Tag Archives: John James Audubon

Visit by Yellow-headed blackbird, last seen in region in 1994, creates a stir

Bugaboo Springs Road near Jonesborough, Tennessee, saw some heavier vehicular traffic in mid-January after the exciting observation of a yellow-headed blackbird associating with a sizable flock of brown-headed cowbirds.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • This yellow-headed blackbird has been residing with flocks of brown-headed cowbirds and European starlings at a cattle pasture near Jonesborough, Tennessee. The bird, the first of its kind seen in Northeast Tennessee since 1994, has generated excitement among birders. Some people have traveled from as far as Knoxville, Tennessee, and Roanoke, Virginia, to see the bird.

The bird came to the attention of Dawn Peters, a resident along Bugaboo Springs Road, who noticed the unusually colorful bird at her feeders while looking out the window of her laundry room. At first, she thought the bird might be an oddball member of the cowbird flock.

“I’d never seen one before,” she said. “I knew it was something strange and something new.”

Dawn took the time to take a photograph of the bird and then contacted friends Jean and Brookie Potter, who also happened to be birders. They alerted her to the rare status of her feeder visitor.

“He really stood out,” Dawn said of the blackbird with a yellow head.

The yellow-headed blackbird arrived at her feeders on a snowy day when the temperatures had plunged. Dawn said she has been feeding birds for 20 years since she and her husband moved to Bugaboo Springs Road near Jonesborough, Tennessee. “The birds know where to come for food,” she said. “I try to feed them all, but they can eat you out of house and home.”

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Photo by Bryan Stevens This yellow-headed blackbird and several brown-headed cowbirds perch in a tree after foraging for food in a cattle lot near Jonesborough, Tennessee.

Dawn said she gets a variety of birds at her feeders, ranging from sparrows and cardinals to mourning doves and finches. “I also get downy woodpeckers and towhees,” she added.

On occasion, she will notice a hawk in the yard. In the summer, she puts out several feeders with sugar water to attract hummingbirds. “Last summer, I had brown thrashers raise a family in my yard,” she said.

Although the yellow-headed blackbird arrived with a flock of brown-headed cowbirds, the other flock members didn’t exactly embrace him. “Some of the cowbirds would peck at him,” she said.

While the yellow-headed blackbird hasn’t been back to her feeders since Jan. 13, the bird was rediscovered less than a mile from her home in a feed lot for cattle. The yellow-headed blackbird has continued to associate with large flocks of cowbirds and European starlings and has been observed by dozens of birders.

The yellow-headed blackbird, known by the scientific name Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus, is a relative of cowbirds, as well as the familiar red-winged blackbird. It’s a unique species in that it is the only member of the genus, Xanthocephalus. Breaking this word down from its ancient Greek origins, the name means, quite literally “yellow headed.”

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Photo by Bryan Stevens This yellow-headed blackbird was photographed at Antelope Island State Park in Utah in 2006.

The yellow-headed blackbird’s also a species that has been only a rare visitor to the region. While a common bird in wetland habitats west of the Great Lakes, the yellow-head blackbird has not been reported often in East Tennessee. In fact, there are only a handful of records since the 1930s, the most recent sightings being reported and documented in 1990 and 1994. Since it has been almost a quarter of a century since the last time a yellow-headed blackbird was found in East Tennessee, one could argue that a visit from a vagrant individual of this species was long overdue. In southwest Virginia, there are a couple of records from Smyth County dating back to July of 1985 and March of 1988.

It’s not quite clear why a yellow-headed blackbird ventured into the region in mid-January. Normally, these birds spend the winter months in the southwestern United States and Mexico. They often migrate in huge flocks with other species of birds, which could explain why the bird found itself an honorary member of a flock of cowbirds estimated to number about 300 individuals.

My first attempt to add this species to my Tennessee list ended in failure, although I did enjoy seeing several white-crowned sparrows, a handsome bird that definitely doesn’t deserve being classified as one of the “little brown birds” that so often serves as an offhand designation for sparrows. That attempt was made on the morning of Jan. 18 and may have been ended prematurely. When I got access to a computer later, I checked to see if any other observations had been reported. I noticed a report from local birder Michelle Sparks, who saw the bird probably less than 90 minutes after I had ended my first attempt.

