Club holds 51st annual Fall Bird Count

Photo by NatureLady/Pixabay.com • Northern flickers made a strong showing on the 51st consecutive Fall Bird Count. Eighty of these woodpeckers were found by count participants spread across the five-county area of Northeast Tennessee.

The 51st  consecutive Elizabethton Fall Count was held on Saturday, Sept. 26, with 48 observers in 18 parties. The participants were dispersed more than normal due to social distancing protocols. This is the third seasonal count conducted since the start of the Covid 19 pandemic.

The area covered included all of Carter County, as well as parts of the adjacent counties of Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington.

A total of 132 species were tallied, which is above the recent 30-year average of 125 species. The all-time high on this count was 137 species set in 1993.

Photo by U.S. FWS   Many birds, such as Northern bobwhites, have seen alarming population crashes in the last half century.

Some interesting finds included a Northern bobwhite covey near the community of Bowmantown in Washington County. Such high numbers of bobwhites have become increasingly rare in recent years.Thirteen unidentified species of Empidonax flycatchers were found, but these birds do not count into the total of species. These small flycatchers are so similar in appearance that their song is usually needed to confirm identification. In fall migration, however, these flycatcher go silent for the most part. A yellow-bellied flycatcher and two least flycatchers were identified.

A total of 23 species of warblers were found, including such interesting finds as golden-winged warbler, blackpoll warbler and Wilson’s warbler.

European starling proved the most abundant bird with 1,757b individuals counted. Other common birds for the count included Canada goose (1,220), Rock Pigeon (629) and Chimney Swift (478).

Photo by Jean Potter • The rock pigeon is one of the most successful members of the bird family Columbidae, which is comprised of some 310 species of doves and pigeons. One of the most famous representatives of the family is the dodo, an extinct relative of such common birds as the mourning dove and rock pigeon.

The participants for the 2020 Fall Bird Count included: Fred Alsop, Rob Armistead, Betty Bailey, Gary Bailey, Jerry Bevins, Rob Biller, Debi Campbell, J.G. Campbell, Ron Carrico, Robin Cooper, Catherine Cummins, Dianne Draper, Glen Eller, Harry Lee Farthing, Bambi Fincher, Dave Gardner, Tammy Griffey, Bill Grigsby, Jean Henson, Neal Henson, Jacki Hinshaw, Don Holt, David Kirschke, Rick Knight, Roy Knispel, Richard Lewis, Dianna Lynne, Vern Maddux, Joe McGuiness, Cathy McNeil, Tom McNeil, Eric Middlemas, Harry Norman, Susan Peters, Brookie Potter, Jean Potter, Sherrie Quillen, Pete Range, Ken Rea, Judith Reid, Judi Sawyer, Chris Soto, Michele Sparks, Bryan Stevens, Kim Stroud, Scott Turner, Charles Warden, Joyce Watson; plus Connie Irick, David Irick, and Peggy Stevens as feeder watchers.

There were no glaring misses, but shorebirds were scarce with not much available habitat this year. Birds that might have been expected for a fall count but were not found included Loggerhead Shrike, Winter Wren, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Savannah Sparrow, Blue Grosbeak and Bobolink.

“All in all, it was a very good count,” said long-time compiler Rick Knight. “Thanks to all who participated.”

The list:

Canada Goose, 1,220; Wood Duck, 71; Mallard, 219; Blue-winged Teal, 27, Northern Bobwhite, 10; Ruffed Grouse, 2; and Wild Turkey, 66.

Common Loon, 1; Pied-billed Grebe, 11; Double-crested Cormorant, 62; Great Blue Heron, 37; Great Egret, 5; Green Heron  4; Black-crowned Night-Heron, 2; and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, 1.

Black Vulture, 141; Turkey Vulture, 191; Osprey, 14; Northern Harrier, 1; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 3; Cooper’s Hawk, 11; Bald Eagle, 15; Red-shouldered Hawk, 2; Broad-winged Hawk, 4; and Red-tailed Hawk, 14.

Killdeer, 54; Greater Yellowlegs, 1; American Woodcock, 1; Caspian Tern, 3; Rock Pigeon, 629; Eurasian Collared-Dove, 11; and Mourning Dove, 355.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 4; Eastern Screech-Owl, 28; Great Horned Owl, 2; Barred Owl, 6; Northern Saw-whet Owl, 1; and Common Nighthawk, 46.

Chimney Swift, 478; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 34; Belted Kingfisher, 29; Red-headed Woodpecker, 2; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 103; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker,  6; Downy Woodpecker, 82; Hairy Woodpecker, 18; Northern Flicker, 80; and Pileated Woodpecker, 36.

American Kestrel, 17; Merlin, 2; Peregrine Falcon, 1; Eastern Wood-Pewee, 34; Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, 1; Least Flycatcher, 2; Empidonax species, 13; Eastern Phoebe, 124; and Eastern Kingbird, 4.

White-eyed Vireo, 3; Yellow-throated Vireo, 5; Blue-headed Vireo, 16; Warbling Vireo, 1; Philadelphia Vireo, 1; Red-eyed Vireo, 34; Blue Jay, 578; American Crow, 503; Common Raven, 14.

Tree Swallow, 274; Barn Swallow, 15; Carolina Chickadee,  251; Tufted Titmouse, 208; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 18; White-breasted Nuthatch, 80; and Brown Creeper, 1.

