Common nighthawks share autumn skies with many other migrants

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. I always try to keep in mind, however, that the warblers are not the only migrating birds winging through the region.

The Elizabethton Bird Club had planned a “nighthawks and hot dogs” party at the home of Larry McDaniel near Jonesborough, but that event had to be cancelled because of the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in the region.

My silver lining was that I saw a large flock of common nighthawks at my home on Aug. 29. It was an evening of birding dominated by insect-eaters and fruit-eaters.

Cedar waxwings and one American robin perched in the wild cherry trees and plucked ripening fruit from the branches.

Swooping overhead a handful of Chimney Swifts and about 30 Common Nighthawks (the first I have seen this fall) collected insects just over the treetops. Flycatching from a dead blue spruce was an Eastern Wood-Pewee, another fall first.

Other birds included a pair of Northern cardinals feeding three young, an Eastern towhee and one hooded warbler. At one point an irritable ruby-throated hummingbird chased the pewee round and round the trunk of the dead spruce. They almost looked like they were characters in a zany cartoon.

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

Like such birds as warblers, vireos, thrushes, tanagers, flycatchers and hummingbirds, the common nighthawk is a neotropical migrant. In addition, this 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.

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay • A common nighthawk adopts an elongated pose atop a fencepost.

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.

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.

A perplexing nickname for the common nighthawk is “bull-bat.” This merger of the words “bull” and “bat” makes sense when you explore a little deeper. The common nighthawk earned the nickname “bull-bat” because of its perceived “bat-like” flight and a “bull-like” boom produced by its wings as it pulls out of a dive.

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 in August and throughout September.

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.

To share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Rising clouds provide a backdrop for a flock of migrating nighthawks.

Wood duck one of few ducks that’s an area resident in summer months

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A wood duck, also known as the summer duck or Carolina duck in some locations, perches on a submerged log.

I’ve enjoyed sporadic observations of a family of wood ducks living at the fish pond this summer. A wood duck hen chose to raise four ducklings at my pond, which is cloaked in abundant cattails and waterlilies. I think the dense vegetation offers concealment that makes the little family feel at ease.

Nevertheless, the ducks have remained elusive. I get glimpses of them, but the moment they become aware of me the ducklings form a single line and file one by one into the stands of cattails. The hen is always the last to seek the shelter of the cattails, no doubt ensuring the safety of her young before she thinks of herself.

Waterfowl are usually scarce in the region in summer aside from the ubiquitous Canada geese and mallards found at ponds, local park, golf courses and many other locations. Waterfowl aren’t entirely absent, however, especially when you add the variety of domesticated waterfowl that are often found with the aforementioned geese and ducks.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Male wood ducks are one of the most stunning of North America’s waterfowl.

The small wood duck is an exception. This duck is a species of waterfowl that can be found, in suitable habitat, during the summer nesting season throughout the southeastern United States. Unlike Canada geese and mallards, which historically never nested in the region until recent decades, the wood duck is actually supposed to be present during the warmer months of the year. In many parts of their range, wood ducks are known as the “summer duck” since they are the only wild native nesting duck present during the season.

Another common name for this species is the Carolina duck, which refers to the southern stronghold of this species of waterfowl. Wood ducks are year-round residents across much of the southeastern United States, especially in suitable habitat such as small lakes, flooded woodlands, swamps and marshes.

Like a handful of other North American waterfowl, the wood duck is a cavity-nesting bird. These ducks often occupy former nesting cavities created by woodpeckers, but they will also readily accept nesting boxes of suitable dimensions provided by human landlords. Because of their devotion to nesting in cavities, wood ducks have at least something in common with songbirds like Eastern bluebirds, tree swallows and house wrens, as well as larger birds such as American kestrels and Eastern screech-owls. Wood ducks aren’t the only waterfowl that nest in cavities. Buffleheads, hooded mergansers and common goldeneyes are also cavity-nesting ducks. None of those ducks, however, nest in the southeastern United States.

Some wood duck nests can be located far above the ground, which poses a challenge for flightless young. Like most species of waterfowl, young wood ducks are born capable of immediately leaving the nest and being led by their mother to foraging areas. First, however, there’s that giant leap of faith that each of the ducklings must make. Nests are often built over water, so that first jump often ends in a splash-down. Some nests are built over land, but that doesn’t seem an obstacle. The ducklings make that leap without any difficulty. Just like the Abominable Snowmen in the old holiday favorite “Rudolph, The Red-nosed Reindeer,” wood duck babies bounce! Once the ducklings have departed their cozy nesting cavity, their mother will guard them from predators and lead them to prime foraging areas for a period of about two months.

Photo by Jack Bulmer/Pixabay • A wood duck hen keeps watch as one of her ducklings forages in the thick duckweed covering a pond’s surface.

The wood duck belongs to the genus Aix. The only other species in the genus — the Mandarin duck — is native to East Asia. The two are classified as “perching ducks” by biologists. The males of both these species are among the most ornate ducks in the world. The male wood duck has red eyes and a dark-tipped red bill. The colors in a male’s plumage includes glossy, iridescent greens, purples and browns in dramatic patterns. The male also has a distinctive head crest. Female wood ducks also have crests, but their plumage is overall gray and brown with a teardrop-shaped white patch around the eyes, as well as a white chin and throat.

The majority of a wood duck’s diet consists of vegetable matter. In autumn, I’ve observed these ducks foraging with enthusiasm for acorns. Summer, however, is a time for gorging on insects. The wood duck hen, and her ducklings in particular, have been happy to forage for insects and other small invertebrates among the floating lily pads.

In his book, “Birds of Lake, Pond and Marsh,” author John Eastman noted that the wood duck was the most abundant of North American ducks during the 19th century. In the late 19th century, pressures from hunting and habitat destruction combined to dramatically lower the numbers of this exclusively North American duck. Eastman noted that the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 is largely credited with saving the wood duck from possible extinction.

From 1918 to 1941, it was illegal to hunt wood ducks. Thanks to this temporary hunting ban and other conservation measures, the wood duck population recovered in dramatic fashion. Recent surveys all point to a species on the rebound with numbers of wood ducks rising for the past several decades.

The creek and the fish pond at my home have proven dependable magnets over the years for attracting visiting wood ducks. I also have good luck finding wood ducks at the large pond at Erwin Fishery Park. Most wood ducks in the southeastern United States do not migrate. Those that live farther north during the summer will migrate to areas as far south as Mexico in the fall. We’re fortunate to reside in a region where wood ducks are year-round resident waterfowl.

