White-throated sparrows advertise their presence in yards and gardens with spring singing

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The calendar has turned to March, and — when it comes to birds — the month is a time of transition. The season doesn’t know whether it’s winter or spring, but the birds know. They, like me, are anticipating the busy spring season.

The clientele at your feeders may change significantly in March. The winter residents are still present, but newly-arrived birds make appearances. Red-winged blackbird, common grackles, and brown-headed cowbirds, all of which may have retreated farther south during the peak of winter, can arrive suddenly in large flocks to lay claim to offerings like suet and sunflower seeds.

On our lawns, we should be noticing flocks of American robins. Long considered a harbinger of spring, the American robin is actually a year-round resident in the region. Spring’s false starts sometimes take robins by surprise, which results in large flocks of these bird descending on lawns and fields to forage frantically for earthworms and insect grubs.

Many people are probably noticing more bird song in the morning. At my home, I’ve been hearing more from birds ranging from song sparrows and chickadees to bluebirds and Northern cardinals, as well as white-throated sparrows. Although they are fairly common winter visitors in the region, the white-throated sparrow makes its presence known most strongly each spring when the birds begin to sing a familiar refrain that has been transcribed in a couple of different ways. Many Americans render the song of the white-throated sparrow as “Ol’ Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” For those living north of the border, the white-throated sparrow sings “O’Canada, O’Canada, O’Canada.” As I mentioned, it’s a song I’ve been hearing much more frequently in the past couple of weeks. No matter how you translate this sparrow’s song, it’s a sweet and welcome addition to the spring aural landscape.

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The white-throated sparrow also has a close relative that is a little less common. The white-crowned sparrow is one of the more distinctive species in a family often unfairly dismissed as “little brown birds.” It’s fairly common to find mixed flocks of both of these and other sparrows feeding together. They start the mingling process in the fall, probably to prepare them for the necessity of close proximity when winter makes it necessary to crowd together to find food. At my own feeders, I often host mixed flocks of several sparrows, including song sparrows, chipping sparrows, white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos, as well as the occasional field sparrow or swamp sparrow.

 

The white-throated sparrow and the closely related white-crowned sparrow both belong to a genus of American sparrows known as Zonotrichia, which includes three other species. These other three — golden-crowned sparrow, rufous-collared sparrow, and Harris’s sparrow — range mostly outside the continental United States. The rufous-collared sparrow ranges throughout Mexico, as well as the island of Hispaniola. Harris’s sparrow is a bird that occurs mostly in Canada, although there are a handful of records in our region. The golden-crowned sparrow is a bird that occurs mostly in Alaska, although some of this sparrow’s population ranges into the northwestern corner of the state of Washington.

The genus name, Zonotrichia, refers to two ancient Greek words for zone and hair, which refers to the pattern of streaks on the backs of these five sparrow species. The Zonotrichia sparrows belong to a large group of birds known as Passerellidae, or American sparrows, which also includes birds such as juncos, towhees and brush finches. Some of the more descriptive names of some of the American sparrows include orange-billed sparrow, white-eared ground sparrow, green-backed sparrow, olive sparrow, cinnamon-tailed sparrow, five-striped sparrow and golden-winged sparrow.

White-crowned Sparrow

I love white-crowned sparrows, but they are rare visitors to my feeders. They occasionally pass through my yard in the fall, but they rarely stay more than a couple of days. I get plenty of white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos, however, which is nice compensation. The white-crowned sparrow is more numerous in the western half of the United States. In a trip to Utah in October of 2003, these large, striking sparrows were seemingly everywhere. In the eastern United States, the white-crowned sparrow usually makes appearances as a migrant or a winter resident. These sparrows do seem faithful to wintering locations once they have spent a season. The only requirement for attracting them is a yard that offers some extensive thickets or other brushy habitat. A hedgerow bordered by a spacious lawn or field is also a magnet for this particular sparrow.

This accurately named white-crowned sparrow is easy to distinguish from all the other “little brown birds” in the sparrow family. First, for a sparrow, it’s somewhat large. Second, there’s the distinctive black-and-white head pattern that gives the bird its name. Of course, only the adult sparrows show the black and white head pattern. Young birds show alternating bands of tan and brown in place of the black and white. Both adults and young birds show a crisp gray breast that also helps distinguish them from other sparrows, which often have brown streaking across the breast. A pale bill also sets them apart from most other sparrows likely to visit feeders.

In similarly distinctive fashion, the white-throated sparrow, especially as spring gets nearer, also acquires a plumage that makes it stand out from the flock. These sparrows have a plumper shape than some of their kin. They have a black and white pattern to their head and a neat “bib” of white feathers covers the throat. The standout feature to this bird’s appearance is the bright yellow spot located between each eye and the bird’s bill. Some winter birds may lack this spot of yellow or show a less dramatic version, but the approach of spring usually puts white-throated sparrows into fine form.

