Tag Archives: Kingsport Times-News

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.

 

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Good intentions can have ill effects for ducks, geese, other waterfowl


Pattie Rowland contacted me on Facebook recently with a valid concern, especially now that the temperatures are turning a little cooler. People with good intentions often visit parks to feed the ducks and geese that reside at ponds and creeks.

 

“I see people with bags of bread thinking they are helping the ducks and geese,” she explained.

Despite the good intentions, Pattie, a resident of Erwin, Tennessee, has some concerns about the practice and requested that I help raise awareness about the possible unintended consequences.

While I’m not an expert, I applaud her attempt to raise the issue about what foods are nutritional and which are not when it comes to feeding wild or domesticated waterfowl. So, I did some research into the topic.

Dave McRuer, the director of Wildlife Medicine at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, wrote about the risks associated with feeding waterfowl in a 2015 article on the center’s website.

McRuer noted that wild ducks and geese feed on a variety of natural foods, such as wild grains and grasses, aquatic plants, and invertebrates. This varied diet provides the essentials waterfowl need to thrive.

Mallard-Drakes

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Mallard drakes share a log during a period of relaxation. Mallards, Canada Geese, and some other waterfowl have voluntarily semi-domesticated themselves in exchange for an easy, but not always healthy, life based on human handouts.

On the other hand, McRuer warned about some of the foods commonly fed to waterfowl in public parks, such as bread, popcorn and corn, are typically low in protein and essential nutrients and minerals. Waterfowl feeding heavily on such fare are at risk for developing nutritional disorders.

 

His ultimate conclusion was that any benefits are far outweighed by risks when it comes to the feeding of waterfowl at public parks. His recommendation was to stop all forms of supplemental feeding.

 

He based his recommendation on more than nutritional concerns. Supplemental feeding can also lead to overcrowding, disease concerns, habitat degradation, and an unhealthy habituation to humans or animals associated with humans.

 

There are some alternatives to the quitting “cold turkey” option when it comes to feeding ducks and geese. Melissa Mayntz, a birder with more than 30 years of experience, penned an article for the website, The Spruce, recommending some foods that will not expose waterfowl to potential harm.

 

In an article titled “What to Feed Ducks,” Mayntz wrote that it is important to realize that waterfowl are capable of fending for themselves and do not require human handouts to survive, no matter what the season nor how much they seem to beg for treats. She did offer some tips on choosing nutritious treats to supplement the wild diet of park waterfowl.

 

Various grains, such as cracked corn, wheat, barley, oats, and rice can safely be offered as an occasional treat. In addition, she recommended grapes (sliced in half), chopped lettuce or other greens and vegetable trimmings or peels chopped into small, easily eaten pieces.

Mallard-March28

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Mallard drake still shows some caution toward humans, arguing that this individual has not become dependent on human handouts.

Mayntz’s article basically echoes many of the warnings from the one by McRuer. Some of the foods commonly offered, such as bread, crackers, cereal and popcorn, offer very little nutritional value. In addition, bread and other similar foods are dangerous if they are moldy. Increasing the disk is the fact that any excess bread that isn’t eaten can quickly mold. Molded food can kill waterfowl, which is the last thing people would want to happen to these birds.

 

I agree with Mayntz in her conclusion, which admits that feeding waterfowl at local ponds and parks can be a fun experience in wildlife viewing for people of all ages. By avoiding potentially dangerous foods and restricting treats to items that actually provide nutritional value, birders can continue to enjoy this pastime without risking the lives of the birds they love so much.

 

As a general rule, I don’t feed the waterfowl at local parks. Many years ago I fed a flock of semi-domesticated mallards that took up residence at my fish pond. From a half dozen birds, the flock eventually grew to about two dozen ducks. The only food I fed them was cracked corn during the winter season. They foraged quite successfully for the rest of their food from the pond, the nearby creek and the fields. I’m convinced they helped control the numbers of pest insects during their stay. To this day, an occasional pair of mallards will visit on cold winter days. At times, they look at me like they’re expecting a handout and I wonder if they could be descendants of some of those mallards from the original flock.