I feel even more fortunate that a stealthy visit to the fish pond at my home has given me numerous opportunities over the past few months to glimpse the lives of these fascinating ducks of summer.

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To share an observation, make a comment or ask a question, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A wood duck family shares a fallen log.

Sightings signal that migration has started

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Ruby-throated Hummingbirds make a non-stop crossing of the Gulf of Mexico. A hurricane in the Gulf during migration could have serious consequences for this small bird.

Mack Hayes, a resident of Telford, posted on my Facebook page recently about hummingbird experiences. 

“I have two hummingbird feeders out, and boy are they really working them,” Mack wrote. “I see several of them, and of course they fight each other. Males and females both. Guess they are getting ready for their long flight  ahead of them.”

Mack’s post reminded me that many of our favored summer visitors will soon make their return migrations to regions more hospitable for the duration of the winter season.

I replied to his post with my own comment.

“I am sure they are getting ready, but I still hope they don’t get in too great a hurry. I would like to keep them with us as long as possible.”

At home, I have enjoyed some fun bird observations. It was a veritable feeding frenzy in a corner of my yard for about an hour on Tuesday, Aug. 10. Everything kicked off with a Red-eyed Vireo enjoying some elderberries. I was reminded that, with a really good look, the Red-eyed Vireo should never be mistaken for a warbler. That bill is so much bigger than a warbler bill! I was watching the vireo in binoculars when he coughed and popped up an elderberry. He immediately swallowed it again! Waste not, want not, I suppose. 

I am counting this burst of bird activity as the official kickoff for my fall migration watching.

I watched the vireo a long time before I realized there was a Gray Catbird perched lower in the shrub and also enjoying the elderberries. Then, in rapid succession, three warblers: Black-throated Green Warbler, Northern Parula and Worm-eating Warbler. On the fringes of all this activity I noticed a Brown Thrasher, Downy Woodpecker, a couple of Mourning Doves, and the resident Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and Carolina Wrens. 

I also saw some parents hard-pressed to satisfy their young, including a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher being followed and pestered by a couple of young gnatcatchers, and a male Eastern Towhee leading a youngster around on the ground as they foraged beneath the forsythia tangle. 

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter
A red-eyed vireo sits on its basket-shaped nest.

At the feeders I saw American Goldfinches, Northern Cardinals, and several Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, which don’t know the meaning of the word “share” as they dived and attacked any of their fellow hummers that came too close to “their” feeder. All in all, a fun Tuesday evening.

The start of migration appears to be more of a crawl than a sprint this fall, but I have picked up a few additional signs. For instance, I’ve been hearing the scolding sounds of red-eyed vireos from woodland edges for the past few weeks even before I observed the vireo feeding on the elderberries. A dedicated singer at most times, this vireo seems more likely to produce a harsh, scolding cry at this time of the year. Other hints of the steady advance of fall migration include flocks of chimney swifts congregating in the skies over my home and the unmistakable croaking of common ravens from nearby ridges.

So far, I’ve seen only a few warblers. At a glance, vireos would appear related to the wood warblers. Research into DNA, however, has led many experts to contend that vireos are more closely related to crows and shrikes. Like the flycatcher and hummingbird families, the vireo family is exclusive to the New World. With a mere 50 species, vireos and their kin are vastly outnumbered by flycatchers and hummingbirds. The majority of vireos resides in the tropics, but about a dozen species nest in the United States.

In East Tennessee Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina, vireos resident during the summer months include red-eyed vireo, white-eyed vireo, blue-headed vireo, yellow-throated vireo and warbling vireo. Most people are likely unaware of vireos. Although not uncommon, these birds are more frequently heard than seen. They spend much of their time in the forest canopy or in dense brush. When singing, they can remain at a perch, unmoving, for long periods of time.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Blue-headed vireos, such as this bird, are high-elevation summer residents in the region. In the fall, they are also common migrants.

The loud scolding calls of red-eyed vireos often heard this time of year are given apparently when the vireo is alarmed or irritated. This scolding vocalization is quite unlike the usual ones produced by this bird. First and foremost, the call is louder than one would think could be produced by a bird that is only about six inches long. During the summer season, the red-eyed vireo is also one of the most persistent of singing songbirds. Another common name for the red-eyed vireo is “preacher bird,” so called because of its tendency to unceasingly deliver its song.

The red-eyed vireo is still considered one of eastern North America’s most common summer breeding birds. At one time, the red-eyed vireo was probably the most common breeding bird in eastern woodlands. That, sadly, is no longer the case. Red-eyed vireos are olive-green above and clean white below. These birds show a distinctive head pattern consisting of a gray crown and white eyebrow stripe bordered above and below by black lines. Adults also have the red eyes that give this particular vireo its common name. The term “vireo,” originating in Latin, can be translated into English as “green bird.” It’s an apt description, as many of these small birds are primarily dull green in coloration. Consider the vireos the “Plain Janes” of songbirds.

Some of the more colorful common names for vireos include the dwarf vireo, golden vireo and yellow-winged vireo.  In Central and South America, the vireo family expands to include many birds with common names such as shrike-vireo, greenlet and peppershrike. Some of the varied species include lemon-chested greenlet, green shrike-vireo and the black-bellied peppershrike.

I still focus most of my birding efforts on warblers in the autumn, but vireos are always a pleasant diversion when the colorful warblers make themselves scarce.

Keep your eyes open for new visitors. Those hummingbirds that scorned you this spring may give your home a second glance as they pass through this fall. In addition, the skies are filled with migrating raptors, flycatchers, thrushes, nighthawks and many other birds. 

Share sightings, ask questions or make comments by emailing me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. 

Many of the world’s birds wear masks as part of their plumage

Photo by Pexels from Pixabay • Many human masks feature feathers, but many of our feathered friends sport masks.

Who was that masked bird? 

While asking pardon from “The Lone Ranger,” which originated the memorable “Who was that masked man?” question, I thought I’d take a look this week at some of our feather friends known for going about their lives fully masked. After all, masks are all the rage, apparently.

When we look back, perhaps not fondly but inevitably, on the years 2020 and 2021, I’m confident that the one icon of this blip in the arc of history will be the mask. Living in the time of COVID-19 has been a cross to bear for current generations, but remember that our great-grandparents withstood the Spanish flu and our more distant ancestors weathered the plague known as “the black death.” 

Many of them did so by using masks, some more effectively than others, to shield themselves from infection. Even back in the 1300s as the black death, i.e. the bubonic plague, rampaged through Europe, masks were recognized as a means of dealing with a contagion. 