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Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay • A white-throated sparrow perches on a branch to sing its easily recognizable song. Many Americans translate the sparrow’s song as “Ol’ Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.”

Many sparrows, including the white-throated sparrow, prefer to forage for food on the ground. It’s often helpful to purchase a supply of millet seed. When filling your feeders with sunflower seeds, scatter a couple of handfuls of millet seed on the ground beneath the feeders or at the edge of a brushy area. Sparrows like to have quick access to dense cover, so they will feed more securely if the scattered seeds are within quick reach of shelter.

Sparrows don’t always co-exist peaceably. According to the website allaboutbirds.com, many of the larger sparrow species are quite aggressive with their kin. This aggression usually demonstrates itself in a tendency to chase other birds. Apparently, white-crowned sparrows will share their territories with fox sparrows — which are larger birds — but they will give chase to chipping sparrows and dark-eyed juncos in an attempt to drive them from the territory.

Most songbirds live a precarious life that can be measured in only a few years. However, an occasional individual defies the odds. According to the website allaboutbirds.com, the oldest recorded white-throated sparrow was at least 14 years, 11 months old, when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Alberta, Canada.

Listen for the song of this garden and yard visitor as you go about your daily routine. It’s easy to recognize, depending on your preference for the Canadian or American version. Don’t wait too long. Most white-throated sparrows depart the region by late April to reach their summer nesting grounds throughout the forests across Canada, the northeastern U.S. and the northern Midwest.

Hear the song and see video footage of a white-throated sparrow at White-throated sparrow singing.

 

American wigeon also known by name ‘baldpate’

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Photo by Tim McCabe/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • This male American wigeon shows the white head patch that gives this duck its other common name of “baldpate.” In this photograph, a female wigeon rests near her mate while a male redhead, a species of diving duck, swims in the background. This duck nests in season wetlands in the American midwest.

Erwin, Tennessee, resident Pattie Rowland recently asked my help identifying some ducks she had photographed at the pond at Erwin Fishery Park. She already suspected the ducks in her photo were American wigeons, but she wanted confirmation.

The ducks were indeed wigeons, which are classified with the “dabblers” instead of the “divers,” which are two broad categories for describing the wild ducks likely to occur throughout North America. Dabblers feed mostly near the surface of the water, foraging on everything for aquatic insects to roots and tubers. The “divers,” not surprisingly, dive into the depth to pursue fish, mollusks and other aquatic prey.

“This was my first time to see them,” Pattie noted in a Facebook message. I congratulated her because I know how exciting a new observation of a bird can be.

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Photo by Roy Lowe/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A male American wigeon looks quite at home swimming on a small pond. Wigeons belong to ducks that are classified as “dabblers” and “puddle ducks.”

It’s not been an exciting winter for ducks in the region. Other than some redheads and buffleheads back in November and early December at the start of the winter, the wigeons are the only wild ducks of interest that I’ve observed at the pond.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its report this past summer on 2018 Trends in Duck Breeding Populations, based on surveys conducted in May and early June of 2018 by FWS and Canadian Wildlife Service.

Overall duck numbers in the survey area remained high, according to the report. Total populations were estimated at 41.2 million breeding ducks in the traditional survey area, 13 percent lower than last year’s estimate of 47.3 million but 17 percent above the long-term average. The projected mallard fall flight index was estimated at 11.4 million birds, down from the 2017 estimate of 12.9 million.
“The dip in the population for prairie-breeding puddle ducks is not unexpected and by no means unprecedented given that conditions on the prairies this spring were drier than last year,” said DU Chief Scientist Tom Moorman. “As a result, 2018 populations dropped accordingly. However, populations of all key species except northern pintails and scaup remain above long-term averages. This year’s breeding population decline is a reminder of the need to sustain the capacity of breeding habitats, particularly in the prairies as we go through natural variation in wetland conditions. Waterfowl populations are adapted well to short-term swings in habitat conditions, but we must continue to guard against the long-term loss of prairie breeding habitat.”

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Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of American wigeon, a duck for which the male has earned the name “baldpate” for a distinctive white crown patch.

American wigeons, however, bucked the trend of some of the other prairie-breeding puddle ducks and showed a slight rise in overall numbers. The wigeon breeding population was estimated at 2.8 individual ducks, according to the survey. Wigeons beat their long-term average, which rests at 2.6 million.