House Wren, 10; Carolina Wren, 285; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 10; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 7; and Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

Eastern Bluebird, 246; Veery, 3; Gray-cheeked Thrush, 10; Swainson’s Thrush, 193; Hermit Thrush, 1; Wood Thrush, 19; American Robin,  574; Gray Catbird,  85; Brown Thrasher, 27; Northern Mockingbird, 126; European Starling, 1,757; American Pipit, 2; and Cedar Waxwing, 312.

Ovenbird, 2; Northern Waterthrush, 12; Golden-winged warbler, 1; Black-and-white warbler, 2; Tennessee warbler, 52; Common Yellowthroat, 32; Hooded warbler, 9; American Redstart, 90; Cape May Warbler, 32; Northern Parula,12; Magnolia  warbler, 29; Bay-breasted warbler, 45; Blackburnian Warbler,16; Chestnut-sided warbler, 15; Blackpoll warbler, 3; Black-throated Blue  Warbler, 4; Palm warbler,  65; Pine warbler, 16; Yellow-throated warbler, 7; Prairie warbler, 2; Black-throated Green warbler, 18; Canada warbler,  2; and Wilson’s warbler,  2.

Eastern Towhee, 80; Chipping Sparrow,  41; Field Sparrow, 26; Song Sparrow, 116; Swamp Sparrow, 1; and Dark-eyed Junco, 26.

Summer Tanager,  3; Scarlet Tanager. 40; Northern Cardinal, 251; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 119; and Indigo Bunting, 37.

Red-winged Blackbird, 209; Eastern Meadowlark,  17; Common Grackle,  54; Brown-headed Cowbird,  8; House Finch, 76; Pine Siskin, 4; American Goldfinch, 303; and House Sparrow, 18.

Legends of fearsome birds grounded in distant reality

Illustration by Auntspray/Adobe Stock A lone gastornis walks by the edge of a river in this artist’s illustration of a member of an extinct avian family known as “Terror Birds.” These large flightless birds arose as apex predators in much of their domain.

Giant eagles, terror birds, and rocs! Oh my! While begging the pardon of the clever writers of 1939’s film “The Wizard of Oz,” I thought I’d focus on some of the more terrifying birds to ever roam the planet as we move closer to Halloween later this month.

Photo by Couleur/Pixabay.com • A white-tailed eagle is one of the world’s larger eagles, but even this large raptor would have been dwarfed by the now-extinct Haast’s eagle that once hunted giant moas in New Zealand.

Giant Eagles

In the not-so-distant past, an eagle in New Zealand achieved status as an apex feathered predator that specialized in preying on some of the largest birds to ever live.

Known as Haast’s eagle, this now-extinct raptor had a body size about 40 percent larger than even the largest of today’s eagles. Females probably reached a weight of 22 to 33 pounds. Males, as is the case with most living eagles today, were smaller than females but still probably weighed between 20 to 26 pounds. This gigantic eagle, however, possessed a relatively short wingspan of roughly 8 to 10 feet wide, which compares to that recorded for large specimens of golden eagle and Steller’s sea eagle.

This huge raptor was a major predator on the population of New Zealand moas, a large flightless and wingless bird somewhat reminiscent of modern ostriches. In direct comparison with the moas, these New Zealand eagles were almost puny. Some moas reached a height of 12 feet tall and a weight of more than 500 pounds. Despite their superior size and weight, however, moas simply lacked any defense against the huge razor-like talons and sharp beak of the Haast’s Eagle. An attack by such a well-equipped bird of prey must have been devastating to their prey. If Haast’s eagle was anything like many modern predators, it probably chose to hunt young, infirm or elderly moas rather than an adult moa in prime health.

Back in 2009, Associated Press writer Michael Casey speculated in an article on Haast’s eagle that this bird of prey might have included humans on the menu. Casey wrote that in recent years the scientific opinion on Haast’s eagle has evolved. Once thought to be a mere scavenger like vultures, most experts now think Haast’s eagle was a capable and efficient predator.

There is no direct evidence that the eagle, which went extinct about 500 years ago, ever dined on humans. Casey does mention the legend of the pouakai, which was a giant bird with a reputation for launching sudden attacks on people and fully capable of killing a small child.

If the Haast’s eagle did snatch a few unfortunate children, the Maori who colonized New Zealand about 750 years soon returned the favor. Both the moa and Haast’s eagle disappeared from New Zealand soon after humans arrived on the remote island.

Artist Charles Knight, famous for now outdated depictions of dinosaurs, illustrated his version of a “terror bird” back in 1901.

Terror Birds

Terror birds were prehistoric forebears to Haast’s eagle. More accurately known as Phorusrhacids, the “terror birds” were an extinct clade of large carnivorous flightless birds that were the largest species of apex predators in South America during the period of prehistory known as “The Age of Mammals.”

Unlike Haast’s eagle, which was fully capable of flight, the terror birds were flightless like the extinct moas and our modern ostriches, emus and cassowaries. The tallest of the terror birds stood 10 feet tall, but some members of the family were considerably smaller, reaching a height between two and three feet.

The larger species included birds such as Titanis walleri, Phorusrhacos ameghino and Kelenken guillermoi. With a skull more than 28 inches long, Kelenken possessed the largest head of any known bird. Some members of the diverse terror bird family even ranged into what is now the southern United States. Fossils of some of these ancient birds have been found in Florida and Texas. As the saying goes, everything’s bigger in Texas.

Mammals of various sizes provided a smorgasbord for the terror birds, which were more than capable of running down prey and dispatching it with a heavy, hooked beak. While it would be fascinating to still have terror birds roaming the globe, I have to admit that I prefer that the birds content themselves with sunflower seeds and suet cakes rather than considering whether I might make a nice addition to the menu.