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Early American naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted these yellow-headed blackbirds.

Speculating that the yellow-headed blackbird and its accompanying flocks of brown-headed cowbirds and European starlings would return to the feedlot to forage before dark, I returned at 4 p.m. to try again. I found the feedlot overwhelmed by hundreds of cowbirds and starlings, but I didn’t see any sign of a bird with a yellow head. Many of the cowbirds carpeted the pasture as they gleaned seeds and other food items. Many of the starlings were perched in the branches of trees and on the roof of an old farmhouse. At some point, almost every bird in the chaotic flock spooked and took to the air. The flock wheeled and turned, with most of the birds settling into the upper branches of some of the taller trees at the location. I soon detected a flash of yellow. I’m not sure where the bird had been hiding earlier, but the yellow-headed blackbird proved unmistakable, perched high in the trees with the sun shining brightly. He couldn’t hide from my binoculars or camera, which I used to snap several photos of this rare visitor to the region.

I have this species on my life list, having seen yellow-headed blackbirds during visits to Utah in 2003 and 2006. While in Utah, I also saw red-winged blackbird, brown-headed cowbirds and Brewer’s blackbirds, including a partial albino individual that presented a challenge in identifying.

While technically a songbird, the yellow-headed blackbird routinely ranks as one of the worst singers among North America’s songbirds. The yellow-headed blackbird is not all musical, with its song repertoire ranging from what has been described as “cacophonous strangling noises” and “honking gurgles” on the website for the publication, “Birdwatcher’s Digest.”

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Photo by Jean Potter • This yellow-headed blackbird was photographed in Colorado in 2016.

The New World’s blackbirds belong to the family of birds, Icteridae, which also consists of birds such as meadowlarks, orioles, cowbirds, grackles, bobolinks and oropendolas. Although many blackbirds show predominantly black plumage, these birds often contrast their dark coloration with yellow, orange or red feathers. The name of the genus stems from Ancient Greek and Latin words that, translated into English, mean roughly, “jaundiced ones,” which stems from the yellow feathers present in the plumage of many species. Other blackbirds in the New World include tawny-shouldered blackbird, saffron-cowled blackbird, melodious blackbird, oriole blackbird and scarlet-headed blackbird. In the United States, other nesting species in the family include Brewer’s blackbird, tri-colored blackbird and rusty blackbird. The last of these species has shown chronic long-term and acute short-term population declines, based both on breeding season and wintering ground surveys. Some estimates suggest that the rusty blackbird population has declined by 80 percent, which could soon endanger the species.

I’m hoping the yellow-headed blackbird on Bugaboo Springs Road is liking where it has found itself this winter and will continue to delight observant birders over the upcoming weeks.

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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.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Birders from near and far converged on Bugaboo Springs Road near Jonesborough, Tennessee, to search for the yellow-headed blackbird.

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Warblers exert special pull for many birders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kinglets are energetic sprites among our feathered friends

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Photo by Elizabeth McPherson • This Golden-crowned Kinglet recovered after striking a window.

There are many different ways to become more familiar with the backyard birds at your own home. I’m fond of keeping a year list of all the bird species that travel through the yard and garden at my home. Keeping such a list is a great way to document the seasonal comings and goings of the bird life in your own neighborhood. You may be surprised at what you see.

Patricia Werth, a resident of Abingdon, Virginia, sent me an email to share the results of her year of counting birds in her yard.

“I told you at the beginning of 2016 I was going to list all the birds that come to my feeder or are in our yard,” she wrote. “I counted 29, but I just saw a very small bird that resembled the goldfinch, except smaller and more greenish on the back. Was that a warbler? I am not very good differentiating between sparrows, either.”

She was pleased with her 2016 results, but she wanted some suggestions for identifying the unknown bird. Based on her description of the bird’s small size and greenish coloration on the back, I suggested she do some online research into kinglets.

I received a second email from Patricia thanking me for the suggestion. “After looking up the kinglets, I do believe it was the female golden-crowned kinglet,” she wrote, adding that she was certain that she had seen her before.

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Photo by Jean Potter • This Golden-crowned Kinglet was captured and banded as part of an ornithological study.