The American wigeon can be found all over North America. Their breeding grounds stretch from Alaska across the tundras of Canada all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. American Wigeons can be found in their wintering habitats from the American Northwest to central Mexico, from the southern prairie pothole region through the Gulf Coast and from New York to the Bahamas close to the Atlantic shoreline. American wigeons are also common winter visitors to Central America, the Caribbean, northern Colombia, Trinidad and occasionally Venezuela

Wigeons are aquatic grazers and forage on grasses and sedges in wet meadows and pastures. The American wigeon’s diet has a higher proportion of plant matter than the diet of any other dabbling duck.

It’s also called the “baldpate” for the same reason our national bird is known as the “bald” eagle. A white patch on the forehead reminded early naturalists of a bald man’s head in much the same way that our national bird earned the term “bald” eagle because of its own white head. Further, the word “bald” is thought to derive from an archaic word in Middle English meaning “white patch,” from which the archaic definition “marked or steaked with white” is drawn.

The origins of the term “wigeon” are a bit murkier. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the first known use of “wigeon” dates back to 1508, and other sources suggest that the term perhaps was derived from a French/Balearic term meaning “a kind of small crane.”

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Photo by Coffee/Pixabay.com • Gadwalls are close relatives of American wigeon.

There are two other species of wigeons — the Eurasian wigeon of Asia and Europe and the Chiloé wigeon of South America. Wigeons belong to the Mareca genus of dabbling ducks, which also includes gadwall and falcated teal.

While female American wigeons produce a rather raspy quacking sound, wigeons more typically produce a vocalization when excited that sounds like “whew, whew, whew.”

Some ducks have become associated with certain bodies of water in the region, and the American wigeon is no exception. In addition to the pond at Erwin Fishery Park, there have been reports of American wigeons this winter from a large pond adjacent to the campus of Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton, Tennessee, as well as on the weir dam at Osceola Island Recreation Site in Bristol. Hooded mergansers have wintered in large numbers at Middlebrook Lake in Bristol. Hundreds of buffleheads have wintered at Wilbur Lake near Elizabethton, Tennessee, for decades. March and April, being periods of transition as winter changes into spring, could bring migrating ducks to the region’s ponds, lakes and rivers. Keep your eyes open and you could be surprised by what you find.

 

 

Many birds plan ahead for times of scarcity

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Photo by Struza/Pixabay.com • A chickadee plucks a peanut from its shell. Chickadees, like many other songbirds, often store food that they can utilize during lean times.

Ernie Marburg sent me an email last month about an article he had read on chickadees that he thought might be of interest. The article’s main focus involved the fact that chickadees are apparently capable of remembering 1,000 cache sites and retrieving food several months after having placed it in various scattered locations.

“Their memories are better than ours,” Ernie wrote. “Mine, anyway.”

Ernie also had a question for me about observations he and his wife have made at their home in Abingdon, Virginia, about birds and the practice of caching food.

“My wife and I have both observed crows taking bread (five or six pieces at a time) in their beaks and flying off and burying it in lawns among the grass,” he wrote. “We have also observed that they march through the lawn apparently looking for such food caches. Is this something that is commonly known? Are we correct in our observation of this?”

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Photo by dbadry/Pixabay.com • Blue Jays often create food caches for acorns and other items. This jay is leaving a feeder with several peanuts thanks to an expandable esophagus.

Experts have indeed noticed this behavior. In fact, it’s fairly well known that crows are methodical in their approach to storing food. Crows, which belong to the corvid family that includes birds such as jays, ravens and magpies, are also highly intelligent animals. Their intelligence shows in the extra step they take after they have buried food. The crow will often take a leaf or twig and place it over the spot where the food has been buried. Experts suspect the bird takes this action to mark the spot and attract attention to the location when they return to look for the buried food.

Birds store food for convenience when they have more food than they can finish, but they also cache food in anticipation of periods such as inclement winter weather when food is likely to become scarce.

The blue jay, a relative of the American crow, is fond of acorns. The jay is so enamored of acorns — a nutrient-rich food for many birds and other animals — and so dedicated to caching acorns that the bird actually helps oak forests expand. A single jay may cache thousands of acorns each fall. Inevitably, some of the cache will be forgotten, to go uneaten and give the acorn the chance to sprout into a seedling in the spring that may grow into a mighty oak in a new stand of oaks.

The jay even has some modifications to help with the storing of food. Blue jays have a flexible esophagus that can distend and allow them to stuff multiple acorns down their throats. Caching food is hard work, so it helps reduce energy consumption if the jay can transport several acorns at a time instead of a single acorn on each trip to a cache site.

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Photo by Anne773/Pixabay.com • A Carolina chickadee visits a feeder for a sunflower seed. Chickadees are a songbird that’s known for storing surplus seeds as insurance against lean times.

Now, back to chickadees for a moment. Research has shown that the brains of black-capped chickadees grow in anticipation of the need to remember where these tiny songbirds cache their sunflower seeds and other foods. The interesting finding is that only the part of the brain associated with memory grows. After all, it doesn’t do much good to store food for a rainy or snowy day if the bird promptly forgets where the food has been hidden.