This color illustration by Charles Maurice Detmold depicts the legendary roc and its elephant prey.

Legend of the Roc

While descriptions of the mythical roc make this bird sound like a truly horrifying feathered terror, the actual creature behind the origins of this incredible beast was actually a placid herbivore.

The roc arose in the fabulous fables of the Middle East. The famous compilation of stories known as One Thousand and One Nights features accounts of the monstrous roc, a bird deemed capable of seizing and carrying off prey as large as a fully grown elephant.

In reality, discoveries of the eggs of a bird now known to science as the extinct Vorombe titan likely inspired the myth of the roc. Vorombe titan stood almost 10 feet tall and weighed 1,600 pounds. The largest living bird today is the common ostrich. Males ostriches can reach a height of 9 feet and weigh 250 pounds, which means Vorombe titan would have dwarfed modern ostriches.

Native to the island of Madagascar, Vorombe titan and its relatives went extinct about a thousand years ago. Explorers from Middle Eastern countries returned from the island of Madagascar with egg shells that provided strong evidence of a giant bird and led to the legend of the roc, or elephant bird. The eggs of this bird were indeed impressive. The eggs were 13 inches long and 3 feet, 3 inches in circumference. About 160 chicken eggs could have fit inside a Vorombe titan’s egg.

The family of birds known as kiwis are considered the closest living relatives of the giant moas.

Once thought to be related to ratites, which includes modern ostriches, emus and cassowaries, Vorombe titan’s closest living relatives are probably the kiwis, a family of flightless birds that still exists in New Zealand. Like the kiwi, Vorombe titan, or the legendary roc, was a gentle, near-sighted herbivore.

While the imaginative mind can spin interesting scenarios with these gone-but-not-forgotten monsters, I think I’ll confine my birding to warblers, hummingbirds and other backyard birds.

 

Use fall’s transition to prepare for winter bird-feeding season

Photo by Georgia Lens/Pixabay.com • A red-bellied woodpecker visits a backyard bird feeder. Fall is a good time to make sure feeders are in good shape for the busy winter season.

The end of September and start of October brought a rush of migrants. Some of them stopped briefly for a visit. Some foraged for food in the yard and gardens or stopped for a quick bath or drink by the edges of the pond of in the shallows of the creek. 

On the first day of October, several warblers and other songbird migrants provided some excitement. A male black-throated blue warbler absolutely stunned with some closeups. I’d waited all fall for this particular warbler to make an appearance and, in all honesty, I’d almost written off the chance that I might see one before the close of fall migration.

I heard the bird’s soft “smack” note before I located it in a rhododendron thicket. This call note is easily confused with that of a dark-eyed junco, but it’s just a little too early for the “snowbirds” to be arriving. The leaves in the rhododendron offered a mix of yellowed older leaves and greener new foliage, which provided a crisp backdrop as the energetic black-throated blue warbler flitted from branch to branch.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Mark Musselman • Black-throated blue warblers are among the many migrants passing through the region each fall.

While only a single black-throated blue warbler appeared, Tennessee warblers popped up almost everywhere, including one that investigated some potted plants and shrubs on my mom’s front porch. I watched a Tennessee warbler explore an ornamental lime tree’s leaves before it flew to an althea shrub planted in front of my mom’s living room window. There I watched it pluck some tiny caterpillars from the leaves for a quick snack. The warbler then flew to a stand of pokeweed and used its long bill to deftly extract some purple berries. I saw more Tennessee warblers in the plantings bordering my own porch later in the evening.

Other migrants that I’ve enjoyed seeing in the final days of September and first days of October have included hooded warbler, common yellowthroat, wood thrush, gray catbird, brown thrasher and Eastern wood-pewee. In addition, the ruby-throated hummingbirds are returning to my sugar water feeders as blooms become more scarce. Of course, the hummingbirds and the others will soon be gone, not to return again until next spring.

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

In the meantime, the winter season’s looming just around the corner. Seeing all the activity in my yard during fall migration made me want to ensure that it remains attractive for those birds that choose to eke out a living during the colder months of the year in our region. 

Here are a few suggestions of things to do this fall to make your winter bird feeding more productive.

• Plant native trees that bear fruit. Autumn’s a recommended planting time for many trees, so consider checking with a local nursery about the selection of such native trees as American holly, serviceberry and red mulberry. It’s always good to select trees that provide fruit at different seasons to maximize the appeal of your plantings to birds.

• Build or refurbish a brush pile. Fall’s a season for pruning, so take those discarded limbs and twigs to construct a protective shelter for songbirds. Shy birds that naturally avoid open spaces can be coaxed closer to feeders by having access to a tangle of sticks and brush. A brush pile offers a degree of protection should songbirds at your feeder need to find a quick hiding place when a hawk or other predator makes an unexpected appearance. 

• Evaluate feeders. The winter season brings snow, ice and a flurry of renewed interest in bird feeders, so now is the time to clean and replace feeders. The elements are not always kind on feeders, so when it becomes apparent that a feeder is in poor condition, consider replacing it with a new one. It’s also important to give feeders a thorough cleaning. Using a mild bleach solution will help disinfect them and make feeding from them safe for our feathered friends. 

