place last year for Yellow-crowned Night-Herons.
I posted about the heron nesting colony at the airport on my Facebook page and several friends shared interesting stories.
Sandra “Snad” Garrett said she plans to check out the colony, which is not far from the Stoney Creek home she shares with her husband.
“We used to enjoy watching a huge rookery on the Mississippi River in North Minneapolis when we lived there,” she wrote. “I had no idea there was a rookery so close to us here.”
Seeing the post reminded Elizabethton resident Rita F. Schuettler of a previous close encounter with a Great Blue Heron.
“I was fishing on the Watauga River when I saw my first Great Blue Heron,” she said. “It was close by and staring at me. Scared me to death, but I was thrilled to see it.”
In a follow-up moment, I congratulated Rita, telling her that it’s difficult to sneak up on a Great Blue Heron and that it sounded like they both got surprised.
“I was sitting there motionless fishing and he was standing there motionless fishing,” Rita wrote in another post. “I don’t know who was there first. It might have scared him also, because he flew away!”
I saw my first Barn Swallow of the spring on March 19 at Anderson Marsh on the old Johnson City Highway near the Okolona exit. There was also a Great Blue Heron in the creek at the same location.
The previous day, it was all about the raptors, as I found a Sharp-shinned Hawk on Simerly Creek Road, an American Kestrel in Unicoi and a Red-tailed Hawk and a Cooper’s Hawk both soaring in the same vicinity in Johnson City. Once I tossed in both Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures, it capped off what amounted to a pretty good raptor day.
On March 17, the only wild waterfowl lingering at the pond at Erwin Fishery Park turned out to be a pair of American Wigeon. On land, I also enjoyed watching a large mixed flock that consisted of Common Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds and European Starlings. They were feeding on shelled corn that some good-hearted person had probably left for the domestic ducks and geese that make their home at the pond.
All this activity is proof that the seasons are changing, and with them the makeup of the birds that share our yards and gardens.
Elizabethton resident Dee Obrien contacted me on Facebook with a question about a bird she saw recently at her home.
“I have an unusual bird in the yard,” she wrote in her message. “He’s about the size of a robin or mockingbird. Is black on top with white bars on his wings. Rust color on outer sides of his belly, but is off white in the middle of his belly. He is a ground feeder.”
I was glad Dee included the information on the bird’s behavior. Details like that are just as important as size and coloration. From her detailed description, including the information about its ground-feeding habits, I was able to figure out that she had seen an Eastern Towhee. Later, she notified me that she had consulted a field guide and agreed with my identification.
It’s great to hear from so many fellow bird enthusiasts. That’s been one of my goals with this blog. I hope to continue to receive communications from readers. Otherwise, it’s just me writing about the birds I have seen. I’d much rather have this blog become more engaging and interactive where people can share their enthusiasm for our fine feathered friends.
It’s easy to post comments on my new blog at ourfinefeatheredfriends.wordpress.com. You can also reach me on Facebook or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please share the link to the blog with others who might be interested in the topic of birds and birding in Northeast Tennessee.
There’s a new poll this week. Here’s the answer to last week’s poll. Which of the red-necked birds in the list specified in the poll isn’t a real bird? Well, the answer is Red-necked Goose. I hope everyone got the correct answer.