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This image illustrates an acorn woodpecker’s visit to a food cache. These woodpeckers are famous for storing acorns in dead and living trees, as well as substitutes such as telephone poles.

The acorn woodpecker might qualify as a world-class cacher of food. As the bird’s name suggests, this woodpecker loves acorns. An acorn woodpecker will devote a significant amount of its time to establishing granaries. In this case, the granaries are holes drilled in the trunks of trees (or sometimes in a telephone pole or the side of a wooden building) for the storing of acorns. Some of these trees have hundreds of holes drilled into them with each hole containing an acorn placed there by the woodpecker. The woodpeckers often use dead trees, but they also utilize living trees. Surprisingly, the holes do not seem to affect the health of the trees.

From chickadees and woodpeckers to crows and jays, birds manage to continually surprise with seemingly infinite resourcefulness.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com • The American crow is also known for caching food.

Brief stay of Virginia’s warbler along Kingsport’s Holston River leaves birders amazed

At times, there’s nothing left to do but scratch your head and wonder. It’s a gesture many birders have been making around the Holston River in Kingsport as walks in the area along Netherland Inn Drive on the greenbelt have produced numerous warbler sightings in recent weeks.

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Photo by Sherrie Quillen • The Virginia’s warbler found in January in Kingsport represented the first Tennessee record for the species and one of only a few records east of the Mississippi River.

The list includes expected winter warblers such as orange-crowned, pine, and yellow-rumped, as well as such off-season puzzlers as American redstart, common yellowthroat, Northern parula, Cape May warbler and Nashville warbler; these warblers really should be wintering far to the south in locations around the Caribbean and in Central America. So far this winter, sharp-eyed birders have seen at least 12 different warbler species on the Riverfront Greenbelt. None of them have generated the level of excitement that has been produced by a small plain gray and yellow bird that is doggedly devoted to its daily routine. Birders have rushed from all parts of Tennessee, as well as from as far afield as Virginia and New Jersey, for a chance to see a visiting Virginia’s warbler, a bird that has only been observed on a handful of occasions east of the Mississippi River.

This warbler is not named for the state of Virginia. Spencer F. Baird, who first described the Virginia’s Warbler in 1860, named the species after Virginia Anderson, the wife of Dr. W. W. Anderson, who collected the first specimen in 1858 in New Mexico. Virginia’s warbler is not all that exceptional in appearance. While gray overall the bird shows a white eyering and some yellow highlights to feathers on the chest and under the tail. The bird also wags its tail, a behavior that can be helpful in identifying it.

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Northeast Tennessee is outside of the expected range in the American southwest of Virginia’s warbler.

The Virginia’s warbler is a species known for showing up in some rather odd locations. Back in 2012, one of these warblers generated birding excitement around New York City when one was found in Alley Pond Park in the New York City borough of Queens. In their usual range, however, Virginia’s warblers nest in arid terrain, including open pinyon-juniper and oak woodlands in the southwestern Rocky Mountain states, which is a far cry from the banks of the Holston River in Kingsport or Queens in New York.

The Kingsport specimen pulled a vanishing act when the weather turned milder in early February. Well-known birder Rick Knight, who lives in Johnson City, Tennessee, addressed the status of the bird in a post he made to the list-serve, “TN-Bird”:

“The Virginia’s Warbler and the other unusual warblers present at Riverfront Park in Kingsport seem to wander some on warm days and then return to the water’s edge on cold days to take advantage of the milder microclimate there.” Knight went on to speculate that the bird may still be in the vicinity and will return to its usual haunts when cold temperatures return. So far, despite a mix of warm days with colder ones, the Virginia’s warbler hasn’t been seen since Feb. 2.

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Photo by Sherrie Quillen • The influx of birders to view the Virginia’s warbler led to other unexpected finds along the Kingsport greenbelt, including such out-of-season birds as blue-gray gnatcatchers, Nashville warbler and Northern parula. More than a few birders referred to the famous Patagonian Picnic Table Effect to describe the sightings.

Several birders who found the bird and added it to their life lists commented on the fact that so many other unexpected species were found at the same time in the same location. It wasn’t long before people began evoking the famous birding phenomenon known as the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect, which is a birding phenomenon named for a famous hotspot in southeast Arizona. The lure of a bird called the rose-throated becard at the location attracted a rush of birders to the area. More eyes resulted in more discoveries of other rare birds. In turn, the additional finds continued attracting even more birders and resulted in the discovery of even more rare bird species.