Canada_Geese

Photo by Bryan Stevens • In some areas, Canada Geese have become so prevalent that they are considered pests. Human handouts to waterfowl are not always compatible with good health for the birds that receive them.

 

So, don’t let good intentions cause problems for any of our feathered friends. If you want to feed ducks at the local park, consider the healthy alternatives instead of providing bread. After all, people cannot live on bread alone, and neither can ducks.

 

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Calendars make fun Christmas presents

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.

 

Annual Fall Bird Count finds 122 species in Northeast Tennessee

Heron-UnderBridge

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Great Blue Heron wades through the creek running through downtown historic Jonesborough on a warm afternoon this past summer. These large herons, helped by recent nesting colonies in Erwin, Elizabethton and other locations, have become more commonplace in the region. The 66 Great Blue Herons found on the recent Fall Bird Count represented a new high number for the species on this annual autumn survey of bird populations in the region.

 

The 48th annual Elizabethton Fall Count was held on Saturday, Sept. 30, with 54 observers in 12 parties covering Carter County and parts of the adjacent counties of Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington. The participants tallied 122 species, which is slightly below the recent 30-year average of 126 species. The all-time high for this count was 137 species, which was reached in 1993.

Shorebirds were in very short supply due to a shortage of suitable habitat. Aside from killdeer, a solitary sandpiper was true to his name. In particular, two sites that formerly attracted shorebirds have undergone alterations that have essentially eliminated such conditions: Austin Springs and Bush Hog Pond.

This year’s count featured some other notable misses, as well, according to long-time count compiler Rick Knight. Birds missed include Northern Bobwhite (which has been found only four times in the last 24 years), Broad-winged Hawk, Spotted Sandpiper (first miss in last decade), Winter Wren, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

Several birds set new high records for the number of individuals tallied, including Double-crested Cormorant (70); Great Blue Heron (66); Black Vulture (330); Turkey Vulture (215); Red-shouldered Hawk (6); Belted Kingfisher (40); and Red-bellied Woodpecker (90).

Bryan-KingfisherSunny

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The 40 Belted Kingfishers found during the Fall Bird Count represented a new high count for this long-running survey.

Fish Crow made its debut on a Fall Bird Count debut when two individuals were found in Kingsport along the Holston River.

The count total follows:

Canada Goose, 957; Wood Duck, 24; Mallard, 378; Blue-winged Teal, 2; Hooded Merganser, 1; Ruffed Grouse, 5; Wild Turkey, 79; Pied-billed Grebe, 11; and Double-crested Cormorant, 70.
Great Blue Heron, 66; Great Egret, 1; Green Heron, 4; Black-crowned Night-Heron, 2; Black Vulture, 330; and Turkey Vulture, 215.

Osprey, 12; Bald Eagle, 6; Northern Harrier, 2; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 7; Cooper’s Hawk, 7; Red-shouldered Hawk, 6; Red-tailed Haw, 27; American Kestrel, 16; Merlin, 1; and Peregrine Falcon, 1.

Killdeer 50; Solitary Sandpiper, 1; Ring-billed Gull, 1; Forster’s Tern, 1; Rock Pigeon, 404; Eurasian Collared-Dove, 2; Mourning Dove, 356; Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 1; Eastern Screech-Owl, 12; Great Horned Owl; 10; Barred Owl; 4; and Northern Saw-whet Owl; 1.

Common Nighthawk, 1; Chimney Swift, 254; Ruby-throated Hummingbird 8; Belted Kingfisher, 40; Red-headed Woodpecker, 7; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 90; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 16; Downy Woodpecker, 46; Hairy Woodpecker, 8; Northern Flicker, 63; and Pileated Woodpecker, 37.

Eastern Wood-Pewee 6; Eastern Phoebe, 76; Eastern Kingbird, 1; Loggerhead Shrike, 1; White-eyed Vireo; 2; Yellow-throated Vireo, 1; Blue-headed Vireo, 14; Red-eyed Vireo, 6; Blue Jay, 447; American Crow, 424; Fish Crow, 2; and Common Raven, 19.