• Invest in a good bird identification guide or app. I am a fan of a good field guide that I can hold in my hands while thumbing through the pages, but I know that many people prefer the convenience of an app that’s accessible through their smartphone. Some popular apps would include the Audubon Bird Guide, eBird and Merlin Bird ID. Some of my recommended field guides include Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America and The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. Identifying birds congregated in the winter at a feeder is often easier than trying to track them through the green canopy during the other seasons. Of course, you’ll want to be aware that some birds wear different plumages during the winter months. The guides and apps can help with these identification challenges. 

Two types of black-throated warblers number among New World bird family

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com The female black-throated green warbler lacks the male’s all-black throat, but she is a striking bird in her own right. Black-throated green warblers and the related black-throated blue warbler are common birds in the Southern Appalachians from April to October.

I’ve enjoyed some lawn chair birding on recent September evenings, delighting in my observations of birds ranging from flycatchers and catbirds to warblers, vireos and hummingbirds. I enjoy my casual study of the daily changes in the bird population present in my yard and adjacent woods. The parade of warblers hasn’t been as productive as in past autumns, but I have managed to spot and identify hooded warbler, American redstart, chestnut-sided warbler, magnolia warbler, Northern parula, and black-throated green warbler visitors.


The black-throated green appeared suddenly in a fast-paced burst of foraging in a cherry tree. Alongside birds such as an Eastern wood-pewee and red-eyed vireo, the warbler gleaned the leaves of the trees for concealed caterpillars. I watched the bird swallow with gusto several of the caterpillars so skillfully plucked with its thin, pointed bill.

The black-throated green warbler and one other species, the black-throated blue warbler, share the appellation of “black-throated,” and rightfully so. Males in the spring look their best with a dark black throat in striking contrast to the rest of their plumage. The female black-throated green shows some black on the throat, but female black-throated blue warblers exhibit no black throat patch. In fact, black-throated blue males and females are extremely different in appearance. Scientists call such dramatic appearances differences “sexual dimorphism.” Among the warblers, this species provides the most striking example of sexual dimorphism of any of the warblers. The male and female do share one identifying mark — a white square near the outer edge of the middle of each wing. This square is usually more pronounced in the male, but it stands out enough that it helps distinguish the female black-throated blue from similar dull-plumaged birds such as vireos. 


German naturalist Johann Friedrich Gmelin described the black-throated blue warbler in 1789. I noted in last week’s column that Gmelin woefully misnamed such warblers as palm warbler and magnolia warbler. With the black-throated blue warbler, Gmelin did a better job. This bird’s scientific name name is the Latin term caerulescens, which translates into English as “turning blue.” The male is a stunning bird. Arguably, the black-throated blue warbler is one of the most distinctive members of the family of wood warblers. The adult male has a black face and cheeks, deep blue upperparts and a clean white underbelly. In contrast, the adult female is olive-brown above and light yellow below. 


When one’s binoculars first focus on a black-throated green warbler, the first impression is likely to be the black, yellow and white feathers in the bird’s plumage. The greenish-yellow coloration that gives this species part of its common name is mostly limited to the bird’s back, which is often not as evident when the bird’s being watched through binoculars.  
Both of the black-throated warblers nest in northeast Tennessee, western North Carolina, and southwestern Virginia. In the spring, the males of both these warblers are persistent singers from prominent perches in the green woodland canopy. Male black-throated greens contribute to the avian chorus by frequently singing a high-pitched song often described as a buzzy zee-zee-zee-zooo-zeet. Male black-throated blues produce a buzzy zee-zee-zeeee. 

The black-throated green warblers currently departing the region will likely travel as far as Mexico, Central America, the West Indies and southern Florida for the colder winter months. Black-throated blue warblers, on the other hand, migrate to the Caribbean for the winter, making their homes on Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, as well as other islands. 
Nearly half of the world’s New World warblers spend the months between spring and fall in North America. The other half reside exclusively in Central and South Americas, as well as the Caribbean. Some of the more descriptively named individuals residing in the tropical areas south of North America include flame-throated warbler, crescent-chested warbler, arrowhead warbler, white-rimmed warbler, buff-rumped warbler, golden-bellied warbler, fan-tailed warbler, pink-headed warbler and pale-legged warbler. 


The warblers bring some exciting tropical flair into the hills and hollows of Southern Appalachia for several months every year. I miss them once they’re gone for the winter season, but the promise of their return keeps my spirits buoyed during the cold, darker months until spring. 

Nighthawks share the skies with many other migrants

Photo by Dr. Thomas G. Barnes/ USFWS • A common nighthawk perches on a low clump of vegetation during a rest period. Nighthawks are known for migrating in large flocks.

Autumn’s a chance for me to indulge my passion for warblers, with a few dozen species of these songbirds passing through the region in the span of a few weeks. They’re not the only migrating birds worth watching, however, as a recent Facebook post reminded me.

John Whinery, a fellow birder who resides in Fall Branch, Tennessee, reported some interesting observations Sept. 6 on Facebook.

“Been watching several hundred common nighthawks the last few nights fly down the valley next to the farm,” John wrote in his post. He also reported that he saw a female Northern harrier fly by at eye level about 20 feet from him as he watched the migrating nighthawks. The Northern harrier, once known as the “marsh hawk,” is one of many raptors known to migrate. 

Like such birds as warblers, vireos, thrushes, tanagers, flycatchers and hummingbirds, the common nighthawk, is a neotropical migrant. In addition, the common nighthawk has one of the longest migration routes of any North American bird. Twice a year, these birds migrate for distances ranging from 1,600 to 4,200 miles. Nighthawks that spend the spring and summer in Canada travel to southern South America for the winter months. 