So, who first noticed the presence of the out-of-place warbler? The credit for the discovery goes to two Kingsport residents. On a post to Facebook, the two women who discovered the bird shared details of their exciting find. Bambi “Birdfinder” Fincher posted the notice of the bird’s discovery.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A couple of blue-gray gnatcatchers, such as this invidiual, represented an unusual find in winter in the region. The gnatcatchers were spotted by sharp-eyed birders in their quest to observe the Virginia’s warbler in Kingsport.

“Yesterday (Saturday, Jan. 19) in the pouring rain, Sherrie Quillen and I found a Virginia’s warbler on Kingsport Birding Trail-Riverfront Greenbelt,” she wrote in a post to the Birding Kingsport Facebook page. “This is the first record of this bird in the state of Tennessee.”

Bambi explained her birding success simply. “I’m always looking! Keeps me birding!”

She also invited other birders to join her some time. “It can be pretty amazing,” she wrote. “No promises of a state record or life bird, but I can promise you that you will learn something about your surroundings and yourself.”

She earned her nickname “birdfinder” about 10 years ago when she first started birding. “I was out birding with Bill Moyle or Bill Grigsby — one of the Bill’s, anyway — and I was really ‘finding’ birds but didn’t know what they were.”

The Bills didn’t let her get discouraged. “They said, ‘That’s OK, you will learn the birds, but you are a birdfinder.’ It stuck.”

I met both Bambi and Sherrie for the first time on the day I traveled to Kingsport to try my luck at observing this warbler. Bambi quickly proved her “birdfinder” talents. Although I had to wait for about an hour for the bird to make an appearance, when it did arrive, it flew right to the spot by the river that Bambi had recommended I keep under observation. The specific spot consisted of a thin stand of privet rooted in the riverbank only a few yards from a bench located near the paved walking path. When the bird arrived, making telltale chip notes, I got my binoculars on it and enjoyed a satisfying but brief look at the bird. Birds are rarely as cooperative as this particular Virginia’s warbler turned out to be. Several other birders waiting with me also got to see the warbler at the same time. As warblers are my favorite family of birds, getting to observe this unexpected visitor has been the highlight of my birding year thus far.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The author of the blog hasn’t yet seen a handful of species among the Eastern warblers, including the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, pictured here. The remaining elusive eastern warblers include Connecticut, Kirtland’s and cerulean.

In the Eastern United States, there are only a handful of warblers I haven’t yet observed. I need to see a cerulean warbler and Connecticut warbler, as well as a Kirtland’s warbler and golden-cheeked warbler. The latter two species are considered endangered and highly localized warblers occurring mostly in Michigan and Texas, respectively — two states I’ve not yet visited.

I’ll always remember my first look at a Virginia’s warbler just before noon on Jan. 28, 2019. The bird had already been present for ten days by the time I made the drive to Kingsport to try my luck. In addition, I saw many other interesting birds while waiting for my target bird to arrive. Some of the other observed birds included palm warbler, blue-gray gnatcatcher, ruby-crowned kinglets and golden-crowned kinglets.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A palm warbler forages along a chain-link fence. This warbler is often a wintering bird in the region and a few were seen by observers who trekked to the Kingsport greenbelt to view the visiting Virginia’s warbler.

Great Backyard Bird Count helps gather data on feathered friends

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Photo by Ted Schroeder/Great Backyard Bird Count Evening grosbeaks may be more common on this year’s GBBC, according to early reports on the movements of these large, colorful finches.

 

Hungry Mother State Park in Marion, Virginia, plans some bird walks on Saturday, Feb. 16, to coincide with the Great Backyard Bird Count.

The 22nd annual GBBC is taking place February 15-18 in backyards, parks, nature centers, on hiking trails, school grounds, balconies, and beaches—anywhere you find birds. The GBBC is a free, fun and easy event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of bird populations. Participants are asked to count birds for as little as 15 minutes (or as long as they wish) on one or more days of the four-day event and report their sightings online at birdcount.org. Anyone can take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, from beginning bird watchers to experts, and you can participate from your backyard or anywhere in the world.National_Audubon_Society_logo (1)

Each checklist submitted during the GBBC helps researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society learn more about how birds are doing, and how to protect them and the environment we share. Last year, more than 160,000 participants submitted their bird observations online, creating the largest instantaneous snapshot of global bird populations ever recorded.

To help participants become better citizen scientists, some field guides and binoculars will be provided during the activities at Hungry Mother State Park. Supplies of these items, however, are limited.

The walk will commence at 8 a.m. Either Master Naturalist Randy Smith or Hungry Mother volunteer Mike Evans will conduct the walk. Participants are also welcome to bird solo or with a few friends to cover more territory.

At 9 a.m., participants will return to parking lot five for “Breakfast in a Bag” with the Holston Rivers Master Naturalists. While enjoying breakfast, attendees will be invited to wander over to the park’s restaurant to check out various hands-on birding activities.