Image by Enrique Meseguer from Pixabay • In their dark costumes with bird-beaked masks, these “doctors” must have presented a nightmarish appearance to their patients.

To complete the circle connecting masks and birds, I’ll remind readers that a strange costume arose in the 1300s among “doctors” attempting to combat the pandemic of their time. Plague doctors traveled across Europe, seeking public employment from desperate towns and cities, in an easily recognizable costume that consisted of dark robes and a weird mask with a prominent bird-like beak. The result was a look straight from some fevered nightmare. 

Looking at illustrations of these strange beaked masks and reading about some of the absurdly horrendous “cures” offered by these charlatans, I’m surprised that an anti-bird sentiment didn’t rise up and turn people against some of our fine feathered friends.  Ironically, the masks offered little or no protection from disease. Let’s just say that these were not the quality of some of the better surgical masks available today.

It may surprise people to learn that many birds are “masked.”  For mask-wearing birds, however, it’s not a choice but simply a quirk of their plumage that has given so many of our feather friends a distinctive mask, or in some cases even a complete hood, to complete their appearance. Birds ranging from popular backyard visitors like the cedar waxwing to more unusual avians such as the masked flowerpiercer and the masked fin foot wear masks.

The masked tityra is a medium-sized songbird. It has traditionally been placed in the cotinga or the tyrant flycatcher family, but many experts believe it is better placed in Tityridae. The masked  tityra has been spotted once north of the border, being found in the Bentsen/Rio Grande Valley State Park in February of 1990.

Photo by Pixabay • The loggerhead shrike sports a classic black mask. With this shrike, both males and females are identical in appearance.

Shrikes are a family with many mask-wearing members. The loggerhead shrike, in addition to wearing a bandit’s mask, even has the unsavory nickname of “butcher bird” due to its gruesome habit of impaling prey on thorns or barbed wire fences. The loggerhead shrike is native to the United States and is the only member of the family found in Northeast Tennessee. The Northern shrike, which is the only other shrike in North America, is also masked.

Some warblers sport masks, including the common yellowthroat and hooded warbler. Well, the latter wears an encompassing black hood, but you get the idea. The Kentucky warbler sports a partial black mask around the eyes. There’s also the masked yellowthroat — the name seems a bit too on point — that maintains separate resident breeding populations in Central and South America. Based on photos, the masked yellowthroat’s mask is even more pronounced than the mask of the common yellowthroat. 

There’s also the masked booby, which is a large seabird in the booby/gannet family, Sulidae. This bird spends most of its time at sea, coming to land to breed and nest. The name “booby” is actually derived from the Spanish word “bobo,” which can be translated to mean “fool” or “clown.” These seabirds are not truly stupid, but the Spanish, seeing them on land and out of their element, only noticed how awkward and clumsy the birds are on land. Some relatives of the masked booby include blue-footed booby, brown booby, red-footed booby, Nazca booby and Abbott’s booby of Christmas Island in the eastern Indian Ocean. 

Photo by Nadine Doerlé from Pixabay • The shorebird known as the masked lapwing is an Australian species.

The masked lapwing is a large, common and conspicuous shorebird native to Australia, particularly the northern and eastern parts of the continent, as well as New Zealand and New Guinea. In the family Charadriidae, which consists of plovers, lapwings and dotterels, the masked lapwing is the biggest of the bunch. The masked lapwing reaches a length of 14 inches and can weigh 368 grams. 

The cedar waxwing sports a jaunty crest. Unlike many birds with only males wearing the mask, both sexes wear sleek black masks. The world’s two other waxwings — bohemian waxwing and Japanese waxwing – are also masked. I’ve seen large flocks of cedar waxwings in recent weeks. Late summer is usually a good time to find these jaunty birds in the region.

Photo by David Mark from Pixabay • The Bohemian waxwing is a larger relative of the Cedar Waxwing. Both species sport a prominent black facial mask.

There’s no masked crow, but there is a hooded crow. Ranging across Europe and Asia, this crow has different common names in various countries.  In Ireland, it is called caróg liath or grey crow, while in Germany its often called the “mist crow.” It’s also called the Scotch crow and the Danish crow. The hooded crow is associated with fairies in the Scottish highlands and Ireland. There’s an 18th century tradition in Scotland in which shepherds would make offerings to them to keep fairies from attacking sheep. 

There’s a masked duck native to the American tropics. From time to time, these small ducks even stage invasions into southern states like Florida and Texas. A male masked duck in breeding plumage has a black face mask, bright blue bill and dark rusty-red body.

The masked trogon is another bird of the American tropics, ranging mostly in the Andes of South America. Males are variously glossy green, reddish-bronze or golden-green on their head, chest and back, with a red belly and a distinct red eye-ring. There’s usually a white band of feathers that separates the red belly from the greenish plumage of this bird. The trogons are closely related to the family of brilliant birds known as quetzals. 

The masked flowerpiercer is related to tanagers and can be found in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Flowerpiercers are so named because of a sharp hook on the tip of their upper mandible which they use to slice open the base of flowers to get at the nectar. It’s a simple but effective hack for a bird unable to hover like a hummingbird. 

Found in Vietnam and China, the masked laughing thrush is a sociable, noisy thrush reflected by its common Chinese name, which means “seven sisters.” These birds often produce their harsh chattering when deep under cover of tangled vegetation. 

The masked finch is a small songbird found in dry savannah across northern Australia. Like the aforementioned masked laughingthrush, this finch is a noisy bird. Hundreds or even thousands of individuals may gather at popular watering holes to drink, bathe and preen, all while chattering constantly. 

The masked fin foot is found in the brackish waters of the eastern Indian subcontinent, which includes Indochina, Malaysia and Indonesia. This odd bird has been described as a combination of a cormorant and hornbill. This unique bird is endangered. Although a 2009 survey indicated that 600 to 1,700 masked finfoots existed, a worrisome 2020 survey found only 100 to 300 individuals. Most of the surviving individuals are found in Bangladesh and Cambodia. 

Lesser masked weaver, an African species, is a colony-nesting bird. Only the males show a distinctive mask of black feathers over the face. The rest of the male’s plumage is a bright yellow-green.

The golden masked owl is a barn owl endemic to the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea. This owl’s facial disc, which is white in most barn owls, is tinged with russet-gold that does indeed form the shape of a partial mask like those used for masquerades.

There are other “masked” birds, but I think this sampling provides ample evidence that the mask appears frequently in the various plumage patterns worn by the world’s almost 10,000 species of birds.

Take care and stay well. For questions about birds, or to make a comment or share an observation, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. 