With September advancing on the calendar, I have been keeping an eye on the treetops for passing warblers, vireos and tanagers, but I also remember to direct my gaze to the skies. Forgetting to look skyward could result in missing the passage of such varied migrants as chimney swifts, broad-winged hawks and common nighthawks.

So, what is a common nighthawk? First, this bird, despite what is implied by its name, is not a hawk. It’s also not strictly nocturnal. Particularly in the fall, nighthawks are active during daylight hours when engaged in catching winged insects. Outside of fall migration, these birds can often be observed over large parking lots or well-lit streets, snatching up insects swarming around the light poles.

The common nighthawk is one of three members of the nightjar family found in the region during the summer months. The other two nightjars are the whip-poor-will and chuck-will’s-widow, birds that produce their namesake vocalizations in the nocturnal hours. Both of these species migrate, but they don’t take the dramatic approach employed by nighthawks. Each fall, common nighthawks form large flocks, ranging in size from dozens to hundreds or even thousands of individuals, as they migrate south for the winter.

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A common nighthawk chooses a perch atop a fence post for a survey of its surroundings.

Unlike whips and chucks, the common nighthawk isn’t active only after dark, which makes it much easier to observe these birds. They look somewhat like swifts and swallows but are much larger. They are brownish-gray birds with pointed wings and forked tails. They are easily identified by distinctive white patches on the underside of their wings.

The nightjar, or Caprimulgidae, family of birds is also sometimes known as “goatsuckers.” Apparently, in trying to explain the nocturnal tendencies of these birds, the Greeks came up with the imaginative but erroneous idea that birds like nighthawks liked to sneak into barns and have a meal of fresh goat’s milk. In reality, nighthawks feed almost exclusively on insects, including ants, wasps, beetles, caddisflies, moths, mayflies, flies, crickets, grasshoppers, and other insects. They capture much of their insect prey on the wing.

There are almost 80 species of nightjars in the world. Less than 10 occur in North America. Many of the common nighthawk’s relatives have been given descriptive names, such as long-trained nightjar, collared nightjar, spot-tailed nightjar, red-necked nightjar, golden nightjar, fiery-necked nightjar, swamp nightjar, pennant-winged nightjar, lyre-tailed nightjar, little nightjar, sickle-winged nightjar, rufous-bellied nighthawk, short-tailed nighthawk, sand-coloured nighthawk and least nighthawk.

So, keep looking skyward. The next flock of migrating common nighthawks may fly over your home. These flocks are usually on the move throughout September.  I’ve managed only three sightings of solitary nighthawks so far this migration season, which falls far short of the number John Whinery reported at his farm. 

I will keep watching the skies. Nighthawks can also appear almost magically, as if out of thin air. First, observers may see one of two birds, then several, followed quickly by dozens or sometimes hundreds as they wheel and cavort in the skies overhead with impressive grace and agility. I’ve seen flocks that would easily number more than 500 birds in locations throughout the region, although flocks often number only a couple of dozen birds. 

Photo by Jean Potter • A common nighthawk rests on a metal railing.

Warbler parade imminent as September advances

Photo by Mickey Estes/Pixabay.com • A pine warbler takes a brief rest on a perch during a break from foraging for insects.

I detected some signs of migration during a backyard lawn chair birding session on Thursday, Sept. 3. A croaking great blue heron circling the property, the shrill cries of cedar waxwings, scolding vireos, and the intermittent buzz of hummingbird wings all contributed to the background noise. 

The first warbler of the season, a quick blur of yellow and white, disappeared into the green and thus escaped identification. That’s the way of it: Sometimes, you identify the bird, but at other times it slips past without lingering enough for that moment of confidence. You have to love September, even if the birds are entirely ignorant of pages on a calendar. As summer wanes, the pace of migration has spiked. If that first warbler got away, I know others will follow behind it.

Some of them will have fanciful names like blue-winged warbler, black-throated blue warbler, Blackburnian warbler and American redstart. Each of the warblers exists as a sort of magnet to induce me to keep binoculars always close at hand.

 

The 50 or so species of warblers that make their home in the eastern parts of the United States and Canada during the spring and summer months are now winging their way south.  The blackpoll warbler, which holds the distinction for the longest migration of any species of New World warbler, will journey from the forests of Canada to spend the colder months in northern South America. Because of a peculiarity of this bird’s fall migratory habits, birders in Northeast Tennessee are far more likely to see this late-arriving warbler in May than in the autumn.

A few warblers — pine warbler, magnolia warbler and palm warbler — are named for trees for the simple reason that their European discoverers happened to first observe them in the branches of their namesake trees.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Palm Warbler forages along a chain-link fence.

For most of these warblers named to honor various trees,  their common names are, at best, a misnomer. Throughout most of its life, the palm warbler doesn’t even encounter palm trees. Johann Friedrich Gmelin, a German naturalist who lived from 1748 to 1804, saddled the palm warbler with its inappropriate name. Gmelin based his naming of the bird on the fact that a specimen had been collected on Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean with an abundance of palm trees. Gmelin published several textbooks in the fields of chemistry, pharmaceutical science, mineralogy, and botany. He also had a hand in publishing a catalog of scientific names for various species, including some birds that had until that point never been given a species classification. Thanks to his efforts, the palm warbler has forever been linked with a type of tree that is, at best, entirely incidental to the bird’s life cycle.

The same is true for the Magnolia Warbler, which would have been more suitably named the spruce or fir Warbler, as the species is highly dependent on northern coniferous forests as nesting habitat. The pine warbler, at least, restores credibility to some of the early experts who have these tiny birds their common names. The pine warbler does indeed prefer stands of pine trees, showing particular favor for pitch pines.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A Yellow-throated Warbler makes a migratory stop in my yard on the first day of September.