The special event will wrap up when Smith teaches participants a little more about backyard birding with an informative session at 10:30 a.m. at the restaurant.

All ages and skill levels are welcome. Attendees are encouraged to dress warmly as the event will be held rain or shine.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A lot has changed since the first Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) was held in 1998. Each year brings unwavering enthusiasm from the growing number of participants in this now-global event.

“The very first GBBC was an experiment,” says the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Marshall Iliff, a leader of the eBird program. “We wanted to see if people would use the Internet to send us their bird sightings. Clearly the experiment was a success!”

Iliff noted that eBird collects bird observations globally every day of the year and is the online platform used by the GBBC. In the United States and Canada, 2019 bird lists are more likely to include sightings of winter finches and grosbeaks that are moving farther south than usual in what’s called an “irruption.” This type of movement is often sparked by poor cone, seed and berry crops in parts of Canada.

“This year is a very exciting one for backyard birders in the East, headlined by the largest evening grosbeak movement in at least two decades,” noted Iliff. “From Atlantic Canada to North Carolina, these colorful feeder visitors have been making a splash.”

Although seed crops were better in western Canada, eBird maps still show significant number of evening grosbeaks are now being reported in the West all the way down to the border with Mexico. eBird collects bird observations globally every day of the year and is the online platform used by the GBBC.

Evening grosbeaks have been reported this winter in Tennessee in such locations as Palmyra and Sewanee. Although I have not personally seen an evening grosbeak for 18 years, I remember fondly how large flocks of these colorful and noisy birds overwhelmed my feeders during winters in the late 1990s. I’d love to see some of them again at my feeders. People should be aware that hosting a flock of evening grosbeaks can represent a significant investment. A grosbeak flock can literally consume hundreds of pounds of sunflower seeds when they take up residence for the winter at a feeding station.

Whether or not evening grosbeaks make an appearance this winter, I will still be taking part in this year’s GBBC. I encourage others to do so, too.

Learn more about how to take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count at gbbc.birdcount.org where downloadable instructions and an explanatory PowerPoint are available. The GBBC is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society with partner Bird Studies Canada and is made possible in part by sponsor Wild Birds Unlimited.

For more information on the GBBC event at Hungry Mother State Park, call 276-781-7400. The park is located at 2854 Park Blvd., Marion, Virginia. Details are also available by calling 1-800-933-7275 or visit http://www.virginiastateparks.gov.

The 21st annual GBBC will be held Friday, Feb.15, through Monday, Feb. 18. Please visit the official website at gbbc.birdcount.org for more information.

Virginia woman hosting wintering ruby-throated hummingbird

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Photo by Mariedy/Pixabay.com • The ruby-throated hummingbird is the expected hummingbird in the eastern United States spring through fall. These birds are rare winter visitors, however, which makes the one living in a yard in Fall Church, Virginia.

I have been corresponding by email with Ellen Haberlein since around Thanksgiving of last year about a hummingbird that is wintering at her home in Fall Church, Virginia, which is located only a few miles from Washington, D.C.

The hummingbird’s presence has brightened the winter season for the Haberlein family since it showed up in late October of 2018.

Through the years, I have seen several of these seemingly out-of-place hummingbirds. Some of them remain at their host’s feeders for a brief stay of a few days or a couple of weeks, but some of these hummingbirds have extended their stay for several months, lingering throughout the winter months before eventually departing in February or March.

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Photo by Larry Golfer • This male ruby-throated hummingbird has resided at the home of Ellen Haberlein since around Thanksgiving of last year. Haberlein lives in Fall Church, Virginia, which is located only a few miles from Washington, D.C.

The big question is: are these hummingbirds truly lost and out of place? The answer, based on everything I have managed to learn, is that these hummingbirds are precisely where they want to be. For still unknown reasons, some of these western hummingbirds make a migration swing through the eastern United States.

Many of the visiting winter hummingbirds turn out to be rufous hummingbirds, which is a species native to the western United States. The bird visiting Ellen’s feeder, however, is a ruby-throated hummingbird. In the summer months, the ruby-throated is the expected species of hummingbird in the eastern United States. In the winter months — not so much. However, in some regions in Virginia, as well as along the Gulf Coast, a few ruby-throated hummingbirds are attempting to overwinter.

The rufous hummingbird has basically become an expected winter visitor with a few reports being received each winter. I have observed Rufous Hummingbirds in many different locations, including Bristol, Blountville, Flag Pond, Elizabethton and Hampton. I have also observed Allen’s hummingbirds in Mountain City and Johnson City. I know of records of these small birds from Erwin, Roan Mountain, Johnson City and many other locations throughout the region. Winter hummingbirds are a delightful surprise for their hosts, but their presence no longer shock long-time birders.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Rufous hummingbirds have been extensively documented as wintering throughout the southeastern United States. This male rufous hummingbird was documented in Hampton, Tennessee, a couple of years ago.