Goldfinches provide cheerful summer observations

 

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Enjoy the appearance of the vibrant male American goldfinches now. They will soon adopt their drab winter plumage for the next few months.

Summer is a season of plenty for American goldfinches. Even roadside ditches are choked with chicory, evening primrose and other seed-producing plants often dismissed as “weeds.” Simply driving local roads has produced several sightings of flocks of American goldfinches in recent weeks.

These small, colorful finches are also regular visitors to my feeders, although they don’t really need my offering of black oil sunflower seeds to supplement the natural smorgasbord available to them.

The American goldfinch is also one of the last songbirds to nest each season. Some goldfinches don’t even start to think about nesting until late July and early August. Their nesting season is timed deliberately to coincide with this season of natural abundance. Goldfinches feed their young mostly on seeds, as opposed to most songbirds that work so hard to gather insects to feed their young a protein-rich diet.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Special mesh feeders can distribute thistle seeds, a favorite treat of the American goldfinch.

It’s a satisfying irony that, although brown-headed cowbird females sometimes slip their eggs into a goldfinch nest, any young hatched in those nests rarely survive. While goldfinch hatchlings are adapted to thrive on a diet of seeds, the fostered young cowbirds fail to thrive on a diet so lacking in the protein derived from insects.

The male American goldfinch during the breeding season is unmistakable in his bright yellow and black plumage. Female goldfinches are more subdued in coloration. Males also sing a bubbly, cheerful song when seeking to win the attention of a potential mate. Outside of the nesting season, goldfinches are quite sociable and form large flocks. Dozens of these small songbirds can descend on feeders at almost any time of the year, but they are primarily attracted to our feeders during the lean times of the winter months.

For these and other reasons, goldfinches are favorites of many bird lovers. There are actually three species of goldfinches in North America. The two related species are Lawrence’s goldfinch of California and the lesser goldfinch, which ranges through the southwestern United States as well as Central and South America.

Lawrence’s goldfinch was named by John Cassin in 1850 for his colleague George Lawrence, a New York businessman and amateur ornithologist. His enthusiasm for birds must have impressed his colleagues. One bird genus and 20 species were named in his honor. Lawrence’s goldfinch, known by the scientific name Spinus lawrencei, honors him doubly with both the scientific and common names for the bird.

The American goldfinch is also known by other common names, including wild canary, yellowbird and willow goldfinch. I’ve also heard the goldfinch referred to as “lettuce bird.” This nickname, which was one my maternal grandmother applied to the bird, relates to the bird’s fondness for seeds. Apparently the goldfinches would flock to lettuce plants in the garden once they had gone to seed.

Come winter, this vibrant American goldfinch undergoes a transformation into a dull, drab bird with grayish feather. In fact, this annual molt usually begins in September. During the fall and winter, the American goldfinch looks almost like an entirely different bird.

It’s understandable why people love to entertain flocks of these finches in their yards and gardens. Three states — Washington, Iowa and New Jersey — have made the American goldfinch their official state bird.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male American goldfinch perches on a dead branch.

The best strategy for attracting goldfinches is to provide some of their favorite foods. Black oil sunflower seed and the seeds of nyjer thistle are highly favored. The tiny thistle seeds require special feeders. Mesh “socks” can also be used to dispense the thistle seed.

An alternative is to plant a garden that offers an abundance of fresh seeds. A stand of sunflowers will attract goldfinches, as well as other birds such as indigo bunting and house finch. Liatris, also known as gay feather, produces flower spikes that are sought out by goldfinches for their seeds. Other favorites include asters and coneflowers. The bonus is that even after the beautiful blooms are past, the birds can still benefit from the seeds left behind after flowering.

To share an observation, make a comment or ask a question, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Common yellowthroat among many recent avian visitors

Photo by James DeMers/Pixabay • A male common yellowthroat sports a black mask that provides dramatic contrast to the bright yellow plumage that covers the bird’s throat and provides the common name for this species of warbler. This bird spend much of its time close to the ground while foraging for insect prey. Females and young birds lack the male’s vibrant black mask.

“Witchety! Witchety! Witchety!”

I heard the ringing syllables in a song produced by a small olive-yellow bird. The notes rang loudly from the willow trees crowding a sandy bank along Simerly Creek at my home.
The song alone, with that trademark repetition of the “Witchety” phrase, confirmed the singer as a common yellowthroat, a small warbler fond of skulking in thickets, cattails or any other thick stands of vegetation. Although female and young common yellowthroats are almost drab in appearance, the male is another case altogether. In addition to a jaunty black mask emblazoned across his face, the male sports a thin whitish-gray line that separates the bird’s black mask from the head and neck. True to its common name, common yellowthroat’s show a bright yellow throat as well as some yellow plumage beneath the tail. The back of this bird is a warm olive-brown.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Female Common Yellowthroats, as well as young males, lack the black mask of an adult male..

The appearance of a male common yellowthroat matches his skulking lifestyle. He looks the part of a bandit trying, but often failing, to keep a low profile. Although this warbler would prefer to fly beneath the radar, it has one weakness. Common yellowthroats are invariably curious birds. They will respond to squeaking or mechanical bird calls. Unlike some birds that pop into view for a brief look before diving back into cover, common yellowthroats can often be called into view several times during an observation.

This was the case when I watched one of these warblers on July 28. I heard the familiar call before I spotted a young bird foraging in late afternoon at the top of a rock wall that borders my yard. Grass and other vegetation hanging over the wall had attracted the young bird’s attention. With the strength of an Olympic long jumper, the bird kept hurling itself into the air, without benefit of wings, to snatch insects from the underside of leaves and stems. I watched the bird engage in this foraging activity for quite some time. I moved slowly and carefully, which made the bird aware of my presence. The lure of the insects apparently outweighed any fear of me. The young bird continued its foraging for several minutes, probably stopping only once it had eaten its fill.

Common yellowthroats are one of the many warblers that nest in the Northeast Tennessee during the summer months. They can be found from lower elevation to higher ones, but they will usually not be found outside of a habitat that offers dense vegetation to their particular liking. A weedy slope in a backyard, a marshy stand of cattails, or overgrown fields are some places suitable for this noisy if “under the radar” bird.

The common yellowthroat belongs to a genus of warblers known as Geothlypsis. Three other members – MacGillivray’s warbler, mourning warbler and Kentucky warbler – of the genus are resident in the United States and Canada for part of the year.