These three “tree warblers” are all fairly common fall migrants, making stops in gardens, backyards and woodland edges throughout Northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and western North Carolina. They and their relatives will make the remaining weeks of September and early October an exciting time for warbler enthusiasts. 

 

Arctic tern migratory champion among world’s birds

September’s arrival puts fall migration into overdrive. The birds that returned this past spring — the warblers, vireos, tanagers, grosbeaks, flycatchers and hummingbirds — have begun or are beginning to make their way back to the locations where they will spend the winter months far from the cold, bleak conditions over most of North America.

Photo by Jonathan Cannon/Pixabay.com • The Arctic tern outdoes all other birds when it comes to migration. These seabirds journey from their Arctic nesting grounds to spend the winter around the Antarctic, a journey of some 50,000 miles a year.

Some of these birds migrate out of the tropics to avoid competition. Others find North America a land of abundant, albeit temporary, resources. This land of plenty offers a wealth of insects, seeds, fruit and other nourishing, nutritious food to help parent birds keep their strength while they work to ensure their young thrive. Of course, once the bountiful period concludes, they return to the tropics of Central and South America to winter. Those that do so successfully will make the journey back to the United States and Canada in the spring.

The phenomenon of migration isn’t exclusive to the neotropical migrants of the New World. Birds in other parts of the world migrate, too. Waterfowl, shorebirds and raptors are among some of the families of birds that stage impressive migrations.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female scarlet tanager is a study in contrast from her mate with her dull greenish-yellow plumage being much less vibrant than the male’s bright red and black feathers.

The Arctic tern, for example, truly takes migration to extremes. This small seabird travels each year from its Arctic nesting grounds to the Antarctic region, where it spends the winter months. Put into terms of mileage, the Arctic tern can travel about 50,000 miles in a single year. For a bird with a body length of about 15 inches and a wingspan of about 28 inches, this incredible migration is an astonishing feat. These statistics permit the Arctic tern to easily lay claim to the title of champion migrant among our feathered friends.

According to the website for National Geographic, Arctic terns face a serious threat from climate change. In a profile on the tern at its website, National Geographic warns that Arctic terns are projected to lose 20 to 50 percent of their habitat due to the temperature changes linked to climate change. They also face loss of habitat due to encroachment by human activities such as oil drilling.

The ruby-throated hummingbird, a favorite of many bird enthusiasts living in the eastern United States, makes an impressive migration each year. Just to reach the United States, these tiny birds undertake a strenuous journey. They leave their wintering grounds in Central America to return to the United States and Canada for the nesting season. Most of these tiny birds, which are barely four inches long, make a non-stop flight of more than 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico. The journey can take almost an entire day. With the end of summer, the entire population of ruby-throated hummingbirds, increased by a new generation of young birds, makes the Gulf crossing for a second time in a year to return to the American tropics for the winter months.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A ruby-throated hummingbird visits a feeder for a sip of sugar water.

Among North America’s buteo hawks, which includes raptors such as red-shouldered hawk and red-tailed hawk, the broad-winged hawk stands out as a dedicated migrant. These hawks form flocks that at times number in the hundreds or thousands as they sail and glide on thermals rising over various mountain ranges. These hawks and other raptors are well-known in the region for migrating past the Mendota Fire Tower in Southwest Virginia every September and early October.

The broad-winged hawk’s counterpart in the western United States is Swainson’s hawk, which shares the broad-winged hawk’s inclination for migrating in large flocks. Swainson’s hawk is named for William John Swainson, the famous 19th century English naturalist for which Swainson’s thrush is also named.

The hooded warbler, my favorite member of the migratory New World warblers, migrates back to Mexico and Central America for the winter months after nesting during the spring and summer in a range concentrated in the southeastern United States. The males, after going quiet in late summer, have started singing on occasion from the shaded woods around my house. I think this has more to do with restlessness as they prepare for to depart on a migration flight that will take them to the balmy Caribbean, Mexico and Central America while we shiver through the months between October and April. It’s not a migration of an incredible distance, but it’s still quite an accomplishment for a bird only five inches long and weighing less than half an ounce.

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

Fall’s a great time to witness the variety of avian life. Look for some of these migrants passing through your yards, gardens or favorite birding spots.

 

 

 

Green herons, one of the smaller wading birds, often overlooked as they lurk near water’s edge

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Green Heron elevates a shaggy crest of feathers, a behavior often initiated when the bird feels alarmed.

Byron Tucker and Ricky Dunklin, friends from Atlanta, contacted me on Facebook to ask if I could help identify a bird they had photographed during a trip to Sunset Beach in North Carolina in early August. When I saw the photographs I recognized that the visitor to a small dock at their vacation spot was a green heron.

Photo Contributed by Byron Tucker/Ricky Dunklin • A Green Heron visits a dock at Sunset Beach in North Carolina.

Green herons are not restricted to coastal areas, but it was still somewhat unexpected when I stepped onto my front porch on Aug. 19 and saw a green heron flying at treetop level. I suspect the bird had been perched in one of the tall trees on the ridge behind my house. The slamming of my front door probably spooked the bird into flight.

Green herons and other wading birds are usually quite abundant in wetlands across the country in late summer. The scientific name — Butorides virescens – of this bird comes from a mix of Middle English and Ancient Greek and roughly translates as “greenish bittern.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Green Heron grasps a perch overlooking a small creek in Erwin, Tennessee.