“Hosting a hummingbird in winter is a first for us, so we enjoy having him here,” Ellen wrote. “I feel that I am responsible to keep the little guy alive through the cold months.”

Doing so has meant staying atop some challenges.

“I monitor the feeder to make sure it doesn’t freeze,” Ellen wrote. “I have read the nectar doesn’t need to be replaced as often in winter, but I still change it every 2-3 days.”

She’s taking no chance with the health of her tiny visitor. “I think he needs to have fresh to stay in good health,” Ellen wrote. “I have two feeders, so when I remove one, I immediately replace it with another. That way his food source is not disrupted.”

Ellen noted that the hummingbird seems to be able to stand the cold nights. “I take in the feeder at night, and he looks for it just at dawn in the morning,” she wrote.

She contacted Bruce Peterjohn at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Her visiting ruby-throated hummingbird is the first he has heard of in Virginia for the winter season this year, although Peterjohn informed Ellen that some ruby-throated hummingbirds usually overwinter close to the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia.

Bruce Peterjohn

Bruce Peterjohn

Peterjohn, the chief of the US Bird Banding Laboratory for USGS, is the person responsible for administering the national bird banding program and the data management system for bird banding and band encounter datasets. His personal banding activities are focused on banding hummingbirds in the mid-Atlantic region, especially hummingbirds that appear during late autumn and winter.

With the dawning of the new year, Ellen’s visiting hummingbird remained present. “I am happy to help this little bird get through the winter,” Ellen said.

I checked back with Ellen on Jan. 29 to see if the hummingbird remains in residence.

“He made it through the last storm with wind chills at zero or below,” she replied to my email. “Now we have more cold coming and I am hoping for the best.”

I imagine Ellen is a good host for many birds, not just the unseasonable hummingbird, that visit her yard and gardens.

In our correspondence, she shared some sightings of warblers, which is my favorite family of birds.

“By the way, I have not seen a hooded warbler,” Ellen wrote. “I see warblers pass through during spring, like Tennessee warblers and black-and-white warblers.”

I’m hopeful that she will spy a migrating hooded warbler, perhaps this spring. In the meantime, she’s hosting a wintering hummingbird. “I am happy to help this little bird get through the winter,” Ellen wrote.

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Photo by Jean Potter • A male hooded warbler flits through the foliage of a rhododendron thicket.

HMSP plans Great Backyard Bird Count events

Hungry Mother State Park in Marion, Virginia, plans some bird walks on Saturday, Feb. 16, to coincide with the Great Backyard Bird Count.

The GBBC is a free, fun and easy event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of bird populations. Participants are asked to count birds for as little as 15 minutes (or as long as they wish) on one or more days of the four-day event and report their sightings online at birdcount.org. Anyone can take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, from beginning bird watchers to experts, and you can participate from your backyard, or anywhere in the world.

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Photo by Ted Schroeder/Great Backyard Bird Count • Evening grosbeaks may be more common on this year’s GBBC, according to early reports on the movements of these large, colorful finches.

Each checklist submitted during the GBBC helps researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society learn more about how birds are doing, and how to protect them and the environment we share. Last year, more than 160,000 participants submitted their bird observations online, creating the largest instantaneous snapshot of global bird populations ever recorded.

To help participants become better citizen scientists, some field guides and binoculars will be provided during the activities at Hungry Mother State Park. Supplies of these items, however, are limited.

The walk will commence at 8 a.m. Either Master Naturalist Randy Smith or Hungry Mother volunteer Mike Evans will conduct the walk. Participants are also welcome to bird solo or with a few friends to cover more territory.

At 9 a.m., participants will return to parking lot five for “Breakfast in a Bag” with the Holston Rivers Master Naturalists. While enjoying breakfast, attendees will be invited to wander over to the park’s restaurant to check out various hands-on birding activities.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Hungry Mother State Park near Marion, Virginia, has long offered a variety of birding and nature activities and programs, such as the ones planned around the upcoming Great Backyard Bird Count scheduled for Feb. 15-18.

The special event will wrap up when Smith teaches participants a little more about backyard birding with an informative session at 10:30 a.m. at the restaurant.

All ages and skill levels are welcome. Attendees are encouraged to dress warmly as the event will be held rain or shine.

For more information, call HMSP at (276) 781-7400. The park is located at 2854 Park Blvd., Marion, Virginia. Details are also available by calling 1-800-933-7275 or visit http://www.virginiastateparks.gov.

The 21st annual GBBC will be held Friday, Feb.15, through Monday, Feb. 18. Please visit the official website at birdcount.org for more information.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count and help document populations of birds, including great blue herons.