SolitarySandpiper-One

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Migrating shorebirds, such as this Solitary Sandpiper, added diversity to this year’s Fall Bird Count in Northeast Tennessee.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 3; Tree Swallow, 68; Carolina Chickadee, 174; Tufted Titmouse,93; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 6; White-breasted Nuthatch, 44; Brown Creeper, 2; House Wren, 2; and Carolina Wren,180.

Golden-crowned Kinglet, 4; Ruby-crowned Kinglet,14; Eastern Bluebird, 163; Veery, 7; Gray-cheeked Thrush, 26; Swainson’s Thrush, 70; Hermit Thrush, 1; Wood Thrush, 19; American Robin, 301; Gray Catbird, 34; Brown Thrasher, 11; Northern Mockingbird, 100; European Starling, 2,106; and Cedar Waxwing, 205.

Ovenbird, 2; Black and White Warbler, 6; Tennessee Warbler, 32; Common Yellowthroat, 9; Hooded Warbler, 2; American Redstart, 5; Cape May Warbler, 8; Northern Parula, 3; Magnolia Warbler, 29; Bay-breasted Warbler, 10; Blackburnian Warbler, 2; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 2; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 5; Palm Warbler, 21; Pine Warbler, 11; Yellow-rumped Warbler, 5; Yellow-throated Warbler, 4; Prairie Warbler, 1; and Black-throated Green Warbler, 8.

grosbeak-photo

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Migrating Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were among the 122 species tallied for this year’s Fall Bird Count.

Eastern Towhee, 50; Chipping Sparrow, 57; Field Sparrow, 14; Song Sparrow,144; Lincoln’s Sparrow, 1; Swamp Sparrow, 1; Dark-eyed Junco, 75; Summer Tanager, 1; Scarlet Tanager, 11; Northern Cardinal, 173; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 19; Indigo Bunting, 15.

Red-winged Blackbird, 41; Eastern Meadowlark, 17; Common Grackle, 859; Brown-headed Cowbird, 78; House Finch, 44; Pine Siskin, 1; American Goldfinch, 138; and House Sparrow, 33.

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Bryan Stevens has been writing about birds on a weekly basis since 1995. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Dark-eyed junco faithful visitor to feeders during wintry weather

Junco-Ground

Photo by Kenneth Thomas / Dark-eyed juncos, often referred to as “snow birds,” flock to feeders in winter during periods of inclement weather.

I recently took part in the 48th annual Elizabethton Fall Count. Although part of the count’s focus is on Carter County, significant attention is paid to the adjacent counties of Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington in Northeast Tennessee. This year’s count, which was held Saturday, Sept. 30, with 54 observers in 12 parties, tallied 122 species, which is slightly below the recent 30-year average of 126 species. The all-time high for this count was 137 species, which was reached in 1993.

Together with Brenda Richards, I travelled the Forest Service road on Holston Mountain to seek out some species that prefer higher elevation habitats, including dark-eyed juncos. The junco is also a winter visitor to yards and gardens throughout the region and should be returning any day now for a seasonal stay during the colder months of the year. During our progress up the mountain, we glimpsed several dark-eyed juncos as well as other birds such as blue-headed vireo and black-and-white warbler.

I have always had a fondness for juncos. In fact, I wrote my first birding column on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, which means that I recently celebrated the 22nd anniversary of my weekly accounts of birds and birding. The column has appeared weekly without interruption in various newspapers in the last 22 years. The column has also been a great conduit for getting to know other people interested in our “feathered friends.” I always enjoy hearing from readers, and I hope to continue to do so in the coming years. Since February of 2014, I’ve also been posting the column as a weekly blog on birds and birding.

Here, with some revisions I have made through the years, is that first column that has now involved into a look that is all “For the Birds.”
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Of all the birds associated with winter weather, few are as symbolic as the Dark-eyed Junco, or “snow bird.” The junco occurs in several geographic variations.dennisjl 2

John V. Dennis, author of “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” captures the essence of the junco in the following description: “Driving winds and swirling snow do not daunt this plucky bird. The coldest winter days see the junco as lively as ever and with a joie de vivre that bolsters our sagging spirits.” The Dark-eyed Junco’s scientific name, hyemalis, is New Latin for “wintry,” an apt description of this bird.