There are only two other species in the genus Butorides — the lava heron, which occurs on some of the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, and the striated heron, which is found in wetlands throughout the Old World tropics from West Africa to Japan and Australia. This heron, which is also known as the mangrove heron, also occurs in South America.

The green in the bird’s plumage appears as a dark green cap, as well as a greenish back and wings. Adult birds also have chestnut-colored neck feathers and a line of white feathers along the throat and belly. These herons often assume a hunched position, which can make them look smaller than they actually are.

It’s been a good summer for wading birds. In addition to the green heron, a great blue heron has been lurking in the creek in front of my home and at my fish pond. Much larger than the green heron, the great blue heron has not escaped the notice of a local flock of American crows. The crows harass the heron whenever the larger bird takes flight.

On the first day of August, I stopped with my mom at the pond at Erwin Fishery Park. We were treated with an observation of a great egret fishing along the edges of the pond. Egrets and herons are known for wandering outside their normal range in late summer after the nesting season has concluded.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young Green Heron rests at the edge of a pond.

Keep alert when walking along the trails in Erwin, Tennessee, and you may catch sight of one of these interesting herons or egrets, too. The edges of the fish pond at Erwin Fishery Park is also a reliable haunt for green herons. Farm ponds in the countryside around Jonesborough, Tennessee, as well as wetland habitat around the town’s Persimmon Ridge Park, are also good places to look for this small heron. The wetlands at Sugar Hollow Park in Bristol, Virginia, is another dependable location for seeing this small heron. Most green herons will depart in late September and early October. This small heron retreats from the United States during the winter season but will return next spring in April and May.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Green herons are short, stocky herons that can assume some comical poses.

The green heron’s range during the nesting season includes Canada and much of the United States. Green herons will sometimes form loose nesting colonies, but at other times a pair will choose a secluded location as a nest site. The female will usually lay from three to five eggs. Snakes, raccoons and other birds such as crows and grackles are potential threats to eggs.

For the most part, the population migrates to Central and South America for the winter months. A few herons — great blue heron and black-crowned night heron — remain in the region throughout the year, even enduring the cold winter months in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina.

These herons are probably more common than we realize. They are skilled at blending with their surroundings, but sharp eyes can find these herons around almost any body of water, whether it is pond, marsh, river, creek or lake.

They usually depart the region in October, so the remaining days of August and September provide opportunities to observe both resident green herons and their migrating kin.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Green Heron finesses a captured tadpole in its bill.

Kingbird sightings signal start of fall migration

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern kingbird perches on a branch overlooking a pond.

From almost daily thunderstorms to earthquakes, August of 2020 is shaping up as a memorable month. In addition, there’s more evidence each day that the birds are restless and ready to begin the annual fall migration. For the first time in nearly 20 years, some Eastern kingbirds made a visit to my yard on Aug. 5. The Eastern kingbird’s not a rare bird, but except for one previous occasion, this flycatcher has studiously avoided my yard since a long-ago sighting.

Four days after I spotted the kingbirds at my home, I counted six Eastern kingbirds while visiting the historic Bell Cemetery in the Limestone Cove community of Unicoi County. The birds included both adults and young individuals, which suggests this loose group of kingbirds was traveling as a social family flock.

We’re fortunate to have many brightly colored birds make their home in the region, offering us, for a few months, a glimpse of what life might look like in the tropical rain forests of Central and South America. Some of the more colorful birds that spend time in local forests and visit our gardens and yards include scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and indigo buntings.

Photon by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern kingbird uses a fence rail as a perch on the campus of East Tennessee State University.

Not every tropical migrant spending the summer, however, sports feathers of such bright hues as red, orange and blue. In fact, one large family of birds includes some downright “Plain Jane” species. The most widespread family of neotropical migrants is known as the “tyrant flycatchers,” which comprises a grouping of more than 400 species that is considered the world’s largest family of birds in the world. The Eastern kingbird is one of several members of this extensive family grouped with a cluster of birds known as “kingbirds.” Other kingbirds include the snowy-throated kingbird of Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, as well as the tropical kingbird, which is found in Central and South America but wanders on occasion into southern Arizona and the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. In the United States, the Eastern kingbird has a counterpart in the western half of the nation. That bird, not surprisingly, is known as the western kingbird. Other kingbirds include white-throated kingbird, Couch’s kingbird, Cassin’s kingbird and thick-billed kingbird.

What’s a king without a crown? The Eastern kingbird does possess a crown patch of red feathers, but this colorful spot on an otherwise black and white bird is rarely in a position to be easily observed. I’ve only observed the crown on a handful of occasions while birding in the field. The kingbird uses the red patch of feathers, though, as a visible expression of aggression when dealing with other birds.

The tyrant flycatchers have earned this descriptive moniker because of the behavior of some species that instills a fearlessness in them all out of proportion to their size. The Eastern kingbird is famous for attacking much larger birds, such as American crows, common ravens and even red-tailed hawks that venture too close to their nests. I’ve observed many an Eastern kingbird appear to actually land on the back of a hawk, probably to pluck at the larger bird’s feathers as it “persuades” its larger opponent to move outside of its claimed territory.

Our region is home to one flycatcher species — the Eastern phoebe — that is a year-round resident. All the other flycatchers known in the region, including the kingbird, are temporary residents, migrating to the region each spring and departing again in the fall for a winter stay in the American tropics. Other migratory flycatchers include Eastern wood-pewee, Acadian flycatcher, alder flycatcher, willow flycatcher and least flycatcher. Most of these birds have plumages in very basic patterns and hues of black, white and brown.