The identification of the golden-crowned kinglet took her total to 30 species. “Seeing that they (kinglets) rarely eat seeds that was a real treat to have them visit,” Patricia wrote. “I believe I have heard them call, too, but thought it was a chickadee, as they are so vocal.”

Her year’s already off to a good start with goldfinches at her feeders. With the recent snowfall, she also saw her first dark-eyed junco of the year. When it comes to size, however, few of the birds that patronize our feeders are as diminutive in size as the kinglets.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Donna Dewhurst • The ruby-crowned kinglet, pictured, and golden-crowned kinglet are among North America’s smallest birds. Both species are occasional winter visitors in the region. The birds are named for bright crown patches that contrast with their overall drab appearance.

As their name suggests, kinglets are tiny birds. In fact, about the only North American birds smaller than kinglets are some of the hummingbirds. The kinglets, known outside North America as “flamecrests” or “firecrests,” belong to the family, Regulidae, and the genus, Regulus. The family and genus names are derived from a Latin word, regulus, which means “rex,” or “king.” The name was apparently inspired by the colorful crown patches, often red, orange or gold, that resemble the royal “crowns” of kings. In addition to the two North American species, four other species of kinglets can be found in North Africa, Europe and Asia.

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Early American naturalist and artist painted this pair of Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

Although similar in size and overall coloration, the ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets are easily distinguished from each other. Side by side, the two species of North American kinglets are easy to identify. The golden-crowned kinglet has a striped facial pattern formed by bold black and white stripes. The ruby-crowned kinglet, on the other hand, has a bold white eye ring but no striping. The golden-crowned kinglet has an orange crown patch, while the ruby-crowned kinglet has a red crown patch that is, more often than not, kept concealed. Both sexes of the golden-crowned kinglet possess a yellow crown patch, but only the male ruby-crowned kinglet boasts a scarlet patch of feathers atop the head. Observers can expend a lot of energy trying to get a look at the crown patches, which are typically only displayed when the bird is agitated.

Kinglets are very active birds. If warblers can be described as energetic, the kinglets are downright frenetic in their activities. The kinglets almost never pause for long, flitting from branch to branch in trees and shrubs as they constantly flick their wings over their backs.  These bursts of hyperactivity can make them difficult to observe. Although small in size, these birds more than compensate for it with a feisty spirit that does them well through the harsh winter months.

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John James Audubon painted this depiction of a bird he referred to as Cuvier’s Kinglet in the early 1700s. No other person has ever encountered a bird matching this description.

Kinglets often join mixed flocks comprised of other species of birds, some of which are regular feeder visitors. Perhaps by observing their flock counterparts, some kinglets have learned to accept feeder fare such as suet, meal worms and chopped nuts. Away from feeders, kinglets mostly feed on a range of small insects and arachnids. These tiny birds will also consume some fruit, such as the berries of poison oaks and dogwoods.

Normally, kinglets have a rather fleeting lifespan. These tiny birds can be considered old if they live three or four years. There are always exceptions.  The oldest golden-crowned kinglet on record was six years and four months old. That individual, a male, was documented by a bird bander in 1976, according to the website All About Birds.

Overall, kinglets are trusting, tame birds and a welcome addition to any flocks visiting your yard and garden. These tiny feathered sprites are definitely worth getting to know.

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The Bristol Bird Club will conduct a birding trip of Burke’s Garden, Virginia, on Saturday, Feb. 11. Red-headed woodpecker, a relative of the Northern flicker, is among the target birds. Other possible birds will include golden eagles, rough-legged hawks, horned larks and a pair of bald eagles on a nesting site located in the beautiful, bowl-like valley of Burke’s Garden.e80948b8-92fa-44d2-b107-d9223014aff0_d

Participants should plan to meet by 8 a.m. at the Hardee’s at 900 E. Fincastle St. in Tazewell, Virginia. Arrive early and enjoy breakfast. Attendees will carpool to Burke’s Garden. Those making the trip might also glimpse alpacas and a camel. Bring a bit of cash if you would like to enjoy a soup and sandwich lunch at the Amish Store. For more information on this trip, call Kevin Blaylock at (423) 943-5841.

I visited Burke’s Garden for the first time almost 20 years ago on one of these February field trips. It was quite the memorable birding experience and yielded me my first-ever sightings of rough-legged hawk and common goldeneye.