Others in the genus inhabit ranges mostly within Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. These other “yellowthroats” include Bahama yellowthroat, black-polled yellowthroat, masked yellowthroat, hooded yellowthroat, gray-crowned yellowthroat and Belding’s yellowthroat, a bird named for Lyman Belding, a California naturalist and ornithologist. Robert Ridgway, an American ornithologist known for his work in systematics, which is the is the study of the diversification of living forms, both past and present, and the relationships among living things through time. It’s also the field of study that provides names for organisms, hence Ridgway’s naming of the warbler now known as Belding’s yellowthroat to honor a fellow ornithologist.

Belding also had a lizard – Belding’s orange-throated whiptail – named in his honor by Leonhard Hess Stejneger, a Norwegian-born American ornithologist, herpetologist and zoologist.
The yellowthroat named in Belding’s honor is endemic to the Baja California Peninsula in Mexico and is considered particularly vulnerable to habitat loss as more of its favored cattail marshes and freshwater lagoons in Mexico disappear.

The website All About Birds notes in a profile on the species that male common yellowthroats arrive first on breeding grounds in the spring and begin defending territories.
According to the profile, fighting among males grows more intense once the female birds arrive. Researchers have also found that the black mask of male yellowthroats acts as a trigger for some of this fighting. Some enterprising researchers added a black paper mask to a stuffed female yellowthroat. When placed within view of male yellowthroats, the stuffed bird weathered attacks from territorial males.

The common yellowthroat is one of these birds that benefits from a lawn and garden that are not kept trimmed and manicured. They will only thrive in habitats that offer dense thickets and other tangles of vegetation. To attract birds like the common yellowthroat, keep some corners of your property in a more “natural” state. The neighbors may look askance, but the birds will thank you.

•••••

The common yellowthroat hasn’t been my only recent visiting bird. My mom and I got a big surprise on the evening of July 29 when a young bald eagle flew over the house and continued up Simerly Creek in the direction of Woodby Hill and the Unicoi County line. At first I tried to make the bird into a turkey vulture until I realized the flight was all wrong. My mom and I both got a good look at the young eagle before it flew out of sight.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A ruby-throated hummingbird perches on a feeder.

In addition, a wood duck hen is keeping watch over four ducklings at the fish pond at my home.
We’re into the month of August, and the birds are feeling restless. The ruby-throated hummingbirds, scarce most of the summer, have returned with a vengeance. They spend most of their time dueling with each other to contest the more popular sugar water feeders.
Migration has already started for many birds and the pace will quicken in the months ahead. Feel free to share an observation, make a comment or ask a question by emailing me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Odes add summer excitement when heat makes the birds scarce

Photo by Bryan Stevens Photo by Bryan Stevens A female common skimmer, a species of dragonfly, basks in the sunshine to help boost her energy reserves for hunting. Dragonflies, with a kill rate of 90%, are one of the world’s most deadly and efficient predators.

 

I am taking a hiatus from the birds for one week to introduce readers to some “other things with wings.”

Specifically, I want to discuss dragonflies and damselflies, otherwise known as “odes,” or members of the insect order of Odonata. Surprisingly, beyond the fact that both have wings, the odes and birds have a lot in common.

When birds are scarce during the heat of the day, I find that other winged creatures get active and can provide some fun observations. In late summer I spend a great deal of time focused on the dragonflies and damselflies that live along the creek and at the fish pond at my home. The “odonates” are insects with long brightly colored bodies, two pairs of membranous wings and large compound eyes.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A glimpse through the vegetation at one of the pond’s most voracious predators. Dragonflies consume many other species of insects, including some that are considered pests. Pictured is a female Blue Dasher.

Some of the more prevalent dragonflies in the region include widow skimmer, common whitetail, Eastern pondhawk, Eastern amberwing and slaty skimmer. There are less common odes that also put in appearances at my home along Simerly Creek Road. Gray petaltails and tiger spiketails, two larger dragonfly species, put in almost annual appearances.

I also often find the ebony jewelwing, a species of damselfly, fluttering along the creek. These delicate-looking insects like to find a sunny perch near flowing water. I’ve noticed the ebony jewelwings for many years because they are particularly difficult to miss. They have dark wings and a tapering body that glistens with a metallic blue-green sheen.

Damselflies, which are closely related to dragonflies, are usually smaller and less swift. A dragonfly at rest keeps its wings extended horizontally like an airplane’s wings, but damselflies fold their wings over their backs.

All odes are predators, feeding on other insects, but they are harmless to humans. Despite an enduring myth, they cannot sting. They are capable of biting, but will not do so unless they are handled in a careless manner.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
The aptly-named Autumn Meadowhawk is one of the last dragonflies to emerge each year.

If you observe dragonflies long enough, you will start to notice they share one trait with hummingbirds: they are intolerant of any intrusion into their personal space. Like feisty hummingbirds, dragonflies constantly chase rivals away from a favorite perch, restlessly patrolling the edge of a pond. They are unceasing in their chasing and harassing of rivals.

Some cultures consider a dragonfly landing on a person a sign of good fortune. My sister-in-law would disagree. She has an intense, if irrational, fear of dragonflies. Perhaps she learned too much of the misinformation handed down in various human cultures about dragonflies.

Europeans have long linked dragonflies with sinister forces. Some common names for dragonflies, such as darners, come down from older names such as “devil’s darning needle.” Swedes call dragonflies “troll spindles” and Norwegians refer to them as “eye pokers.” Some cultures in South America call dragonflies “horse killers” and others refer to them as caballito del diablo, or the “devil’s little horse.” Some residents of the Southern United States refer to dragonflies as “snake doctors,” believing these insects can stitch and repair any injuries that a serpent suffers. It’s no wonder some people fear a harmless and rather beneficial insect.

Native Americans as well as some Asian cultures have a more positive outlook on dragonflies. In Japan, dragonflies represent such concepts as strength, courage and joy. Dragonflies are often depicted in Zuni pottery, and the Navajo use the dragonfly as a symbol to represent “pure water,” which was an important resource for people living in very arid conditions. For both birds and dragonflies, water is also a crucial resource if they are to thrive.

The Hopi and Pueblo tribes also incorporate dragonflies into their art. Many Native Americans consider dragonflies a symbol of renewal. Many others see them as a symbol representing illusion and seeing through deception. I wonder if the use of the dragonfly as a renewal symbol evolved because of the life cycle of dragonflies.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A painted skimmer grasps the tip of a cattail.