Most people look forward to the spring return of some of our brilliant birds — warblers, tanagers and orioles — and I must admit that I also enjoy the arrival of these birds. The junco, in comparison to some of these species, is not in the same league. Nevertheless, the junco is handsome in its slate gray and white plumage, giving rise to the old saying “dark skies above, snow below.”

Just as neotropical migrants make long distance journeys twice a year, the junco is also a migrating species. But in Appalachia, the junco is a special type of migrant. Most people think of birds as “going south for the winter.” In a basic sense this is true. But some juncos do not undertake a long horizontal (the scientific term) migration from north to south. Instead, these birds merely move from high elevations, such as the spruce fir peaks, to the lower elevations. This type of migration is known as vertical migration. Other juncos, such as those that spend their breeding season in northern locales, do make a southern migration and, at times, even mix with the vertical migrants.

Juncos are usually in residence around my home by early November. Once they make themselves at home I can expect to play host to them until at least late April or early May of the following year. So, for at least six months, the snow bird is one of the most common and delightful feeder visitors a bird enthusiast could want.

john-james-audubon-limited-centennial-edition-giclee-on-paper-dark-eyed-junco-2

Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of Dark-eyed Juncos.

Juncos flock to feeders where they are rather mild-mannered — except among themselves. There are definite pecking orders in a junco flock, and females are usually on the lower tiers of the hierarchy. Females can sometimes be distinguished from males because of their paler gray or even brown upper plumage.

Since juncos are primarily ground feeders, they tend to shun hanging feeders. But one winter I observed a junco that had mastered perching on a hanging “pine cone” feeder to enjoy a suet and peanut butter mixture.

Dark-eyed juncos often are content to glean the scraps other birds knock to the ground. Juncos are widespread. They visit feeders across North America. The junco is the most common species of bird to visit feeding stations. They will sample a variety of fare, but prefer such seeds as millet, cracked corn or black oil sunflower.

There’s something about winter that makes a junco’s dark and light garb an appropriate and even striking choice, particularly against a backdrop of newly fallen snow.

Junco-AtFeeder

Photo by Bryan Stevens / A Dark-eyed Junco perches on the side of a hanging feeder offering sunflower seeds.

Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and begin a furious period of eating, I don’t even have to glance skyward or tune in the television weather forecast. I know what they know. Bad weather is on the way!

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

Dark reputation of world’s owls is being rehabilitated as people learn more about them and their habits

 

greathornedowl-2

Photo by Bryan Stevens / A great horned owl perches on a post during its part in a wild bird show at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia.

As I sit at my computer working on this week’s post, I can hear the low, sonorous call of a great horned owl from the woods located behind my house. The great horned owl is one of two species I often hear near my home. In addition, I regularly hear the much smaller Eastern screech-owl calling from the same woods. The intervals around dusk and dawn are popular times for owls to produce their eerie calls. At present, there’s a pair of great horned owls living in the woods near my home. If I hear one, I usually hear the other. These large owls call to each other to communicate their whereabouts. Perhaps it helps them avoid surprise encounters with each other once they begin hunting after the sun sets.

The great horned owl lives and hunts in the woodlands of northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina. These large owls thrive in rural areas, but these adaptable predatory birds have also learned to survive in the suburbs and even city parks. While quite at home in the region, the great horned owl is not confined to the Southern Appalachians. These owls also make their home in the wetlands along the southern Atlantic coast, as well as arid deserts of the American southwest. If nothing else, the great horned owl has shown amazing resilience and adaptability.

With about 200 different species, the world’s owls form an order known as Strigiformes. Characteristics that define owls include a mostly solitary and nocturnal existence. These predatory birds are also typified by such physical traits as an upright stance, binocular vision, exceptional hearing, sharp talons, and feathers adapted for silent flight.

BarredOwl-Perched

Photo by Bryan Stevens / A Barred Owl blends with the background in this photo taken of a wild owl at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina.

