Tag Archives: Our Fine Feathered Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A list of the species follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lisa Huff

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

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

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

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Ben Jarrett

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

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

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Dwayne Estes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cardinal has rivals when it comes to depiction on Christmas cards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Snowy owl pair painted by John James Audubon.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male house finch perched on a cable. These finches are native to the western United States but became established in the eastern states thanks to the illicit pet trade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas to all my fellow bird enthusiasts! 

Winter weather events can adversely affect birds, too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annual Fall Bird Count finds 122 species in Northeast Tennessee

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.