Odes spend the first stage of life as aquatic larvae living below the surface of the water. Later, they emerge as adult dragonflies. During their time spent as larvae, or nymphs, they are voracious predators, tackling other aquatic organisms, including small fish. At the same time, these nymphs are important food sources for some larger fish. Nymphs may spend as long as three years living beneath the water, but adult dragonflies usually live only a few weeks or months.

Adult dragonflies continue to consume prey, which is mostly other insects. Among the odes, there are no vegetarians. “Mosquito hawk” is another common name for them because they catch and eat mosquitoes. They also consume gnats, flies and other insects. So, along with birds such as swallows and nighthawks, the dragonflies help keep in check the numbers of many nuisance insects.

Some of the larger dragonflies are also reputed to attack and eat hummingbirds. I tried to find conclusive evidence, but the jury’s still out in my opinion. However, some of the larger species of praying mantis have been documented capturing and consuming hummingbirds, so it is not too far-fetched to believe some of the larger dragonflies might be capable of preying on hummers.

Like many birds, some dragonflies migrate. Species such as Carolina saddlebags, green darners and wandering gliders are known to migrate hundreds of miles.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern pond hawk perches on the bloom of an impatiens.

In recent years, dragonfly-watching has emerged as a nature pastime to rival the watching of birds and butterflies. Why watch dragonflies? Well, in many ways, they are just as fascinating as birds and other wildlife

Here’s some additional fun trivia about dragonflies:

• Odes have excellent eyesight. Their compound eyes have up to 30,000 facets, each of which is a separate light-sensing organ arranged to give nearly a 360 degree field of vision. Their vision also makes it difficult to sneak up on a dragonfly. I have learned this during my attempts to photograph them.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A spangled skimmer at rest near the water’s edge.

• Dragonflies are built for speed. Many experts credit dragonflies with the ability to fly at speeds between 19 to 38 miles per hour. They have also been documented traveling as much as 85 miles in a single day.

• Dragonflies can hover and fly backwards, a feat achieved by only hummingbirds among our winged friends with feathers.

• Dragonflies are among the world’s most efficient predators, successfully capturing prey at a whopping 90% of their attempts. In other words, nine times out of 10, dragonflies capture and eat other insects.

• Dragonflies are ancient. They appeared 100 million years before dinosaurs and 150 million years before birds.

• The largest dragonfly to ever live was Meganeura monyi, which lived during the Carboniferous period about 300 million years ago. It resembled and was related to present-day dragonflies. With a wingspan of almost 26 inches, it is one of the largest known flying insect species.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A gray petaltail clings to the side of a post.

Wandering birds provide some surprising moments for birders

Photo by Roger Mullins • A little blue heron, right, shares a perch with a white ibis at the Buffalo Valley Golf Course in Unicoi. These wading birds are usually found near the coast, but individuals tend to disperse and wander widely after the summer nesting season comes to an end.

Late summer has a sort of lazy feel. Most birds are finishing up their nesting season. Hungry fledglings appear at feeders in the company of adults. In recent weeks, I’m starting to notice a slight uptick in the number of hummingbirds visiting my feeders and garden flowers. It helps that I’ve got dense stands of naturalized bee balm at the edge of my woods. The cedar waxwings have finished off the mulberries, but I suspect they will stick around for the wild cherries. I’ve also noticed the vanguard of migrant birds that are starting to make appearances as fall migration approaches. It’s not just songbirds, however, that are on the move. Some large and rather conspicuous birds have been attracting attention in recent weeks, including a variety of wading birds.

Sightings this summer of long-legged wading birds in Northeast Tennessee that are outside of their usual range have included little blue herons, white ibis and great egrets. The little blue heron and ibis have been recent visitors to Unicoi County. To toss another species into the mix, Tom and Cathy McNeil recently found an American anhinga near Austin Springs at Boone Lake in Washington County. Their anhinga sighting followed their discovery of seven or eight little blue herons and 14 great egrets at this well-known birding hot spot.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Adult little blue herons, like this adult preening at Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina, have a mix of blue and purple feathers.

Roger Mullins discovered both an immature little blue heron and an immature white ibis during one of his regular visits to scan the ponds along the former Buffalo Valley Golf Course in Unicoi.

“I first spotted the little blue on July 5, and then on July 10 I saw the white ibis standing just a few feet away on the same limb.

“Within minutes they were standing next to each other,” he continued. “They were even following each other from place to place, almost like they were siblings.”

Roger noted that the little blue heron gradually learned to trust him, but he could only get so close without making the bird feel uncomfortable.

“Being extremely patient, taking it slow and easy, is pretty much how I approach all wildlife, and it usually pays off well,” Roger shared.

“I first started visiting the golf course ponds back in the winter when someone told me about seeing a male hooded merganser there,” he noted. “There is not always an abundance of wildlife present, but I always check it out just in case. The best thing about these ponds is the consistent peace and tranquility, since people don’t usually go there for family recreation or to walk their dogs.”

Roger added that he doubted that the little blue heron would have lingered at a public park with more activity.

Most of my own observations of little blue herons have taken place in SouthCarolina, Georgia and Florida, although I have seen this species a couple of times in Tennessee. I have also found little blue herons more skittish than some herons and egrets.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This photo of a little blue heron at Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina, shows the intermediate phase of plumage that makes identification even more of a challenge.

While diverting storms can’t be ruled out for causing some unexpected birds to detour into the region, it’s also normal behavior for young wading birds to disperse far and wide after leaving the nest. North American waders, or wading birds, include such long-legged species as herons, egrets, bitterns, ibises, storks and spoonbills. Most species are associated with wetlands or coastal areas.

Late summer birding is usually a period of doldrums as heat and humidity can discourage birders as well as diminish bird activity. However, it’s also the time of year when birders can make some unexpected surprises as wandering waders explore uncharted territory.

The great egret – a larger relative of the little blue heron – became a motivational symbol for conservation with the foundation of the National Audubon Society in 1905. Today, the organization has nearly 500 local chapters, each of which is an independent non-profit organization voluntarily affiliated with the National Audubon Society. These chapters often organize birdwatching field trips and conservation-related activities. The National Audubon Society spearheaded efforts to end the mass slaughter of various bird species. Some birds were killed for food, but millions were also killed for their showy feathers that were destined to decorate stylish attire worn as a symbol of high fashion. As early as 1910, some states began passing legislation to abolish trade in bird plumes. The federal government also came to the assistance of birds with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which was a law first enacted in 1916 to implement measures to protect and conserve migratory birds.

Photo by Tom McNeil • An American anhinga at Boone Lake found by Tom and Cathy McNeil represents an unusual find for the region. Even more unusual, Tom McNeil found another anhinga in Johnson County, Tennessee, a few days later.