The smallest owl — weighing as little as an ounce and measuring a mere five inches) — is the elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi). To give you some perspective, that DVD of your favorite movie also weighs about an ounce. The common house sparrow that flocks in shopping center parking lots is slightly bigger than this tiny owl. According to the website, The Owl Page, the elf owl was originally known as Whitney’s Owl. The scientific name whitneyi is a Latinized word formed from the last name of Josiah Dwight Whitney, a prominent American geologist for whom the diminutive owl was named. Whitney was considered the foremost authority of his day on the economic geology of the United States. In addition to having a tiny owl named in his honor, Whitney’s name graces Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States, and the Whitney Glacier, which was the first confirmed glacier in the United States.

The miniature elf owl is every bit the predator, but its prey generally consists of various insects as well as such desert dwellers as scorpions and spiders. Despite the extremes of the environment in which it lives, the elf owl does just fine. It prefers areas offering plenty of saguaro cactus. Cavities in these iconic desert plants provide roosting and nesting locations for this tiny owl. The elf owl range from the southwest regions of the United States to Central Mexico and Baja California. Unfortunately, the numbers of this owl in Texas and California have declined in recent times.33ecc634b6bf2f56939e0c28a1e0c6c0

To find the world’s largest owl, head to the other side of the world to the islands of Japan, as well as remote areas of Siberia, Manchuria and Korea. With a body comparable in size to that of a young child and a wingspan wider than six feet, the Blakiston’s fish owl (Bubo blakistoni) earns its distinction as the largest owl in the world. The fish owls are part of a larger grouping of birds known as eagle owls, which specialize in hunting in habitats found along large rivers. Female Blakiston’s fish owls are larger than males, and a large female can weigh as much as 10 pounds and attain a 6.5-foot wingspan. This big owl was named after English naturalist Thomas Blakiston (1832-1891) who found the first specimen on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido in 1883. According to Paul Frost of The Raptor Foundation, this owl is sacred to the Ainu, a native people residing on Hokkaidu. The Ainu refer to this owl as “kotan kor kamuy,” which means “god of the village” or “god who defends the village”.

While many culture view owls with misgivings, often associating their nocturnal tendencies with more sinister motives, that’s not always the case. For instance, the Japanese people believe that owls bring good fortune. In addition, owls offer protection from suffering. Other cultures have feared and reviled owls. The ancient Romans share much of the blame for the negative image owls are still overcoming. Romans considered owls as harbingers of death, defeat and other disasters. To ward off the evil caused by an owl, Romans advised that the offending owl should be killed and nailed to a door. Such a bloodthirsty solution leads me to think that owls had more to fear from Romans than Romans had to fear from them.

The need for common names for the 200 species of owls has resulted in some creative monikers. Some of the most descriptive common names for some of the world’s owls include ashy-faced barn owl, barking owl, brown owl, cuckoo owlet, fearful owl, giant eagle owl, Christmas Island hawk owl, snowy owl, laughing owl, rufous owl, tawny-bellied screech owl, winking owl, and spotted wood owl.

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Photo by George Gentry/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / A Great Horned Owl is shown on the nest with one of her chicks.

Many relatives of the great horned owl have proven equally adaptive, carving out niches for themselves in habitats as diverse as jungles, deserts and the frozen tundra. Indeed, the great horned owl has many relatives living in our region. The Eastern screech owl is a tiny cousin, but some other large owls that live in the area include the barred owl and the barn owl. More rare to the region are visits by such owls as the short-eared owl and the long-eared owl. There’s even another tiny relative — the Northern saw whet owl — that is rarely heard and even more seldom seen.

Regardless of the species, the activities of owls are invariably cloaked in darkness. Despite electric lights and other trappings of civilization, people still delight in the shivers that result from hearing the hoots of an owl. It’s truly no surprise that owls have become popular motifs in the weeks leading up to our recent celebration of the Halloween holiday. Owls may live alongside us, but we’ll never truly belong to their world, which consists of all the spooky things that go bump in the night.

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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. Find him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler.