Reader from Utah shares story about pine siskin rescue

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Photo Courtesy of Fred Bergold • This pine siskin recovered after crashing into a window at the Utah home of Fred Bergold.

A recent email reminded me that some of the birds that visit us during the winter range far beyond our yards and gardens here in Northeast Tennessee.

I received an email from Fred Bergold, a reader who resides in Utah.

“This little warbler flew into our window,” Fred explained in his email, which arrived with photos attached. “My wife picked it off the deck and held it for about half an hour.”

The kind treatment worked. “When it got its bearings back, it flew to the top of our Colorado green spruce,” Fred wrote.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Pine siskins feast on thistle seeds at a feeder.

“We feed the local wintering birds black oil sunflower seeds, which many species seem to like,’ Fred continued. “We live in Fruit Heights, Utah, just north of Salt Lake City.”

When I looked at the photos Fred provided, I realized that the bird in question wasn’t one of the warblers but a species of small finch known as a pine siskin. I replied to Fred’s email and offered a quick lesson in distinguishing pine siskins from warblers and other small songbirds.

I informed Fred that siskins usually travel in flocks and that they love feeders with sunflower seeds.

I also shared with him that I’ve gotten to travel to his home state of Utah twice since 2003. Getting to see some western species — American dipper, lazuli bunting, western tanager, violet-winged swallow — while visiting the state produced some memorable birding moments.

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

Winters, no matter where one lives, can decrease the variety of bird species one sees on a daily basis. I often find myself hoping for the excitement produced when flocks of “irruptive” finches not often seen in the area expand their range into the region. In addition to pine siskins, birds such as evening grosbeaks, purple finches, common redpolls and red crossbills represent a few of these northern finch species that occasionally stage massive migratory movements, or irruptions, into areas far outside their typical ranges.

These finches are not the only birds to stage these periodic irruptions. The website birdsource.org identifies several non-finch species — red-breasted nuthatch, Clark’s nutcracker, bohemian waxwing, black-capped chickadee and varied thrush — that undertake periodic winter irruptions. Two of these northern finches — the pine siskin and the red crossbill — are sporadic summer residents on some of the higher mountains in our region.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A flock of pine siskins carpet the ground beneath some feeders as they forage for food.

These irruptions are not usually motivated by cold or severe weather. The absence of a favored food source on a bird’s normal winter range is usually a trigger for an irruption. Birds, such as pine siskins, will fly farther than normal in a quest for reliable food sources. Not surprisingly, well-stocked feeders often attract their attention.

The pine siskin belongs to a genus of birds known as Spinus, which includes three species of goldfinches and more than a dozen species of siskins, many of them native to Central and South America. Only one species — the Eurasian siskin — is found outside of the New World. Other siskins include the black-capped siskin, hooded siskin, red siskin, black siskin, Antillean siskin and Andean siskin.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The American goldfinch is a relative of the pine siskin, and the two species often associate with each other at feeding stations.

Siskins often associate with American goldfinches. In shape and size, the two birds are extremely similar. Unlike goldfinches, however, siskins display extensive streaking on their back and breast. The bill of a siskin is sharp and pointed. Overall a drab brown in coloration, siskins also show some surprisingly bright yellow coloration in their wings and tails. Although sociable, individuals can display some irritable tantrums when competing for prime space at feeders.

Some people quickly discover that a large flock of pine siskins is quite a drain on the daily allotment of feed provided for backyard birds. For such small birds, they have large appetites. Siskins are also extremely tame and can often be approached quite closely. A few years ago during a particularly frigid cold snap, I succeeded in luring a pine siskin to land on my gloved hand, which held some sunflower seeds. Needless to say, it was a very memorable, intimate moment.

In addition to this unusual tameness, siskins are extremely vocal birds. These birds have a shrill trill that sounds almost mechanical to my ears. Large flocks also produce a constant twittering noise as they perch in trees or on feeders.

Next month will offer an opportunity to participate in the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, which is a free, fun, and easy event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of bird populations. Recording visiting birds such as pine siskins is an important component of the GBBC. Participants are asked to count birds for as little as 15 minutes (or as long as they wish) on one or more days of the four-day event and report their sightings online at birdcount.org. Anyone can take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, from beginning bird watchers to experts, and you can participate from your backyard, or anywhere in the world. The 21st annual GBBC will be held Friday, Feb. 16, through Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. Please visit the official website at birdcount.org for more information. I’ll also focus on the GBBC more in upcoming columns, including information about activities planned at a local park.

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Photo by Ted Schroeder/Great Backyard Bird Count • Evening grosbeaks may be more common on this year’s GBBC, according to early reports on the movements of these large, colorful finches.