Scientifically speaking, the little blue heron would be more accurately described as an egret. With the scientific name of Egretta caerulea, the little blue heron’s closest relatives are other members of the genus Egretta, which includes such other North American wading birds as snowy egret, reddish egret and tricolored heron. Other members of the genus found in other global localities include little egret, slaty egret and Chinese egret. I’m not sure why the tricolored heron and little blue heron were not named tricolored egret and little blue egret, but there are some Egretta species that also bear the name heron, including black heron, white-faced heron, Pacific reef heron and Western reef heron. It’s probably important to note that there are no real physical differences between herons and egrets. They are all classified together in the family Ardeidae.

I’m fairly confident that Roger’s sighting of a little blue heron is the first documented occurrence of the species in Unicoi County. His white ibis is unexpected but not unprecedented. An immature white ibis spent several days in July of 2011 at the ponds and fields at the home and farm of former Unicoi mayor Johnny Lynch.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American Anhinga dries off feathers after a swim at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

As for the anhinga spotted by the McNeils, this rare visitor was found the following day by several area birders, including Michelle Sparks who relocated the anhinga from her kayak. The anhinga is a large waterbird with a slender neck and a dagger-shaped bill reminiscent of a heron’s bill. These birds spend much of their time swimming beneath the water, often with only their neck and bill above the surface. Apparently the term “anhinga” comes from a native tribe in Brazil. Anhingas prefer fresh water, but they are often found in coastal areas. Most reports from Tennessee come from near Reelfoot Lake in the western portion of the state. Other common names for the anhinga include “water turkey,” “snake bird,” “American darter” and “devil bird.” Worldwide, there are only four species of anhingas, or darters as they are called in other parts of the world. The other three are the Indian darter, the African darter and the Australian darter.

Tom shared an amusing anecdote on Facebook about their sighting of the anhinga.

“Cathy and I found this bird (the anhinga) yesterday evening out of absolute luck,” he wrote. “We had already birded the area and had some great fun observing the little blue herons and great egrets.  We stopped at the Austin Springs bridge for a few moments and saw four river otters playing under the bridge and then just decided to drive back the way we came.”

On their way back, Cathy had Tom stop so she could look at the “white birds” in the top of the trees across the water.

“We both pulled up our binoculars to look at them, but it was the bird perched below them that was the star of the show,” he reported. “We shouted ‘anhinga’  at the exact same time!”

That’s the beauty of birding – those “anhinga” moments. I’m hoping readers are enjoying some fun birds this summer. Share sightings, ask questions or make comments by emailing me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

 

 

 

Long-running count tallies summer’s nesting bird species

Photo by Jean Potter • Counters found 116 species on the recent Carter County Summer Bird Count, including this female wood duck and ducklings photographed on the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee. A total of 13 wood ducks were found on the day of the count.

The 28th Carter County Summer Bird Count was held Saturday, June 12, with 28 observers taking part.

The weather, which was less than optimal, challenged observers. Rain held steady for much of the day. The rain, along with dense fog on Roan Mountain and other high elevations, resulted in reduced birdsong in many areas. Thus, numbers of individuals were low for many species, especially songbirds.

Despite these hurdles, the count tallied 116 species, which is just one species shy of the recent 10-year average and actually two above the average of the previous 27 years, so, it was not bad considering the weather.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Nesting neotropical migrants, such as this Indigo Bunting, increased the total number of species for the annual summer count.

Participants included Fred Alsop, Rob Biller, Catherine Cummins, Dianne Draper, Dave Gardner, Tammy Griffey, Don Holt, David Kirschke, Rick Knight (compiler), Roy Knispel, Richard Lewis, Dianna Lynn, Vern Maddux, Larry McDaniel, Joe McGuiness, Tom and Cathy McNeil, Brookie and Jean Potter, Judith Reid, Brenda Richards, Judi Sawyer, Michele Sparks, Bryan Stevens, Kim Stroud, Scott Turner, Charles Warden and John Whinery.

Some species were missed, including yellow-crowned night-heron, great horned owl, chuck-will’s-widow, willow flycatcher, brown creeper, hermit thrush, Kentucky warbler and magnolia warbler. These species are often, but not always, found on this count, according to long-time count compiler Rick Knight.

See if one of your favorite birds was hit or miss, common or uncommon, by scanning over the listing of the total.

The tally follows:
Canada goose, 218; wood duck, 13; mallard, 92; ruffed grouse, 1; wild turkey, 40; double-crested cormorant, 16; great blue heron, 23; and green heron, 2.
Black vulture, 7; turkey vulture, 25; osprey, 1; Cooper’s hawk, 3; bald eagle, 2; red-shouldered hawk, 4; broad-winged hawk, 7; and red-tailed hawk, 10.
Killdeer, 8; American woodcock, 1; rock pigeon, 101; Eurasian collared-dove, 2; mourning dove, 177; yellow-billed cuckoo, 5; Eastern screech-owl, 5; barred owl, 2; common nighthawk, 2; and Eastern whip-poor-will, 7.
Chimney swift, 99; ruby-throated hummingbird, 28; belted kingfisher, 11; red-bellied woodpecker, 24; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 2; downy woodpecker, 19; hairy woodpecker, 3; Northern flicker, 36; pileated woodpecker, 15; and American kestrel, 1.
Eastern wood-pewee, 24; Acadian flycatcher, 9; alder flycatcher, 2; least flycatcher, 13; Eastern phoebe, 48; great crested flycatcher, 7; and Eastern kingbird, 21.
White-eyed vireo, 5; yellow-throated vireo, 2; blue-headed vireo, 38; warbling vireo, 1; red-eyed vireo, 117; blue jay, 77; American crow, 185; fish crow, 4; and common raven, 5.
Purple martin, 38; Northern rough-winged swallow, 34; tree swallow, 109; barn swallow, 154; and cliff swallow, 137.
Carolina chickadee, 32; tufted titmouse, 65; red-breasted nuthatch, 3; white-breasted nuthatch, 10; house wren, 60; winter wren, 3; Carolina wren, 84; blue-gray gnatcatcher, 8; and golden-crowned kinglet, 2.
Eastern bluebird, 113; veery, 23; wood thrush, 35; American robin, 510; gray catbird, 42; brown thrasher, 38; Northern mockingbird, 62; European starling, 1,203; and cedar waxwing, 45.
Ovenbird, 50; worm-eating warbler, 4; Louisiana waterthrush, 10; golden-winged warbler 1; black-and-white warbler 27; Swainson’s warbler, 2; common yellowthroat, 12; hooded warbler, 67; American redstart, 8; Northern parula, 30; Blackburnian warbler, 4; yellow warbler, 1; chestnut-sided warbler, 12; black-throated blue warbler, 20; pine warbler, 2; yellow-throated warbler, 9; prairie warbler, 3; black-throated green warbler, 14; Canada warbler; 5; and yellow-breasted chat, 9.
Eastern towhee; 112; chipping sparrow, 61; field sparrow, 58; savannah sparrow, 1; song sparrow, 253; dark-eyed junco, 46; scarlet tanager, 25; Northern cardinal, 157; rose-breasted grosbeak, 5; blue grosbeak, 5; and indigo bunting, 102.
Red-winged blackbird, 109; Eastern meadowlark, 15; common grackle, 67; brown-headed cowbird, 43; orchard oriole, 4; and Baltimore oriole, 2.
House finch, 132; pine siskin, 1; American goldfinch, 97; and house sparrow, 44.