Crows show intelligence yet can’t shake dark reputation

Crow-Waxwings

Photo by Bryan Stevens
Red-winged blackbirds mob an American crow. In turn, crows often mob large raptors,           such as red-tailed hawks and great horned owls.

There’s something rather autumnal about watching a flock of American crows glean the last scattered kernels of corn from a harvested field as a sentry stands guard ready to utter the alarm with some guttural “caws” should anything potentially threatening appear on the scene. Crows are such a part of the landscape that they would almost escape our notice if they didn’t come with centuries of accumulated baggage that makes us distrust them and suspect their every action.

The crow, largely thanks to its black plumage, but perhaps also with a nod to its avian intelligence, has long been associated with Halloween. Greeting cards and decorations for the holiday often feature depictions of bats, owls and black cats, as well as the inevitable crow and the accompanying scarecrow. It’s not like the straw-filled sentries that stand guard over a farmer’s fields do anything to intimidate or even discourage crows. With a brain about as big as a man’s thumb, the crow is renowned among ornithologists and other scientists for its keen intelligence. Crows are not fooled for a second by the masquerade of a scarecrow propped in a field.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens / Wary American crows survey their surroundings.

The intelligence of this bird has long been known. Early American naturalist William Bartram wrote about a crow named Tom in a unique naturalist essay titled “Anecdotes of an American Crow.” Bartram, who lived from 1739 to 1823, brought humor and insight to his subject as he wrote about the joys, as well as tribulations, of living with Tom, a crow that enjoyed tormenting Bartram’s dog and stealing the writer’s spectacles and trying to hide them.

The essay demonstrates that almost as soon as Europeans arrived in North America, some of those with a bent toward the natural world recognized the intelligence and amazing adaptability of the American crow. As well as writing about the natural world, Bartram earned widespread acclaim for his drawings of botanical and ornithological subjects. Tom, the featured crow in Bartram’s brief essay, certainly exhibited intelligence of an impressive degree. Not only did the crow steal his owners eyeglasses, he foiled Bartram’s first attempt to reclaim them. Noting Bartram’s attention to his efforts to hide the purloined spectacles, Tom snatched the eyeglasses a second time when Bartram made a premature attempt to reclaim them. The situation makes very humorous reading.

What else have crows done down through the ages to gain such a dark and much undeserved reputation? It probably doesn’t help matters that a flock of crows is known as a “murder.” Ancient Greeks considered crows as omens, which often foretold death and other disasters. On the positive side, many Native American tribes revere crows as communicators between worlds. Crows have been documented using tools and solving problems, which shows an uncanny ability to analyze and strategize. Early Celtic people also noted and admired these traits in crows.

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Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this American crow.

In addition, crows forage beyond the cornfield for their food. Many crows scavenge road-killed wildlife, such as squirrels, opossums and rabbits. While they eat carrion, they do so less often than birds such as turkey vultures, black vultures and the crow’s fellow corvid, the common raven.

The kinship to the raven is evident, but even moderately experienced birders rarely confuse these similar species. The raven is a large bird with a heavy beak, a distinctive profile and a wedge-shaped tail. In a direct comparison with a raven, a crow looks downright puny. Both are members of the corvid family, which consists of 120 species including jays, rooks, magpies and jackdaws.

Many years ago I fed a flock of ducks that took up residence at my fish pond. Before long, the crows arrived within minutes after I tossed shelled corn on the ground for the benefit of the ducks. If the ducks took too long consuming the corn, the impatient crows crowded closer and competed directly with the ducks for the kernels. The crows that live around my home are usually too cautious and wary to visit feeders situated near my home. Feeders set farther from the house receive occasional hurried visits by crows.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens / A trio of American crows forages on a grassy lawn.

American author and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher summed up the American crow in the frequently quoted remark, “If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows.” It’s an apt tribute and comes from the man whose sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a book often credited with helping to launch the American Civil War.

Crows, perhaps more than any other North American bird, have learned to co-exist with human beings. Make an effort to get past some pre-supposed superstitions about these interesting birds and learn to appreciate them for their many good qualities.

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To ask a question, make a comment or share a sighting, send an email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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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.