By and large, the flycatchers are not going to gain attention thanks to colorful feathers or beautiful songs. Of course, there’s always an exception to the rule. The vermilion flycatcher, at least the male, is a bright red bird with contrasting brown feathers in its plumage. It is named for vermilion, a bright, scarlet-red pigment. Its range in the southwestern United States, unfortunately, does not bring it close to East Tennessee, western North Carolina, or southwestern Virginia.

Kingbirds prefer open habitats, such as fields and pastures. While raising their young during the hot summer months, Eastern kingbirds feed mostly on insects. On its wintering territory in the tropics, however, kingbirds feed mostly on fruit.

The Eastern kingbird doesn’t have a melodic song, but it does have a call that sound like an electric zap. So, like the Eastern phoebe’s strident “fee-bee” notes and the great crested flycatcher’s loud “weep” calls, the kingbird is not among the more melodic songbirds. Regardless, we owe all flycatchers a debt. Because of their fondness for insects, they do us a great service helping to keeping down the numbers of some of the more pesky bugs.

Hummingbirds complete another nesting season before starting south on annual fall migration

Photo by Katy Jefferson/Pixabay.com • A ruby-throated hummingbird sips sugar water at a feeder. During migration, blooming flowers and sugar water feeders are valuable sources of quick energy for these tiny flying gems.

Mildred Wright of Fall Branch, Tennessee, recently shared a story through Facebook about a nesting hummingbird in her yard.

In this photo provided by Mildred Wright, the young hummingbirds can be glimpsed in their nest.

“I discovered this hummingbird nest in a tree in my front yard,” she wrote in a Facebook message. “I have watched mom take excellent care of her babies through some really rough weather.”

She explained that she found the nest on June 8 and has observed as the female hummingbird incubated her eggs and then raised her two hatchlings.

Interestingly, there are a few simple reasons it’s always two eggs for hummingbirds. First, the nest is so small — about the size of a walnut half-shell — that there is barely room for two eggs, let alone more. Second, once the young hatch, the nest has just enough room to accommodate them as they grow, fed well by their mother. Third, feeding two hungry young hummingbirds is a demanding task. A female hummingbird has to find enough food to fuel her own body and help her young in the nest grow and thrive. It’s a full-time job during the daylight hours. She’s pressed hard to succeed at raising two young. Attempting to care for more would most likely prove impossible.

In this photo provided by Mildred Wright, two eggs are shown snug inside the female ruby-throated hummingbird’s nest.

Now that many female hummingbirds are finishing up the task of bringing forth a new generation of hummingbirds, the leisurely fall migration can begin. Hummingbirds are not as frantic about moving south in the fall as they are single-minded about heading north every spring. Numbers of these birds always reach a peak in late summer and early fall at my home, and this year’s shaping up to be a repeat of past ones.

Hummingbird species number around 340, making the family second in species only to the tyrant flycatchers in sheer size. Both of these families consist of birds exclusive to the New World.

With so many hummingbird species, people have been hard pressed to give descriptive names to all these tiny gems. Some of the dazzling array of names include little hermit, hook-billed hermit, fiery topaz, sooty barbthroat, white-throated daggerbill, hyacinth visorbearer, sparkling violetear, horned sungem, black-eared fairy, white-tailed goldenthroat, green mango, green-throated carib, amethyst-throated sunangel, green-backed firecrown, wire-crested thorntail, festive coquette, bronze-tailed comet, black-breasted hillstar, black-tailed trainbearer, blue-mantled thornbill, bearded mountaineer, colorful puffleg, marvelous spatuletail, bronzy inca, rainbow starfrontlet, velvet-purple coronet, pink-throated brilliant, coppery emerald, snowcap, golden-tailed sapphire and violet-bellied hummingbird.

Photo by Peggy_Marco/Pixabay.com • The “Doctor Bird,” which is also known as the swallow-tailed hummingbird, resides only on Jamaica.

Our own hummingbird, which we can claim from April through October every year, is the ruby-throated hummingbird. Ruby-throats are remarkable birds that nest throughout the eastern United States as well as southern Canada. In winter, most ruby-throats withdraw to Central America and Mexico, although a few winter in Florida. They are famous for the amazing feat of crossing the Gulf of Mexico twice each year as they travel to their nesting grounds and then back to their overwintering homes.

Photo by BarbeeAnne/Pixabay.com • The bee hummingbird of Cuba is the smallest bird in the world.

The next generation of hummingbirds always helps swell the number of these tiny birds in our yards in late summer and early fall. It’s our duty as host to keep them safe as they stop in our yards and gardens during their fall migration. Many of the hummingbirds in the fall will be making their first migration, so they will need all the help we can provide to make a successful journey.

Perhaps consider enhancing your plantings of summer flowers while also continuing to offer multiple sugar water feeders. Keep the sugar water mix at a four parts water to one part sugar ratio. Don’t offer honey in your feeders. When mixed with water, it can spoil and spread fungal diseases. Remember that hummingbirds don’t subsist on sugar water alone. They also eat numerous tiny insects and spiders to obtain the protein they need for their dietary needs, so don’t use insecticides near feeders or flowers that hummers are likely to visit.

So, until October frosts eventually drive them out of the region, enjoy the ruby-throated hummingbirds while you can.

Photo by Geschenkpanda/Pixabay.com • The buff-bellied coronet is a hummingbird native to Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.