•••••

 

I received a phone call from Marian Swanson of Aldie, Virginia, this past week. Marian was looking for advice on feeders for attracting indigo buntings, which she had observed near her home. She was specifically seeking a feeder that would prevent the seed from getting wet during rainstorms.

At her request, I provided Marian with some links to websites offering a variety of feeders for sale.

It’s always great to hear from readers. If you have a bird-related question, email me at bstevens@erwinrecord.net or ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I also enjoy hearing about bird observations or general comments from readers.

Couple glimpses odd bird at Unaka Mountain’s Beauty Spo

 

This American woodcock was photographed by Erwin resident Amy Tipton during a stop that she and her husband made recently at the Unaka Mountain Beauty Spot.

Known for migrating incredible distances, the shorebirds are often referred to as “wind birds,” a romantic allusion to their habit of taking wing for the epic journeys that astound scientists and birders alike.

Among the far-flung family known as the shorebirds are species known as sandpipers and plovers, as well as whimbrels, willets, tattlers, godwits, turnstones and an array of others.

Still, among the general public, as well as some birders, the shorebirds are a much misunderstood group of birds. For example, most people could hardly be blamed for believing that shorebirds are inhabitants of only the beach and shore.

In fact, some species are at home in a variety of habitats, ranging from woodlands and prairies to the Arctic tundra and mudflats. Some are notoriously elusive, their camouflage and low-key behavior allowing them to escape casual notice at most times.

In late winter and early spring, a true oddball among the shorebirds begins courting. The American woodcock, also known by such whimsical names as “bog sucker” and “timberdoodle,” is a shorebird that has completely abandoned the shore in favor of woodlands and fields. Beginning as early as February, American woodcocks in the region conduct nightly courtship displays, starting at dusk, that combine aerial acrobatics with an assortment of unusual acoustical flourishes. Any wet field adjacent to a wooded area could offer a stage for these evening displays, but unless you know where to look and make an effort to do so, the American woodcock might as well remain a phantom of the night.

These mating rituals provide almost the only time of the year during which this bird makes itself available for observation. It’s only during this brief window that opens into their lives that we can be assured a glimpse. Even then, our peeks at woodcocks often consist of a fuzzy twilight escapade as the bird flings itself heavenward only to make a spiraling descent a few seconds later. The displays begin with a distinct vocalization, a type of “pent,” that also has the quality of sounding like some sort of mechanical buzzer.

Once the displays conclude for the season, the birds assume nesting duties, usually unobserved by humans. The rest of the year, almost nothing but blind, sheer luck would allow a birder to stumble across an American woodcock. It’s almost as if they disappear after these spring flights of fancy.

Of course, they don’t actually disappear. They are still out there, going about their daily lives. On occasion, someone can stumble across one without even trying.

Amy Tipton can claim to be so fortunate after she and her husband, Paul, recently encountered an “unusual bird” on Unaka Mountain near the well-known Beauty Spot.

“We had gone to the Beauty Spot to watch the sunset on Sunday, June 27,” Amy wrote in a Facebook message to me. “It was the 20th anniversary of our first date.”

On the way back to the Jeep, Paul noticed a very unusual bird. He pointed out the bird and asked Amy if she knew what it was.

“It was just sitting at the edge of the parking area where the gravel/dirt road meets the tall grass,” Amy wrote. “It was not dark enough to keep us from seeing it, but plenty dark enough to keep me from getting a good photo.”

Amy said that she knew she only had one chance to get a photo.

“I set the flash and hoped for the best,” she wrote. “It’s blurry, but I’m thankful I was able to get anything. As soon as the flash fired, it made a funny noise and flew into the trees.”

Amy added, “It looked more like a sea bird to me, and we thought it might have flown off course. We had no idea such a strange bird lived on Unaka Mountain. We’ll always remember the first time we saw a timberdoodle.”

An American woodcock patrols a patch of bare ground in a photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife.

One look at Amy’s photo confirmed that she and her husband had encountered a woodcock. With its big head and large eyes, the American woodcock is rather gnome-like in its appearance. There’s something downright odd about this shorebird that has chosen to exile itself so far from seashores.

Its chosen lifestyle, however, has proven advantageous for the species. The woodcock is an efficient forager, feeding on earthworms, as well as insects, millipedes and spiders. Scientists theorize that the woodcocks can actually hear and feel the earthworms as they move underground.

About 20 years ago, Joe McGuiness, an Erwin resident and a fellow member of the Elizabethton Bird Club, found an American woodcock one summer making itself at home in his neighborhood of Rolling Hills. I got to see that bird, which to date is my only upclose and personal observation of an American woodcock.

I have traveled to locations such as Shady Valley in Johnson County and Persimmon Ridge Park in Jonesborough to witness the courting flights of these unusual birds. Of course, since these flights do not commence until dusk, the experience is more auditory than visual.

The woodcock is closely related to the snipes. The only snipe species usually found in the United States is Wilson’s snipe, formerly known as the common snipe.

There is also a Eurasian woodcock and several species endemic to islands. These include the Amami woodcock of Japan, the Bukidnon woodcock of the Philippines, the Javan woodcock, New Guinea woodcock, the Moluccan woodcock of the Malaku Islands in Indonesia and the Sulawesi woodcock, also of Indonesia.

Worldwide, there are about 20 snipe species, including species with such descriptive name as giant snipe, noble snipe, pin-tailed snipe and imperial snipe.

So, if the legend of the snipe hunt ever made you doubt the actual existence of snipe, rest assured that both snipes and their odd cousins, the woodcocks, do exist.